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The scene was Wittenberg, Germany; the date was December 10, 1520. Toward a fire burning in a courtyard, a procession of students made its way. There were dozens of students, led by Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, with arms full of books that taught the heresies of Rome. On the fire went the books, their words and pages reduced to nothing. Along with them, Luther burned one other document: the bull Exsurge Domine, in which Pope Leo X threatened Luther with excommunication.

By this act, Luther responded to the pope’s authority in general, and to the pope’s threat of excommunication in particular. This act also demonstrated Luther’s conviction that the Roman Catholic church was not open to doctrinal reformation; if one would preach the pure gospel, he must be put out of Rome.

How is Luther’s act an example for us? If the consistory of a true church puts us under discipline for a censurable sin, may we claim to follow Luther’s example by saying “I don’t care!”? No; this would express impenitence and hardening in sin. Nor do we follow Luther’s example if we have a low view of the authority of the elders of the true church and a low view of Christian discipline. Through the elders, and by means of discipline, Jesus Christ governs His church as her King.

In this and a following article we will examine Luther’s act in more detail, probe into its reasons, and lay a foundation for us properly to follow his example.

The history (abridged)

Two events in Luther’s life, and the pope’s response to those two events, led up to that moment in Wittenberg. The two events in Luther’s life were his nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg (October 31, 1517), and the Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518).

The pope’s response to those two events was to authorize men to try to reason with Luther and to issue two papal decrees, called bulls. (The word “bull” comes from the Latin word bulla, referring to the pope’s seal that is affixed to the decree.) The first bull, Exsurge Domine, declared Luther’s teaching to be wrong on forty- one counts, and threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not repent. This bull Luther burned on December 10, 1520. In the second, Decet Romanum Pontificem, Pope Leo declared Luther and his followers to be excommunicated.

Having related this history more fully in a recent Standard Bearer article,1 I will not repeat it. But note how Rome’s practice of church discipline differs from that of Reformed churches. In Rome, the pope excommunicates; in Reformed churches, the body of elders does. The pope might consult advisors before excommunicating someone, but if he wishes, he may declare one excommunicated without the advice of others. Reformed elders must admonish often, and seek the advice of classis before excommunicating someone. The pope may excommunicate without threatening if he wishes; in Reformed churches, many admonitions precede excommunication.

So may we follow Luther’s example? If so, how? Or, is it permissible to flaunt the discipline of the church?

A right ecclesiology

We can best answer the main question, whether to follow Luther’s example, when we know why Luther did what he did. For at stake, fundamentally, is a right ecclesiology, a right doctrine of the church.

First, then, is the church that is disciplining and excommunicating a true church of Jesus Christ, or not? The issue is not whether any particular human thinks that the church is true or not; the issue is what does Christ say? Does He consider that congregation, her faults notwithstanding, to be part of His body? Does He work in and through that church and her elders by His word and Spirit? If not, we need not fear the discipline of that church.

Perhaps the question whether we may “flaunt” church discipline is misleading. To flaunt is both to defy and to taunt another. We ought to oppose error without taunting. In fact, Luther was not taunting Rome. But he certainly was making a statement that the word of excommunication by a false church is meaningless. However, if Christ claims a church as His own, we may not view that church’s discipline as meaningless. To do so is to reject Christ and His authority as Head and King of the church.

Second, at stake in this ecclesiology is our confession that the church has four attributes—she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—as well as the question, where is this church found? Rome taught, and still teaches, that Rome is this one, holy, catholic, apostolic church: “The sole Church of Christ is that which our Savior, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care…. The Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”2 By contrast, Reformed believers confess that this one, holy, catholic church is not found in only one institution, but in the spiritual, invisible body of Christ. Yet, individual congregations are to manifest these attributes of the church to the best of their ability.

Third, the true church has three marks according to the Belgic Confession, Article 29: the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and the exercise of church discipline in punishing sins. In short, the mark is that the Word of God is our only authority for faith, life, and church government. If one can honestly say before God that a church is thoroughly corrupt with regard to all three of these marks, then one need not fear that church’s discipline. However, if a church possesses these marks and adheres to Scripture in every area of doctrine and life, then one must submit to her discipline. A true church is not faultless, but is one which strives to be faithful to God’s Word.

