Martin Luther: A Conscience Captive to the Word of God

I recently had the opportunity to be a part of a Reformation conference at Christ Presbyterian Church in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The title of my message was “Martin Luther: A Conscience Captive to the Word of God.” I explored a few of Luther’s convictions about Sola Scriptura and the circumstances of his life that led him to those convictions while making application to us today along the way. Below is a copy of my manuscript.

Martin Luther:
A Conscience Captive to the Word of God

He is the most famous of the reformers and his experience on April 16, 1521, is probably the most well-known event of the Reformation. It was the day Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms. Luther entered the city of Worms like a hero. People lined the streets, crowded the roof-tops, hung out of windows so that they might catch a glimpse of the people’s champion. But for Luther, the occasion for his coming to Worms was not a reason to celebrate. He was going to be tried for his life. The Diet of Worms would examine him for heresy, which if convicted, he would likely be burned at the stake.

So the day of his trial arrived. Luther, the son of a miner, was brought into the hall to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Charles V. Luther did not enter the Diet of Worms like the boxing heavyweight champion of the world. He did not have the eye of the tiger on his countenance. No posture of unswerving confidence, ready to defend his writings to the last breath. It appeared that he was a little nervous. Realize Charles V was thought to be “God’s Viceroy on Earth.” He was an intimidating figure viciously committed to the Roman Catholic Church. When he entered the Hall and saw Luther, Charles muttered, “That fellow will never make a heretic out of me” (Bainton, 177).

The emperor’s spokesman plopped all of Luther’s books on a table. He asked Luther if these were his writings. And Luther, in almost a whisper, admitted that the books were his. He was then asked to recant all of his writings. You know what Luther said? Let me think about it. Luther was caught off guard. He was not expecting to be asked to recant everything he had ever written. He knew the stakes were high, or should we say hot, so he needed more time to think about it. He was given one day. The next day Luther appeared again before the Holy Roman Emperor. This time he was not quiet as a mouse but bold as a Lion. He was asked to recant, and Luther announced that he would not retract his attacks against false doctrine. “Good God,” Luther said, “what sort of tool of evil and tyranny would I be” (Reeves, 15). Luther demanded that his views be refuted by Scripture. If Scripture would prove his teachings wrong, then he would burn the books himself. So one final time, the council demanded, “Will you recant your teachings?”

Here is Luther’s famous response:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen (Bainton, 182).

Martin threw his arms up in the air and slipped out of the hall. For the rest of his life, Luther would never cease to stand on the authority of Scripture alone.

A Challenge For every Generation

Michael Reeves, the author of The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, an excellent little introduction to the Reformation, has written this about Luther’s day before the Diet of Worms.

Back in the hall, the emperor declared that one monk who stood against all Christendom had to be wrong, and therefore he had determined ‘to stake on this cause my kingdoms and seignories, my friends, my body and blood, my life and soul.’ The lines were drawn. The Reformation had begun. And that evening, Luther had done more than write a page of history; he had thrown out a challenge for every generation (Reeves, 15).

Luther had thrown down the gauntlet. He had issued a challenge for every generation, and that challenge is as relevant today as it was during the Reformation. What is the challenge? Simply put: Do we as Christians and as churches believe the Bible? Is this book our supreme authority or isn’t it? Are we ready to submit to its truth come life or death?

And this is a challenge the American evangelical church needs to take seriously. Our confrontations are not with Holy Roman Emperors and Papal authority, but with secularism, pluralism, and a culture increasingly hostile to biblical truth. We are not being summoned to imperial diets, but we are being pressured to recant the clear teaching of the Bible that the church has held uniformly throughout the centuries: the meaning of marriage, gender distinctions, male leadership in the home and in the church, the necessity of propositional objective absolute truth, and dare I say even the substitutionary nature of the gospel itself in exchange for a psychologized therapeutic Jesus who did not come to save us from the righteous wrath of God, but from psychological turmoil, feelings of loneliness, depression and financial anxiety.

We need to hear Luther’s challenge and feel it in our bones. The stakes are high and they are only going to get higher.

So where did Luther get such conviction? Where did his unswerving allegiance to the authority of Scripture come from? I think we would have to say that his convictions about the authority of Scripture came from his study of Scripture. It was the word of God that freed Luther from his burdens, transformed his thinking, and saved his soul.

