Sunday, October 16, 2011

Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Sovereignty of God

For many Christians today the idea of submitting their lifestyle and their core beliefs to Scripture as the final authority seems both obvious and traditional; however, subjection to Scripture alone has not always been fiercely advocated by the church’s leadership and therefore has not always been the common practice of many Christians. The Roman Catholic Church, leading up to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had attached near-ultimate authority to itself and its leadership thereby usurping the authority of the sacred Scriptures. Since the church, in their opinion, had canonized the Holy Bible, the Bible was therefore to be in subjection to the church. Those in authority within the church were the mediators (priests) between God and the sinner. They had the final say in all manners of doctrine and faith, not Scripture. Unsurprisingly, that kind of power led to massive corruption.

Similarly, the modern Protestant understanding that eternal life comes by “grace through faith in Christ” would, at first glance, appear to many believers to be a common orthodox belief built upon two thousand years of strong biblical exposition; but that simply is not the case. Sadly, the pre-Reformation gospel had been diluted and polluted to the point that it was unrecognizable from what Jesus Christ taught/lived/was, and what Paul the apostle carefully and forcefully exposited in his Epistles. Over the centuries, “theologians and churchmen had heaped up layer upon layer of extra biblical teaching and practice obscuring the church’s true treasure of the gospel.”[1] Christianity had turned into a list of “to do’s” as opposed to an acknowledgement of what has already been “done” by Jesus Christ. The church was in trouble.

Fortunately, in the sixteenth century God raised up several key thinkers, scholars, theologians, lay people, and preachers who were bold enough to speak out against the established church in defense of Scriptural authority and gospel clarity. By God’s grace, the church underwent a reformation of epic proportions - the effects of which are still being felt nearly five hundred years later. One of the key figures in the Reformation was an ornery monk named Martin Luther. This post will explore Luther’s life, theology, and legacy as well as the Lutheran Reformation that he initiated. In the end, it will hopefully be revealed through the lens of church history, that God is fully in control. The plans of God will not be frustrated. He will perfect his bride (the church) even if that means utilizing the quirky character traits of flawed men such as Martin Luther. Though Luther will be the primary focus of this post, God will be shown to be the protagonist of the Reformation story. Luther, as important a figure as he was, was merely a character actor on history’s grand stage – Jehovah God was and still is the headlining star.

