by Charles Fry /
A BRIEF LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER: Part 6
Despite his many concerns with the Roman Church, Luther considered a smaller yet growing theological opponent, the Anabaptists, to be more formidable. This group took the Reformation as their starting point, but then went to a radical end in hopes of regaining what they considered to be pure religion. They heartily embraced extra-biblical revelation, trusting in new revelations supposedly from God, rather than resting in the Bible and hearing God speak through the Scriptures alone.
As a result, the Anabaptists plunged themselves into religious excess and disgrace, wreaking havoc and disruption. Sadly, the papacy and the emperor associated Luther with the Anabaptists and their folly. Therefore, Luther zealously attacked the Anabaptist theology. With respect to both Rome and the Anabaptists, the chief battle was ultimately over the same issue: the doctrine of sola scriptura: Scripture alone.
How did Luther battle any and all enemies of the Reformation? He taught and proclaimed the Word of God, a fact that remains as one of his greatest legacies. Yet Luther’s legacy is really God’s legacy, for the Holy Spirit used the written and preached Word to bring the Reformation to Europe, which in turn brought the triumph of the gospel once again to the world. Luther expressed his view of the gospel’s success:
I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself.[i]
Luther’s Death, Luther’s Hope
On Christmas afternoon, 1530, Martin Luther preached on Luke 2:1–14 and the hope a Christian has in death because of the child who was born in Bethlehem. He reflected on the time when he would one day die and how nothing in God’s creation would be able to help him on that day—except for the baby born in Bethlehem. Only the Savior could be his help and refuge:
…Sun, moon, stars, all creatures, physicians, emperors, kings, wise men and potentates cannot help me. When I die I shall see nothing but black darkness, and yet that light, “To you is born this day the Savior” [Luke 2:11], remains in my eyes and fills all heaven and earth. The Savior will help me when all have forsaken me. And when the heavens and the stars and all creatures stare at me with horrible mien, I see nothing in heaven and earth but this child.[ii]
Some sixteen years later, this moment of Luther’s life on which he reflected that Christmas day would come to pass. As he lay dying, he continually repeated the promise, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
On February 18, 1546, Martin Luther died of a ruptured heart in Eisleben, Germany, the very town where his life began. Shortly before his death, Luther was asked to confess one last time the faith for which he had given his life. “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” “Yes,” was Luther’s simple reply. The world was watching to see if his understanding of the gospel would carry him in the moment of death. In other words, was the gospel of justification by faith alone true? Was it sufficient? Oberman observes that much was at stake in this confession:
For in the late Middle Ages, ever since the first struggle for survival during the persecutions of ancient Rome, going to one’s death with fearless fortitude was the outward sign of a true child of God, of the confessors and martyrs. The deathbed in the Eisleben inn had become a stage; and straining their ears to catch Luther’s last words were enemies as well as friends.[iii]
Oberman also notes that at Luther’s death, there was no “Elisha” who would receive the mantle of the Reformation: “It was not carelessness or self-complacency that had kept Luther from planning for a future without him; instead he was convinced that the power of the rediscovered gospel would be strong enough to make its own way, even in the turmoil he often predicted would follow his death.”[iv]
Would Luther’s confidence in the gospel prove correct? At first it seemed the answer was no. After he died, whole regions of Germany fell to the political and military machinery of the papacy and Emperor Charles V. Through the military victories of Charles, Luther’s theology became outlawed and Luther’s teachings were forbidden in many areas. The Reformation in Germany seemed to be gasping for breath as the Roman Catholic Church regained strongholds.
In the end, however, Luther was proved correct concerning his confidence in the gospel and his certainty of bright days ahead. The Protestant faith quickly regained strength and spread throughout Europe and the world, changing entire nations. Luther’s confidence rested on a firm foundation, for the gospel is truly the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. It is the weapon of almighty God and his one essential message for the world.
This message that Luther so treasured humbles mankind and gives all glory to God, while at the same time cleansing a guilty conscience and giving assurance and abiding joy to the lowliest of men. The gospel of Christ caused this trembling man to become as bold as a lion.
Luther’s understanding of the gospel is much needed again in our day. It will give great joy, freedom, and assurance to us in the twenty-first century. This understanding of the gospel is the focus of the next several posts in this series.
Part 8 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.
[i] Martin Luther, The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocaviti, in Luther’s Works, vol. 51 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 77, 78.
[ii] Martin Luther, Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, second edition, edited by Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis, MN., Fortress Press, 2005), 199.
[iii] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Caught between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale, 1982, 1989, 2006), 3.
[iv] Oberman, 8.