Categories
Theology

The Center of Luther’s Theology

As a follow up to my post yesterday, I wanted to write about the center of Martin Luther’s theology. I am by no means a church history expert (or an expert on Luther), but I hope this will provide you even more insight into Luther’s heart for gospel-centered theology.

Without a doubt, all the aspects of Luther’s theology play a vital role across the spectrum of Protestantism today. The doctrine of justification by faith is typically the preeminent banner that flies over Lutheran theology, in particular. Perhaps, however, Luther’s doctrine of “law and gospel” was his theological center.

According to Luther, the revelation of God is made manifest in two ways: law and gospel. This does not mean the Old Testament is law and the New Testament is gospel. Rather, God reveals himself throughout the Bible—in both Testaments—through law and gospel. Throughout Scripture, God reveals both words of judgment (law) and words of grace (gospel). Indeed, grace is empty without hearing a word of judgment. A word of judgment drives to despair without grace.

The reason that the doctrine of law and gospel may preeminent in Luther’s theology (over against justification by faith) is that it logically precedes it. The law communicates God’s infinite holiness and how unworthy humans are of relationship with him because of their sinfulness. The word of forgiveness is found in the gospel. The gospel is only good news because of the incredibly bad news that humans cannot (even will not) be reconciled to God. Therefore, law and gospel paves the way for justification by faith. Rather than simply believing that God justifies sinners, law and gospel helps the Christian understand why God can justify sinners. God can only justify sinners because of his word of grace in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Once a person receives this by faith, they are justified in God’s sight.

Justification by faith may lead some to assume antinomianism. This is not the case, however, according to Luther. After justification (being declared righteous before God) by faith, the word of law plays a different role in the believers life than before. The law, which used to be a word of condemnation, is now the pathway to joy and blessing. It was formerly a word of “must do;” now it is a word of “get to.” As Luther himself writes, “Earlier it told me what I ought to do. Now I begin to adapt myself to it.”[1]

Finally, there is a constant dialectic between law and gospel which leads the Christian to believe he is at the same time both sinful and justified.[2] This was a hallmark of Luther’s view of the Christian life. Thus, there is an inherent link between law and gospel. The law is given to show our sinfulness even as Christians and our constant, continually need of the Redeemer. The gospel reveals Christ, the Redeemer, in all his saving might. Then, even after we are justified by faith, the gospel frees us to adapt ourselves to the law and live in a manner worth of our justification.

Whether or not we perfectly agree with Luther on this law-gospel tension as the center of Christian theology, we can be thankful for his relentless pursuit of gospel-centeredness in his own day as we seek to pursue the same in ours.

______________________

[1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, rev. ed., (New York: Harper One, 2010), 51.
[2] Ibid., 62.

Categories
Life

The Accidental Reformer

Martin Luther accidentally helped spark a revival in the church that continues today. If you worship Jesus at any Protestant congregation, you can thank God for using this German monk.

The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so in the middle of pouring rain and booming thunder, Luther vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”

After becoming a Roman Catholic monk, Luther grew to be terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”

Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel is reveals justification is by faith, not works. This doctrine became the hallmark of Luther’s theology. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” God’s salvation transformed Luther’s life and led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in world history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by church clergy that was believed to remove or satisfy the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated that sin was excused and salvation could be purchased with money. Few today realize that this issue of indulgences was the main thing Luther attacked in his Theses.

On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days served as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for church services. Luther did not want to start a revolution. He intended for the discussion to mainly be relegated to the academic arena–after all, Luther was an academic theologian at the time. Posting something on the church door then was akin to writing a blog post today. He did not expect it to gain much traction. However, with his posting, a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s practices ensued. Luther wrote in Latin, which only academics and other educated people would have understood. But because of the newly invented printing press, the Theses were translated to German. They didn’t spread as quickly as a viral video on YouTube, but they were distributed all over Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months. Not bad for the sixteenth century.

Luther’s Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become treasured in the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62). Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92; an allusion to Jer. 6:14). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ (Theses 94-95). In Luther’s thought, justification by faith was the center of the gospel.

With his protest (along with the help of other faithful men in other parts of Europe), Luther accidentally sparked the greatest church movement since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He did not recant, and he was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and became an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s theology centered on Christ as the Word of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, the relationship between law and gospel, and justification by faith. He was not without flaw of course, but his legacy continues today. Nevertheless, on this Reformation Day, we do not celebrate Martin Luther. Luther’s legacy does not lie in his theology or being a revolutionary. His legacy lies in the fact that he pointed to One greater than himself, the Lord Jesus. It is from the Lord alone that Luther received grace to recognize error, repent of sin, and stand for truth. It is from the Lord alone that Luther received strength to spark a revolution–even if accidentally.

Categories
Theology

Happy Reformation Day

Martin Luther helped spark a revival in the church that continues today. If you worship Jesus at any Protestant congregation, you can thank God for using this German monk.

The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so he vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”

As a Roman Catholic monk, Luther was terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”

Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel is centered upon justification by faith, not works. This doctrine was thus the center of the reformation movement. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” God’s salvation transformed Luther’s life and led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in world history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by the church that removed or satisfied the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated to lay people that sin was not only excused but encouraged because salvation could be bought with money. Indulgences were the main issue in Luther’s theses.

On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days served as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for church services. Luther did not want to start a revolution. He intended for the discussion to mainly be relegated to the academic arena. However, with his post, a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s practices ensued. Luther wrote in Latin, which only academics and other educated people would have understood, but because of the newly invented printing press, the theses were translated to German. They quickly spread around Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months.

The Ninety-Five Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become treasured in the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62). Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ (Theses 94-95). In Luther’s thought, justification by faith was the center of the gospel.

