By Neil Earle
Not so long ago an American television network hosted a lively 2-part series on the most influential 100 people of the millennium.
The British did pretty good, with Isaac Newton as Number One and Charles Darwin as Number Four. The network presenters said in advance that they were provoking the argument of the century. For example, the Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), builder of the present walls that ring Jerusalem, was rated number 100. Winston Churchill was voted number 52.
Agree or disagree, it was an intriguing project.
Looking back, who would you pick as the most influential person of the last millennium? I gave my wife, Susan, my choice. It was the German Reformer and theologian Martin Luther.
In this season of Lent, Ash Wednesday and Christ's crucifixion, many believers take their lives more seriously. It is a time when we focus on sin and short-comings more directly. This is where I believe the Martin Luther story can be helpful. He faced the sin issue squarely and with God's help won and earned a sense of blessed assurance. His life can encourage all Christians who feel they are "not making it." Let's review his life to see what I mean.
Luther was born in 1483 and died in 1546. He was the central figure of the Protestant Reformation. He was a giant in a time of supremely influential personages. Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Erasmus and Sir Thomas More were his contemporaries and Christopher Columbus set sail when Luther was halfway through grammar school.
Luther was born in Eisleben in former East Germany. In an age when the infant mortality rate was 60% or more the young Luther was lucky to be born at all. His father, Hans Luder, was an enterprising small-businessman owning six mines and two copper smelters. Luther's love of music compensated for a harsh upbringing under parents who cared for him but could be rough in their punishment. At the age of 16, the young Luther was already a competent Latin scholar and sent to the University of Erfurt. There his quick mind became noticed at last—Luther graduated with an M.A. in 1505 at the age of 22 and a nickname, "the philosopher".
His father decided that Master Martin would make a good lawyer and the young man did not disagree. One day, however, while walking from Mansfeld to Erfurt, Martin was caught in a ferocious thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning struck him to the ground and he cried out, like any good Catholic, "Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk!"
He was true to his word. In 1507 he celebrated his first mass and was a most pious member of the Observant Augustinian order. According to James Kittelson in Luther the Reformer, friends and associates could detect in the young monk no outstanding traits that would make him such a towering figure in a mere ten years. Luther said later: "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.
Luther's was an age of saints, of pilgrims and of death rampant. It was the end of the Middle Ages and Catholic theology was in decline. The common people of Europe hovered between being told "do what is in your power!" and enduring a round of penance, confession and priestly oppression. An ascetic, young Luther knew what it was like to go without food and drink, to endure nights without sleep and to suffer the pains of self-flagellation. This brings us to the heart of the tale. Long after he challenged the established potentates and powers Luther wrote how much his cause was identified with his conscience:
"Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt, with the most disturbed conscience imaginable that I was a sinner before God. I did not love, indeed I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners and secretly I was angry with God and said, 'As if indeed it is not enough that miserable sinners, eternally lost through eternal sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the ten Commandments, without having God add pain to pain by the gospels threatening us with his righteousness and wrath.'"
Such bluntness and candour and simple honesty mark the life of Martin Luther. And though the world knows the rest of his story well – his crusade against a religion of indulgences, almsgiving and overweening works righteousness – few appreciate with what seriousness and fervency Luther pursued the debate. For him it was always a question of conscience: How could a man or woman be right before God? Against human-devised barriers to true faith Luther revived what many in Christendom had forgotten – the simple message of justification by faith. Or as he put it: "This most excellent righteousness...neither political nor ceremonial."
This was Luther's simple clarion call set against the conscience-deadening uncertainty of the times. It had the simplicity of genius. For this is how best to remember Luther as Nominee for Man of the Millennium. We must see him as his contemporaries saw him—as a fervent pastor usually on the side of the troubled sinner, as a supreme evangelist for what matters most, peace with God (Romans 5:1), as a rescuer of the troubled conscience in matters relating to God.
As is well known, Luther could be as crude as any ploughman and his wrath against those he felt were opposing his gospel could be terrible. He has been accused of anti-Semitism and there is merit in that charge. Against Luther's many defects we must remember this: the crucial message of salvation by faith was in danger of dying out in European Christendom. God sent a man who could rescue faith from a 1001 distractions and make it appealing again. The Dutch reformer Erasmus said of him: "God gave this last age a sharp physician on account of its great sickness."
