Our Thanksgiving for God’s Gift of Martin Luther
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake; and be at peace among yourselves.” — I Thessalonians 5:12–13
When you read this, our Reformation celebrations for the year will be in the past. But, as our title plainly indicates, our gratitude in the Lord for Luther’s monumental work continues as we mark the anniversary of his birth. Sadly, however, many who call themselves “Lutheran” celebrate the Reformation as a mere historical movement and Luther as a mere historical figure upon which they look back as markers along the road of time. The doctrinal issues of the Reformation are of no special importance to them today, and the sacrifices made by Luther and our orthodox Lutheran fathers to return us to and preserve us in the truth of God’s Word are no different than the sacrifices made by so many others for “noble causes” here in this world. For this reason many do not pause to give the Reformation much thought at all, even on October 31st; and November 10th passes practically without notice. Such people have “moved on” in their lives and regard themselves to be “beyond” what they consider to be rather silly squabbles and trivial quarrels of the past and are ready to work together with all whose main desire is to make this world a better place in which to live. “Forget the past,” they say, “and co-operate in works of love for one’s fellowman.” And many “Lutheran” clergy today are in the forefront of this anti-Scriptural thinking, having little or no concern for what God says in His Word; and their indifference to sound doctrine and practice actually sounds good and proper to the uninformed, to the “peace-at-any-price” crowd, and to those who regard the church as just one of so many social agencies in the world for the “betterment of mankind.”
But those who, by God’s grace, know and believe that the Word of God, Holy Scripture, is His very own verbally-inspired, complete, clear, and unchangeable revelation of Himself to mankind, the only source and standard of Christian faith and life, and the only means by which the Holy Ghost brings sinful men to the knowledge of the truth and faith in their Savior, also realize that God used Martin Luther to restore His Church to its foundation (Ephesians 2:20), so that the true visible church on earth continues to stand firm on Bible truth. And Martin Luther himself, though he was a sinner like all of us and unworthy of God’s grace, should be remembered as a faithful pastor and teacher who stood firm on that foundation, battled against all contrary powers of his day in both the church and the government, and out of love to God, who rescued him from his sins and gave him in Christ Jesus an incorruptible crown in heaven, worked tirelessly so that we could have those vital blessings for ourselves.
Now, for this November-December issue, we submit Martin Luther on the anniversary of his birth as part of our Thanksgiving remembrance of all that God has done for us and for our salvation. While Thanksgiving Day is not strictly speaking a church festival but a nationally mandated opportunity to thank God chiefly for His temporal blessings — as people sit around tables loaded down with more food and drink than they can enjoy, we Christians thank God first and foremost for the spiritual blessings we enjoy as His children by faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26). We have a brief short-list of these blessings in the General Prayers that we commonly use in our worship services: We thank God His inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for the means of grace in their truth and purity, and for the sure and certain hope (that is, anticipation) of glory everlasting by faith in His merits. Is there a connection between what we have said about Martin Luther and the spiritual blessings we enjoy? There certainly is, for it is through Luther as His instrument that the knowledge and enjoyment of these blessings were restored to us after having been systematically hidden for over a thousand years of “Dark Ages” under the papacy. It is indeed likely that many would not even be celebrating Christmas were it not for Luther’s emphasis on what God has done for mankind in having His only-begotten Son be born on earth to suffer and die for the sins of the world and thus to make the payment necessary to satisfy God’s justice and to secure all men’s forgiveness and salvation. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
- Therefore, we thank God that Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany on November 10th in 1483, nine years before Columbus discovered America.
- We thank God that Luther’s father enrolled him in various schools so that he could gain knowledge that many others did not have, for not all children went to school at that time.
- We thank God that Luther did not become a lawyer to fulfill the desires of his father but was led to acquire the knowledge, the skill and the workmanlike ability eventually to be about his heavenly Father’s business in the work of the church.
- We thank God that Luther was troubled by his sins, convicted by God’s Law as being undeserving of His favor, even though in vain he prayed to the saints in a misdirected struggle to try to find peace for his tortured soul.
- We thank God that Luther learned from the Gospel in the Holy Scriptures to know his Savior and the grace of God to sinful men for Christ’s sake, that he was brought to saving confidence in Christ’s merits alone for reconciliation with God, and that he learned to embrace the justifying grace of God by faith without the works of the Law.
