MARTIN LUTHER AND WHY HE MATTERS
While many people are busy with Halloween related activities in the month of October, it would be helpful to know October for something else, something far better, namely Reformation Month. This month marks the 496th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95-Theses he posted on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany (1517), which helped fuel Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther is perhaps the most forthright figure who led the protest against Roman Catholic Church. His outspoken criticisms against Rome have been conveyed through his preaching, lectures, and numerous writings, most notably, his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences that he nailed on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Those 95-Theses were Luther’s 95 arguments against Roman Catholic’s teachings and practices that sins of people can be dissolved by monetary payments, and to question the authority of papacy.
If you’re interested you can read the entire 95 points of Luther’s arguments here. As a result, you can appreciate what God did through Luther and ponder on some of those implications. Each point of Luther is very succinct to the point, so you can read all of his 95 Theses under an hour.
If you’re not familiar with Luther, I would like to introduce him to you. Hopefully, you would understand why this man is important to today’s churches. As a side-note, if would be helpful to have some wide-range of spiritual heroes if you don’t already. For me, most of my heroes are dead, yet they still speak through their writings. Naturally I’m attracted to pastors and preachers. However, some of my other heroes are theologians, hymn-writers, and missionaries.
If you don’t have any heroes of faith, get some. One way is for you to read biographies. Read books about those individuals that your pastor and others tend to mention a lot (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and so on), and read books by those individuals. Granted, these heroes are not perfect and we do not elevate them. But we can learn tremendous lessons from people that God sovereignly chose to do mighty things.
In his book Simplify Your Spiritual Life, Don Whitney encourages his readers to imitate spiritual heroes because “we would be encouraged by their love for Christ, their devotion to prayer, and their passion for the gospel and the things of God.” He also argues for another strong advantage for imitating spiritual heroes. He writes:
Having the right heroes also helps to protect us from spiritual and theological error. As the following verse warns, “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines” [Hebrew 13:9]. All human heroes will lead us into error if we follow them uncritically and without discernment. But to have no heroes for fear of being spiritually polluted is to overreact. The right heroes are right almost all the time. By speaking the Word of God to us, sharing insights we haven’t been given, using analogies and illustrations we haven’t considered, and formulating truth in ways that make things clear to us, the right heroes will protect us from far more error than they may give us.
In this day and age when religious compromise and cowardice are all too common, Martin Luther still stands today as a man who defied fear and persevered through all kinds of hardships and remained faithful against the most powerful religious system and culture in his day. For that reason, I consider him as one of my heroes. And there are some worthy examples that we can all imitate from Luther.
Let me draw your attention to two biblical texts before launching into Luther. One is 1 Corinthians 10:11 and the other is Hebrews 13:7.
- NAU 1 Corinthians 10:11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
- NAU Hebrews 13:7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.
In this biographical address on Martin Luther, I want to present three areas: 1) a brief sketch of Luther’s life, 2) six strengths of Luther, and 3) couple of his weaknesses.
I. Luther’s Life
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, to a copper miner. His father wanted him to enter law profession. So in 1502, at the age of 19 he finished his undergraduate work, and at the age of 21 he received his Master of Arts degree. On July 2nd of that year, he had a radical soul-shaking event. He was going home from school when he was caught in a thunderstorm and he was thrown down by a lightening. As a result, he cried out, “Help me, Saint Anne; I will become a monk!” He thought that was the best effort for him to get right with God since he was fearful of his life and soul. He was at that time still an unregenerate. And fifteen days later at the age of 21 he became an Augustinian monk.
Just think of it! At the age of 21, at the height of every young man’s sexual orientation he becomes a monk! It was not until 20 years later he gets married to Katherine von Bora (a former nun). So, for next twenty years, namely, his 20s and 30s are spent in the monastery. However, in this regard, this is what Luther said looking back:
In the monastery, I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me…For I had strayed from faith and could not but imagined that I had angered God, whom I in turn had to appease by doing good works (emphasis mine).
At the age of 23 (1507), Luther was ordained as a priest, and a month later, he celebrated his first mass. He was so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s majesty that he almost ran away from fulfilling his priestly duty. According to Heiko Oberman, one of the world-renown authorities on Luther, fear and trembling was not unusual in Luther’s life. Dr. Oberman wrote:
A sense of the mysterium tremendum, of the holiness of God, was to be characteristic of Luther throughout his life. It prevented pious routine from creeping into his relations with God and kept his Bible studies, prayers, or reading of the mass from declining into a mechanical matter of course: his ultimate concern in all these was the encounter with the living God (italicized his).
