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The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther

(13 posts)

Who knows? You can.

The story has often been told of the monk Martin Luther exasperating his confessor with hours of detailed confession. The burden of sin weighed heavily on Luther, and the Roman system of confession and penance could not relieve him of it. Steve Lawson writes: In an effort to ease Luther’s burden, Staupitz sent him on an official trip to Rome (1510). Luther hoped to find peace there by visiting sacred sites and venerating supposed relics of Christianity, but instead he discovered the gross abuses and masked hypocrisies of the priests. He became disillusioned with the corruption of the Roman church and disenchanted by the pilgrimages to adore religious relics. These objects included the rope with which Judas supposedly hanged himself, a reputed piece of Moses’ burning bush, and the alleged chains of Paul. Yet worse, it was claimed that the Scala Sancta (“the Holy Stairs”), the very steps that Jesus had descended from Pilate’s judgment hall, had been moved to Rome, and that God would forgive the sins of those who crawled up the stairs on their knees, kissing each step. Luther dutifully climbed the stairs in the appointed manner, but when he reached the top, he despaired: “At Rome, I wished to liberate my grandfather from purgatory, and went up the staircase of Pilate, praying a pater noster on each step; for I was convinced that he who prayed thus could redeem his soul. But when I came to the top step, the thought kept coming to me, ‘Who knows whether this is true?’” —Steven J. Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 7–8. Luther’s doubts led him to dig into the Scriptures, which led him out of the bondage of Rome to freedom in Christ. Rome is once again—or, rather, still—offering indulgences (get yours here). Thousands will be flocking to Brazil this week to get theirs. We should pray that the thought will come to them, “Who knows whether this is true?”
Martin Luther believed that preachers, when faithfully expounding the Word of God, were no less than the voice of God. To this point, Luther emphatically stated: “For God has said, ‘When the Word of Christ is preached, I am in your mouth, and I go with the Word through your ears into your heart.’ Therefore, we have a sure sign and sure knowledge that when the gospel is proclaimed, God is present there.” In other words, Jesus Christ is powerfully present in the proclamation of the Scriptures. Consequently, Luther resisted any supposed private revelations to men. Dreams and visions, he asserted, must not be preached: “Whenever you hear anyone boast that he has something by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and it has no basis in God’s Word, no matter what it may be, tell him that this is the work of the devil.” He added, “Whatever does not have its origin in the Scriptures is surely from the devil himself.” Luther believed that only the Bible, not the mystical intuitions of men, is to be preached. Luther’s theology of preaching can be summarized by his assertion that preaching is God’s own speech to people. For Luther, preaching is Deus loquens—“God speaking.” The greatness of preaching, he maintained, lies in the fact that God Himself is active insofar as the preacher remains obedient to the Word and seeks nothing but for the people to hear the Word of God. —Steven J. Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 30–31. Luther’s high view of preaching is virtually unknown today. The reason for that may be, in part, that so little of today’s preaching deserves such honor. I think, however, the main reason preaching is so lightly esteemed is that the Word of God is lightly esteemed—which brings us back to the preacher. Luther could call preaching “God speaking” because he had committed himself to faithfully expounding the Word, and nothing but. Consequently, authority of God emanated from his pulpit.

No Clearer Book

Martin Luther insisted that Scripture was understandable by the common mind. Yet all Scripture is not equally clear or—by itself—understandable, nor is it accessible to every person. Steve Lawson writes: The Roman Catholic Church withheld the Bible from the common people, claiming they could not understand it. The pope and other leaders must interpret it for the laity, Rome said. But Luther maintained the very opposite. He said, “No clearer book has been written on earth than the Holy Scripture.” Again, he stated, “There is not on earth a book more lucidly written than the Holy Scripture.” Luther affirmed that the Word is crystal clear, plainly understandable for ordinary Christians. This is especially true in regard to the core message of the Bible, which, Luther stated, is clearly communicated by God in intelligible language for all to read. He asserted: “Scripture is intended for all people. It is clear enough so far as truths necessary for salvation are concerned.” This foundational belief led Luther to translate the Bible into the German language. He was certain that if the people could read it in their own language, they would grasp its essential message. He believed that Scripture is remarkably clear in what it teaches about salvation. Luther did not deny that some parts of the Bible are not easy to understand, but he attributed that difficulty to the reader, not Scripture itself: “I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture.” With proper study, he believed, all the content of the Bible could be grasped. Because of his belief that some biblical passages are more difficult to understand, he advised, “If you cannot understand the obscure, then stay with the clear.” Again, he said, “If the words are obscure at one place, yet they are clear at another place.” Luther believed that the verses that are clearer must interpret passages that are less clear to the human mind. By this principle, Luther asserted that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Nevertheless, Luther did recognize that Scripture is incomprehensible to those who are not born again: “If you speak of the internal clearness, no human being sees one iota of Scripture unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart. . . . The Spirit is required to understand the whole of Scripture and every part of it.” He believed in Scripture’s intrinsic clarity, but he also accepted the biblical teaching that those whose hearts have not been enlightened by the Holy Spirit are blind to the Bible’s message. —Steven J. Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 36–37.
Let us then consider it certain and conclusively established that the soul can do without all things except the Word of God. . . . This Word is the Word of life, of truth, of light, of preaching, of righteousness, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of power, of grace, of glory, and of every blessing beyond our power to estimate. —Martin Luther, cited in The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 38 [original source].

Body and Soul at Work

As noted previously, Martin Luther insisted that Scripture was understandable by the common mind. That does not mean, however, that it comes easily. As with any discipline, proficiency requires hard work. If all you want is a little devotional reading, and you’re not willing to tackle your studies with diligence, investing time and effort, don’t complain when you find you’re not getting much out of it. In the following excerpt, Luther writes of the preacher’s work, but the principle applies to every disciple of Christ. Sitting before an open Bible is far more strenuous, Luther believed, than physical labor in a field or factory. While some may consider sitting at a desk for extended hours to be idle work, Luther knew better: “Studying is my work. This work God wants me to do, and if it pleases Him, He will bless it.” Of this all-demanding work, he wrote: I would like to see the horseman who could sit still with me all day and look into a book—even if he had nothing else to care for, write, think about, or read. Ask a . . . preacher . . . whether writing and speaking is work. . . . The pen is light, that is true. . . . But in writing, the best part of the body (which is the head), and the noblest of the members (which is the tongue) and the highest faculty (which is speech) must lay hold and work as never before. In other occupations it is only the fist or the foot or the back or some other member that has to work; and while they are at it they can sing and jest, which the writer cannot do. They say of writing that “it only take three fingers to do it”; but the whole body and soul work at it too. —Steven J. Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 44–45.

Begin with Prayer

Luther has been quoted previously on the diligent hard work required to gain understanding of the Scripture. He did not, however, believe that hard work was the key necessity. Without the Spirit of God, no one, however intelligent or studious, can expect to understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). Therefore, it behooves us to begin our studies in prayer (James 1:5). It is absolutely certain that one cannot enter into the [meaning of] Scripture by study or innate intelligence. Therefore your first task is to begin with prayer. You must ask that the Lord in His great mercy grant you a true understanding of His words, should it please Him to accomplish anything through you for His glory and not for your glory or that of any other man. For there is no one who can teach the divine words except He who is their Author, as He says: “They shall all be taught of God” (John 6:45). You must therefore completely despair of your own diligence and intelligence and rely solely on the infusion of the Spirit. Believe me, for I have had experience in this matter. —Martin Luther, cited in The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 46.

The Slaying, Condemning, Accusing Law

Christians, though not under the Law, cannot live without it. We, too, who are now made holy through grace, nevertheless live in a sinful body. And because of this remaining sin, we must permit ourselves to be rebuked, terrified, slain, and sacrificed by the Law until we are lowered into the grave. Therefore before and after we have become Christians, the Law must in this life constantly be the slaying, condemning, accusing Law. —Martin Luther, cited in The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 71.

No Showmanship or Manipulation

Luther provides an example—and a rebuke—to preachers who use theatrics to manipulate an audience: Luther’s messages were noticeably marked by a warm personality and fervent delivery. One observer noted that Luther was compelling in the presentation of his words and arguments. At the Leipzig disputation, the following portrait of Luther’s manner of public speech was recorded by a distinguished humanist Latin scholar, Peter Mosellanus, who chaired the meetings: His voice is clear and melodious. . . . For conversation, he has a rich store of subjects at his command; a vast forest of thoughts and words is at his disposal. . . . There is nothing stoical, nothing supercilious, about him; and he understands how to adapt himself to different persons and times. In society he is lively and agreeable. He is always fresh, cheerful and at his ease, and has a pleasant countenance, however hard his enemies may threaten him, so that one cannot but believe that heaven is with him in his great undertaking. To this point, Fred W. Meuser, notes: “Everything in Luther’s preaching was genuine. The message was everything. Histrionics, calculated gestures, anything done for effect would have been regarded as a human intrusion on the Word of God. Although there was humor, there was never levity or anything calculated to produce laughter.” This is to say, there was nothing contrived about Luther’s delivery. There was no showmanship or manipulation of the listener. Instead, his delivery was marked by sincerity and a deep concern for the spiritual wellbeing of his flock. —Steve Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 84–85.

