One might regard Luther’s return to public life in the spring of 1522 as a surprise. “Kidnapped” by Elector Frederick’s men on May 4, 1521, Luther had managed to avoid drawing attention to himself. Since the Edict of Worms, Luther was a wanted man. So what drove Luther to risk coming back to Wittenberg? In a word, it was love: love for the people of Wittenberg, who Luther regarded as his flock. Radical reformers had stirred up the townspeople in the name of furthering the Reformation, leading to civil unrest. Luther could not stand by and let his flock be torn apart, even at the great risk of harm to himself.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s return to Wittenberg and the events that followed. From the Reformer and his times, we can gain an appreciation for how the Lord keeps us steadfast in the true faith by calling us to repentance when we stray and comforting us with the promises of the Gospel, and that He also preserves the truth of His Word among us.
Part 1: Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word—Steadfast in True Faith
In Luther’s absence at the Wartburg, the duty of replacing him in the pulpit fell to two men: Gabriel Zwilling and Andreas Karlstadt. Karlstadt began to see himself as the leader of the “Wittenberg Movement.” Beginning in June of 1521, he began to press the issue of vows of celibacy among the priests, monks, and nuns. In mid-October, a committee of professors (including Karlstadt) and representatives from the monastery agreed on the need for administering both the bread and the cup in the Supper and that the canon of the mass (the language that made the mass into a re-sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood) be abolished along with private masses. The elector, however, for financial and political reasons, continually rejected any changes to the mass in Wittenberg.
On Christmas Day 1521, Karlstadt celebrated the mass without wearing the traditional vestments, conducted the liturgy in German, and at the Supper distributed both the bread and the wine to Christmas worshipers. After this, he began to make pronouncements on all manner of things:
He denounced pictures and images as dumb idols… He assailed the fasts, and enjoined the people to eat meat and eggs on fast-days. He repudiated all titles and dignities… He cast away his priestly and academic robes, put on a plain citizen’s dress, afterwards a peasant’s coat, and had himself called brother Andrew.
On January 25, to prevent things from getting out of hand, the city council passed an inclusive ordinance governing both church and civil society in Wittenberg, mandating the reception of both the bread and the wine in the Supper. In light of the new ordinance, the townspeople took it upon themselves to break into the churches and destroy a number of the pictures.
By mid-February, the city fathers in Wittenberg were ready for Luther to return. Luther arrived in Wittenberg on the evening of Thursday, March 6. On the first Sunday in Lent, March 9, 1522, Martin Luther returned to the pulpit of the City Church. That Sunday, he began a series of eight sermons calling his erring flock to repentance and setting their hearts once more on the grace of Christ. These sermons would eventually become known as the “Invocavit Sermons.”
In these sermons, Luther aims for the heart of the matter: being able to stand before God, which is impossible for us apart from Christ and His saving work. Here is how Luther starts:
The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me. Therefore every one must himself know and be armed with the chief things which concern a Christian.
In a rather pointed way, Luther offered this assessment: “I would not have gone so far as you have done, if I had been here. The cause is good, but there has been too much haste. For there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won.” Luther calls his hearers’ attention to the important distinction between “must” and “free.” “The ‘must’ is that which necessity requires, and which must ever be unyielding… But ‘free’ is that in which I have choice, and may use or not, yet in such a way that it profit my brother and not me.” Believers have an obligation to not make a “must” out of something that is “free,” either with heavy-handed legalism or with “the loveless exercise of liberty.”
Over the course of the remaining sermons, Luther dealt first with the “musts,” the abolition of private masses along with the canon of the mass. He also deals with the “free” things—matters in which people have the freedom to choose: vows of celibacy, marriage, leaving the cloister, the observance of fast days, the reception of both kinds in the Sacrament of the Altar (Yes, for Luther, at least for now, this was a “free.”), and private confession.
Even in the case of a “must,” Luther argued that Christian love never uses force or undue constraint. So how does the Christian proceed in dealing with a matter where Scripture has spoken clearly? Leave the matter to God and let the Word of God work! He pointed to himself as an example:
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
Also in deciding on those things that are “free,” Luther wanted his fellow believers to exercise their freedom in love:
We must bear patiently with these people and not use our liberty; since it brings no peril or harm to body or soul; in fact, it is rather salutary, and we are doing our brothers and sisters a great service besides. But if we use our liberty unnecessarily, and deliberately cause offense to our neighbor, we drive away the very one who in time would come to our faith.
