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What Would Luther Make of Us?


What Would Luther Think of Us?

Text: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes …For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith.”  

Romans 1:16-23 

Michael Horton:  “… today’s Protestants actually have little to be proud of as we survey the movement as a whole. The content of our messages and the shape of our worship services are largely determined by cultural preferences, marketing strategies, and crowd-pleasing techniques from the entertainment industry, rather than by Scripture. At the end of the day, what we’re left with is a kind of narcissistic spirituality that caters to the desires and felt needs of the masses, rather than a transcendent word that confronts, challenges, and rescues fallen sinners“.

Would Luther recognise modern worship?

Listen to this as a POCAST – HERE, or on SOUNDCLOUD – HERE

1. Luther and the Radical Reformation

The Reformation caused a reaction. On the one hand pious Catholics reacted in the ‘Counter Reformation’ by becoming more entrenched in that piety. 

  • Theresa of Avila and the rise of personal piety. 
  • The Jesuites. The Pope’s Army – specifically commissioned to destroy the Reformation. 

On the other hand there were those who wanted to go much further that Luther and the other magisterial reformers had gone. They are known as ‘The Radical Reformation’. Now what were the characteristics of the Protestant Radicals?  Hard to quantify them, for they were hugely diverse…

Anabaptist Radicals

  • Many were ‘anabaptists’ – they believed in rebaptising their converts (although not all). 
  • Many were millenarian.   So they would have believed that the coming of Christ was imminent and that they were to help establish the new Jerusalem right here and now. 

The Munster Rebellion and Siege is just one example.  In April 1534 on Easter Sunday, Matthys, who had prophesied God’s judgment to come on the wicked on that day, made a sally with only thirty followers, believing that he was a second Gideon and was cut off with his entire band. He was killed, his head severed and placed on a pole for all in the city to see, and his genitals nailed to the city gate.

The 25-year old John of Leiden was subsequently recognized as Matthys’ religious and political successor, justifying his authority and actions by the receipt of visions from heaven. His authority grew, eventually proclaiming himself to be the successor of David and adopting royal regalia, honours and absolute power in the new “Zion”. There were at least three times as many women of marriageable age as men now in the town and he legalized polygamy and himself took sixteen wives. (John is said to have beheaded one woman in the marketplace for refusing to marry him; this act might have been falsely attributed to him after his death.) Meanwhile, most of the residents of Münster were starving as a result of the year-long siege.

  • Yet most of the anabaptists were extreme pacifists.  They refused to take up the sword, to serve in the military or police. 
  • Some lived in communities like the Hutterites. 

Many of today’s evangelical churches have doctrines and beliefs that are not too far removed from the theology of the radical reformation. 

So what were the primary distinctives of M Luther’s doctrines?

2. Luther’s Distinctive Doctrines

The Five Solas of course were common to all the great reformers.  Sola Scriptura, , Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, Sola Christus, Soli Deo Gloria.  These are common ground.  But where did Luther differ, and what makes him different to the modern perception of him as a great evangelical leader…

  1. Justification by faith. Luther wrote in his Smalcald articles The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us…Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls
  2. Law and Gospel. Another essential aspect of his theology was his emphasis on the “proper distinction”between Law and Gospel. He believed that this principle of interpretation was an essential starting point in the study of the scriptures and that failing to distinguish properly between Law and Gospel was at the root of many fundamental theological errors.
  3. Simul Justis et Peccator. Luther maintained that the inclination to sin is truly sin. Because our hearts are sinful and we are inclined to sin, we never cease being sinners. Yet we are justified sinners!  Simul justus et peccator” means that a Christian is at the same time both righteous and a sinner. Human beings are justified by grace alone, but at the same time they will always remain sinners, even after baptism. The doctrine can be interpreted in two different ways. From the perspective of God, human beings are at the same time totally sinners and totally righteous in Christ (totus/totus). However, it would also be possible to argue that human beings are partly sinful and partly righteous (partim/partim). The doctrine of “simul justus” is not an excuse for lawlessness, or a license for continued sinful conduct; rather, properly understood, it comforts the person who truly wishes to be free from sin and is aware of the inner struggle within him. Romans 7 is the key biblical passage for understanding this doctrine.
  4. The Two Kingdoms. Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms (or two reigns) of God teaches that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules in two ways, both by the law and by the gospel.  God rules the earthly or kingdom through secular government, by means of law and the sword. As Creator God would like to promote social justice, and this is done through the political use of the law. At the same time God rules his spiritual kingdom, in order to promote human righteousness before God. This is done through the gospel, according to which all humans are justified by God’s grace alone.
  5. Sacramentalism. Luther’s views on the sacraments moved from an RC position – but not as far as Calvin and Knox. 
    • In terms of communion for example, Luther didn’t believe in transubstantiation – but he did believe in the real presence (the ubiquity of Christ)
    • Baptism for Luther was a means of grace. Luther taught in the Small Catechism.
    • What benefits does Baptism give?  It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.  
    • How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5–8)
  6. Worship. There was a huge difference here. Calvin taught the ‘Regulative Principle of Worship’ where only what the Scriptures explicitly sanctioned could be admitted to worship. Luther believed that anything honouring to God could be admitted to worship, so long as it was not explicitly forbidden in the scriptures. So in Lutheran churches there would be statues, crucifixes, organs, great musical performances, oratorios, vestments, clergy…  

3. Wittenberg, Geneva and Heidelberg

The solution to the differences between Luther and Calvin lay at Heidelberg. It was there that Frederick wanted to unite his divided people (Lutheran / Calvinist). And to do so he commissioned Zacharius Ursinus and others to draft a Catechism that would allow all Protestant people to unite in accepting its teaching. The result was the Heidelberg Catechism, a superb blend of the best of Lutheran and Calvinistic belief, without the Lutheran sacramentalism. 

It has been common to portray Luther as a simple and obscure monk,  who challenged the pope and emperor.   Actually Luther was anything but simple or obscure.  He was learned, experienced and accomplished far beyond most men of his age.    Luther was a monk, a priest, a preacher, a professor, a writer, and a Reformer.  He was one of most courageous and influential people in all of history.   Luther Changed the World. Luther’s search for peace with God changed the whole course of human history.  He challenged the power of Rome over the Christian Church, smashed the chains of superstition and tyranny and restored the Christian liberty to worship God in  spirit and in truth.

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