While Luther chafed at the physical confinement of the Wartburg, in a spiritual sense he was free. God impressed upon him the idea that the German people must have the Bible in their own language so they could be free also. “Would that this one book were in every language, in every hand before the eyes, and in the ears and hearts of all men!” he cried.
Luther Begins Translating the Bible to German
Luther applied himself to the task of translating the New Testament into German. Battling sickness, depression and even the devil himself, he is said to have completed most of the work in about three months. He worked from Erasmus’s Greek New Testament and original Greek manuscripts, producing a translation that is still a favourite in Germany to this day because of its faithfulness to the originals, its readability and its beautiful language.
Near the end of November 1521, Luther felt he must get away from Wartburg and see his friends at Wittenberg. The distance is around 250 km or about 150 miles. The trip would have taken at least 5 days. He snuck away from the castle, had a short visit with his friends who updated him on all that had happened in his absence, then hurried back to his confinement.
Leo and Charles are Removed
In December 1521, Pope Leo X died. Charles went to Spain to put down a revolt, Francis I King of France declared war against him, and Suleiman I attacked his empire from the east. With his hands full of trouble that hit him from every side, Charles, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, turned his attention away from Germany and his problems with Luther. This gave Luther’s followers a period of relative peace to push forward reforms in the church.
Big Changes in the Monastery
Gabriel Zwilling, an Augustine monk in a convent where Luther had often preached, taught that Jesus had instituted communion as a way to remember His death and sacrifice for sins. Zwilling said it was wrong to worship the host or wafer that represented Christ’s body and it was wrong for monks to say mass for themselves. He also taught that all Christians, not just the priests, should be able to celebrate communion with the wine which represented Christ’s blood, and not with the bread only. Until this time, priests only were allowed to drink the communion wine. The Roman Church had made this rule to show that priests were of a higher class than other people. Zwilling said that was wrong.
The supervisor of the monastery opposed these changes. The monks split into two groups, warring over the mass. Frederick sent a message to the monks that they should submit to their superiors or they would be put on rations of bread and water. A group of professors from Wittenberg University visited the monastery and told the monks not to change any of their practices until the question had been studied out.
About a week later, the professors reported their findings to Frederick. They explained to him the errors of the mass and said, “Let your Electoral Highness put an end to every abuse, lest Christ in the day of judgment should rebuke us as He did the people of Capernaum.”[i] (See Matthew 11:23 where Jesus rebuked the people of Capernaum for their hardness of heart.) In their report, Melanchthon wrote, “There is but one sacrifice, but one satisfaction, Jesus Christ. Besides Him there is none. Let such bishops as do not oppose the impiety of the mass be accursed.”
Zwilling continued his attacks against errors. He said monks would not be saved just because they had become monks and making vows to obey their superiors was wrong because all are obligated to obey God, and men often err. “The vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, are contrary to the Gospel,” Zwilling preached.
Monks began leaving the monastery. Some went to university, others learned to work with their hands to support themselves, just as the Bible said they should.
[i] History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 498.