The early Luther's career is remarkably reminiscent of the apostle Paul's, another fervent seeker almost driven to distraction in the failed attempt to find righteousness through an external code (Romans 7:14-20). After great spiritual convulsions and many personal and painful upheavals Luther would finally find the righteousness of God, the righteousness which comes from God through faith (Philippians 3:9).
That is why his prose soars with hope, hilarity and optimism at the thought of the All-powerful, All-knowing God who is yet on the side of repentant sinners through his work in Jesus Christ. "Although I am a sinner by the law, as touching the righteousness of the law," wrote Luther, "yet I despair not, yet I die not, because Christ liveth, who is both my righteousness and my everlasting and heavenly life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin, no sting of conscience, no care of death."
Consider his evangelistic appeal to sinners to embrace true faith while escaping the trap of "easy grace":
"Faith is something that God effects in us. It changes us and we are reborn from God; when it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good works to do; rather, before the question is raised, it has done the deed and keeps on doing it.
Note Luther's serene, supreme confidence in the forgiving power of God: "Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that you have no sin although you sin but that your sins are thrown on Christ. That just about says it all. This was the brimming everyday confidence with which Luther assailed the most powerful institution of his day, the Papacy, and taught it to listen. Luther was a medieval man in his open confessions of ongoing conflicts with the devil. As Heiko Obermann said in Luther: Man Between God and the Devil: "A psychiatric analysis would rob Luther of whatever chances he had left of teaching at a present-day university.
Yes, Master Martin was a man of his times. But he was a very modern man in that he powerfully opened himself and his inner struggles to the world at large. He had no hesitation about publicly charting his own disease and just as powerfully proclaiming the cure. His efforts to scrutinize himself intently and even unflatteringly in his writings give them a zest still able to be felt centuries later. To those who study his writings attentively, the Great Muckraker was really the Great Evangelist. "What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and when receiving such comfort will not grow tender so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of any law or works," said Luther. "This is so because it believes that the righteousness of Christ is its own and that its sin is not its own, but Christ's, and that all sin is swallowed up by the righteousness of Christ."
And what of Luther's legacy, a word we throw about so much today. In the process of confronting Christendom with salvation by grace, Luther made three main contributions to the world at large. They were monumental.
1. Luther taught the supremacy of the individual, introspective conscience. He was the Thomas Jefferson, the John Locke of Christianity. He showed that a dissenter could be publicly vindicated if his cause had merit. This powerful precedent was noticed by the northern European nations of England and the Netherlands which, in the following centuries, became bastions of the rights and freedoms of humankind.
2. Luther published Erasmus printed Greek New Testament in German in 1522. He thus set a precedent for other countries to follow. This gave a mighty spur to Bible reading and the whole intellectual development of the Western world. The Reformation insistence on Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) mightily impelled the expansion of education since one needed to be literate to read the sacred text.
3. Luther's revival of Paul's writings gave strong impetus to what has been called "the introspective conscience of the West," the idea that words and deeds need to be analyzed morally and ruthlessly in the public sphere wherever possible. Luther's painful expose of his own wrestlings with a disturbed conscience encouraged a kind of public searching out of hitherto private matters that influenced writers, historians and psychologists in the centuries to follow.
Still, Luther was only human, and very human at that. He embarrasses even his staunchest defenders. His diatribes against Jews, peasants, Turks, and radicals make painful reading even today. "I was born to go to war and give battle. I must root out the stumps and bushes," he said once in a feeble attempt at near-apology. "I am the great lumberjack who must clear the land and level it."
The Reformation was one of the great turning points in history, to devout Protestants the key turning point after the events of the first century. If that is so, if we are to judge personages by their time and their influence beyond their time, then Christians might agree that Martin Luther has to rank as perhaps the most decisive personality of the last millennium.
Oh, by the way, the network program placed Luther as Number Three on the list, behind Isaac Newton. Number One? Number One was Gutenberg, the printer and perfecter of moveable type. Luther might have agreed with that choice. No Gutenberg meant no printed New Testament and – perhaps – no successful Reformation of the church. That sounds about right. What do you think?