February 18 – Martin Luther

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Martin Luther, reformer of the Church

Martin Luther, (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1543) who is regarded as the founder of the German Reformation, began life as the son of a miner in Saxony. His path to becoming a Reformer began in 1505. As a student he feared being stuck by lightning during a storm, prayed to St Anne for help, promising to become a monk. He entered an Augustinian monastery, but the terror of the experience that brought him into religious life remained significant. The church of the day traded on the fear of hell and judgement, and for Luther himself the terror aroused by the storm was transferred to holy fear in the presence of Christ the judge, a figure graphically depicted in the art of the time. As a monk and priest he trembled at the thought of the Bread and Wine being changed into the body and blood of Christ in his hands.

Luther came to believe the only way a priest could be at ease in the presence of Christ was to have confessed all his sins. So troubled was he in conscience he sometime confessed for 6 hours per day. He ransacked his soul for every fault, and then, on returning to his room, would remember something he had not mentioned. This defeated him and wore out his superiors who, hoping he might work out his own salvation, made him a teacher of biblical studies. Luther began to wrestle with scripture. As a result of pondering the concept of justification in Paul’s letter to the Romans he underwent a complete liberation from his condition. The key passage for him was Romans 1:16-17.

From this Luther came to understand that the Justice of God stands for what God does to bring us back into right relationship with himself through faith, despite the fact that we are sinners and fall short of God’s gifts. This insight revolutionised his life. He no longer feared an avenging God, and became a much more cheerful soul. The emphasis on “the works of the law” or merit – that is our virtuous living and our efforts to secure a place with God– was replaced by life lived as a glad response to God’s acceptance of us before we ask.

On this basis his discipleship no longer served as a means of self-justification but took the form of glad and willing service of a merciful and gracious God. This was Martin Luther’s gift to the Church.

Martin Luther’s reform brought about a renewed understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that brought life and refreshment to many in his day, and has continued until now. In a world where it becomes harder and harder to recognize and name true sanctity, in Martin Luther’s life fear surrendered to peace with God; merriment replaced guilt and a sour spirit, and distrust of our human nature was replaced with acceptance and respect.

From Luther onwards the witness to Christ in Scripture was privileged as the guiding source of the Church’s life. But so long as the central ideas about faith were right, Luther did not argue about secondary issues such as vestments and gestures. Some even accused him of retaining too much “popery”. He also re-introduced the reception of communion in both kinds, expanded congregational singing and translated the Bible and the Liturgy into the language of the people. Luther did not remain a monk, but married Katharina von Bora and had a family. The Uniting Church was formed on the basis of going “forward together in sole loyalty to Jesus Christ, and it privileges the place of Scripture in the church. Luther would have approved of both.

Refs: Roland Bainton Here I Stand I Can Do no Other, F.L. Cross (ed) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Rev John Smith