Results tagged “Martin Luther” from Reformation21 Blog

Luther, Law and Love


Life is too short not to reap the spiritual benefit of reading Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Archibald Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once said that this particular work was the most influential book he read during his formative years. While Luther was certainly a theologian in transition throughout much of his early years, his commentary on Galatians gives us the most robust and developed Reformational theology--the fruit of years of diligent theological study, wrestling with the text of Scripture in polemical dialogue with the medieval Catholicism from which Luther labored set the church free. 

Insisting that Martin Luther was antinomian (i.e. that he had no place for the moral Law of God in the Christian life) many have sadly misrepresented Luther's doctrine of sanctification. There are several rationales for such a mischaracterization. First, Luther made infelicitous statements about the Epistle of James, on account of the fact that he did not understand James' argument on faith and good works. Second--and in many respects related to the first--Luther spent a great deal of his time fighting against the Roman Catholic notion that love was co-instrumental with faith in our justification before God. Luther's relentless defense of justification by faith alone has often overshadowed all that he wrote on sanctification and the Christian life. Third, Luther tended to stress the role of the Holy Spirit as the agent and faith and love as the co-instruments of our sanctification more than he did the Law of God as a means of our sanctification. While Calvin often spoke of the law of God as a means of our sanctification, Luther tended to place his emphasis on the other elements of the process of sanctification. A brief perusal of Luther's treatment of the applicatory section of Galatians, however, shows how he developed his teaching on the place of love in the believer's sanctification with regard to the demands of the law of God. In short, Martin Luther did not believe that sanctification was produced in the life of a believer by a passive, inactive faith. He emphatically asserted otherwise, in his commentary on Galatians 5. 

When he came to exposit Galatians 5:6, Luther explained that there is a dual instrumentality of faith and love in our sanctification. He wrote:

"Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, "In Christ Jesus circumcision avails nothing," i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men."

That being said, when he came to Galatians 5:16, Luther unequivocally denied that love plays any role in our justification:

"It is a great error to attribute justification to a love that does not exist or, if it does, is not great enough to placate God; for, as I have said, even the saints love in an imperfect and impure way in this present life, and nothing impure will enter the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). But meanwhile we are sustained by the trust that Christ, "who committed no sin and on whose lips no guile was found" (1 Peter 2:22), covers us with His righteousness. Shaded and protected by this covering, this heaven of the forgiveness of sins and this mercy seat, we begin to love and to keep the Law. As long as we live, we are not justified or accepted by God on account of this keeping of the Law. But "when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every authority" (1 Cor. 15:24), and when "God is everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28), then faith and hope will pass away, and love will be perfect and eternal (1 Cor. 13:8)."1

And, while Luther took the strongest stand against the insistence that love plays any part in our justification, he came full circle back to defense the truth about love in the work of sanctification in his comments on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Luther explained his understanding of Paul's use of the phrase "against which there is no law," when he wrote, 

"One must beware of understanding him in a stupid way, as if the righteous man did not have to live a good life and do good deeds (for this is what the uninstructed understand not being under the Law to mean). But the righteous has no law, because he owes the Law nothing, since he has the love which performs and fulfills the Law."2

While this may not satisfy all the concerns one may have about a theological deficiency in Luther's doctrine of sanctification, a careful study of his commentary on Galatians is sure to put many of uniformed concerns at bay. 

1. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 27, p. 64). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

2. Ibid., p. 378.

October 31, 1518: A Point of No Return


Your church is having a Reformation Day celebration. Your pastor is tossing out candy to those who get the answers right in the Reformation trivia contest. "What did Luther do on October 31, 1517?" Everyone's hands go up, as they shout in unison, "He nailed the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg!" Next question? "What did Luther do on October 31, 1518? Anyone? Anyone?


On October 31, 1518, Martin Luther...wrote a letter. 

I had the privilege of participating in a handful of "Lutherpaloozas" last year. On both sides of the Atlantic in 2017, we just had to celebrate the 500th anniversary of that often-ostentatious Augustinian monk walking that mile, or so, from the University of Wittenberg, down to the Castle Church, mallet and message in hand. The door - that bulletin board in a secluded German town would actually alert the world that things would never be the same. We laud the 95 Theses. Luther was simply calling for discussion. We imagine that final hammer blow brought the town of Wittenberg to an awestruck standstill that fall day. Luther simply walked back home. Not much changed that day. Everything changed that day.

Yet, as important as October 31, 1517 was, is, and always will be, I can't help but imagine that October 31, 1518 weighed more heavily upon Luther. He was tired. So much had happened over the last year, and even now he had just returned from a long, very significant journey. He was somber and probably quite sober (despite his love for good German ale), for the wheels were now in motion for what would be a point of no return at the Diet of Worms in April 1519. There he would refuse to recant... for the second time.

Many are familiar with the tale of Luther's 95 Theses being taken down from the door of Castle Church, printed, thanks to that new high-tech from Gutenberg. Lest we think that this document, important to be sure, was some sort of Protestant manifesto, just shy of the eventual orthodoxy of the great Reformed confessions, the reality is that there was not a lot uniquely Reformed in the 95 Theses. Further, its impact must not be divorced from two other documents of the same time, equally impactful in their own right. You see, the 95 Theses is part of a triad of key documents.1 There are two other crucial pieces extending the impact of the Theses. Luther, a loyal son of the Church and servant of the Pope, knew that if Leo X had any idea of the insufferable abuses of the charlatan indulgence salesman, John Tetzel, he would swiftly shut him down. So, Luther did the obvious thing and sent an earnest letter to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenberg of Mainz (1490-1545). He could pass Luther's concerns along to the Pope. What Luther didn't know was that Albrect and Leo had an arrangement, shall we say. Indulgence sales in Germany would help the Archbishop with his debt situation to the Fugger bankers, who had funded his bid for the Archbishopric, and Leo would have a steady stream of funds flowing from Germany to Rome, in part for a little capital campaign related to the building of St. Peter's Basilica.

Albrecht alerted Rome. The Pope wanted simply to have this troublesome monk, too big for his cassock, contained and silenced. However, the moveable type of Guttenberg had generated enough curiosity over Luther's warnings about indulgences, that he had to craft the third document of the triad, A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace (March/April 1518). This made accessible the more scholarly nomenclature and concepts of the 95 Theses. Tetzel counter-punched, coming up with his own set of theses - 106, not to be outdone by Luther (curiously, no one has ever held celebrations over Tetzel's theses), and had been awarded a doctorate by his Dominican brethren. Tetzel meant to rid the earth of Luther.2

Meanwhile, the Augustinians were preparing to hold a meeting in Heidelberg in April 1518. Luther was to be there. They heard Luther out in what is known as the Heidelberg Disputation. He was well received. After all, they were Augustinians. They approved his teaching and encouraged him to write more. Interestingly, while the posting of the 95 Theses is the cause of celebration among Protestants, his real theological program, with its embryonic ideas of theologia crucis, the ultimate authority of Scripture, and justification by faith alone, are found in two documents that "sandwich" the Theses - The Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518) and the earlier Disputation against Scholastic Theology (September 1517).3

Between Albrecht's complaining to Rome, Heidelberg's lack of restraint of Luther, and the general kerfuffle around Luther, the Pope ordered the Wittenberg theology professor to Rome in August. Around this time, the "Pope's Pitbull," a theologian, named Sylvester Mazzolini Prierias (1456/7-1527), published his Dialogue against the Presumptuous Conclusions of Martin Luther and was the first to officially take Luther on in writing, dismissing the Augustinian monk as an amateur theologian. Luther appealed to George Spalatin, secretary to Frederick the Wise, who was not keen on having his prize German professor carted off to Rome, of all places. As a German, Luther would be handled in Germany. Frederick would have it no other way. Conveniently enough, the Imperial Diet in Augsburg was scheduled for October 1518. There he would come face-to-face with none other than Cardinal Thomas Cajetan (1468/9-1534, born Jacopo de Vio of Gaeta, taking "Thomas" in honor of Aquinas and "Cajetan" in reference to his place of birth), an expert on Thomas Aquinas, and legate of the Pope in Augsburg.4 This was serious. So serious, that Luther was assured he would likely die, either coming or going to the Diet. His now infamous obsession with his digestion also gave him fits on the way.

By the time Luther arrived on October 7, the Diet of Augsburg had largely run its course. Cajetan had not been particularly successful in many of the larger political and administrative objectives. Perhaps, he would at least be able to reign in this drunken monk. If he could not, he would hand the heretic over to Rome. Cajetan, a formidable theologian in his own right, nonetheless had no interest in debating Luther. This was not an occasion for matching wits, but for unqualified submission to papal authority on the part of this misguided and overreaching Wittenberg monk. Luther appeared before Cajetan across three days (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, October 12-14, 1518). The first meeting saw Luther sprawled prostrate on the floor, face-down before the majesty of Cajetan. Gently, the Cardinal raised Luther from the floor and explained to him that the whole uncomfortable affair would be over with one word: revoco - "I recant." Luther responded that he was simply desirous of learning how he had erred, how he had veered from Scripture. This portended poorly for the remainder of their meetings. Cajetan, with little interest in a debate, assumed he could refer to a document with which Luther would likely be unfamiliar, and settle things. Cajetan took to the central issue. The Pope Clement's 1343 bull Unigenitus had clearly established Christ's merits as a treasury of indulgences. To Cajetan's surprise, Luther was quite familiar with the text, which, to Cajetan's chagrin, did not say that Christ's merits are a treasure of indulgences, but that Christ acquired a treasury of merits. In short, as Luther's colorful letter, dated October 14, 1518, to George Spalatin records, a shouting match between the Cardinal and monk ensued.5 That Christ acquired a treasury of merits, rather than the merits of Christ are a treasury, which is clearly what the bulls, Unigenitus and Extravagante taught, actually supported Luther's contention in 95 Theses 58 and 60, that Christ has entrusted the keys of the kingdom to the Church, not to the Pope qua Pope. Lyndal Roper elucidates:

This may look like semantics; the underlying issue, however, was the relationship between Church and sinner, and the nature of forgiveness. If the merits of Christ - and those of the saints, that is, their virtuous works - constituted a treasure stewarded by the Pope, the Church was just a gigantic bank. On this view, because the treasure which had been built up by Christ and the saints exceeded what was needed to 'pay' for their own salvation, the 'excess' could be sold off as indulgences to the repentant sinner. But if the   merits of Christ were not the same as the treasury, then the way was open to rethink the theology of repentance, and to relate Christ's sacrifice on the Cross to the believer through the concept of grace, as Luther was beginning to do.6

It must have been quite the scene. Luther referred to the Cardinal as a "wretched worm," and later remarked that Cajetan was "no more fitted to handle the case than an ass to play the harp."7 Their conference concludes with Cajetan shouting that he never wanted to see Luther again, until revoco was on his lips. For Luther, this would not happen apart from proper trial and refutation of his views from Scripture. In the end, Cajetan failed to win the debate, failed to reconcile Luther to the Church, yet also failed to prove the monk a heretic.

