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.”[1] 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.[2]

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).[3]

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).[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

According to one biographer, it is this kind of intense appetite and study for Scripture that resulted such history-shaping discoveries for Luther.[12] 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?”[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.”[16] 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).[17]

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.[18] Also, he favored public reading of the Bible and singing of hymns.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.

3. Anti-Semitism

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.

(Check out “The Life of Martin Luther in Pictures“)

[1]Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2003), 117.

[2]Ibid., 118.

[3]Quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 84.

[4]Ibid., 85.

[5]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.

[6]Piper, 86.

[7]Martin Luther, Table Talk, updated and revised from a translation by William Hazlitt (Gainesville, Fl.: Bridge-Logos, 2004), 256.


[9]Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950), 299.

[10]Quoted in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 13 volumes, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Peabody, Massachusetts, 2010), I.1.50.

[11]Quoted in Piper, 90-92.

[12]Piper offers six implications that we can all learn from Luther’s commitment and hard work for study.

[13]Quoted in Piper, 101.

[14]Quoted in Piper, 104.

[15]F. L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Dictionary of the Christian Church (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 1009.

[16]Quoted in Piper, 77.

[17]Piper, 79 and 82.

[18]Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 36.


[20]Baiton, 341.

[21]Chapell, 37-38.

Happy Reformation Month!

The month of October is unique to Christians and historically to all churches. For one thing, this is the month that we celebrate our Protestant Reformation heritage. Unfortunately, more and more the people of this generation are becomingly disconnected to past history. This is especially tragic when people in the church are so disconnected to biblically, theologically, and missiologically rich history of the past. However, we must all remember that we didn’t just get here out of nowhere. Rather, we are the beneficiaries of many men and women of the past who have given their lives for the gospel so that we can enjoy the fruit of their labor today. As a saying goes, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This October 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 the movement of “protesting” against the Roman Catholic Church’s dogmas and practices; hence, the name Protestant Reformation.

Does Your Church Need Reformation?

One of the areas that today’s churches need the greatest reformation is the area of church leadership. Although anyone in the church can contribute to problems in the church, at the end of the day, it is the leadership that is ultimately responsible. However, what happens when there are unqualified people serving in the position of influence and/or leadership? Unfortunately, this problem is all too common. For instance, what do you do when a senior pastor believes that a Mormon Church is just another denomination? How about a pastor’s wife who habitually talks ill about others who she feels are threat to her husband, yet he still remains in the ministry even though he acknowledges her sins publicly?

To read more click here.

The 95 Theses by Martin Luther (25-27)

Theses 25 to 27:

25. The same power over purgatory which the pope has in general, is possessed by every bishop and curate in his particular diocese and parish.

26. The pope does well in giving remission to souls, not by the power of the keys (he has no such power) but through intercession.

27. Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection-box, are preaching an invention of man (hominem praedicant).

As I commented at the onset, the fundamental question is who has the power to forgive sin? The pope and/or priests can declare absolution, however, that does not mean it is. For Luther, the heart of Christianity is the doctrine of justification alone by faith alone. In his Table Talk:

All heretics have continually failed in this one point: that they do not rightly understand or know the article of justification. If we had not this article certain and clear, it would be impossible for us to criticize the pope’s false doctrine of indulgences and other abominable errors, much less be able to overcome greater spiritual errors and vexations. If we only permit Christ to be our Saviour, then we have won, for He is the only girdle which clasps the whole body together, as Saint Paul excellently teaches. If we look to the spiritual birth and substance of a true Christian, we shall soon extinguish all deserts of good works; for they serve us to no use, neither to purchase sanctification, nor to deliver us from sin, death, devil or hell.

What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?

What does it mean to be Reformed?

That all depends on the context. But in terms of theology, it generally refers to the doctrines of grace (TULIP) or the five solas. However, to be Reformed does not mean only in terms of soteriology. In fact, Calvinistic or Reformed soteriology is not the end.

I rejoice that there is a wonderful resurgence of Reformed theology amongst many young evangelicals. But I am concerned that many of those same evangelicals who call themselves “Reformed” simply stop with affirming the Five-Points of Calvinism and that’s it. I would argue that true Reformed theology does not merely stop short with soteriology but it leads further to ecclesiology, and ultimately, it has doxological implications. In other words, the goal of Reformed theology is not soteriology but doxology. Or to say it another way, soteriology is not the end but a means to an end. That is to say, we are saved, ultimately, to worship our Creator and Redeemer.

