One often hears the claim that, if Martin Luther were alive today, yea, if he were able to come back from the grave, if only for a short time, to see how far the world has come in almost five-hundred years, he would indeed be pleased – particularly with the growth of the Lutheran Church, the survival of Protestantism, and even many “reforms” that have been adopted by the Church of Rome. Nothing could be further from the truth, however; and anyone even remotely acquainted with Luther’s work, his uncompromising stand on the Word of God, and his disdain for selling out the truth for the sake of temporal peace and tranquility should know better than to suggest such a thing. On the contrary, Dr. Luther would be filled with disgust and revulsion at the “Babylonian” conditions in our world today!
If Luther were alive today, what indeed would he see? In spite of technological advances (most of which would no doubt stagger the Reformer’s imagination); in spite of vast improvement in the overall standard of living, particularly in the so-called “western” societies, with better nutrition, health care, and housing for most people; and in spite of the fact that people in general are better educated today and therefore better able to read, study, and understand the Holy Scriptures, “which are able to make (them) wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” in spite of all these strides forward, there has in reality been NO PROGRESS made at all! “The wickedness of man (is) great in the earth,” it is still “corrupt before God” and “filled with violence” (Genesis 6), as it was in the days of Noah, in the days of Sodom, in the days of Rome’s legendary decadence, and the days of Medieval Europe, so that, on balance, human civilization is steadily on the decline, heading down the broad and easy “road that leadeth to destruction,” Matthew 7:13. Indeed, by all objective indications, according to the description Jesus Himself makes of conditions to be expected just before the end of the world, we are today living in the last times; and the Day of Judgment cannot be far off. With this assessment, Luther would surely agree were he alive today!
In outward Christendom, conditions are not much different from those in the world at large. For so-called “improvements” are nothing but a skin-deep mask beneath which there are festering sores, putrification and the rigor of death to see and to smell at the mere touch of a spiritual surgeon’s scalpel as he tries the spirits, marks errorists, and incisively probes with the Word of God. It wouldn’t take Luther long at all to cut through the fair-sounding speeches, platforms and programs of today’s church-bodies and to distinguish between fact and fancy, truth and error, orthodoxy and heterodoxy. And it would be painful for him to hear the vaunted claim in “Protestantism” today that ‘Luther’s work of reformation” made all those sects, their varying positions and their freedom to interpret Scripture subjectively a “viable alternative” to Roman catholicism? He, of course, did nothing of the kind! Luther had to deal primarily with the Papists in his time, as well as with those who fomented controversy after controversy in the fledgling “Lutheran” movement. But TODAY, he would have a much broader proliferation of error to battle, over a field of most countless sects, denominations and church-bodies, IN ADDITION TO the soul-destroying errors of Rome (which have not diminished in the slightest but have only increased in number since the Council of Trent). Would he call that “progress”? Would he indeed be pleased with what he saw today? Decidedly not!
But surely Luther would be gratified at the success enjoyed by “Lutheranism” today, wouldn’t he? Just before LCUSA went out of existence in 1987, its final statistics showed in the United States and Canada alone almost 30,000 ordained ministers, almost 20,000 Lutheran congregations, and over six and one-half million communicant members! Think of those NUMBERS! And yet, as Luther himself would be quick to point out, they are just numbers! They actually say nothing at all about genuine Lutheranism based on Scripture alone, the “forma1 principle” of the Reformation. In fact, its no secret nowadays that many so-called “Lutheran” pastors deny the most basic, fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith: The inerrancy, immutability and infallibility of the verbally-inspired Holy Scriptures; the Vicarious Atonement; Christ’s bodily Resurrection from the dead and the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day; Objective Justification; and the deity of Christ. “Lutheran” theological professors are permitted to attack with impunity such doctrines as the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Creation of the world by God in six normal twenty-four-hour days, and the Real Presence of the Savior’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. To many “Lutherans,” the killing of unborn children should be a mother’s prerogative; homosexuality is an alternative lifestyle which should not be condemned; women should be eligible for the public ministry; and pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations are perfectly acceptable as the personal expression of love, provided that couples are encouraged to practice “safe sex.” Would Luther join the ranks of those “enlightened” modernists who dare to bear his name and hold all these (and many other aberrations) to be PROGRESS in the church? The reader can intelligently answer that question in the negative without any help from this writer!
And what would the dear Dr. Luther see in the so called “conservative” Lutheran bodies today? Certainly much of the above in pockets or enclaves of liberalism, benignly ignored by many, tolerated by most, dealt with according to sound doctrinal discipline by practically no one! Some of the staunch “conservatives” PROTEST, WRITE ARTICLES and LETTERS TO EDITORS, and even SPEAK OUT at conferences and conventions; but their words, “full of sound and fury” signify “nothing” but so much hot air and harmless paperwork generated by “smoking typewriters” and computers. When push comes to shove and the Lord through the Apostle says “Avoid them!,” they choose to avoid HIM instead, to “keep protesting,” and thus to serve not His cause but their own belly, deceiving the hearts of simple fellow-Christians into believing that they are really orthodox! Would Luther see through the sham of conservatism today? By God’s grace, Luther was not the fool that so many so-called “conservatives” try to take us for! He had no use for the poor ignorant laymen who were led about by the nose by those whom they trusted to be stalwart soldiers of the cross, laymen who themselves are without excuse for tolerating limp washrags in their pulpits, but who can be pitied for not having the Christian fortitude to depose them!
