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Luther's Graceless Tongue

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Martin Luther, the reformer of grace, was more often angry and spoke his mind before thinking.

In the late 1520s, he got into a running argument about the Lord’s Supper with reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli believed that the bread and wine were merely symbolic of Christ’s presence at the table. Luther believed Christ was present “in, with, and under” the elements.

When a pamphlet war threatened to fragment the reformation movement, Prince Philip of Hesse became concerned. He wanted Protestants to present a united front against Catholics, especially if military action was initiated by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. So Philip sponsored a Protestant summit at Marburg in October 1529. He invited the leading reformers of Germany and Switzerland: Luther and his colleague Phillip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Oecolampadius.

The participants quickly reached agreement on fourteen of fifteen theological points. But on the fifteenth, on the presence of Christ in the sacraments, the conference floundered.

Eventually, a carefully worded compromise was reached (the sacrament was a divine gift of grace with a “spiritual benefit”). But within weeks, a split in the reformation ranks reopened. Luther summed up his feelings: “One side in this controversy belongs to the Devil and is God’s enemy.” He didn’t mean his side.

Thirteen years later, Luther continued to grumble about the conference: “I’ve bitten into many a nut, believing it was good, only to find it wormy. Zwingli and Erasmus are nothing but wormy nuts that taste like crap in one’s mouth!”


Source: Richard Exley, Mark Galli and John Ortberg, Dangers, Toils & Snares : Resisting the Hidden Temptations of Ministry, Mastering ministry's pressure points (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah Books, 1994), 162.

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