During the month of October, Christians all over the world will be commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and reflecting on the impact of Martin Luther’s life and legacy. Whether you realize it or not, your spiritual life has been somehow touched by Luther’s hymns, writings, theology and courageous challenge to a powerful Church desperately in need of renewal.
According to my church history professor, the late Hugh Wamble, the Reformation bequeathed to us three cardinal principles: 1. Justification of the sinner by grace through faith (not by our works); 2. The supremacy of Scripture; 3. The priesthood of all believers. What a legacy!
And yet, for all that he contributed, Luther was human and thus fallible. For one thing, he was a product of his time. Like all of us, the ‘Great Doctor’ was captive to his own culture. In addition, our Baptist forebears insisted that Luther didn’t go far enough. So, this season of celebrating Luther’s achievements also becomes a time of humble critique, perhaps gaining insight into our own blind spots.
Luther’s well-documented anti-Semitism is a stark reminder that no one comes to the Bible without cultural conditioning. Granted, the Great Reformer’s views regarding Jews varied over his lifetime. At one point, Luther recommended, “Set fire to their synagogues or schools.” In another, he advises followers of Christ to be ruled by the law of Christian love and to “receive Jews cordially.” Scholars continue to explore these variations. For our purposes, it’s another reminder that words matter and that words last. In this case, they last at least 500 years.
In his home life, Luther could be harsh with his wife and children. As in other families of his era, patriarchy was the norm. To a great extent, he also viewed the social order of his day as acceptable, writing that poor people have their faith, and that should be enough for them. Once again, we are reminded that our personal experience colors our reading of Scripture.
Luther’s limits in these areas should serve as a cautionary tale. Loving God’s word and experiencing conversion to Christ do not instantly free us from the world’s way of seeing reality. Growth in Christ is a continual journey of discovery. Constant engagement with God’s word must include a ruthless critique of our culture’s values and assumptions. As we read church history, we might examine some of our own positions on social issues and humbly ask, “What might future generations say about my stance on issue X? Where might I be in error?”
Anabaptists and other Separatists saw Luther’s bold work as a beginning, but only a beginning. For example, Luther favored a state church (or, as it was called, a territorial one), while Anabaptists pressed for a church free from the state. Luther’s contempt for Anabaptists was so intense, he favored executing them! Thus, another word of caution: We are all capable of reducing our faith to correct doctrines while missing the mandate to love God and others.
Despite his many flaws, Martin Luther was used by God mightily and he continues to impact all of us. He has shaped our understanding of the Gospel in profound ways. Aren’t we glad that Christ is sufficient for our salvation? Don’t we rejoice with Martin Luther that our eternal hope is not based on our own efforts, but comes as sheer gift from the God who loves us relentlessly? If Luther could speak today, he would probably remind us that all human beings will sooner or later disappoint us, but in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, there is no disappointment.
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.