Imagine living in a society where being labeled a “heretic” was the same thing as being labeled an outlaw. Imagine being on trial for your religious beliefs. Imagine that as a result of standing for the gospel as best you know how to, you are judged to be a heretic and an outlaw. Such was the situation of Martin Luther in 1521.
When Emperor Charles judged Luther to be an outlaw, this meant that Luther could be killed or captured at a moment’s notice. An outlaw and heretic at that time had no rights. Humanly speaking, Luther was entirely at the mercy of his enemies. Fortunately for Luther, Elector Frederick, the ruler of the area of Germany where Luther lived, came out in Luther’s defense. So long as Luther remained in the territory of Frederick, he was safe, but if he ventured outside, he could be killed on sight. This deplorable persecution was not just a passing moment in Luther’s life, or a dark phase. From 1521 until his death in 1546, Luther was an “outlaw”. Luther was never exonerated in this life.
As the narrator explains at the end of the 1953 film, Martin Luther, it became harder and harder as time passed for the Emperor’s edict against Luther to be enforced because, as the Reformation gained popularity throughout the empire, Luther could travel abroad and was received warmly by his supporters. The edict was never rescinded so in a sense Luther was never vindicated, but in another sense he was. Luther chose to live as a free man although he had enemies all his life wanting nothing more than to silence him, kill him, or both. He simply refused to cower, refused to live as a condemned man; he kept his head held high, knowing he had in fact been vindicated by the only court that ultimately mattered—God’s court.
Luther put no stock in the authority of corrupt church officials, believing that those who had forfeited the gospel by definition had forfeited any right to lord it over those who belonged to Christ. Luther once quipped that if Pope Leo wanted to excommunicate him, he would simply excommunicate the pope. In Luther’s mind, the pope had no authority over him, not because Luther was an anti-authority anarchist rebel, but because he viewed God’s authority as incomparably superiority to that of humans.
Luther’s beliefs about Christian freedom, how because of Christ we are free from the tyranny of corrupt human authority, is best laid out in his book, poignantly titled, The Freedom of a Christian (1520). Interestingly, Luther’s other best known book was titled, The Bondage of the Will (1525). These two books illustrate a key element in Luther’s teachings: naturally, we are enslaved to sin and unable to liberate ourselves (the bad news), but through Christ we are completely set free from sin and liberated (the good news).
Luther was misunderstood by many of his contemporaries, and he continues to be misunderstood in modern times. G.K. Chesterton, for example, wrote in 1935, “It is very difficult to imagine any doctrine that could make man more base, describe human nature as more desperately impotent, blacken the reason and will of man with a more bottomless and hopeless despair than did the … doctrine of Luther.”
Unfortunately, Chesterton is missing the heart of Luther’s teaching. Yes, Luther described the human condition apart from regenerating grace as a state of despair and yes he described man’s will as “desperately impotent.” In his Small Catechism, he said, “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.”
Luther didn’t harp on man’s impotence, though, as if that doctrine was an end in itself. He focused on it only as a corollary to the corresponding truth that Christ does for us what we can’t do ourselves. The sooner we become realistic about what we can’t do, the sooner we open ourselves up to the real help we need. That is good news.
Though Chesterton said Luther’s doctrine led to a “bottomless and hopeless despair”, it’s worth noting that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, this was not at all the impression Luther made on his own contemporaries. To the contrary, they viewed Luther as too wildly optimistic and naïve. To talk of full and free forgiveness, available for the asking, without having to go through the elaborate sacramental system of the medieval church, to talk of immediate pardon of sins on the basis of Christ’s merit without any need to resort to the saints’ treasury of merits—all of this sounded too good to be true. Luther described man as utterly incapable of coming to God on his own, but that was news not of despair, but of liberation, for the good news was that God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves.
Erasmus, Luther’s famous opponent, argued that by man’s “free will” he could in some sense put himself in God’s good graces. It was that teaching, not Luther’s, that led to despair, an endless striving to earn favor with God, never knowing when or if one had done enough.
Chesterton said Luther’s doctrine made man “base”, but this again misses the heart of Luther’s teaching. Luther never watered down the importance of godly living or encouraged licentiousness. He put godly living in its proper context though. As he argued in The Freedom of a Christian, a Christian’s good works are important, not because they merit salvation (the medieval church’s teaching), for if we did good out of that motivation, we would still be serving ourselves, not our neighbors, through our good actions. No, it is only after we realize that we have all we could ever need in Christ that we are freed up to really serve our neighbors, not with ulterior motives, but selflessly, even as Christ himself served us, not because he “needed” to, but out of love.
October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and there is arguably no other pastor from church history to whom evangelicals are more indebted to than Martin Luther. Because of the gospel, he felt truly and completely free to be who God called him to be and he frankly didn’t care who liked or disliked him. He is remembered for being a liberator and he was only able to leave this legacy because he himself had been liberated by God.