After almost a year in captivity at Wartburg Castle, Luther arrived in Wittenberg on Friday March 7, 1522. He had not requested permission from Prince Frederick, but wrote him a letter telling him that God was his protector. Luther was still a fugitive. By imperial order, anyone who met him was directed to arrest him and hand him over to the authorities.
The next day Luther met with professors at the university, including Jerome Schurff, the Swiss professor of law. A messenger announced that two students were asking for Dr. Schurff. The two Swiss students were brought into the room. The students blushed as the eyes of the doctors turned to them.
Luther recognized the students as those he had befriended at the Black Bear. He stood up to greet them and introduced them to the doctors gathered about him. Kessler and his friend spent the day with Luther and his companions.
The topic much discussed was how to deal with the fanatical prophets that had descended upon Wittenberg and how to restore peace and order to the city and university. He said, “If our adversaries do not retire of their own accord, Christ will know how to compel them.”[i] Luther opposed force. “It is with the Word that we must fight,” he said. “By the Word must we overthrow and destroy what has been set up by violence.” Luther understood that people could not be forced to believe. He understood the necessity of having freedom of choice. “I will not use force against the superstitious and unbelieving,” he said. “Liberty is the very essence of faith.”
On Sunday, Luther preached to a full church. He praised the people for the progress they’d made in developing their faith. “But we need something more than faith,” he continued. “We need charity.” He asked the people to consider how a mother cares for her baby. She nurses it before she gives it food that must be chewed. Babies need time to grow and develop. Faith needs time to grow and develop and everyone does not mature at the same rate. He told them that they must be patient with others and give others time to let their faith grow.
Luther said, “The mass is a bad thing. God is opposed to it….But let no one be torn from it by force. We must leave the matter in God’s hands.” Luther said no one should be forced to make changes. “We have a right to speak; we have not the right to act. Let us preach. The rest belongs to God.”
It seems Luther understood the great principle of freedom of choice which is the foundation of faith and love. He asked, “If I were to employ force, what should I gain.” Luther answered himself, “Grimace, formality, human ordinance, and hypocrisy.” He assured the people that faith and love would never come from a heart that was forced. “There would be no sincerity of heart, nor faith, nor charity. Where these three are wanting, all is wanting,” he concluded.
Luther did not preach on Monday, but the following week, he preached every day concluding the following Sunday. Each day, the people filled the church. People flowed into Wittenberg from surrounding towns and cities.
In all his sermons, Luther did not once criticize the false prophets who had started so much trouble in Wittenberg. He simply preached love toward God and others. The people yielded to Luther’s appeals. Order was restored at Wittenberg.
The false prophets were not happy about the turn of events. They demanded a meeting with Luther. Luther agreed to a meeting and listened as they described how they would reform the church. Luther answered, “Nothing you’ve said is based upon Holy Scripture. It is all a mere fable.”[ii]
One of the prophets lost his temper, pounded the table and said Luther shouldn’t talk to a prophet of God in such an insulting way. Another prophet claimed to be able to read Luther’s mind and said Luther was beginning to believe them. Luther said, “God chastise thee, Satan!” The prophets raged on for a while then got up and went out. They left Wittenberg the same day.
[i] As quoted in History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 544.
[ii] Ibid, paraphrased, 548.