Luther’s Legacy

When Playmobil produced a Martin Luther figurine to commemorate the Reformation, the German manufacturer could not keep this new toy on the shelves. Dressed in sixteenth century academic robes, replete with cap, scroll and quill, and holding a copy of his New Testament in German, the figurine had a first run of 34,000 and sold out in less than 72 hours, making this little plastic version of the man who launched the Protestant Reformation the fastest-selling Playmobil toy ever.

Astid Mühlmann, director of the governmental office preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, told Newsweek that education might be behind the toy’s popularity:”There’s quite an interest in looking back to our history. Parents want to make sure their children grow up knowing who he is because he had such an impact on how society evolved in Europe.”

The impact that Luther had on society can be gauged from a one-line description of him in the pages of Time magazine where it casts him as, “The last medieval man and the first modern one” – making the point that, though he was raised in the distant medieval world, he has profoundly shaped our own. It is undeniable that without Martin Luther our world would look very different: theology, history, ethics, and politics are just some of the areas where his influence has been nothing short of profound.

Martin Luther retains his position as a revered figure in Germany, even in a spiritual climate where best estimates tell us that one third of all churches in the country will soon no longer be needed as they are simply too empty and too expensive to maintain. He is credited not just with standing up to the power of the pope and exposing corruption within the Church, but with making huge contributions in society.

Politics and Culture
Politically and culturally Luther coalesced the German people. He was aided in his work by
German princes who were keen to loosen the papacy’s grip on their lands. Luther helped to unite the two hundred to three hundred little Germanic states in language and culture, thus contributing to the breaking up of the Holy Roman Empire and the rise of nationalism.

Human Rights and Education
Luther’s bold stance in insisting that all people are equally noble before God and that no
man’s conscience should be crushed by the powers of government opened the door for
everything from free enterprise to free speech to the intellectual freedom that millions have enjoyed ever since. This made democratic government possible and allows Luther to stand symbolically as the greatest single agent in increasing the value of the individual.

One of his first acts as a reformer was to propose that monasteries be turned into schools, while one of his last was to establish a school in Eisleben. Not only Luther, but also Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger and Calvin actively promoted reformed education in their writings and works. Accordingly, it is no exaggeration to state that the Reformation greatly altered public education by the end of the sixteenth century.

Marriage and Family
Luther’s marriage on 13 June 1525 to “escapee” nun Katharina von Bora, followed the Reformation practice that elevated the family over and against celibacy and eventually led to the transformation of church and culture. One scholar writes, “Little did the sixteenth-century world realise the tremendous significance — both religious and social — of this simple and reverent ceremony in the backwoods of rural Germany . . . Luther’s marriage remains to this day the central evangelical symbol of the Reformation’s liberation and transformation of the Christian daily life.” Together they had three boys and three girls and led a happily married life in the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg where Katharina was the treasurer, manager, and administrator of what became, due to Luther’s popularity, an informal boarding house. By means of this union, Luther lifted parenthood to the highest of callings and brought Biblical teaching directly into his home with his Small Catechism. In calling parents the “bishops” of their homes, he emphasized how they were accountable to God for their children’s spiritual welfare and contributed unintentionally to the rising status of women.

Economy and Industry
The Reformation provided a place for capitalism to flourish. John Calvin’s thought touched upon nearly every contemporary problem, one of these being usury (money lending at interest) a practice essential for the later development of capitalism. The Reformation also paved the way for a “Protestant Work Ethic.” Martin Luther’s teaching of the “priesthood of all believers” demolished the partition wall between the secular and the sacred realms which dominated the thought of the church at the time.

Prior to the Reformation, it was believed that the only way in which to serve and glorify God was to take holy orders and enter a monastery or convent. By breaking down this barrier, hard labor was elevated. Being a ploughboy or a maid was no longer viewed as an inferior life to that of a monk or a nun; rather, any type of work could be pleasing to God (1Corinthians 10:31).

When Luther launched his most highly publicized challenge – the 95 theses, or arguments against indulgences – his intention was to engineer a discussion with the Church, not to create a division within it. However, this action turned out to be the match that lit the powder keg. It sparked a set of debates in which the abuses of the Catholic Church were exposed, generating a series of documents that propagated Luther’s message across Germany by means of the printing press. This culminated in 1521 when Luther received a bull of excommunication from the church and an edict of banishment from the state. These events brought Luther to the realization that the Roman Catholic Church was irreformable and separation from it was inevitable.

