A Biographical Sketch
His reforming call branched at every point from this doctrine of justification by faith. It propelled him to vehemently oppose the current Catholic practices that attended justification with works. Chief of these were the papal indulgences being sold for varying forms of justification in order to help pay for St. Peter's in Rome. His opposition to the Catholic abuses landed him eventually before a tribunal in Worms (Vorms) where cardinals and officials required that he recant his writings or he would be excommunicated. He did not recant. He went on to translate the Bible into the common German language and gave feet to the protestant reformation and break with Rome. Protestants are indebted to no person more than this man for his ardent pursuit of truth. So what can we learn from him 500 years removed? 3 things:
Luther's Only Authority
Martin Luther had one authority in his life, the Word of God. However it wasn't always that way. Luther had many authorities in his life who were vying for his allegiance (the Catholic Church, the Pope, Abbots). But as he grew in his understanding of the Christian faith, really as he read the Scriptures and studied them for himself, he found that nothing should take an ultimate place of authority in our lives save Scripture alone since it is there that God alone speaks and reveals Himself. Whereas the church and pope had been the ultimate authority for years, Luther began something new. As Heiko Oberman says, "What is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils." (Oberman, 78)
For him there was no greater authority and director in life than God Himself revealed in His written word. Even when Luther knew that his stance on Scripture would bring persecution, he stood his ground. Before the Diet of Worms, fearing excommunication and all that it entailed, he said famously: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen." (Bainton, 144)
We learn from Luther that nothing should hold our allegiance beyond the Word of God itself. This was Luther's conviction and it is our conviction as well. Scripture truly is the only rule for faith and life for the Christian. We cannot neglect to submit to it daily.
Relentless Proclamation In Luther we also see a relentless drive to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. He was driven as a preacher and teacher to proclaim Truth, the love of God for His creation in Jesus Christ. If Scripture was his authority, then this relentless proclamation was the natural response to what Scripture said. It must be told! Look at his rhythm as a preacher, it's astounding:
"On Sundays there were the 5:00 AM worship with a sermon on the Epistle, the 10:00 AM service with a sermon on the Gospel, and an afternoon message on the Old Testament or catechism. Monday and Tuesday sermons were on the Catechism; Wednesdays on Matthew; Thursdays and Fridays on the Apostolic letters; and Saturday on John....Luther was one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christendom...between 1510 and 1546 Luther preached approximately 3000 sermons...so the average in [his pastorate] was one sermon every two and a half days." (Piper, 86-87)
Justification By Faith Alone
Lastly we see from Luther the central doctrinal tenant of salvation, Justification by Faith alone. As one whose life completely opposed anything of works mixed in with our justification in God's sight, he championed that it was by faith alone that one is redeemed and reconciled in God's sight. Where God originally for Luther was a God of vengeance ready to condemn us for the smallest sin, Luther then after reading Paul's letters found an inexpressible joy that came from the reality that it's not by works but by faith alone that one is saved. And so Luther said:
"Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that "the just shall live by his faith." Then I grasped that the justice 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." (Bainton, 49)
There are many wonderful resources on Martin Luther today. Desiring God has some free resources, sermons and biographies here. The texts I have referenced for this article are worth a read if you are interested in knowing more about this man of God:
Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Penguin Books, 1955). Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1992). John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God's Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000).
**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader Augustine of Hippo