Thanks for participating in this week of reflections on various elements of Lutheran teaching that I believe answer specific concerns about contemporary American evangelicalism. There are others, and I’m sure we will discuss them in future posts. But we will conclude for now with a few thoughts on the one thing that first got my attention about the Lutheran way and began drawing me toward it —
I fell in love with Martin Luther.
Of all my spiritual “heroes” or “mentors” from church history, he stands tallest. Few before or since ever stood at such a pivotal point of time in history and provided the kind of faithful voice that changed the course of the world so dramatically. Certainly he lived in one of the most epochal seasons of Western civilization — an age which saw both a Renaissance and a Reformation, leading to the inauguration of the modern world. And yes, there were other thinkers, scientists, explorers, religious leaders, and rulers who had tremendous influence in those days. But of all the Reformers, of all the saints in the history of the church (save the Apostle Paul) who have attracted me and in whom I have seen Christ and the Gospel most magnified, I count Luther most worthy of admiration.
I won’t write a biography here, but simply give ten bullet points with brief comments to tell you why.
1. For Luther, it was all about Christ.
Martin Luther found his life, forgiveness, salvation, and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. The heart of the Small Catechism is found in these words about Jesus:
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
In one of his hymns, he wrote,
Thus spoke the Son, “Hold thou to me,
From now on thou wilt make it.
I gave my very life for thee
And for thee I will stake it.
For I am thine and thou art mine,
And where I am our lives entwine,
The Old Fiend cannot shake it.”
Luther and Jesus, forever entwined.
2. He loved and listened to God’s Word.
Martin Luther is most honored for taking a courageous, unalterable stand on the Bible as the final authority for Christian faith and practice. All other authorities are to be judged by God’s own holy Word. Equally important was his work in bringing a translation of the Scriptures into the common language of the German layperson and seeing to it that everyone had access to the Bible. His own sermons, teachings, and catechisms expounding the Scriptures remain treasures to this day, and in his own time inspired a revival of Gospel preaching in the churches.
3. I love a good “Rocky” story.
I mean, who doesn’t? At various times in Luther’s life it seemed like Martin against the world. The Roman Church had all the power and all the resources, and yet this “wild boar” from the edges of Christendom stood up and challenged the entire system of the medieval church. He put his life on the line time and time again for Christ and the Gospel. From my perspective, he won.
4. The guy had a way with words.
One example: Luther’s Small Catechism is among the most beautiful, simple, and clear explanations of the Christian faith ever written. From The Luther Bible to his treatises, from his sermons and expositions of Scripture to his hymns, from his German mass to his personal letters, he was a master communicator. He was not only an intellectual giant, but had a way of capturing the heart through tender, devotional language. Check out his Christmas sermons sometime.
5. He treasured music right up there next to the Bible.
Luther said, “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know about music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.” Luther is responsible for revising three major parts of the liturgy with regard to music: the priest’s chants, the choir’s chorales, and the congregation’s hymns. And the results were far-reaching and profound. As Roland Bainton writes, “The Lutheran tradition explains why Bach should write a St. Matthew Passion.”
6. He never wrote a systematic theology.
Many of my peers and I went to seminary and became attracted to Reformed (Calvinistic) Theology. There is something intellectually bracing about the logic and system of the thought produced by Calvin and his heirs. But in the end, I found it too academic, too cold, too divorced from the mess of human life. I have never felt that way about Luther. He started and stayed where theologians should — in the pages of the Bible and in the real stuff of daily living. Luther’s first preaching assignments involved expounding the Psalms. There, in the place that reveals not only divine majesty, but also human darkness, doubt, and despair, Luther learned that Scripture must be grasped and taught pastorally and only in ways that lead us to Christ.
7. He had a pastor’s heart that cared deeply about the church.
Many evangelicals honor Luther only because he honored the Bible. However, Luther was also at the forefront of renewing family life, public education, and most of all, the life of the congregation. He spearheaded efforts to train pastors, rekindle Gospel preaching, catechize the adult members, reform the liturgy, get the Bible into the hands of the people, get them singing, get them to disciple their children, and get them to live out their faith in the world through their various vocations.
8. He loved a good time, especially when beer was involved.
See Tuesday’s post, “Cheerfulness that Mocks the Devil.” ‘Nuff said.
9. He cherished his wife and family.
Roland Bainton writes, “The Luther who got married in order to testify to his faith actually founded a home and did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries.” His relationship with his bride Katie was loving and close, filled with tenderness, humor, and deep friendship. Their home became known for its hospitality and was an example of the reformer’s emphasis on grace and truth.
10. He was utterly human, completely dependent on God’s grace.
Martin Luther was a sinner. At times, a terrible sinner. He said things, for example about the Jews and the Anabaptists, that were despicable. He cursed. He was subject to deep depressions and severe spiritual doubts. His anger could be vicious and blunt. Like most people who earn the moniker “great,” he also had great flaws. But…
Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.
And that, most of all, is why I love Martin Luther.