In 1546, 450 years ago this year, the German reformer Martin Luther died in the Saxon town of Eisleben, the very place where he had been born, on the eve of Saint Martin, November 10, 1483. Luther lived at one of the most dynamic intersections in history. He experienced firsthand the death throes of the Middle Ages and the birth pangs of modern times. Luther was only nine when Columbus set sail for India and stumbled onto the New World. Copernicus and Galileo were just opening the heavens to the human eye. The printing press was a brand new invention. The modern nation-state was beginning to emerge from the shadows of feudalism. In one way or another, Luther was involved in all these changes.
As someone has said, Luther was just like everyone else in the sixteenth century—only more so! He experienced the fears and hopes of his own age so profoundly that we can hardly understand it without reference to him. But as Christians, we remember and celebrate his legacy in this anniversary year not because he was a great "religious hero," but because in the very depth of his struggles, he points us beyond himself to the living God who graciously redeems us in Jesus Christ and reveals his will to us in his written Word, the Holy Scriptures.
Luther's role as a reformer grew out of his anguished quest for a gracious God. For Luther, theology was not simply the academic study of religion. Rather, it was a lifelong process of struggle and temptation. "I did not learn my theology all at once," he said, "but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations took me. … Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living—nay, dying and being damned—make a theologian."
Through his intense study of the Scriptures, Luther came to see that salvation was a radically free gift, not something that could be earned or merited by good works or external acts of any kind. Like any real gift, salvation cannot be achieved but must be received "by faith alone." Luther's "discovery of the Gospel" led him to break with the moralism and mysticism of late medieval religion.
Arguably, Luther's greatest contribution to the Reformation was his translation of the Bible into German. He wanted common people-the farm boy at his plow and the milkmaid at her pail—to "feel" the words of Scripture "in the heart." The formative impact of Luther's Bible on the German language exceeds that of the King James Version on our own language.
Luther also emphasized the priority of Scripture over church tradition as a source of doctrine. "The church does not make the Word," he said, "but it comes into being from the Word." The objectivity and total truthfulness of Holy Scripture became the touchstone, the determining norm, by which all creeds, church councils, and theological opinions were to be judged. Luther appealed to the sufficiency of Scripture in order to emphasize the priority of the gospel in his day. In our own day, when the gospel is increasingly obscured by theological relativism, we do well to listen again to Luther's message.
Here he stood
Like others before him, Luther held a high view of the inspiration of the Bible, calling it once "the Holy Spirit book." But what truly distinguished his exegesis was his ability to make the scriptural text come alive. For him, Bible stories were not merely distant historical acts but living current events, as we see in his treatment of Gideon: "How difficult it was for [Gideon] to fight the enemy at those odds. If I had been there, I would have messed in my britches for fright!" The evangelical tradition has been shaped both by Luther's emphasis on the Bible as a revealed source of divine guidance and knowledge and also by his use of Scriptures as a resource for devotion and spiritual discipline.
Above all else, Luther affirmed the centrality of Jesus Christ, who is both the Lord and center of the Bible. Luther believed that through Christ's substitutionary death on the cross God had acted to redeem fallen humanity. Whenever individuals were troubled about their own spiritual destiny, Luther always encouraged them to look to "the wounds of Jesus."
Luther's legacy does not lie foremost in his saintliness. His warts were many; his vices sometimes more visible than his virtues. Luther's true legacy is his insight into the gracious character of God. "What else was Luther," asked Karl Barth, "than a teacher … whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?"
-Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, and the senior adviser of CHRISTIANTIY TODAY.
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Last Updated: October 9, 1996
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