With his protest (along with the help of other faithful men in other parts of Europe), Luther sparked the greatest church revolution since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He did not recant, and he was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and became an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s theology centered on Christ as the Word of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, the relationship between law and gospel, and justification by faith. He was not without flaw of course, but his legacy continues today. Nevertheless, on this Reformation Day, we do not celebrate Martin Luther. Luther’s legacy does not lie in his theology or being a revolutionary. His legacy lies in the fact that he pointed to One greater than himself, the Lord Jesus. It is from the Lord alone that Luther received grace to recognize error, repent of sin, and stand for truth.

Thank you Father, for your servant Martin Luther, and how you used him to form and reform your church to the gospel of grace found only in Jesus Christ!

Categories
Life Theology

How Martin Luther Interpreted the Bible

History is full of giants of the faith who have immensely helped the church interpret the Bible properly. One giant in particular stands out: Martin Luther. Along with John Calvin, Luther is perhaps most loved for his radical Christ-centeredness when it comes to Bible interpretation. He’s prominent because God used him at such a vital crossroads in church history. As one of the driving forces of the Reformation, Luther helped Christians refocus biblical hermeneutics back to the text of Scripture and away from the authority of the church. Let’s briefly look at his hermeneutical method.

Luther’s method for interpretation, if named anything, may be termed “historical interpretation” because he rejected allegory.[1] More accurately, Luther’s method may be labeled Christological. He believed that the sole content of Scripture is Christ. Christ is the incarnate Word of God, therefore the Bible can only be God’s word if it deals with Christ.[2] Luther further held that “all Scripture is interpreted by its relationship to the gospel.”[3] In other words, every text must be seen in light of God’s redemptive work in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus every text relates to the gospel either by promising, foreshadowing, proclaiming, or reflecting upon the person and work of Christ. The modern interpreter is helped by Luther’s Christological hermeneutic because the gospel is timeless. Since Christ lived, died, and rose for believers past, present, and future, the gospel is immediately applicable to the modern reader. The gospel, therefore, is the applicational bridge from the ancient text to the modern reader.

Luther led the charge for what is called sola scriptura (Scripture alone), the “key foundational premise of the Reformation.”[4] Sola scriptura holds that only Scripture holds divine authority for the life and conduct of Christians. Scripture authenticates itself and the church, not the other way around as the papacy supposed. Because Scripture is the final authority for Christians, its message is not regionalized or relegated to a certain time period. Modern interpreters must acknowledge the Bible is authoritative for their life even in the twenty-first century.

As Augustine taught more than a millennium before, Scripture interprets itself which implies that Scripture is clear in itself.[5] Here Luther leads the modern interpreter to be confident that Scripture is living, active, and harmonious.

Finally, one valuable element of Luther’s method of interpretation is that he accounted for the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the interpreter. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to understand accurately what a passage teaches about Christ.[6] Because of this, just like Luther in the 1500s, readers today can be confident that God has provided through his Spirit the ability to objectively understand and subjectively experience the truths of Scripture.


[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 47.
[2] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 185.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Klein et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 47.
[5] Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 185.
[6] Klein et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 47.

Categories
Ministry Theology

Martin Luther and the Lord’s Supper

In his short chapter “Of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” in Table Talk, Martin Luther challenges the Roman Catholic view of how the sacrament (i.e. communion, Lord’s Supper, the Table) is administered. This short chapter does not tell us everything that Luther believed about the Lord’s Supper, but it points to his general convictions.

Luther’s Issue with the Church
The root of Luther’s critique of the administration of the Lord’s Supper in the Catholic Church is not in the administration of the sacrament itself. His critique is primarily concerned with the false authority that the church places on its bishops. For Luther, the root issue was apostolic succession. Apostles were elected by God, whereas bishops are appointed by man. Apostles never had “supremacy” over another and neither should priests, especially over the church and the sacrament.

As for the administration of the sacrament itself, Luther takes issue with “elevation,” at which point the body and blood of Christ is transubstantiated through the priests words hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”). Luther calls this doctrine “mere idolatry.” Luther still believed Christ’s presence is somehow in the elements, but not because of the priest’s words. It is rather through Christ’s word and institution that he is present in the bread and cup. Therefore, Luther fights against the meaning behind the practice, while not finding it necessary to change the tradition itself.

This immediately gets the modern evangelical’s blood boiling. Jesus literally in the bread and cup! No! It is true, for Luther does not dispute the fact that Christ is somehow present in the elements; it is simply not the priest’s words that cause Christ’s presence to be there. Luther believes that Jesus body and blood are in the “present administering, although they may be understood as fulfilled on the cross.”

Unlike the Catholic priests, who believed that the Lord’s Supper gave grace through performing the act, Luther held that it was for “the strengthening of our faith, not doubting that Christ’s body and blood were given and shed for us, and that our sins by Christ’s death certainly are forgiven.” In short, Luther believed that the fruit of the sacrament was the assurance of forgiveness. He did not believe the sacrament was the cause of grace.

Why does this matter for us today?
The contemporary evangelical will rightly fire back at Luther for his lack of haste to completely repudiate the doctrine of transubstantiation. At the same time, evangelicals can praise God that Luther resisted Rome’s claim to apostolic succession and supreme authority in faith and practice, as well as the Church’s insistence on grace/salvation through/by works. Still, evangelicals can view the Lord’s Supper, with Luther, as solely for sinners who are desperate for grace and find, at the Table, an opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ death for them once again—and continually until he returns (1 Cor. 11:26). Despite the fact that we do not hold to transubstantiation, we can, with Luther, wholeheartedly agree that the Supper is connected to ongoing covenant renewal in the gospel, providing a means of grace to reinforce repentance to and faith in Jesus.