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The Reformation and Martin Luther

Stuart Lange

For many Protestant Christians, the Reformation remains a heroic, hallowed age — a time when there was a spectacular rediscovery of the Gospel, and the recovery of a much more biblical way of being the church.

Other Protestants, though, are a little embarrassed by the Reformation. They are uncomfortable with all that clamour, doctrinal starkness and violent division. They wonder whether the Reformation was really necessary, or helpful — and whether it has much continuing relevance for today's church.

Both views contain some truth. Like any revolution, the Reformation carried with it excesses, exaggerated emphases and lots of conflict. The Reformation did not always deliver what it promised. But the Reformation — or something like it — was certainly necessary.

The medieval church had long been in need of a major shake-up, both in its life and its doctrine. The Gospel had become obscured. The medieval church was cluttered with a myriad of extra-biblical customs and beliefs, and was compromised in its life. To sensitive Christians at that time, the church seemed in great contrast to the church of the New Testament.

Most insights and practices of the Reformation can be traced back to two cardinal principles: justification by faith and the authority of Scripture. Both principles are still profoundly necessary in today's church. The Church can easily slide into an emphasis on effort and duty that sidelines salvation by grace. It can likewise subtly allow its own manmade customs, opinions and power structures to eclipse the Word of God. How Protestant are today's Protestant churches?

he catalytic pioneer of the Reformation movement was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther led the most momentous changes in western Christianity in over a thousand years.

As an Augustinian friar Luther was a troubled soul, with an overpowering sense of guilt before holy God. He desperately tried to assuage his conscience before God: through extreme asceticism, endless confession of sins (up to six hours a day), and pilgrimage to Rome. None of this helped. His concept of Christ focused on Christ as his Judge. As he celebrated his first mass, he was stricken at the thought of handling the divine elements.

The key to Luther's eventually discovering the grace of God was his intensive study of the Scriptures. A Doctor of Theology since 1512, Luther carefully studied the biblical text in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, before teaching it at the university of Wittenberg. Between 1512 and 1517, he taught his way through Genesis, Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.

In about 1515 Luther had his crucial "Tower experience". He was meditating on 'the righteousness of God' (Romans 1:17). He had understood it as God's right to punish us. He then realised that 'the righteousness of God' also has another meaning: something given by God to the believer, a new status of righteousness in the eyes of God. This gift of grace, he saw, is to be received by faith: He who through faith is righteous shall live.

Many years later Luther recalled his conversion:

I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in my way but that one expression, "the righteousness of God" because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner, troubled in conscience. I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love, indeed I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners . . . .

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that "the just shall live by faith". Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. All at once the Bible began to speak in quite a different way to me. The very phrase "the righteousness of God", which I had hated before, was the one that now I loved the best of all. That is how that passage of Paul's became for me the gateway to paradise.

Here we have the heart of the Reformation: we are justified by grace, through faith. Salvation owes nothing to our works. It is entirely a work of God's grace, to be received by faith. Like Augustine before him and Wesley after him, Luther had rediscovered the New Testament gospel of grace.

His discovery struck a fatal blow to works-based medieval soteriology: human self-denial and religious exercises counted for nothing in meriting salvation. So many things previously thought to impress God were now dismissed as worthless, among them monasticism, fasting, apostolic poverty and pilgrimages. Likewise the mediating role of the church through its priests was made redundant: anyone can simply and directly receive grace, through faith.

nitially, Luther had no intention of leading a reform of the church, let alone being part of a schism. His principle concern was always doctrinal reformation, that the church know, preach and live the biblical Gospel. It was that concern for the Gospel, and his aversion to spurious promises of forgiveness, that led him in 1517 to publicly oppose the cynical papal indulgences being hawked around Germany by the Dominican Tetzel.

Luther's critique of indulgences catapulted him into notoriety, and started his career as a theological polemicist. For many years Luther was to produce a constant stream of hard-hitting pamphlets and books. They were written in German, printed, and very widely read.

Ecclesiastical attempts to convict and silence Luther inevitably pushed the development of his thinking. He began to question a papal system of authority and teaching that promoted beliefs and practices contrary to Scripture. Luther moved from questioning indulgences to questioning papal authority, and ultimately to seeing Rome as apostate and anti-Christ. In place of papal authority, Luther began to assert the authority of the Word.

In his 1520 Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther called for ecclesiastical revolution: he called on the princes of Germany to impose the reforms that the papal church refused. It was their God-given right and responsibility to emancipate the German church from the papal usurpers. All Christians, not just clergy and monks, have a calling under God — all Christians are equally consecrated as 'priests'. So the laity had every right to reject the papal church, which is a "crawling mass of reptiles", and "the greatest thief and robber that has ever appeared on earth".

In his Babylonish Captivity of the Church, Luther denied that the mass is a sacrifice offered by the priest to God. He also denied transubstantiation as unscriptural. He rejected five of the seven medieval sacraments (penance, confirmation, ordination, matrimony and extreme unction), and insisted that only baptism and communion were genuine sacraments.

uther did not leave the Roman Catholic Church, but was thrown out. In 1521 he was excommunicated. Providentially - and discreetly - protected by Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther was nevertheless hauled before the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes solemnly assembled at Worms.

It was here, dramatically defying both the pope and the emperor, that Luther famously asserted:

Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning — and my conscience is captive to the Word of God — then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience . . . . Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.

From that principle of Scriptural authority, and from the gospel of justification by faith, flowed all other aspects of Luther's reform. The churches that looked to Luther were to embrace a German Bible, the transformation of priests (doing sacrifice) into preachers of the Word, the abolition of the Mass, the end of masses for the dead, the closure of monasteries, the advent of clerical marriage, communion in both kinds (ie cup as well as bread), and congregational singing.

here is a great deal more that could be said of Luther, such as his aversion to coercion or violence, or his surprising moderation and caution in some matters, or his cranky relations with later reformers such as Zwingli. But in a very brief sketch like this it may be sufficient simply to emphasise the two cardinal principles of his reform, and to suggest their enduring relevance for today's church.