Like many pastors across America and the world, I encouraged our congregation to observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But churches were not the only ones honoring this historic moment. Print media, television networks, BBC, NPR, social media and numerous internet outlets tried to cover the importance of Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and the revolution that he sparked.
While it is gratifying to hear popular media giving voice to the sixteenth century Reformation and Luther’s role, the coverage is often narrowly focused on some of Luther’s weaknesses, especially his puzzlingly antisemitic views in later life and his sometimes uncharitable words and methods used against those with whom he disagreed.
Recently, Martin Luther’s name surfaced as we discussed the Presbyterian Church’s connection to the Reformation in our church’s new member class. Participants in the class mentioned Luther’s weaknesses. I took the opportunity to remind them that in the course of biblical history and history in general, God used imperfect men and women to accomplish great things, and Luther was no exception.
I went on explain to the class that Martin Luther’s most significant contributions to the Reformation were his passionate love for God’s Church. Luther was also committed to Scripture as the source of true knowledge about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and his fierce defense of God’s sovereign work through Christ as the only savior of sinners. Salvation does not come to sinners by good works or through the sacraments, but through faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.
As pastor of a local congregation dealing with numerous challenges in a changing denomination and culture, I find much encouragement from Luther’s life, particularly in his book The Bondage of the Will. He wrote this critical work as a response to the brilliant humanist Erasmus, who advocated a version of Christianity that was light on doctrine while giving credit to freedom of the human will and human self-sufficiency to find God. Erasmus understood freedom as a power of the human will by which human beings might apply themselves to those things that lead to eternal salvation. In other words, human works and efforts are meritorious.
In their introduction to the translation of Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston judge Luther’s book as “the greatest piece of writing that came from Luther’s pen.” For them, Erasmus, faithful to his humanist views, elevated the goodness of sincere human aspirations over and above Scripture’s grim diagnosis of the human heart before almighty God (Romans 3:23). Speaking of Erasmus, they said,
His attitude was that what one believed about the mysteries of faith does not matter; what the Church lays down may safely be accepted, whether right or wrong; for the details of a churchman’s doctrine will not affect his living as a Christian in this world, nor his eventual destiny in the world to come. Peace in the church was of more value than any doctrine (emphasis mine).
To modern ears, Luther’s response to Erasmus could be characterized as unchristian. He called Erasmus all manner of harsh names. But Luther’s zeal was motivated by love for God’s church. He was concerned about the corrosive effect Erasmus’ views would have on Christians. He believed that “Christian truth is in danger in many hearts,” and that his silence before Europe’s greatest humanist was not right—Luther knew he had to confront him. He would not allow this alien teaching to stand unopposed.
How Luther Helps Me Pastor God’s Church
D. A. Carson, New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, accurately depicts some of the challenges pastors face:
Pastors devoted to their ministry have so many things to do. Apart from the careful preparation week by week of fresh sermons and Bible studies, hours set aside for counseling, care in developing excellent relationships, careful and thoughtful (and time-consuming!) evangelism, the mentoring of another generation coming along behind, the incessant demands of administration and oversight, not to mention the nurturing of one’s own soul, there is the regular array of family priorities, including care for aging parents and precious grandchildren and an ill spouse (or any number of permutations of such responsibilities), and, for some, energy levels declining in inverse proportion to advancing years. So, why should I set aside valuable hours to read up on the Reformation, usually thought to have kicked off about 500 years ago? True, the Reformers lived in rapidly changing times, but how many of them gave serious thought to postmodern epistemology, transgenderism, and the new (in)tolerance? If we are to learn from forebears, wouldn’t we be wise to choose more recent ones? Not necessarily.
Luther’s response to Erasmus is refreshingly helpful and relevant to my calling to shepherd God’s people. Pastors, elders and all congregational leaders would do well to go back to the past as they seek to move their churches forward into the future. Speaking through Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6: 16).