A Brief Sketch of Luther’s Life

Many of us are familiar with Luther’s story. He was the brilliant son of a German miner. He did not come from noble stock or an aristocratic family. Martin was as common as they come, but he and his Father had high hopes for his life. Luther would be enrolled at the University of Erfurt to study law. One evening, Luther was walking to the University after visiting with his parents, when he was caught in a storm. A bolt of lightning struck so close to Luther that he feared for his life. In a panic, he cried out a vow: “Saint Anne, help me! I shall become a monk!”

He made a vow, and vows must be kept so he became an Augustinian monk to the frustration of his Father who had invested a lot of money in his son’s education. Luther was a monk among monks. The monastic life was disciplined, ordered, and full of rule-keeping—rules on how to walk, how to talk, where to look, how to eat, where to go and on and on. Luther was the best rule keeper of them all. He was driven by a quest to earn the favor of God as were all monks. But Luther was uniquely introspective and conscientious about his sins. He worked harder than anyone to show God how dedicated he was. Luther would starve himself, going with no water for three days at a time. He would freeze himself in the winter because surely God would be especially pleased with someone who freezes himself. But the harder he worked, the more troubled he became. He knew that even his best efforts were tainted with insincerity, false motives, and weakness. His prayers were not as heartfelt as they should be; His singing was weak, lacking passion; his mind would wander. How could the almighty holy God be pleased with such pathetic motivations and inadequate attempts to earn his divine favor?

So Luther knew what he had to do; he needed to absolved of all of his sins. Which meant that Luther would need to confess all of his sins to the priest. There can be no forgiveness if there is no confession, so Luther would rack his brain to think of every possible sin he had committed so that he could verbalize them to the priest. Luther spent up to six hours at a time in confession.

Can you just imagine the priests when they saw Luther coming? Hide! Turn the lights off. Or should we say blow the torches out! Be very still. Luther would exhaust his confessors. They grew angry with him. Eventually, his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, scolded Luther: “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes” (Bainton, 40).

But Luther recognized something even they didn’t. God is holy. There are no peccadilloes before a holy God. Luther was terrified at the prospect of standing before a holy God as a sinner. If he was going to be forgiven, he would need to confess to the priest, and if he was going to confess, he would need to remember all of his sins. There was no other way around it. What a cycle of despair and hopelessness. A righteous God requires a perfect righteousness, and therefore Luther was convinced that he must be damned. So this pious monk was angry toward a God. He hated this God who punishes sinners in his justice because there is nothing he or any sinner can do to assuage God’s wrath.

As Luther was spiraling into deeper introspection and despair, Johann von Staupitz, his mentor, and leader of the monastery had an idea. He would commission Luther to become a professor of Bible at the university and to preach and teach its contents and counsel sick souls. Luther, the man on the edge of a nervous breakdown, would become the teacher and counselor of others. This meant that Luther would have to start studying the Bible. You would think that studying the Bible would be a staple of theological education for a monk, but it wasn’t. He was too busy with other things, spending his study time on philosophers and church fathers. But now Luther would engage with the pages of Scripture on a whole new level. And it was through his study of the Bible from 1513–1517 that he entered through the gates of paradise.

Here is Luther’s famous retelling of the earthshaking discovery he made while studying Romans in his monastery tower:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” 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. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates (Reeves, 47–48).

Why was Luther ready to die for upholding the authority of Scripture? Because it was God’s Word that set him free! Not Popes, not priests, not princes, not the painful pummeling of his own body out of purgatory. The Word of God alone, revealing the gospel of faith in Christ alone set Luther free by the grace of God alone. And how did he discover the beauty of this gospel?

He grappled with St. Paul until the meaning of the righteousness of God flooded his soul. It was the truth revealed here that would light the unquenchable flame of the Reformation turning the world upside down.

Do we know anything of this type Luther-like, blood-earnest commitment to the Bible? We are Protestant, we stand on the shoulders of Luther and others; we affirm sola Scriptura, but have we ever gotten into a fight with the apostle Paul himself? “I beat incessantly upon Paul,” Luther said. Have you ever grabbed hold of this book and like Jacob wrestling with God said, I will not let you go until you bless me! Where do we turn to find an answer to our doctrinal questions or life’s struggles? Where do we go? Do we turn to comfort foods, or seek to escape reality through media and entertainment? Or do we cling to this book and say I will not stop until I have an answer!

O how we pay lip service to the authority, sufficiency, inerrancy, and reliability of Scripture in what passes for Protestantism today. The Bible seems like an afterthought in too many churches. Bible-less singing, Bible-less preaching, Bible-less counseling, Bible-less worship all producing Bible-less Christians who live according to some sort of gnostic mysticism instead of the objective truth of God’s revelation in the pages of sacred Scripture.

May God give his churches a generation of pastors who would rather fight with Paul than read the latest church growth book. Men who would see their highest service to the church as the time spent in prayerful sweating over their diagram of the text of Romans (preferably in Greek); not in their event planning and social media marketing strategy. I’m not saying we should never do those things. But for all of the emphasis on demographic research and how we can be relevant to a postmodern millennial generation, it would seem as though we care more about Sola Barna than Sola Scriptura.

The world was turned upside down because one man gave himself to the study of God’s Word day and night. And how blessed is the man whose delight in the Law of the Lord and meditates in his Law day and night! How blessed will churches be, who feed on the Bible week-in and week-out as they encounter the glory and majesty of the God revealed in its pages.

Luther could stand before the Holy Romans Emperor at the Diet of Worms because he knew intellectually and experientially that the Bible is the sufficient and infallible authority for all matters pertaining to faith and practice.

More could be said about how Luther came to his convictions about the authority of Scripture. Particularly important was Luther’s debate with John Eck at Leipzig. Luther’s convictions about the authority of Scripture were solidified during this debate so that he confessed that even the Pope must be subject to the Bible. I’m not going to talk about the debate, but it lasted 18 days. Can you imagine? 18 days! Could that even happen today? Would anyone come?

Moving forward, I want to spend the rest of my time considering lessons from Luther’s view of Scripture. I only have time for two.

Lessons from Luther’s View of Scripture

I turn now primarily to Luther’s famous work The Bondage of the Will. Of the many volumes of Luther’s writings we have today, Luther himself said that only two were worthy of surviving: 1) The Catechism for children; 2) The Bondage of the Will.

If you have never read The Bondage of the Will, I commend it to you as a masterpiece of a seasoned theologian. Luther wrote this book as a response to Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was the world’s most formidable scholar. He was responsible for publishing the Greek New Testament that was the source of Luther’s study. Erasmus was a humanist scholar in the best sense of the word. He was committed to the original languages of Greek and Hebrew, and his efforts in publishing the Greek New Testament was indeed an excellent service to the church. Erasmus himself was out to reform the church, but not in the same way Luther wanted to do. Erasmus simply wanted to reform the Catholic church at the level of morality. Clean up the corruption, get rid of the hypocrisy, or to use a modern idiom: He didn’t want the Pope to smoke, drink, or chew or run with girls who do!

Luther’s idea of reformation was much different. Luther was not out to attack the Pope’s morals; he was out to attack the Pope’s doctrine. For Luther, the Reformation was about theology not about morality first and foremost. So these two intellectual giants collided when Erasmus wrote On the Freedom of the Will and Luther responded to Erasmus with The Bondage of the Will.

What was their debate all about? Without going into great detail, Luther and Erasmus were debating the nature of grace itself. Erasmus fundamentally believed that though the human will was hindered by sin, it was still able, in and of itself, to respond to the gospel. Human beings are, therefore, able to do that which is pleasing to God. And they cooperate with the grace of God to be saved. Erasmus was not a full-blown Pelagian, but he was a semi-pelagian and a synergist. Erasmus essentially argued that we are saved by grace after all that we can do, even if all we can do is repent and believe.

Luther saw this as a gross mistake and a distortion of the gospel itself. Luther recognized that the gospel does not make people savable, but the gospel is a message that God saves. Luther understood that Erasmus’ view of grace was not biblical grace. It was an error common to all religion. The idea that God’s favor is merited upon some prior condition in the individual; the idea that God works with us to accomplish our salvation. Luther said no, no, no. God’s grace is monergistic. God alone saves and he imparts saving grace not in cooperation with us but in spite of us.