Fearful he would be kidnapped and hauled off to Rome, Luther the night of October 20/21 darted back to Wittenberg.8 However, he was not the same man who had left for Augsburg just weeks earlier. For, Luther's dear Father Confessor and superior, Johan von Staupitz (c.1460-1524), unable to persuade Luther to accommodate Cajetan's demand to recant, released his monk from his vows to the Augustinian order before he fled Augsburg.9

A year to the day after he posted his 95 Theses, Luther penned another letter to George Spalatin, dated October 31, 1518. He informed Spalatin that he arrived that day from Augsburg. He was worried that he might not be able to remain in Wittenberg, as his refusal to recant before Cajetan would result in excommunication, which would require the secular authorities to deliver him to his ecclesial superiors. He did not know how Frederick the Wise would respond. In this letter, Luther recounts how he had stopped in Nurnberg on his way back from Augusburg. There he saw a "diabolic breve" - orders from Pope Leo X to Cajetan that Luther should be arrested by any means possible. Luther couldn't believe such a "monstrosity" of a breve would come from the Pope.10 He informs Spalatin that he can now only prepare his replies to Cajetan's arguments at Augsburg with theological notes and his appeal for publication. Frederick the Wise was involved in political negotiations with Cajetan regarding Luther. He did not want Luther's appeal published, as he believed it would sabotage his efforts with the Cardinal. The Acta Augustana (Proceedings at Augusburg) appeared in November 25, 1518, before Frederick could do anything to stop it.

Concerned enough to post his disquiet, October 31, 1517 on the Castel Church door in Wittenberg, he is resolved a year to the day later that he must appeal to Rome to prove him wrong. Luther's letter of October 31, 1518, although he doesn't realize it, shows him at a point of no return and sets in motion a series of events that would lead from Augusburg, to Leipzig and a debate with the formidable Johann Eck (June-July 1519). This resulted in Pope Leo X branding Luther a heretic in the bull Exsurge, Domine (June 15, 1520). Luther followed this up with triad of treatises that fall, which only exacerbated the conflict with Rome. Next stop - the Diet of Worms, where upon April 18, 1521, Luther stood. He could do no other. His unwillingness to utter revoco at his famous stand in April 1521 cannot be separated from his unwillingness to recant before Cardinal Cajetan in October 1518. 

On account of this, we would not be unjustified in observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation again this year. For, Luther's refusal to revoco, was his refusal to let go of the truths we hold dear, namely, that on the authority of Scripture alone, we are justified through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Let the grateful 501st celebration begin!

A song sung by a child so small,
From the other side of garden wall.
A lightning strike laid Luther sprawl,
One lone monk who heard God's call.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!

Just one hammer and a door so tall.
He stood against the night to watch it fall.
Thought by some a man of gall,
yet Martin, Satan could not stall.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!

Grace he saw when he read Paul;
by faith he found his all in all.
"Will you recant?" said tyranny.
"Here I stand," said liberty.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!

Augustine heard take up and read
and Luther set God's people free.
A poem from an amateur like me,
as we look at redemptive history.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!11

1. There are two triads of key documents in this unfolding story. The second triad consists of Luther's 1520's writings, Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.

2. Tetzel's Dominican brethren were more than happy to undermine Luther. 1518 is also anecdotally rich, as Luther, full of beer at a party in Dresden, pontificated about Aquinas and Aristotle. A Dominican eavesdropping and note-taking, made sure the transcript of the lubricated Luther's liquored loquaciousness was available for public consumption.

3. Luther did not simply drop out of the sky, Theses in hand, ready to denounce 1,500 years of Church History and theology. In fact, that high tech down in Guttenberg had given him access to Augustine and the later Medieval tradition. He had read Aristotle. It is crucial to nuance things, here. The theological trajectories leading to and from Luther must be viewed properly, let we simplistically assume the things we have heard about him are accurate. While he didn't want Aristotle corrupting the message, there was room for him methodologically. Aristotle could help delineate categories; Scripture alone could define concepts. Luther's reformational program owed more to certain Medieval trajectories, than later Reformers' more humanistic backgrounds.

4. Of Cajetan, William Paul Haas observes:

In his own time, Cajetan was considered a Thomist second only to Thomas Aquinas himself; he was an               ecclesiastical trouble-shooter and a ready controversialist, a meticulous scholar, and a biblical exegete. He also held a reputation as a man of simple candor and surprising endurance. Yet from within the Church and from outside, he is often blamed for not preventing the Lutheran Reformation and for failing to guide the Vatican in its most desperate crisis.

See, William Paul Haas, "Hands Respectful and Clean: Cajetan and the Reformation,", 48. Accessed 10-27-18.

5. See, Gottfried G. Krodel, trans. and ed., Luther's Works, Volume 48, Letters I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 84-87.

6. Lydal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (London: The Bodley Head, 2016), 117.

7. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokebury Press, 1950), 96. Lutheran cartoonists would later depict the Pope as an ass playing bagpipes.

8. Fearing the truth of his case would not be accurately relayed by Cajetan, Luther prepared an appeal to the Pope. Luther's friar friend, Leonard Beier showed this to Cajetan. It was nailed to the cathedral door in Augsburg as a public notice.

9. No. 225: Luther "Excommunicated" Three Times Between April 7 and 15, 1532

"Three times have I been excommunicated. The first time was by Dr. Staupitz, who absolved me from the observance and rule of the Augustinian Order so that, if the pope pressed him to imprison me or command me to be silent, he could excuse himself on the ground that I was not under his obedience. The second time was by the pope and the third time was by the emperor. Consequently I cannot be accused of laying aside my habit, and I am now silent by divine authority alone."

Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 54: Table Talk, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 54 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 30.

10. Luther actually indicated in his Acta Augustana that he believed that Biship Jerome of Ascoli and Cajetan had crafted the orders to have him arrested.

11. Poem by David Owen Filson.

Luther and German Nationalism


Recently, the Bible-believing world has celebrated the 500 year of Martin Luther's life and the Reformation. We remembered great qualities and the positive legacy of such a remarkable man of the sixteenth- century. Now that this celebration is over, it is wise to consider that Luther was not necessarily celebrated in the same way throughout history and in all places. Going back 100 years, Luther was celebrated in Germany as an example of faith and nationalism.

The impact of Luther's life and thought on German Nationalism is a highly complex but etremely important topic. We not only need to understand the more wholesome sides of the Reformer's story; we also need to evaluate the role of Christianity respecting the recent resurgence of nationalisms.

If by "nationalism" one means patriotism--the noble idea of loving your own country and people--then it is something we might welcome and encourage. However, if one means an identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations (as the Oxford dictionary defines "nationalism") then we must reject such an idea.

When we come to consider Luther and German Nationalism we come to a difficult discussion for a number of reasons. First, the nationalism of Luther's day has been tied (whether properly or improperly) to the twentieth century Holocaust; therefore, it has become a highly sensitive topic. Second, this subject has been manipulated to two extremes: some, such as Elvira Roca Barea, accuse Luther of promoting racist nationalism similar to the kind characterized by the Nazis; and others, such as Eric Metaxas, deny any connection at all between Luther and later German Nationalism. Heiko Oberman reached a more balanced, careful, and disciplined conclusion. He wrote:

"The National Socialists celebrated in Luther the national hero, but they did not create this image of him. Religious conviction and national pride had for centuries intertwined themselves around his image..."

It is important for us to understand Luther's legacy in light of the fact that he Reformation of the sixteenth century was primarily a German event. Even though Germany officially became a modern nation centuries after Luther--in 1871--his aspiration for the unity and the betterment of German people plays an important role in his history. Luther was thinking especially of Germany when he labored for Reformation; he considered himself to be something of a national prophet. Luther once said, "I, the German prophet seek salvation and blessedness not for myself but for the Germans." Luther and many of his contemporaries saw John Huss no only as a forerunner of religious reform but as a national hero.

This sort of consideration is foreign to most of us living in the United States in the 21st Century. Some American Christians celebrate October 31st with Scottish symbols, pipes and kilts. This is perhaps because we, as Presbyterians, are certain that the Reformation is something that reached maturity thanks to the work of certain notable Scots. Additionally, we tend to view Martin Luther and the Reformation through "Scottish-American" lenses because of the rich Scottish ancestry that lay behind many of the demographics of Presbyterianism.

Therefore, it is helpful for us to consider that Luther, who took a brave stand for the gospel, was also crucial for the birth of nationalism in Germany. Europe was in a terrible crisis, where many regions were starting to grow an attitude against foreign influence and tyranny. To be sure, Luther wasn't the most radical of the patriots of his time. Ulrich von Hutten had a far clearer political and even militaristic agenda for the betterment of Germany; however, it was Luther who brought lasting impact to this region.

Luther, in the sixteenth century, made use of the printing press to promote his discontent with Rome. Acting in his self-evaluated prophetic role, he was able to channel the bitterness of his people oppressed by foreign tyranny. He stated, ""Every German should on this account rue having been born a German and being called a German." The Pope was the enemy, not only because he opposed "justification by faith alone" but also because he was a symbol of oppression to Germany. Luther stated, "Just as we thought we had achieved independence, we became the slaves of the craftiest of tyrants; we have the name, title, and coats of arms of the empire, but the pope has the wealth, power, the courts, and the laws. Thus the pope devours the fruit and we play with the peels."

Among the craftiest devices employed by the Pope was his misuse of the ancient doctrines of the universality and catholicity of the church. Luther believed in the biblical aspects of this doctrine; but, he defend the liberty of Christians from the tyranny of Rome and, in that way, also the liberty and the rights of the German princes against the interference of Rome's internationalism (i.e. globalist domination).

The list of theologians, thinkers, and patriots following Luther's lead are long. It will be important to highlight Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the resurgence of nationalism during the Napoleonic times. For him, the Reformation could not be what it was without the impulse of the German spirit and the German language. Fichte celebrated in Luther, "a proof of German earnestness of soul...Behold in this a proof of the characteristic quality of the German people." Luther and the Reformation provided Germany with an identity of "a single body and its constitution as established by nature."

The resurgence of German nationalism grew hand by hand with the resurgence of Luther's studies. In 1883 when Germany celebrated the 400th year of Luther's birth, several of Luther's work were published. Dr. Tim Klein portrayed Luther as an important symbol of German pride. He wrote, "Germany will be transformed in the name of the Lord. Who knows what God will do of us the German people?" Luther was seeing the symbol of fighter and the model of a man for Germany and described with exaltation, "every inch of you is a German man."

