I looked up from my book, sitting in the comfy chairs of my preferred coffee shop. I was surprised to see one of the staff members from my church, (name redacted to preserve his reputation).
“Oh, it’s a biography of Martin Luther.” I happily replied as we shook hands.
“Are you a history student?” He shot me a confused look. His gaze shifted to the book in my hand, eyes filled with a mix of disapproval and suspicion. Almost as if the book might be out to get him.
“No. I just wanted to read a few books about Luther this year. This is number two, and it’s really fascinating.” I moved the book further away from my friend, a pastor. He seemed more comfortable with that.
“If you aren’t a history student, and it’s not assigned reading, why would you want to read about Martin Luther? Especially TWO books?”
His question was fair. Why in the world would someone in 21st century Kentucky want to read about a 16th century Augustinian monk? Even among my friends in ministry, people who have devoted serious time in their lives to studying the Bible, theology, and the history of the church, Martin Luther is revered but mainly ignored. We all know that he’s important. After all, he is one of only two or three pastors and theologians who consistently make it into our high school history books. But how much can a man who was born in medieval Germany mean to us as citizens of a modern, increasingly globalized society? How much time should I really spend putting down my smart phone, with it’s endless connection to all of the information and entertainment of the digital age, to read about a man whose world was being rocked by the cutting edge tech of the simple printing press?
500 Years of Luther
In the fall of this year, specifically the 31st of October, while most of America is helping their kids don Spiderman masks and prepare for the sugar rush of a lifetime, some of us will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. In fact, universities, theological institutions, and churches the world over have been hosting conferences and celebrations for months now, and there are even more to follow in weeks and months ahead. For once, the steady perseverance of a Martin Luther’s life and work will catch up to the pace of modern life, even if it’s just for a brief time. There will be YouTube videos about his important life. There will be memes, tweets, and even Instagram stories about who Martin Luther was and what he did. I’m just waiting for a seminary student somewhere to drop a Luther-themed parody of Jay Z’s 99 Problems. (If you’re having Pope problems, I feel bad for you, son. I got 95 Problems, but the Pope ain’t one.)
If I can encourage you to do one thing this year, one thing to help you remember Luther for who he was and what he truly has to teach us as Christians, regardless of the time we live in, it’s to look past the temporary fascination and spend time living with the life and works of Martin Luther. A full half of a millennium has passed since the defining moment of Martin Luther’s life, and people are still writing books and holding conferences to reflect him. I can think of very few ways to mark the occasion than spending time seriously reflecting on the monk who God used to change the world. The key, though, is time.
One Year of Living with Luther
Instead of spending the rest of this year plugging into the quick Luther-mania that can be found in this anniversary year, dedicate yourself to one year (or at least the 5.5 months remaining this year) of living with Martin Luther. That means taking time to read books about the life lived by our brother in Christ, Martin. I started the habit, a few years ago, of spending focused time each year reading about one figure from church history a year. I started with James P Boyce, the founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and moved on to Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers in 19th century England. I’ve spent time reading about Andrew Fuller, George Whitefield, John Newton, and William Cowper. Every time I have taken time to reflect on these men, to read their words in books, sermons, and songs, and to consider, at length, their lives and the work that they did with their time in service to the Lord, I’m reminded that these men are far more than figureheads. They are more than quotable names and faces for t-shirts or historical paintings. These are brothers in Christ who have gone before us, and in their words, we can find teachers and mentors. We can find examples of mature men of God who have struggled with big issues of the Christian life that transcend our day and time. In fact, they help point us to Christ and his kingdom in ways that we might never see because of the world we live in. In many cases, we can actually read the Bible along with these heroes of the faith through their sermons, lectures, or commentaries on scripture.
Martin Luther was a crucial figure in the history of the Christian church, and like most important figures, he lived a life working constantly, earnestly to build up the Kingdom of God. That kind of persevering work doesn’t come across through three minute videos, thirty minute lectures, or even ninety minute movies. Those all have their place, and can serve a helpful purpose. It takes hours over days and weeks of time, though, to begin to see life through Martin Luther’s eyes, to understand the world he lived in, and to learn from the struggles that he dedicated his life to. That sounds like a lot of work, and in one sense it is. But spread out over the course of a year, the time is manageable. Half an hour here and twenty minutes there can add up to weeks’ worth of time spent living with Luther. Only then will we start to understand how he spent years desperately struggling to find hope in the teachings of the Catholic Church and eventually found life and joy in the message of the Gospel that had been delivered once and for all to the saints. We start to understand how he struggled to live faithfully in the face of controversies and opposition. And we start to learn how his life can encourage us today as we deal with a whole new litany of issues facing us as Christians living in the modern world. We can learn how to live life in the church while surrounded by political turmoil. We can learn how to be faithful Christians even in light of disagreements about doctrine and the Christian life. And we can learn how to look past the controversies and distractions of our day to focus on the Lord, Jesus Christ, as he is revealed in the words of scripture.
“That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through [Christ] who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.”
– Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God
Article by Derek Riley
The two books mentioned in the article are below: