Luther’s Excommunication: Final and First Words

Greg Strand – January 3, 2017 Leave a comment

This year, on October 31, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That sounds unusual to us, but the door served the purpose as a bulletin board for various kinds of announcements related to church and academic matters.

Luther, 33 years old, was a Roman Catholic and desired to address issues within the Roman Catholic church, and thus remain a Roman Catholic. One of the key issues he addressed in these theses was the matter of indulgences. He called for a “disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.” Luther was a faithful monk and priest who had been appointed as a professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg. In this role, he considered it his responsibility to raise and address these issues.

There is much that happened between the posting of the theses and what I will address today as one of the final steps of Luther’s formal and official break with the Roman Catholic Church. As these days mark a break, it also marks the beginning of Protestantism, or Evangelicals, a term the Reformers preferred, since they rediscovered the gospel of Jesus Christ, the evangel.

In June of 1520, Pope Leo X issued a Papal bull, a decree, Exsurge Domine, in which he outlines 41 errors found in Luther’s 95 theses, and other related writings. Not only did Luther not recant his beliefs, on December 10, 1520 he burned his copy of Exsurge Domine. This was followed by Pope Leo X’s response in Decet Romanum Pontificem, a Papal bull issued on January 3, 1521 in which he excommunicated Luther for his refusal to recant for challenging practices of the Roman Catholic Church. This was a follow through with the threat contained in his earlier decree.

In this bull, Luther would lose his civil rights and protection. Charles V, the emperor, intervened by giving Luther another opportunity to recant his beliefs at the Diet of Worms. The Diet was a formal assembly of the leaders of the whole Roman Empire. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, worked to guarantee Luther safe travel to the Diet. On April 18, 1521, Luther responded to the question posed to him about recanting his works in what has become famous last and first words: last of his life and ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, and first in the Protestant church, or life, teaching and ministry as an Evangelical. Luther said,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

More will be said about this and other events in the life of Luther and the other Reformers and the larger Reformation this year as we celebrate its ongoing theology and legacy in Evangelicalism and the EFCA. I mention this today since it marks the day Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther, which led to the Diet of Worms.

Being descendants of the theology and legacy of the Reformation, the EFCA will join in the celebration at our upcoming Theology Conference, February 1-3 on the Trinity International University campus. If you have not yet registered, I encourage you to do so here.

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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