Message 17, Optional Session: The Legacy of Luther:

Martin Luther’s actions five-hundred years ago still affect us today. This session considers his legacy by touching on the book The Legacy of Luther.

Message Transcript

WEBB: And he's bringing a special guest with him, and I'll let Dr. Nichols introduce him.

NICHOLS: I saw this Welshman just wandering around backstage, and I said, since you’re doing nothing, why don’t you come up and join me for this session. Actually, we have a case in the back, and we keep a speaker in there. And on the case, it says, “In case of emergency, break glass to have a speaker.” No, I’m just kidding. This is our — my favorite Welshman.

THOMAS: It’s the only Welshman you know.

NICHOLS: Still my favorite. Dr. Derek Thomas. I asked Dr. Thomas to join me because he contributed a chapter to this book. Back, it was a few years ago, we knew 2017 was on the horizon, and it was a thought then that it would be good for Ligonier to put out a book that would be as comprehensive as a single book could be on Luther, in terms of what he stood for, what he was about, and his legacy.

And we conceived then of a book of essays, a book of chapters. And, of course, we knew we’d have at the hub of the book, our very own teaching fellows. And then we sort of built out the book around there.

One of the key chapters — and this is why Dr. Thomas is with me here. One of the key chapters in the book is on the preached Word, and the supremacy of the preaching of the Word, and the supremacy of preaching in Luther. Luther was first and foremost a preacher. We gave him a chapter of a title, and in a moment I’ll stop talking here and let Dr. Thomas tell you about his own chapter — but we gave him the title, “Spare Everything Except the Word.”

Luther was called on to preach numerous ordination sermons, numerous sort of special events. But there was one occasion in which the church in the town had been destroyed by a fire. They rebuilt the church. And so this was the first church that was built as an Evangelicia, as a Lutheran church, not a Roman Catholic church that was converted, a structure that was converted — but a church that was built as the gospel church, as a Lutheran church.

And so, none other than Luther would be called on to dedicate this building. And it was in that sermon, that dedication sermon, that Luther said, “We can spare everything except the Word.” That as a church, this is the true mark of the church, the preaching of the Word.

So that was the title we gave you. And we gave you the task of Luther on preaching.

THOMAS: So, shall I tell them the backstory here? I saw this — I knew this book was coming out, and I think I saw it on Amazon. It sort of popped into my, sort of, front page one day as forthcoming. So I bought the book. And opened the box when it came, and I wrote in this book. I’d completely forgotten. So then I got a free copy.

NICHOLS: So now you have one for the home and one for the office.

THOMAS: I had completely forgotten. It was actually quite an interesting assignment for me. My sort of, studies have been in Calvin more than in Luther. And I wanted, in fact, the opportunity to look into Luther’s view of preaching. And, as everything else in Luther, it was quite colorful. Luther went through phases, one in particular, around 1530, where he descended into a kind of melancholy. Decided — told the congregation that unless they produced more fruit, he was going to stop preaching. And, so during 1530 he only preached three or four sermons. And they were sermons that were ordered by the king for him to preach. He got over that.

But typically, typically he much have preached about three or four sermons a week. He preached around 180 sermons a year. But what is fascinating is that Luther — I mean, he was quite the rhetorician. I think Luther could have spoken about fried chicken at length without any notes. You know, he was a brilliant man. But he believed in the discipline of what later, perhaps, became known as ‘Lectio Continua’ preaching.

That is, preaching through consecutively. Through a chapter, through a book — and that discipline Luther and the magisterial Reformers, Calvin (especially Calvin), but as we heard in the earlier hours, Zwingli, thought was most honoring to the Bible as the written Word of God.

That it wasn’t just — that the Bible isn’t just a series of texts. There are occasions when you just want a text for a special occasion. But in the week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year, building up of the body of Christ, consecutive expository preaching was what most honored the Word of God.

So you wrote a chapter. You wrote the first chapter.

NICHOLS: I did. But I want to go back —

THOMAS: I wrote the penultimate chapter.

NICHOLS: We stuck you in the back.

THOMAS: You have to be able to say I read books to get to mine because it’s right at the end. Before Dr. Sproul.

NICHOLS: Before Dr. Sproul. I will be glad to talk about my chapter in a moment. I want to go back to yours for just a quick second. There were two things of your chapter that I found interesting. One is this expression that Luther wrote, that when he preaches, he looks out in his congregation.

And, you know, maybe we could see this. There were two churches, in Wittenberg. There’s the Castle Church, which is a good kilometer or so away from the Black Cloister, where Luther was a monk, and then where he made his home, with Katie. And, that’s of course, the church, the ‘slashkirche,’ that’s where Luther posted his 95 Theses.

