Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a lightning-rod and centerpiece of the Reformation. Five hundred years ago Luther boldly nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. As a result, October 31, 1517, has become an anchor point in Reformation history.
Luther’s heroic confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church became a flame that stoked the spiritual fires of reform. By so doing, Luther shook the foundation of institutionalized Christianity. Yet thoughtful students of history concede that the Reformation wasn’t only about one man. Luther stood in a long line of Reformers, and was far from perfect. Many other groups and people were heroic in their protest.
Groups such as the Albigenses (c. 1100) and Waldenses (c. 1173) are two notable examples. Stalwart reformers such as John Wycliffe (1320-1384), John Huss (1369-1415), and Gerolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) courageously denounced error and advocated truth. They spoke out against the Papacy, confessionals, purgatory, pilgrimages, saint worship, relics, etc. Many were martyred for embracing the truth.
In spite of Luther’s many and obvious flaws, weaknesses, and foibles, Ellen White highlighted some of his exemplary traits. She poignantly noted that we who are “living so near the close of time should emulate . . . [his] noble example.”1 She emphasized that he set positive examples for us in three distinct ways: (1) religious liberty: defending people’s right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience; (2) Bible study: pursuing a deep knowledge of the Word of God and His righteousness; (3) truth proclamation: making it our highest ambition to defend truth to “an unbelieving world and an ungodly church.”2
Ellen White casts this challenge in an eschatological setting: “In the near conflict, thousands will be called to imitate Luther’s constancy and courage.”3
Three areas in Luther’s life merit emulation:
First, he strategized truth by confronting the Catholic Church and the onlooking public with his 95 theses. He facilitated ways and means to give everyone access to the Bible, elucidated scriptural understanding, and drew attention to the need for reform in the church. Luther found the practice of selling indulgences particularly odious. He countered it with a strong denunciation and asserted that salvation, forgiveness, and repentance cannot be bought and sold. He famously affirmed that salvation is by faith through grace alone.
Second, Luther systematized truth with other Reformers, and contributed to the five theological principles that unify around common truths among the various and diverse streams of the Reformation: sola fide (by faith alone); solus Christus (through Christ alone); sola gratia (by grace alone); sola scriptura (by Scripture alone); soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).
Third, he scattered truth to the masses by translating the entire Bible into German (New Testament, 1522; Old Testament, 1534). His translation was a major influence on the development of the King James Version of the Bible.
As we experience the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us be inspired and motivated with the best examples of Luther and the Reformers.
Delbert W. Baker is vice chancellor of the Adventist University of Africa, near Nairobi, Kenya.