Joining Luther at the Pub

By Bob Hiller

So, are you tired of Martin Luther yet? As you well know by now, next Tuesday marks the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg. And though I’m sure by now you’ve read plenty about how those theses weren’t truly “Lutheran” as such (they are still pretty catholic in their theology), that event seems as good a time as any to mark the beginning of the Reformation. Now, 500 years after that incident, here we stand, rejoicing in and celebrating Luther’s “recovery” of the Gospel for the sake of the Church. Happy Halloween!

Throughout the past year (okay, for the past 500 years), Luther has received a lot of coverage and analysis. He has been lionized and demonized, praised and attacked, sainted and condemned. It would seem everyone’s got an opinion on Luther, and just about everyone wants him on their team. I’ve heard that there is a movement in the Catholic church that even wants to say that some of Luther’s initial critiques were spot on and, had Rome not been so dismissive and hasty in dealing with Luther, this Reformation could have been held in check. Hindsight is always 20/20, I suppose, and we in the Lutheran church rejoice in the fact that Rome couldn’t stop Luther! We believe, despite his sins and failures, that Luther was, in fact, a great instrument of the Lord.

We have so high a view of this work that God did through Luther that we’ve made the last Sunday in October Reformation Sunday. The Old Testament reading is replaced by Revelation 14:6-7, a text used by Luther’s pastor, John Bugenhagen, in his funeral sermon. Martin Brecht, the great Luther biographer, writes, “Bugenhagen identified Luther with the angel of Revelation 14:6 who proclaimed the everlasting gospel, whereupon the fall of Babylon would occur” (Martin Luther: the Preservation of the Church 1532-1546, pg. 379). Of course, you don’t have to look hard to find people who would respond with the opposite analysis. Roland Bainton’s classic biography of the reformer Here I Stand, for example, has a Catholic woodcut of Luther in dialogue with Satan, presumably making plans to destroy the church (pg. 240).

Needless to say, old Marty has caused quite the stir these past 500 years. Why would he do it? Why start this reform and stand up to the church? Why turn western society on its ear? What does he have to say for himself in all of this?

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” (Eight Sermons at Wittenberg in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writigs, ed. Timothy Lull, pg. 421).

In other words, don’t blame me, says Luther. Blame God!

As I reflect on the work and attitude of Luther on this 500th Anniversary, I am struck by Luther’s confidence in the Word of God. All year we have been hearing about people wanting to have a new reformation or asking what we must do to revitalize the church the way Luther did. We’ll hear talk about the reformation as though it was some sort of big, 16th Century European tent revival. All we have to do is figure how to capture the spirit of Luther and maybe we too could experience a new reformation! Who is the next Luther? What tricks and tactics can we use to get an angel to bring us the everlasting Gospel?

But you see, this is to miss the point altogether. Luther, by his account, did nothing. He preached and drank beer. And in the meantime, God’s Word uprooted everything. It alone tore down the papacy; it alone uprooted Europe; it alone brought hope to the hopeless; it alone forgave sinners. All the while, Melanchthon ordered another round.

If we are truly interested in a new reformation, then we need to stop striving after one. Instead, we need to preach the Word. We need to let the Word speak for itself. Preach the Law in all its deadly force. Preach the Gospel with all its death-defeating joy. Then get out of the way as God kills and raises, condemns and forgives, binds and loosens. If there is anything we should take from Luther, it is not anything about his person so much as his seemingly relentless trust that God’s Word will accomplish that which it sets out to do. So, on this 500th Anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, perhaps we should stop trying to recapture some of Luther’s magic and instead simply teach, preach, and write the Word, and then join Luther down at the pub with our friends while the Lord does everything!