Saturday, September 18, 2010


So, what’s it all about? Who is this person, Martin Luther? Why did he create a denomination named “Lutheran?”

Of course, it all began with Martin Luther, because of fear, arising from a thunderstorm in which a tree nearby was struck by lightning. He vowed to enter the monastery rather than continue his legal studies.

After several years of study and travel, he still considered himself a sinner unworthy of repentance. He attempted to do all that the church at that time suggested and required. However, it never assuaged his guilt of being a sinner. Eventually, the studies of scripture eventually warmed his heart, especially when he absorbed, both intellectually and spiritually, that we are justified in God’s eyes by faith through grace.

The doctrine of “justified by faith through grace” became the foundation for Luther’s, and for Lutherans,, understanding of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. All of our understanding of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is seen through that perspective.

Because of his new understanding, he found himself in conflict with the church authority of his time. At that time there were indulgences. These were actions or purchases that the church authorities said took away your sinfulness and your life in purgatory after death. Because of this conflict, he principally addressed this issue when he nailed his 95 belief positions on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. He did this on October 31, 1517, the evening before All Saints Day. He knew the cathedral would be filled with people the next day because of this festival commemoration, so it would get wide attention.

It got wider attention than that. The Gutenberg Press was just invented. Of course, documents could be prepared much faster once the press was set. Within several months, all of Europe became aware of this document and Luther’s challenge of church authority.

Out of the basic doctrine of “justification by faith through grace” came a different understanding of how we relate to God, through Jesus Christ. It affected the sacraments, which Luther reduced from seven to two. It changed the way people worshipped. Luther translated a Bible into a common German language so that all people could read scripture. (Before this, it was only translated into Latin.) Hymns with secular music became part of the worship service. A new understanding of personal confession was presented. A different understanding of the presence of Christ in The Lord’s Supper was offered. Baptism was not just an event, but a way of life. Marriage was believed to be a rite of the secular world. In the church, the holy relationship was to be blessed. Ordained priests were permitted to marry. Convents and monasteries, while not shunned, were not identified as a means to a better way of life.

In Luther’s understanding of this divine relationship, there was no separation between our worldly/secular life and our Christian/spiritual life. Yet, we are in the world, not of the world. There were two reasons for the law. First was so that we might lead an orderly secular life. The second was to help us recognize our sinfulness which would drive us to the cross. Luther stated that we cannot recognize God’s grace unless we recognize our true sinfulness. Furthermore, we cannot recognize our true sinfulness unless we can recognize God’s grace. They go hand-in-hand.

Luther’s theology helped to form a basic understanding of what is called, “Being a theologian of the cross.” Simply stated, God’s love for humanity, while evidenced in all of creation, becomes a reality at the cross. God’s love and grace are seen in our experience of human suffering. What is known to be good in the world is evil in the eyes of God. What is evil in the eyes of the world is known to be good with God. Luther was saying that “what is, is what it is.” In other words, we accept life on life’s terms.

What is interesting about Luther is that he never wanted to break from the institutional church of his time. What he wanted was reform. That is why we call what happened as “The Reformation.” Luther was defrocked by the institutional church of his time and labeled a heretic.

Luther would like nothing better than to see us all become “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We celebrate and reflect upon that possibility each year on the Sunday before October 31. This year Reformation Sunday and the Day of Reformation are the same.

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