Article of the Month




Liberation from Human Authority

by Martin Luther


The following Extract is from a sermon preached by Luther in 1538 in a series of expositions on the Gospel of John. The Reformer’s expositions on this Gospel have recently been published in English for the first time by Concordia Publishing House as part of a 56-volume edition of Luther’s Works. This particular passage, reprinted by permission of the publishers, will be found in vol. 22, pp. 254-261. The context of the extract is a treatment of John 2: 23, 24 in which Luther (unlike many later commentators) interprets the many who ‘believed’ in Christ’s name because of His miracles on the occasion of His first public visit to Jerusalem, as genuine but weak believers who could not yet be trusted by Christ. Whether linked legitimately to his text or not, Luther’s pungent digression on the place which is to be given to Scripture is characteristic of the spirit which kindled the Reformation movement and liberated thousands from a false reverence of human authority.

In connection with Luther’s view of Scripture, M. Reu, Luther and the Scriptures (Wartburg Press, Ohio, 1944), is a helpful statement of his belief in its perfect Divine authority — a fact which has sometimes been contested.

The immense strength which Luther came to draw from his knowledge that Scripture is the voice of God, and the practical implications which this had upon his heroic conflict can be seen in his Letters, vol. 1 (covering the years 1507-1522 and published as vol. 48 of the Concordia edition of Luther). Returning from the historic meeting at Worms in 1521, Luther writes to the Emperor Charles V from Friedberg on April 28: ‘Since (the Word of God) is above everything it has to be held absolutely free and unbound in all things, as Paul teaches. (The Word of God) is never subject to any man’s whim to lower its importance or challenge it, no matter how great, how numerous, how learned, and how holy the men are. This is true to such an extent that St Paul in Galatians 1 (v. 8) dares to exclaim and reiterate, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel (contrary to that which we preached to you) let him be accursed”.’


ALTHOUGH we must always expect the best from man, especially from the believers, we remember that they may err and go astray. If this truth had been observed in Christendom, we would have had neither the pope nor all the filth and stench of his anti-Christian doctrine with which the Christian Church was later seduced. In the papacy one concluded: ‘Oh, he is a holy man and, consequently, all that he says must be true!’

Take, by way of illustration, Saints Ambrose, Gregory, Augustine, and Jerome, and all the others, down to Bernard, Benedict, Dominic and Francis. In the end all the sayings and doctrines of anyone with a reputation for holiness were collected.

I need to be warned against such a practice. I must say: ‘I shall gladly believe that the men I have mentioned — such as Gregory, Ambrose and Augustine — were holy men; but I do not trust myself to them. For their holiness does not make them infallible, and it does not imply that one must rely and depend on all the dicta of the fathers or approve and believe all their teachings. Rather take the touchstone of God’s Word into your hands. Let this be your criterion for testing, trying and judging all that the fathers have preached, written and said, as well as all the precepts and human ordinances that have been promulgated. Otherwise one will be easily misled and deceived. And since this polishing stone was not applied to the pope in times past, he ran rampant and covered the church with errors.

Therefore I say: I want to see whether any doctrine concurs with Christ. I dare not forget the clear rule which St Paul gives us Christians: to pay attention to what conforms to the doctrine of Christ and to the faith. In Rom. 12:7 he says: ‘Let it be in conformity with the faith’; that is, it must be in harmony and conformity with Christ. And St Peter declares: ‘Whoever speaks, let him speak as the word of God’ (1 Peter 4:11). You must not go only to St Bernard and St Ambrose, but it is imperative that you take them with you to Christ and see whether they agree with His teaching. If they do not, but have added something to that which Christ has taught, or have evolved something from their own piety and taught this, I shall let them answer for that. But I must not convert it into an article of faith; nor am I to believe it, since they do not entirely agree with Christ. For I am to adhere to Christ alone; He has taught neither too much nor too little. He has taught me to know God the Father, has revealed Himself to me, and has also acquainted me with the Holy Spirit. He has also instructed me how to live and how to die and has told me what to hope for. What more do I want? And if anyone wishes to teach me anything now, let him beware of any innovations. If he tries to present anything new, I must say to him: ‘I will not believe it, dear pastor, dear preacher, dear St Ambrose, dear St Augustine. For anything that goes beyond and above the man who is called Christ is not genuine. It is still flesh and blood, and Christ warned us against relying on that. He Himself did not trust Himself to man.’

But because in the past we disobeyed this instruction of Christ, everything that was spoken by St Gregory, Thomas Aquinas, and others was approved. And this produced all the monks and nuns. In fact, all the pilgrimages and the invocation of the saints sprang from this source.

No one will believe how great an ordeal it is and how severe a shock when a person first realizes that he must believe and teach contrary to the fathers, especially when he sees that so many excellent, intelligent, and learned men, yes, the best of them taught thus, and that the majority of the people in the world shared their views; among these were so many holy men, like Saints Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. I, too, have often experienced this shock. But in spite of all this, that one man, my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, must have greater weight with me than all the holiest people on earth put together. Yea, He must also outweigh all the angels in heaven (Gal. 1:8) if they teach anything at variance with the Gospel, or if they add to or detract from the doctrine of the divine Word. And then when I read the books of St Augustine and discover that he, too, did this and that, it thoroughly appals me. And when, over and above this, the hue and the cry is raised: ‘The church! The church!’, this dismays one most of all. It is truly difficult to subdue one’s own heart in these matters, to deviate from people who are so highly respected and who bear such a holy name — indeed, from the church herself — and no longer to have any confidence and faith in the church’s teaching. I mean, of course, that church of which they say: ‘Lo, the church has decreed that the precepts of Saints Francis and Dominic and the orders of monks and nuns are proper, Christian, and good.’ This truly bewilders and dismays a person. But after all is said and done, I must say that I dare not accept whatever any man might say; for he may be a pious and God-fearing man and yet be mistaken and err. Therefore I shall not trust myself to them all, as the Lord, according to this text, did not trust Himself to man either. And in another passage, found in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ earnestly warns us to beware of false prophets who will appear and not merely declare that they are Christians, but will also ‘show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect’ (Matt. 24:24).

