Another Look: The “Failed” Reformation

Failure. Photo by Tom Hart at Flickr.

Another Look: The “Failed” Reformation

Like all of us, Martin Luther didn’t always remember or apply his own theology in the face of life’s realities.

The following story by David Lose illustrates this.

This past summer I was visiting Wittenberg and heard a story about Martin Luther I hadn’t heard before that seems appropriate for those observing Reformation Sunday this week. I knew that Luther died in Eisleben, the place of his birth, bringing his work and life, in a sense, full circle. And I knew that he preached his last sermon there after successfully negotiating disputes between several local magistrates. What I didn’t know was that only five people showed up for the sermon. What I didn’t know was that he was pissed. He wrote a friend about the event, despairing over what he feared was a “failed” reformation.

I’ve been a pastor and I get Martin Luther’s sense of failure. We all long to be “successful” in our churches (however we might define that), and when the church appears weak and sickly, and people don’t seem interested in supporting or responding to her ministry, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine that our efforts have been for naught.

We can become angry, as Luther did. We can become fearful, disillusioned, and depressed like Elijah did in 1Kings 19, running from Jezebel after he had defeated the prophets of Baal. We can become sad of heart, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who kept saying, “But we thought he was the one . . .”

The brilliant answer to this sense of failure that Luther gave voice to in his writings is what we know as “the theology of the cross.” When it looks most like God has been defeated, he is winning. When God seems most absent, his presence is sustaining us. When all feels lost, we are, in fact, being saved.

I have long thought that this, above all Luther’s teachings, is needed in the Christian church today. We give so much attention to the appearance of success and strength that we fail to find God in much more prevalent circumstances of failure and weakness. We forget that our hope is in resurrection from hopeless death, not in being crowned after having built a glorious resumé.

The last word today goes back to David Lose:

While I can understand his dismay and disappointment, I nevertheless think that at that moment Luther forgot that much of our energy and effort will be given over to failed endeavors. He’d forgotten, that is, Paul’s reminder that we have all sinned and fallen short … and will keep sinning and falling short. Moreover, he’d forgotten that our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in God’s great failure on the cross, the failure that redeems all failures and successes, binding them together in the promise of resurrection. He’d forgotten, that is, his own words at the close of the hymn many of us will sing this week, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom is ours forever.”

29 thoughts on “Another Look: The “Failed” Reformation

  1. On a different note, & no-one may see this, when this article says Luther was ‘pissed’ can someone confirm for me if that means ‘angry’ (US), or ‘drunk’ (UK)?



  2. Ah Christiane, I am so sorry to hear this. Big hugs to you. The loss of a dog friend is a hard thing.

    As a veteran of this process. I think we recognise that death is not the enemy of an old or sick dog. We go from being desperate for them to stay with us, to being desperate for them to be at peace. And so they are.

    Many fine Christians have told me that we will see our dogs again, & I can’t wait to be knocked down by some very excited black dogs when I arrive .Hang on Darcey, Linus, Tasha & the rest, see you one day.


  3. Thank you Fr. Bryan. Even if he were inclined toward the occasional white lie, I have no doubt in my mind about the veracity of that statement. Our good puppy dogs will be waiting.


  4. I want to thank those who sent good wishes for his recovery. That was so kind. He was too sick and we did the merciful thing to let him ‘go to sleep’. He was/is loved. So much.

    Thanks again, dear friends for your kindness. 🙂


  5. our sweet dog went to sleep today.
    He had asked little and loved much. After a week in vet hospital, the doctor said she thought he was suffering and that was when . . . . we asked her to help him and she did;
    he yawned and closed his eyes and went to sleep, as gentle a passing as we could hope for

    Father Bryan at Church said ‘all dogs go to heaven’ and Father Bryan never lies


  6. Fair enough. I still think that a kind of triumphalism can find its way into the theology of the cross, but I won’t belabor the point.


  7. I hereby spare you the pious sermon.

    My wife would find it amusing to hear someone refer to me as pious.


  8. Yeah, that is pretty much what I meant. I was thinking of pre-Constantinian Rome as ‘pre-Christ’, so yeah.

    Spare me the pious sermons, though. Someone has to have the hegemony, and someone else always has to live as if something they don’t really believe is true. Ask the Christians in Pakistan or China.


