With October 31 just around the corner I was thinking that if I had more talent I would carve the likeness of Martin Luther into a pumpkin. But then again that may be too diminutive a commemoration for such a dear brother in Christ.
As you know October 31 was the day in 1517 that Luther - a Roman Catholic monk and professor of theology - called for a scriptural and ecclesiastical debate in Wittenburg, Germany by nailing 95 theses upon the door of Castle Church, which doubled as the town bulletin board (the theses can be found here).
Luther was intending to clear away the briers and brambles that were smothering the gospel of God's grace in the medieval church. His theses were meant to be a surgeon's knife whereby he would cut away at the deformity of indulgences, just one manifestation of the broader confusion that existed at the time concerning sinful man's way of becoming justified before God.
Three-and-a-half years after his courageous use of hammer and nail Luther would be tried before the Imperial Diet of Worms where he now famously said: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Luther was taking a stand on the revealed testimony of scripture to its doctrine of salvation - the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone - over against all the testimony of the popes.
What was Luther standing so firm on? Was it his own courage? His own deep convictions? Well, in a small way yes, it was these things. But in a much larger way it was not. It was not stubbornness Luther was standing on, it was the very word of God.
Two sentences prior to the above oft quoted sentence Luther declared: "...my conscience is captive to the word of God." Revelation comes first. God speaks first then man can begin to reason aright, tighten his grip on the truth and rise up to stand firm.
There is a growing cache of voices these days that would have us "walk off" the ground upon which Luther took his stand. These are not voices outside the church but voices from within. Our own denomination's historian, John Muether, recently brought to our attention a 2011 book by John Suk, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and former editor of that church's magazine, the Banner. Suk is very disturbed by the effort of some Christians to stand fast with the old confessions and catechisms of the protestant reformation. Muether summarizes: "In his book, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt (2011), John Suk,...writes: ' How dare we use what we know to be fallible theories about God coercively, when they are not confessions anymore but goads to enforce unity and communal compliance? ' In order to survive, he argues, denominations must ' water down ' their distinctive teaching; the ' explosive and divisive ' character of all confessions from the past must not prescribe the faith and practice of the church today" (Muether's full essay is here).
The concern of churchmen like pastor Suk, as best as I can tell, is that the sharp edge of reformation orthodoxy is harmful to the mission of the church. The idea is that since we live in a world grown tired of distinctions and disputations we are not aiding the advance of the Kingdom by re-drawing the old lines of the protestant reformation.
There is much that can be said in response to this concern and I will not say it all here. For now just two points:
(1) We should all have a healthy concern when we find a disputatious spirit in ourselves or in our church. According to the dictionary, to be disputatious is to be "fond of having heated arguments." American Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) once said there is a point in a dispute when we pass by a love for the truth and move on to the singular desire for victory.
In all our theological engagements and doctrinal line drawing may God graciously keep us from passing on by love. Thornwell went on to say: "There are undoubtedly occasions when we must contend earnestly for the truth; but ... we should look well to our own hearts, that no motives animate us but the love of truth and zeal for the highest interests of man." This love of truth is, I believe, what animated Martin Luther. It is not a necessary conclusion that to find oneself in a dispute one must also be disputatious. The one does not automatically follow the other. Certainly, there is such a thing as an ungodly fight of the flesh, but there is also a godly fight of love. Jealousy has its righteous branch. And this leads to the second point:
(2) There is no more distinct a message in all the world than the the gospel of grace. If anything in religion is worthy of a dispute it is the gospel. As Paul said to the Galatian church: "...there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." The gospel that shoots forth the beams of light we know as sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide and soli deo gloria is a gospel of great and necessary distinction. People of our day may be very tired of doctrinal distinctions (there is nothing new under the sun, see Hebrews 5:12-14), but nothing will cure this drowsiness that leads to death other than the gospel of God's salvation in Christ alone by faith alone.
In one of the best contemporary books on sanctification, Holiness by Grace, Bryan Chapell makes this provocative observation: "There is a longing for heaven and a fear of hell that are of Satan, because the goal of each has been mutated in the soul from a desire to respond to God's love to mere acquisition of personal gain." This describes well the place Martin Luther was at before he was transferred to Wittenburg. He felt himself to be a bitter slave of God instead of a grateful son. He labored under a false gospel, a gospel without the converting distinction of imputed righteousness by faith alone. By God's grace Luther was confronted in his misery by the revelation of God's mercy in Christ.
Describing his study of Romans 1:17, Luther said: "There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith…it is the righteousness of God revealed by the gospel, that is, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith…Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates…And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word 'righteousness of God.'"
The truth of the gospel, in all its distinctiveness, is worthy of taking an immovable stand, especially when it is the only truth that sets sinners free.