These celebrations had a powerful mixture of hope, pride, faith, and resentment. Extreme nationalism grows when people consider their own culture, nation, language, and history in peril. They see their country invaded by foreign people and foreign ways. Hence, filled with resentment, they seize the opportunity to go back to the glorious years. Germans who had a strong love for their county in the nineteenth century found echo of the frustration of the times of Martin Luther sixteenth century.

These and other factors helped pave the way for a radical nationalism in Germany. Over a number of years, political ideas were intertwined with theology and religious sentiments. This made it much more palatable for the Protestant church progressively to submit to the catastrophic plans of National Socialism. The church was trapped under the demagogy of a lunatic, Hitler, who used Luther and the German sentiment that had been brewing for many centuries throughout the territory.

Hitler and the Nazis not only used Luther's later anti-Semitic writings but also his German Nationalism. In his book Mein Kampf (My Fight), Hitler portrayed Luther as German hero and promised that the church will enjoy the 'committed protection' of his nationalist government." He called the church 'the basis of our entirely morality.' He called on Protestants and Catholics together to defend and work for the resurgence and German renaissance in an uncompromising manner, a nationalized Christianity that would stand up for Germany first.

German Nationalism, like others forms of nationalism in history, tended not only to despise other nations but also to despise some individuals who live, work, and interact in their cities on a daily basis. The nationalist soon starts to view those of other countries as those who are not of "our nation." Furthermore, they start to view foreigners as representatives, justified or no, of an obstacle to the national interest. Of course, there were several reasons why Nationalist Germans hated the Jews, but one was the idea that the Jews had a "denationalizing" tendency.

By mixing nationalism in with anti-Semitism, Hitler enjoyed the complicity, the silence, the votes, and the blessing of many well-intentioned Protestant people in Germany. Some representatives of the Confessing Church presented a courageous resistance. However, we should avoid a hard and fast distinction between German Christians (i.e. the Nazified church) and the Confessing Church (i.e. the anti-Nazi church). German Christians as well as members of the Confessing Church supported Hitler's nationalist measures to reduce Jewish influence in Germany. For instance, the Barmen Declaration (the doctrinal statement of the Confessing Church) did not condemn the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party. The most heated criticism of Karl Barth's protest against Hitler came from noted scholars who were not part of the German Christian extreme movement. Paul Althaus and Emmanuel Hirsch would by no means be considered conservatives by the Evangelical church of today; but, were not eccentric, isolated, or heretical. On the contrary, these scholars were well-respected and esteemed professors. Althaus wrote praises to Hitler calling this a miracle and a gift from God and called that moment the "German Hour of the Church." Hirsch called the Nazi revolution a "holy storm" and a "powerful blessing" in which God's work would be seen in the Weltanschauung (i.e. the comprehensive world and life view.)

In addition, Protestants felt attracted to Hitler and the Nazis because, in their estimation, it meant the defense of Christian values that were in danger under atheistic and communist thought. As Niemohler is reported saying, "I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me."

The cry of a patriot like Niemohler call us to reflect on the following question, "How will history see the evangelical church in American in regards to nationalism in 100 years? How does God view our sentiments, words, and action with respect to nationalism? To be sure, the United States is a far cry from Germany--and, we must avoid making fast, irresponsible, and fallacious parallels--but we also have the task to try, in the light of the Bible, to see where our shortcomings today. Do we consider foreign individuals who live, work, and even worship the same God in our city as part of our nation and our own interest? Is the communion of saints stronger than our identity in our nation? We need a clear review of history to evaluate and be able to overcome the limitations of our time as citizens of heaven and pilgrims in this land.

Accommodating Rome?


Probably the most interesting Reformation celebration that I had the privilege of participating in last month took place in a Roman Catholic Church. The Center for Evangelical Catholicism here in Greenville, SC graciously invited me to join with two other Protestants and three Roman Catholic scholars to discuss the Reformation. I was grateful for the warmth of my reception and for the valuable interaction.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this event was the panel discussion, in which the host priest asked a number of insightful questions. For instance, he asked us to consider how things might have been different if the Roman Catholic establishment had been more patient and accommodating with Martin Luther. The idea was that Leo X (nobody's favorite pope) handled Luther with such clumsy arrogance that he provoked the great schism that resulted. Might there have been a Lutheran order within the Roman church, he wondered, if the pope was more sophisticated and skillful?

My answer--which provoked a fair amount of unhappiness--was that it was inconceivable that the movement of the Protestant Reformation should have accommodated Rome simply because of the irreconcilable stances towards the Bible. Christians who adhered to sola scriptura - the authority of Scripture alone - could never endure a papacy that demanded that its tradition stood beside (and in practice above) the plain meaning of Scripture. Moreover, by study of the Bible, the Protestants came to the conclusion that the papacy was an utterly illegitimate and usurping office. In fact, wherever the Bible was embraced as supreme, the denunciation of the pope soon followed, a situation quite unlikely to permit a Lutheran movement inside the Roman tent. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism was just as opposed to the authority of Scripture as the Reformers were opposed to the papacy. It was for this reason that Rome so vigorously suppressed the spread of the Bible, going so far as to burn at the stake those who made it available to the common people.

As you can imagine, the warmth of my reception began to chill during this discourse. Especially my claim that Rome had suppressed the spread of Scripture was denounced as a false and tired canard! The host priest protested: "Why, Rome has done more for Bible translation than any other Christian body! Only in England was Bible translation suppressed, and that was done by the secular authority and not the church!"

This claim incited me to go back and study the evidence for Rome's suppression of Scripture. To say the least, it is extensive!   Consider the following:

  • Pope Gregory VII: forbade access of common people to the Bible in 1079, since it would "be so misunderstood by people of limited intelligence as to lead them into error."
  • Pope Innocent III: compared Bible teaching in church to casting "pearls before swine" (1199).
  • The Council of Toulouse (France, 1229): suppressed the Albigensians and forbade the laity to read vernacular translations of the Bible.
  • The Second Council of Tarragon (Spain, 1234) declared, "No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over. . . that they may be burned."
  • In response to the labors of John Wyclif, the English Parliament (under Roman Catholic influence) banned the translation of Scripture into English, unless approved by the church (1408).
  • The Council of Constance (Germany/ Bohemia, 1415) condemned John Hus and the writings of Wyclif because of their doctrine of Scripture and subsequent teachings. Hus answerd: "If anyone can instruct me by the sacred Scriptures. . . , I am willing to follow him." He was burned at the stake.
  • Archbishop Berthold of Mainz threatened to excommunicate anyone who translated the Bible (1486).
  • Pope Pius IV expressed the conviction that Bible reading did the common people more harm than good (1564).

It is true that in many cases, the papacy suppressed Scripture because it was being used to teach against the church. But this is exactly the point the Reformers argued: Rome would not allow the Scripture to speak with authority and for that reason suppressed it. Wyclif wrote: "where the Bible and the Church do not agree, we must obey the Bible, and, where conscience and human authority are in conflict, we must follow conscience." For this doctrine and its further implications, his body was exhumed and burned, his ashes scattered in a nearby river, and his Bible translation banned. So much for the Protestant "canard" regarding the Roman Catholic attitude to Bible translation, teaching, and distribution!

The record shows that if there was a single conviction that motivated and guided the Protestant Reformation, it was the authority of Scripture alone to speak for God in matters of faith and life. On this vital matter, the great John Wyclif and his martyr-disciple John Hus spoke with all the clarity that would burst forth through Martin Luther and others in the 16th century. Wyclif did not live to see a widespread Reformation, but died under harassment and scorn. Yet by wonderful providences, his writings spread far away to Bohemia where John Hus advocated them with zeal and power. Hus, too, did not live to see a Reformation, but died in solitary disgrace amidst the flames of a scornful church. Yet his influence endured, through the spread of Scripture, so that Martin Luther exclaimed, "We are all Hussites!"

The Protestant Reformation, which we have been celebrating these past weeks, was above all a Reformation of and by the Word of God. What compelling evidence Wyclif, Hus, and Luther gave to Isaiah's claim that God's Word will not go forth in vain but shall succeed by God's power (Isa. 55:11)! It is for this reason that accommodation with Rome would have been unthinkable to Luther and his followers, since sola scriptura compelled them to stand against false teaching with the Word of truth. Their courageous stance, blessed by God's mighty aid, reminds us that we also will never send forth God's Word in vain. If we will stand within the secular church of America, and yes, of evangelicalism, and hold forth the Word of God, he will not fail to bless it with the saving and reforming power our generation so greatly needs.

Luther's Royal Marriage


Martin Luther was an outsized personality, with great faith and some great flaws. Living with this great person has a good effect on you. Let me commend his little book, The Freedom of a Christian. When he challenged the practice of indulgences in 1517, and when he debated Johann Eck a year later, Luther's concern was pastoral, what Robert Kolb calls the "consolation of sin ridden consciences."1 Luther was becoming convinced that Christ alone is the savior, he alone is the Lord of the Church and His authority is found in the Scripture alone. But between 1517 and 1520, the leadership of the Church was not buying it. What the Church heard was Luther undercutting the Pope's authority and upsetting church order.

In July 1520 Pope Leo warned Luther of 41 doctrinal errors, and threatened him with excommunication. He had 60 days to recant. In November Luther published his statement of the Christian life, The Freedom of a Christian. He dedicated it to the Pope with an open letter, asking for peace. This is his statement of justification by faith alone.

The book has two theses, or propositions. "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none." This is true in the inner man. "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."2 This is true in the outer man.

Perfect freedom is the definition of the believer's relationship to God. That freedom is his in his soul, and nothing can overcome it. Why not? [Because] nothing external can either produce righteousness and freedom, or bring unrighteousness and servitude. Luther defines freedom as being in a right relation to God. The only thing that can make a person free is trusting in the Word of the gracious God. If he has this faith, nothing can hurt him. If he lacks it, nothing can help him.

What did Luther have in mind by external good works? He was thinking of two popular religious lifestyles, the practice of penance, required for all Christians, and rigorous monastic practice. Penance kept up your relationship with God; it had three parts: contrition, confession, and works of satisfaction. Luther complained that contrition for sin had become a human effort that prepared the heart for approaching God, a human merit. "If you do your very best, God will not deny his grace."3 But this left the conscience in doubt. How could anyone be certain he had done his best? Confession of sins to priest had become the occasion for tyranny, rather than the pronouncement of free forgiveness for Christ's sake. And making satisfaction through good deeds assigned by the priest in confession turned people's faith toward human works, rather than to God's free promise.4 There was no freedom there.

How then can righteousness be found? It is found in the message of the Word of God, received by faith.

Luther said faith has three powers. Its first power is in receiving the treasures of grace that God freely offers in Christ.

...the moment you begin to have faith, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable. When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you, so that if you believe in him, you may, through faith become a new man, in so far as your sins are forgiven, and you are justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.5

No human work can accomplish this, neither can an outward work, but only unbelief of heart, make one guilty of sin.

