and the Life-Changing Power of God's Word
2 Timothy 3:15b-17
"..You have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
November 10,1983 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's birthday. Some may remember that the U.S. Postal Service was convinced to issue a commemorative stamp around that time, following a serious campaign to stop the issuing of the stamp because of its religious implications and some people's concerns about "separation of Church and State." It was finally made clear to those in the position of deciding that Luther also had a lot to do with secular reform, and therefore the stamp was finally issued.
It could be a lifelong study, possibly, to examine all the little "boxes" into which people have attempted to place Luther. Some confine his greatness to economic reform, coming to free some of Europe's peasant masses from a lot of the oppression of poverty they experienced in that day. Some paint Luther as a great political reformer and strong German nationalist. Some hold his greatest reform to be cultural, working hand-in-hand with pressures of the Renaissance to liberate the arts. Some do see him as a great religious reformer, but they essentially sidestep the importance of his teaching. The important thing he did, according to this view, was to shed light on the corruption of Church officials in his own day, but little else is actually given much heed. Some have seen Luther as a misguided religious radical who is ultimately someone merely to be pitied. Once a study that attempted to "psychoanalyze" him did him no great justice. He was portrayed as somewhat egocentric and as an emotionally disturbed person driven by a severe neurotic guilt-complex. In an issue of Christianity Today magazine there was once even a psychological analysis of his handwriting!
LUTHER'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CHURCH AND SOCIETY
Luther certainly did have an impact on many aspects of both society and the Church. God blessed his life, and he, in turn, became a blessing to many!
Luther is credited with starting the tradition of the (candle) lighted Christmas-tree and inventing the game of bowling. (The particular rules he had for the game are still copied in some German settlements here in America.) Luther is responsible for introducing sermons into worship services and for churches providing "parsonages" (housing) for professional church-workers. Girls didn't attend school in his time, and Dr. Luther changed that. Choirs were responsible for all the singing in worship, so he wrote hymns to involve all the people in worship.
Some things Luther wrote did also have an impact on the political and economic structures of his day. He revolutionized ideas about the sanctity of marriage and the family. He gave esteem to secular vocations. He translated the Bible into the common language of his own people and helped placed it into their hands at a time when lay-people's possession of the Scriptures was forbidden by the Church. He called the relationship of Church authority to Government authority into question. He did attack corruption on the part of Church officials, and the idea of praying to saints and the Church's teaching on the "Sacraments." He became a prolific writer of commentaries, sermons, teaching materials and the like.
That's a pretty incomplete list, but the size of it perhaps shows that a lot of things claimed about him are no doubt true! To try to confine his influence to one small area is to treat him unfairly. - And a crucial point to be made is that most of the changes and traditions that came about through him happened because he was just informing people about things that the Bible clearly says. Holy Scripture gave him the fuel for his writing and ideas about things in both the spiritual and worldly realms. Any analysis of Luther that doesn't include that insight is willfully ignoring the more than obvious in the thousands of pages that he wrote!
LUTHER'S OBSESSION WITH PERSONAL GUILT
Was he an emotional misfit? A warped personality? Suffering under an illusion of guilt? That has been one of the trends of psychology in recent decades it seems, which, as beneficial as secular counseling may sometimes be, there can be the tendency to label clients as suffering from false guilt. They're told that the morals they were trained in make them feel guilty for things they shouldn't feel guilty about. The object for the counselor then becomes a remolding of the person's values, so that he or she can feel comfortable with his or her own newly devised set of values - and what was taught in one's childhood may be discarded! One has to live only according to one's own expectations, they say, and not be burdened with anyone else's expectations. Guilt is then handled by directing people to believe it's an illusion, rather than to admit or confess it and be opened to the possibility of forgiveness.
Some have labeled Luther as neurotic because he was obsessed with guilt! - In his youth Luther learned to think of Christ as an angry Judge, but not as our loving Savior. We should understand, though, that his training isn't to be faulted for pricking his conscience with God's Law, but for urging him to turn to his own acts of praying, fasting and good works to gain peace for his soul. Such training led him in a life-threatening storm to plead and pledge, "Save me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk."
He did then become a model monk! He believed there was moral value in going barefoot in winter, for example. Wearing uncomfortable clothes, beating himself, depriving himself of sleep, renouncing marriage and crawling hundreds of steps on his knees were taught to be the highest kinds of virtues of which man is capable. (But see Romans 3:20, for example!)
Looking into his heart, though, Luther knew that he was angry with any God who would make such strict demands. He wanted to approach God in His glorious majesty as a worthy servant, but, the more he strived to grow in piety to prove his worth to God, the more he knew how tiny and crippled he truly was. God remained elusive and unattainable, and His Law did not praise but only condemned Luther!
