What characteristic of Martin Luther made him effective as God's instrument to reform the church?
SPROUL: Luther was a beggar who found where he could get bread and told everybody who would listen to him.
How can a guy stand against the whole world like he did? The only way to understand that is to get into his personal struggle with his lack of assurance of salvation, with his violent search for justification in the presence of a Holy God, and visit with him in his utter despair.
Luther understood who Luther was. And that’s our problem. We don’t understand who God is, and we don’t understand who we are. It’s like Isaiah in chapter 6. When he sees the Lord high and lifted up, he all of a sudden says: “Woe is me! I’ve got a dirty mouth, and I’m not alone—I live with a whole people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). That was an awakening in his sin.
You didn’t have to teach Luther that he was a sinner. He was a brilliant student of jurisprudence, of the law. He read the law of God. He examined himself in the light of the law of God, and he was helpless to save himself. When he tasted the gospel, his soul was set on fire. He said: “I’m not going to give this up for anybody in the whole world. I have tasted the fruit of the gospel. And if all of the devils in hell oppose me, I will say to them, ‘Here I stand.’”
THOMAS: He was passionate. He was passionate about the gospel. He was passionate about people. He was passionate about life. He was passionate about enjoying life.
The question I want you to ask is, Who would you like to go out and have lunch with, Calvin or Luther? And I really do want to go and have lunch with Calvin because I studied Calvin at some level and I owe him. When I see him in heaven, I’m going to have to say, “You occupied ten years of my life, and I really have a bunch of questions.” But I really want to have lunch with Luther because I think that would be way more fun.
FERGUSON: And a lot less healthy.
NICHOLS: I appreciate his courage and his boldness. We were talking about this just before we came out here concerning Luther and his debate with Erasmus. To be a real Christian, you make assertions. And Luther recognized that Christianity is about assertions and that those assertions need to be made. His boldness did not spring from his own intellect or from his own abilities. It sprung from the idea that he was standing on what God had declared. But there was a boldness and a courage to Luther, and God used it.
SPROUL: It doesn’t take any courage to do what you’re not afraid to do. The one necessary ingredient for courage is fear. In one sense, Luther was a terrified man. That’s why I love his courage like you do. In spite of his fears, he wrote: “His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom for sure,” and, “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him.” Well, he did tremble. He was scared to death of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But he held on to the gospel and found his courage there.
This is a transcript of R.C. Sproul’s, and Derek Thomas’s, and Stephen Nichols’s answers from our Reformation 500 Celebration and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.