Five centuries ago, an unknown Augustinian monk named Martin Luther rocked the world with his Reformation theology and preaching. What started out as an attempt to engage in a debate turned into the greatest awakening in human history since the explosion that occurred at Pentecost.
In 1517, the front of the Castle Church’s door served as a large social media outlet in primitive form. Long before the social media platforms of our day with smartphones and apps at our fingertips, Luther, and his colleagues would enter into friendly and passionate discussions by nailing documents containing their ideas on specific matters to the front of the Castle Church’s door.
Little did Luther know, God would have other plans for his Ninety-Five Theses. Rather than a localized debate in the city of Wittenberg Germany—those statements would spark a world-wide debate that would end in Luther’s anathema and the unleashing of the Protestant movement.
Not long before Luther’s spark, a Roman Catholic named Johannas Guttenberg converted an old wine press into a printing press with moveable type. This invention would revolutionize the world of literature. Little did Guttenberg know, but God would take a Roman Catholic’s invention and use it as a weapon against the Roman Catholic Church. When Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were printed on the moveable type press and distributed all around Europe—it would spark a massive wildfire of controversy.
Eventually, Luther himself would come to faith in Christ through his reading of Romans 1:17. After his conversion, his protest would intensify greatly. In 1520, he gathered his theology students on the outer edge of Wittenberg and publicly burned the papal bull that he received from Pope Leo X calling for him to recant of his beliefs and tactics. It was clear at this point—what began as an inner debate was now moving on toward a collision of two worlds. As Luther saw it—it was the gospel of Christ in contrast to the false gospel of works—clearly seen in the selling of indulgences.
In 1521, Luther was summoned to stand before the imperial Diet in the city of Worms. Although his friends cautioned him against appearing based on the fact that anti-Reformation protests had been taking place where Luther’s books were being burned in the streets. Luther’s friends feared he would be burned too. Nevertheless, he insisted that they travel to Worms and, in Luther’s mind, even if they must go through the gates of hell, he would appear there to defend the gospel.
After preaching his way all the way to Worms, Luther arrived in the city in a covered wagon. The entire city was filled with an intense buzz as everyone wanted to see this monk who dared to stand up to the Holy Roman Empire and the pope himself. Luther was a protestant celebrity preacher before such a thing was cool.
After arriving in the city, the following day, two guards made their way to the place where Luther and his friends were staying. They escorted him to the bishop’s palace where the Diet was being held. So many people were gathered in the streets to see Luther, they had to slip him in a back door of the palace.
When he walked into the room to stand before the royal assembly which included representatives from as far away as Spain, Italy, and various other places throughout Europe—the emperor Charles V was also present. The tension could be cut with a knife. Luther appeared in his humble monk’s attire. When Charles V first saw the monk enter the room, he said, “He will not make a heretic out of me.”
In front of the room was a table that contained all of Luther’s books. The spokesman of the emperor demanded that Luther not speak until he was called upon. Finally, pointing to a pile of books on the table, he asked, “Are these your books? If so, will you recant?” Luther finally spoke. In a humble tone, he admitted that all of the books on the table were indeed his books. However, in a strange twist to the tense moment, Luther asked for more time to consider his answer.
Perhaps caught off guard by the royal assembly’s desire for Luther to recant of every word and every line in every book made him pause and ask for additional time to weigh out the consequences of his answer.
Anyone who has written anything—blog or book—has certainly regretted specific word choices and arguments at times. For Luther, this was not just a few lines in a few books—it was everything he believed.
The answer came from the royal assembly—he could have one day to consider his answer. The following day, at 6:00 o’clock in the evening, Luther was readmitted into the emperor’s presence. The hall was filled with personalities, politicians, and invited guests. The air was thick with intense drama. The temperature of the room was sweltering due to the people, intensity, and the torches that were used to light the room. Luther’s face was filled with beads of sweat as he considered his answer.
After considering his answer, the rulers who were present in the room expected and even demanded that he come in with an apology and beg for forgiveness. Rather than a humble soft tone, Luther stood upright and spoke loudly with great confidence.
Luther stated emphatically that he would not retract anything he had written in the books and anything that he had said about the Roman Catholic Church in his public polemical attacks. As Luther reasoned, the Emperor shouted “NO!” to Luther’s comments, but the poised Reformer continued to speak. He insisted that if he is wrong, he must be refuted with Scripture—and he would be the first to burn his books. Finally, one last time the spokesman of the emperor demanded an answer from the zealous monk, “Will you recant?” It’s at this point that Luther said the following:
“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant of anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand—may God help me. AMEN.”