Scripture unabashedly teaches of the depravity of man. One will not find a sugarcoated treatment of humanity’s condition in passages such as Psalms 51:5, Isaiah 64:6, and Romans 3:10. Instead, the Bible explains that men and women have been “brought forth in iniquity.” Since Adam’s infamous fall in the Garden of Eden, sin has been passed down from generation to generation with its corruption extending “to every part of man.”[2] Despite man’s best legalistic efforts, he cannot escape the sin nature imparted to him from Adam. This biblical truth is commonly known as the doctrine of “total depravity.” If left to himself, i.e., the removal of the grace of God, man would naturally slide into the cesspool of hedonism, greed, lust, and corruption. The church therefore, being led by fallen men, is susceptible to such a downturn as evidenced by the outrageous abuses that transpired throughout the Middle Ages leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Church historian Justo Gonzalez writes: “As the fifteenth century came to a close, it was clear that the church was in need of profound reformation, and that many longed for it.”[3] Gonzalez goes on to say, “the decline of the papacy was well known… the papacy [had fallen] into the hands of men who were more moved by the glories of the Renaissance than by the message of the cross.”[4] Corruption in the church was widespread and unchecked. What’s more, the few church leaders who might have felt the need to speak out against the injustices that they witnessed had little ground to do so due to the fact that their own positions of authority were purchased through bribery and chicanery.
Everything had a price. Eternal security, pardon from sin for oneself and for one’s loved one, and authority within the church could all be attained through unscrupulous monetary transactions with the church acting as the merchant / mediator between God and man. The Catholic Church had become a business by which those in authority were the sole benefactors of every transaction. Sadly, the church did little to help the plight of the poor with money gained from this merchandising of the faith. “Most of the poor no longer had the sense that the church was there defender.”[5] Contrarily, it was the rich and the powerful; the same crowd about whom Christ said had less of a chance of attaining eternal life than a camel would have traversing through the eye of a needle, whose interest were being catered to by the church. The very people who were to be its ambassadors had instead trampled upon Christ’s message of the upside down kingdom, which he proclaimed on the Sermon on the Mount. The economy of the church had become shockingly similar to the economy of the world. Greed, power, and lust were valued more than sacrifice, discipline, and humble worship.
Flexing its authoritative powers, local church leadership also closely regulated the doctrines of the lay church members through investigations and interrogations. Those who were not in complete agreement with papal theology were punished. For those outside of the church, their rights and freedoms were trampled as well. Forcing baptism upon those who did not desire it, a practice commonly employed by the pre-Reformation church, was tame in comparison to many of the atrocities that were administered to those who dared to defy the Roman doctrinal creeds.
As church abuse became more and more prevalent, Christians, who were either privy to or were on the receiving end of the abuse, become increasingly frustrated. The tide slowly began to turn against those in authority within the church. The pump had been primed, now it was time for God to continue to work all things for His good. The Creator of all, in His divine wisdom, decided that the time had come to open the eyes of a man who was perfectly tempered and positioned to become the spark that ignited a revolt against the church’s ungoverned abuse – this man’s name was Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was born in 1848, in Eisleben, Germany to Hans and Margarethe Luder (later Luther). His was not an easy childhood. Young Luther was abused at school. His teachers would often whip him for not meeting their standards. He recalls one such instance: “[at school] I was caned in a single morning fifteen times for nothing at all.”[6] Unfortunately for Luther, his parents were often no more kind than his teachers. Their punishment was “extremely severe, and many years later he would speak bitterly of the punishments that he suffered.”[7] He is reported to have said: “My mother caned me for stealing a nut, until the blood came. Such strict discipline drove me to the monastery.”[8] The severity of Luther’s childhood punishments certainly impacted his view of God. The Creator, in Luther’s eyes, was a severe judge just as as his father and teachers had been at an earlier time. He would struggle for much of his early life to come to terms with God’s love. It was much easier for Luther to view God as angry and full of hate than as a loving Creator who sacrificed Himself for his creation.
As a young man Luther’s father had sent him to school to become a lawyer, but after fearing for his life amidst a violent lightning storm, Martin “abandoned the University to take vows in the Augustinian moister where he was an ordained priest.”[9] During his time as a monk, ordained priest, and eventually a theology professor he would continue to wrestle to come to terms with the mercy of God, even to the point of physical sickness. Then, after many years of painfully searching for answers and teaching through the Psalms and the Epistle to the Romans, God opened his eyes to the liberating gospel of grace. At some time between 1515 and 1518, while expositing Romans 1:17, “Luther identified God’s righteousness as the righteousness of Christ given to sinners, which could only be received, passively, by trusting in God’s promise (sola fide).”[10] Luther came to believe that “the justice of God does not refer, as he had been taught, to the punishment of sinners… Rather… the justice or righteousness of the righteous is not their own, But God’s. The righteousness of God is that which is given to those who live by faith.”[11] This gospel clarity, illuminated to Martin by the Holy Spirit, stood in stark contrast to modern Roman Catholic dogma of a works-based salvation and would eventually become the fuel that drove the Lutheran Reformation.
Once Luther’s eyes were opened, by the grace of God, to the liberating beauty and truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ there was no going back to the darkness of self-salvation. This was a message of gospel freedom that must be proclaimed to those ensnared by the chains of legalism. This was a hill that young Martin Luther was prepared to die upon. He could not stand by while millions of trusting sheep were led astray by a pack of wolves in shepherds clothing. Something must be done.
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses
On October 31st, 1517, disgusted by Rome’s unbiblical perspective on justification through the sale of indulgences, exemplified by the now infamous tactics of John Tetzel, Martin nailed an attack on these indulgences, commonly known as his 95 Theses, to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This decree was originally titled Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. He initially wrote his Theses in Latin in hopes that it would bring about scholarly dialogue, however, someone “translated them into German, and circulated them in an inexpensive edition.”[12] Surprising to Luther (due to the fact that this was his second attempt at speaking out against the church), his words caused quite a stir. The impact of his Theses was profound, “such that that very date, October 31, 1517, is often said to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.”[13]