The Appearance of the Protestant Church
By 1525, Luther had married a former nun, conducted the first Lutheran worship service, and ordained the first Lutheran minister. The word “Protestant” was first used at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 to describe those who, like Luther, questioned the authority of Rome; at a formal gathering in Regensburg in 1541 any lingering thoughts that there may be a reconciliation between Luther and the Catholic Church were abandoned.

While the Catholic Church made determined attempts to stamp out Protestantism, forcing the Schmalkaldic Wars and generating other conflicts, the Peace of Augsburg (1555) brought the violence to an end and ensured that German princes could choose the religion of their realms according to their conscience (“whose region, his religion”). By this time, Luther’s ideas had spread across Europe and inspired others. Henry VIII had established the Church of England and John Calvin had started the Reformed Church in Geneva, Switzerland. By 1536, Norway had become Lutheran and Sweden made Lutheranism its state religion in 1544, each development guaranteeing the further spread of Protestantism.

The Word and Worship of God
In 1521, Luther set himself the task of translating the New Testament out of Latin into German. He went back to the sources and translated from the original Greek text, completing this work within a mere four months. This New Testament was released in September 1522 (with a complete German Bible ready for publication by 1534) and has been described by Phillip Schaff as, “the most important and useful work of his whole life” because, “he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction.” Luther’s Bible laid the foundation for a standardized written language that came to be accepted throughout Germany. Luther made further changes to the way we worship. Dr. Carlos Eire says that Luther made Christianity a faith about the living by doing away with purgatory: “Before Luther, Christians used to spend a lot of their time, a lot of effort and sometimes a lot of their
money, on masses for the dead, to get their relatives released from purgatory. And that changed completely.”

One enemy complained that Luther’s music did more damage than his teaching. “After theology,” Luther stated, “I accord music as the highest place and greatest honour.” Thanks to Luther, church singing that used to belong only to monks and priests passed to the people and composers were encouraged. Additionally, with the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, priests were no longer required for anyone to do business with God. Pastors became more like shepherds, preachers, and educators. Every Christian had the right and responsibility to go directly to God through Christ, and they were permitted to take the cup in communion – all of which showcased the radical changes in worship introduced by the Reformation.

As a result of being forced to defend his positions, Luther hammered out a theology that was at non-negotiable odds with Catholicism. He rejected the papacy, all but two of the sacraments, any redemptive power for the virgin Mary, praying to saints, purgatory, and celibacy for clergy. His doctrine of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone (not merited by works) became the pillar of Protestant teaching.

The Supreme Authority in the Church
In contradistinction to the Catholic Church which holds that the teachings of the pope and church hold the same weight as Scripture, Luther made the Bible – “sola scriptura” or Scripture alone – the supreme authority for what Christians are to believe and practice.

The Key Doctrine in Soteriology
Luther considered the doctrine of justification by faith alone, expressed in the words, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11), as key to his salvation. It “opened the very gate of paradise” to him, and consequently dominated his theology: “The one doctrine which I have supremely at heart, is that of faith in Christ, from whom, through whom, and unto whom all my theological thinking flows back and forth day and night.” Little wonder he also said that he felt it was his duty to, “beat it into people’s heads continually.” R.C. Sproul accurately observes: “Luther blazed the rediscovery of justification by faith alone, and he restored the church’s focus to Christ alone.”

The Principal Duty of the Preacher
When Lucas Cranach, the Wittenberg painter, committed to canvas a final memorial to his friend, he depicted Luther preaching. Cranach painted Luther’s wife Katie and Luther’s daughter Magdalena (who died when she was thirteen) into the picture. In between Luther and his congregation is Christ – an acknowledgement that not only did Luther preach Christ, but when his congregation heard him preach, they did not see Luther but Christ and Him crucified.

Luther was convinced that the Scriptures were full of Christ: “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid” and that the chief business of the preacher is to discover and present Christ to the people.

Three days before he died, from his deathbed in Eisleben, Luther preached his last sermon which consisted of two texts, Psalm 68:19 and John 3:16, which he connected with this comment: “Our God is indeed a God of salvation, and that salvation comes through the work of His Son.” He ended his sermon by saying, “Much more could be said about this Gospel but I am too weak.”

Much more can be said. And we must keep on saying it. Luther did not reform the church at every point. Some things were left undone, but even this underlines a principle of the Reformation – ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). When old errors resurface, most often in a new disguise, the church must reaffirm its commitment to the unchanging truth of Scripture. By this maxim alone, the Reformation that commenced in the sixteenth century, is not over yet.

Dr. Ian Brown is minister of Martyrs’ Memorial FPC, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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