Truth for Everyone

Luther was no simple, uneducated preacher. A master of the biblical languages and exegesis, and a highly skilled preacher, teacher, and debater, he crossed intellectual swords with the top scholars of his day. He tackled the minute details of theology with alacrity. Still, he never forgot his audience, and endeavored always to present the gospel in the common language, accessible to the common man. Luther intentionally sought to preach the gospel to his listeners in an understandable manner. Such plain preaching was much needed in his day. For centuries, German congregations had suffered through worship services conducted in Latin, which was the scholarly language of the classroom but not the common language of the marketplace or the home. Thus, it was largely unknown among the general populace. Luther believed that “the text of the Bible, and all preaching based upon it, should be in the vernacular—the everyday language of the people, not Latin, which distanced the people from the text.” Because he longed to be clearly understood in the pulpit, Luther strove to use language that was simple and accessible. The Word, Luther insisted, must be explained and applied in plain terms in the native language of the common people. “To preach plain and simply is a great art,” he said. Although Luther was the ranking scholar of the world in which he moved, he targeted his sermon delivery not to the intellectual or religious elite, but to the common people. E. C. Dargan states: “He thought with the learned, but he also thought and talked with the people. His style of speech was clear to the people, warm with life and sentiment, and vigorous with the robust nature of the man himself.” Broadus agrees, writing, “He [Luther] gloried in being a preacher to the common people.” Simply put, Luther wanted to communicate the truth to everyone. . . . Luther sounded a stern warning to preachers against parading their intellect at the expense of not communicating to simple people in desperate need of the gospel message: “Cursed are all preachers that in the church aim at high and hard things, and, neglecting the saving health of the poor unlearned people, seek their own honour and praise, and therewith to please one or two ambitious persons.” —Steve Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 90–91, 92.

Delighting in Assertions

Contention is sadly out of fashion in the large parts of the church today. Consequently, controversial doctrines are brushed aside for the sake of peace and unity. It is thought best never to be too sure of anything that might cause disagreement. Luther would not have fit in. Luther wholeheartedly contended that to be a Christian is to believe the Bible’s assertions. This must be true for every preacher as he stands before an open Bible. Luther maintained: To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all. . . . By “assertion” I mean staunchly holding your ground, stating your position, confessing it, defending it and persevering in it unvanquished. . . . Take the Apostle Paul—how often does he call for that “full assurance” which is, simply, an assertion of conscience, of the highest degree of certainty and conviction. . . . Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity. Luther’s strong position regarding the inspiration of Scripture led him to believe that every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, recorded in Scripture, is authored by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the Bible’s assertions are the assertions of the Spirit. Thus, no biblical passage is to be doubted or minimized. Luther affirmed, “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions—surer and more certain than sense and life itself.” For this reason, Luther maintained, the preacher cannot be a skeptic. Rather, as he stands in the pulpit, he must declare with strong confidence all that the Bible affirms. —Steve Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 105–106.

Manure to the Vine

Luther on the opposition Christians must necessarily face in this life: Even if all the devils, the world, our neighbors, and our own people are hostile to us, revile and slander us, hurt and torment us, we should regard this as no different from applying a shovelful of manure to the vine to fertilize it well, cutting away the useless wild branches, or removing a little of the excessive and hampering foliage. —Martin Luther, cited in The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), 109–110.

