(A Precis for Reformation Sunday 2016)
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is in relation to the Reformation (which we celebrate this weekend) much like the opening notes of some great symphony – say Beethoven’s “Fifth” – which states the theme, is then taken up by other instruments, and is finally absorbed into the developing pattern of music. The incredible soul searching and trials of this man – most often solitary, but never alone – affected a renewal, a re-formation for the whole orchestration of the Catholic Church of his time (“ … and still is ours today.”)
Luther stepped onto the stage of human history on account of an idea. That idea convinced him that the church of his day had misunderstood the Gospel; that is, the “good news” of God by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person of Christ and his cross alone … the essence of Christianity. It was therefore necessary to recall the church to fidelity, to reform initially its theology and subsequently its practices. This idea is summarized in a singular phrase: “Justification by grace through faith.” In his famous treatise of 1520, The Freedom of the Christian, Luther states: “One thing, and one thing alone is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and liberty. And that one thing is the Word of God – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
From his own experiences of trying to live a righteous life – pure and holy before God – as an Augustinian monk, Luther realized that trying to “earn” God’s love and salvation was impossible. “For however irreproachable I lived as a monk,” wrote Luther, “I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most disturbed conscience.” Luther’s troubles centered in one word, justitia – the “righteousness” or “justice” of God – as Luther studied St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, especially Romans1:17: “For in the Gospel the righteousness/justice of God is revealed.”
Initially, Luther understood this sense of justice in an “active” sense; that is, as something humanity had to earn by certain “good works.” If this were true, Luther could see only despair. But then, as he prayed and read further in the book of Romans, in Romans 3:21-26 … God’s Spirit turned Luther’s interpretation upside down: from an “active” sense to one that is “passive” – with God as the Subject, not the Object. Moreover, one might say, Holy Scripture began to interpret Luther. God’s light of grace began to shine brightly upon Luther, as he witnessed later: “At last by the mercy of God, I began to understand the justice of God as that by which God makes us just in God’s mercy and through faith in Christ” – a holiness that is completely outside of ourselves (as an “alien righteousness”). God’s saving Word, comes home to us in Christ, and continues so this day through the Church (that’s you and me) … proclaiming Christ for a world that is dying to hear such a radical grace-filled and saving word (cf. Romans 10:14-17; Ephesians 3:7-12).
The importance of this discovery is not that it was new, but that it was new for Luther. What he saw in the Bible … with spirited fresh eyes … he was able to teach others so that the doctrine of justification by grace had a new and central importance – serving as a safeguard against an over-reliance on human achievement or rituals. Keeping humanity always humble before Christ’s cross. And so it was that Luther “went to the wall” – with everything that was in him and more – in nailing his now famous 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church doors on October 31, 1517 … now nearing a 500th anniversary. In this re-forming/revolutionary act, Luther was protesting a human scheme (“the indulgence controversy”) that would tempt people into believing that they could, in any way, “buy-God-off” (cf. Romans 3:19-28; 5:8; 7:15-25a). For essentially, this would make the cross of Christ superfluous or unnecessary. It was on this belief, based on Holy Scripture and reason, that Luther faced a papal inquisition at the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating his now famous conviction: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me.”
By the end of the 1520s it was plain that the great solo instrument was being absorbed into the great symphony. Another reformation tradition was beginning to emerge in the cities of Switzerland and south Germany, raising-up its own leaders in Zwingli and Calvin. The possibility of a vast Protestant front was ended at this time at Marburg in 1520 when Luther and Zwingli could not come to an agreement over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. For Luther it meant the “real presence” of Christ. For Zwingli it was to be interpreted as a symbol – a “memorial.” Nonetheless, the Word went forth conquering. There was Luther’s translation of the German Bible, open at last to a growing literate audience of all classes – the “priesthood of all believers.” There was Luther’s own powerful evangelical preaching and writing. There were new forms of Christian instruction, like Luther’s beautiful children’s catechism (The Small Catechism) from which simplicity he said his prayers to the end of his days. His people of Germany, and those who call themselves Lutherans, learned to pray his German liturgy, and to sing his fine hymns, one which we sing today, the great hymn: A Mighty Fortress. It captures well Luther’s reforming theme in its verse: “Thy Word is our great heritage.” And this reforming Word still continues (semper reformanda).
What do they know of Luther who only Luther know? By 1525 and still more by his death in 1546, Luther was but one element, one note, in the Reformation symphony. In comparison with the great tides of history, even the giants are but dwarfs. Yet there are moments in world history, sometimes creative, sometimes destructive, or like the Reformation of Luther’s time, a bit of both, when it seems to matter that there are people who speak out in order to keep faith with their conscience – as informed by Holy Scripture – and who in a dangerous hour stand firm because, God helping them, they cannot do otherwise.