Can anything historical carry significance for our own day and age, or is history just bunk, having little relevance to modern life? The past can, of course, be approached in a way that empties it of all meaning. Despite this, our roots reach into the past. Tomorrow is inextricably linked to today and will be guided by the present, and all part of the unfolding and certain purpose of God. There can never be a cut-off point. There is no unrelated moment by moment existence. Those denying this show themselves to be both blind and foolish. It goes almost without saying that those dismissing the Reformation as having little meaning and significance for us today generally do so with an eye clouded by prejudice.
Then again, the Reformation cannot be considered apart from those individuals whom God raised up to do His work. Prominent in terms of consequence is the figure of Martin Luther - and that in no way diminishes the work of other Reformers. Luther’s was a pivotal role, his was the initial impetus and the Reformation was inconceivable without him. Yet it lay to others, to John Calvin in Geneva, to muster a disparate and disorganized movement into an invincible force with his profound theological insights and incisive intellect. Not to forget the Scottish firebrand, John Knox and many, many others, each making his own essential contribution. There had been precursors, but it was Luther, the passionate preacher of the Gospel, the professor and Bible translator, who first loudly blew the clarion call to arms. His voice thundered as that of God in the midst of a faithless, thoroughly corrupt, worldly, and secularized Church. He feared God and so feared no man.
In Martin Luther, God took a fallible man as His instrument, a man of humble origins; took a man with self-evident weaknesses, a man of like passion as we all; but He used him as He has few since the days of the apostles. As Moses of old, forty years in the king’s household, forty years a herdsman in the backside of the desert before he could stand before Pharaoh, so Martin Luther was long prepared of God before that eventful day in 1517 when he nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, or could make his courageous stand before the Diet of Worms in 1521. Without passing through an agonizing struggle as he did and all at God’s leading, we would never heard of Martin Luther, or he would have simply gone down in history as little more than a rabble-rousing Augustinian monk. Demonstration enough, were such needed, that faith should stand not “in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).
As with most prominent historical figures, no less Martin Luther, there is the myth and the reality. Many popular biographies of the man simply perpetuate stories and impressions that in the light of more serious historical study are shown to be of doubtful origin. Perhaps some of these myths will be here shown for what they are. What Luther achieved can only be understood in terms of his desperation to be free of his own personal sin and guilt before a holy God and how through a careful reading and study of the sacred Scriptures he saw his sin borne away by Christ alone and that he could be made right with God solely in Christ and in what He accomplished on behalf of sinners. Central to Luther’s whole experience and teaching is the conviction that justification is by faith without works or human merit. Luther’s Gospel was a personal and individual one before it was anything else. Any widespread change must be worked inside out and cannot be achieved the other way round. In our own day and age would we see change then it remains for men and women to be gripped by that same Gospel message. His struggle began with spiritual agony living in his monk’s cell in Erfurt rising to stand for the truth of God’s Word before the mightiest men of his day. Many aspire also to reach such heights but are unprepared to follow him in the preparatory agony of soul the Gospel is likely to bring with it.
Martin Luther was set into a particular circumstance. He was God’s man in God’s time and was only too aware that society in his day was in the main corrupt and always would be for as long as the human heart itself was depraved and deformed by sin. Even could he reform the Church, a task he was to learn was fruitless; even could he change society, none of this would make for better men. Only the Gospel of justification by faith in the finished work of Christ alone could answer the deepest of all human hearts, to be right before God. Although he had clear views on what constituted a just and a fair society, the duties of prince, magistrate and citizen, Luther was content to leave all illusions of building a Kingdom of God on earth to enthusiasts. This is an unfinished story for God has not yet drawn all things to a close; the earth and the works therein have yet to be dissolved; the promise of a new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness has yet to be fulfilled (2 Peter 3:9-13). We must be sure no true work of God ever can or will fall short of overwhelming triumph.
The significance of anyone who has made his or her mark on the pages of history will not reveal itself in an examination of biographical details alone. The net needs to be cast much wider. Without looking into the surrounding social, political, and spiritual environment, Luther stands in danger of being completely misunderstood. Nevertheless equally, if we do not grasp the fact that at the heart of everything Luther ever accomplished, at the centre of the movement we call the Reformation is a personal struggle to find peace with God, then we shall entirely misunderstand and misinterpret these events. Those who seek reformation, reconstruction or social renewal without calling for a personal experience of God’s grace as revealed in the sacred Scriptures; without this reconciliation with God, their efforts will bring nothing of lasting value. There may be a change of sorts, but essentially nothing will have changed.
