Why We Need to Listen to Luther
Jeffrey P. Greenman is President and Professor of Theology and Ethics at Regent College. He is the author or editor of eleven books. Over the years, his teaching and writing has focused on Christian ethics, the history of biblical interpretation, spiritual formation, theological education, leadership development, and global Christianity.
For most Christians, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation may seem abstract and remote. It is a date on the calendar, but is it something to be celebrated? At Regent College, we have chosen to mark the 500th year with a series of lectures and courses, as well as musical concert inspired by Reformation theology. We see this historic occasion as a fresh opportunity to explore our heritage as Protestants, a chance to learn from the past.
Our celebration has not been an exercise in triumphalism but in critical engagement. While we honour our Protestant forebears, this does not mean that everything in the Protestant Reformation was perfect. It does not mean that the unity of the church is anything less than an urgent priority, consistent with Jesus’ own prayer in John 17. Martin Luther himself was a complex and difficult person. Some of his views—just think of his strong anti-Semitism—were misdirected.
Even so, my proposal is that Christians from all ecclesial traditions should take the opportunity in this season of historical commemoration to give renewed attention to the Reformation’s most important feature. Protestant thinker Stanley Hauerwas recently wrote: “Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at its heart, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world.” There is no one better than Luther to point us to Christ.
The eminent 20th century theologian Karl Barth remarked, “What else was Luther, than a teacher of the Christian church whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?” Needless to say, he was a prolific writer of sermons, pamphlets, and treatises. As a writer, he was lively, practical, and highly pastoral. His collected works fill 55 volumes. For all his fame, however, very few contemporary Christians seem to have listened to Luther. He is rarely quoted in sermons outside the Lutheran denominations. Yet he says so much that we need to hear. My suggestion is that the best place to start would be to read his highly accessible short pamphlet, The Freedom of a Christian, written in 1520.
Christians need to listen to Luther because we need a renewed confidence in Jesus Christ more than anything else. Hauerwas is pointing to what is utterly unmistakable and completely refreshing about Luther’s theology—it is profoundly Christ-centred. Reading Luther always reminds us that we are sinners in need of a divine Saviour, and that all our pious practices or religious strivings cannot please God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. He exudes full confidence in the utterly undeserved, marvelously gracious gift of the Gospel. The incomparable glory and majesty of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ dominates his thinking from start to finish.
And on account of this Christ, as Hauerwas rightly notes, Christians cannot be at home in this world. Our lives cannot be easy and comfortable if we follow a crucified Lord. We must not fit easily into a fallen, broken world if our first allegiance is to Christ, whose ways are not our ways and whose truth confronts the world’s disregard for God and our God-given human dignity.
What we have celebrated 500th anniversary year is the effort made by our Protestant ancestors to rediscover the Gospel of Jesus Christ and make that Gospel central to every dimension of the life of the church. As Luther himself said, “The Gospel cannot be preached and heard enough, for it cannot be grasped well enough.”
But with Luther’s help, we might grasp it better.