Luther answers an objection: then why does Scripture command so many ceremonies and laws if faith alone "justifies, frees and saves"?  Martin's answer is to draw a line between the law and the gospel. The commandments show us what we ought to do, but give no power to fulfill. God intends them to teach us our inability to do good, and lead us to despair of it. But the second part of Scripture, the promises, are "holy, true, free, peaceful words, full of goodness." Luther is saying that when we entrust ourselves to the promises of God, the power and grace of the Word of God are communicated to the soul. No good work can rely upon God. Thus there is no need for good works to justify, and the Christian is free from the law. Good works are not necessary for righteousness and salvation.

Faith's second power is that it gives God his proper glory by trusting him as truthful, righteous and good. The highest honor we can pay anyone is to trust him. Conversely, if we do not trust him, we do him the greatest disservice. "Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God can there be, than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar?"6 If a person does not trust God's promise, he sets up himself as an idol in his heart. Then his unbelieving doing of good works is actually sinning.

Till now he had thought of God as a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits. He does not deny God's wrath against sin. But now he says that God's basic disposition toward his sinful creatures is love and mercy, his personal favor, based on nothing but his own desire to show compassion.7 "What a kind, fine God he is, nothing but sweetness and goodness, that he feeds us, preserves us, nourishes us." He also has a new understanding of grace. He no longer defines grace as an internally located gift from God; it became instead his favor, his merciful disposition toward sinners.8

Faith's third power is that it unites us to Christ as our bridegroom. Here Luther becomes lyrical.

...Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh, and if between them there is a true marriage... it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has, Christ claims as his own. ... Let us compare these, and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul's... By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell, which are his bride's.... Her sins cannot now destroy her... and she has that righteousness of Christ, her husband, ... and [can] say, "If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his..."9

Luther calls this the glorious exchange, the royal marriage. By faith, then, the person can ascribe all glory to God and have no other gods. By faith he can keep all the commandments.

Finally, Luther says that by faith this perfect freedom means that we are kings and priests to God. Because Christ is king, so we are kings, (in the inner man) lords over all things. Nothing can hurt us. All things are made subject to the believer, to further his salvation. Nothing can subject him to harm, even if God ordains that he suffers and dies. The Christian is also a priest, because he can come before God, to pray to him acceptably.

How then is the Christian different from the church's priests, popes, bishops, and other "ecclesiastics"? There is no distinction, except that certain Christians are set apart to be public teachers and servants.10 But the church has turned these servants into lords.

The church should preach, not just facts about Christ, but what Christ is to be to us. "...that he might not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me... faith is built up when we preach why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him."

What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and in receiving this comfort, will not grow tender, so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of laws or works?"11

Faith is trust in God, not a virtue. It is the rejection of all possible virtue. Faith is not an inward good work that takes the place of outward good works. Rather, it looks to Christ. It knows Christ and rests in him and his righteousness for us.

"A Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all." This defines the believer's relationship to other people. We must continue to do good works, because we are still subject to sin, and we are bound to others.

Good works are valuable to the believer, but not as an alternative righteousness. If that "Leviathan" burdens them, they are actually not good at all. This notion destroys faith.12 All teaching about good works must be grounded in faith.

Faith is active through love.

That is, it finds expression through works of freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willfully serves another without hope of reward; and for himself, he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.13

His sum of the joyful service of the Christian:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore, freely, joyfully, with my whole heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ'14

Luther concludes "By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor."15

Luther brings us back to the Gospel. If we would follow Luther, our ministries must, above all things, seek to lead people to believe, to trust God's Word. We are to set forth Christ for us. God is good and trustworthy and he freely offers us all things, in Christ. Therefore the trustworthiness of the Word, and the necessity of faith is everything. What we want to do for everyone is to help them to believe in Christ as he is offered in the Word.

Second, Luther is not antinomian. He is clear that faith works through love (Gal. 5:3). But why do we need the moral law? Because we are still sinners, subject to temptation and to continuing unbelief. However, even as it instructs us as believers, the law has a largely negative function. Luther does not make a sound theological place for God's law as the believer's delight. But it is just the gospel that overcomes the problem of law. "If I am outside of Christ, the law is my enemy, because God is my enemy. But once I am in Christ, the law is my friend, because God is my friend."16 It is the deepest desire of my heart to obey God's law, and to do this in faith. Faith works through love.

Last, Luther's doctrine of sola fide in 1520 is closer to "union with Christ by faith alone," than to "justification by faith alone." His major metaphor is the union of the believer and the Bridegroom, the wonderful exchange between Christ and us. Luther clearly includes justification in this, an "alien righteousness," Christ's righteousness, by faith alone. But the more precise idea of his perfect, finished and final righteousness, counted ours once for all, is not here yet, because Luther speaks about our righteousness growing over our lifetime.

Later biblical reflection would clarify this, and Luther would be clearer about it too. God in free grace, reckons the righteousness of Christ to us, when we simply entrust ourselves to him. It is not faith, considered in itself, that grounds God's pronouncement. Christ's sacrifice for us, alone, is the basis of our being forgiven, fully and perfectly and once for all. In 1520 the brownies were still a little chewy. It took some time for this fully biblical idea of justification to bake completely. However, having said this, I think Luther's idea of the glorious exchange by union with Christ is sound and biblical. Union with Christ by faith alone truly is the "freedom of a Christian." When we receive Christ by faith alone, we receive both his righteousness as a completed gift, and are thus accounted righteous by God, once for all. And it is also true that our hearts are cleansed, what we term "sanctification," by this union. What Luther calls the good works of a good man, notice, a changed man, are the fruit of this union. John Calvin would later put it like this:

We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar, in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but because we put on Christ, and are engrafted into his body--in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.17

I close with these beautiful words of Luther:

Who then, can appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by the bride in the Song of Solomon says [2:16], "My beloved is mine, and I am his."18


1. Robert Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 72.

2. J. Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, selections from his writings (New York: Anchor, 1962), 53.

3. See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).

4. Kolb, 86.

5. Dillenberger, 55f.

6. Dillenberger, 59.

7. Kolb, 60.

8. Kolb, 34.

9. Dillenberger, 60f.

10. Dillenberger, 65.

11. Dillenberger, 66.

12. Dillenberger, 72.

13. Dillenberger, 74.

14. Dillenberger, 75f.

15. Dillenberger, 80.

16. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

17. Institutes 3.11.10. 18. Dillenberger, 80f.

*This lecture was part of RTS' "Luther's (Re)Formative Years: Engaging the Reformation at 500" Conference. The audio can be found here

The Troublesome Doctrine of Biblical Authority


In the years 1518--1519, the Leipzig Debates were called and conducted between Johann Eck and Martin Luther, among others, in Pleissenburg Castle in Leipzig Germany. At the time, Luther would have presented the latest instance of the annoying humanists and reformers who seemed to be popping up across the theological landscape over the previous century.

Inspired by the classicalism of the Renaissance, and a general humanistic desire to original sources, innovative scholars had made headway into the study and interpretation of the biblical texts. New grammars of Hebrew, like the one published by Johann Reuchlin in 1506, modeled on the great Rabbi David Kimchi's grammatical work, opened up the Hebrew text to interpreters who previously had to go to great lengths to learn the ancient language for themselves.

In the midst of the renewal of interest in the original texts, Europe experienced a vast democratization of knowledge happening at every level of society, inspired further by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The significance of the printing press matched that of other leaps in informational technology like the alphabet in the late second millennium B.C., the codex around the time of Christ, and the internet in recent years. This new access to printed material fundamentally shifted intellectual discourse across the disciplines.

Interest and access to primary sources, including those of Scripture, fueled a theological awakening that questioned some of the most entrenched political and ecclesiastical power structures of its day.

This ideological revolution loomed in the background of the Leipzig Debates, particularly as it pertained to the authority of the Pope as head of the church and arbiter of Christian doctrine. It was a grand confrontation; think William Jennings Bryant vs. Clarence Darrow, but with habit and cowl. The two met on July 4 to commence debate. One attendee, the humanist Peter Mosellanus, described the two opponents in vivid detail. For Luther: "Martin is of medium height; his body is slender, emaciated by cares and study; one can count almost all the bones; he stands in the prime of his age; his voice sounds clear and distinct." How did Eck appear? "He has a huge square body, a full strong voice coming from his chest, fit for a tragic actor or a town crier, and more harsh than distinct; his mouth, eyes, and whole aspect give one the idea of a butcher or a rude soldier rather than of a theologian."1

For Eck, the debates substantivized the charge of heresy against Luther, because Luther admitted that he sympathized with the opinions of the followers of Jan Hus who had already been condemned by the church as a heretic. For Luther, the debates helped him clarify the raison d'etre of his early and fervent opposition to certain Roman doctrines. He was not merely dissatisfied with ecclesiastical corruption or errors made by the church authorities. Rather, his was a difference on the issue of authority itself, where it lay and what that meant for the world.

In the next year later, Luther would write, "But that we fight not with our own words, let us bring forth the Scriptures." His doctrine of biblical authority had developed further. Everyone, including the church leadership, should be held accountable by the teaching of scripture. To illustrate the point, Luther proposed a hypothetical situation of ecclesiastical corruption, and drew counsel from two biblical passages in which the authority of God's word trumps other hierarchies. He writes,

"If it were to happen that the pope and his cohorts were wicked and not true Christians, were not taught by God and were without understanding, and at the same time some obscure person had a right understanding, why should the people not follow the obscure man? Has not the pope erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope erred if we did not have somebody we could trust more than him, somebody who had the Scriptures on his side."

Never one to let a vivid illustration pass by without utilization, he goes on:

"Long ago Abraham had to listen to Sarah, although she was in more complete subjection to him than we are to anyone on earth. And Balaam's ass was wiser than the prophet himself. If God spoke then through an ass against a prophet, why should he not be able even now to speak through a righteous man against the pope?"2

The authority is not in the person (or ass) who teaches but in the divine word that undergirds and authorizes the teaching--so that no one may boast.

Even more, if Scripture is authoritative for all, from least to greatest, then it must be accessible to all. What value is the word of God to those who worship him, if its teaching is not made available to them? The technological innovations and spirit of the age coincided with this theological commitment of the Reformation.

For Luther, translation was the next logical step. He set about this work immediately if a bit begrudgingly. As he reflected on his translation of the Bible into German, he realized that the task was much greater than he had previously imagined.

"We are now sweating over the translation of the Prophets into German. O God, what a great and hard toil it requires to compel the writers against their will to speak German! They do not want to give up their Hebrew and imitate the barbaric German. Just as though a nightingale should be compelled to imitate a cuckoo and give up her glorious melody, even though she hates a song in monotone."3

For all of the literary and aesthetic offense he endured, he understood it was a necessary suffering so that the word of God could be communicated to the German rank and file.

