Public Square & Theology 101

Metaxas’s Luther: Compelled by Conscience, Paving the Way for Religious Freedom

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This month we celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, an event that unintentionally ignited what we now know as the Protestant Reformation.

To celebrate this anniversary, Eric Metaxas has released his latest book, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. If you enjoyed Metaxas’s epic 2010 biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, you will be thrilled with this new work on Luther’s life, which follows a similar format.

I have read numerous books on Luther, but Metaxas offers something different and special in this work. While his book covers much familiar ground, the author’s fast-paced style and attention to interesting details sets this 450-page book apart from the many new books about Luther marking the celebration of the historic event of the Reformation.

Reading Luther’s story, I was once again amazed by this great man of faith who had no intention of starting a reformation, much less a new church, but who was, at least initially, trying to begin a dialog among academics about what he saw as several abuses of the Roman church. The description appropriately sums up Metaxas’s book this way:

This revealing biography tells the captivating tale of a humble man who, by bringing hard truths to the highest seats of power, set in motion the events that forever changed history. Luther’s astonishing faith and courage gave rise to the ideas of liberty, equality, and individualism that run deep in our culture today.

One of the most spellbinding sections of the book is Metaxas’s superb retelling of Luther’s confrontation with Emperor Charles V in 1521 at the Diet of Worms.

From the fall of 1517, when he posted his 95 Theses, through 1520, Luther continued to write and publish his ideas on church reform including The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, The Freedom of the Christian, and numerous other pamphlets and letters. In the fall of 1520, Rome threatened to excommunicate Luther from the church unless he recanted his assertions and challenges. Luther refused.

Luther was excommunicated by a papal bull in January 1521; but, under pressure from a number of German princes, Charles V agreed to give Luther a hearing. The hearing was to take place in the German city of Worms in the spring of 1521, and Luther was promised safe passage to and from the meeting.

Obligation to a Conscience Informed by Scripture and the Holy Spirit

Luther appeared before the emperor and the pope’s representative in April 1521. While Luther expected he would be able to defend his ideas, the only thing they wanted to hear was a recantation. Luther told them:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.

Metaxas writes specifically about Luther’s appeal to conscience and this alone is worth the price of the book:

…many historians have conflated our modern ideas about conscience with Luther’s very different ideas about it that we have accepted a deeply mistaken idea about what Luther meant, and therefore about what his stand at Worms meant…The modern concept of conscience has come to mean something almost completely subjective, as though each of us has his own barometer and that barometer were sacrosanct, as though each person’s truth were comparable to truth itself. Indeed, the subjective idea of each person’s truth has fairly trumped the idea of an objective truth. It implies that each of us has his own truth, and that truth is one’s conscience.

Metaxas goes on to explain that one of Luther’s greatest contributions to the modern world was a doctrine of freedom of conscience, rooted in scripture and religious faith. As Luther writes,

For faith is a free work, to which no one can be forced. Nay, it is a divine work, done in the Spirit, certainly not a matter which outward authority should compel or create.

Says Metaxas of Luther’s views on conscience:

Many historians have put Luther forward as the first to put “individual conscience” before the authority of the church and empire. But ironically, he was not at all asserting freedom of the individual to do as he please. He was asserting the freedom of the individual to do as God pleased—if and when the church or the state attempted to abrogate that freedom. Luther was asserting the modern idea of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience for the first time in history.

Reverberations into the New World

One hundred years later, William Penn, Roger Williams, and John Locke would base their defense of religious freedom on Luther’s statement on conscience, according to Joseph Loconte.

“The one only narrow way which leads to heaven is not better known to the magistrate than to private persons,” wrote Locke in The Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), “and therefore I cannot safely take him for my guide, who may probably be as ignorant of the way as myself, and who certainly is less concerned for my salvation than I myself am.”

Loconte goes on to show how American founding father James Madison reaches back to Luther as well. In a letter to F.L. Schaeffer, dated 1821. Madison writes that the American model of religious liberty,

illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.

We owe much to Luther. He was truly the man who rediscovered God and changed the world, and from that re-discovery, we have all greatly benefited.

Editor’s Note: Read more about Martin Luther and his view of vocation in How Then Should We Work?

Help more people learn about the Bible’s teachings on freedom, fulfillment, and flourishing! Support IFWE today. 

Photo: PD-1923

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