What is Luther’s Legacy?

This entire month we have been celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Tomorrow will be 500 years to the day when Martin Luther sparked the Reformation by posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Many of us know him for that epic act. Yet, what is the lasting legacy of Luther’s life and ministry five centuries later? Dr. Stephen Nichols see at least five main points of Luther’s legacy:

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  1. The solas. When we remember Luther, we cannot forget these foundational tenets of his theology. There is sola Scriptura, the doctrine that Scripture alone has final authority, and that Scripture guides and governs us. Then there’s sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus, in which we learn that salvation indeed is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Finally, Luther teaches of soli Deo gloria, that all is for the glory of God alone.
  2. Reform of church practice. Although we talk about his reforming of theology, we also must acknowledge Luther’s reformation of church “methodology.” Imagine showing up at church and feeling the desire welling up within you to sing praises to God. But you can’t—you have no hymns in your language, and there is no congregational singing in the service. Before Luther, this was the norm. So, when you stand up and sing a hymn and you join your voice with the other voices of the congregation in lifting praise to God, you can thank Martin Luther for restoring congregational singing and hymns to the life of the church.
  3. Preaching. Before Luther, the church service consisted mostly of the Mass, that is, the Lord’s Supper. There was an occasional homily during Advent or Lent, but preaching of the Word was not of central importance. Luther introduced the weekly sermon, where the pastor studies the Word of God and then brings that teaching to the people of God so they can be nourished and can grow as Christians. Sounds familiar, right? But what is widely accepted as obvious now was not 500 years ago.
  4. Family. Before the Reformation, there was not a high view of the family within the church, and Luther helped to redeem marriage and the family and helped to bring marriage and the family to a prominent place. Through his own family, his relationship with his wife, Katie, and to his children, he modeled what a Christian family looks like.
  5. Vocation. Luther had what we would call a “high theology” of vocation. He believed that whether you have some high church office or you have the lowest menial job, every kind of work can be viewed as a calling. Before Luther, it was only the monks, the nuns, and the priests who had a calling; everyone else simply worked in apparently “unholy” jobs. Luther helped us realize that all that we do can be for the glory of God as we serve Him through our vocations.

Those are the five points of Luther’s legacy that Nichols outlines. However, he says that there is really one, true, fundamental, and underlying point to Luther’s legacy, and that concerns the Word of God. He says, “There is a statue in Eisenach of Luther holding a Bible and pointing to it. I think Luther would prefer that the statue be of the Bible holding Luther, pointing us beyond him to pay attention to the Word of God. That is Luther’s legacy, because it is the Word of God that abides forever.”

Luther and the Bible

From 5 Minutes in Church History by Dr. Stephen Nichols

When it comes to the Reformation, one of the most important topics to discuss is Martin Luther on Scripture. There are a number of things that we could say about this topic, but let’s look at just a few.

The first is the authority of Scripture. We see this in Luther at the Leipzig Debate in 1519. One of the monuments to Luther, in Eisleben, has an etching on the side of a very angry-looking Roman Catholic official. That angry-looking official is Johann Eck. On the other side of Eck is Luther, and Eck is holding in his hand some bound-up documents, while Luther is holding a book—the Bible—and that tells it all. Eck at Leipzig appealed to the teachings of the councils, the teachings of the church, and those rolled-up documents represent that. He came at Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers from the context of the church and the church’s authority. And Luther said to Eck, “I have an authority that is older than yours,” and, of course, this astounded Eck and he said, “Name them.” Luther said, “Paul and Peter and John.”

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Luther appealed directly to the authority of Scripture at Leipzig and, of course, he did the same thing at Worms. So, at Worms he said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” When he said, “Here I stand,” he was standing on Scripture and standing firm on the foundation of Scripture. And because Scripture is authoritative, we should read it and we should study it.

Among the many things Luther said about the Bible, he offered a lot of counsel about how to read it and study it. One text in particular that helps us is a preface to a collection of his writings in German. He gives three steps for reading and studying the Bible. The first step is oratio, or “prayer.” The Psalms are especially helpful here. Luther was very familiar with the Psalms. As a monk, he would have been in the Psalms seven times a day. They took Psalm 119:164 very literally: “Seven times in the day I will praise Thee,” that text says. So Luther and his fellow monks would take seven periods out of their day to spend in the Psalms.

Luther loved the Psalms. Some contend that Luther had the Psalter memorized. This was a book he lived in, and it was a book that taught him not only that he should learn Scripture but that he should pray Scripture. So, the Psalms can be very helpful for us as we think about Scripture and as we seek to approach it prayerfully.

The second step is meditatio. Luther says the temptation is to push on, to rush on, to just simply read the text. Luther cautions us, he counsels us, he encourages us to simply pause, to meditate on God’s Word. Again, the Psalms are helpful here because the psalmists often call on us to meditate on God’s Word.

The third step in studying the Bible is tentatio, or “struggle.” Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, we wrestle and struggle with Scripture. The struggle, Luther says, comes from our unbelief, our doubt, our stubbornness; ultimately, it comes from our sin, and the Word of God confronts it all.

That’s Luther on Scripture, the authority of Scripture, and how to read and study and learn and labor in and even love this Word that God has given us.

Hus’ Last Words

*Excerpt from Five Minutes in Church History by Dr. Stephen Nichols.

This month we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by writing various reflections concerning this momentous occasion and its influence.  Dr. Stephen Nichols does the same thing in his Five Minutes in Church History, a podcast I highly recommend.  The following is an excerpt from his October 4, 2017 episode: The Goose and the Swan.

Jan Hus was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Hus was from Prague in Bohemia, or what is now the Czech Republic. He served at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. He was charged with several great crimes against the church, the first of which was that he preached in the Czech language rather than in Latin. He also refused to wear the clerical garb of the medieval church because he believed it contributed to an illegitimate distinction between clergy and laity. Finally, he was also in favor of congregational singing and desired the reform of the church.

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He was greatly influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe. Eventually, Hus’ own writings and influence drew the attention of church officials, and he was summoned to the Council of Constance. There, he was condemned as a heretic. Actually, the council condemned him as a heresiarch—an arch-heretic. He was led about a kilometer outside the city and was martyred by burning at the stake.

Hus’ last words are important. He declared that he would die trusting in the gospel that he had proclaimed and taught. Then he told his executioners that they could burn the goose (his surname means “goose” in Czech), but a hundred years later, a swan would come whom they would be incapable of killing.

Hus was almost a true prophet. It wasn’t exactly a hundred years later, but rather a hundred and two years later, that Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

Johannes Zacharias was Hus’ fiercest opponent at the Council of Constance, and he was buried under the slab in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where Luther was ordained as a priest. At that monastery, Luther studied not just the traditions of the past but also the Word of God. Out of that study, the Reformation began.