So the battle was on. Remember, Erasmus was the most revered scholar in the world at this time. If anyone was going to squash the extremes of Luther’s Reformational teaching, it was going to be the sophisticated, balanced and learned Erasmus. Erasmus appeared as the giant in this fight, but Erasmus was not first and foremost a theologian like Luther. As Michael Reeves has written, “Erasmus was like an ant attacking a rhino” (Reeves, 61).

So what do we learn from Luther about Scripture in his book The Bondage of the Will? My intention is not to address the theological dispute on the nature of human freedom and saving grace, but to see how Luther’s convictions about Scripture led him to radically different conclusions than Erasmus and a radically different reformation. So two lessons from Luther:

1) To affirm Sola Scriptura is to affirm propositional revelation

Now before you go to sleep because that sounds so academic, let me explain. Luther so fought for assertions, or propositions, that he said, “take away assertions, and you take away Christianity” (p. 67). What is a proposition? It is an assertion of truth, right? Luther recognized that Christianity is built on assertions. No assertions, no Christianity! Listen to Peter’s assertion in Matthew 16:

Matthew 16:13–16 (ESV) — 13 . . . .“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Assertion! You don’t make Peter’s assertion; you don’t have Christianity. The Bible gives us truth that we must assert as true. Now, why does this matter? It matters for Luther because Erasmus was a sophisticated scholar. And like many sophisticated scholars, Erasmus did not want to be dogmatic about anything. He was cool and dispassionate. As Michael Reeves has said, “Erasmus always liked to position himself as the wise man, above the crude extremes of more petty minds, and this was typical Erasmus, aiming at a sophisticated middle position between Rome and the Reformation” (Reeves, 60).

Erasmus’ goal was to minimize the importance of doctrine. According to Erasmus, we should leave doctrinal issues where they belong, in the realm of mystery. The Trinity, don’t fight about it. God’s role in salvation, don’t fight about it. What we need is peace and unity in the church so we should, therefore, define as little as possible (Reeves, 60). Erasmus would rather be a Skeptic for the sake of unity and peace than assert anything with absolute conviction.

I wonder how many Erasmuses are in Christendom today, especially in the academic world. I once told my church that Ph.D. in biblical studies stands for “probably hates decisions.” And that is coming from a guy who did one.

Erasmus was sophisticatedly slippery. He wanted to chalk up the doctrine concerning the nature of saving grace to the realm of the unknowable. We can’t understand these things he said. Luther would have nothing of Erasmus’ cool, dispassionate skepticism. Luther rightly saw Erasmus’ approach to the Bible as a poison that would kill Christianity itself. Luther said to Erasmus, “To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all” (p. 66).

J.I. Packer hones in on the fundamental difference between Erasmus and Luther here. He writes in his introduction to Luther’s Bondage of the Will:

Christianity, to Erasmus, was essentially morality, with a minimum of doctrinal statement loosely appended . . . . Luther’s attitude was very different. To him, Christianity was a matter of doctrine first and foremost, because true religion was first and foremost a matter of faith, and faith is correlative to truth . . . . Christianity was to Luther a dogmatic religion, or it was nothing . . . . For the Christian ‘assertions’ were no mere hit-or-miss rationalisations of religious experience; what they contained was the revealed truth of God, recorded in Scripture for the Church’s instruction and sealed upon the believer’s heart by the saving enlightenment of the Holy Spirit (p. 44).

Do you see the radical difference between Luther and Erasmus here and their respective views of Scripture? Erasmus cared mainly about morals, service, good deeds as if that was the sum and substance of Christianity. Because the Bible is mysterious and unclear so we shouldn’t concern ourselves with doctrinal issues. Luther cared first and foremost about truth! Christianity is built on the truth of its assertions and the Bible gives us true assertions by which we must live or die!

The church in our generation and every generation needs to make bold, clear, doctrinally dense assertions from which we will not shrink back. The kind of assertions that affirm the Trinitarian nature of God, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of sin, penal substitutionary atonement, the bondage of the will, the inability of man to save himself, the complementarian design of marriage, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. Assert them, believe them, and be ready to die for them.

Luther said to Erasmus: “The Holy Spirit is no Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions—surer and more certain than sense and life itself.” (p. 70).

2) To affirm Sola Scriptura is to affirm the perspicuity of Scripture

Perspicuity means clarity. This point is related to the previous one. The Scriptures are clear. They are not cryptic. If Scripture is to be our authority for doctrine and practice, then it must be clear in what it says. If we are going to assert the truths of Scripture, then the Bible must be clear in what it asserts as truth.

