Martin Luther: Rising Sun of the Reformation

 
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The apostle Peter invited people to come to “the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God.” On that “chosen and precious cornerstone,” he said, Christians as “living stones” are “built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4-6).

The building happened quickly, indeed. Acts begins with 11 disciples watching Jesus ascend to heaven (see Acts 1:1-11). Verse 15 mentions 120 believers; but “about 3000” others accepted Peter’s call to repentance and baptism on the day of Pentecost. After that, “the Lord added to their number daily” (Acts 2:47). Acts finishes with the apostle Paul sharing his faith in far-away Rome.

Paul, an ardent Jew, had become the “apostle to the gentiles,” calling “foreigners and aliens” to become “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19, 20).

the church: formed and deformed

This spectacular growth took place despite the fact it was dangerous to be a Christian in the 1st century. Of the 12 Apostles, it is thought that only John didn’t die as a martyr. Early traditions imply Peter was crucified with his head downward and Paul was decapitated.

Believers are focused and committed when, to follow their faith, they risk their lives.

It is amazing, therefore, that the exiled apostle John had to warn the church of Ephesus: “You have forsaken your first love. “ Then he told them bluntly, “Repent” (Revelation 2:4, 5).

The fact that within the 1st century Christians needed to return to their “first love,” implies reform must be a constant necessity for Christ’s followers.

what was the Reformation?

Reforms and reformers can be identified in almost every age of the Christian church. However, outstanding events during the 16th century mean that era towers above all others as “The Reformation.”

In the bookcase where I keep my most cherished books, the top shelf includes the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) and contemporary translations. Next are books that shed particular light on the biblical text. After that are English dictionaries; they challenge me to express biblical ideas in everyday language. Then come dictionaries of Christian history and thought.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states, “The Reformation”

is a “somewhat loose term” covering “an involved series of changes” that took almost 300 years. Another dictionary claims the Reformation was “the culmination of countless movements.”

My New Dictionary of Theology states: “What we now call the Reformation was that movement, beginning with Luther, which sought to re-form a Christendom de-formed, and to effect this on the lines of biblical scholarship, sound tradition and clear reason.”

In other words, countless movements fostered changes that began in the 14th century and culminated in the 17th century. However, Martin Luther was so important in the process that some authors even credit him with beginning the Reformation that created Protestantism and changed the Catholic Church as well.

young Martin Luther

Luther was born in Eisleben during 1483. His father was a copper-miner.

At 18, Luther was ready to enter the University of Erfurt. Even before graduation four years later, he had become a keen student of the Scriptures. His decision to spend three years in an Augustinian monastery disappointed Luther’s father: he wanted his son to follow a more lucrative career, like law.

By 26 years of age, Luther had been ordained a priest, was lecturing on the Scriptures and becoming known as a preacher. A pilgrimage to Rome during 1510-11 convinced him that the church he loved needed reform. However, it wasn’t until 1517 that Luther wrote his famous “ninety-five theses.”

He intended them to say clearly that the sale of indulgences was contrary to the biblical notion of salvation by grace though faith. We don’t know for sure that Luther actually nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

We do know that he was surprised when, in printed form, they sold like hotcakes.

Martin Luther wrote almost 100 books. Well before he was 40, he had completed some of his most famous.

His messages were as varied as his address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, his book On the Babylonish Captivity of the Church of God and his masterpiece Of the Liberty of the Christian Man.

the Emperor’s mistake

During 1521, Charles V, the young emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, summoned Luther to appear before a diet in the German city of Worms.

The Latin word dieta simply means a meeting; it seemed like a good idea at the time to get a general council to condemn the troublesome monk, so he would be regarded a religious heretic and a civil outlaw. The emperor’s demand was a huge mistake, given his purpose was to crush the growing impulse toward reform. As an old man, Charles said: “I did wrong in not killing Luther at the time.

“This mistake of mine assumed gigantic proportions,” he lamented.

The Diet of Worms gave Luther an opportunity to declare his faith before an august body, representing the entire Christain world. Our spines tingle as we read Luther’s testimony that unless he was shown to be in error by the Scripture, he could not and would not recant. “Here I stand, “ he declared. “I can do no other. So help me God.”

At least the emperor tried to honour the safe conduct he had given Luther but it was evident the reformer’s life was in dire peril. On the homeward journey, armed horsemen captured Luther and spirited him away to Wartburg Castle. But they were not the reformer’s enemies—powerful friends had commissioned them. Luther grew a beard and became known as George.

Seclusion in the Wartburg probably influenced one of his best-known hymns, translated by more than 100 different people. In 1852, Frederick Hedge expressed the first verse in these words: A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing.

The Diet of Worms banned Luther’s books—which made many people more determined to read them. Worms intensified the threat to Luther’s life; which made necessary his seclusion at Wartburg Castle, enabling him to translate the Bible. According to Owen Chadwick, Luther was “a very good translator” in that he was “graphic, direct, and learned in the two biblical languages.” Chadwick concludes: “And since one of the chief desires of the reformers was to go back to the Bible, Luther’s translation became the anchor of the German Protestant churches.”

Luther in perspective

With God’s Word available to ordinary Germans, the Reformation there could not be crushed. Increasingly, people cherished Luther’s emphasis on the Bible alone, Christ alone, grace alone and faith alone. Of course the ideal was better than the human reality. There were unnecessarily harsh words, sorry conflicts and horrendous wars. But the necessity of renewal was unmistakable, even though the progress toward it was a complex process—contested and often painful.

Luther’s writings and the literature about him are far too abundant for one article to survey. We can rightly treasure a great many of his emphases, even though we can only mention a few of them here.

Luther cherished the Bible as a revelation of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation. For him, Genesis was “almost a gospel book”; in the Psalms, he said, the Holy Spirit composed “a short Bible.” The prophecy of Isaiah deeply informed his thinking. Most of all, he treasured the Gospels and the Epistles, especially Romans and Galatians.

Luther challenged the prevailing idea that it was perilous to place the Bible in the hands of ordinary men and women. He wanted even shepherd boys to sing in response to the Word of God. He helped the Christian world understand what Peter meant by saying Christians are “a royal priesthood”

(1 Peter 2:9). That teaching became known as “the priesthood of all believers,” emphasising the directness of our access to God and the precious responsibility we all have to learn of Him and share His Word.

Luther: “Rising Sun”?

A morning star gives far less light than a rising sun. Even the light of the rising sun is pale compared with the sun at noon: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18).

Christians in the 21st century can rightly stand in awe, as they witness the determination of Luther and others to follow the focus of Scripture on Jesus Christ and His Good News. What the reformers began must not only be continued—it must be completed. We must be faithful in our time and place to the light God gives us. Would John challenge us to repent? Is the spirit of the Reformation an ongoing reality in our lives and mission? Scripture challenges us to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).