Tomorrow Lutherans—and perhaps some Anglicans, since they are now in full communion with us—around the globe will be celebrating Reformation Sunday. In our tradition, Reformation Sunday is always celebrated on the last Sunday of October, marking the date, October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, hoping to initiate a debate concerning the theology and practice of selling indulgences in
the Roman Catholic Church. This event was the first among many that
eventually led to Luther’s excommunication and the birth of the Protestant
Reformation of the Church catholic in Europe during
the 16th century.
The contributions of Martin Luther to the Church catholic and the world are many. The following are, in my humble estimation, the most significant ones.
First Luther, with the help of the printing press, was able to translate the Bible into the vernacular German of his day, thus making it accessible to, not only scholars, but also the common people. The implications of this are many; the most profound in terms of the larger Reformation movement was the challenge of the power and authority of the papacy. For Luther the ultimate authority on earth was the Bible-sola scriptura, not the pope. On this matter, many other Protestant reformers were influenced by and agreed with Luther.
Second, over against “the theology of glory” deeply entrenched in the medieval Roman Catholic Church wherein it was taught that God rewarded human beings with grace only when they were able to obtain their highest, noblest good works and achievements; Luther advocated “the theology of the cross” wherein the emphasis is the precise reverse of “the theology of glory” in that it is when human beings are at their lowest, and farthest away from God that Christ’s love and grace reaches them and draws them to himself. Here Luther’s “theology of the cross” was strongly influenced by his study and interpretation of the Pauline epistles—especially Romans and Corinthians—and the Fourth Gospel Jesus, wherein the classic pericope is that of Jesus speaking of his being “lifted up” on the cross and thereby drawing all people to himself. For Luther, the “theology of the cross” always emphasises God’s initiative first and only then human response—the classic pericope in this regard is from the Johannine literature: “we love because he (Christ) first loved us.”
Third, Luther emphasised the power, activity and multidimensional nature of the word. For him the word was extremely creative, God spoke creation into existence. God loved the word so much that the Word became incarnate in Jesus, and through him brought salvation to the world. God’s word in the sacrament of Holy Baptism is what makes the water efficacious and gives the baptised the gift of a covenant relationship with God by being baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the sacrament of Holy Communion it is again the word working in, with and under the elements of bread and wine that make the sacrament efficacious and the presence of Christ real, along with the promise of forgiveness of sin. In reference to preaching, the word works in the hearts, minds and lives of the people through the law and the gospel to create, sustain, renew, instruct and inspire faith; bringing life, health and salvation; delivering human beings from sin, death and the devil.
Fourth, many don’t realise that Luther was also a musician. He apparently could sing and play the flute and lute; he also composed—although scholars have not reached a consensus on this—37 hymns for the Church—including his most popular, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which, I understand, some Roman Catholics even sing today. In 1524, a German hymn book of sorts was published, and thus began an emphasis on congregational singing in the Lutheran worship services. Indeed, as Lutheranism grew and spread across Europe, it became known as “the singing church.” Luther’s musical legacy certainly inspired future generations of Lutheran musicians and composers, among them some of the finest in all of Christendom, including: Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schűtz, Dietrich Buxtehude, J.S. Bach, and several of his children, Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig, Paul Gerhardt, Albert Schweitzer, and many others.
Fifth, Luther contributed greatly to individual and family piety with an emphasis on prayer. He was known to have prayed often, counselling others to do the same. Indeed, he claimed that the busier, more demanding and stressful his day was, the longer he needed to spend time in prayer with God.
In closing, I am including a couple samples of Luther’s prayers.
Prayer for and increase of faith: O Lord, increase our faith. Gladly and truly I would think of you as my dearly beloved Father, and Christ as my brother. But alas, my deeds will not follow. Therefore, help my unbelief, so that I may accept your word as truth and glorify your name. O Lord, end our captivity. Redeem us, for we are the first-born of your new creation. As redemption has been perfectly and sufficiently accomplished through Christ, so may we fully and truly know and accept it. As by your mighty hand the sea was dried up by the parching wind, so let everything of our remaining bondage vanish. Amen.
Prayer for the Holy Ministry: For God’s Counsel and Guidance: You know how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office. Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed long ago. Therefore I call upon you for guidance. Gladly will I give my heart and voice to this work. I want to teach the people. I want always to seek and study in your word, and eagerly to meditate upon it. Use me as your instrument. Lord, do not forsake me. If I were alone, I would ruin everything. Amen.1
1 Herbert F. Brokering, Editor, Luther’s Prayers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1967).