For true Calvinists, not only how God saved us matters, but how God is worshiped matters too. In fact, the heart of Reformed theology is “to the praise of God’s glory” (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). It’s amazing how much Calvin wrote regarding “true worship” in his Institutes.

If we would agree that worship is “an expression of gratitude, adoration, and praise after we properly understand who God is and what he has done” (my working definition), then isn’t it safe to conclude that God is not glorified when he is wrongly worshiped?

The real Calvinists would argue that as we grow in our understanding of our Sovereign God, we also need to grow in our worship too (including how we worship). That’s is why those who genuinely hold to Reformed theology would quickly point out that they are “always reforming” (semper reformanda). We need to keep in mind that there is undividable connection between orthodoxy and ortho-praxi (especially, in regards to worship). We must always continue to reform how we do church (because we always have rooms to improve) and how we worship (both substance and style).

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from a book that I read last year (2008):

The greatest single contribution that the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence and simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God (Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], 176)

The Influence of John Calvin on Today’s Churches

Last night on Reformation Sunday, I gave the Second Annual Reformation Address to our congregation, entitled “The Influence of John Calvin on Today’s Churches.” The following is my sermon transcript.



Although the month of October is notoriously celebrated for a pagan holiday, October 31st is the day that all Christians should also celebrate, not because of Halloween, but because it is the 491st anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95-Theses he posted on the door of CastleChurch in Wittenberg, Germany, which helped fuel the Protestant Reformation.

So around this time of last year, I gave our first Reformation Address on the life of Martin Luther and the role that he played. One of my reasons for the Reformation Address is for our church to have a better and deeper appreciation and understanding for our historical faith and our heroes of faith. It is always a troubling sign if Christians or churches have no historical connection or no historical understanding of church history. It is often said that without knowing the past, we cannot know our present, and certainly, we would not know what to do tomorrow.

With all the resources that are available for us today, this generation is perhaps the most ignorant generation when it comes to having some working knowledge of biblical truths and historical theology. That is why I feel the greater need for me to give the Annual Reformation Address, and hopefully, some of these heroes of faith can become your heroes of faith as well. Here, let me just quickly insert a pastoral advice. If you don’t have any spiritual heroes or heroes of faith in your life, then get some. And one way is to do some biographical readings.

In the past 12 months, how many biographical readings have you done? You may have read something on theology, biblical study, and Christian living, but how about a biographical reading on one of our heroes of faith?

I want to encourage you to read at least one book on or by one of our heroes of faith in a year. Do you know who Augustine is? Or, Martin Luther? Or, any of the Puritans? Are you familiar with Charles Spurgeon? J. Gresham Machen? Or, Martyn Lloyd-Jones? We cannot remain ignorant to church history. You would not understand why or how today’s churches are so impotent if you don’t understand our past. We are here today as a result of yesterday; and where we would be tomorrow is based on the decision we make today. And based on what I know of today’s churches, I’m very concerned about where our churches would be tomorrow. Again, do some readings on the past, so that you would have a better grasp of our present condition, if you genuinely care about where you would like to be tomorrow. Granted, these heroes are not perfect and we do not elevate them in a cultic sense by any means. But we can learn tremendous things from these people that God sovereignly chose to do mighty things.

One of my favorite encouraging words on this regard comes from Don Whitney and his book Simplify Your Spiritual Life, which he 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.”[1] 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.[2]

In this Second Annual Reformation Address, the man that I have chosen for the hour is John Calvin, or Jean Calvun in French. Some have said that between Paul the Apostle and Luther the Reformer, Augustine was the greatest man God gave his church. If that is the case, according to B.B. Warfield, then between Luther the Reformer to our day, the greatest man God gave his church is none other than John Calvin.[3]

With that in mind, let me simply tell you at the onset of this message what you are about to hear. I will not merely load you with a bunch of historical facts. You can get those facts by simply reading books. For me, historical facts are nothing if they do not have any bearing on me today. Therefore, the bulk of my address is to show you what type of influences Calvin has on today’s churches. In fact, that is the thesis for this talk. I will attempt to show you that many Bible-driven churches since the Reformation follow the same set of convictions that Calvin used to reform the churches in his days, as well as ours. But before I go any further, let me briefly share his background.

