There was a brief time in my life that I became enthralled with Reformed theology. I’ve since read enough (and seen enough) that has convinced me to no longer subscribe to Calvinism, but I maintain a great respect for the Reformers. And the Reformer I have the greatest respect for is Martin Luther.
Today, it seems a lot of Protestants, at least those who aren’t Lutheran, don’t think too much about Luther. Perhaps his memory has been archived to history, especially among many other great Christian leaders in more recent history. But that’s a shame, because without Luther, we Protestants wouldn’t be where we are today.
From what I know about Luther, he was a rather reluctant leader in the movement. He didn’t want to create a schism from the Catholic Church, but simply “reform” it. (Tell that to a Reformed person and watch them writhe!) And indeed, I think many of us in modern Christendom see many ways we, too, would like to “reform” things.
However, because he saw the Catholic Church’s rules so egregious and so inconsistent with what he read in the Bible, he could not remain silent. On October 31, 1517, he walked up to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany and there nailed his Ninety-Five Theses—a manifesto, of sorts. It got people talking, and it got the Catholic Church riled up all the way to the top.
In the years that followed, Luther was tried, excommunicated, and kept on the run. At one point, the government stated he could be killed by anyone without offense. He fully expected to die a martyr’s death.
And yet, he survived. Luther went on to translate the Latin Bible, the only approved translation by the Catholic Church, into German for the common people. His Bible was the first book printed on Johann Gutenberg’s printing press. Luther also wrote hymns that we still sing today, such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. He wrote sermons and letters that showed profound insight into the Word of God, many of which we still have preserved and republished today.
One could argue that it didn’t have to be Luther who first made the Bible accessible, that this would have happened at some point anyway. That may be true, but you can’t deny that without Luther, it likely would have happened a lot later, and perhaps only under the Catholic Church’s terms.
For me personally, Luther’s struggle with the concept of grace is an inspiration. Predisposed to feeling he had to work at salvation to be accepted by the Lord, and at a time when the powers that be required all kinds of actions and rituals in order to be saved, Luther felt the burden of his own insufficiency to become right with God. During a terrible thunderstorm that he felt was the wrath of God, he vowed to become a monk and live a holy life. He flagellated himself to resist temptation. He even made a pilgrimage to the Holy See, hoping this would make him right in God’s eyes.
But even after all this, he realized that he was no closer to salvation than when he first began.
It wasn’t until he began studying the Bible that he uncovered the “secret” of salvation: It was by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). This realization turned Luther’s world upside down, because he realized our salvation isn’t dependent upon what we do, but on what Christ has already done. And this simple truth went on to be the defining summary of Luther’s life and work from that point onward.
Luther was by no means perfect (he himself would have admitted this). He was in poor health, especially in his later years, and almost constantly in pain. He had a potty mouth and apparently a short temper (perhaps because of his health). He said a lot of things that today we find racist, sexist, or politically incorrect. And I am in no way justifying his every position or opinion.
But it does remind us that God doesn’t always use well-groomed, well-mannered, eloquent men and women to do His work. He uses broken, fallible people—look at Jacob, Moses, David, even Rahab: a cheater, a murderer, an adulterer and a murderer, and a prostitute, respectively. These people we learn about in Sunday School said, did, and were things that we wouldn’t dare talk about in church if they weren’t in the Bible.
Yet sometimes, God uses an unseemly monk with constipation and a penchant for beer to turn the religious order upside down and create ripples in Christianity that we still feel today.
Happy Reformation Day.