9.5 debatable theses: Why some misunderstand Martin Luther

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Martin Luther’s influence has been felt for 500 years. His words and actions led to an effort to re-form what the church of his time was about. The effort to fix the Church ended up causing the Protestant Reformation; and I have spent the last half a year trying to lift up highlights of those efforts that still cause effects to this day.

I have received a number of comments, criticisms and lots of conversations from what I have written, and only on a very few rare occasions has anyone completely disagreed with what I have put forth.

However, it has occurred to me that there are some general areas I’ve touched on where some confusion can occur. And though I have on the one hand tried my best to fact-check my assertions for accuracy, and on the other hand been forthright when it was my own opinion or interpretation being presented, I’m sure that the clarity I had hoped for has not been achieved.

I have been heartened by some other articles, books and documentaries that have reinforced what I have tried impart. In particular, the two-hour PBS production, “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World,” takes a look at Luther in a way that touches almost point for point on my columns this past year. And though the title says it, and my intent has been to show it, that change of the world became tacitly clear to me in full this past weekend.

I had the opportunity to visit Jamestown in Virginia, and the site of the first permanent English colony in America (sorry Roanoke, the “Lost Colony” counts only as an attempt). I stood where, in 1607, colonists arrived and held sort of an outdoor worship service before an actual church could be built.

And as buildings go, 1617 is when they mark as the beginning date for sustained structures (you can even see that the only remaining building structure left from the 17th century is a part of the church building). As I stood there, it occurred to me that what sometimes seems esoteric and conjectural was absolutely concrete and tangible in my presence.

Because without Martin Luther, there would have been no Anglican church to be planted in a new world only 90 years after Luther put 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg. And there would have been no Protestant church building being built on that site, thousands of miles away from Germany, and literally a new world away from everything that had been known, 100 years later and 400 years in our past.

I stood amongst the evidence of the magnitude of what my Lutheran forebear began 5 centuries ago!

All of which brought me to my summary for today of my contrived 9.5 points of possible misunderstanding about Luther and the Reformation for today:

• 1. Where all those denominations came from — Some just cannot comprehend that their denomination, if not Roman Catholic or Orthodox, goes back to Luther. I even have had one person who tried to tell me that his Baptist church predated Jesus because they went all the way back to John the Baptist. But it just ain’t so!

• 2. History — Some just will not go back and read what really happened in recorded history. They cannot understand how the printing press was as influential as what Luther said, nor accept that Luther’s words helped fuel World War II. Some causes and effects are simply right there in the history books!

3. Adiaphora — Those things that Luther categorized as not necessary for salvation. There are many different items that people want to pull out of this category and claim ARE necessary, but those are usually human contrivances which go against what Luther said was necessary — namely what God does in Jesus.

• 4. The Two Kingdoms — It sometimes seems hard to imagine or even dangerous to take seriously Luther’s contention that leaders are under the commission of God and are to be respected in their authority as they are stewards of God’s authority.

• 5. Sacraments — Some refuse to give the credence to Baptism and Holy Communion that the Bible and Luther’s exposition confirm: that the Sacraments DO something. The mechanics of the how are a mystery, but the commands and example to do them and the promises of Jesus’ presence and forgiveness are not!

• 6. The Theology of the Cross — Some want to claim that the only cross Christians should extol is the empty cross because it reminds us that Jesus was raised from the dead. Luther, however, was always mindful that the God we relate to is the Jesus who dies on the cross and knows our human condition of pain and suffering, and does so on our behalf!

• 7. Saint and Sinner at the Same Time — Some forget that the forgiveness we receive in this world is still given in a fallen existence and forget that we are continually subject to sin in this earthly existence. Though salvation, perfection in some people’s eyes, is promised, it is not realized fully here and now. The priest and the pauper stand equal in their sinful nature, saintly only by the actions of Jesus.

• 8. Works — Which means our works do not save us. Our works are not the catalyst by which salvation comes to us (that’s what Jesus does!), but rather the response to what God has already done. The good news is that God does it all, and we don’t have to.

• 9. Unconditional Love — The biggest misunderstanding we have is not taking seriously the word, “unconditional.” As soon as we ask, “So what do we have to do to get salvation?” we have left “unconditional” behind. All of which brings me to my .5 thesis which is at one and the same time the afterthought to all the above misconceptions and really the root of our misunderstandings of what Luther tried so valiantly to make clear:

• 9.5. We won’t let God be God — We just want to be in control. That’s what sin tells us. That’s why sin translates so well as selfishness. We want to be in control and tell God how it will work, rather than let God be God, and let God be in control.

Perhaps that’s too much to take in at one time. So, in that case, I give you an invitation. You can flesh out all of the summaries above by looking through my articles published right here in The Wilson Times through the online archive. You can crack a few books on history and theology. You can even find much in the PBS special I cited and any number of other documentaries being aired this month.

And lastly, you are invited to any number of celebrations throughout our area commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Specifically, you have an open invitation to the Oktoberfest my congregation is sponsoring on Oct. 21 from noon to 5 p.m., which aside from being free to the public and including free food, activities for children and an opportunity to reach out to victims of the recent hurricanes through disaster relief donations, will provide information, Luther movies and an open forum where I will do my best to answer questions and field comments for all who wish to participate. More details on this next week.

So, think about the 500-year journey the world has been on since Luther. Think about your place in it. And find a way to explore what that journey means in your life and our world today!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times.