Perhaps Luther’s most subversive act was his translation of the New Testament into German, a feat scholars estimate he accomplished in three months. The papacy had controlled the interpretation of Scripture, available almost exclusively in Latin, the language of the clergy and the highly educated. But Luther wanted the Bible translated and read as widely as possible: “We must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace,” he explained in “On Translation: An Open Letter” (1530). “We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.”
Luther always elevated the individual believer, armed with the Bible, above any earthly authority. This was the heart of his defiance at the Diet of Worms: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.” Neither prince nor pope could invade the sanctuary of his conscience. This, he proclaimed, is the “inestimable power and liberty” belonging to every Christian.
It would be hard to imagine a more radical break with centuries of church teaching and tradition. Luther’s intense study of the Bible—part of his anguished quest to be reconciled to God—made these great innovations possible. Convinced that the teachings of Christ had become twisted into an “unbearable bondage of human works and laws,” he preached a gospel of freedom. Salvation, he taught, was a gift from God available to everyone through faith in Jesus and his sacrificial death.
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