Remember the Roman Catholic Church had chained the Bible to the Bible to the clergy. Only the Pope and the priests were allowed to read it and declare what it meant in light of the tradition of the Church. The common person, it was believed, should not read the Bible because they wouldn’t be able to understand it and they would interpret wrongly. They couldn’t read it anyway because it was in Latin.

Now Erasmus was a scholar of the New Testament, and he disagreed with the interpretative tradition of the Catholic Church in many places. But he wanted to maintain the idea that the Bible is not clear. Remember he is not concerned about doctrine because doctrinal issues are mysterious. He is more concerned about morals, ethics, and Christian living. So with regards to the questions of human freedom and the nature of saving grace, we should not go as far as the heretic Pelagius, but in the end, we can’t know how it all works.

Luther would have none of it. Listen to what Luther says about the clarity of Scripture:

The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no more hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature. ‘Their sound is gone out into all lands’ (Ps 19:4). ‘All things that are written, are written for our instruction’ (Rom 15:4). Again: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for instruction’ (2 Tim. 3:16). Come forward then . . . and cite a single mystery which is still obscure in the Scripture. I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer. As Paul said of the Jews in 2 Cor. 4: ‘The veil remains on their heart’ (2 Cor. 3:15); and again, ‘If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost, whose heart the god of this world hath blinded’ (2 Cor. 4:3–4). They are like men who cover their eyes, or go from daylight to darkness, and hide there, and then blame the sun, or the darkness of the day, for their inability to see. So let wretched men abjure that blasphemous perversity which would blame the darkness of their own hearts on to the plain Scriptures of God! (p. 72)

For the record, Luther did not deny that some passages in the Bible are hard to understand, but he affirmed that all of the contents of Scripture can be known. By “content” I think Luther means in light of the coming of Christ, we can understand what the Scriptures are about, namely God, the gospel of our salvation, the nature and condition of humanity, and all of the beautiful, glorious doctrines that pertain to how God has accomplished redemption in Christ. Which includes, the role of man’s will in salvation.

I wonder if Christians today even in Protestant churches are more Erasmian than Lutheran with respect to their beliefs about the clarity of Scripture. We are so quick to chalk up certain doctrines into the realm of mystery without ever digging and digging and digging into the pages of Scripture to get answers. Luther was writing these words in a book on the subject of free will and God’s sovereignty in salvation. Many in our modern day would classify the doctrines of the will of man and the sovereignty of God in salvation in the realm of mystery. The Bible isn’t clear on these things, they say. You know what Luther said about this doctrine? He said it is absolutely necessary for us to know what role our will plays in salvation and the Bible is very clear about this. Here are his words:

So it is not irreligious, idle, or superfluous, but in the highest degree wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters pertaining to salvation. Indeed, let me tell you, this is the hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us; our aim is, simply, to investigate what ability ‘free-will’ has, in what respect it is the subject of Divine action and how it stands related to the grace of God. If we know nothing of these things, we shall know nothing whatsoever of Christianity, and shall be in worse case than any people on earth! He who dissents from that statement should acknowledge that he is no Christian; and he who ridicules or derides it should realize that he is the Christian’s chief foe. For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent and limits of what God can and will do in me . . . . Now, if I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to Him (p. 78).

Luther said things with such force that even I want to say “Ouch” at times. He’s gone too far! But that’s only because we live in an Erasmian culture that minimizes the importance of truth.

My point here is to encourage us to embrace Sola Scriptura in the sense that we believe the Bible is clear and can be studied and understood. I want you to believe that you don’t need a Ph.D., to lay hold of this book and get answers to your questions.

I think the amount of information on the internet is eroding our confidence in the clarity of Scripture. I think the internet is a great resource and let’s use it by all means. But if we are not careful, the information age can undermine our confidence in the perspicuity of the Bible. How so? Because you can find 100 different opinions on everything on the internet! And each person has a Ph.D. next to their name, so how can we be sure about anything?

