Church history Theology

3 ways Luther radically changed the Church

(1) Theological Change: Luther’s Theology of God

Luther’s theology of God was paramount to how he changed the Church. Most intriguing was his understanding of the law as both a benefit-producing and fear-inducing force that God uses to reveal His true nature to humanity. In the Large Catechism, Luther writes, “For God declares how…he will fearfully and terribly punish all who despise and transgress his commandments; and again, how richly he will reward, bless, and bestow all good things on those who prize them and gladly act and live in accordance with them.”

Law vs. Gospel

For Luther, the first way God uses the law is to “promote the life of the creation and to restrain evil,” says Timothy Wengert in Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith (all Wengert references from now on are from this book). Here, Luther says that God promises to “reward, bless, and bestow all good things” on people (benefit-producing force) who obey the law. In contrast to medieval teachings, which maintained that believers had to satisfy God (the Judge) through law-abiding works (gospel to law; e.g. penance), Luther proposed that the propelling motive for obeying the law should be one’s “love and trust” in God. Luther called believers to love God “above all things,” not out of religious obligation or divine appeasement, but because of who God is and what He has done for humanity. “[H]e demands that our actions,” writes Luther, “proceed from a heart that trusts in him alone and for his sake does all that he asks of us, because he reveals himself as a kind father and offers us every grace and blessing.” However, one could not come to this knowledge of God as “kind father” and gracious giver without first experiencing the gospel through the fear-inducing force of the law.

The second way God uses the law is to drive people to the gospel. Here, when people “despise and transgress” God’s law, He uses wrath (fear-inducing force) to drive them to the comforting arms of Christ. As the law drives believers from hell to their knees, the Holy Spirit draws them from their knees to heaven; where the Trinity reveals the Father’s heart to the sinner. Luther writes in the Large Catechism that

we could never come to recognize the Father’s favor and grace were it not for the LORD Christ, who is a mirror of the Father’s heart. Apart from him we see nothing but an angry and terrible judge. But neither could we know anything of Christ, had it not been revealed by the Holy Spirit.

Here, as believers are guided through Luther’s teaching, they gain theological insight into the true nature of God. As the fear-inducing force of the law drives sinners to the gospel (where the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit sanctifies), believers are given a new understanding and experience of spirituality. In Luther’s catechisms, believers experience more fully the blessings of the gospel, where Christ fulfilled the law (maximizing the benefit-producing force) and absorbed God’s wrath (extinguishing the fear-inducing force) in our place. This was a radical shift from medieval spirituality; delivering believers from the despair of penance-centered spirituality, to a true evangelical spirituality centered on God’s “favor and grace.”

(2) Ecclesiological Change: Luther’s Imprint on the Church

In the medieval Church, “the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were strangely separated from the life of faith, where penance took center stage,” says Wengert. However, for Luther, these two “evangelical sacraments,” along with the preaching of the Word, defined the essence of the Church. “As Philip Melanchthon later formulated in the Augsburg Confession,” writes Wengert, “where the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments celebrated in an evangelical, gospel-centred manner, there church breaks out.” This was a radical shift from the medieval understanding of the Church, where monastic theology divided the Christian community between people who were “spiritual” and “non-spiritual”. What Luther’s ecclesiological reforms accomplished was to equalize Christians, primarily through the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism was the sacrament “through which [people] are initially received into the Christian community,” said Luther. Rather than being an act of human faith (which the Anabaptists believed), Luther declared that it was “God’s own act.” “To be baptized in God’s name,” writes Luther (appealing to Matthew 28:19), “is to be baptized not by human beings but by God himself.”

Being an act of God, baptism, for Luther, was also tied to the act of salvation. Drawing from Mark 16:16, Luther declares: “the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism [alongside of faith] is that it saves.” This was both a radical shift from medieval spirituality, which held that baptismal grace could be “sinned away,” and a resistant counter to Anabaptist decision theology, which “turned faith into the object of faith.” “For my faith does not make baptism,” writes Luther, “rather, it receives baptism. Baptism does not become invalid if it is not properly received or used, as I have said, for it is not bound to our faith, but to the word.” Luther’s high view of baptism originated from Scripture, where God ordains baptism, and is Himself (through the Word) present in the water, thus making it a divine sign and salvific treasure. He likens it to the cross, writing “that baptism is not a work that we do but that it is a treasure that God gives us and faith grasps, just as the LORD Christ upon the cross is not a work but a treasure placed in the setting of the Word and offered to us in the Word and received by faith.” The ultimate effect this had on the Church was to renew the gospel’s position on baptism as a primary sacrament in the Christian life where God imputes righteousness and apportions grace to His holy community (Ephesians 4:7).