But there was another church that’s much closer to the Black Cloister. This was sometimes called the ‘stadt’ church or the ‘town’ church. That was St. Mary’s church. He preached in both. And, Wittenburg, of course, was a university town. And you had Fredrick the Wise, who was not limited on resources, and stocked his university with some brilliant minds.

And so, Luther says he stands in the pulpit, whether it’s at the castle church or St. Mary’s church, and he looks out on the congregation, and he sees all of these doctors. But he doesn’t preach to them. Instead, he preaches to Hansi and Betsy, is that right? So, would you like to explain that a little bit?

THOMAS: Yes. Luther believed, I think, that preaching should be essentially simple. So not employing very fancy words or fancy concepts. Preaching theology, for sure, expounding the text. But I think the person that Luther had in mind was the ordinary guy on the street, whatever. You know, this brilliant, brilliant mind. This extraordinary mind. And yet, in his preaching, to the detriment, perhaps, of the literati and the scholarly, who probably disdained how simple (even coarse) his preaching could be. Certainly, you know, if Sinclair Ferguson can refer to Miss Piggy.

That’s probably mild in comparison to some of the stuff that Luther could say. And Luther was prone to say things in a very colloquial way. Actually, Calvin — if I can pop over some 30 years or so to Calvin — you know, Calvin’s preaching, in French of course — but it’s a very simple French. You don’t really have to know a great many words. I think if you knew a couple of hundred French words, you could probably read Calvin’s sermon’s fairly easily. There are very few hundred-dollar words in Calvin. I think the same is probably true for Luther.

NICHOLS: And, I’ve heard Dr. Sproul say this, and when he taught homiletics at Reformed Theological Seminary, he was a professor there. He would encourage his students to find the drama in the text. And then he would say, “Preach the drama of the text.” And I’ve read a number — I haven’t read all of Luther’s sermons, but I’ve read a number of Luther’s sermons. He’s a very dramatic preacher.

He knew how to catch the drama that is in the text itself, and then put that in front of people. You find yourself — I find myself — reading Luther’s sermons — I have no idea what he sounded like — but I can hear someone preaching to me as I read his sermons.

THOMAS: Do you think that part of this is the early sixteenth century, and how literate, or non-literate, most of his congregation actually were?

NICHOLS: I think that was a huge part of it, that he literally had to paint a picture in the sermon, and that memorable picture that they walk away with. And then they know the text. They’ve heard the text preached and expounded. So — well, thank you for your chapter. And thank you for helping us think a little bit about Luther’s preaching, and what a legacy that is for us. So —

THOMAS: Tell us about your chapter.

NICHOLS: So, mine’s the lead-off chapter. And we devoted three chapters to Luther’s life. So, Dr. Lawson got the decade of the 1520’s, which is a very exciting decade in Luther’s life. And then Dr. Calhoun wrote then on the twilight years of Luther. And he himself is in his twilight years as a church historian, as a scholar. He has battled cancer numerous times.

Long-time professor at Covenant Seminary, and well known for some of his books on church history. And we thought it would be interesting to have a scholar in his twilight years reflect on Luther in his twilight years. I was able to write on Luther up to the Diet of — or the Diet of Worms.

THOMAS: And you spend a good bit of time actually expounding the 95 Theses, these propositions that were nailed to the castle church door, that everybody knows about. I mean, everybody in this room knows Luther did this, but probably no one in this room, apart from yourself, and maybe a few others, have actually read —

NICHOLS: Have actually read them.

THOMAS: And they would surprised by the content, and very surprised as to which one comes first.

NICHOLS: Yes. So, this is — you’ll die, you’ll go to the gate. St. Peter will meet you. He will ask you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” And you will plead the blood of Jesus Christ. And then he will ask you, “Have you read the 95 theses?”

Now —

THOMAS: And, he’s not kidding.

NICHOLS: No. And pending on your answer, that is where you will end up in the new heavens and the new earth. So if you’re holding out for, you know, Hawaii, or somewhere nice like that, you should read the 95 theses. It won’t get you into heaven. It will just give you a nicer place in the new heavens and the new earth.

So, this is the text. This is the text that started it all, that is, the basis of Protestantism, and then yet it’s a very unread text. You know, it’s surprising for a lot of reasons. One, I don’t think Luther was converted by the time he wrote the 95 Theses, or at the time he wrote the 95 Theses. There’s a bit of a debate among Luther scholars as to when his conversion actually occurred.