The profound insight that Luther and the Reformers stumbled upon was the basic need to remove the wall of separation between the Word of God and the individual soul, to put the Scriptures' clarity on display for all to see, through translation, yes, but also through preaching that explained the Biblical text on its own terms, in light of the whole counsel of God, and testified to by the Spirit.

On this side of the Leipzig Debates, such an insight seems hardly profound, but it should be. In its day, the authority of Scriptures represented a radical change in direction for the community of faith, and the church has not been the same since.

The Reformed tradition offers a constellation of doctrines and insights drawn from the teaching of Scripture, but only insofar as they are clearly articulated and accessible to the those with ears to hear. As Reformed believers, we should be sure to steward well the rich biblical theology with which we have been entrusted. We must offer it to the world with clarity and generosity, even when it is painful to our sensibilities, preferences, and tastes. Just like Luther.

1. T. M. Lindsay, Luther and the German Reformation (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1900), 84.

2. Martin Luther, "Address to The German Nobility," in Three Treatises (2nd. ed.; trans. By C.M. Jacobs; rev. by J. Atkinson; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 20; 21-22.

3. Martin Luther, correspondence with Wenceslas Link, June 14, 1528.

The Great-Grandfather of the Reformation


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us not forget that there were reforming efforts in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ long before Martin Luther played the carpenter and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. These forerunners of the Reformation did not live in what we now know as Germany, yet the influence of at least two upon Luther - and so on the Protestant church as we know it today - was not insignificant.

Indeed, if Luther is the father of the Reformation, then it would be appropriate to say that a Czechoslovakian (John Hus) was its grandfather, and an Englishman (John Wycliffe) was its great-grandfather. We do well to remember briefly the story of Wycliffe's influence, through Hus, upon Luther's work of reformation.

John Wycliffe is called the "Morningstar of the Reformation" for good reason. Born sometime around the year 1330 in northern England, he studied at Oxford University, becoming a fellow of Merton College in 1356 and a Master of Balliol College in 1360. In 1361 he was ordained as a parish priest, but he spent most of the next twenty years studying for his doctorate and teaching at Oxford. In 1381, due to the controversial nature of his writings (especially his books On Civil Dominion, On the Church, On the Eucharist, and On the Truth of Sacred Scripture), he was forced to leave Oxford and retire to his parish of Lutterworth, where he preached until he died on December 31, 1384. Wycliffe's teachings were harbingers of the fuller Reformation to come. He viewed the Scriptures as the final authority for the Christian: "Forasmuch as the Bible contains Christ, that is all that is necessary for salvation; it is necessary for all men, not for priests alone. It alone is the supreme law that is to rule Church, State, and Christian life, without human traditions and statutes." He believed in preaching the Bible to the people of God in language they could understand, and in translating the Bible into the language of the people. He objected to the Church hierarchy, believing that Jesus Christ alone was the head of the Church. He attacked indulgences, and called out the lax morals of the monks and priests of his day. He challenged the Roman view of the Lord's Supper.

So how did a man who lived only some fifty-four years in 14th century England affect the course of human history through a 16th century monk from Germany? In God's providence, ecclesiastical and civil politics combined to catapult Wycliffe's ideas onto the European continent. Like many good stories, this one involves international drama and a relationship between a man and a woman. When the Great Papal Schism of 1378 divided France from Rome, and the Avignon papacy vied with the Roman papacy, England (of course) stood against its longstanding enemy France, and sided with Rome. Rome sought to persuade Bohemia to sever ties with France and to form an allegiance with England. The occasion of this alliance was a marriage in 1382 between Princess Anne of Bohemia with King Richard II of England.

When Anne arrived in England, she brought her scholars to study at Oxford. There they were exposed to the teachings and writings of Wycliffe, both of which they carried back to the burgeoning reformation movement amongst their own countrymen. Wycliffe's doctrine, sermons, and reformist spirit spurred on these native Bohemian reformers, including one John Hus. Johann Loserth, an editor of Wycliffe's sermons, argues that a comparison of Hus' sermons with Wycliffe's sermons shows that in some cases the former took from the latter almost word for word. Although modern scholars disagree with this plagiarizing notion on the whole, yet Wycliffe's influence on Hus, especially on his doctrine of the church, is undeniable. Translating Wycliffe's sermons into Czechoslovakian contributed to Hus being burned at the stake. Indeed, the same council that condemned Hus to death anathematized Wycliffe.

Finally we have made our way back to Luther. At and after his Disputation at Leipzig in July 1519 with Johann Eck, Luther acknowledged that he was a Hussite, and so by genetic derivation to a degree a Wycliffite. He saw himself as the fulfillment of Hus' prophecy from prison: "Jan Hus has prophesied about me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia: 'Now they roast a goose, but in a hundred years they shall hear a swan singing, which they will not be able to do away with.'" At the Leipzig debate, Luther answered Eck's claim of "No Pope, no Church!" with an argument that Nick Needham states was first used by Wycliffe: "The Greek Church has existed without a Pope, and you are the first to call it no Church." Luther did not teach every doctrine of these forerunners, yet when Eck accused Luther as being "as bad as Wycliffe and Hus," Luther answered, "Every opinion of Hus was not wrong." And he was unmoved at the prospect of his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church being labeled as "Wycliffite."

This short survey is hopefully sufficient to show that Wycliffe, through Hus, tilled the soil for the blooming of Martin Luther. John Milton, in his Aeropagitica, commented on Wycliffe's significance to Britain and to the European continent: "Why else was this Nation chosen before any other, that out of her, as out of Sion, should be proclaimed and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation to all Europe? And had it not been the obstinate perverseness of our prelates against the divine and admirable spirit of Wickliff, to suppress him as a schismatic and innovator, perhaps neither the Bohemian Huss and Jerome, no nor the name of Luther or Calvin, had been ever known: the glory of reforming all our neighbors had been completely ours." Milton's overly-patriotic zeal notwithstanding, his remark reminds us not to stop at 1517 as we look backward for the roots of the Reformation.

Luther's Loyal Son


Many of us have probably been led to think of the Reformed (and Presbyterian) tradition as being separate and parallel tradition to the Lutheran tradition. There have been those within the modern Reformed tradition and within the Lutheran tradition since at least the 1550s who want us to think of things this way. This was not the story that John Calvin (1509-64) told, however, nor is it the way he saw his relationship to Martin Luther (1483-1546). In light of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and the ongoing Calvinist "resurgence," it is worth asking how Calvin himself saw his relationship to Luther and how his perception should influence ours.

Luther was the pioneer of Protestant theology, piety, and practice. He gradually became Protestant in the period between 1513-21 as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. Reading Augustine as he lectured on the Psalms he realized that the doctrine of man and sin that he had learned in university did not agree with Scripture nor did it agree with Augustine. In the Psalms he saw that human depravity is greater than he had thought and grace is greater, more powerful, and more free than he thought, that God has elected his people to new life and true faith unconditionally, from all eternity (sola gratia). By the end of his lectures on the Psalms he had become young, restless, and Augustinian but he was not yet a Protestant. As he lectured through Romans, he began to see that the basis on which we stand before God is not the sanctity wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace but Christ's righteousness accomplished outside of us and imputed to us. As he lectured through Galatians he came to see that view confirmed and he began to re-think what he had learned about the role of faith in salvation, that it was not just another virtue formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The picture became clearer as he lectured through Hebrews and the Psalms again. Late in life, looking back at his theological development, he said that it was as he lectured through Psalms again that the light went on, as it were, and he realized that it is faith that apprehends Christ, that rests in and receives Christ and his righteousness for us. It is through faith the Spirit unites us to Christ so that he becomes ours and we become his (sola fide).

In this period he also gradually came to see that the traditional way of speaking of law and gospel, i.e., of the "old law" and the "new law" were inadequate. Those categories did not account for the fundamental difference between the law and the gospel as distinct principles and as they relate to sinners. The old scheme had made the entire Bible bad news for sinners. Luther discovered that Scripture contains both bad news and good news for sinners.

His last breakthrough was to see that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and life. He saw that whereas the various councils had contradicted themselves, that canon law was endlessly complex, where popes contradicted Scripture and each other, the Scriptures were wonderfully simple and clear on the gospel and the Christian life.

By the time Luther published his justly famous treatise on predestination, On the Bound Will (1525), his theology, piety, and practice had been revolutionized. He was no longer a medieval theologian nor a Roman Catholic, but a Protestant and evangelical theologian and minister.

By the time Luther reached his essential Protestant convictions, Calvin was about 12 years old. He was just beginning a kind of internship toward the priesthood in Noyon. He would not become a Protestant for a little more than another decade, after several years in university. Where Luther was educated in a theology faculty, Calvin was educated in the arts and law faculties. Nevertheless, Calvin, who had originally intended to read theology toward entering the priesthood, retained an interest in theology and read Luther in university. In a passing comment he later remarked that he had been unusually stubborn in his Romanism. His conversion to the Reformation theology seems to have surprised even himself and Luther's writing, categories, and theology played a central role.

In the early 1530s "Lutheran" and "Reformed" were developing categories. The boundaries between them were fuzzy. The divisions between the two traditions, Lutheran and Reformed, would begin to harden in the confessional period beginning in the 1550s but Calvin always saw himself as Luther's loyal son.

The two never met and never even corresponded. Luther became aware of Calvin about 1539 in connection with Calvin's defense of the Reformation and sent well wishes via Melanchthon. Calvin wrote to Luther in 1545 professing his admiration for Luther, whom he described as "the most excellent pastor of the Christian church." He repeatedly called Luther "my father" as he asked him to endorse two treatises he had written to the "Nicodemites," i.e., those who said that they were with the Reformation but who nevertheless remained in the Roman church. Unfortunately, Melanchthon, to whom Calvin had sent the letter, pocketed it and Luther never saw it.

Calvin received as basic Luther's five breakthroughs. In 1543 he wrote to the Emperor, Charles V, "God raised up Luther and others in the beginning [of the Reformation]." He wrote that it was Luther "who carried the torch for us toward re-discovering the way of salvation, who founded our ministry, who instituted our churches." In a volume defending the biblical doctrine of election and reprobation, he described Luther as "a distinguished apostle of Christ." A catalogue of similar expressions of identity with Luther is easily found in Calvin's works.

Calvin's intellectual and spiritual debt to Luther has often been missed by students. Why? The reasons are several but here are three: 1) We have read our post-sixteenth-century loyalties back into the sixteenth-century. 2) Modern Reformed Christians are typically not well read in Luther and thus miss Luther's structural influence on Calvin's theology as well as the allusions to and even verbatim (but unacknowledged) quotations from Luther in Calvin's works. 3) Students of Calvin, particularly in the modern period, have tended to rely almost exclusively on his Institutes where he did not cite contemporary (sixteenth-century) writers by name, which creates a misleading impression about his debt to Luther.

