The quiet of that early Sunday morning was shattered by the ring of a hammer; it was October 1517, five hundred years ago that a German monk nailed ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg castle door. They were chimes heard around the world. No doubt this year we will see numerous documentaries and magazine articles about his life and influence.
Whether you agree with him, or not, Marin Luther (1483-1546) is about as important an individual as any in the last five hundred years. Neither philosopher, politician nor general has had the impact on our world that he did. Disagree with some of his teachings, we might, but ignore him we cannot.
Our own Restoration Movement was rendered possible because of his courage; our Restoration Movement was rendered necessary because of what he did not finish. We still thrill at his ringing call to stand on Scripture. Before a papal court seeking to convict him of heresy he declared: “My conscience is captive to the word of God … Here I stand, I can do no other.”
We hesitate when he dismisses whole sections of Scripture, such as the epistle of James, because they did not fit into his presuppositions. We sense that his recovery of the grace of God clears up vast portions of Scripture to our understanding; we sense, conversely, that his ideal of justification by faith alone was a step, better, a word too far.
The Psychology of Luther
There are two kinds of people: One kind tries to disguise and diffuse his sin. He pretends that he does not sin, or that his sin was understandable given the hypocrisies of those around him. The second kind beats himself up with guilt. This man was Martin Luther. Luther was a monk in the Catholic Church and a professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. He tried with all his might to achieve moral and spiritual perfection. “I kept the rule so strictly,” he would recall, “that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I.” He was driven by two truths, his own great sin, and God’s majesty. He was tormented by the thought that he, a spiritual leader, was secretly beset with sin himself. Who was he to serve the sacraments to his congregants and teach Scripture to eager students when he was himself a sinner? Surely the God he served so imperfectly knew the real, but hidden Luther and was enraged!
An incident in a thunderstorm illustrates this well. He was walking in the open country when a mighty thunderstorm overtook him. Luther was convinced he would perish in the lightening, but was philosophical, reasoning that this was a fitting end for a cleric who only pretended to have it altogether. He might well have said, with the Apostle, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
Justified by Faith
Luther’s inner agony was finally relieved when asked to teach the epistle of Romans at Wittenberg. In his preparations he came across the passage in Romans 1:17: “For in it [i.e. salvation] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
For Luther‘s tormented heart, this was the parting of the Red Sea, the falling of scales from the eyes. Luther did not have to be perfect to please God. That he was imperfect he already knew; that he could not be perfect he strongly suspected. Yet within this verse, he realized for the first time that he did not have to be perfect. He was justified not by works but by faith. As he would later explain, “Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works.”
This formula worked for Luther. He would be motivated from that moment on by gratitude, not guilt. So far, so good, we might think. But Luther colored all of his understanding of Scripture on his ideal: Justification by faith alone. He evaluated every teaching of Scripture through the filter of justification by faith alone. He even adjudged some Bible books more valuable than others based on justification by faith alone. In our ears that phrase expressed one word too many, for the phrase “alone” only appears in Scripture to make the opposite point: “You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Luther sensed the same thing, but his solution was to dismiss the book of James as “an epistle of straw.” Again, we sense that one should form theology from Scripture rather than force Scripture to conform to one’s theology. The apparent contradiction between James and Luther’s understanding should have forced him to reevaluate his understanding.
When Luther challenged the Catholic Church that Sunday in October 1517, his concerns were many and legitimate. Centuries of church tradition and corruption had, like barnacles on a boat, warped the simple teachings of Scripture. The pope, however, was the most powerful man on earth, and Luther soon had a bounty on his head, and was in danger for most of his life. We can certainly appreciate the courage he demonstrated in standing for his convictions.
Think, for a moment, of the changes he made:
* He renewed the practice of preaching in worship. In place of the Mass, Luther would deliver sermons, strong, earthy and practical expositions of Scripture.
* He reinstated congregational singing, begging his musical friends to write music for the “folk” rather than the professionals. “The Devil flees from the sound of music almost as much as from the word of God,” he once declared.
* He translated the Bible into German, based on Erasmus’ text, allowing the ordinary German speaker access to God’s word.
* He reminded us that no one can earn his salvation; we are all saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Aside from the qualms we have about his theology, there are two troubling aspects of his legacy to mention. The first was the ruthless manner in which he put down dissention once he had the support of the political leaders in Germany. The Anabaptists, a fifteenth century restoration movement, felt the wrath of Luther, who utilized the sword of the state rather than the sword of the Spirit to put them down. Between Luther and the Catholics, 40,000 Anabaptists in Germany alone were executed between 1520 and 1540. The other qualm would be his blatant anti Semitism.
Luther’s action, five hundred years ago, reverberates still today. His courage, as you know, broke a logjam that opened up the floodgates of the Reformation. His motto sola fide (faith alone) we have already noted, but his other motto, sola scriptura (Scripture alone) is one we sill own today.
It seems to me that there are three great contributions made by the German theologian: To the question of where one attained the authority to determine teaching and practice, Luther answered it was in the pages of Scripture, not the church. To the question of how one is saved, he answered it was by faith, not works. To the question of who should serve the Lord, he answered that it was the duty of all Christians, not just the clergy, to serve God.
This October 31, amidst the candy and children in disguise, take a moment to think of the German monk whose courage and myopia still affects us today.