If we go by his own testimony, it would be positioned after the posting of the 95 Theses. And, you know, this, on the one hand, this shouldn’t surprise us. I liken it to these big cargo ships — you know, these big tankers. And not only do they stop their engines miles out to sea, they actually reverse their engines, so that by the time they pull into the dock they’d be stopped. And you can just think of this massive tanker of the medieval Roman Catholic church that has been just pushing in a 180 away from the gospel, not for years, for centuries.

And so, here’s Luther, trying to turn around, from a human perspective, this massive ship. So, we shouldn’t expect it to be overnight. We should almost see it sort of chipped away over a few years. And that’s what we see in Luther.

But clearly, by the time he sits down to write the 95 Theses, he’s utterly disillusioned with his church. He has had his trip to Rome, his pilgrimage to Rome. And you know the story of Luther as a monk. At one point, he says if — the Germans make up words. They just add to words. They make them longer. And, he made up the word ‘monkery.’ “If ever a heaven — or, if ever a monk gets to heaven by monkery, I was the monk,” Luther said.

He was white-knuckling it. And, this drove his confessor, Staupitz, nuts. And when the occasion came for the order there to have their credentials re-upped, he sent Luther to Rome for this to take place, thinking this would do something for Luther’s soul. And when Luther gets there, he climbs on his knees — if you’ve been to Rome, they’re there. They’re now under roof — but the steps that Jesus walked before his trial are removed, were taken, by Constantine, as a gift to his mother, taken from the holy land, and brought to Rome. And pilgrims would go up and down on their knees on these steps, the ‘Sancta Scala,’ the holy steps.

And Luther does this, of course. And when he gets to the top, he says, “Who knows if all of this is true?” Just disillusioned. He — what he saw in Rome was more like Vanity Fair in Pilgrim’s Progress, than the holy city. And so, he goes back to Wittenburg, and he’s sent off to get his degrees in theology, and he begins teaching. And as he gets his degrees, he has to master Peter Lombard’s ‘The Sentences.’

And in reading Peter Lombard, he reads Augustine, and quotes from Augustine. So he reads Augustine. And then, reading Augustine, Augustine quotes Paul, so he starts reading Paul. And he’s wrestling with, on the one hand, the biblical text, and what he sees in that. And on the other hand, his church.

And this comes to a head in 1517. Two things have precipitated this. One is, the indulgence sale by Tetzel, which was precipitated by Leo X, who had —

THOMAS: So the famous little ditty that Tetzel — what is it?

NICHOLS: Yes, “Every time a coin in the coffer does clink” — ‘klingt’ is the German.

THOMAS: Klingt.

NICHOLS: Klingt is the German. — “a soul from purgatory springs.” And ‘springt’ is the German. So it was actually a rhyme. It was an advertising jingle. Tetzel created the advertising jingle. And, that’s happening. And of course, this is to fund Leo X’s building of St. Peter’s building of the Vatican. Michelangelo does not come cheap as a church painter. So this is costing the church significant resources. He’s bankrupted the treasury. We have this indulgence sale.

The other thing that’s happening is Fredrick the Wise, a very pious man in Wittenburg, has accumulated all of these relics. He doesn’t know any better. This is the context he’s living in. Has accumulated all these relics, and on All Saints’ Day, November 1st of 1517, they were going to be unveiled there, at Wittenburg.

So all this comes to a head on October the 31st. And Luther is struggling with this. The other thing that happens is he’s got his Greek text from Erasmus in 1516.

THOMAS: So, you’ve got guilt on one side.


THOMAS: And you’ve got the Renaissance on the other.

NICHOLS: Yes, that’s right.

THOMAS: So his studies have led him back to the sources.

NICHOLS: To the sources.


NICHOLS: And the source, the Greek text. And there’s one other piece to this. In 1516, coffee is introduced to Europe from Arabia. So now we’ve got everything we need for the Reformation.

We’ve got a Greek text, we’ve got coffee, and we’ve got a disillusioned Augustinian monk.

So Luther writes the 95 Theses. I’ll draw your attention to four of them, and what is the first? That when Christ calls us to repentance, he means that the whole life is one of repentance. Not that we can buy our way into repentance. And this is fascinating. After he wrote the 95 Theses, he wrote a text called Explanation of the 95 Theses, which are sort of paragraph expansions on the theses themselves. Most of them are just a short sentence.

And in there, he references the Greek text. And he noticed that in the Latin translation of repent, the Latin text is “penitentium agate,” which being translated means, “Do penance.” It was a very bad translation of the Greek word. And Luther’s seeing this in the Greek text, and is basically saying, the church has it wrong.

