Reformation Day 2022: The Antidote For A Fearful People

On reflection, it is rather amazing that an obscure Augustinian monk from a German backwater, teaching in an obscure school, was able to turn the Holy Roman Empire on its ear. Just as amazing is the fact that the greatest known powers in the world, in the early- to mid-sixteenth century, were not able to silence that monk. He lived a long, full life, got fat, had children, and died a natural death. Those facts should encourage Western Christians and particularly American Christians who seem gripped by fear and who are acting and speaking accordingly.

To be clear, I understand the reasons for concern. In the West and particularly in North America, we are experiencing a radical culture shift, a cultural upheaval which promises further to marginalize Christians, the church, and much of what we have known as Western culture for a long time. It seems as if both government and private (usually corporate) interests are not merely ignoring Christians but targeting them for their beliefs. If a Christian florist or bakery owner is not being targeted by gay or trans activists then it is not a day ending in the letter y. Apparently, there are no gay or trans florists or bakers. Color me surprised. I was certain they existed. Just last week, PayPal announced their intent to enforce ideological conformity by fining users $2,500.00 per infraction for violations of their as-yet unpublished speech code. Orwell is wishing that he had thought to add that to 1984. Then, after a social media storm, they backed off, but as of today it seems as though their “wrong-think” policy is still in place.

It was not very long ago when churches and pastors had places of honor in our communities. It was not long ago that politicians, sometimes cynically, but openly and without fear of serious contradiction, declared America a “Christian nation.” Whether that was true then or in what way is another question. Today, any politician who announced that would be risking a tsunami of social media criticism.

Trust Christ

The question is not whether the fortunes of Christians, Christianity, and the visible church are shifting (as the world sees things). The question is how should Christians react and what does a corpulent Augustinian monk have to say to Christians in post-Christendom who are being pushed to the margins of society? The first thing he has to say is to trust God. Luther’s great crisis, as he wrestled with the contradictions between what he read in the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, the Psalms (again), and Hebrews (from 1513–19), was how he, a sinner, could be right with God. The system he had been taught was a particularly vicious version of medieval theology in which God had promised to help those who help themselves. Even the medieval critics of the theology he learned in university called it Pelagian. Luther was a devoted and honest Bible reader. He knew that the God of the Bible did not overlook sins. Luther knew his sins and that he would never be sanctified enough to appear before God. He knew that, hard as he tried, he could never do his part. How could he trust a God like that?

As he studied Scripture, with Augustine and others guiding him, he realized that God had not promised to help those who help themselves. Rather, he realized that God had come, in Christ, to help freely those who cannot and will not help themselves. He realized that Christ was not righteous for himself but for us and that everything he did is imputed or reckoned to us when we believe. He realized that grace is not a medicine but God’s free favor toward sinners. He realized that faith is not faithfulness but, in justification, resting, leaning, and trusting in Christ. He realized that God speaks two kinds of words in Scripture: “do this and live” and “for God so loved sinners.” The medieval church had hopelessly confused all these things, but the Psalms, Paul, and Hebrews had helped him sort it all out again because Scripture, not the unwritten tradition of the apostles, was the normative Word of God for the Christian faith and the Christian life. As he studied and taught Scripture, as he translated the New Testament from Greek to German, he realized that Scripture is sufficiently clear to be the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life.

So, he put his trust in Jesus and he realized, with Paul, that whether he lived or died, he belonged to Jesus. That was a great weight off of his shoulders.

He would need that confidence, which would be sorely tested in the coming years, because there were those who really did want him silenced and who had the power to make it happen.

Nevertheless, Luther pressed on, trusting Christ for his righteousness, for his salvation, and for his earthly safety and he went about serving his Savior gratefully, boldly, and fearlessly.

Fulfill Your Vocation

Something else that Luther recovered from his study of Scripture is the biblical doctrine of vocation. This is something that will help Western Christians address their fear of being marginalized in post-Christendom. Vocation is the old word for calling. The medieval church had come to talk as though only deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, and popes had a “calling.” The other parts of life they regarded as unclean and unworthy. In the Reformation, Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin et al. realized that the secular world is not dirty or unworthy of the Christian and that all Christians have a vocation in the world.

