Several years ago, I attended a conference on the doctrine of justification in Wittenberg, Germany. There were pastors, presidents and bishops from Lutheran churches throughout Europe, Scandinavia, the Baltics, Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, and various countries in the land of the former Soviet Union. These servants of Christ know what it means to be distinctly Lutheran, often under extremely difficult and challenging circumstances. In many cases, they are walking through fiery trials suffering various forms of persecution for their commitment to Christ and His Word. It was humbling to be with them and discuss the chief article of the faith.
It was also quite a thrill to spend four days in Wittenberg and walk where Luther walked. On the last day of the conference I decided to time how long it would have taken Martin Luther to walk from the door of his Augustinian monastery to the Castle Church to post the ninety-five theses. Another LCMS pastor attending the conference, Bob Zagore, came with me and he counted the steps. Bob counted 2,000 steps. I counted fifteen minutes.
As Luther left his monastery on October 31, 1517, turned left, and walked to the Castle Church on the west side of town, I doubt he had any idea just what he was setting motion. Four years later, Pope Leo’s representative, Aleander reported, “All of Germany is an uproar! Ninety-percent of the people are shouting, “Luther!” and the other ten percent—if they don’t care about Luther—at least have “Death to the Roman court!” as their slogan.” (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther The Road to Reformation, Fortress Press: 1:439).
Father Martin, parish pastor, was outraged by the Roman system of indulgences and what it was doing to the precious souls he cared for at the city church of St. Mary as confessor and preacher. He was deeply angered when one after another member of his congregation told him about the indulgence that they had walked all day to buy from John Tetzel in the little town of Jütebog, just over the border of Electoral Saxony. They thought they had assurance of grace and comfort, for themselves, or for loved ones who had died. They clung to their indulgence receipt, instead of the crucified Lord. They believed that with their act of penance and contribution to the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome, God would smile on them and make things easier for them after their death.
Luther could not remain silent. And so he spoke, and wrote, and preached, and taught, and debated. He posted his theses and he mailed a copy of them on the same day to the Archbishop of Mainz, protesting the indulgences that were being sold within his diocese. In so doing, Luther set an axe at the root of the Papal tree. Enormous sources of revenue were at stake. Papal and imperial politics were involved beyond what Luther fully realized. Luther said after the controversy was under way:
“I never wanted to fight, either with the strongest or the weakest. My single intention was to stay hidden in the corner. But now that I have been, as it were, grasped by the ear, and dragged into the public eye by a single debate placard, I believe that this has happened according to God’s will. . . . I will fear neither the strong nor the loud. . . neither will I despise weak or any other completely unlearned man. Then I would be a truly miserable Luther . . . if I would not fight entirely in the faith of the God who alone works in me.” [Brecht, 1:387]
The uproar caused by Luther’s “debate placard” caused him intense anguish, stress and strain. We catch a glimpse of his inner struggle in these words:
“My heart is so affected that I hope I have begun it in God’s name. But I am not so bold as to pass judgment on it and loudly proclaim that is surely must be so. I do not want to suffer God’s judgment for it. Instead, I crawl to His grace and hope that He has let it be started in His name. And, since I am a sinful man of flesh and blood, if something unclean has mingled with it, I hope He may graciously forgive me and not deal severely with me in His judgment.” [Brecht, 1:378].
The promise and power of the Word of God was Luther’s constant source of strength, hope and confidence. And so for us today. Luther acknowledged his failings, but pointed to the source of His strength, in words that should, and must, continue to fill the heart of all those who want to be, and remain, genuinely Lutheran, that is, who wish to be fully faithful to God’s Word.
“Let anyone who wants to, slander, curse and judge my person and my life—it is already forgiven him. But let no one expect grace or patience from me when he wants to make liars out of the Holy Spirit and my Lord Christ, whom I preach. I am not concerned about myself. I shall defend Christ’s word with a joyful heart and renewed courage, without regard to anyone. To this end God has given me a joyful and fearless spirit, which I trust they shall not harm in all eternity.” [Brecht: 1: 346].
How does the Lutheran Reformation fare in our day? There are those throughout the world who claim the name Lutheran but continue to barter away their Biblical Lutheran birthright through all manner of ecumenical compromises and agreements. What could not be forced on Luther and his courageous allies and defenders, even upon threat of death, is eagerly embraced by world federations and organizations that claim to be Lutheran. What a tragedy!