Calvin did criticize Luther's manner and theology. For decades he wrote privately to friends to complain about Luther's rhetoric against the Zürichers. He also complained about those who toadied up to Luther, who refused to stand up to him regarding his rhetoric on the Supper and the two natures of Christ. He resented the expectation among some orthodox Lutherans that the Protestants should unfailingly follow Luther's biblical exegesis without dissent. Finally, Calvin and the Reformed reached different conclusions from Luther (and the Lutherans) on what he called "the rule of worship." In public, however, he was rarely so critical of Luther, whom he praised lavishly, as the one from whom he learned the gospel and the basics of evangelical Christianity.

The Great Pope Within

"I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self." Martin Luther almost certainly never made this statement (though many have falsely attributed it to him). It is, however, an accurate and quite helpful statement, as far as it goes. We all have a great pope within. By nature, none of us wants to submit ourselves to God and the sole authority of His word. All of us enjoy being a law unto ourselves. We're all committed to laying out standards with which we are comfortable--standards that appear to benefit us. We go on to affirm our own standards by finding affinity with others who have similar standards. We then live in an echo chamber of a functional magisterium we have collectively formed. Of course, at the head of this functional magisterium is the pope of self. While this is certainly the mode of operation for unbelievers, it is not entirely eradicated when we are converted. In fact, aspects of this functional Roman Catholicism are ever manifested in the hearts of believers. Here are several ways in which this manifests itself in our everyday experiences. 

1. Penance. In the first of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said "Repent," he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance." Luther felt as though this was necessary on account of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had built an elaborate system of penitential satisfaction for the forgiveness of sins on a faulty translation of the word μετανοεῖτε. Rather than give it the natural translation "repent," Erasmus had given it the Latin translation from which we derive the English phrase, "Do penance." Luther preached his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in order to show to what great lengths Rome was willing to take the penitential system. Thomas Aquinas had articulated the doctrine of penance in such a way as to include indulgences--"together with vigils, working, [sleeping on a] hard bed, [wearing rough] clothes, etc."--for satisfaction for sin. Johanne Tetzel, the great seller of indulgences and Luther's principle adversary, defended Rome's penitential system in his Against's Luther's Sermon on Indulgences and Grace

All who love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement--the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ--will rightly revolt at the idea of Rome's penitential system. However, we functionally embrace something of a penitential system when we try to quiet a guilty conscience with good works. There are a thousand ways in which we can fall into this trap. If we haven't been fruitful in our outreach in the community in which we live, we go on a short term mission trip to make up for it. If we haven't been faithful in gathering with the saints for Lord's Day worship, we give more money to the church to cover for our delinquency in worship. No matter what shape or form it takes, we can seek to make satisfaction for our sins by doing more or by doing better, rather than recognizing that God has made satisfaction for our sins by offering up His Son on the cross. This is why we believe, with Luther, that the Christian life is to be one of repentance not penitence

2. Ritualism. Closely aligned to the idea of penitence is the idea of ritualism. Ritualism comes in many shapes and forms. The great danger of ritualism is that it perverts religious rituals that God has instituted in His word by investing in them an efficacy that they do not have in and of themselves. This is most fully exemplified by Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Geerhard Vos explained the nature of sacramentalism when he wrote: 

"Roman Catholics teach concerning a sacrament that it works ex opere operato [worked by the work]. Baptism and the Lord's Supper of themselves do what they are said to do. The cross of Christ does not justify but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the mass. It makes certain merits available that then, however, require a special application to become effective."1

It may seem quite a jump to suggest that we can fall into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose. Many years ago, I was a member of a large Presbyterian church that celebrated the Lord's Supper on a monthly basis. After a few months there, I began to realize that attendance was up approximately one-third whenever the Supper was being celebrated. I asked one of my friends why that was the case. He explained that some functionally treat the Lord's Supper exactly the way Rome views the mass. Instead of seeing the word as the central means of grace--and as that which defines the sacrament--they convinced themselves that the Supper was something far more special. In doing so, they functionally embrace a form of sacramentalism. This is just one example of how we too can fall into ritualism. 

3. The Confessional. The Scriptures plainly teach us that we should confess our sins to one another (Matt. 5:24; 18:15; James 5:16) and that we should confess our sins to God (Ps. 51; 1 John 1:8-2:2). The Roman Catholic Church, of course, perverted the intention of this teaching by making the priest the agent of absolution and the confessional an element of penance. Once you go to the priest and confess what you have done, he gives you a series of penitential deeds unto absolution. Protestants have long seen the absurdity of such a perversion of the biblical teaching on confession of sin; however, we are ever in danger of turning our friends into personal priests--and, without going to the Lord in contrition and confession--functionally creating our own confessional. I can easily seek to unburden my guilty conscience by telling a friend what I have done sinfully without going to the Lord for pardon and cleansing (1 John 1:8-2:2). Instead, we ought to confess our sin to those against whom we have sinned, confide in a close friend or pastor with whom we can pray together, and--most importantly--go to God in brokenness knowing that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One--the propitiation for our sin. 

4. Conscience Binding. Little needs to be said about how prevalent this is in the lives of those of us who attend Protestant churches in our day. How many of us haven't made up our own rules about schooling, food and drink, television and movies, dress, etc. Whenever we subject ourselves to man-made rules and regulations, we are functionally doing the exact same thing that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing as an insitution for well over a thousand years. The doctrine of the liberty of conscience was one of the most precious doctrines to the Reformers for this very reason. It was on account of Rome's perversion of it that the Westminster Divines dedicated an entire chapter to it in the Confession of Faith. There we read those great words: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship" (WCF 20.2). It was this doctrine that led Luther to make his great "Here I Stand" speach.  

The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependance on Christ as He is set out in the Scripture. The word of God is the sole authority by which we test all things and to which we hold fast in all matters of faith and practice. If we give him free reign, the great pope within will pervert the clear teaching of Scripture on matters of salvation, worship and the Christian life. We must constantly return to the Scripture to have our minds and hearts renewed in the knowledge of the God who is over all. We must be able to say with Luther, with great conviction and sincerity, "My conscience is captive to the Word of go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me." 

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 247). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Luther and Calvin's Quiet Discussions in Heaven

Those who cherish the Reformation have often sought out what, if any, influence Martin Luther may have had on John Calvin. Did the two Reformers ever meet in person? Was Calvin influenced by the writings or ministry of "the Initiator" of the Reformation? Did he ever rely on the writing of Luther in the development of his own theology? These and many other related questions surface when we begin, with admiration, to give ourselves to a study of these two massively important figures. 

Much remains uncertain about which of Luther's works Calvin read and which of Calvin's works Luther read. It is, however, clear that Calvin had knowledge of the controversies that surrounded Luther's theological writings and debates and that Luther read Calvin on certain theological issues. For instance, Calvin labored to wed Zwingli's spiritual view of the Supper to Luther's insistence on real presence. In John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, Herman Selderhuis explains:

"Calvin was left with the pieces of the dispute and tried to resolve things by combining the elements that both Luther and Zwingli insisted on. He thus arrived at a belief in the real presence of Christ through his Spirit, a solution through which some kind of unity was established both with the Wittenbergers and with the Swiss. Unfortunately a three-party consensus was never achieved."1  

Luther was aware that Calvin was seeking to reconcile his view with that of Zwingli, as Selderhuis notes:

"Melanchthon reported that when someone tried to incite Luther to attack Calvin's teaching on the Lord's Supper...Luther actually praised Calvin after reading the relevant passages."2 

The bulk of Calvin's references to Luther have to do, not with theological matters but with personal assessment (which is unsurprising given the strong personalities possessed by the two Reformers). Calvin was critical as well as celebratory in his opinions about the Wittenberg Reformer. In a letter to Bullinger, Calvin deemed Luther "immoderately ardent and violent in character;" and, in a letter to Melanchthon, he criticized Luther for getting too worked up and for being too quick tempered. However, Calvin praised Luther to Bullinger when he wrote: 

"I understand that Luther pours invectives on you and on us all. I dare scarcely request you to keep silence. But I supplicate you at least to remember what a great man Luther is, by what admirable qualities he is distinguished, what courage, what constancy, what ability, what power of doctrine there is in him to beat down the kingdom of anti-christ, and to propagate the knowledge of salvation. I say it, and have often repeated it, even though he called me a devil, I would not cease to honor him, and to acknowledge him as an illustrious servant of God."3 

Despite having to endure personal attacks from Luther, Calvin praised Luther for being a "most learned father in the Lord." Merle d'Aubigne wrote: "Calvin did not even fear to say, that in his eyes Luther was far above Zwingli;--Nam si inter se comparantur, scis ipse quanto intervallo Lutherus excedat."4

On one occasion, Luther sent word to Calvin from Martin Bucer. Selderhuis notes that "Calvin was thrilled when Bucer brought him personal greetings from Luther, along with a report that their German colleague had been pleased with Calvin's writings."5 Calvin received word that Luther was finally appreciative of something that he had written. Not unaffected by this commendation, Calvin wrote, "If we are not appeased by such moderation, we must be completely of stone. I am really appeased. I wrote something that satisfied him."6

Despite his criticisms of Luther, Calvin acknowledged the early influence that Luther has on him regarding the other Reformers. Later in life, Calvin reflected on the fact that "'when he began to liberate himself from the darkness of the papacy,' he was so influenced by Luther that he distanced himself from the writings of Oecolampadius and Zwingli."7

One of the most beautiful statements about Calvin's view of Luther is in a letter that he wrote to Luther toward the end of Luther's life (a letter that Luther sadly never received). In it, the Genevan Reformer suggested he and Luther "would soon be together in heaven where they could continue their discussion in quiet."8 What more beautiful way to pursue the peace that Christ longs for His followers to experience! Despite what appears to have been a tumultuous relationship, there was, on the part of Calvin, a deep desire for unity and peace with the great "Initiator" of the Reformation. While they may not have had the sweetest of fellowship on earth, of this much we may be sure: Calvin and Luther are engaging themselves in perfectly loving discussions in heaven before the presence of the Christ whom they sought to glorify here on earth.

1. Herman Selderhuis John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2009) p. 94
2. Ibid., p. 105

3. Emmanuel Stickelberger, Calvin, a Life. Translated by Georg Gelzer (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1954), 70. 

4. Robert Baird, D'Aubigne and His Writings (New York: John S. Taylor, 1847) p. 257

5. John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, p. 33

6. Ibid., p. 106

7. Ibid., p. 105

8. Ibid. p. 259

Theology for Beggars (Part 1)


On February 19th the "scrawny shrimp," as he was affectionately called, stood startled, as his lecture on Romans was interrupted by news no one wanted to hear. Hardly able to gather himself, Philip Melanchthon tearfully announced to his students assembled in the great hall at Lutherhause, "Ach, obiit auriga et currus Israel!" (Alas, the charioteer of Israel has fallen!")