So how did his congregation respond? “The Wittenberg congregation, who flocked to hear him, submitted immediately to Luther’s authority.”
Part 2: Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word—by Preserving the Truth of Your Word Among Us
Luther had another reason to return home in early March of 1522. He had been working on something special: a translation of the Bible from the original languages of Greek and Hebrew into German.
During his visit to Wittenberg in December of 1521, his friends helped to settle in his mind the decision to translate the Bible, beginning with the New Testament. Yet it was Luther’s work on his German postils (a “postil” is a book of model sermons based on the Gospel lessons for the various Sundays and Festivals of the church year) for Advent and Christmas where we see the wheels beginning to turn in Luther’s mind around the need for people to know and have the Scriptures for themselves. Luther prefaced his Christmas postil with an introduction entitled A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels. Many of the thoughts he set down in that introduction Luther would later reiterate in his preface to the New Testament. In it, Luther wanted his readers to know that “the main thing in Scripture is the gospel and its basis in Christ as the one gift God gives to everyone… This is the center around which the entire Bible revolves.”
That December, Luther began the task of translating the New Testament into German. Beginning almost immediately upon his return to the Wartburg, Luther finished his rough draft by the middle of February. It only took eleven weeks.
When Luther arrived at Wittenberg in March, he enlisted the help of especially Philip Melanchthon and George Spalatin. Luther’s friends proved extremely helpful when they encountered perplexing “bumps in the road.” The book was completed on September 20, 1522.
Luther did not slavishly hold to a particular theory of translation, occasionally taking astonishing liberties with the text. For Luther, the gospel was meant for the ear as much as the eye. The result yielded a true German translation. Using the dialect of the Saxon court, which was also employed for diplomatic intercourse between the emperor and his various estates, Luther found a way to a form of German that most Germans could understand. In fact, Luther’s New Testament helped to unify and create the modern German language.
At the beginning of Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament, Luther’s treatise that summarized the main points of his Invocavit Sermons, he warns that the world’s hatred and persecution is the least of our troubles:
Even Satan is not satisfied with that; he plans to exercise his malice within our own ranks. If outwardly we are too strong for his stooges… he will rend and destroy us inwardly through ourselves… So henceforth we must have regard to ourselves rather than to our enemies from without.
In the town of Wittenberg in Luther’s day, Satan used people’s zeal and impatience for ecclesiastical and societal change to turn those who would be offended by innovative practices away from hearing the truth of God’s Word. So where is the devil trying to rend and destroy us inwardly through ourselves? As Luther says, we must have regard to ourselves. We also have failed to trust the Word of God, just as we have failed to pour the gifts of Christ’s love into our lives.
Yet we are not without hope. In Ephesians 6, St. Paul writes:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can stand against the schemes of the Devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. For this reason, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to take a stand on the evil day and, after you have done everything, to stand. (Ephesians 6:10-13)
The Word of God is the solid foundation on which we stand in that evil day, the protective armor that repels and withstands Satan’s accusations and temptations. This is the armor that Martin Luther wanted everyone to have. So use the Word. Read and study the Bible. Teach the Word. Most importantly, trust the Word. Luther nailed it when he said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word… I did nothing; the Word did everything.” The Lord will keep you steadfast in His Word—now and always. Amen.
Rev. S. Piet Van Kampen
 Buelow, Timothy H. 2018. “Luther’s Invocavit Sermons: The Wittenberg Professor’s Pastoral Perspective in Preaching.” Lutheran Synod Quarterly (Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary) 58 (4): 327-355. 327.
 Brecht, 26-27.
 Kittelson, 179.
 Schaff, 379-380.
 Bornkamm, 60-61.
 Kittelson, 180.
 Buelow, 331.
 Luther, Martin. 1959. “Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, 1522.” In Luther’s Works, Volume 51: Sermons I, edited by John W. Doberstein and Helmut T. Lehmann, translated by John W. Doberstein, 69-100. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. LW 51:70.
 LW 51:72.
 LW 51:74.
 LW 51:77.
 LW 51:87.
 Brecht, 61.
 Bornkamm, 38-39.
 Brecht, 16-17.
 Bornkamm, 45. Brecht, 47.
 Bornkamm, 80.
 Schaff, 358.
 Kittelson, 175.
 Luther, Martin. 1959. Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament. Vol. 36, in Luther’s Works, Volume 36: Word and Sacrament II, edited by Abdel Ross Wentz and Helmut T. Lehmann, translated by Abdel Ross Wentz, 231-267. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press. 237.