Five hundred years ago on Oct. 31 — the “All Hallows Eve” of All Saints’ Day — Martin Luther, a 34-year-old Augustinian friar, preacher and university professor, walked from his monastery home on one end of the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, to Castle Church on the other end of town, where he posted his protest against indulgences. He had no inkling of the firestorm he would start, nor that within weeks he would become the most famous person in the Western world. Today, virtually all Protestant Christians claim Martin Luther as their own, to one extent or another.
Whenever Luther has been held up as one of the most influential individuals of the past millennium, the emphasis is usually on his impact upon the freedom of conscience, on the individual versus authority, on the rise of the nation-state, or on the decline of the control of the Church over individual and state. Appropriately, celebrations are going on this week in Wittenberg — now known as Lutherstadt (Luther city) — and around the world. Luther’s Reformation brought about many things of which we can be proud: universal education; education of women; care for the needy; huge advances in university education, art, music, even astronomy and medicine; and much more (The Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).
That’s not the whole story or even the main story, at least not for churches today who stand by Luther’s confession of the Christian faith. Troubled Martin, who became a monk in an attempt to ease his troubled conscience about God’s judgment for his sin, was assigned to teach the Bible at the university. Immersed in the Bible, he discovered its treasure of free forgiveness of sin before God because of Jesus Christ’s death in our place. It rocked Luther’s world when he read “... one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28, ESV) This epiphany of freedom and new life flooded his mind, soul and life. It quickly became a movement that Sola Scriptura, Latin for the “Scripture alone”, as supreme authority gave Sola Gratia, God’s “grace” or pure gift “alone”, which is received Sola Fide, through “faith alone”, without any merit or work on our part. That’s not our natural way. We naturally try to earn God’s favor and trust in ourselves. We doubt this radical grace and tend to add and require something of our own. Luther would confess that our own reason and strength fail, but God does all that is needed for us.
Luther’s writings and those of his colleagues were printed and confessed by thousands of pastors and leaders in the 16th century, but by far, the most popular writing of Luther must be his 1529 “Small Catechism” still used as a standard for learning and confessing the Christian faith by millions. Its power is that it summarizes the Bible very simply in about 1/100th the size. Its punch is that it gives forgiveness freely. God’s book the Bible “reads us like a book.” Likewise, Luther’s Catechism still shows the problems of our day and brings God’s objective answer that none of our sciences or philosophies can deliver. The rub is still that “faith alone” takes all the credit away from me and leaves it entirely with Christ. It sounded way too radical in 1517. It still does in 2017. The Gospel gives faith and a new heart with a desire to serve God by serving one another.
Without human inventions of selling indulgences St. Peter’s Cathedral may not have been rebuilt by 1526, but a physical building is not the measure of God’s Kingdom on earth. According to Luther, pure Gospel, God’s Word and Sacraments define Christ’s church. God’s reformation continues where the Bible is rightly divided with Law that shows us our sin and pure Gospel that freely gives forgiveness to us of all sins. Anything added to the Gospel is no longer pure Gospel, Jesus Christ’s work for us is confused, and “all is lost” (Luther, Smalcald Articles). Thankfully, Christ who builds His church prevails, even if among a small band, even if they are unpopular in the world or rejected.
It was originally a term of ridicule to be called “Lutheran.” In a world of trouble and confusion it is not only helpful but faithful to seek to confess clearly the eternal truth of Jesus Christ of the Bible with Luther. Five hundred years later we can celebrate that the Lutheran Reformation is still all about Jesus.
— Kevin Schubkegel is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Mount Vernon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.