Biographer Roland Bainton suggests Martin Luther had done the work of five men in his lifetime. By February 18th, 1546, it caught up with him. Returning from a trip to Eisleben, marked by weeks of efforts to reconcile two brother counts of Mansfeld, his heart was failing him. The weather had been terribly disagreeable. This didn't help. Luther, admittedly feeling his age and frailty, wearily took ill. As the story goes, his companions managed to find lodging for him in a nearby house. His condition worsening, one of them asked, "Dr. Luther, do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught." Breaking his labored breathing of prayer and scriptures, a distinct "Ya!" leaped from his lips. Between 2-3am, Luther died a good death - full circle, in the very town in which he was born 62 years prior.

One of the most telling pieces to this dramatic conclusion to a dramatic earthly journey is a note Luther scratched out just two days earlier. Knowing his dire condition, he penned something of a humble epilogue to his life, churchmanship, the Scripture he adored, and the "doctrine he had taught:"

"No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has spent five years as a shepherd or farmer. No one understands Cicero in his letters unless he has served under an outstanding government for twenty years. No one should believe that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has spent one hundred years leading churches with the prophets. That is why: 1. John the Baptist, 2, Christ, 3. The Apostles were a prodigious miracle. Do not profane this divine Aeneid, but bow down to it and honor its vestiges."1

This note, which Luther wrote in Latin, is concluded by a burst of German, "Wir sind alle Bettler." Then--resuming the Latin--Luther wrote, "Hoc est verum."   ("We are all beggars. This is true.")

2017 is the year of all things Luther, as we mark the 500th anniversary of the day that often ostentatious Augustinian monk walked the better part of a mile, from the University of Wittenberg to the door of the Schlosskirche, and posted his Ninety-Five Theses. The door was often used for making public notice of academic and religious matters. In one sense, this was no different from other such postings. In another sense--as history shows--nothing would ever be the same.

Having traced Luther's steps in Wittenberg on a tour through Germany many years ago, I have often thought about that rather straight mile as just one part of an expansive trajectory of a beggarly theology. Amidst the bustle around various celebratory Lutherpaloozas and conferences, books, t-shirts, and even a Playmobile Martin Luther action figure (yes, I am a proud owner of one), we honor him best by reminding ourselves we are, indeed, beggars, and that true theologians are theologians of the cross, humbled at the surprising notion of God's glory revealed in weakness.

When I went to the sites of Luther's life all those years ago, I took my prized first edition of Bainton's Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. I carried it around, from the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, where monk Luther trembled and stumbled through his first mass, to the Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament from Greek to German and effectively placed the Reformation in the laps of milkmaids and cobblers. I suppose in my mind I was adding to the specialness of my copy of Here I Stand by reading it, town to town, where it all happened.

I want to welcome you to walk with me this year as I share my interest in some of the books that have helped me--select biographies old and new (in which there will be more honesty than mere hagiography), theological analyses (accessible to academic), sources primary and secondary, that give us a taste of the gospel bread for which Luther lived his life learning to beg. We will pause along the way to consider some of the contours of Luther's thought in the context of his own life and ministry. The door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg opened the way to a disputation in Heidelberg some six months later in April of 1518, better showing us the beggarliness of a theology grounded in suffering and the cross. The stand that Luther took at Worms led to the Scripture that he translated at Wartburg. That, quite literally, is just the beginning. There is much more to see along the way!

In the next post, we will consider some volumes that help make up a good "starter kit" for building a Luther library. Until then, if you've already read Bainton, even if not while enjoying pizza at the little cafe across from the Theses-engraved doors at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, then let me suggest you now move on to Carl Trueman's Luther on the Christian Life.

1. See Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) p. 166

Reformation 101: Priests in Jesus

Having recently passed the 499th anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, there is great anticipation of the 500th celebration of this momentous event and the Reformation that it catalyzed. We typically summarize the Reformation by the five solas - the Scriptures alone teach us that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But there was another key theme recovered by the Reformers, intimately connected to those solas (particularly the last one), that is forgotten and denied on a practical level even today: the priesthood of all believers.

In the 16th century, the Roman church divided mankind into two groups, the "spiritual estate" and the "temporal estate." The former consisted of those involved in "full time Christian ministry," who were closest to God and salvation because of their positions in the church. The latter was the common folk, who only had access to God, His word and salvation through the clerics and the sacraments. To this way of thinking and living, the Reformers shouted "No!" In his 1520 book, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther declared, "All Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except in so far as they do different work." Additionally, John Calvin stated, "In Christ we are all priests, but to offer praises and thanksgiving, in short, to offer ourselves and ours to God" (Institutes, IV.xix.28). The Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 18) affirmed this teaching as well: "To be sure, Christ's apostles call all who believe in Christ 'priests,' but not on account of an office, but because, all the faithful having been made kings and priests, we are able to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ (Exod. 19:6; I Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6). Therefore, the priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another..."

Where did the Reformers get this teaching? From the Scriptures alone, of course. I Peter 2:4-10 is one of the clearest declarations of the priesthood of all believers in the whole Bible. Peter, writing to the church, says that we "are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." We are "a royal priesthood." But Peter didn't make this language up; rather, he got it from the Old Testament, in particular Exodus 19. Before God forms the Aaronic priesthood, He says that the whole nation was a kingdom of priests. Out of all the nations, Israel had nearness of access to God, was set apart to serve God, to represent God to the nations, and the nations to God. Peter is taking OT language and is applying it to the church, made up primarily of the Gentile nations. The church of Jesus Christ, saved from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession.

Such a status isn't because of anything in us, but only through a faith union with Jesus Christ - "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood...This precious value, then is for you who believe..." (I Peter 2:4-5, 7). It's as we are joined to Jesus by faith alone apart from obedience to the law that we become a brick in this spiritual temple for the purpose of being a priest. The priesthood of all believers is intimately connected with that other key Reformation truth, justification by faith alone. Just as the priests in the OT were washed with clean water before putting on their priestly garments, so we have been washed in the blood of Christ and clothed in His righteousness. Peter is saying to the nations who have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, "You are connected with Israel of old; you have inherited all the promises and privileges and responsibilities that God gave to Israel! You've been called for the same purpose, redeemed by the same God, committed to the same response."

So what are the privileges and responsibilities that come with our priesthood in Jesus? First, we are called to worship and intercede. Peter is clear: as priests, we offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. We "proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9). In the words of Hebrews 13:15, through Jesus we offer a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name, for we remember that once we are not a people, but now we are by His mercy the people of God (I Peter 2:10). We do not need any other human intermediary but Jesus; through Him we can draw near confidently to the throne of grace. This means we do not need to go to a confessional to confess our sins. It means that we are not spectators but participants in corporate worship. And it means we intercede for one another. Like the priests of old carried the names of God's people into the holy place, like Jesus ever lives to intercede for His own, so we in Christ can pray for one another, and God hears the prayers of the saints as quickly as He hears the prayers of pastors.

Second, we are to fulfill our vocation to the glory of God. Here we're thinking about worship more broadly. That is, in whatever God calls us to do, we can and we must do it to His glory, for His sake, as unto Him. Colossians 3:23-24, "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve." In the Reformers' day, only those who worked for the church or the monastery or convent were seen as doing God's work. But the Reformers read passages like Romans 12:1-2 and said that as priests, in view of God's mercies, all Christians are to present their bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, as their spiritual service of worship. To be sure, Jesus has instituted in His church the offices of elder and deacon; but those who hold these special offices are not special people; you don't need to be a missionary or pastor or ruling elder or deacon to serve God.

One could be a salesman, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer, a mechanic, a computer technician, an accountant, a waitress, a grocery clerk, a carpenter, a farmer, a banker, a student - whatever our calling, if it is lawful and legitimate, it is pleasing to God, and we can and ought to glorify God in it by fulfilling the creation mandate to exercise dominion over the creation, to subdue the earth. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, to bring order out of chaos, to create value and delight for those we serve, to do our work with excellence, beauty, creativity and skill. Soli Deo Gloria is true not just when we think about our salvation, but when we think about our calling in creation. Just as "holy to the Lord" was inscribed on the turban of the OT priests, so "holy to the Lord" is to be written across our entire lives.

Third, missions and evangelism. In Exodus 19:4-6, as Christopher Wright has argued in his book The Mission of God, God is not declaring a condition of Israel's salvation; rather, it's a condition of Israel's mission. By keeping the covenant they would continue to be set apart from the world, and so be able to mediate the presence and blessing of the Lord as a light to the nations. As a kingdom of priests, Israel was to represent God to the nations in holy conduct, bringing God's word and glory to the nations around them; and they were to represent the nations to God, interceding on their behalf, making provision for the nations to find God through the atoning sacrifices. They were to be a vehicle of salvation for the nations; all the earth was the Lord's, but God had set Israel apart within the world the way a priest was set apart within the community.

In the same way, we who belong to Jesus are called to be a blessing to the nations; we exist for the sake of the world around us. God calls us to intercede for the nations, bringing them to God, and to bring the light of the gospel to the nations, that they might have fellowship with God through the atonement of Jesus. Our worship declares to the world that God is more satisfying and desirable than anything in this life, and we call our neighbors to repent of their idolatries and trust in Jesus alone. I Peter 2:11 tells us that as aliens and strangers in this world we are to abstain from fleshly lusts, living holy lives, consistent with our status as priests. And our holy lives will be a means by which the Gentiles around us will be converted, or without excuse on the last day (I Pet. 2:12).

The truth is, whether in our worship, our vocation, or our evangelism, we often don't do a very good job of being the priest we have already been made by Christ. This is precisely why we need Jesus as our great High Priest! With that confidence, we cry out to the Lord to enable us to cling to this doctrine as a most precious inheritance of our Reformation forbears, and use it for His glory, walking as priests in Jesus every day of our life.

Related Resources

Colin J. Bulley The Priesthood of Some Believers
Mark Dever "The Priesthood of All Believers: Reconsidering Every Member Ministry," in John H. Armstrong ed. The Compromised Church (Crossway, 1998)
I begin every semester in my Church and Sacraments course with the following quotation from Martin Luther, which Karl Barth used "In Place of a Foreword" to introduce Church Dogmatics, volume 1.2. The quotation says so much about the relationship between Christology and ecclesiology in Protestant dogmatics. And it offers so much by way of encouragement to ministry-weary pastors. So, rather than adding further comment, I will let Luther speak for himself:

It is not we who can sustain the church, nor was it our forefathers nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the one who says: 'I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.' As it says in Heb. 13: 'Jesus Christ, heri, et hodie, et in secula.' And in Rev. 1: 'Which was, and is, and is to come.' Verily he is that one, and none other is or can be.

For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, but the church was preserved without us, and it was done by the one of whom it says, Qui erat, and Heri.