The story of the Reformation demonstrates the futility of seeking peace with God through self-effort, through good works, through the ministrations of a Church that has long since left the Gospel of God’s grace. Pope and clergy at the time of Martin Luther were largely frivolous, immoral, irresponsible, and had far more concern for temporal affairs than for matters of the human soul. Faith in Christ alone, alone in what He accomplished on behalf of sinful men, relying alone on His merits, apart from any imagined in ourselves or in any other than Christ was the Gospel that resounded from the Wittenberg pulpit. Many princes and the common people received this liberating Word with great joy. It freed them from the crippling fear that bound them to the Church. Pope, Church and allied princes resisted and rejected this Gospel.
The amount of literature about Martin Luther’s life and work is unending and would take a lifetime to read and some would be read to little value. The study of the person of Martin Luther, of his work as a Reformer, if pursued only as an academic exercise, whilst it may unearth many useful and helpful facts and insights such a study will miss the point and even lead to a misunderstanding of the man. We need a good historic and academically sound view of Luther, but on its own this serves us little purpose. Let us be clear about his motive: before any thought of reforming the Church or anything else, it was Luther’s burning desire to preach the pure Gospel of Christ to all and sundry as he had found it in the pages of Scripture. To miss this is to miss everything about the man. Luther knew that preaching the unadulterated Gospel of free grace, depending solely on the work of Christ, without our own works, without the intermediary of the Church, was a priority above all else. Without this at the heart of all things, nothing would ever be right. He would certainly never break the circle of fear, superstition and bondage that gripped people and prince to a Church that had become utterly corrupt. With a Church since Luther’s time that has piled error upon error, abuse upon abuse; we need a polemic view of Luther that will rekindle once more in our day the fires he and others lit.
There can be few down the years, outside the Scriptures, whose life and testimony has impacted so forcefully on the lives of so many others. Yet today, Luther’s testimony has been sidelined by so many, reinterpreted into irrelevance or set aside, despised and mocked. No one had ever before had the recourses to hand to make known the Word of God to the masses.
The invention of printing from moveable type and the subsequent increasing power of the printing press were most wisely exploited by Luther to spread his writings and enlarge his base of supporters. Essential to his testimony was the translation of the Bible and its printing and widespread dissemination. Using the press and the pulpit, Luther had sown the seeds of Scripture truth in the hearts of the people, high and low, noble and commoner. He had successfully shown the Bible to be above all authority of Fathers, Councils and Popes in the formulation of doctrine and for instruction in holy living.
Precise comparisons with our own day and that of Martin Luther are difficult if not impossible to make. We ought not to fall into the trap of casting elements of his world in a mould made in our own day. The modern State as we know it, for example, is of relatively recent origin even though the political philosophy in which it is grounded reaches back into pagan antiquity. The way men were ruled and the way society was organized in sixteenth century Germany were very different from today in a way hard for us to picture.
Nor can we take the Roman Catholic Church of today and transpose it back in the days of Luther and imagine they are identical. Much happened in response to the Reformation: changes were initiated and dogmas previously loosely held were hardened, much too has since been developed and added. If anything, the Roman Catholic Church has become more complex and more inflexible. Nevertheless, the germ of much that has now blossomed was already discernible in Luther’s time. The fundamental error and superstition have just been made irremovable. That which made the Roman Church utterly impervious to Luther’s reform has now been set in concrete.
In Luther’s day, the Roman Church was like a huge umbrella sheltering many with differing perspectives of the Gospel and many with none, some with totally perverted views of the Gospel. The Gospel light may have flickered somewhat, but was never entirely extinguished. Luther’s message was not new and there is sufficient written evidence that in his day there could still be found a believing remnant in the Church of those whose trust was in Christ alone, who believed that “grace is not conferred from the work which has been worked (ex opera operato) but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices to obtain grace.” Using these words in 1547, the Council of Trent pronounced an anathema upon all believing them. The Roman Church thereby effectively excluded from its communion all whose trust is in Christ alone for salvation. This anathema has never been rescinded so that true believers are effectively excluded from the Roman Church today in a way they were not when Luther began his work.
“Previous to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman Church had no common system of dogma universally accepted by all the members of that Body. In fact, the Roman Church might be compared to a huge edifice under whose roof a number of theological systems flourished.” Ernest Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, (1950), p.9
It is also a mistake to consider the Reformation simplistically as a sudden return to the Scriptures, to the Apostles, to the primitive Church, without any reference to what transpired in between. Luther is no bright light that suddenly began to burn brightly after a long age of darkness. Apart from those in the Roman Church who still knew and had experienced the light of the Gospel, we must also recognize that the theological and philosophical developments of those intervening years had made their mark upon Luther and were influential in driving him back to the sources, to the teachings of the early Church Fathers and, significantly, beyond this to the Scriptures themselves where he found the truth of the Gospel. We must see all aspects of unfolding of history as part of God’s providential dealing with us. Having said this, there are common elements in all ages relating both to the way men think and its inextricable link to their own fallen nature. For this reason alone, if for no other, Luther’s words and writings come to us with a refreshing and abiding relevance.