At the age of 28, Luther received his doctor’s degree in theology, and became the chair in Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg, which he held rest of his life.
II. Six Lessons (Strengths) To Be Learned from Luther:
1. Luther was a preacher.
In fact, he was more of a preacher than most pastors were in his day and our own day. He was a regular preacher at a town church in Wittenburg, one of only two churches at the time. Although he was a regular preacher at a town church, he was not their pastor. Rather, Luther’s friend was the pastor of the town church for 37 years, yet Luther preached virtually every week. Just to get a proper picture of what type of the church this was, one biographer notes:
To feel the force of this commitment you have to realize that in the church in Wittenberg there were no church programs, but only worship and preaching. On Sundays there were the 5:00 A.M. worship with a sermon on the Epistle, the 10:00 A.M. service with a sermon on the Gospel, and an afternoon message on the Old Testament or catechism. Monday and Tuesday sermons were on the Catechism; Wednesdays on Matthew; Thursdays and Fridays on the Apostolic letters; and Saturday on John.
Although that was the weekly preaching schedule of the church, we don’t know whether that was the preaching schedule for Luther. However, the authorities tell us that Luther often preached twice on Sunday and once during the week. Between 1510 and 1546 (that’s 36 years) Luther preached about 3,000 sermons. Frequently he preached several times a week, often two or more times a day. And here’s another example of Luther’s commitment and intensity for preaching. In 1522 he preached 117 sermons, the following year 137. In 1528 he preached about 200 times, and from 1529 there are 121 sermons, which means he was in those four years pumped out one sermon on every two and half days!
So, the question once again is: how does Martin Luther model for us pastors and churches? Without a question, he exemplifies a man who is intensely committed to preaching. In regards to what a good preacher is, Luther said:
A good preacher should have these properties and virtues: First, to teach systematically. Secondly, he should have a ready with. Thirdly, he should be eloquent. Fourthly, he should have a good voice. Fifthly, a good memory. Sixthly, he should know when to make an end. Seventhly, he should be sure of his doctrine. Eighthly, he should venture and engage body and blood, wealth and honor, in the Word. Ninthly, he should suffer himself to be mocked and jeered by everyone.
Now, let’s say there is a man that fits these qualities. But according to Luther, soon there are people who would try to find faults in a preacher. He said:
The defects in a preacher are soon spied: let a preacher be endued with ten virtues, and but one fault, yet this one will eclipse and darken all his virtues and gifts, so evil is the world in these times. Dr. Justus Jonas has all the good virtues and qualities a man may have; yet merely because he hums and spits, the people cannot bear that good and honest man.
So when there is a complaint against a pastor or preacher, we need to seriously ask ourselves: is the issue an unrepentant sin that the public is aware of, or is the issue more a preference? In my experience, the line is blurred or distorted when one sees the speck that is in brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in their own eyes.
2. Luther was a family man.
As I mentioned already, he was married at the age of 41 to Katie and died at 62. Hence, he experienced life as a husband and a father for 21 years. They had six children together in relatively a short succession. For example, his eldest Johannes was born 1526, Elisabeth in 1527, Magdalena (1529), Martin (1531), Paul (1533), and Margaret (1534). That means Katie was pregnant for almost 8 years, and popped out a baby every year and three months!
Here’s an interesting observation that one biographer notes. The year between Elisabeth and Magdalena were born, which is 1528, was the year when Luther preached about 200 times (remember, more than once every other day). In addition to this pressure it was that year that his first daughter Elisabeth died at eight months old, yet he was still preaching more than ever with the pain of losing his own child! Luther knew what it meant to have and lose his own child, and still preached on the coming Sunday. To me, this reminds me that it takes a broken man to preach a sermon to people who are broken.
In case people wonder whether Luther neglected his children, understand that on Sunday afternoons, often after preaching twice, Luther led the household devotions, which were virtually another worship service for an hour!
For Luther, children are subject to parents and especially, to the father, who exercises in the household the same sort of authority as does the magistrate in the state. Disrespect for parents is a breach of the Ten Commandments. On one occasion Luther refused to forgive his son for three days though the boy begged for his forgiveness and his wife and rest of the family interceded. The point that Luther wanted to strongly make was that the boy in disobeying his father had offended God. At the same time, Luther believed that sweets should always go hand to hand with the rod, meaning, after punishment there should be sweetness not bitterness.