There are lots of ways to serve Christ in the secular world. The baker should produce a good product, thereby loving and serving his neighbor. The cobbler should make and fix shoes cheerfully and mercifully, thereby serving and loving his neighbor. There are myriad of good and lawful callings. Each of us has been given a set of gifts and is obligated, out of gratitude to discover, develop, and deploy those gifts to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.

What would Luther say to marginalized Christians in 2022? Fulfill your vocation! Remember that he spent most of year in the castle at Wartburg, after he had been “arrested” by the elector’s horsemen. There he was kept on ice, as they say, in order to keep him safe from those who wanted him dead. Luther grew out his hair and adopted a pseudonym, Junker Jörg. While in the castle, in the “kingdom of the birds” and the “empire of the outlaws,” has he put it, he wrote against abuses in the church and, as mentioned, translated God’s Word from Greek to German.

Eventually, however, he had to leave the safety of the Wartbug in order to pursue his vocation to lead the Reformation of the church according to the Word of God, to preach the gospel, to administer the holy sacraments, and to counsel the weary. So he did and as he did so he exposed himself to kidnap, torture, and death. In April of 1521, which is the event we should be remembering for Reformation Day, as he entered the chambers to speak to the powers and principalities of this age, Spanish guards thumped their spears on the floor and chanted sotto voce, “to the flames, to the flames.” When he appeared at Worms, there was a very real possibility that he would not leave in one piece. Yet, despite his very real fear—he asked for time to think and the Emperor gave him a day and made him wait until late the next afternoon in the hotel across the street—he did trust Christ and he did fulfill his vocation and Christ did preserve him. Luther had learned to stop trying to control the outcome of things and to rest in the truth that, in life and in death, he belonged to Jesus.

Have A Beer And Children

After Worms, things were better but he still faced very real threats and very real dangers. When he paraphrased Psalm 46 in Ein Feste Burg (“A Mighty Fortress”) he knew whereof he sang when said, “though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.” He had to learn and re-learn that truth daily.

Learn it, however, he did. In 1525, at about age 42, he married Katie and together they had six children. From all that we know, Luther, the former monk, became a devoted and happy family man. His house was amazingly full of people and activity. One wonders how he got as much done as he did. The Tabletalks are somewhat problematic records of dinner and after dinner conversations, which included copious amounts of beer and talk that would scandalize some Christians today. So long as we do not press them too much—Luther was not the only one drinking beer at the table—we see a picture of a man at peace with himself and with the life God had given him.

In our world, as happens in different periods, young people are afraid to bring children into “a world like this.” Well, Luther would tell us that, since the fall, it has always been a world “like this.” The symptoms change but the fundamental problems remain. Luther became a realist about what was possible in this life. He realized the essential goodness of creation, of beer, of Katie, of (heterosexual) sex, of family, of companionship, and of the communion of the saints. Beer is an earthy drink and Luther was an earthy saint. Luther came to appreciate both nature (as God created it) and grace (redemption). He did not set the one against the other. He enjoyed them both, come what may.

So should we. I am not counseling cultural disengagement or negligence. One could hardly read the HB and conclude that it is culturally indifferent. Fear not! Jesus reigns. It is not as if he will begin reigning only if we recover our place in the culture. He was reigning when Nero martyred the Christians. He was reigning when Constantine legalized Christianity. He is reigning now. We belong to him. We have our message and our Messiah, Jesus. We have his promise and we live in his world, whatever the pagans may say.

We live in both nature and grace. So have a beer and have children. The world is not going anywhere and we have the creational pattern to fulfill and a life to live, neighbors to serve, and a God to glorify. By the way, having children and teaching them the Heidelberg Catechism might be the most culturally subversive thing we could do right now, but that is for another time.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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One comment

  1. This testimony of Luther rings true today. My blog last Saturday was a guest report on Andrew Brunson’s warning to the American church. When he was in a Turkish prison for two years, he came to a place that he acknowledged God might NOT deliver him from prison, but use this as a way to take him to Heaven.
    While not needing to fear the world or its demons, we must be careful in our time not to sow unfounded “comfort” as though God is going to work everything out for us like He did for Luther or Brunson. Rather than being among those whose exploits are recorded in Hebrews 11 as overcomers “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises,” we may be called to be among those who overcame by being those “of whom the world was not worthy.” Hebrews 11:35-38
    We must be people who recognize, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8)

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