Today we remember the 500th anniversary of the trigger that began the European Protestant Reformation, when Professor Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses for discussion to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.
There are many theologians but few reformers. We commonly speak of the first and second generation Reformers, but without the first generation there would be no second generation, and without Martin Luther there would be no first generation Reformers.
Luther did not realise that his 95 Theses would have such an effect, but he did know the effect upon himself and others of his discovery and recovery of the essence of the Gospel as taught in the Bible. Without this liberating discovery, the Reformation would not have had the impact that it did.
The discovery of how a sinner can have peace with God was the light that shone throughout Protestant Europe and which brought so much freedom and prosperity to northern Europe over the succeeding centuries.
Other theologians followed rapidly in his steps, following the path Luther had blazed. Philip Melancthon, Patrick Hamilton, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and John Knox. However Martin Luther was the Reformer.
A Reformer is more than a theologian. He is more of a prophet bringing a much-needed message and applying it to the church and to society at large. Preachers apply the Word of God to their congregations, but Reformers go further than this. It is more than revival, which suggests recovery of life. It is akin to resurrection, bringing to life what had been dead, buried and forgotten. It is a foretaste of the Jewish Pleroma Rom 11:12, when the Jewish recovery of the Gospel will be ‘life from the dead’ Rom 11:15 not only for the Jews but for the whole world. The vision of the valley of dry bones Ezk 37 illustrates the point. We need revival and reformation.
There had been earlier attempts at Reformation with variable success. Jan Hus had tried to reform Bohemia one hundred years earlier, but he was burned at the stake, while declaring that they may burn the goose (the meaning of Hus in Bohemian) but a swan would arise in a hundred years’ time whom they would not silence. The white swan became Luther’s symbol. What made the difference? In short, Elector Frederick of Saxony who protected Luther throughout his life. He prevented the Diet of Worms from apprehending Luther, ensuring him safe passage that had been promised to Hus but not honoured. Frederick secured Luther’s safety in the Wartburg Castle, where Luther translated the New Testament into the German language for the public to read, encouraging the Protestant Bible translation movement. Luther remained in Frederick’s territories for the rest of his life.
This reminds us of the mutual role of church and state in the promotion of the Gospel, known as the Establishment Principle, being replaced in our day with a secular establishment principle.
Luther was a spiritually minded man who laboured with tremendous industry to bring the Gospel of deliverance to sinners. This gave him the spiritual courage to stand against the pope of Rome and the holy Roman emperor, at the risk of his life. He burned the papal bull in 1520 and made his famous stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The pope had the secular power of the holy Roman emperor at his command, but Luther’s conviction to stand against them both arose from his certainty that his doctrine was the biblical doctrine of Jesus Christ, which he asserted in his famous clarion call at the Diet of Worms.
He had a Gospel to preach – it had liberated his own soul and he knew it would liberate the souls of countless Europeans. He had to stand. ‘Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand’ Eph 6:13.
We need Christians who are able to stand, instead of falling over backwards at the first puff of wind from the secularist camp – ‘no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive’ Eph 4:14.
There will be many a lecture around this time on the life and lessons from Martin Luther. There will be about 40 minutes on the well-known and often-repeated life of Luther with about 5-10 minutes at most on the lessons, if any. Yes, I heard one lecture with no lessons at all for our times.
There is one clarion lesson that can be asserted in one short sentence – Scotland needs a Reformer. Let us pray that the Lord will send him soon.