3. Luther was a church statesman.
That is, he was a real church leader. His love and concern for the church was obviously demonstrated by his hard work in preaching and teaching, but also through his writing. With all his busy preaching schedules, he has also written and published countless articles that helped churches in his day. Some of his writings I’ve read and enjoyed thus far have been his Ninety-five Thesis (in order to understand what was burning in Luther’s heart that led to such a world-changing event) and his Bible commentary on Galatians (in order to observe his hermeneutics). Regards to the purpose of the church:
[T]hat nothing else should take place therein than that our dear Lord Himself should speak with us through His holy Word, and we again speak with Him through prayer and praise. When we have heard God’s Word we should bring before God our common holy smoke or incense, i.e., that we should together call upon Him and pray to Him.
4. Luther was a voracious student.
What led him to discover the truths of the gospel was during his intense study of God’s word, specifically, his preparation for lectures on the book of Romans. Listen to his own testimony:
I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was… a single word in [Romans 1:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory…
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.
According to one biographer, it is this kind of intense appetite and study for Scripture that resulted such history-shaping discoveries for Luther. Let me point out some things that Luther learned as a serious student of God’s word.
Luther came to elevate biblical text far above the teachings of commentators or church fathers.
It was not that Luther was unfamiliar with the available commentaries and commentators of his day or that he was unread. The opposite is true. He was so well-read and well-versed that he could quote many books. But for Luther, the ultimate authority lies not with what so and so has said. Rather, it was Scripture alone. He was a diligent student of Scripture. Luther said, “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer.” It is said that Luther kept such practice for at least ten years. The point is, the Bible is the priority, whereas, other reading is secondary.
Focus on Scripture with secondary literature leads Luther to an intense and serious grappling with the very words of Paul and the other biblical writers.
Luther had spent whatever time it took in the biblical text until he understood the meaning. As you know, not every text takes equal amount to understand. Some are easy, while some are very difficult. On this matter, Luther told his exegesis students that Bible interpreters should approach no differently than what Moses did with the rock in the desert, namely hitting the rock with his rod until water gushed out for his thirsty people. In other words, strike the text until the meaning is drawn out! Luther was very determined in pulling out the meaning from the text. He said, “It must yield. I will hear and know the Word of God in this text for my soul and for the church!” That is how he broke through the meaning of the truths in the gospel.
The characteristic of Luther’s intense study is an example for all pastors to work hard.
John Piper says, “We are not Luther and could never be, no matter how hard we tried (and I say, Praise the Lord! And that takes a huge pressure off from me). But the point here is: Do we work at our studies with rigor and diligence or are we slothful and casual about it, as if nothing really great is at stake?”
Luther learned that you have to suffer in order to understand what suffering is.
Suffering is not an academic knowledge you study in class. You don’t know it by reading or hearing lectures. Rather, it requires life experience. And it is life experience that makes pastor and preacher’s study more meaningful. According to Luther, trials make a theologian. He said:
For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you, will make a real [theological] doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself…owe my papists (i.e., Roman Catholics) many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.
For Luther, suffering was not some abstract concept, but reality of his life. He not only suffered from various kinds of religious persecutions from Roman Catholics and death threats, but also from various physical illnesses, such as, kidney stones, ear infections, constipation, and hemorrhoids. Luther can testify to us today that those trials made him an experienced theologian. All that is to say, this should cause us to think twice about complaining about trials and suffering that we have gone through, going through, and will go through. Thus, by God’s controlled sufferings we learn things that we cannot learn at an academic setting.
The final characteristic of Luther’s study: persistent prayer life.
This is where Luther’s theology and methodology become almost identical. And we know what that means. Theology is your life. And your methodology (what and how you live) is the reflection of your theology. They both are one, in my opinion. For Luther, it is demonstrated by his persistent prayerful dependence on the all-sufficient God.
5. Luther was a great and courageous theologian.
His work The Bondage of Will is still one of the detrimental arguments against those who advocate for “free will.” He also held to the doctrine of double predestination.