- We thank God that Luther was able, on the basis of Scripture alone, to recognize all the errors of Romanism which had led people by the millions into spiritual destruction and damnation, and to combat them fearlessly in the face of intimidation, jeopardy of his safety, and even the threat of death by confiding in His Savior’s help and promised deliverance.
- We thank God that Luther recognized that the conquest of Mohammedanism and the unbridled power of the bishop of Rome had led to almost a total disappearance of the truth of the Gospel, and that he came to realize that a real reformation was needed to restore the Bible to its proper place and thus to bring back the truth about salvation by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, without the deeds of the Law.
- We thank God that on October 31, 1517 Luther took the bold initial step of posting his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, showing that the sale of indulgences, worthless pieces of paper that promised people release from the punishment of their sins in purgatory in exchange for a payment of money, was contrary to Bible teaching.
- We thank God that Luther did not recant his writings based on God’s Word, and that, in a confrontation with Roman Catholic leaders in the city of Worms, Germany in 1521, he declared that his conscience was bound by the Word of God and that he was standing firm in what he had said and written.
- We thank God that Luther was not taken captive and murdered by the Romanists following his ban by the emperor but was “kidnapped” by friends and taken to the Wartburg Castle, where he was able in safety to translate the New Testament into German so that all his countrymen could read the precious Word of God for themselves.
- Finally, we thank God that he permitted Luther to live for 63 years. During the years of His God-blessed, productive life he published a translation of both the Old and New Testaments; he wrote many hymns which we still sing regularly in our church services; he preached on a daily basis; he taught in the theological school of the University of Wittenberg; he supplied us with two catechisms or books of instruction in the principal doctrines of God’s Word, the smaller of which we still use in the instruction of our children; he either wrote, helped to draft, or collaborated in the writing of several of the Lutheran Confessions; his collected writings fill fifty-five volumes in their English translation and twenty-three large volumes in the original language (the “St. Louis Edition” of Luther’s Sämmtliche Schriften); he married and had six children, thereby also teaching us by his own example the importance of a truly Christian home life; and he died on February 18, 1546, also in Eisleben, Germany, where he had gone to resolve a dispute between two of his brethren.
Now, the Scripture passage at the head of this article instructs us to know those who labor among us and are over us in the Lord and admonish us. The passage refers specifically to those in the pastoral office and ministry who are involved in the special work of proclaiming and teaching to us the precious Word of God, the Law in its sternness and the Gospel in its sweetness, for our souls’ welfare. They are “over [us] in the Lord,” ruling us in the Kingdom of Grace with His Word as His ambassadors; and they “admonish [us]” as they “reprove, rebuke [and] exhort with all longsuffering [great patience] and doctrine [the teachings of Holy Scripture]” (II Timothy 4:2). We are not only to “know them,” to “esteem them very highly in love” because of their work on our behalf, but also to cultivate with them not an adversarial relationship (that some people have with their pastors) but a relationship of love and respect — for the Lord’s sake and for our own sakes — that we may “be at peace among [our]selves.” This relationship should continue even after they are no longer personally “in the picture,” as, for example, those faithful pastors and teachers who have already gone before us to be with their Savior in heaven — like Luther himself. “Remember them…who have spoken unto you the Word of God, whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (Hebrews 13:7). And, “be[ing] at peace among [our]selves” is the evident fruit of fellowship in the Gospel as we “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit” on the basis of God’s Word “in the bond of peace” which, to the world, certainly passes all human understanding!
The lack of such unity, the lack of love and respect for the Word of God and for the faithful heralds who proclaim it to men in its purity, invariably results in the kind of strife and discord that was evident already at Luther’s time, before, during, and after the Reformation, when men who were not joined in true unity were not “at peace among [them]selves.” but engaged in one controversy after another, as if all of Luther’s work had been for nothing. Happily, in the Book of Concord [Agreement] of 1580, thirty-four years after Luther’s death, the chief controversies had all been resolved on the basis of God’s Word; and by God’s grace, in spite of controversies that once raged also in our own Conference, we today stand in that same “unity of the Spirit,” in real Concordia, on the same basis, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), and are “at peace among [our]selves” to the glory of God!
We thank our Lord for the peace that we have found, by God’s grace, through the work of Martin Luther and the many faithful preachers and confessors of the Word since his time. We “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thessalonians 5:13). And with the Psalmist we gratefully proclaim, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever!” (Psalm 106:1).
— D. G. R.