Prior to His Conversion

John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 at Noyon, in Picardy, which is the northern providence of France, located 60 miles northeast of Paris. If you do the math, next July of 2009 the Christendom would celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Calvin, which many Bible conferences around the world are already preparing for next year.

Calvin entered the University of Paris at the age of 14, and mastered almost everything he turned his attention to, including a brilliant writing style and masterful skill in logic and logical argument. At the age of 19, he graduated with his Master of Arts degree. And at the age of 22, he mastered a classical literature and published his first literary commentary. It was no brainer that classical literature was his passion and he already established himself as a respectful scholar in classical literature. However, all that changed when God called him with his effectual call.

His Conversion

No one really knows when Calvin was converted, other than sometime between when he was 22 to 24. Although I have not discovered many detailed accounts of Calvin’s conversion, what is clear is that he left the promising career as a classical literary scholar for the Reformation cause. Perhaps there is nothing more worthy of the Reformation cause than the contribution of his published works.

His Published Works

In the spring of 1536, he published his first and famous Protestant literature – the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which basically was a short theology book to instruct Christians what they should believe. He wrote the Institutes because he felt that there was no helpful doctrinal literature available for Christians and churches at the time. What began as a short little treatise on Christian doctrine in 1536 went through several revisions by Calvin, and ultimately, published its final and definitive edition in 1559 as a bulky systematized theology book. In fact, by this time the Institutes have divided into four major theological sections or “books.” And they are as follows: Book One “The Knowledge of God the Creator,” which includes a thorough treatment on both natural and special revelations; Book Two “The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel”; Book Three “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow”; and finally, Book Four “The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein.”

There are different translations of the Institutes available today. If you are interested in purchasing a copy for yourself, I would highly recommend you get Ford Lewis Battles’ edition, edited by John T. McNeill, which is considered the standard work. Recently, in 2006 this work was reprinted in two volumes by Westminster John Knox Press.

However, Calvin’s contribution to the Reformation cause did not end with the Institutes alone. He is, perhaps, better known for his another mammoth-lifetime work, namely, his Bible expositional commentaries on the whole Bible, though there are some biblical books that he did not work on. It is amazing that though he has been dead for almost five centuries, he still speaks. Personally, I frequently use his commentaries when I am working through a particular text of Scripture, and I have found him to be very helpful as one of my teachers.

Now to the remaining of our time, let me talk to you about what I really want to address, namely, to show you what influences Calvin has on today’s churches. I think this would better help you get to know who Calvin was and how he shapes our churches. With that in mind, let me point out Calvin’s four influences.

1. Calvin was a true biblical exegete.

That is very obvious when you read through his expositional commentaries on the Bible. However, for many centuries prior to the Reformation, the typical hermeneutical methods were allegorizing and spiritualizing the text. Having such methods, the church can say about anything she wants to believe what the Bible says and means. Such hermeneutical gymnastics were a license for much of ecclesiastical abuses.

But for Calvin, the meaning of the text was the meaning of the text. What drove him to handle the Word with such precision was due to his commitment to biblical exegesis. In fact, he is considered the father of the modern day grammatico-historical method of hermeneutics. To answer what grammatico-historical hermeneutics is, it is simply an interpreting rule in which the interpreter considers the historical context and grammatical structure for the specific text that he wishes to understand in the way that the biblical author originally intended to convey.[4]

Calvin understood that without the proper exegesis of Scripture, there is no expositional preaching. In other words, biblical exegesis is the foundational work for proper expository preaching. That is why he often worked from the biblical texts, usually from Hebrew or Greek, so that he can understand the way the original writer intended to mean.

It is also important to note that what influenced Calvin to such a high commitment to biblical exegesis is due to his commitment to God’s glory. One researcher said, “When he (Calvin) studied, it was to behold the majesty of God. Thus his sermon preparation was not primarily for others; it was first and foremost for his own heart.”[5]

2. Calvin helped define what a true church is.

If Luther helped rediscover the doctrine of justification by faith, Calvin helped rediscover how to dispense such truth, namely through a God-ordained church. I believe Calvin took the Reformation further than Luther did. Many historians believe that Luther was satisfied with a church as long as the gospel was preached. But Calvin could not be content with what seemed to be a lackadaisical attitude. He said, “We cannot think so narrowly of our office that when preaching is done our task is fulfilled, and we may take our rest.” For Calvin, a mark of a true church is not merely that the gospel is preached, but that it is obeyed and followed. It is from this notion that Calvin helped rediscover for the church to exercise church discipline on members who refuse to obey the word. As I mentioned earlier, Calvin helped rediscover, not discover, because the mandate for the church to exercise church discipline is already stated in Scripture. In other words, it wasn’t Calvin who came up with the doctrine and practice of church discipline; he simply reiterated what Jesus already commanded.

