Growing up Lutheran, I was well acquainted with Martin Luther. As I’ll talk about a bit later, he has always been one of my heroes. Luther, like many Roman Catholics of his day (not to mention most contemporary evangelicals), was heavily influenced by St. Augustine, with his doctrines of man’s total depravity, original sin, and inherited guilt.As anyone who has seen the movie Luther knows, Brother Martin struggled with his sin, his guilt, and the need to know that he was forgiven.
The torment of his guilt was such that when he finally saw that God operated by grace and love and not by our ability to live pious lives or follow men’s rules, he was willing to die rather than retract his teaching. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther responded to the demand that he recant with these words:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Like Luther, the reformer John Calvin was also greatly influenced by Augustine, and we can see Calvin’s Augustinian influence throughout much of the contemporary evangelical church, even in groups who do not identify themselves as Calvinists. However, Luther discovered what Calvin seemed to miss: The primacy of God’s Love. It was the knowledge that God was motivated by His love for us – rather than the need for God to assert His holiness, vengeance, or glory – that finally set Luther free.
I have no doubt that Luther’s beliefs were firmly founded on his reading of Scripture, as he stated at Worms, though I suspect his own personal experience of grace and God’s love that accompanied his theological breakthrough reinforced his commitment to the Gospel. Luther wrote,
“Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through an open door into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven . . . .”
Having this revelation of God’s love, Luther was able to make such bold statements as, “Love God and do as you please” and the oft-quoted and often misunderstood, “Sin boldly.” Anyone who has read Luther will know that by no means was Luther encouraging licentiousness or sinfulness. Rather, Luther was convinced that we did not need to become holy before we can approach God; furthermore, he knew that we couldn’t if we tried. Being human, we will fail – however, that should not keep us from drawing near to God. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:16 KJV)”
How else can we ever hope to boldly and with confidence (Heb. 10:19) enter God’s throne room, unless we are first convinced of God’s love for us? Even if we fully believe in the mechanics and legalities of our salvation, without being confident of God’s love, walking into God’s presence would give us a moment of pause. Is He perhaps just a little angry that we got in? Should I have given a dollar to that homeless man yesterday, or tithed more regularly? Will I be one of those to whom God will say, “I don’t know you?”
The true legacy that Luther gave to the Evangelical movement (which later became known as the Lutheran Church) is this certainty that we are indeed loved by God, the Creator of the universe.
It was, then, this rich heritage into which I was born, and for which I am eternally grateful.
- Do you have a sense of having received a spiritual legacy, either personally, or in the church group you belong to?
- How does this flavor your present spiritual experience?