Luther, again, was obsessed with guilt, but it was precisely that obsession that paved the way for the real reform he originally intended regarding his own life. He was terribly afraid of the wrath of God awaiting him at death, and felt dreadfully inferior, inadequate and insecure. His training had demanded him to love God, but he couldn't love a God whom he so much feared! Yet, were it not for God's Law accomplishing exactly what it was sent to do in Luther's heart, none of the reforms rightly attributed to him would have taken place as they did. He knew and acknowledged his guilt, and that was the first step necessary for God to make someone great out of him!
SCRIPTURE'S REVELATION WHICH CHANGED LUTHER'S HEART
Were it not for that Divinely-wrought obsession, Luther could not have been so open to understanding the revolutionary thrust of the Gospel, that God for Jesus' sake had proclaimed Luther and the world NOT guilty! (e.g., See Romans 3:28 & 2 Corinthians 5:17-21!) Righteousness was no longer God's demand, but His free gift applied to all people who repent of their sin and will simply trust and believe Him for it! (Romans 3:21-22.) - Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection took on a whole new meaning besides just being a man to try to imitate and to fear for His judgment.
"All the fullness of God dwells in Jesus bodily," Scripture says, but all that Jesus did in His body was done in Martin's place so that his guilt was atoned for;- not laid aside, buried or called an illusion, but forgiven at the price of the life-blood of the very Son of God!
Luther always continued to emphasize the value of God's Law. "The more you minimize sin, the more grace will decline in its perceived value," he acknowledged. He was a guilty sinner, but he didn't have to pay for his true guilt. It was already paid for by Christ's suffering and death at Calvary's Cross, and given the stamp and seal of God's satisfaction by Christ's rising victoriously to life again! - That was a mighty dangerous idea to get at a time when the Church was known for burning at the stake those people who differed with its teaching and traditions.
Because he was assigned in his early professional years to teach other theological students in certain Bible books, that's how Luther was astounded to learn the Scriptural truth that we could never (and don't have to) pay for our own guilt before God, but he learned it at a time that the Church was selling pieces of paper for forgiveness of sins (known as "indulgences"). Were he to broadcast what a mockery such papers made of Christ's blood, people would surely be out to shed his. - And that's exactly what eventually happened, because he did herald the revelation he received through the Bible's clear and simple writings!
Luther was told to "tone it down," and a price was put on his head because he was "flying in the face" of 1500 years of tradition. He often questioned, therefore, whether he was doing the right thing. He wrote his hymns, sermons and commentaries as though he had the greatest confidence of all men of all ages, and perhaps he was that confident much of the time, but in his private and personal writings emerges a still quite vulnerable man. Had he not had the very power of God at hand in his precious copy of the Scriptures, perhaps all anybody could say is that he did suffer from a serious feeling of inadequacy.
He had that precious power, though, and clung to it with a passion for his stability! Because he was so totally dependent on it, he therefore emphasized the great Reformation doctrine that IT, Scripture alone, is the authority, rule and norm for all matters of Church teaching and practice;- not imaginative human traditions, papal decrees and the like. By using Scripture alone Luther sparked so many of the other reforms, even pertaining to the secular world.
When urged to take back the things he said and wrote, Luther couldn't and wouldn't because they were from Scripture. When given credit for all his reforms, it too must be because of the guidance given him from Scripture, of course. - He humbly realized that God didn't need him to set things straight. God could do just fine on His own, but in grace chose Luther for the task. - The very greatest thing he is to be given credit for, then, is not how great he was, but that he took the stand taken by Scripture, that everything centers in JESUS CHRIST!
Jesus is the One worthy to receive all honor and power and glory! Jesus atoned for Martin's sin and guilt, not Martin. - Luther admitted that sin continued to stick with him after his great discovery, like whiskers that keep cropping-out requiring a shave every day, but he could also cling to a Lord who cleansed him and offered forgiveness anew every day. With that knowledge and strength he realized that it is impossible to separate works from faith, just as it's impossible to separate heat from fire. He couldn't help but be such a great instrument of reform!
Blessed to be a blessing! - What reforms might God manifest through each of us by our walking through Scripture day-by-day, coming face-to-face with our guilt, but then also with our guilt-Bearer!? -- When Luther was charged to swallow his words, we've heard that he exclaimed, "Here I stand!", meaning on the clear message of God's Word. May his example and the Gospel he brought to light inspire us to exclaim in our hearts with him, "Here WE stand!"