This is probably my favorite Martin Luther quotation, ever. I have quoted the italicized section in many sermons over the years. Let me set the quote in a bit of context that I read in Carl Trueman’s book on Luther and the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom.
Most of us may know of his stand at the Diet at Worms, when he declared before the Holy Roman Emperor and the papal legates that his conscience was captive to the Word of God.
But I think if we were to ask Luther himself when in his life he truly knew the effectiveness of God’s Word, it would not be in April 1521 at Worms. Luther would point to the year after, beginning in March 1522. It was when he returned to Wittenberg after his year in hidden seclusion at Castle Wartburg. Wittenberg was in total chaos. Karlstadt and Zwilling had unleashed the forces of iconoclasm. Luther, abandoned by the middle-class of the city, was criticized on all sides. He was more vulnerable for the next 14 months than he ever was again in his life. He could have been the victim of assault and murder every day.The Reformation had become a political Revolution. If this social chaos and riot continued, ruler Frederick the Wise would have had no other choice but to shut the Reformation down. In this situation, what did Luther do? He literally preached the Reformation back into line by means of the Word of God:
“Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself.”
— The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit. [Luther, M. (1999, c1959). Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51: Sermons I. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (51:III-78). Philadelphia: Fortress Press].