Again, we do not do it in our lifetime, for the church is not upheld by us. For we could not resist the devil in the papacy and the sects and other wicked folk. For us, the church would perish before our eyes, and we with it (as we daily prove), were it not for that other Man who manifestly upholds the church and us. This we can lay hold of and feel, even though we are loth to believe it, and we must needs give ourselves to the one of whom it is said, Qui est, and Hodie.

Again, we can do nothing to sustain the church when we are dead. But he will do it of whom it is said, Qui venturus est and in secula. And what we must needs say of ourselves in this regard is what our forefathers had also to say before us, as the Psalms and other Scriptures testify, and what our descendants will also experience after us, when with us and the whole church they sing in Psalm 124: 'If the Lord himself had not been on our side, when men rose up against us,' and Psalm 60: 'O be thou our help in trouble, for vain is the help of man.'

... May Christ our dear God and the Bishop of our souls, which he has bought with his own precious blood, sustain his little flock by the might of his own Word, that it may increase and grow in grace and knowledge and faith in him. May he comfort and strengthen it, that it may be firm and steadfast against all the crafts and assaults of Satan and this wicked world, and may he hear its hearty groaning and anxious waiting and longing for the joyful day of his glorious and blessed coming and appearing. May there be an end of this murderous pricking and biting of the heel, of horrible poisonous serpents. And may there come finally the revelation of the glorious liberty and blessedness of the children of God, for which they wait and hope with patience. To which all those who love the appearing of Christ our life will say from the heart, Amen, Amen.

The Fireproof Martin Luther


The sixteenth-century papacy never succeeded in setting fire to Martin Luther, much to its chagrin. Support from a string of Saxon princes and political events in the Holy Roman Empire combined to keep Luther from Rome's grasp until he succumbed, aged 62, to a natural death. Intriguingly, there was much speculation in Luther's day and for several centuries afterwards about what would have happened if Rome had succeeded in sending the reformer to the stake -- speculation, that is, about whether he would have actually burned or not. From rather early in Luther's reforming career the opinion circulated that Luther was in fact insusceptible to burning -- that he was, in other words, incombustible per se.

Arguments for Luther's innate fireproof status were summarized in an early eighteenth-century Latin work titled Lutherus non combustus by Justus Schoeppfer, pastor of St. Anna's Kirche in Eisleben, Germany. Schoeppfer's work was taken seriously enough, even in the midst of the European Enlightenment, to merit a second, German edition of the work - Unverbrannter Luther - some years later.

The difficulty, of course, in establishing whether Luther was combustible or not is that, as noted, no one ever succeeded, to our knowledge, in lighting a match to him. Nor are we privy to any reports about Luther stumbling into the stove or otherwise coming into contact with heat sufficient to prove or disprove his fireproof status. The arguments for Luther's incombustibility seem to consist principally of various historical accounts about objects or persons closely related to Luther which themselves proved impervious to fire -- objects or persons who participated, as it were, in Luther's own proper incombustibility.

So, for instance, a 1521 pamphlet describing Luther's trial at Worms notes that, while Luther was permitted to leave Worms unharmed, the Diet decided to burn his books and a picture of his person to reinforce charges of heresy against him. The books apparently burned just fine, but the picture of Luther refused to succumb to the flames, at least until it was removed, enclosed in a box made of pitch, and reinserted into the fire. In 1522, on the occasion of a burning of Luther's books in Thorn, Prussia, another picture of Luther similarly defied its natural fate. In 1634, nearly a century after Luther's death, an image of Luther inexplicably survived the destruction by fire of a Lutheran pastor's study in Artern, Germany. And in 1689 when fire broke out in Luther's birth-house in Eisleben, the only surviving picture from the areas affected by flame was one of the reformer.

Luther seems to have imparted his gift of incombustibility to places he previously occupied in addition to portraits of himself. When fires destroyed the Augustinian monastery in Magdeburg in 1631, the cell and bunk an adolescent Luther had occupied during a one-year stint as a student there were remarkably preserved. Even more remarkably, the house in which Luther was born -- although it finally succumbed, as noted, to flames in 1689 -- was preserved from fires which ravaged the surrounding houses and town of Eisleben in 1569, 1601, and 1671.

Even more extraordinary than such miraculous preservation of pictures and places associated with Luther was that of one particular person associated with him. In 1527 a disciple of Luther named Leonhard Keyser was sentenced to death for heresy in Schärding in Bavaria. According to a published pamphlet which detailed his execution, the ropes binding Keyser to the stake burned when his pyre was lit but the man himself remained unharmed. Displeased with this turn of events, Keyser's executioners pulled him from the flames and dismembered him, and then returned him in pieces to the fire. Even then, his body wouldn't burn. Authorities were ultimately forced to wait for the flames to subside so they could take Keyser's unsinged body parts and throw them into the local river.

Needless to say, Rome was keen to discredit stories about the incombustibility of Luther's person, pictures, or disciples as soon as such began circulating in early modern Europe. Thus she pointed out that Luther had been successfully burned in effigy in the ecclesiastical capital city itself in 1519. To put the matter to rest (among other points made), Luther-puppets were tried, condemned to death for heresy, and successfully burned in Altenburg, Vienna, and Munich in 1522, 1567, and 1597 respectively.

Protestant claims of Luther's incombustibility persisted despite these counter-measures.

The late R.W. Scribner, whose research into early modern perceptions and accounts of Luther's incombustibility is summarized in what I've written thus far, suggested in his work on this subject at least two ways of accounting for historical belief in Luther's fireproof status. One could categorize such belief as a continuation of medieval superstition which credited other religious items -- most notably, the consecrated bread of the Mass -- as insusceptible to fire. So strong, in fact, was the conviction that the Eucharistic host could not burn that persons were known to cast the consecrated bread (Christ's body, in medieval understanding) into buildings where fires had broken out in order to quell the flames and preserve said buildings, thus treating the sacred element as the medieval equivalent of a fire extinguisher.

One could, alternatively, ascribe belief in Luther's incombustibility to Jan Hus's legendary prophecy on the occasion of his own burning at the Council of Constance (1415) that, whatever the institutional church's success in cooking his goose, a swan would arise whom they would prove unable to burn. The problem here, however, is that Hus never actually made such a prophecy. Hus did express, shortly before his martyrdom, his expectation that stronger "birds" than he (Hus meaning "goose" in Czech) would arise to carry on his reforming work. Luther himself, in 1531, transformed Hus's comment into a prophecy which found its fulfillment in him. But it wasn't until several years after Luther's death that Hus's "prophecy" assumed the form it possesses in church historical folklore today (complete with the description of a potentially incombustible swan). Indeed, the evolution of the legend concerning Hus's prophecy would seem to be the result, rather than the cause, of convictions about Luther's incombustibility, which (as noted) were taking shape as early as 1521.

A third possibility never considered by Scribner -- nor, for that matter, by most scholars -- is that early modern folk believed Luther and certain Lutheran objects/disciples, by way of participation, were fireproof because they were, in fact, fireproof. Personally, I'm inclined towards this opinion. Stranger things have happened (Exodus 14.21-25; John 2.7-10; John 6.16-21; Matthew 14.13-21; Luke 24.1-8; Acts 1.9-11).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. This blog entry is based upon R. W. Scribner's article "Incombustible Luther: the Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany," Past and Present 110 (1986): 38-68. 

Trueman on Luther

Luther Christian Life (Trueman).jpgNo, not Carl's triumphant return to provide a window into the mind of "Luther" Levy, but rather the celebrity anti-celebrity's latest offering, considering Luther on the Christian Life (Crossway, arriving later this month). We are promised many good things between the covers of this volume, which can be ordered or pre-purchased in the usual disreputable places ( / / Westminster).

In any case, this looks like it might prove one of the definitive introductions to the character and convictions of a man that so many claim and so few of us understand. I am just disappointed that the marketing department have missed the obvious Valentine's publicity shot of young Martin and his beloved. Whether or not we can get this fellow to don the cowl once more and re-enact some of the better-known episodes of the Reformer's life remains to be seen.

Levy, Paul (monk).jpg

The catholic Luther: two resources

I thought I might interrupt Ref21's ongoing series on John Wesley's view of Christ's descent into hell by mentioning a couple of resources related to another uncontroversial theologian: Martin Luther. These two books have very different foci--one concerns Luther's understanding of the Christian life, the other concerns Luther's understanding of divine impassibility. Moreover, these two books are written for very different audiences--one is aimed at pastors and thoughtful laypersons, the other is aimed at academic theologians and historians. I mention them in the same context because, in spite of their differences, both books achieve a similar result. By painting a more accurate historical portrait of the Wittenberg Reformer than that which commonly dominates the evangelical imagination, both books present a more "catholic" Luther who has much to teach contemporary evangelical pastors and theologians. 

Carl Trueman's Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom is the most recent volume in Crossway's Theologians on the Christian Life series. The book is admirable at many levels. Trueman provides an interesting, often humorous, and always informed introduction not only to Luther's views about the Christian life but also to Luther's own Christian life and makes a compelling case along the way that we must appreciate the latter if we are to understand the former. Though Trueman is careful not to turn the sixteenth century Bible professor into a twenty first century evangelical, he is nevertheless particularly adept at demonstrating Luther's relevance for contemporary evangelicalism. I especially appreciated chapter seven's discussion of the ways Luther responded to deficiencies in the early reform movement by constructing a broad pastoral program of catechesis centered upon the mainstays of traditional catholic piety: the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. On this point and many others, we still have a lot to learn from Martin Luther, and Trueman's book is an able introductory guide to the Reformer's life, theology, and writings.

David J. Luy's Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ, published by Fortress Press, is a very different sort of book. It engages the widespread claim that Luther's Christology either directly or indirectly paved the way for rejecting the classical doctrine of divine impassibility. By carefully situating Luther's Christology within the context of late medieval thought, Luy dismantles this claim point by point and demonstrates that, far from undermining the catholic doctrine of God, Luther's theology exhibits the deep relevance of divine impassibility for our understanding of God's saving presence in Christ. Luy's fine volume is not intended for the general reader, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in a historically informed understanding of the divine attributes and of Luther's contribution to the Christian doctrines of God and Christ. 

Riding shotgun

I could not help sadly oscillating the Walker bean when I read Carl's offer to ride shotgun to Mark Jones on the proposed debate between Jones and Tchividjian on the matter of the law and grace, and - specifically - the contributions of Luther on the topic, with regard to which Carl was rather angling for the position of an expert witness.

Really? Is Trueman the fellow you want in your corner when it comes to Luther? Would you not rather have a man who has fully imbibed Luther's spirit, who has embraced his way more entirely, who has more than metaphorically shrugged into his habit and worn his mantle? If you ask me, Dr Jones should look no further than the inestimable Brother Levy. Having seen the way many quail when Levy enters a debate, I think the way forward is actually quite clear.

photo (225x300).jpgOn a more serious note, Kevin DeYoung has begun plotting out some probable areas of agreement and disagreement.