As Luther was being escorted out of the room—shouts of protest and requests for Luther’s life were ringing in his ears. As he was taken back to his private quarters—upon entering the room—he was instantly relieved that he had come through. He then turned to a friend and said, “If I had a thousand heads I would rather have them all lopped off than to abandon my gospel.” If the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 was the spark of the Reformation, Luther’s stand at Worms was the explosion of the Reformation. As Luther made his stand, we too continue to stand in our day.
Reformations are not led by lazy men. Martin Luther had his flaws, and we must be balanced in how we view historic figures. We should remember—especially in this year that we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the historic movement, that we know as the Protestant Reformation—Luther was a sinner who needed a Savior. In all of Luther’s faults, it must be pointed out that he was no lazy man. Each Sunday, Luther would begin the day of worship at five o’clock in the morning with a sermon on an epistle. At ten o’clock he would preach from a Gospel. In the afternoon, Luther would preach a sermon from an Old Testament passage. Through the week, Luther remained busy in his preaching. On Monday and Tuesday, he would preach from the catechism. On Wednesday he would preach from Matthew. On Thursday and Friday, Luther focused on the apostolic letters. The Gospel of John would be his focus for Saturday.
Luther is remembered for many things, such as his Wittenberg protest, his theology, his unyielding courage in the midst of theological darkness, and his work as a professor and an author in his classic, The Bondage of the Will. However, at the foundation of Luther’s existence as a Christian is the preacher who emerged from his passion for the true gospel of King Jesus. Between 1510 and 1546 Luther preached approximately 3,000 sermons. He preached several times each week—sometimes two or more times each day.
This was the approach of Luther as we survey church history, we see similar passion in other places, such as Geneva with John Calvin, and Scotland with John Knox. All of these men who led the Reformation in their day were passionate preachers of God’s Word. That’s why we know them today. They did not play at preaching, and as a result, they did not disappear into the pages of history.
The Need of the Hour
The story of Luther cannot be told without the story of the Reformation. Likewise, the story of the Reformation cannot be told without the story of Luther. The two are inseparable. As we think about the need of Luther’s hour, we must look to our present day and consider the need of this present hour.
We Must Not Neglect the Mind
Today, we have far too much laziness in our American evangelical culture. Too many Christians have capitulated on the idea of pragmatic church growth schemes in order to see their churches increase and become successful. Today’s church is weak and superficial. In many circles, it’s as if the mind has no place in worship. Everything is driven by feelings, emotions, and shallow theological clichés.
Jesus, in an answer to a scribe who asked about the greatest commandment, said the following, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). God desires for His people to think. Luther understood this point as a part of the discipleship commission (Matthew 28:18-20). That’s why, when you travel all throughout Europe, you discover that as the Reformation spread—universities were setup to teach people more than economics and world history. They were used to instruct people with the gospel of Christ.
That same thing is true with our first universities here in America. Consider how Harvard was instituted to train ministers of the gospel. Today, such institutions have been overtaken by liberals who deny the gospel of Christ. As we consider the fact that God is interested in our minds, we must not approach our worship with a mindless approach to Christianity.
We Need Courageous Preachers
Why was Luther’s preaching so relentless and bold? Luther believed that preaching was a noble and serious task. According to Luther, “The pulpit is the throne for the Word of God.” Luther ascended the pulpit with the Word of God in complete confidence. He pointed to the Scriptures and asserted at one point, “The Holy Spirit is the Author of this book.” He went on to say, “They are God’s Scriptures and God’s Word.”
When Luther burned the papal bull in protest in 1520, he was drawing a line in the sand. When Luther refused to recant at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he sent shockwaves throughout all of Europe directly to Rome. Luther was not approaching the weekly preaching of God’s Word with a slapstick approach, in hopes to grow his following. Luther had a following and it was based on his unwillingness to compromise the true gospel. Today’s evangelical church has a reversed trend. Many popular preachers have a following, and lead mega-churches, simply because they refuse to preach the gospel boldly.
The need of the hour is for bold preachers to confront the shallow and man-centered theology of our day with the true gospel of King Jesus. No reform happens without a cost. No genuine reformation will happen without bold and courageous people who continue to uphold the true gospel of Christ to a lost and dying world. John Huss understood the cost and he gave his life for the cause. Luther would come 100 years later and put his neck on the line.
Tyndale would read Luther’s works and eventually become a believer. He would dedicate his life to the translation of the Bible into English and as a result, he would suffer the flames of the infamous stake. The Reformers were bold, their preaching was courageous, and their sacrifice was based on the true gospel of Christ. They were not puppeteers or comedians. They were preachers, Bible translators, and faithful Christians who obeyed God. The health and strength of our local churches depends on a serious approach to worship, preaching, and missions. Reformations don’t happen by accident. The need of the hour is for bold preaching to thunder from pulpits around the world by men who have great confidence that God’s Word will always accomplish God’s purpose and will never return void.