When we hear the notion of the marks of true church, there are many people who actually and ridiculously believe that this is an invention by some modern day ultraconservatives, such as John MacArthur and his book The Master’s Plan for the Church, or Mark Dever and his book The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Such statement is a reflection of their ignorance to the Bible and historical theology.

Many believe that the Bible contains the truths of God and that the Bible is the word of God. This is true for many people today and it was certainly true with many people even prior to the Reformation. But as you know, there is a huge difference between saying that you believe the Bible and actually knowing what it says, and this is where Calvin came to help. What Calvin did was to systematize all that the Bible says about various topics, including the marks of true church.

So, what are the marks of a true church? According to Calvin, the church is constituted by 1) the preaching of the word, 2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances, namely, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and 3) exercise of the church discipline. Eventually, those marks became the marks of the Reformed churches. We owe Calvin for his unflinching commitment to the purity of the gospel and the purity of the church. For Calvin, the issue was not either or (meaning, the gospel or the church), but both – because you cannot have the one and not the other. He believed that the true gospel would be preached in the true church, and anything less would be impossible. For example, a false church would not preach the true gospel, and a true church would not preach the false gospel.

For Calvin, any church that would ignore or refuse to exercise church discipline is disqualified categorically as a church. But the issue is much deeper than what may appear at surface, because this involves what is implied or does not implied at a church. Let me explain what I mean. When a church does not practice church discipline, what does that imply about the church? It implies that the church is not concerned about sin, holiness, and many other things. And if sin and holiness are not taken seriously, what do you think their view of the gospel would be? I can assure you, it would very much be characterized as an easy-believism, which is not the true gospel. Also, when a church does not have the proper view of the gospel, sin and holiness, the church would more likely have erroneous views of God, which now attacks the very core of who God is, which is what blasphemy is.

When it comes to the subject of church discipline, a question frequently comes up, that is, how to do it properly? I think what Calvin taught and practiced in his day are simply brilliant. In fact, many Bible-driven churches have followed his advice ever since then. Let me quickly share what they are with you.

In order for a local church to properly exercise church discipline, the church must, first and foremost, teach on the subject. How can a church practice church discipline if they don’t know what it is? This can be done regularly from the pulpit and during a catechism class (the teaching/equipping ministry). In fact, Calvin seemed to imply that this topic, along with other crucial doctrines, should be included in the church’s doctrinal statement (4.8.1).[6] That is why in many Bible-preaching churches, the subject of church discipline, is included in their statement of faith.

Biblically, the purpose of church discipline is twofold: first, to lovingly restore a member from sin to repentance, and two, to protect the unity and purity of the church. The attitude in which the Bible teaches to do so is not out of self-righteousness like that of the Pharisees, but having the best interests for the individual we want to restore. So, next time when you are approached by a brother, a sister, or a leader with a loving rebuke or correction, please be quick to hear and slow to speak (and even slow to anger). A self-centered tendency is for you to automatically put up a wall or be defensive, but in all reality, such attitude and action reveals more about your prideful heart than anything else. Keep in mind that when you are approached, he or she has the best interests for you as your brother or sister, and more likely, that person may feel more awkward than you are. Always be respectful when you receive a rebuke or a correction. More likely, the brother or sister that has approached you, have already gone through Galatians 6:1 principle before confronting you, so be respectful and mindful that such person has nothing but the best interests for you.

