The Twenty First of September kicked of a celebration in honor of the Reformation in Germany. This celebration is called the “Luther Decade.” One might surmise that the focus will be on Martin Luther, the famous reformer who kicked off the reformation by posting the “Ninety Five Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, and the man for whom my church body is named. So I thought I would write a little about the man and the reformation in honor of this celebration.
It should be noted that there is debate as to whether he really nailed the Ninety Five Theses to the door of that church. Though there is really very little reason for this debate. At the time Church doors often served as bulletin boards for the community. It should be also noted that at first Lutherans called themselves Evangelicals in accord with Luther’s wish that a church not be named after him. He did not think himself worthy of this, and often referred to himself as a sack of worms, and other such demeaning terms. Luther rejoiced in the gospel of Christ, who forgives sinners. He always saw himself as a sinner in need of that forgiveness. It was this gospel that gave him strength and purpose in the reformation. The term Lutheran was at first a pejorative term used to describe people who agreed with Luther as to what the Bible was about. Eventually, Evangelicals adopted the term Lutheran for themselves to say “Yes, where Luther spoke about the Gospel he was right.” Lutherans, to this day, do not feel bound to everything that Luther ever said or wrote. We are sometimes embarrassed by things he said. We still recognize that Luther was a sinner in need of forgiveness. But we agree with him in his exposition of the Gospel, that one is justified by faith alone, especially as he explained this in Luther’s Small Catechism.
Luther was a giant in his day, both loved and despised. But love him or hate him he occupies a huge place in the history of western civilization. However, many today know nothing about the man; fewer have read anything he ever wrote. Often times when I talk about him, people confuse him with Martin Luther King, Jr. I did that once in elementary school, (I thought it was great I was getting a day off in honor of the man my church cherished). There could be worse men to confuse Martin Luther with, but Martin Luther King Jr. was, in fact, named after Martin Luther. I like to think that Martin Luther King Jr. drew some of his strength and courage from the memory of the man for which he was named.
Luther was actually an Augustinian Monk born in the 15th century, though he did all his work in the 16th century. He nailed the theses on “All Saints Eve” (which is what Halloween means) in 1517. At first he went to law school, but later joined a monastery after nearly losing his life in a terrible thunderstorm. As a monk he began to study God’s word. Bibles were not as prevalent in his day as they are now, so it was unusual even for monks to read the Bible. He was later hired by Elector Frederick the Wise to teach at a university in Wittenberg, a small hamlet in the Saxony region of what is today Germany. (It is still a small hamlet today, but a famous one.) As he read the word of God he learned that man was justified, that is made righteous by faith in Christ, and not by works of penance, or for that matter, works of any kind. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28 (ESV)
With this knowledge he began to see many problems with the church of his day, and this gave birth to the “Ninety Five Theses” that made him famous. However, the church hierarchy did not appreciate his attacks on many of the church practices of the day. He soon found himself in real trouble with Pope Leo X. Luther never wanted to leave the Catholic Church, but was eventually excommunicated for holding to the gospel rather than obeying the pope. For Luther the Bible was the word of God that had to be followed over and above the rulings of any man. The Bible holds supreme authority in the life of a Christian. Far from being a straight jacket though, the Bible freed man from the tyranny of sin as the word of God gave life to people dead in their sins. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,.” (Ephes. 2:4-6 (ESV)
Today there are still many disagreements between Catholics and Lutherans, yet we still sense a feel of unity with one another. Many who visit Lutheran Churches are often surprised to see many similarities in our doctrine and practice. Some even confuse us as being Roman Catholic. We are not ashamed of this, but rejoice in those areas where we have agreement. So I find great joy in Cardinal Kasper’s comment regarding his wishes for this Luther decade. He is quoted in an ENI article “Catholics can learn from Luther too, says Cardinal Kasper” as saying: “In his interview, Cardinal Kasper said he hoped Catholics would "get to know Luther better and not just interpret him from his polemical writings, still less from a few sentences taken out of context". The cardinal said he also hoped Protestantism would return to the faith of Martin Luther, "who would have been deeply averse to all of today's liberal tendencies".
It is a breath of fresh air to find unity like this with a fellow believer in Christ, even amidst some persisting disagreement. One, who would like to know more about Luther, might rent the recent movie “Luther” from the video store. Or stop by First Lutheran at 349 North Seventh Street. I’d love the visit.