The life of Martin Luther underscores the value of a relevant message.
Published on: 10-05-2018
Have you ever seen people standing in a store-front line for hours to beat the rush for a newly released iPhone, a Harry Potter book, or some other “must-have” merchandise?
Believe it or not, 500 years ago, it was none other than the Bible that was in such high demand, and Martin Luther was responsible. How did he manage to draw such attention to it? What was in his message that was so “on target” that people were, as it were, lining up for it?
If it were not for the political and economic contexts of the reforms of the early 16th century, Luther may well have been considered just another heretic. God, however, knew the time was right for a new message. Disasters, crises, new discoveries, inventions, and general insecurities rendered the contemporary society in flux.
Luther understood this and addressed the relevant concerns. He became an advocate of the people, aligning himself with the spirit of reform and new orientation within a culture of renaissance. When Luther entered the Diet of Worms, a town crier riding before him, draped with bells, expressed it as follows: “You for whom we have longed, for whom we have waited so long in darkness, have come at last.”
Luther wrote his 95 theses in Latin, but as soon as the following year, the document became available to the people in German. He continued to use Latin to write for scholars and theologians, but in March 1518 he published his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace” in German for all to understand.
At a time when 90 percent of all printed matter available was in Latin, this was remarkable. Otherwise inaccessible theology had arrived among the common people ⎯ reaching even the illiterate through public readings.
Luther’s Bible translation also powerfully surpassed the 17 full German Bible editions that already existed because of his easy-to-grasp language — something nobody had mastered before. People would not only be able to read and understand the Holy Scriptures but they would do it eagerly.
Humanism’s emphasis on original sources afforded Luther access to interpretive tools such as good Greek manuscripts, grammars, and dictionaries. Persistent translation challenges saw him, for example, creatively turning to the local butcher to help him articulate sacrificial concepts accurately, or simply inventing new terms.
Luther focused more on transmitting the meaning of Scripture than the accuracy of terms. To reach men, women, and children, he considered “the mother in the house and the kids in the street.” Even his opponents had to grudgingly admit his success.
A crucial factor for the success of Luther’s message was the invention of mechanized printing. The Reformation dispute concerning the professor from Wittenberg was the first subject of focus in the mass media of the modern era. This media revolution made use of the spoken word, music, and art delivered in sermons, flyers, hymns, and images ⎯ crucial delivery platforms for the receptive and illiterate public of Luther’s time. Artist Lucas Cranach Sr., a contemporary of Luther, supported him through images and cartoons ⎯ which Luther embraced for their educational and didactic value ⎯ and Cranach became a key public relations figure in the Reformation.
The first Protestant hymnbook, containing mostly Luther’s own songs, was published in Wittenberg as early as 1524. The hymns were sung like folk songs by people at home. Some even say that Luther established the Reformation in Germany through the hymnal.
Luther’s Personal Reformation
Luther’s own life concerns were relevant to an entire generation. He himself had been shaped by the Middle Ages, with all its fears of purgatory, pestilence, and other dreaded things. This deep-soul experience gave Luther the theological edge over his opponents.
Historical splendor belongs to those who can clearly state what many others can only vaguely surmise or crave. With the Reformation’s growing publicity, Luther’s individual experience burgeoned into society’s experience ⎯ his response became the response of his fellow humans, and his hour became the hour of the time. God’s leading can be seen in the fact that He enters the scene at the right moment.
Sound Bible Interpretation
Luther rejected the allegorical interpretation of the Bible by the church fathers and scholars almost uniformly, and he returned to the literal and Christological hermeneutic of the early Christians. He wrote: “This is my last and best skill: Passing down the Bible according to its simple meaning. For it is the meaning of the word that counts; there is life, comfort, strength, teaching, and skill in it. What is besides, is the workmanship of fools, although it glitters brightly.”
Luther underscored Scripture’s own testimony for interpretation, which is the model that Jesus and the apostles followed: “Sancta Scriptura sui ipsius interpres.”
He held that the Bible is the only foundation of faith and holds the only priority. Every believer should have access to it and be able to understand it. Luther called the Council of Toulouse in 1229 “an artful act of the devil” for prohibiting access to the Bible to the laity. Of God’s Word, he said, “This Queen must reign. To her, all of us must listen and submit. We must not be her teacher, judge, and arbitrator, but simply her witnesses, students, and confessors, whether the Pope, Luther, Augustin, Paul or an angel in heaven.”
Until the end of his days, Luther felt a deep respect for the Word of God. Among the last words he uttered were, “No one should think to have tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently, except that he reigned over the churches for one hundred years with prophets like Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles.” Then he added, full of lowliness, “We are beggars: That is true.”
Courage in the Face of Conflict
Luther was driven by a holy fervor and didn’t shrink back even in the face of powerful people and the majority. Warned by friends not to go to the Diet of Worms, he replied, “I must and want to go in even if there are as many devils inside as there are tiles on the roofs.” This kind of courage should serve as an example to all those who, in these days, proclaim the “present truth.”
Emperor Karl V argued before the Diet of Worms: “For it is certain that a single monk will go astray with his opinion, which is against all Christianity, not only for the past thousand and more years but also in present times; according to this view the whole of Christianity has always been in error, and the same would apply today.” Luther was led by his conscience. After his first appearance before the Diet of Worms, he seemed uncertain, as if he had lost his courage, but after a moment, he decided to go forward and not to betray the gospel.
From a certain point in his development, Luther no longer shunned the conflict over the truth. The pamphlet, “On the Babylonian Exile of the Church” characterizes this as a battle cry. It makes a case for the seven sacraments being symbols of papal tyranny. An editor of Luther’s scripts said that never before had an author been able to convey his concern in such a rapid, comprehensive manner and in such a precise way to the reading public. German author Heinrich Heine confides that “the delicacy of Erasmus and the gentleness of Melanchthon would never have brought us as far as sometimes did the divine brutality of Brother Martin.”
In his “divine brutality,” he was more courageous than the whole lot of the intellectuals of his time. Accordingly, Luther did not hesitate to designate the pope as the antichrist when this conviction, based on the study of Scripture, ripened within him.
The certainty and joyfulness Luther expressed when proclaiming the gospel dismantled the framework through which the culture of his time operated. Luther’s courageous and unwavering perseverance in staying with God’s Word was the means for setting the church free and beginning a new and better era.
Luther strategically planned the spreading of his critique of the church. He sent his 95 Theses in handwritten letters to well-chosen recipients in the realms of science, politics, and the church, such as Albrecht von Brandenburg and the archbishops of Magdeburg and Mainz, the most senior German clergy.
His later scripts were especially adjusted to target specific groups with appropriate entreaties: the nobility, for abuses in the church; scholars, concerning reforms; and individuals concerning Christian freedom. His perfectly fitting speeches to various groups rendered his scripts coveted material that were often illegally reprinted.
In short, Luther was a prolific writer who, from just 1518 to 1519, produced 45 publications containing about 1,600 printed pages. A few years later, he was not only the most widely read (and most disputed) author of Europe but also the most diligent of the entire 16th century.
Although Germany did not exist as a country at that time, Luther the great communicator succeeded in making himself the region’s ambassador and advocate: “We, for a correct understanding of the gospel according to the Scriptures. We, against Rome! We, in favor of God’s cause!”
In 1529, Luther’s supporters received the name “Protestants.” Today, more than ever, the world needs convicted followers of Christ who believe firmly in the power of the Word, who dare to confess it and boldly live out their faith.
Where can their relevant message of present truth be heard today?