Editor’s note: The Jan. 23 TEXAN will include a special report on the Anabaptists and their continuing influence. Martin Luther’s reforms were foundational to what later became the Baptist movement. The following first-person article is part of that special report.
WITTENBERG, Germany—On a cold, crisp, late October day in 1517, a concerned professor in a small German university town posted a list of ideas he wanted to discuss on the town bulletin board, which also happened to be the wooden door of the Castle Church. Little did 33-year-old Martin Luther realize, as he nailed what has now been famously called the “95 Theses” to that door, that he would soon become a lightning rod throughout Germany and that the town of Wittenberg would become the epicenter of the Protestant Reformation.
Luther’s accusations against the pope, the Catholic Church’s views on purgatory, and the heretical idea of purchasing the forgiveness of sins rang a resounding alarm. Aided by the rise of the printing press, the young monk’s questions flooded the German countryside. Alongside this was his call for a scriptural view of salvation, not by works but by grace alone through faith alone.
Yet Luther’s quest to return the church to its foundation did not spring from self-seeking motives or power-hungry ambition. In fact, the Protestant Reformation started with a personal reformation in Luther’s own heart as he studied Scripture and sought the Lord fervently in prayer.
It was Luther’s love for the Bible that fueled his resolve against the pope’s threats of excommunication, which would brand him a criminal in the eyes of the empire. When he received the label of “heretic,” his friends kidnapped him and hid him in Wartburg Castle to protect him from those who sought his life.
During those 10 months of hiding, Luther translated the New Testament into the German vernacular, a feat that would burst open the doors of the Reformation as it now made the Scriptures available and understandable to the common man. No longer would the Scripture be shackled in the Latin tongue and sequestered from the people. They could now read the Bible for themselves and experience the same life-transforming power it gave Luther.
This high view of Scripture and trust in its absolute authority paved the way for a spiritual revolution across Western Europe whose ripples are still felt today in modern evangelical churches. However, the sad truth of the story is that this fidelity to the Bible did not stand the test of time, as Germany became the breeding ground in the 19th and 20th centuries for liberal theology, which jettisoned the conviction of biblical inerrancy and has left only a few embers of evangelical Christianity in the country as well as in the rest of Europe. Although Oct. 31 is recognized as Reformation Day in Germany, I wondered how many Germans realize its significance.
So as my wife and I waited to board the train headed for the small, out-of-the way town of Wittenberg on Reformation Day last October, I did not know what to expect. We were headed to the tiny university town because I am a church history buff, and since we were in the country, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit on such an historic day. Would we be the only people on the train headed to our destination?
To my surprise, I found myself standing among a small crowd waiting to board the same train. As we made the hour-long journey, more people hopped on at the various stops, and we all exited the train together in Wittenberg. My excitement escalated further as we entered the town and saw the main street packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people. Maybe I had short-changed the German people and their knowledge of church history after all.
Then, I saw it.
A banner over the street read, “Wittenberg Renaissance Music Festival October 23-31.” As we pressed into the crowd, there were booths with food vendors and merchants in medieval period garb selling their wares. Street performers entertained the crowds as minstrels plucked away. Although there were groups in the Luther Museum and visitors to the Castle Church that day, it became apparent that the masses were there to celebrate the Renaissance, not the Reformation.
Ironically, a statue of Luther holding a Bible towered above the crowd in the town square. Had it been the real Luther, I imagined a tear or two running down his cheek. Surely he would weep over the dearth of Christianity in his homeland.
A German friend of mine recently said, “Martin Luther brought the Bible back to the people. Today, we have to bring the people back to the Bible.”
As I heard these words, I could not help but consider Christianity in America and, more specifically, among Southern Baptists. History shows that trends in Europe reach the shores of America within a decade or two. Many see the writing on the wall that the United States is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation, if it has not already become so. Even the buckle of the Bible belt shows signs of rust.
Among Southern Baptists, the Conservative Resurgence of the last few decades defied odds and signaled the only Christian denomination to turn from its slide toward liberalism back to a faithful commitment to the inerrancy, sufficiency and authority of Scripture. Verbally, we claim to be “people of the Book,” but practically, signs of dusty, unopened Bibles often loom over our churches.
Yet we are not without hope. Revival is not impossible.
So how do we fan back into flames those fires that once burned so brightly? The answer is simple: it starts the same way as the Reformation. True revival starts with a personal reformation in our hearts as we study Scripture and seek the Lord fervently in prayer.
You may never be a Martin Luther, and you may never lead wide-scale national reform, but you can be an agent of change in your family and in your church. Remarkable things happen among those who love the Lord and are fully committed to living out his Word.
As 2012 approaches, will you join me in a renewed focus on daily prayer and Scripture reading? Sure, many Christians commit to this every New Year, but what if this year it was less about checking the boxes and more about loving the Bible and, more importantly, its Author.
But one word of wisdom as you read and pray: You may want to post discussion questions on your church’s Facebook page rather than nailing it to the church’s front door.
—Keith Collier is director of news and information at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in preaching and church history.
— 30 —