Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was one the most colourful and passionate characters in church history. As a principle reformer, Luther took complex issues and unravelled them into the common vernacular – allowing theologians and farmers alike to respond with childlike simplicity to the Gospel. We know and love the narrative. The lawyer turned Catholic theologian turned reformer. Modern conservative critics of Luther denounce his political militancy, marriage counselling, and his position on communion. The purpose of this post is not to exonerate Luther’s flaws or to condone them. I want to talk about Luther’s context and character traits that could spark similar passion in today’s theological world.
Luther lived in a world comfortable with error. Western Catholicism was pervasive, influential, and militant. The Avignon Papacy was a distant memory and the catholic church enjoyed the company of kings and queens. In many cases, the church’s judicial system overrode the national judicial system. For the average family what this meant was purchasing crude indulgences to facilitate relief for family members trapped in purgatory.
Luther knew the Bible. Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone grew out of personal Bible study. During a period of time when his life was under threat, Luther was hidden away from the public while working on a Bible translation in the German (common) language. Luther was a part of the team that recovered some of the great themes of Scripture with the Sola statements.
Luther feared God more than man. When Luther wrote the 95 Theses he was an insignificant Augustinian monk. The questions he asked were reformative within the context of the Catholic Church. Subsequent debates with church leaders in public forums and in print reveal a lion-hearted personality mirroring the young David before the Philistines.
Luther invested himself in others. Luther’s family house was a classroom for his own family and for his extended family that often joined him for meals. He influenced a whole generation of reformers. Protestant theology became richer and deeper because of the groundwork that Luther helped to prepare. Good teachers help students to go further.
We should not be thinking – “I should be more like Luther.” Rather, we should be thinking about the Sovereign God who gave Luther his abilities and sustained him throughout his life. Broad thematic principles in Luther’s life can be applied to our own context for God’s glory. Ask God to increase your passion for Him. Reading the Bible is great place to start.