Luther takes the modern reader back to God’s ancient truths and painstakingly shows from the Scriptures how sinful human beings are saved. And in doing this, leaders will rediscover that God’s power surpasses anything we can do in our strength to change people’s lives; and that the wisdom of God and the purposes of God, though seemingly foolish before our eyes is wiser than all the wisdom of the world.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, Martin Luther is helping me teach and serve God’s people with a keen awareness of the following:
We are Sinful and Broken
Luther, in accord with Scripture, believed that as human beings, we are powerless within ourselves to please God. We are unable to do anything but continue to sin. Salvation, therefore, must be wholly of divine grace, for we contribute nothing to our salvation. And so, any formulation of the gospel which amounts to saying that God shows grace, not in saving sinful humanity, but in making it possible for us to save ourselves, is to be rejected as a lie. The whole work of salvation from first to last, is God’s. Therefore, all the glory for the salvation of sinful and broken human beings must be God’s also.
Tim Keller says the good news of the gospel is:
We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us.
Maintain Fidelity to God’s Word
In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Luther stood before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The emperor, with the weight of his office, tried to pressure Luther into recanting his views. Reading Luther’s memorable response to the emperor will undoubtedly stiffen the spine and resolve of all beleaguered leaders who are tempted to capitulate under the pressures of ministry:
Since then your serene majesties and your lordships seek a simple answer: I will give it in this manner, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
In Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict, Scott Hendrix claims: “Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that he could not go against conscience.” According to Hendrix, this was not, however, a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or for religious freedom. “Though already excommunicated by Rome, Luther saw himself as a sworn teacher of Scripture who must advocate the right of all Christians to hear and live by the gospel.”
At the cost of reputation, job security and even pension, am I prepared to stand with boldness for biblical faithfulness as Luther did?
It is important to remember that Luther’s conflict with the Catholic Church was not based on economic or political issues, but on matters of doctrine and moral purity. In his passionate letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, Luther was not bemoaning politics, issues of economics or picayune ecclesiastical matters. Luther was bewailing the fact that “the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters, they are then assured of their salvation. They are likewise convinced that souls escape from purgatory as soon as they have placed a contribution into the chest.”
For Luther, the eternal destiny of human beings was no small matter. I believe that the power behind Luther’s prolific writing, preaching, and teaching, was his concern that people know the truth found only in Christ. Five hundred years after the Reformation, doctrine still matters even in a time when our churches and culture eschew the particularities of the gospel. If Luther were to visit the average Evangelical worship service in America today and hear the “practical,” utilitarian based sermons designed to make everyone feel good, how would he respond?
In our congregation, we try to encourage everyone to read through Scripture as the foundation for discipleship and spiritual formation. We preach through whole books of the Bible, from both the Old and New Testaments to encourage faith and obedience toward Christ. We desire to pattern our commitment to sound doctrine after Luther who referred to Scripture as food for the church where we “seize and taste the clear, pure word of God itself and hold to it.”
The legacy of the Reformation and Luther’s life in particular, has much to offer to Presbyterian Christians. The depressing reports of declining and dying churches, church leaders craving relevance instead of a deep relationship with Christ, is causing some to succumb to fads and broken cisterns that carry no water. Instead of looking for simple, or quick fixes, Luther’s courage to engage with his culture and challenge aberrant teachings empowers me in my faith to believe that God is still able to bring a new Reformation to the Presbyterian Church. Let us not lose hope or lose heart in the power of God’s word.
The Reverend Dr. Raymond Hylton is Senior Pastor o First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Evanston, IL
 D.A. Carson, “Should Pastors Today Care about the Reformation?” The 9Marks Journal, Fall 2017. Accessed 11/1/2017:https://www.9marks.org/journal/the-reformation-and-your-church/editors-note/.
 This is Paul’s argument in I Cor. 1:18-31, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
 Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (Penguin Publishing Group, 2011), 40.
 Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther (New York: Viking Press, 2017), 235.
 Mary Gaebler, The Courage of Faith: Martin Luther and the Theonomous Self (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 168.
 Mansch, Larry D and Peters, Curtis. Martin Luther: The Life and the Lessons. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Publishers, 2016, 148.