Martin’s words were circulated via pamphlet throughout Germany as well as much of the Christian world thereby upsetting the Roman apple cart. People began to buy into the message that Luther was proclaiming so forcefully. Eventually the sales of indulgences were negatively impacted enough that the Catholic Church decided that it must take action. Something had to be done to stop this heretic who is undermining the very work of God. Luther’s ranting must come to an end.

Roman Catholic Backlash
Luther was first confronted “at a meeting of his order held in Heidelberg on April 26, 1518… [Later] in August 1518 Luther was summoned to Rome to answer charges of heresy.”[14] Fortunately for Luther, Frederick the Wise intervened on his behalf. Nevertheless, Rome sought to silence Luther for several years culminating, in 1521, at the Diet of Worms. In Worms, facing excommunication, persecution, or even martyrdom, Luther was asked to recant his teachings. But, after great displeasure and anguish, he stood firm. With loyal onlookers as well as powerful enemies anxiously waiting to hear his response, Luther is reported to have timidly said these stirring words:

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.[15]

Had Luther recanted, the spark that was the Reformation could have potentially been snuffed out. But now, with word spreading far and wide of his heroic stand against the papal powers, both the young and the old, the rich and the poor, and the powerful and the powerless were inspired to join with Martin Luther in the epic battle against the apostate church for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Reformation spark had now become a raging fire, and Rome, to their dismay, lacked the resources to extinguish it.
Luther did not have to wage this doctrinal battle alone. Others such as Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and John Calvin fought with him for the gospel, each from their respected country. Though there were certainly differences among these men, namely their beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper, there was unity regarding the message of the gospel.

It is important to note that Luther’s Reformation was an attempt to restore the church to its original freshness and purity. The goal was never to destroy and then rebuild the church, rather, the reformers sought merely to reform it by correcting what they felt needed correction and maintaining what they felt was worthy of maintaining.
From a historical perspective, the Reformation was necessary and world changing. However, for those living through it, the times were challenging. It was a violent era in church history. Eventually, the Reformation would lead to a series of wars “culminating with the Thirty Years War, which broke out in 1618,”[16] and decimated most of Germany. It is said that up to forty percent of the German population were lost in that conflict.
The impact that Luther’s Reformation played in shaping not only the church but also the modern world was profound. Try as they may, scholars are hard pressed to fully calculate the implications of the Lutheran Reformation, be it positive or negative, upon modern society. None can deny, however, that Martin Luther was an agent of change in a dark time that desperately needed such change.
As was established earlier in this post, man is, by his very nature, a sinner. This biblical understanding therefore leaves little room for non-deistic hero worship no matter how impactful the human hero figure may appear. Martin Luther, despite his remarkable accomplishments, was a desperate sinner in need of a great Savior. Luther’s legacy then, not surprisingly given his sin nature, is a mixed lot. On one hand he initiated the Reformation of a church in great need of reform, bravely fought to bring clarity to a distorted gospel message, married a nun and fathered many children, wrote lasting catechisms and hymns, and translated the Scriptures for the people of Germany so that any German commoner could read the very words of God in his or her native language. Not many would question the assertion that Luther stands with Washington, Jefferson, King, Lincoln, and Edison as one of recent history’s truly world-changing figures. The impact of his actions is still being felt and enjoyed by Protestant Christians to this very day. 