Fourth, a proper ecclesiology posits that Jesus Christ alone is the Head of the church. Rome acknowledges His headship in word,3 but adds that the pope is His vicar, or substitute, who functions on His behalf.4 The Reformed do not dispute that some men represent Christ as the Head of the church; pastors, elders, and deacons do. Through them, Christ is present with His church (Matt. 28:20). But no one man alone represents Christ to the church. Christ’s human representatives are a body of officebearers in the congregation, and each individual congregation has such a body. That many men represent Christ indicates that Christ alone is the church’s Head.

Fifth, a right ecclesiology requires us to take the right view of the nature and power of the sacraments— another area in which Rome and the Reformed differ. Time and space do not allow me to develop this here. That Rome and the Reformed churches differ regarding these five main areas of ecclesiology demonstrates that Rome is a false church. Rome’s discipline need not be feared, but that of a true church of Christ must be honored.

Luther’s understanding

This Luther understood. In burning the papal bull that threatened him with excommunication, Luther was not merely reacting, nor revolting, nor flaunting discipline. He was simply indicating he did not fear Rome’s discipline, because it did not need to be feared.

This Luther made clear in two treatises that he wrote, shortly after he burned the papal bull. The first is entitled “Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist.”5 In it Luther says that Rome has merely declared that Luther is a heretic, and such a declaration alone does not in fact make a man a heretic. However, according to Luther, to show from Scripture that a man’s teaching is contrary to Scripture is to demonstrate that he is a heretic. But Rome did not do this to Luther.

The second is entitled “Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples were Burned by Dr. Martin Luther.”6 The first of Luther’s five reasons was that he was following the example of believers in Acts 19:19, who burned books of idolatry and witchcraft. Second, as a preacher, he must ward off or destroy false doctrine. Third, not merely was the pope in error, but to maintain his error the pope condemned the preaching and teaching of the true gospel. In other words, Luther did not merely and rashly burn the books of someone with whom he disagreed. Rather, Rome’s hatred of truth is explained by its love for the lie. Fourth, Luther indicated that others had burned his books earlier, without the pope’s permission; why, then, would the pope take issue with Luther burning books? Finally, by burning these books Luther hoped to strengthen the common people in their faith. In conclusion, Luther quoted thirty false statements excerpted from the books that he burned, each of which regarded the pope’s authority, power, and liberties.

By burning these books, Luther was not merely thumbing his nose at the pope, nor returning tit for tat. Rather, Luther was saying that Rome’s view of the papacy, and Rome’s doctrine of the church and sacraments, demonstrated that it was a false church. Her preaching, her administration of sacraments, and her excommunication were not that of Christ, but of Antichrist.

In the year 1520 Luther was only beginning to see these points. He would see them more clearly and state them more fully in the future. In his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in 1521, Luther would refute Rome’s teaching that there are seven sacraments, and show that even Rome’s view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was grievously wrong. But in 1520 he already recognized that Christ, not the pope, was the Head of the church; and he understood the gospel truth that we are justified by faith alone, not by works.

In fact, most people understand that Luther’s example must not lead anyone to flaunt or defy the discipline of a true church of Christ. Understanding this, many who are under discipline by a true church allege that, in fact, that church is not a true church of Christ. If they are right, and if they have really done nothing worthy of discipline, the Lord will exonerate them. But if the Lord claims that church to be His own body, and if the person is indeed worthy of discipline, and if the person does not repent, he or she will stand before Christ in Judgment Day and hear Christ testify against him or her, and remind him or her that Christ spoke through the church.

What is it, then, positively to follow Luther’s example? And how is it that Christ, in the work of discipline, speaks and works through the true church? To these questions we will turn next time.

1 See “Prelude to the Diet of Worms: Rome's Response to Luther”
(November 1, 2021), 55-57.
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday,
1995), 234. Those with a different edition of this catechism may
refer to paragraph 816. This quote, in turn, is taken from Lumen
Gentium 8.2.
3 Catechism, paragraph 669.
4 Catechism, paragraphs 877, 880-884.
5 I have not found a full copy of this work. Roland Bainton provides
an excerpt of it in his book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin
Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 125-126. That
excerpt is readily available online; see https://famous-trials.com/
luther/293-execrablebull.
6 “Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned
by Doctor Martin Luther, 1520,” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 31,
Career of the Reformer (1), ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia:
Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 383-395.