by Pastor Mark Schewe

Pastor Mark Schewe of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Clovis.

Happy Reformation 500!

It’s amazing, historically, that the memory and influence of a man could be felt so strongly 500 years later. As the year 2000 approached, Martin Luther was listed as the third most influential person in the past millennium by A and E, Life magazine, the Biography channel, and others.

Other figures on the list might not be common knowledge in your memory banks. Niccolo Machiavelli? Richard Arkwright? Antoine Lavoisier?

Luther’s stand for his convictions and beliefs, of course, is legendary. Opposition was great, and it only served to strengthen the convictions inside him.  You know the drill. Attacked on every side! Preaching tirelessly! Publishing booklets. Writing tracts and Catechisms. Translating Scripture. Entering public debate. Calling names.  Even standing before the Holy Roman Emperor and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and declaring he would not recant his teachings unless they could show him in Scripture that he was wrong. “Here I stand!” He even married!!

Today, we see stands being taken for personal beliefs with various issues in our country. In fact, many have even invoked the name of Martin  Luther as they stand up for their civil rights. Is it a fair comparison? What would Luther say today?

Martin Luther’s Biggest Battle wasn’t Civil Rights

Well, first things first. Civil rights were not at the heart of Luther’s issue.

“Civil” means the state.  It’ the “other flag.” It’s true that in Luther’s day, a partnership existed between the Roman church and civil governments, but Luther’s quarrel with the Holy Roman Emperor was only a quarrel with him because he was compelled to side with the Church of Rome. That’s where the rub existed. In theology and soteriology. In church councils, papal decrees and Scripture passages.

Luther’s quest had been to find out how he could face a righteous God after this life. How could he be forgiven? Go to heaven? It’s a quest that we all must embark on, actually. After entering the Augustinian monastery in 1505, he continued to agonize over his sins and lived a rigorous, tortured life, fasting, beating himself, sleeping outside, and still not finding comfort or forgiveness.

Eventually, Luther discovered in his study of Scripture that forgiveness and righteousness do not come from purchasing indulgence certificates, almsgiving, penance, money for masses, reciting your rosary, or even papal decree. Justification in God’s court comes through faith alone by God’s grace alone.

Martin Luther’s Quest was Church Reformation

Luther’s quest became one intent on reforming the church for the eternal benefit of souls. Salvation was at stake. The vast majority were ignorant of Scripture’s teachings hidden in Latin.  It’s also important to note that Luther attempted such reform from inside the church as a leader, preacher, and professor.

Despite the fact that it was not identical to his struggle, Luther would have had some opinions on civil rights today. In fact, I believe he might have written one of his timely booklets on it, as he occasionally did with secular issues of his time.

We see evidence of Luther’s thoughts on civil rights in the Peasants War of 1524-1525.  The long-suppressed peasant class, mistreated and abused by the wealthy, were ready to rise up, rebel, and kill. They drew up the “Twelve Articles,” laying out their demands. Some even invoked the name of Luther in their mission.  Luther was not pleased.

There were two sides of a coin here. First, the state is “God’s other kingdom,” having a God-given authority to foster peace and safety for society’s good, even punishing the wrongdoer (Romans 13). And it is a kingdom that should not oppress its members. He commented to civil leaders: “They set up twelve articles which of some are so just, that they do shame to you before God and world. … It is unbearable to tax and slave-drive people like this forever.”

The other side of the coin is that threats of war and violence were out of place. After an uprising in which the peasants killed the High Governor and his followers, Luther advised the powers-that-be that such violent insurrections must be dealt with quickly and decisively. God’s agent, the government, must do its job of keeping order.

What Would Luther Tell Us Today?

So, what would Luther say today?

First, he would have reminded all involved that the state is God’s “other kingdom,” and to be approached and respected as such. In fact, if safety, peace, and order were threatened, Luther would have stood his ground that the governing authorities’ duty would be to restore peace quickly and decisively.

Second, he would certainly have encouraged voicing opinions on civil issues. It is lawful, even encouraged, to voice opinions and to protest properly in our country. But it must be done peaceably. When more radical supporters of the Reformation tended toward violence, notably in the iconoclastic controversy, Luther spoke up sharply about peace and order. He may have had tenacity, but he knew violence was out of order.

And finally, and most importantly, he would have reminded any who make protests for their cause that their cause cannot be contrary to the Word of God. If you stand for such a cause in your convictions or morals, you stand in the danger of meeting the almighty God that Luther originally feared before discovering the gospel. Luther would certainly be dismayed by any who would invoke his name or memory to such a cause.

Recommended reading:

“Civil Government: God’s Other Kingdom,” by Daniel M. Deutschlander.  © 1998 by NPH, Milwaukee, WI.

Pastor Mark Schewe serves at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Clovis.

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