We have these “four views” books on everything now. I think there is a place for these types of books and they can be helpful. After all, we do have different views on some things in Christendom. The fact that I am a Baptist speaking at a Reformation Conference at a Presbyterian Church testifies to that. But we have this counterpoint series published by Zondervan that, if we are not careful, can give us the impression that doctrine ever believed is up for grabs:

• Four views on the historical Adam
• Three views on the historicity of Genesis
• Four views on the Trinity
• Two views on women in ministry
• Five views on Biblical Inerrancy

And on and on we go so that if we are not discerning, we start to think that the Bible is entirely unclear on everything. How about a book series with titles that say “one view on this clear biblical truth and why the other three are wrong!”

I want to encourage you to resist the agnostic urge. The Bible is clear. We can know our God, we can know our Christ, we can know the gospel, we can know ourselves, and we can know all things pertaining to life and godliness. Let us not avoid a serious engagement with the text because we think truth is a hopeless endeavor. We must study with humility to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

I’ll close with a few comments.

Luther rightly recovered a biblical view of Scripture’s authority, and he came to these conclusions by reading Scripture. Are we heirs of the Reformation? If we say ‘yes,’ do we stand on the shoulders of the reformers sharing their convictions about the authority, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture?

It’s been 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg. 500 years later the church of the Lord Jesus Christ finds itself facing the nearly the same battle Luther, and the other reformers were fighting. Our struggle is not against indulgences, the Pope, relics, and the Holy Roman Empire. But our challenge today was that of the reformers 500 years ago? Will we affirm Sola Scriptura not just in word, but in practice? What would a real reformational recovery of Sola Scriptura look like in evangelical churches in the west? What would be its effect on our gathered worship, our preaching, our evangelism, our pursuit of personal holiness, and the way we “do” church?

The evangelical church in the west is groping for relevance in all the wrong places—constantly turning not to the Bible, but the latest strategy, the newest trend, the freshest growth resource, the most recent poll, the hippest demographic. Historical theologian David Wells reminds us that if we are heirs of the Reformation, then the Word of God must not only shape our doctrine but our agenda. He writes,

In the rhythms of marketing, and the pandering to generational tastes, this agenda is often being lost. The agenda, in fact, is coming from the culture, from its consumers, from the world. In these churches it is sola cultura, not sola Scriptura. Unless evangelicals recover their confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture, their claim that Scripture alone is authoritative will remain empty. It will remain a charade (Wells, 227).

Luther never crafted some creative strategy for spreading the Reformation. He had no clever plan. He sincerely believed that it was his responsibility to unleash the Word of God and watch God’s Word do God’s work.

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

I pray for a recovery of this type of confidence in the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture in the western evangelical church. May God give us the grace to plant our feet on a firm foundation, the foundation of biblical truth. When the onslaught of secularism, and pluralism, and perhaps even the threat of death look us in the eye and call us to recant the clear, assertive, truth of this book, may we say with Luther for the sake of the gospel, for the good of the church, and for the glory of God alone: “Here we stand. And we aren’t going anywhere. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. Amen.”

2 Replies to “Martin Luther: A Conscience Captive to the Word of God”

  1. Matt and I are friends, though we sometimes view things a bit differently. I really do like this article as I genuinely believe that Martin Luther became a true Child of The Great King, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

    As I was growing up I often had the opportunity to watch this film regarding the beginnings of The Reformation and Luther’s part in it.

    If nothing else free was true to his conscience, and committed to the defense of the TRUTH.

    Pardon me though if I use a paraphrase of one of his statements. Popes and Councils have often contradicted one another, but unless you can convince me by Scripture and by reason of the truth of the matter I cannot, I will not recant!

    I differ from Luther on many matters as he did not go far enough in walking away from the errors of the Roman Church, or fight vigorously to draw men back to the essential doctrines of the Faith-God’s Holy Word, the Apostle’s Creed and the primary decision of Nicaea which defined the Biblical doctrine of the deity and eternally of Jesus Christ as well as the relationship between the Father and the Son as “of one substance”, also affirming the triune nature of God-the Trinity-that is that there are three persons-the Father, Soon, and Holy Spirit who are each described as God in the Scripture, and upon study wee discovers to be co-equal and so-eternal, resulting in an expansion and clarification of the Apostle’s Creed called the Nicene Creed.

    A vigorous defense of these things could have resulted in a true reformation reinvigoration and reunification of the Roman Church. The fact of the matter is that after 500 years the divisions between Rome and all other Christian churches are still festering with no purification or true healing in sight.


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