Pious Gullibility

I know I risk beating a dead horse with this third-of-a-kind post, but the problem of evangelical gullibility concerns me deeply. From The Prayer of Jabez to Heaven Is for Real, evangelicals are ready, and even anxious, to swallow every new, exciting addition to biblical Christianity, which they must find boring and inadequate. In short, the horse isn’t dead, and won’t be until until every Christian demands, with Luther, “Give me Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. Do you hear me? Scripture.” Those who demand to know more than Scripture tells us are sinning: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The limits of our curiosity are thus established by the boundary of biblical revelation. The typical Christian today seems oblivious to the principles established by Deuteronomy 29:29 and 1 Corinthians 4:6 (“that you may learn . . . not to go beyond what is written”). In fact, people seem to be looking for spiritual truth, messages from God, and insight into the spirit world everywhere but Scripture. Today’s evangelicals have been indoctrinated by decades of charismatic influence to think God regularly bypasses his written Word in order to speak directly to any and every believer—as if extra biblical revelation were a standard feature of ordinary Christian experience. Many therefore think charity requires them to receive claims of “fresh revelation” with a kind of pious gullibility. After all, who are we to question someone else’s private word from God? So when dozens of best-selling authors who profess to be Christians are suddenly claiming they have seen heaven and want to tell us what it’s like, most of the Christian community is defenseless in the wake of the onslaught. —John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven: The Truth about Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life (Second Edition) (Crossway, 2013), 39–40.

Preaching and the Reformation

Steve Lawson on the Reformation as a revival of preaching: John Broadus, a noted nineteenth-century professor, identifies four distinguishing marks of the Reformation. Each of these is critical to our understanding of Luther and the Protestant movement. First, the Reformation was a revival of preaching. Broadus notes that during the Middle Ages, preachers were exceptions to the rule. The Roman Catholic Church had subjugated the pulpit to a subordinate, peripheral role. In its place were the Mass, rituals, and ceremonies. But the Reformation, Broadus writes, was marked by “a great outburst of preaching, such as had not been seen since the early Christian centuries.” All of the Reformers were preachers, not merely authors and lecturers. . . . As [E. C. Dargan] explains: “Among the reformers, preaching resumes its proper place in worship. . . . The exposition of Scripture becomes the main thing. . . . Preaching becomes more prominent in worship than it had been perhaps since the fourth century.” The Reformation historian Harold Grimm affirms this view, writing: “The Protestant Reformation would not have been possible without the sermon. . .  The role of the sermon in making the Reformation a mass movement can scarcely be overestimated.” Roland Bainton, a Luther scholar, also agrees: “The Reformation gave centrality to the sermon. The pulpit was higher than the altar.” . . . Second, it was a revival of biblical preaching. Broadus notes that the Protestant movement did not merely bring back preaching per se, but a certain kind of preaching—biblical preaching, that is, expository preaching. He writes: “Instead of long and often fabulous stories about saints and martyrs, and accounts of miracles, instead of passages from Aristotle and Seneca, and fine-spun subtleties of the Schoolman, these men preached the Bible. The question was not what the Pope said; and even the Fathers, however highly esteemed, were not decisive authority—it was the Bible.” . . . In the sixteenth century, Broadus explains, “The preacher’s one great task was to set forth the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Word of God.” Everything else the preacher did was secondary. With this new emphasis came a deeper study of the Bible: “Preachers, studying the original Greek and Hebrew,” he writes, “were carefully explaining to the people the connected teachings of passage after passage and book after book . . . , [giving them] a much more strict and reasonable exegesis than had ever been common since the days of Chrysostom.” . . . Third, it was a revival of controversial preaching. Broadus explains that as the Reformers preached the Bible, controversy inevitably followed. They maintained not only sola Scriptura—“Scripture alone”—but tota Scriptura—“all Scripture.” The Reformers believed that every truth was to be preached from their pulpits. Every hard saying was to be expounded. Every sin was to be exposed. After centuries of apostasy, the full counsel of God was suddenly preached, which brought unavoidable conflict in a slumbering church. . . . Fourth, it was a revival of preaching on the doctrines of grace. Broadus finally notes that biblical preaching in the Reformation elevated the truths of the sovereignty of God in salvation: “The doctrine of divine sovereignty in human salvation was freely proclaimed by all the Reformers.” In-depth biblical preaching always sets forth the doctrines of grace because they are so repeatedly taught throughout Scripture. A return to biblical preaching necessitates a return to preaching divine sovereignty in man’s salvation. The two are inseparably linked. Broadus adds, “Protestantism was born of the doctrines of grace, and in the proclamation of these the Reformation preaching found its truest and highest power.” . . . Standing at the headwaters of the Reformation was Martin Luther. This bold German Reformer became one of the greatest preachers in this remarkable time. His pulpit proved to be the first strong pulse in the heartbeat of the Protestant movement, pumping life into the body of Christ. Luther unleashed God’s Word on the European continent with the force of an electrical storm. The thunder and lightning of his biblical exposition were powerful in shaping this movement. —Steven J. Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Reformation Trust, 2013), xvii–xxi.


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