On the other hand, Luther’s biography reveals several cringe-inducing blemishes that have caused concern for centuries. To the chagrin of nearly every modern-day Luther apologist, Luther, during his later years, began to harbor a strong bitterness towards Jews and often vented his frustrations. His relentless anti-Judaic diatribes sadly “contributed significantly towards the development of anti-Semitism in Germany… [providing] and ideal foundation for the National Socialist’s attacks on Jews”[17] Ronald Berger claims that Luther is credited for "Germanizing the Christian critique of Judaism and establishing anti-Semitism as a key element of German culture and national identity."[18] Perhaps the critiques and associations with Nazi atrocities are unfair; nevertheless, Luther’s anti-Judaic and anti-Anabaptist legacy is not the kind of legacy that anyone would wish upon himself or herself.


Luther stood in contrast with many of his contemporaries regarding his view of the authority of Scripture. Gonzalez puts it this way: “Luther sought to make the Word of God the starting point and the final authority for his theology.”[19] Others, namely those in church leadership, felt that the church (i.e., themselves) should be the final authority concerning all things faith related.

Justification by grace alone was the crown jewel of Luther’s biblical understanding. “The center [of Luther’s theology] of which all the petals clustered was affirmation of the forgiveness of sins through the utterly unmerited grace of God made possible by the cross of Christ, which reconciled wrath and mercy.”[20] All of Luther’s subsequent beliefs concerning how a Christian was to live out his or her faith flowed from this cross-centered understanding, which was built upon solid biblical exegesis. Luther placed great importance on the cross of Christ. To Him, the cross of Christ was the “perfect and visible manifestation of the nature of the invisible God.”

Law / Gospel
Another theological contribution that Luther championed was his law / gospel distinction. He taught that the Word of God should be divided into what we are to do (law), and what God has already done (gospel). To him, this was a vital hermeneutical grid by which to view Scripture. “To mix Law and Gospel,” Luther wrote, “not only clouds the knowledge of grace, it cuts out Christ altogether.”[21] This understanding certainly brought some much-needed clarity to the fog of legalism that permeated Luther’s era.

Today, millions of Christians, like Luther, view Scripture as authoritative, center their lives upon the cross of Christ, and benefit from the distinction between what God has already done and what we are to do. Protestants of all types owe a debt to Luther for these as well as his many other theological contributions.

The Lutheran Reformation wasn’t merely about Luther; it was about God working all things together for His good. The Groom was perfecting His bride. God’s sovereign guiding hand can be seen throughout the story of the Reformation directing people and events according the His divine plan. What transpired in the sixteenth century and the legacy that was left behind was bigger than the flawed Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli - it was the very work of God. God utilized some truly questionable characters for his means. In Luther’s case, he chose to use a man who was “uncouth and even rude in his manner”[22] to be His spokesman and ambassador. He knew that what the sixteenth century church and world needed was a loud, passionate, brilliant, and brash theologian who was not afraid to speak his mind - Martin Luther was that man.
Ever since that October day in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg the world was changed for the better, and the bride was restored to a former glory - adorned with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.

[1] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 18.
[2] David N. Steele, and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1963), 25.
[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010), 7.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 9.
[6] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1950), 4.
[7] Gonzalez, 21.
[8] Bainton, 3.
[9] Christopher B. Brown, “Martin Luther” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Robert Benedetto ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 398.
[10] Ibid., 399.
[11] Gonzalez, 25.
[12] Gonzalez, 26.
[13] Gonzalez, 27.
[14] R. W. Heinze, “Martin Luther,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition, Walter A. Elwell ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001), 718.
[15] Martin Brecht, (tr. Wolfgang Katenz) "Martin Luther" in Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1:460.
[16] James P. Wasemiller, Time No Longer (New York: Vantage Press, 2005), 24.
[17] Achim Nkosi Maseko, Church Schism and Corruption (Durban: Achim N. Maseko, 2008), 289.
[18] Ronald Berger, Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 2002), 28.
[19] Gonzalez, 47.
[20] Bainton, 50.
[21] Martin Luther, (tr. Erasmus Middleton) Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1979), 342.
[22] Gonzalez, 19. 

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