  9. And if reactionary American Christians had any awareness of the theology of the cross, I might be worried. 😉


  10. For example, in the case at hand, it would have been as much of a mistake for Luther to interpret failure as a sign of the divine vindication of and presence in his work as it would have been for him to interpret success that way.


  11. If Christ is Lord, how can the world become post-Christ? If it actually were to become post-Christ, then Christ would have been a fraud. Unless you mean that the world no longer being under Christian hegemony is equivalent to its being post-Christ….


  12. I don’t think I’m making my point clear. As an unmitigated failure myself, in more ways than I feel comfortable enumerating, I don’t want to exclude God’s presence and grace from my own situation of failure, or from anyone else’s. What I think is dangerous is interpreting failure as a sure sign of God being “on our side”. I think the gap from that assumption to theological persecution complex, like the one exhibited by many reactionary American Christians in relation to the secular state, is very short.


  13. Right!? I think Paul felt that way. I’m sure my friend would associate himself more closely with Paul but anyway, the point is, the particulars are not at issue. Someone who can see the greatness of the kingdom of God and smallest of things is worthy of support.


  14. The only curiosity I have is if the world post-Christ will be as cruel and heartless as it was pre-Christ. To those who counter ‘Mule, you and a lot of your co-religionists appear pretty cruel and heartless yourselves, so what’s the difference?’ I can only respond that I would be much worse if it were not for the example of Christ, His Mother, and the saints.

    As somebody who has been both the recipient and the dispenser of both Christian and non-Christian (government) charity I can tell the difference between them. I would not be surprised if Jews and Muslims do well in caring based on their own creeds, but not having been the recipient of their charity I am not qualified to speak about it.


  15. –> “Maybe we don’t need another ‘revival’ nearly as much as we need a close-to-extinction event.”

    Like Eeyore said, be careful what you wish for, but…

    The Scriptures would sure seem to suggest the world will get just that at some point. I just hope it’s not in my lifetime.


  16. The things I wish for are so contradictory that it is inevitable that some of them should come to pass.


  17. I support a similar person. Not sure I agree on everything he believes, but man o man… the guy has helped a lot of people find God and Jesus.


  18. how can it be that the Agnus Dei is also the Lion of Judah, but this what is revealed to us

    “Agnus redemit oves:
    Christus innocens Patri . . . . ”

    These very famous Latin words roughly translate as:

    “The sheep are ransomed by the Lamb;
    and Christ, the undefiled,
    hath sinners to his Father reconciled.”


  19. I have for years given monthly support to a fundamentalist, evangelical preacher. I no longer espouse his views on many things but he was my first teacher in the gospel and holds a special place because of that. He has never changed his firm stance on avoiding anything that brings growth for growth’s sake. He has a website but is virtually unknown. Still he and his wife live by faith with no regular income as they have for decades. He sees the big kingdom in a little world, one person at a time. I couldn’t do it but I admire his grit.


  20. It is hard for me with my natural inclination to admire those who are powerful, charismatic, articulate, attractive, and yes, a little ruthless, and above all capable of bending weaker wills to their own to remember that God in Christ won by dying. How much more of a loser can you be?

    Yet we sing it in Church every Easter:

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

    It is in this frame that I think about the broader Church’s growing inability to influence the monoculture’s behavior or ethical deliberation may be a very good thing indeed. Maybe we don’t need another ‘revival’ nearly as much as we need a close-to-extinction event.


  21. I have long thought that this, above all Luther’s teachings, is needed in the Christian church today. We give so much attention to the appearance of success and strength…

    “I give Donald Trump Praise and Adoration…”
    — Wondering Eagle’s regular troll (who slings chapter-and-verse like a Calvary Chapelite)


  22. If the theology of the cross doesn’t cover plain old failure, what’s the point? We need Grace in our everyday undefendable screwups as much as in unfortunate events out of our control.


  23. Otoh, it is easy, and a temptation, to use the idea of the theology of the cross to romanticize and justify what is really just ….. failure. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish criteria that would readily distinguish between what are really just cases of plain old failure, and occasions when the theology of the cross is an apt way of interpreting what has happened.


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