As a response to Luther’s 95-Theses, Sylvester Prierias, one of Luther’s arch-enemies in Rome said, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.” That is to say, it is the pope and the Roman Catholic Church who are the ultimate authorities, whereas, the Bible itself is secondary authority since what it says and what it means in the Bible get derived from what the pope and the church say.
During the Protestant Reformation more and more people were convinced that that kind of teaching from Rome is nonsensical and most importantly, unbiblical. Hence, many joined in protesting against the Roman Church. Thus, what people discovered or rediscovered from Luther is the sole authority of Scripture. When Luther said God speaks only through the external word, namely, the Scripture, this obviously had huge implications. First of all, to say that God speaks only through the external word, that means the real authority is outside of us. This destroys every personal speculation, imagination, subjective feelings and individual opinions. In other words, what is true and truth are not determined by us. We are not the authority and the authority does not lie within us. Rather, it is outside of us. It is external.
Also, what is true and truths are not subject to how we feel and what we think. Rather, it is objective and external. Hence, what Luther taught had profound and radical philosophical and theological implications. Not only such implications had profound impact in Luther’s day, but more are needed today in this “your opinion is good as mine” pluralistic society.
Also, to grasp this truth has radical implication on how we do ministry, especially, for pastors to understand his calling and duties, and also for churches to understand and help support their pastors to fulfill such calling so that they can mutually work together for the glory of God. On this regard, John Piper says:
The Word of God saves and sanctifies, from generation to generation, is preserved in a book. And therefore at the heart of every pastor’s work is book-work. Call it reading, meditation, reflection, cogitation, study, exegesis, or whatever you will – a large and central part of our work is to wrestle God’s meaning from a book, and then to proclaim it in the power of the Holy Spirit… The immense implication of this for the pastoral ministry and lay ministry is that ministers are essentially brokers of the Word of God transmitted in a book (italics his).
6. Luther was a Reformer of corporate worship.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church’s exclusive use of Latin during worship, Luther favored the vernacular language or whatever language people spoke. This is because in order for people’s praise to be sincere, it had to be understood in the language that people speak and understand. Also, he favored public reading of the Bible and singing of hymns. Here’s one example what he wrote concerning music:
Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching. St. Augustine was troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music, which he took to be sinful. He was a choice spirit, and were he living today would agree with us. I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues.
III. Luther’s Weakness
1. His view of the Lord’s Supper – Christ’s presence “in, with, and under” the bread and cup (i.e. consubstantiation).
2. Removing the Old Testament Reading from Corporate Worship.
Many believe this was because Luther overly reacted against the RCC’s liturgy of having the OT reading. He didn’t want to be like the RCC. But I find his reason to be inconsistent. If that was the case, then why did he have such quasi Roman Catholic view on communion?
To remove the OT reading from corporate worship simply because he didn’t want to be like the RCC is like throwing baby with bathwater. Because of his exclusive usage of the NT alone, the OT reading loses its long-held position when in fact this was part of the long tradition in the church before his time. If anything, his practice gave a low view of the OT for his followers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help what some accuse him, namely being anti-semitic.
Although many try to defend Luther that he wasn’t anti-semitic, there seems to be some evidences that don’t help such charges and accusations against him.
Certainly, Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. However, there are many things today’s pastors and churches can learn from him. As mentioned earlier:
All human heroes will lead us into error if we follow them uncritically and without discernment. But to have no heroes for fear of being spiritually polluted is to overreact. The right heroes are right almost all the time. By speaking the Word of God to us, sharing insights we haven’t been given, using analogies and illustrations we haven’t considered, and formulating truth in ways that make things clear to us, the right heroes will protect us from far more error than they may give us.
Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2003), 117.
Quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 84.
John Piper raised important question as to how a theology professor can serve as a model for rest of us who are not theology professors. And more specifically, why pastors should listen to Luther. Piper offers four important reasons: 1) Luther was a preacher, 2) Luther was a family man, 3) Luther was a statesman for the church, and 4) Luther was a voracious student.
Martin Luther, Table Talk, updated and revised from a translation by William Hazlitt (Gainesville, Fl.: Bridge-Logos, 2004), 256.
Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950), 299.
Quoted in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 13 volumes, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Peabody, Massachusetts, 2010), I.1.50.
Quoted in Piper, 90-92.
Piper offers six implications that we can all learn from Luther’s commitment and hard work for study.
Quoted in Piper, 101.
Quoted in Piper, 104.
F. L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Dictionary of the Christian Church (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 1009.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 36.