The Importance of Luther and The Reformation for Today, Part 1

Reformation Sunday is October 25. In the past the ACCC provided special publications for Reformation Sunday. With that end in mind this year the ACCC is making available “The Importance of Luther and the Reformation for Today,” written by Dr. Alan MacRae and edited by Dr. Ed Panosian. Today and the next three days this pamphlet will be published here. You can order printed copies at our store page.

In an age of ecumenism, when the focus of modern popular Christianity is unity, especially the efforts to bring Evangelical Protestants and Catholics together, it is well to be reminded of the prophet Amos’ words: “Can two walk together except (unless) they be agreed?” The fundamental disagreement between the sixteenth century German reformer Martin Luther and the Church of Rome made that “walking together,” in the spiritual sense, impossible for those whose loyalty was first to the God of the revealed Word of God, the Bible. Nothing has changed to make that less impossible today.

One of the great central themes of Luther’s life and teaching was his realization that man is lost in sin and deserves nothing good at the hand of God. It is quite misleading to suggest that Luther was a precursor of the World Council of Churches in its efforts to produce a new world through social change. He realized very clearly a vital fact that the World Council tends to forget—the reality of sin. This realization, in fact, was what launched Luther upon his life work. Because of this realization Luther gave up his early ambitions and turned against his father’s desires. The whole course of his life was changed when he realized the importance of this tremendous central fact.

It is interesting to read the story of Luther’s early life. His father had been a peasant. When Luther was a boy, it was impossible for his parents to give him many advantages. They saw that he was a bright youngster and sent him away to the home of a cousin where there were better educational opportunities than in his own area. Here the young Luther had to sing on the street in order to raise money to attend an elementary school. By hard work and much self-sacrifice he made his way through college. By this time his hardworking father was getting ahead and becoming prosperous. He urged his son to become a lawyer. Knowing his son’s ability, he declared that Martin might become a great man in Germany if he would study law.

Soon after Luther had made a good start in his law course, he came more and more to realize his sin. Compared with most young men Luther might well be considered as living an exemplary life, but realization of his own sinfulness, as compared with the righteous demands of God’s holy law, resulted in his deciding to abandon all his plans of seeking worldly greatness.

One evening a very interesting meeting occurred in the university town of Erfurt. A group of friends came together at the home of one of their favorites, Martin Luther, whose excellence in music and fine companionship made them look forward to a very pleasant evening. Toward the end of a most enjoyable occasion, their host began to distribute among them his musical instruments, his law books, and various other possessions. They were amazed and asked what it meant. They said, “Martin, you are acting as if you expected to die.”

Luther answered, “Yes, I am dying to the world. You will see me no more after today. Tomorrow I shall enter the Augustinian convent and become a monk.”

The friends said, “Martin, why should you bury yourself and end your chances of becoming a great man?”

Luther’s father felt exactly as his friends did. When Luther insisted on his determination to become a monk his father said, “Does not the commandment say, ‘Obey your parents’? You should obey me. I want you to be a great man, not to be a monk.”

Luther said, “I wish to obey my parents, but my loyalty to the Lord is superior to my loyalty to my parents. I must find away of dealing with my sin.”

Luther knew that his life was far below the standard that God demands. He knew that a righteous God could not receive him unless he could find a way to remedy his sin, so he went into the Augustinian convent.

Entering the convent, Luther was determined to find relief from his sin. He joyfully underwent every humiliation that the older monks might put upon him. Some of these men who were lazy and ignorant delighted in giving the young novice humiliating tasks to perform, but he did them gladly, so eager was he that his soul should be saved. They made him go through the town with a bag, gathering gifts for the monastery. At houses where formerly he had come as a welcome guest at the front door, he now knocked at the back door. Luther was highly embarrassed by it all, but he willingly submitted to everything if only he could find peace in his soul. Night after night he lay on the floor of his cell, praying constantly that God would give him peace. Yet he found no peace.

A century ago most of our churches in America preached the problem of sin and the need of salvation. Today it is a note that has largely disappeared. Leaders in the World Council of Churches never mention it. Sin has been pushed out of the door. It is considered to be merely human imperfection. The hungry sheep look up and are not fed. Many a minister has been brainwashed in a modernist seminary into believing that sin is merely a weakness or a misunderstanding.

For many weeks Luther struggled with this problem without finding an answer. Then Staupitz, the head of the German branch of the Augustinian order, visited the monastery and inquired regarding the spiritual condition of its members. He was told that a bright young fellow who had entered the monastery that year was showing a morbid streak. He was always talking about his sin. “Instead of getting his night’s sleep,” they said, “he lies on the floor praying to God, telling over his beads, and talking about his sin.”

Staupitz talked to Luther. He said, “Luther, do you believe the Apostles’ Creed?”

Luther answered, “Of course I do; I believe everything that the Church teaches.”

Staupitz continued, “The Apostles’ Creed says, ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sin.’ Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin?”

Luther replied, “Yes, it’s in the creed, so of course I believe it.”

“Well then,” he said, “why don’t you take it? It’s there. Why don’t you simply accept it?”

Now, that is salvation by faith. One does not have to go through forms and ceremonies. One cannot earn his way to heaven, no matter what he does. It is only by receiving forgiveness of sin as a free gift by virtue of what Jesus Christ did on Calvary’s cross that anyone can be saved.

After his talk with Staupitz, Luther felt better for a time, but he was not yet altogether satisfied. Soon he began to feel miserable again. “Yes,” he said, “there is forgiveness of sin, but can I get it? Where can I find it?”

Then one day in the monastery library, he noticed a Latin book that he had not previously read. He had heard the Bible referred to as an important book and even called the foundation of the Church’s faith, but all the emphasis had been placed on the traditions of the fathers, the interpretations of the scholars, and the acts of the Church, rather than on the Bible. Luther began to read the Bible, and soon he found the answer to his problem. This answer was brought out in various places and in various ways, but it all seemed to be summarized in a verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “The just shall live by faith.” Luther said, “Here is the statement of exactly what I need. The just will not live by various types of forms and ceremonies. The just will not live by performing great works. Though I do everything I can to please the Lord, it will profit me nothing except as God has redeemed me through the Lord Jesus Christ.” So now Luther’s conscience was rooted not simply on the explanation that the head of the order had given him, but on the solid rock of God’s Word. He had found the peace for which he had been seeking.

Author: American Council of Christian Churches

Since 1941 the ACCC has sought to PROVIDE information, encouragement, and assistance to Bible-believing churches, fellowships and individuals; to PRESERVE our Christian heritage through exposure of, opposition to, and separation from doctrinal impurity and compromise in current religious trends and movements; to PROTECT churches from religious and political restrictions, subtle or obvious, that would hinder their ministries for God; to PROMOTE obedience to the inerrant Word of God.