If Luther were alive today, what would he see in the theological training programs maintained by so-called “Lutheran” colleges and seminaries? Surely the miserable preparation of candidates for the Ministry nowadays accounts for much of the problem described thus far; for younger pastors in particular are, for want of a better word, ignorant of Christian doctrine. They are unable succinctly and clearly to state “the first principles of the oracles of God” (Heb.1:12), even the rudimentary doctrines of Holy Scripture, quote proof-texts upon which they have been established, and apply them consistently in their practice. Many are so “unskilled in the Word of Righteousness” by reason of non-use that they are incapable of discerning good and evil, Heb.5:13-14. Is it any wonder that they are “tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14) when the winds of controversy begin to blow? Theological students nowadays “major” in scholarly branches of study — history, languages, sociology, psychology, counseling, textual criticism, and philosophy–but can’t recite the Enchiridion (Small Catechism) word-for-word, nor give simple definitions or brief explanations of such basic concepts as Justification, the State of Humiliation, the Vicarious Atonement, the Church, the Doctrine of Election, and Christian Church Discipline. Religious unionism, selective fellowship, and separatism are such foggy notions that many frankly admit their inadequacy to deal with them? “Dogmatics” is “out;” “exegesis” is “in”. Preaching the Law is to be avoided as “unloving;” and yet the Gospel is to be appreciated and cherished without the Law and the knowledge of sin that it imparts! Would Luther find such a state of affairs an “improvement” or “progress” in the making of theologians? Need we even ask?
Luther is credited with translating the Holy Scriptures into the language of his people, so that they could read them, understand them, learn them, discuss them, quote them and meditate in them. Today we have so many translations in English alone that we are compelled to ask first thing, “Which translation are you using?” Just about every home has a Bible in it nowadays; and Bible societies make sure that every hotel and motel room has one. But the people’s knowledge of the Scriptures is so abysmal by and large that one would suspect little or no contact with the Bible at all! What is going on here? Luther would know – He saw it coming already when he penned those prophetic lines:
“The Word they still shall let remain,
And not a thank have for it!
Sadly, we too in our midst, contrary to what we would like to think, have far too much apathy for Bible study, Bible classes, Bible reading in our homes, Bible discussions in the family circle and with our brethren, Bible USE on a day-today basis, as if our pastors will take care of our spiritual growth FOR us ! Luther would see that too if he were alive today. He would not be surprised (since the flesh in Satan’s service always seeks to weaken our knowledge, our confidence, and our strength); but he would be greatly disappointed, considering the precious heritage of grace we have had as “children of the Reformation.” Do we actually want to follow so many others down the road of ignorance, complacency, apathy, and finally contempt for the pure doctrines of God’s holy Word? God forbid! Therefore the Apostle Peter beseeches you and me in his second Epistle, chapter three: “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” (vs. 17, 18).
If Luther were alive today, (and we can thank God that he is not here to witness these distressing conditions, but safe in the arms of his Savior, “which is far better”), what would he say to these things? Luther wrote so much about all these matters in sermons, exhortations, commentaries and confessions, that we could never cull just one quotation typical of what his attitude would be. But suffice it for the purpose of our little article to cite a few pertinent lines from his Preface to the Small Catechism, lines which only indicate that “history repeats itself” when the sinful heart of man, when the Old Adam within us Christians, writes the script. Luther wrote “To all faithful and Godly pastors and preachers: Grace, Mercy, and Peace in Jesus Christ our Lord
“The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced me and urged me to prepare this Catechism, or Christian Doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Help, dear God! What manifold misery I beheld! .The common people have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and alas, many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach. Nevertheless all claim to be Christians, baptized, and enjoying the Holy Sacraments; and yet they can’t so much as say the Lord’s Prayer, nor the Creed, nor the Ten Commandments! They know about as much about their lives (as Christians) as common cattle and irrational hogs! And yet, now that the Gospel has been restored to them (and they know that they’re not saved by their works anymore), they think they can do as they please and have learned to abuse their newfound liberty like experts! O ye Bishops, what will you ever be able to answer Christ for your shameful neglect of your people and for never having for a moment really discharged your office as pastors?
Therefore I beg you for God’s sake, you who are pastors or preachers, take your office to heart for a change, have pity upon your people who have been entrusted to you, and help us teach them the Catechism… And those of you who are so unskilled in teaching doctrine that you don’t know these things yourselves, take these simple pages and teach them to your people word-for-word in a uniform, standard format, so that they don’t get confused along the way.”
(Freely translated from the original German.)
If Luther were alive today, he would find things not a whole lot improved over what he had found on his visits to the German villages and towns in 1529 – maybe even somewhat worse, considering the wondrous benefits we Lutherans have enjoyed as heirs of the Reformation. And what he stated above could well be said also today to those pastors who do everything in their congregations BUT TEACH AND PREACH THE WORD OF GOD IN ITS PURITY! Paul writes to Timothy what we pastors should be doing for our people: “Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure (i.e. tolerate) sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears,” II Timothy 4:2,3. That time is NOW! People generally won’t stand for sound doctrine anymore? And they want lots of teachers who will tickle their ears, telling them what they WANT to hear, rather than what they OUGHT to hear for their own soul’s welfare! May we, dearly-beloved brethren, never tire of the pure doctrine of God’s precious Word which He has in mercy preserved to us in our little Conference–scorned by men for its small size, derided for its doctrine, chided for its faithful practice. Let them say and do what they may! They can harm us none! Christ hath for us the battle won? “The kingdom ours remaineth!” That is indeed our legacy if we “hold fast the form of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13), and “earnestly contend for the faith,” Jude 3. If Luther were alive today, that would be his unrelenting plea and fervent exhortation, as we see the Day approaching. May God grant it to all of us for Jesus’ sake!
Lord, help us ever to retain
The Catechism’s doctrine plain,
As Luther taught the Word of Truth
In simple style to tender youth.
In every season, every place,
May we regard Thy Word of Grace,
Until, when life’s brief day is past
We reach eternal joy at last!