Another thesis that’s interesting is thesis 37, where Luther talks about — it’s a wonderful expression — that we participate in all the benefits of Christ. The Reformers are going to go on to develop that as this beautiful doctrine of the union with Christ. But it’s a phrase that has a history back in Thomas Aquinas, the “all the benefits of Christ.” And Luther writes that into thesis 37. We do not participate — whether living or dead saints — we do not participate in the benefits of Christ by purchasing an indulgence.

THOMAS: One more distinction that Luther has that I’d love for you to comment on, because it’s often misunderstood, I think: theology of glory and theology of the cross. And, people who hear that think that theology of glory is some kind of heavenly theology. And theology of the cross is kind of this world, sort of — what did Luther mean by that?

NICHOLS: So at the final theses, 94 and 95, he says, quoting Jeremiah, “Away with the false prophets who say ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace.” Then he says, “Instead, may we hear the prophets who say, ‘Cross, cross’ and there is no cross.” Now, what does Luther mean by this, right? The church of his day was saying, ‘If you just do what we say — come to the confessional, participate in the Mass, purchase the indulgences — you will be at peace with God. “Peace, peace.”

But Luther says that’s false prophet. And there is no peace. Instead, we say, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross. What he meant by that was there is no cross for us. “Cross, cross,” is that Christ bore the penalty on the cross. So he’s hinting at this what we come to call the theology of the cross at the very end of the 95 Theses.

Then he gets invited — and these were quoted earlier by Dr. Reeves — he gets invited to Heidelberg, at the disputation at Heidelberg. And here he writes a whole new set of theses. But there’s only 28 of them. He’d exhausted, you know, 95, at Wittenburg in 1517. When he gets to Heidelberg, he’s a little bit more tired, so he only gets 28.

But it’s in these 28 theses at the Heidelberg Disputation — and just as an aside, one of the monks in that audience was Martin Bucer. And it’s Martin Bucer who God uses to establish the Reformation at Strasbourg. And that’s who Calvin wants to go study under, and Calvin does, during his exile. Bucer was a young monk and listening at Heidelberg. And listening to Luther, was converted by God to the Gospel.

But it’s in those Heidelberg theses that Luther developed this theology of glory versus theology of the cross. And Dr. Reeves exposited this for us so beautifully. Theology of the glory mean human achievement. That’s what it means: human achievement. That I work with the grace that God gives me.

I work with the righteousness that is infused into me, sort of like a shot. I get a shot of grace and then I am now empowered, and having been empowered with this grace and righteousness, now I can do something that pleases God.

We’re sort of like back to Anselm, aren’t we? And Boso? And Anselm says to my dear Boso, you have not yet calculated the great weight of sin. If we think that, somehow, we can work with God to achieve righteousness, we have not yet calculated the great weight of sin.

THOMAS: So, three minutes. Your favorite Luther story. He was such a colorful man. All kinds of issues: food, marriage. Your favorite Luther story.

NICHOLS: So, he’s an old man, and he feels like he’s dying. He says, I’m tired, sluggish, worn out, and one-eyed. I think he had cataracts, which for a scholar is hard to bear. And he travels to Eisleben, his home. And an ice float had dislodged the dock where the boat was supposed to hitch up.

And instead he has to get out in the water. And he freezes, gets pneumonia. Already wearied, now he’s — has pneumonia. Gets to Eisleben, put into this cold room to sleep, and he says, in the middle of the night, plaster is literally falling off of the wall around him. And he says that a stone — a chunk of stone landed right next to my head on the pillow in the middle of the night.

And I think this was a fish story. Initially, the stone was this big. But by the end of the day, the stone was this big.

So, this is classic Luther, isn’t it? And we see him, frail. We see him reflecting back on his life. And at this moment, far away from his home of Wittenburg, but in his birthplace of Eisleben, he gives us his last words. We are beggars. This is true.

And I’ve always been astounded by that at Luther. And it’s one who understands the grace of God who is truly humbled and realizes that this is really what it is about. We are all beggars. This alone is true.

THOMAS: He really was changed by grace.

NICHOLS: He was. He was truly transformed. Your favorite Luther story?

THOMAS: Oh, the time when he’s kind of moody and a little morose. And, so Katie, his wife, who’s an extraordinary provision for him, and an extraordinary woman of the Reformation, that we need to hear more about. Just as Idelette de Bure was to Calvin. Totally different personality.

But she dresses in black from head to toe with a veil over her face. Comes down for breakfast and asks, you know, who died? And she said, God did. And he looks at her, and she says, “Well, the way you’ve been behaving recently, God must have died.” That’s such a marvelous, marvelous story.

NICHOLS: Luther needed Katie.

THOMAS: He did.

NICHOLS: Well, thank you, Dr. Thomas. And thank you all, for the time.