3. Calvin exemplified expositional preaching and preacher.

To me there is nothing more our churches today are so desperately in need of than expository preaching and expository preachers. In our churches today, exposition has replaced entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics.[7] For Calvin, preaching was job number one. In fact, he constantly urged the pastors of all Christian churches to devote their primary duty to preaching the word. According to Steve Lawson,

The church is always looking for better methods in order to reach the world. But God is always looking for better men who will devote themselves to His biblically mandated method for advancing His kingdom, namely, preaching – and not just any kind of preaching, but expository preaching (emphasis his).[8]

The reason why he had such unflinching commitment to expository preaching was due to his utter conviction for the sufficiency of Scripture. Calvin believed that though there are parts of Scripture that may appear to be obscure, the parts that are not obscure are powerfully sufficient to convict the conscience and bring the person’s knees to the lordship of Christ. He said, “However much obscurity there may be in the Word, there is still always enough light to convict the conscience of the wicked” (3.24.13).[9]

One writer concludes:

Every preacher who expounds God’s Word brings a body of core values with him into the pulpit. These foundational commitments inevitably shape his preaching. His pulpit ministry is governed by what he believes Scripture to be, what place he assigns to preaching, and how he believes his preaching ought to be conducted.[10]

What was so unique about Calvin’s preaching at his time was that he took his congregation through a regular, systematic, verse-by-verse fashion through various books of the Bible. That was almost unheard of at his day. Hence, his church in Geneva became the center of ongoing biblical expositions during the Reformation, where many Protestants in Europe sought the shelter there to eat and drink from the word and go back to their countries and replicate such style of preaching.

Not only Calvin had a high view of preaching, but he also encouraged Christians to have a high regard for those who are called to preach. You can imagine if you would to sit under the ministry of Calvin for many years, not only you would develop a deep appreciation and affection for the word, but also to those who are called to preach the word. In fact, Calvin alluded the preachers to be “the very mouth of God.” He said:

Those who think the authority of the Word is dragged down by the baseness of the men called to teach it disclose their own ungratefulness.For, among the many excellent gifts with which God has adored thehuman race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them (4.1.5).[11]

4. Calvin balanced the need for theologian-pastor and pastor-theologian, and scholar-pastor and pastor-scholar.

Without a doubt, Calvin was no average Joe. His exceptional God-given gifts are evidenced in his works. What I appreciate so much about Calvin is though he possessed incredible scholarly mind, he was an under-shepherd to a local church. And I believe he wonderfully balanced the need for theologian-pastor and pastor-theologian, and scholar-pastor and pastor-scholar. Let me explain what I mean.

There is no doubt a difference between someone who is theologian-pastor and pastor-theologian, and scholar-pastor and pastor-scholar. A theologian-pastor or scholar-pastor is a pastor who thinks theologically and is trained to read scholarly works. Hence, he is trained to think and teach theologically and even produce some scholarly works, but nonetheless, he is a pastor first and foremost. When I think of theologian-pastor or scholar-pastor, I think of notable men like R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and others. Perhaps many pastors may not have the same caliber like that of those notable men, but at least, they need to be trained to read and be engaged in theological and scholarly works. If not, how are the churches going to be informed and combat against aberrant movements like the Emergent Churches, Open-Theism, and New Perspectives of Paul?

Then there are those who are pastor-theologians and pastor-scholars. These men may not be called to pastor a church, but they are called to teach and train future pastors. They have exceptional theological and scholarly trainings to equip men in colleges and seminaries, but they do so not only to dump facts and theories on their students, but also interested in heart-transformations. These are theologians and scholars first, but they do so with a shepherd’s heart. In this realm, I think of notable men like D.A. Carson and others.

You see, all these men are needed in our churches. Again, it’s not either or, but both. There may be possible debates as to where Calvin would fit in, but what is important is that Calvin wonderfully modeled the balance.


The goal of this message is not to exalt John Calvin. But it is to celebrate God’s sovereign choice in using this particular servant to equip and edify his church for the glory of God. I would be happy, as a result of this message, that next time you hear your pastor talking about Calvin and Reformation or Calvin and Reformed theology you would now discern that he’s not talking about the Calvin from Calvin and Hobbs, but John Calvin.


  • Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin.
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Volumes, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles.
  • David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback, A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.
  • Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin.
  • John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy.
  • Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism.


  • James M. Boice and Philip G. Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel.
  • Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace.
  • David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented.

[1] Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2003), 117.

[2] Ibid., 118.

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 26.

[4] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 70.

[5] Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust, 2007), 40.

[6] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, 2 volumes, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 2:1149-50.

[7] Lawson, xi.

[8] Lawson, 18-19.

[9] Calvin, 2:980-1.

[10] Lawson, 24.

[11] Calvin, 2:1018.