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

For Luther, the Lord’s Supper was a “great treasure,” where believers receive the forgiveness of sins. They receive forgiveness, not solely through the bread and wine, but “through the Word” of the cross that resides “in” and “under” the bread and wine. This gave the Lord’s Supper power to benefit the believer spiritually. As baptism concerned itself with dying to the old creature and being resurrected to the new, the Lord’s Supper concerned itself with sustaining the new creature during assaults on our faith. Luther writes,

For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses. But it has to suffer a great deal of opposition. The devil is a furious enemy…trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out so that we either renounce our faith or lose heart and become indifferent or impatient. For times like these, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.

Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper gave people a new reason for receiving it. For believers in the medieval Church, the Lord’s Supper was a distant event that became a “feast for the eyes and a ceremony for the dead,” remarks Wengert. Fenced off from the “richly attired, distant priest,” says Wengert, the multitudes would gather to see “the miracle of God’s coming to earth in the ‘unbloody sacrifice of the mass’.” Luther reformed this, making the Lord’s Supper an accessible experience of God’s grace – rather than an abstract event of religion – where the holy community (on equal footing with the pastor) could receive forgiveness and strength to live out their calling in the world.

(3) Sociological Realm: Luther’s Redefinition of Holy Work

“The real appeal of the Reformation […],” writes Wengert, “was the renewed sense of the worth of ordinary work in the eyes of God.” Medieval theology had divided social occupations into activities that were religious, and those that were secular. Those who engaged in religious service were held in higher regard than those who made a living in the ordinary, secular realm. In Luther’s catechisms, the Reformer turns this social arrangement on its head; injecting sacredness and meaning into the life and work of ordinary Christian people. Nowhere is Luther’s “sanctification of the ordinary” more demonstrated than in his teaching of the divine calling parents have to raise their children. Luther writes:

[W]e must spare no effort, time and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world…. [H]e has given us children and entrusted them to us precisely so that we may raise and govern them according to his will….Therefore let all people know that it is their chief duty…first to bring up their children in the fear and knowledge of God….

In Luther’s theology of servant activity, there were many possible vocations which took place either in the household, society or the church. Of these three, Luther gave significant attention to a Christian’s calling in the household. For the person who argued that they had no calling, Luther responded with this objection:

How is it possible that you are not called? You have always been in some state or station; you have always been a husband or wife, or boy, or girl or servant….Are you a husband, and you think you have not enough to do in that sphere to govern you wife, children, domestics and property so that all may be obedient to God….

In contrast to the Anabaptists, who vilified society as an evil realm needed to be escaped through monastic seclusion, Luther instead “resituated the monastery in the household,” says Wengert.

In the Small Catechism, Luther describes the various vocational roles as “holy orders” that are part of the Christian’s “office and duty.” According to Wengert, for Luther to call “all members of the household participants in ‘holy orders’ was to use traditional language in a new and radical way, combining a critique of monastic spirituality with the creation of a Christian life arising out of daily life.”

Here, Luther redefined the sociological understanding of work, where daily life was not sanctified by religious vows or spiritual elitism, but by faith in Christ alone. Having been freed from merit theology (through justifying faith), not only were Christians equalized across all vocations, but now given response-ability to love and serve their neighbour in the world. For Luther, nowhere did these three (freeing, equalizing and responding) forces manifest themselves more than in the life of the evangelical pastor. Luther writes,

Our office has now become  a completely different one than it was under the pope. It has now become serious and salutary. Thus, it now involves much toil and work, many dangers and attacks, and in addition little reward or gratitude in the world. But Christ himself will be our reward, so long as we labor faithfully.

Not only did Luther’s reforms turn ordinary social occupations into positions of worth, but also acted to purify the pastoral office; transforming the pastor as human mediator of absolution into the pastor as humble minister of the cross.

Final Thoughts

Luther’s reforms shaped the theological, ecclesiological and sociological realms of evangelical spirituality. Luther freed the ordinary Christian from the guilt-inducing, merit-producing spirituality of medievalism. With this freedom, God became a kind Father, the Church became a holy community, and ordinary work became a divine calling. Indeed, the Christian’s freedom, acquired through justifying faith, was the defining mark of evangelical spirituality; where the gospel could be preached, perceived and practiced in a world (and Church) of religious tyranny and spiritual bondage. Here, the Reformation, through Luther’s changes to the Church, was nothing less than the breakthrough of God’s Kingdom on earth.

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