Lutheranism – The First 500 Years, Part One, 1517-1617

Is Lutheranism still relevant to today? Is there any point in celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?

Dr. Erik H. Herrmann, professor of history at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, maintains that Lutheranism is relevant to today because of why it was started. It was started when Martin Luther realized that the church of his day was guilty of spiritual care malpractice.

Ordinary Christians at the time of Luther were not being given proper spiritual care. Instead of caring for peoples’ souls through the healing Gospel of Jesus Christ, the church was hounding people to buy indulgences, go on pilgrimages, venerate saints and religious relics and pay for private masses. In addition, people were constantly reminded that only monks were truly living a Christian life.

Because people were not getting proper spiritual care from the church they were seeking it in other places. They were delving into mysticism, ancient legends and other spiritual resources outside of the church.

This spiritual care malpractice was what caused Luther to act as he did at the dawn of the Reformation in 1517.

As Dr. Herrmann points out, Martin Luther was not just a Catholic monk, he was also a friar. Monks would spend all their time cloistered away in the monastery but friars were required to go out among the people and help care for them. So Luther saw first-hand the kind of pastoral or spiritual care that ordinary people were receiving and it upset him very much.

So he decided to act. His first act of defiance was posting his 95 Theses in October, 1517, in which he attacked the sale of indulgences, one of the worst abuses of spiritual care. People were being taught that they had to buy something that was already free; the forgiveness of sins that Christ had earned for them on the cross.

Jesus faced the same situation that Luther did. In Matthew 9:36 it says that Jesus, “Saw the crowds and had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Now, of course, the devil is a smart guy. He saw that Luther had found the key to true spiritual health so he immediately tried to make the Reformation about something else. He drew Luther and the other reformers into all kinds of other conflicts and troubles to get them to avoid the real issue.

But Luther would not be deterred; people needed good spiritual care. At first Luther thought that just by proclaiming the pure Gospel, people would automatically act like good Christians. Then he started going around and visiting the churches that had embraced his teachings and found that good spiritual care was not taking place. He discovered that good spiritual care takes a lot of work and dedication and needs solid Gospel-based resources.

So Luther developed materials to help pastors care for souls. He wrote his large and small Catechisms. He wrote many hymns. He revised the liturgy. He developed other materials to help pastors provide good spiritual care for people.

Some of Luther’s key insights were:

Dr. Herrmann calls it mundane or ordinary monasticism. In other words, people don’t have to sell everything and become monks to be good Christians, but their faith should touch every part of their daily lives, whether they are a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or worker.

Lay people should not be passive attendees at worship services but should actively participate in listening to what is read and proclaimed and join in singing the hymns and liturgy. The Small Catechism, the book of Psalms and other devotional materials should be in regular use in the home, the most important place for nurturing spiritual health.

And everything that is to be taught and done among Christians is to focus on the forgiveness, life and salvation that are given to us as free gifts through faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

When Luther died, a piece of paper was found in his pocket on which he had written, “We are only beggars, this is true.” Luther truly believed that as we stand before God we are all equal. We can only hold out our hands and receive what God graciously gives us through Jesus. Imagine how that belief radically changed the approach to spiritual care.

It is completely in line with the approach of Jesus when he said, “The Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 ESV)

So because of the way that Luther revived the proper spiritual care of our souls, Lutheranism is still relevant today. Jesus cared so much for us that he died for us on the cross to save us from sin, death and the devil. He cares for our eternal souls more than anything and he has sent us out to care for the souls of others.

When Luther died in 1546 the devil increased his efforts to deflect attention away from spiritual care into other issues. For years, Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and a devout Catholic, had wanted to invade Germany and stamp out Lutheranism but other circumstances prevented him from doing so.

Shortly after Luther died the opportunity came. Charles gathered his forces and invaded Germany, winning a decisive victory over the Lutherans. But the emperor soon found out that Lutherans were so devoted to their faith and that Lutheranism had been so firmly established in so many different places that he could not eliminate it by force.

Lutheranism had already spread to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. It had spread to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Even a few areas in the traditionally Catholic lands of Italy, France Austria and Spain had embraced Lutheranism. And in Scandinavia Lutheranism had really taken hold. So for those reasons the emperor had to compromise.

After the emperor agreed to tolerate Lutheranism, some of the teachers who had taught with Luther started to get involved in a series of doctrinal controversies.

Eventually, the “Second Martin” came along, a man by the name of Martin Chemnitz. With the help of five other theologians, Chemnitz wrote the Formula of Concord which helped bring unity back to the Lutherans. In 1580 the Book of Concord, which included all the major Lutheran confessions of faith, was published

Thus began what is known as the Age of Orthodoxy in Lutheranism. It was a time of relative peace and unity, but the devil could not rest. Eventually too much emphasis was placed on being orthodox and the institutional aspects of the church and the spiritual care of souls suffered.

That brings us to the end of the first 100 years of Lutheranism. Lutheranism is relevant today because at its heart is the spiritual care of souls. After much struggle and searching, Luther found peace for his soul in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He then applied what he had learned through his own experience to the care of the souls that had been entrusted to him and to the church at large.

Before God we are only beggars this is true. All we can do is hold out our hands and receive the life and salvation God has given to us through Jesus Christ. Our response to what Jesus has done for us and the care he provides to our souls is making sure everything we do honors him. Even the things we put in our pockets!

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