As a young man, Martin Luther had a persistent, obsessive fear that he was cast out from God’s grace and that it was his own fault. He saw himself as a figurative refugee from the love of God. “My sin lay heavy night and day,” he wrote.
Later, he would lament, “To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.”
Then, after nailing his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, Luther became an actual refugee from his homeland. Roman Catholic leaders were seeking his life, and he was forced to flee and hide.
Five hundred years later, the Reformer and German icon is strikingly relevant for the issues facing Germany today. Millions of Germans feel attached to Luther and, to many of them, his example urges their country to welcome refugees.
“Luther was so human,” said Markus Ziener, a veteran journalist with the influential German newspaper Handelsblatt who now teaches at a university in Berlin. “Because he struggled, the rest of us who struggle can identify with him and find him very approachable,” Ziener said.
Luther’s quest for the grace of God led him to study theology, the Bible, and the writings of Augustine, and he met a merciful Christ he couldn’t wait to tell others about.
So when Luther wrote his 95 Theses, he was driven by a few simple, democratic ideas—for example, that the grace of God is available to every believer and that everyone is equally free to access that grace through faith. Because they were already assured of God’s love through his unmerited grace, Christians were then to help others in need. According to Luther, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
Germans are talking a lot about Luther and openness these days, as the country has welcomed 1.4 million refugees since 2015. That year alone, some 1 million immigrants, mostly from the Middle East, entered Germany. Since then, the numbers have dropped to around 200,000 a year because Turkey has tightened its borders. But on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many Germans are interpreting Luther’s vision as a call to continue offering safe haven to refugees.
Living Luther’s Legacy
A dedication to the gospel was central to Luther’s theological development. His focus on taking Scripture seriously influences Protestants in Germany today. For example, Matthew 25:35 is a driver for Germans like H. C. Volker Faigle, former chaplain to the German Parliament and a Berliner with tireless energy that defies his autumnal years.
Faigle served as EKD (the 23-million-member Evangelical Church of Germany) ambassador to both Germany and the European Union, served as chaplain to the German Parliament, and counts leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel and South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu as friends. Most recently, Faigle completed a three-year stint heading the church council of the Berliner Dom—commonly called the Cathedral—Berlin’s largest church, which welcomes 1,500 daily visitors.
Faigle believes Matthew 25 is an essential lesson that Luther wanted everyone to learn and sees obvious application for immigration questions in Germany and elsewhere. “Luther reminds us of the verse in Matthew: ‘I was a stranger, and you invited me in.’ So we need to apply that message to welcoming refugees,” Faigle said in an interview. “Luther is very present in Germany today. He was the father of our democracy. He believed each of us to be a free person, subject only to the will of God, and that this is offered to everyone. And because of this, you will serve others.”