Therefore we should place no reliance in any of the fathers or in their writings, but we should crawl under the wings of our Brood Hen, the Lord Jesus, and depend solely on Him. For of Him God the heavenly Father Himself said: ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’ (Matt. 17:5). God insists that we give ear to Christ alone, for He said neither too little nor too much.

Moses, who shines with the greatest lustre in Scripture, is authorized to say: ‘You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, but leave it unaltered as I taught it to you’ (Deut. 4:2). And if Moses, the servant, lays claim to such honour and authority, how much more is Christ the Lord entitled to it, of whom God the Father bore witness from heaven that we should listen to Him and to no other! For Christ has taught us how to know the Father and Himself, how to live in our several estates, and also how to pass through the sore trials and the agonies of the hour of death, for all of which He gave us His Word and Sacraments. And we dare not add to or subtract from these.

But the pope acts arbitrarily, and he has the audacity to add to and to subtract from them. Thus he deprives the laity of the one kind in Holy Communion, contrary to the words of God, which say: ‘Listen to Him!’ Who authorized him to do this? And if it was forbidden to take away from Moses, the servant’s words, why, then, should one want to curtail or mutilate the words of the Lord Christ? Therefore, pope or no pope, I may believe that you are pious, but I will not trust you. For you detract from the divine Word, and your message and doctrine are not in conformity with the faith, as St Paul demands (Rom. 12:7). The pope also adds to the divine Word, as is manifest in his indulgences, his pilgrimages, also in his claim that it is a sin to eat butter and meat on certain days. Who authorized him to add this? My Lord Christ says that I am to be untrammelled, free to eat what God grants me and what is put before me by man, if only I know the Father and believe in Him.

But in the papacy they counter with the cry: ‘The fathers! The fathers!’ You must reply: ‘I am ready to believe and to concede that they were pious people during their lifetime; however, whenever they talk and teach contrary to Christ, I do not believe them. How are you going to harmonize the pope’s decree, “Whoever eats meat on Friday is of the devil, accursed and damned,” with Christ’s teaching to the contrary? St Paul says that all food should be received and used with thanksgiving to God (1 Tim. 4:4). Does the pope’s prohibition agree with the doctrine of Christ? I do not question that Ambrose and Augustine taught abstinence from meat on certain days; but since this contradicts Holy Scripture, I shall not comply with it or obey you.’

If I say: ‘St Benedict was a holy man, St Gregory was pious and one of the elect!’ it does not follow by any means that then everything they said and did was holy and good and must be accepted and taught. Do not draw such a conclusion. For they, too, were human. This text tells us that many believed in Christ, but that nevertheless He did not trust Himself to them. Why, then, do you insist on trusting yourself to these men and following them? There is more in man than just his faith. There is the old Adam; flesh and blood still cling to us. Furthermore, the devil desires to sift man as wheat is sifted, as Christ says to St Peter (Luke 22:31). Therefore man can indeed err and fall.

Now how will you proceed? Will you condemn these men? No, I do not intend to condemn Benedict and others. But I do propose to take their books and carry them to Christ and to His Word as a criterion for comparison, to submit St Francis’ rule to Christ’s Gospel for a judgment. If their doctrine agrees with the Gospel, I shall accept it; if not, I shall say: ‘You may be a holy man, but you will never subject me to your rule; for it is a human bauble. Therefore let the devil adopt it! I do not want it!’

That should have been our policy long ago. But everybody is hesitant about doing this and will not do it even today, since no one is willing to concede that the church is fallible. But take hold of Christ, as John the Baptist also sends his disciples to Him. Subject the saints, too, to the scrutiny of Christ. Rules cannot be formulated on the basis of the actions of prophets and holy men. You must judge everything solely in the light of the words of Christ the Lord; for it is written: ‘Listen to Him (Matt. 17:5). And if you give ear only to him, then I want you to know that everything you say and do in faith in the Son will also have My approval. If not, then all your actions and words will be displeasing to Me.’ We know from experience what will happen if the opinions of men become all-important. When St Augustine, Jerome, or Ambrose spoke or taught anything we closed our eyes, accepted and believed it without questioning and argument, on the assumption that the church and the saints must be respected. But man’s disposition to sin and to err was left out of consideration.

It is dangerous to say, as the pope has, that, since St Benedict was a holy man who abstained from meat on Fridays and Saturdays, it is salutary to copy him in this respect. What if St Benedict had been motivated by thirst for honour and carnal zeal? Or should you say: ‘Behold, I want to ape St Francis because the pope declares that he was a holy man, that he disdained money, wore a grey cowl and wooden shoes’? No, Christ did not command the wearing of a grey cowl, though St Francis thought it was a good idea. But what if the Holy Spirit did not inspire him to do this, but the old Adam, who always tries to be so clever in spiritual matters? Human devotion and reason prompted St Francis to do this. Christ the Lord, however, is content to see you dressed in any garment you may choose. Just remain with Christ, and let nothing lead you away from Him. Crawl under His wings, just as little chicks crawl under the brood hen and follow her wherever she may lead them; otherwise a hawk may tear them to pieces and devour them.

This article is taken from The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 1965), pp. 30-34.


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