For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Rom 9:17
See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all. Had I wished I might have started a conflagration at Worms. But while I sat and drank beer with Phillip and Amsdorf, God dealt the Papacy a mighty blow. Martin Luther
If you think one man cannot make a difference, you have not travelled by plane for a long time. When you approach the gate you now take off your shoes, jacket and belt, remove all metal from your pockets and place your computer on the conveyer belt. You may even get to go through an x-ray machine- all because of one man, Isama Bin Laden. International relations, national government, commerce, education and the home are a few of the things that have been profoundly changed all because of just one man.
I want the rest of my life to make a difference. Don’t you? That is why I devoted this year to the study of the life of Martin Luther. I wanted to know how he was able to stand alone when scholars, princes, cardinals, the Pope, and even the devil Himself were arrayed against him. Historians and psychologists have analyzed the man and have proposed their man-made theories, but they all have fallen short of uncovering the secret of this man’s incredible courage. Here is what my study has revealed.
We need to know that Luther was not a super-saint. He had what we might call a “potty mouth.” His engagement with his opponents often times were personal and embarrassing even to some of his most ardent supporters. In his later years, he supported the inhumane treatment of the rival sects that were birthed out of the Reformation. Some of his actions and decisions in later life were disappointing. He was a man, a very earthly man; one that God used in spite of his sin-tainted nature.
He was not a self-conscious reformer from the start. He saw things that were wrong and questionable and took the initiative to point them out and seek a dialogue with the leaders over those issues. As the opposition grew against his questions, so did his commitment to stand upon what he considered to be God’s truth. But, it was God who was working in him and around him to fashion him into the man who changed his world. So, I would say that the first characteristic of Luther’s impact was God’s touch upon his life. He was a man, chosen and commissioned “for such a time as this.” He was a called man.
Second, Luther had a profound fear of God. Psychologists have tried to portray that fear as pathological and a negative driving force for all of Luther’s achievements. Given our modern view of God as a grandfatherly figure who only wants us happy, it is not hard to understand such a reaction. However, if Proverbs is right in saying that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” [ 9:10] then Luther’s response to God had a solid foundation.
When lightning struck and he cried out, “Help me St Anne! I will become a monk!” he was coming to grips with a holy God who demands perfection in His people. Later he would confess, “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.” Life was not a pursuit of happiness but one lived under the commands of a Holy God. He was an ordered man.
His deep struggle with guilt led to the third characteristic: A passion for certainty. He had to know that he was right with God. Others were placated by the ceremonies and traditions of the Church, but he needed a higher, unimpeachable authority. The Pope and the councils disagreed. The clerics and the ascetics lived as hypocrites. His own conscience was not at peace. He needed to hear from God himself.
That passion drove him to the Scriptures. It was there that he heard life’s highest Authority speak. In Romans 1:17, he found his rock: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” [Rom 1:17] Righteousness is not found by human achievement but a divine gift.
When the significance of his discovery touched his heart, he wrote: “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors of paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me a gate to heaven…” He was a certain man.
This discovery gave rise to his fourth characteristic. He had an unwavering commitment to the Scriptures. In the Bible, God spoke truth [John 17:17]. Popes, princes and philosophers would err, but the Bible never did. At the Leipzig debate he declared, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it. As for the pope’s decretal on indulgences I say that neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and council’s.”
When asked by his inquisitor, “Are you the only one that knows anything? Except for you is all the church in error?” Luther replied, “I answer that God once spoke through the mouth of an ass. I will tell you straight what I think. I am a Christian theologian; and I am bound not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and my death.” Like Athanasius before him, all though the world be against him, he would remain faithful alone if necessary, contra mundrum, against the world. He was a Word man.
Fifth, Luther was a soldier. You cannot fully grasp the intensity of the man without understanding his idea of the nature of Christianity: it was war! He believed in a real Devil. Christmas was Christianity’s central feast because it said, “God is for us.” But, for Luther that also implied that “the Devil is against us.” For Luther, the awareness of the Devil’s hatred for the Church kept Christianity from being reduced to an exposition of ideals instead of what it really is, an expedition of faith. Where Christ was present the devil was not far away. So, he would say, “When the devil harasses us we know ourselves to be in good shape.”
Luther saw Christianity as war. When exiled and alone in the Wartburg castle he confessed of a personal intense and ongoing battle. He wrote, “I can tell you in the idle solitude there are a thousand battles with Satan. It is much easier to fight against the incarnate Devil- that is, against men- than against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. Often I fall and am lifted again by God’s right hand.” He would fight and win that battle until the day he died. He was an armed man.
Finally, and in my opinion, the central characteristic of Luther’s life was his total devotion to Christ and the cross. His battle was not ultimately a contest concerning the appropriateness of indulgences, the meaning of the sacraments, the purity of the clergy or the authority of the Pope. It was about the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Through the lens of Holy Scripture he saw a horrifying truth. The Roman Church that he once believed to be the Holy Mother he now saw as the Great Harlot. Instead of being the means of God’s grace, she, by her man-made traditions, had become the means of the devil. Instead of being the instrument of salvation she had become a weapon of destruction. For Luther, it was a time of crisis: The Church was corrupted; the people were deceived; the scriptures ignored; the Gospel silenced and the glory of Jesus Christ sullied. He could not, he must not, remain silent. His love for the glory of Jesus Christ and the truth of His Word demanded his whole life. He was a dead man.
Luther did not know the radical changes God would bring about through his faithfulness. He was like the man climbing in the darkness of a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell. Luther simply did what he knew he had to do for the glory of God and the good of His church. And, by God’s design the bell rung out and the music was heard all over Christendom. We are still hearing the music today. I want God to do the same kind of thing in my life. Don’t you? Who knows what God will do through you?
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