Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from The Legacy of Luther.
Augustine . . . Anselm . . . Athanasius . . . Martin Luther . . . John Calvin . . . Jonathan Edwards. These are some of the titans, the veritable giants of church history. Each had his own personality, his own emphasis, his own vocation. They differed in personality, style, and even in points of doctrine. Yet there is one point of similarity that they shared. They were all scholars and pastors. All were world-class academicians who, at the same time, served the church as pastors.
There is no disgrace in being a full-time scholar working exclusively in the academy. Such labor can be an enormous benefit to the church. Sound research adds vital knowledge to our understanding of Scripture and the things of God. For most scholars, however, it is an either/or situation. Either we keep exclusively to the ivory tower or we devote our labors full time to the pastoral work of the church. Rare are those who can be both scholars and pastors.
As a young seminary student, I pondered the ghastly situation of the church in the United States. The influence of liberalism had an iron grip on the mainline churches. It seemed a hopeless task to see any recovery from this malaise. As I studied the writings and the work of the great teachers mentioned above, I saw a pattern emerge, especially from the ministries of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. I saw that these men were “battlefield theologians.” They not only engaged with their scholar-opponents as Luther versus Rome and Erasmus of Rotterdam, or Calvin versus Pigius et al., or Edwards versus the Unitarian and Arminian opponents of his day, but they all took their case to the people. In this regard, they were following in the footsteps of the two greatest theologians who ever walked the earth: the Apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
This I saw as a strategy that God in His providence has used over the ages to nurture, protect, and defend His church. It was the strategy I longed to adopt as my own. John Piper has said that it is necessary for the Christian not only to believe the truth, but to defend the truth, and finally to contend for the truth. For Paul, the battlefield started in the public square and then extended to the ends of the earth.
When we recall the issues that developed into the greatest theological conflict in the history of Christendom, the debates that culminated in the sixteenth century, we see that initially these matters grew out of a profoundly pastoral concern. To be sure, the Ninety-Five Theses posted on the church door at Wittenberg were penned in Latin as a request for theological discussion among the faculty members of the university. But what provoked Luther to request such a discussion? Simply put, it was pastoral concern.
Luther had received word of the indulgences that were being sold by Johann Tetzel, who was laboring both for Rome and for the interests of the Fugger banking clan. Tetzel’s traveling indulgence show had the markings of a circus and drew thousands of people. Flush with commissions and bonuses, Tetzel claimed that he had saved more souls through indulgences than St. Peter had through the gospel.1
Tetzel’s work was carried on outside of Wittenberg. The sale of indulgences became so popular that throngs of people from Wittenberg (including many from Luther’s own congregation) joined the multitude that crossed the Elbe River to avail themselves of the newly available indulgences. Impenitent members of his congregation boldly displayed their letters of indulgence to their neighbors and even to their pastor.
This travesty of false forgiveness forced Luther not only to question the matter of indulgences but the whole salvific system of the church, including the treasury of merit itself. Hence, the Ninety-Five Theses were intended for a handful of scholars. Students, however, without Luther’s knowledge or permission, took it upon themselves to translate the theses into German, and they distributed them to every city and hamlet in Germany within two weeks. The Reformation was now afoot.
One of the deepest ongoing concerns Luther had as a pastor was to liberate his congregation from the chains of superstition. As people began to leave the Roman Catholic system, they did not expunge from their lives all of their former convictions. This was particularly evident with respect to relics.
The town of Wittenberg boasted one of the largest reliquaries in Germany, amassed by Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony. Frederick had spent a fortune to gather precious relics from around the world in the hopes that it would make Wittenberg a mecca for Christian pilgrims, thus enhancing the town as a spiritual and commercial center in Germany. From 1509 to 1518, Frederick’s collection of relics had grown to 17,443 pieces with an indulgence value of 127,799 years and 116 days’ release from purgatory.2
Luther risked the wrath of Frederick by challenging the validity of the use of relics. In the last sermon Luther preached before he died, he stressed the impotence of relics in contrast to the potency of the gospel:
After all, there is preaching every day, often many times every day, so that we grow weary of it. . . . Alright, go ahead, dear brother, if you don’t want God to speak to you every day at home and in your parish church, then be wise and look for something else: in Trier is our Lord God’s coat, in Aachen are Joseph’s pants and our blessed Lady’s chemise; go there and squander your money, buy indulgences and the pope’s secondhand junk.3
Luther wanted his flock to be fed by the gospel, not the pope’s secondhand junk.
As a pastor, Luther was concerned to minister to the souls of his people. He ministered to their grief in this world. He understood the pain of the loss of loved ones as his own soul was wounded by the death of his young daughter. He bore the physical pains of a host of maladies in his own body and thus exuded empathy for the physical suffering of others.
But Luther’s chief pastoral concern was that his people would know Christ and His gospel. To this end, Luther carried on a profoundly deep practice of intercessory prayer. He said:
Open your eyes and look into your life and the life of all Christians, particularly the spiritual estate, and you will find that faith, hope, love . . . are languishing. . . . Then you will see that there is need to pray throughout the world, every hour, without ceasing, with tears of blood.4
Luther’s pastoral heart is seen not only in his prayers but most notably in his preaching. He was a doctor of the church, a professor, and an academic. In his role as a professor, his primary task was to teach. There is a clear difference between teaching and preaching. The teacher instructs; he imparts information to his students. But a theologian/preacher can never sever the two roles of teacher and preacher. The great teacher/preachers of history never taught as mere isolated spectators of the past. They combined exhortation with instruction—inspiration with education. In a word, at times their teaching turned to preaching. In like manner, the scholar/pastor mixes teaching with his preaching.
Luther mirrored this method in his preaching. He was concerned to inform his congregation as well as to exhort it. He insisted that his messages should be clear and simple enough that the unlearned could understand them. He said:
Infinite and unutterable is the majesty of the Word of God. . . . These words of God are not words of Plato or Aristotle, but God himself is speaking. And those preachers are the most suitable who very simply and plainly, without any airs or subtlety, teach the common people and youth, just as Christ taught the people with homespun parables.5
The gospel, the gospel . . . all for the gospel. This is the love, the task, the vocation of all who wear the robes of the theologian and all who wear the gowns of the preacher. Luther was equally comfortable attired in either.