But what of our own lack of zeal and boldness when it comes to defending, upholding and boldly extending a clear Lutheran identity, which is nothing more or less than holding forth the truth and purity of the Word of God? Physician, heal thyself! We celebrate the Reformation first by repenting and confessing our sin of self-assurance, pride, apathy, sloth. We confess and repent of hopeless, tired, fearful, weak resignation. We commemorate the Reformation best when we sing our Kyrie Eleison to the Lord of the Church and say with St. Peter, “O Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
It is indicative of what we face in the world today that in Wittenberg, a city now of 48,000 people, there are only 4,800 people who claim to be Christian and only 2,400 who attend church. How many of the people in our congregations who claim to be members gather every Sunday around the preaching of God’s Word and administration of His sacraments? How many have their name on a church membership roster, but rarely darken the door of the congregation? Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!
Luther foresaw these things when he wrote:
“God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone, it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year.” [American Edition, 45:353]
How long before the Gospel shower passes us and moves on? Can we see the rain clouds forming strongly over the countries of Africa? How dry and parched will it become here in the United States?
Let’s run out into the rain shower that is the Gospel–the cooling, life-giving shower of God’s Word of Promise in Christ. His Word of mercy, forgiveness, joy and peace pours forth continually to this day and hour from the pierced hands, feet and side of our Lord Christ, the gifts you and I need the most, given by God the Holy Spirit through the precious and powerful Word and Sacraments. Let’s return again and again to the cleansing waters of the Holy Baptism, in which we were plunged into the death of Christ and raised to new life in Him. Let’s drink deeply from the streams of Living Water who is Himself our atoning sacrifice, eating the bread of life that He gives to us. And then, with boldness and confidence, we continue in His mission and ministry. The Holy Gospel gives us confidence, trust and courage. It always has. It always will. We do not put our trust in mortal men but always and only in the Word of the Lord, which endures forever.
In Wittenberg there are many things to see. For me one of the most moving things I saw was the actual pulpit from which Luther preached in the parish church. It is now on display in the Luther House museum. It is not very large, nor very fancy. In fact it is rather crude and shabby looking in comparison to the majestic pulpits that fill many larger churches in Europe. But this pulpit surpasses them all in importance, for it was from this pulpit, more than from any other place, that the Reformation was born and nurtured. From this pulpit the living voice of the Gospel was heard once again clearly and truly, the voice of our Savior Jesus Christ, speaking so clearly and powerful through His servant Martin Luther. The sermons Luther preached from this pulpit were printed and distributed widely, touching countless hearts and minds with the Gospel.
There is no more important place than the pulpits across the church where the Gospel is preached according to the pure understanding of it, and the altars from which the Sacrament is administered according to Christ’s institution. From pulpit and altar the Reformation of the Church is advanced and continues to this very day and hour as it works its way into the hearts, minds and souls of all whom Christ gathers through the church’s ministry. It is God who is at work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure, for the sake of the blood-bought souls for whom the Savior lived and died. He is working through the preached and taught Word and administered sacraments to gather to Himself His people, whom He blesses, and nurtures and strengthens, so they in turn may go out as His witnesses, calling and inviting and bringing others to the great banquet of salvation.
On October 31, 1517, fifteen minutes changed the world forever. May God bless all the “fifteen minutes” through which our Lord continues to change you, and me, and all whom we are called to serve. Let me conclude with a prayer by Martin Luther:
O Father, it is indeed true that no one can be strong by His own power. Who can stand before Your might if You do not strengthen and comfort us Yourself? Therefore, dear Father, embrace us, accomplish Your will in us, that we may be Your kingdom to Your praise and glory. Strengthen us in this life with Your holy Word. Give us our daily bread. Establish in our hearts Your dear Son Jesus Christ who is the true brad of heaven. Sustained by Him, may be gladly bear ad suffer the breaking and dying of our own will and the fulfillment of Your will. Give grace to all Christendom. Send us educated pastors and preachers who will not give us the dregs and chaff of foolish fables, but who will teach us Your holy Gospel and lead us to Jesus Christ. Amen.
[Note: Some historians, as historians like to do, have attempted to deconstruct the story of Luther posting the 95 theses. Dr. Kurt Aland wrote a book that refutes efforts to say that the 95 theses were not actually posted on the door of the Castle Church.]
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- A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther (online.wsj.com)