Wittenberg at 500

Wittenberg, Tuesday, October 31, 2017: The 500th anniversary of the Reformation in this little hamlet that was once the intellectual hub of Saxony and beyond. Reformation Day was a big event (even Angela Merkel made an appearance), and I was there with my bride. My third visit to Lutherstadt. The crowds swelled, especially close to the Schlosskirche and the town square. The day before and after, the town was virtually empty.

St Mary's church and town square_500th ann copy

How many of the celebrants really knew what the Reformation was all about? Sure, it changed western civilization, gave modern man the Bible in his own language—one that was based on the original tongues, delivered to the Renaissance a swift kick in the derriere, moved toward integrating science and religion and bringing both out of the middle ages (which were, in many ways, still the dark ages), elevated the education levels of children throughout Europe, established biblical scholarship on a new plane, inaugurated critical thinking of the Bible, added to the scientific method, built hospitals, toppled governments, granted individuals their God-ordained dignity, began to produce the wealth of nations, instigated the Protestant work ethic, and increased learning of the arts, science, history, and literature like no other period before or since has ever done.

But what did it ultimately do? It was begun by a lone Augustinian monk, standing up against the world, who articulated that salvation is free, and it comes by faith alone in Christ alone. Simul iustus et peccator (“at the same time, just and a sinner”) was the slogan based on Rom 3.23–24, and it’s still true today. The greatest good that Luther did was to remind us all of God’s grace and the redemption that we find in Christ alone. One lone monk changed the world because he had the courage of his convictions and believed that his God would not deny him. How about we change the world again—just one of us, or more (!)—and remind people of God’s grace, of the sacrifice that his own Son made on our behalf and in our stead, so that by the merit of Christ’s life and death alone—not ours—our eternal life is secured.

Schlosskirche Wittenberg_27 Oct 2017 copy

The clarion call of the Reformation is as desperately needed today as it ever was, yet after 500 years it has become muddled once again. And many evangelicals nowadays are denying the very roots of the Reformation—the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our accounts, our Lord suffering God’s wrath in our place on the cross, salvation as a free gift (not based on our works), Scripture as our final authority, the exaltation of Christ.

Luther statue_500th anniversary copy

Sure, Luther got a lot wrong. His hot-headedness got him in trouble often, and many times unnecessarily so. But that same passion is exactly what was needed at the Diet of Worms. However, he also kept Erasmus from joining the ranks of the Reformers in spite of the priest’s own arguments with Rome. He needed a Melanchthon to temper him, to be the quiet, peaceful, intellectual force behind the Reformation. Luther’s worst offense was what he wrote about the Jews in his later years (On the Jews and Their Lies [1543]). It was ugly, un-Christian, hate speech. The Jüdensau is still in the same spot it has occupied for over 700 years—up high in the southeast corner of St. Mary’s Church—the first Protestant church—where Luther preached hundreds of times.

But let us not use Luther’s very flawed nature as an excuse to turn a deaf ear to his gospel proclamation. After all, we stand on the shoulders of giants today, but those giants more often than not had clay feet. And their very failings remind us that, of all the men and women who have ever lived, Christ alone is worthy of all honor.

Will another lone Christ-follower stand up today? Just think what one person can do if fear is not part of their vocabulary!

8 thoughts on “Wittenberg at 500

  1. RWL

    I don’t know if I would give Martin Luther this much of an applause. I did a little homework on him, and I don’t think he deserves this. His published name calling and insults letters/opinions, and believed they were justifiable (IMHO), from his perspective, due to his interpretation of Romans 7 (I tend to agree with NT Wright’s interpretation of Romans 7). Was Luther giving himself a ‘license to sin?’

    HIs interpretation/exegesis of Romans 7 runs counter to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:8 ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’


    1. You certainly don’t understand Luther if you think he wanted a license to sin. But he certainly knew how to relish the good gifts of God. His interpretation of Romans 7 stands in a long line of godly interpreters.


      1. RWL


        I didn’t explicitly state that Luther wanted a license to sin. I was expressing sarcasm due his behavior (or I implicitly stated this?). I said, probably, due to his understanding of Romans 7 (or his usage/exegesis of Romans 7) to justify his position (. .IMHO..especially to engage in insults and name calling) that we are simultaneously Christians & sinners (and according to Luther, we will always be sinners) goes against numerous passages in the bible. In the bible, once you are born again, you are no longer a sinner:

        1 Timothy 1:13-16
        Matthew 5:8
        James 4:4-10; James 5:19-20

        Yes, there are people who support his exegesis of Romans 7, and there are many who are against (Dunn, Sanders, Wright, and other NPP advocates):


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  3. Gary

    As a proud conservative Lutheran I very much looked forward to celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But alas, I did not celebrate on October 31, 2017. Instead, I mourned. I mourned the hundreds of thousands of people who over the last five centuries have died fighting over nothing more than the correct interpretation of a couple of passages in an ancient middle eastern holy book. I have come to the conclusion that this holy book is nothing more than a collection of ancient supernatural superstitions mixed with a scant amount of real history.

    And He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out the demons. —Gospel of Mark 1:39

    When I tell Christians that I no longer believe in the supernatural, Christians usually respond that miracles are occurring all the time, all over the world. They say that the occurrence of miracles today is proof of the reality of the supernatural, and by extension, proof of the existence of their god. When I ask for evidence of these modern miracles, I am often told to read evangelical Christian scholar, Craig Keener’s, two volume work, “Miracles”. Well, I have read it. What is really interesting about this book is that Keener admits that he did not research even one of the hundreds of miracle claims he presents. He simply accepts the word of the various people who told him the stories.

    What is even more interesting about this “Christian textbook of miracles” is that the most fantastical of miracles (eg. raising from the dead) always seem to occur in poor, Third World countries where the level of education and income is low and the level of belief in the supernatural (superstitions) is high. When I point out this discrepancy to Christians their typical response is this: “God works his miracles among those with the greatest faith. People in the developing world have more faith in God than materialistic westerners whose cultures are turning their backs on God.”

    Well, if that is true—that the reason that the more spectacular of miracles do not occur in the once-Christian West because these cultures have turned their backs on God and have engaged in willful sin against Him—then shouldn’t we see more demon possession in the West??? But we don’t, do we? When was the last time your neighborhood pastor or priest cast out demons from one of your neighbors or one of the homeless in the area? Never? Isn’t that odd? In Jesus’ day demon-possessed people seemed to be hanging out on every street corner! And according to Kenneth Woodward, author of “The Book of Miracles”, the belief in demon-possession and the need for exorcisms continued in the late Roman period and throughout the Middle Ages (500 CE – 1500 CE). So why are exorcisms so rare now?

    Is it possible that the reason that there are few if any exorcisms today in the “sinful, God-rejecting” West is because “possessed” people in these cultures today are being medicated for their psychotic mental illnesses and seizure disorders??? Is the real reason that there are few if any exorcisms in First World countries today because demon-possession is nothing but an ancient superstition??? And what does that say about Jesus and his fame as an exorcist?
    The absence of exorcisms today is excellent evidence that the miracles and exorcisms of the first century were legends, the exaggerations of emotionally hysterical, superstitious, scientifically-ignorant peoples; no different from the fantastical miracle claims which regularly come out of impoverished Third World countries today, mostly from Pentecostal sources…such as those in Craig Keener’s book. Modern, educated people should not believe in ghost impregnated virgins, water-walking, demon-possession, nor in the resurrection of the corpse of a brain-dead first century apocalyptic preacher.


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