In the winter of 1521, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) wrote to his friend and confessor Johann von Staupitz in the heat of ecclesial conflict. Years earlier at the monastery in Erfurt, Staupitz had assigned Luther to lecture in the Psalms—the first step, it turned out, toward his recovery of the gospel. Just prior to this critical juncture, Luther had begun to doubt his own faith. Coming to the rescue, Staupitz pointed him back to the Bible and helped him regain his faith. Luther kept up a regular correspondence with his mentor throughout his own trials and daring escapes he endured during the Reformation. Although Staupitz initially encouraged his student to persevere when controversy erupted, fearing the same condemnation Luther received in October 1520, he finally urged him to submit to the pope and recant.
When Staupitz’s courage faltered, the Reformer offered the same strength and wisdom that his father confessor provided to the young monk when he was weak. It must be remembered that the religious abuses of Luther’s day, especially in the extent of papal malfeasance, was pushing toward an all time low. Luther’s harsh words for the Pope should be understood in light of this particular historical situation. Therefore, the point of this quotation is not to marshal opposition to today’s papacy; it is to remind us of the need for Christ-centered perseverance.
This is not the time to cringe, but to cry aloud when our Lord Jesus Christ is damned, reviled, and blasphemed. The matter is very serious. We see Christ suffer. If hitherto we ought to have been silent and humble, I ask you whether now, when the blessed Saviour is mocked, we should not fight for him. My father, the danger is greater than many think. Now applies the word of the gospel, “He who confesses me before men, him will I confess in the presence of my father, and he who denies me before men, him will I deny.” I write this candidly to you because I am afraid you hesitate between Christ and the pope, though they are diametrically contrary. Let us pray that the Lord Jesus will destroy the son of perdition with the breath of his mouth. If you will not follow, permit me to go. I am greatly distressed by your submissiveness. You seem to me to be a very different Staupitz from the one who used to preach grace and the cross . . . Father, do you remember when we were at Augsburg you said to me, “Remember, brother, you started this in the name of the Lord Jesus.” I have never forgotten that, and I say it now to you. I burned the pope’s books at first with fear and trembling, but now I am lighter in heart than I have ever been in my life. They are so much more pestilent than I supposed.1
1 Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 135.