In the fall of 1520, Martin Luther produced three treatises that were crucial in the history of the Reformation and that came at an important time. Before he wrote these treatises, Luther had received the papal bull Exsurge Domine from Pope Leo X. The bull called Luther a “wild boar from the forest” who sought to destroy the “vineyard” of the church. That’s what the pope thought of Luther. What did Luther think of the pope and his bull? He ignored it and then he burned it. Of course, all this set the stage for the Diet of Worms in 1521. Before that, he wrote the three treaties.
The first of the three treatises is To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. He opens this book with this line: “The time for silence is past and the time to speak has come.” In this book, he calls upon the German princes to play a role in bringing reform to the church. He had looked to the church at the beginning of the Reformation with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, as he sought a debate within the church and sought to have the church reform its ways. By 1520, he was convinced that the Roman church was incapable of reforming its practices. So, he called upon the princes to play a role, and he also called upon the princes to challenge the structure of the Holy Roman Empire.
In the second treatise he turned to the Roman Catholic Church. This treatise is titled On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It focuses on the sacraments. In it, Luther challenges the Roman church’s view of seven sacraments, saying that only two sacraments are biblical: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But more than that, Luther teaches that the sacraments don’t work automatically. The Latin expression was ex opere operato—“by their working they work.” That is, simply by participating in the sacraments—being baptized, partaking of the Eucharist, undergoing last rites—you will be OK. It’s an automatic thing. Luther, by contrast, reminds us of the role of faith. He says of the Lord’s Supper, “It is a divine promise and we come to it in faith.” He says later: “For this treatment of Christ in the sacraments is the one remedy against sins past, present, and future. If you but cling to it with unwavering faith and believe that what the words of the sacrament declare is freely granted to you. But if you do not believe this you will not get anywhere in any works or by any efforts on your own. You will never be able to find peace of conscience. For faith alone means peace of conscience while unbelief only means distress of conscience.”
The third treatise is On the Freedom of the Christian. This is a little booklet, really; it’s not that long. But in it, Luther tackles a very difficult subject, that of how one is to live the Christian life. He begins with a paradox: “A Christian is perfectly free, lord of all, subject to none.” We need to realize what our standing in Christ means. It means that we have true liberty. But then he says this: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Luther has us think about how we live the Christian life, he reminds us of two seemingly paradoxical things, but they do come together. And that is that we see ourselves as free in Christ and we also see ourselves as servants to Christ and also servants to others.