The Unquenchable Flame
Theology Network's Reformation Portal
If Martin Luther were a student today...
- Mike Reeves was formerly UCCF's Head of Theology, and is now Theologian-at-Large at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. View all resources by Mike Reeves
It’s not hard to imagine Martin Luther as a student today. Hero of the Reformation he may have been, yet he was far too red-blooded ever to become a stained-glass figure. Without a doubt, students today would still flock to his house: having his own brewery and his own bowling alley, as he did, would see to that. There they could enjoy all the late-night chats they wanted, for, once talking over a mug of his beloved Wittenberg beer, Luther was famed for his ability not to stop until dawn. Yet for all that, he would be just as world-shatteringly rebellious and revolutionary on a campus today as he was half a millennium ago. For Luther was one of those exotic rarities among men: he always went to the heart of the issue.
The lost gospel
Luther’s was a day when the air rang with cries for reform. The universal complaint to be heard across Europe was that the Roman Catholic Church had become as corrupt and worldly as any other institution. Loyal sons of Rome could be heard launching stinging attacks on the abuses seen there: the poet Dante was widely applauded for placing Popes Nicholas III and Boniface VIII in the eighth circle of hell in his Inferno; the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus wrote an extremely popular work about the exclusion of Pope Julius II from heaven. So, when Luther began the Reformation, critics of Rome like Erasmus assumed that he was simply singing from their hymn-sheet. As such they treated him as an honoured member of the club, a welcome fellow-critic, a new broom who could sweep Rome clean.
It was a few years before they realised that they could not have been more wrong. Luther had no interest in merely cleaning up Church abuses. For Luther had seen a problem in Rome which festered beneath all the corruption: quite simply, Rome had lost the gospel. This was the vital heart of the issue, and yet for all the calls for reform, nobody else had really seen it.
Here I stand
The other extraordinary thing about Luther was that, having once had that dizzying, reality-inverting glimpse of the gospel as the great fundamental issue, he never blinked. Christian students today face increasing hostility, the more so as they cling to the ever-offensive gospel. Luther faced the wrath of the Emperor, the Pope, burning at the stake and the prospect of hell ever after if he was wrong. To all this he managed to reply: ‘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 retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.’
It was no mere bluster or passing bravado. Luther saw that it is precisely when the gospel is most under attack that God’s people must do theology – and thus bind themselves to the Scriptures – with all the more urgency. The year before his famous ‘here I stand’ speech he managed to produce all three of the works that encapsulated the theology of the new Reformation. In the months that followed, in hiding, under a sentence of death, he translated the entire New Testament into his native German. Luther not only saw the gospel as the issue behind all issues; he clung to it and held it aloft when everything around him would tear him away.
The ‘tower experience’
What was it that set Luther apart? What made him so revolutionary and so influential? How was it that he could see through to the heart of the issue when others could only see surface matters? And what gave him the ability to maintain such active loyalty to the gospel under such pressure? Was it that he was especially insightful or brave by temperament? The answer to the last question is a simple ‘No’. Before his life-changing ‘tower experience’, when he came to understand justification by faith alone properly for the first time, it has to be said his writings do not show an especially insightful mind. His sermons and commentaries from those early years mostly consist of second-hand theology and other peoples’ thoughts regurgitated. And, amongst other incidents, his sheer terror at being caught in a thunderstorm as a student belies the idea that he might have been endowed with much natural courage. The simple fact is that what set Luther apart was the ‘tower experience’. Luther felt such a liberation from the slavery of trying to earn righteousness before God that he could not but see the gospel as the fundamental answer to the problems of his, and every, age.
A new priesthood
If that was the experience that made Luther what he was, we have to ask whether or not most students who call themselves evangelical have shared it. Have even the evangelical students grasped justification by faith alone in such a way that they share Luther’s gospel insight, obsession and courage? Tragically, the answer must be depressingly negative because some of the very problems that Luther saw in Rome have embedded themselves deep within contemporary evangelical student piety.
At this point, some readers will undoubtedly move on to the next article, for this, surely, can only be the raving of someone with no understanding of history whatsoever. Was not Luther battling a system in which a hierarchical priesthood presided over a people who were taught to earn merit before God? What has that to do with any CU? Yet, look closer and you can see the priesthood is still there.
Sometimes it can establish itself among the worship leaders, who then strum their soothing musical absolutions to a people who seek to sing themselves back into a state of grace. When that happens the worship leaders become the indispensable intermediaries between God and man, serving an instinctive doctrine of justification by emotion. There are no theologians of this doctrine; it is not that kind of belief. Yet still its debilitating effects can be felt: I sin, and so feel God loves me not; I sing, and then feel God loves me again. It is hardly a belief to allow for much joy outside of the ecstatic ‘worship time’.
The details might change, even considerably, but the phenomenon should be a recognisable one. In other circles, it is not justification by emotion but justification by Quiet Times, by meeting attendance or by activism. The particulars of worship and devotional style are really circumstantial, but the root problem remains. That is, my status before God is seen to be dependent in some way upon my own performance.
Feelings, failures and faith
Luther was brutally honest about how he reacted to such performance-related religion: ‘I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God’. Then he discovered the gospel that, by mere faith, I, while remaining the sinner I am, am permanently clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself. Thus I am permanently loved by God despite my feelings and despite my failures. It was this that gave Luther his dazzling confidence and joy, and led him to recommend:
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.
If today we fail to share Luther’s world-changing obsession with the gospel, it is only because we have let the death-defying, joy-giving beauty and sweetness of justification by faith alone slip through our fingers. Every other gospel, be it a gospel of emotional fulfilment or social transformation, can only leave us comparatively apathetic. It was this gospel alone that fired Luther to turn Europe upside down. If Luther were a student today, armed with this gospel, we would have another Reformation. But what if a whole generation of students were to grasp this gospel as he did?