Reflections on Luther
I must confess that to me Luther is something of a hero.
He is a larger-than-life character. Legends have grown up around him. For instance, he probably did not nail his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg on 31st October 1517: he published them as a booklet. What could have been nailed to the door was a notice about a meeting to discuss them. At the Diet of Worms, when challenged to recant his ‘heresy’, he is supposed to have said the famous words, ‘Here I stand. I can do not other. So help me God.’ But according to the official minutes he said something less dramatic, though he did end with ‘So help me God’. He is thought of as a kind of revolutionary, and in some ways he was, but he was actually much more conservative than most of the other Reformers. He deplored the destruction of images etc., and fiercely denounced a popular uprising of the peasants.
Luther was not a biblical fundamentalist. He said, ‘The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid’. To him, it was all about Christ and the good news of justification by faith, not works. He regarded the Bible not as a source of information but as a means through which God speaks to us personally the word of challenge, forgiveness and healing. He advised people to read the Bible listening for this word. If in any passage they could not hear it, then they could feel free to ignore it, but recognise that someone else might find it there. He himself had difficulty hearing the good news in the Epistle of James. He once said he would like to throw it in the fire!
This is one example of the kind of down-to-earth man he was. He could be positively crude at times. People made notes of his conversations and they are collected together in his “Table Talk”. Examples include:
‘If you are not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.’
‘Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ.’
‘We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to me, Do not drink, I answer, I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.’
He suffered badly from constipation, and sometimes said his prayers on the toilet. When challenged as to whether this was irreverent, his answer was; ‘Not at all! What comes out of my mouth is addressed to the Lord, what comes out the other end is addressed to the devil’.
He had his faults. He was chronically ill in many ways, and sometimes bad tempered. Bit without doubt his worst fault was his violent hatred of the Jews. This was partly cultural: anti-Semitism was rife in most of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. But it was also theological. For him, Judaism represented everything that was contrary to the gospel: law rather than grace, salvation by works rather than faith. Some blame Luther for contributing to the continuation of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Modern Lutheran churches have firmly dissociated themselves from this aspect of Luther’s heritage.
But with all his faults there is something heroic and inspiring about Luther: his clear and courageous affirmation of the gospel of justification by faith alone. This was behind his reaction to the sale of indulgences. It came from his own spiritual torment. As a monk, Luther had an over-sensitive conscience. He was obsessed with sin and the need to pray, confess, go on pilgrimages, humble and punish himself etc. God to him was a stern judge who would condemn him to hell for the least little sin. He reached rock bottom when he realised he could not love God, which meant he was breaking the greatest commandment of all. Then, through his study of the Bible, he suddenly came to the realisation that righteousness is not something we can ever achieve by our own efforts: God gives it to us as a free gift. We only have to believe.
It was this discovery that changed his life. It also opened his eyes to what was wrong with the Church of his time, and so it eventually changed the whole history of Europe. Someone has said that Luther was like a man who was falling down a church tower. He desperately reached out for something to save him, and what he gripped was the rope of the bell that woke up the whole town.
Does this have meaning for us today? Perhaps not quite the meaning it had in Luther’s time. There is no longer that obsession with law and ritual and the struggle to appease a wrathful God. Today even Catholics are celebrating Luther! But part of the reason why Luther inspires me is that the principle he stood for is universal. We all want to be recognised and loved. In this competitive world we are often judged by our talent, our good looks, our achievements, our sophistication. We need to feel worthy, to “justify” our existence. The good news is that we are already as loved and as worthy as anyone can be, and if there is a secret to a successful life, it is to believe that.