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On October 5, 1544, Martin Luther preached the dedication of the Castle Church at Torgau, Germany. This church lays claim to being the first Protestant church to be built, as all the other church buildings were converted Roman Catholic sanctuaries. Lucas Cranach, Luther’s painter and engraver, designed the interior of this church, including the pulpit. It is a rectangular hall flanked by two galleries. The dedication also had a motet composed especially for the occasion by Johann Walter. Walter collaborated with Luther on hymns. They were the pioneers of Protestant hymnody.
At the dedication, Luther declared, “It is the intention of this building that nothing else shall happen inside it except that our dear Lord shall speak to us through His Holy Word, and we in turn talk to Him through prayer and praise.” He put an even finer point on this when he proclaimed, “We can spare everything except the Word.”
Many events in Luther’s life may be called representative. His posting of the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, and his stance at the Diet of Worms in April 1521 reveal his unparalleled courage and boldness. Luther’s presentation of his theses for the disputation at the Augustinian Chapter House at Heidelberg in 1518 or his debate against Roman Catholic scholar Johann Eck at Leipzig in 1519 reveal the sharpness of his intellect. His translation of the Greek text into German while holed up in Wartburg Castle shows the depth of his biblical scholarship. And the mountain of sermons preached at Wittenberg show his dexterity in the pulpit.
But probably few events in Luther’s life rival the representative status of the dedication service at Torgau. There we see a notable singularity of purpose. That singular purpose reveals Luther’s significance in both his day and, five hundred years later, in our day. That purpose may be expressed simply as the pure worship of the true God by the true people of God. This pure worship comes only when God’s Word is at the center of church life. Luther’s entire life was bent toward this one target. In fact, the entire Reformation could be summed up as aiming at this target.
Luther was born in a time of false worship dominated by what can only be described as a false church. If Luther said at Torgau that the true church could spare everything except the Word of God, the later medieval Roman Catholic Church was the opposite. It was about everything except the Word. Because the Word of God was pushed out of the center of church life, everything in the church went askew. Doctrine, practice, the church service—all that constituted the church was off-kilter. Luther sensed this imbalance right from the outset. His early years are marked by fear of a holy and just God. The German word Anfechtungen describes these years. The word means “struggles,” the deep struggles of man against all odds. In Luther’s case, the struggle was between a sinner and a holy God. There was no way the sinner could ever win.
Luther applied himself to academics, eventually earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Erfurt. As he was about to enter the profession of law, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm in June 1505. This brought his anxieties to a head. He thought God Himself was out to get him. In the downpour and the chaos, Luther made a vow that he would enter the monastery if God would spare his life.
But Luther dared not appeal to God directly. Instead, he went through a mediator, St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, his father’s profession. Before the thunderstorm, Luther had been visiting his parents’ home. In that home was a shrine to St. Anne. “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk,” Luther cried out.
Luther survived. In July, he entered the monastery. Yet, his struggles did not subside. They intensified. Looking for peace and rest, he found strife and turmoil. Luther tried white-knuckling his way to heaven. Later, he would say that if ever a monk could get to heaven by monkery, he would be that monk. In 1510, he was sent on a pilgrimage to Rome. He found the debauchery revolting. All of his attempts to get closer to God served only to drive him further away. At one point, Luther declared that he sometimes hated God.
The reason for Luther’s downward spiral had everything to do with the obscuring of the Word of God and the consequent obscuring of the gospel. The whole Roman Catholic system depended on the quantification of sin and the quantification of grace. The problem is sins, or demerits. The solution is grace-enabled merits. The church consequently preached a false gospel of works to counter these demerits. The church also falsely taught that when this life is finished and demerits are still left over, the next stage is purgatory. In purgatory, the final demerits are purged and souls are readied for heaven.
Luther saw right through this by way of a (re)discovery of two all-important truths. The first concerns sin. The problem is not sins, as in the quantity. The true problem is that I am a sinner at the root (radix in Latin). I am a sinner and God is holy. This explains why Luther sometimes declared that he hated God. God, the righteous judge, demands righteousness. Yet, I can never achieve righteousness because I am a sinner at the root.
The second all-important truth may be summed up in the expression alien righteousness. The righteousness God demands was earned apart from me and entirely apart from any works I might do even when enabled by grace. This righteousness was earned by Christ alone. It is outside of me, or alien to me.
Theologians use the word imputation. That means that my sin—not the part but the whole—is imputed to Christ. He takes my sin upon Him at the cross and, as my substitute, endures the cup of God’s wrath. Then Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me. His perfect obedience is counted as mine, and I am declared righteous. This is the gospel.
The question is, where did Luther learn this? He learned it from reading the Bible, from reading in Habakkuk that the righteous shall live by faith (Hab. 2:4). He learned it from reading Romans and Galatians. From 1515 through 1520, Luther was lecturing on these particular books. He was immersed in the text.
Luther’s reading of the Bible is at the heart of his contest with the false church of his day. It led him to post the Ninety-Five Theses at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Desiderius Erasmus, the humanist scholar, published the Greek text of the New Testament in 1516. Luther was reading it when he was formulating his theses.
When Luther debated Eck at Leipzig, he clearly laid down the Reformation plank of sola Scriptura. At Worms in 1521, he stood upon Scripture. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he thundered. He was convinced that Scripture alone is the church’s final authority.
From 1521 until his death in 1546, Luther labored to see the church firmly established upon the Word of God and boldly proclaiming salvation in the finished work of Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. Luther’s words at Torgau in 1544 marked his entire ministry: “We can spare everything except the Word.”
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the Reformation anthem, is nothing more than a reflection on a biblical text, Psalm 46. Even Luther’s marriage and family were a result of his reading and obeying God’s Word. There was no biblical basis for a celibate clergy. So, the former monk married a former nun, Katharina von Bora. Martin and Katie Luther built the first Protestant parsonage, modeling what a truly godly family could look like.
In any given week from the 1520s through the 1540s, Luther would preach five to seven times in either the Castle Church or the City Church in Wittenberg. On most mornings, he catechized his own children and invited the children of Wittenberg to join in. He lectured at the University of Wittenberg to students from across Germany and Europe, sending out pastors, missionaries, and, at times, martyrs.
In experiences of suffering and death, Luther showed his obedience to God’s Word and demonstrated his utter reliance on the gospel. Such was the case with his own death on February 18, 1546. Luther was in Eisleben, the town of his birth. It had been a rough journey, and Luther fell seriously ill. Among his last words, Luther urges us to have humility as we approach the Word of God. He declares, “Let no one think he has sufficiently grasped the Holy Scriptures, unless he has governed the churches for 100 years.” Then he adds, “We are beggars! That is true.” This is gospel humility. Why does Luther matter so much so long after his death? Because he realized that we are all beggars.
This is Luther’s significance both in his time and in ours. Apart from the Word of God, we are in utter darkness. But when the light of God’s Word shines, all is brought to light. Our true need as sinners before a holy God becomes stunningly clear. The work of Christ on the cross for us also becomes beautifully lucid. We learn about Christ and the precious gospel only in the Word of God. Luther’s statement at Torgau on October 5, 1544, must be our watchword: “We can spare everything except the Word.”