By Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh
Special to The Alabama Baptist
The first Protestant denomination, which divided from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, was Lutheranism. It is simply impossible to speak of the Reformation at that period of time without reference to the life and theological impact of Martin Luther. He is the key figure, protagonist and spokesperson.
Without Luther it is difficult to believe the Reformation would have been deeply rooted in the life of Germany as it was — he often risked his life to make sure the early gains would not be lost. His time and culture were well matched by his personality, his vigour and commitment to a cause that was part and parcel of his own spiritual pilgrimage. Although many people over a period of time had called for reform, no one had emerged to be the person to give it such enormous impetus.
German Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus described Luther as an ocean. Such an image applies — not only to his enormous literary output with more than 100 folio volumes — but also to Luther’s powerful originality and unnerving profundity. He wrote a treatise every two weeks for 25 years. Luther himself felt a deep embarrassment about people calling themselves Lutherans and once wrote, “What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone.” He said of his own role in the Reformation, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.”
Luther lived during a period of political and religious upheaval in Germany. He himself living in an Augustinian Monastery grew increasingly dissatisfied with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the way of salvation. He was a professor of biblical theology at Wittenberg University and his studies led him to reflect on his own anguished search for peace. He was a man with an inordinately sensitive conscience. He was obsessed with sin and with the fear that while he confessed his sin, he might not have confessed all of his sins.
The understanding of the Church at this time was that divine grace was dispensed by the Church through a variety of different means, chief among these being the sacraments, seven in number, but the most important being baptism, Eucharist and penance. Grace was not seen to be unmerited but only granted to those who were truly penitent in heart. A perpetual effort was needed for a person to acquire merit before God and entry into heaven. At this time of doubt Luther’s spiritual mentor, Johann von Staupitz, sought to encourage him to continue to use the sacraments, speaking of the mercy of God and directing Luther to the “wounds of the most sweet Savior as a means out of his despair.”
Concept of grace
Luther eventually came to an understanding as he read and studied the Scriptures, that in the Book of Romans the apostle Paul argued salvation was not based on what a person had achieved by human works. Rather, God accepted sinful human beings solely on the basis of the grace of God, received by faith. Faith for Luther came to mean a trust, reliance and grasping or taking hold of Christ. He came to find assurance of salvation in the righteousness of his Savior Jesus Christ which was credited to his account, making him acceptable to God and finding hope of eternal life in the atoning sacrifice of his Savior on the cross of Calvary. Contrary to popular belief, Luther did not believe in faith without works and said, “If faith is not without all, even the smallest works, it does not justify; indeed it is not even faith.” Yet he also avoided the view that faith itself was a meritorious work: faith does not justify, it is merely the act, which receives the gift of justification.
Luther’s spiritual experience in the early years of the 16th century eventually led him to break with Roman Catholic theology and bureaucracy. His first act of defiance against the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church took place in 1517, an event that will be commemorated throughout Germany on the 500th anniversary of its occurrence. Luther’s initial concern centered on the selling of indulgences — payments to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment for some types of sins — to go toward the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Subscribers to the indulgence would receive a plenary and perfect remission of all sins. They would participate in the merit of the saints and they would relieve the poor suffering souls in purgatory. In the city of Wittenberg, the sale of indulgences was headed up by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk who used a catchy and heart-rendering appeal to people to buy an indulgence on behalf of the dead. He told people, “The dead cry, ‘Pity us. Pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance. Will you let us lie here in the flames? Will you delay our promised glory?’” He went on to assure his hearers, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
For Luther the selling of indulgences suggested salvation could be purchased and Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith would be undermined. Luther became convinced that justification was the article by which the Church stands or falls, the acid test of what is truly Christian. It was not only the foundation of his own personal assurance of salvation, but became one of the central articles of the creed of the church he founded.
Like every other Protestant Reformer, Luther was committed to the motto “Sola Scriptura.” He recalled that “when I was 20 years old I had not yet seen a Bible. … Finally I found a Bible in the library and forthwith I took it with me into the monastery. I began to read, to reread and to read it over again.” Later in his life he argued that “what is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion but need not be believed” because Scripture is a “proper touchstone” that would test each and every doctrine of the Church. They must all sit under the judgement of the “sure rule of God’s Word.”
Luther himself contributed to the use of the Bible in translating the New Testament into the German language by 1522 and the Old Testament by 1534, using the original languages of Hebrew and Greek as the basis of his translation. It was a modern translation, cast in racy idiom for “were the housewife in her home, the children at their games, the merchants in the city squares; I tried to learn from them how to express and explain myself.” His movement of reform within the Church and society of the 16th century was intended to change the lives of everyone within the country.
Life of discipleship
One emphasis that has had a long-lasting effect on Christian discipleship is his teaching on the priesthood of all believers. Luther had been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest but he came to believe that each and every single believer was baptized into the life of the Church and received the gift of the Spirit to live a life of discipleship in his or her everyday occupation. He did not believe there was a higher spiritual level for those called to pastoral ministry because any discrimination between believers in terms of vocation or office was unbiblical. He argued that every Christian has a calling in life, wherever and whatever it may be, within which a believer finds him- or herself charged to fulfill the will of God.
Luther was genuinely concerned to encourage ordinary people to view their daily lives as important in the service of God as each person worked for the common good of society. Luther believed every type of work, no matter how oppressive or demoralizing its impact may be on a person’s humanity, should be viewed as a vocation.
Luther accepted that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were sacraments, which became a means of grace for those who experienced them. He continued to believe in infant baptism. Faith, he believed, is unconsciously present in the child brought to baptism by virtue of the proclamation of the Word made there along with the conscious faith of the parents. In baptism, Luther maintained God announces His gracious acceptance of the sinner and he or she is bathed and cleansed in “the beautiful, rosy-red blood of Christ.” He argued that although the New Testament does not command infants to be baptized, it does not forbid it either. Infant baptism was seen to be analogous to Old Testament act of circumcision but under the new covenant this sacrament was given to girls as well as boys.
The Protestant Reformers held many doctrinal truths in common but they divided from each other over their understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Luther continued to believe, along with the Presbyterian Reformer John Calvin, that communion signified the bestowal of sustaining grace in the lives of believers who came to receive the bread and wine. He rejected any view of the mass as a meritorious work that achieves grace for those who participate. However, he continued to maintain the bread and the wine were not merely symbols of the body and blood of Christ but that in the bread and wine through consecration Christ is really and substantially present. For Luther the Eucharist was the place where Christ was present because God’s Word had promised this would be so. Luther thus held a considerable measure of medieval reverence toward the consecrated elements and would kneel to receive communion.
Luther was one of the magisterial Reformers, a term coined by G.H. Williams to refer to the mainstream Reformers who carried out their work in alliance with and undergirded by the coercive power of the state, whether it be a magistrate, prince, town council or even a monarch. He maintained the state should support the life and work of the Church and the Church should be a critic of the State in preaching and teaching the Word of God. Any idea of a separation of Church and State was anathema to him.
The year 2017 will witness many commemorations of the life and ministry of Luther. His impact on the life of the Church, not only in 16th century Germany but also in 21st century North America, is real. We see this not only in Lutheran churches but also in all denominations who hold to an understanding of the vital importance of the Bible — in awareness that the grace of God brings justification to sinners on the basis of grace, received by faith.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh is professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham and serves as pastor for preaching and teaching at Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham.
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