I was reared Southern Baptist, and I was always taught that we were not Protestant—that there had always been a sect of baptists or anabaptists who were never part of the Catholic Church. And so I knew next to nothing about Martin Luther. That is a great deficit I regret now. But on Saturday, I finished a wonderful new biography titled Martin Luther and written by my favorite author, Eric Metaxas.
It is an incredible story, and I finished it with a mixture of awe and gratitude. Here are the three reasons I’m most thankful for Martin Luther:
1. Luther loved God’s Word and believed in its supremacy. It’s hard to imagine now, when the Bible is so accessible to us, but in Luther’s time few people—even monks—could or were supposed to read it. Although Luther had a Bible during his first year at the monastery, it was then taken from him, and after that, he had to go to the monastery library to study it. In addition, even if you could read a Bible for yourself, if in any way it seemed to disagree with church teaching, the pronouncements of the church hierarchy superseded the Bible. Think about that. It’s inconceivable to me that I would have to live under church leadership where what the Bible says doesn’t reign over everything else. But I don’t have to, and I have Martin Luther to thank for putting God’s Word over all else, where it belongs.
After his excommunication from the Catholic Church when he was in hiding in Wartburg castle, Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German, making it available to infinitely more people to read for themselves. And as God planned it, the invention of the printing press made its availability assured.
2. Luther reignited the idea that grace alone could result in our salvation. As a young man, Luther was terrified of going to Hell. His life was an agonizing effort to earn his way to redemption, but the harder he tried, the more he believed he was failing utterly. Even his decision to become a monk was made partly because he thought that maybe dedicating his life to God’s service would make him good enough to go to Heaven. Here is what he said about his effort to earn righteousness:
"Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love... yeah, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God... Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon St. Paul at that place (Romans 1:17) most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted."
This also accounts for his deep desire to continue studying God’s Word. He was so determined to unlock the mystery of salvation that he wouldn’t give up trying to discover it. Finally, in what is called his “tower experience,” it was as if God suddenly swept aside a dark curtain and revealed to him the meaning of a key verse, Romans 1:17:
“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Romans 1:17 (NIV)
Here is a little of what Luther wrote about that moment:
“There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered the gates of paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”
3. Luther brought congregational singing to the church. This is my third reason for being grateful to Martin Luther. He lived in an era when congregational singing in church was not just unheard of, not just frowned upon, but it was actually an offense that got people burned at the stake. Luther understood why. He knew that if you want to capture a person’s mind and heart, you do it with great lyrics and great music. The lyrics would teach doctrine. The music would give it life in the inner being. He wrote hymns that we still sing today, the most familiar being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Just look at this amazing lyric:
"A mighty fortress is our God. A bulwark never failing.
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe.
His craft and power are great, And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not His equal."
"Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing.
Were not the right Man on our side, The man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that might be? Christ Jesus it is He.
Lord Sabaoth His name, From age to age the same.
And He must win the battle
I’m thankful as a songwriter that music is such an integral part of our worship. I’m thankful that whatever style of music I love, I can find great Christian songs that express my devotion to my King. But much more, I am so thankful that songs encourage me and remind me of truths I need to hear, especially that my salvation does not rest on my own strength but instead on Jesus Christ and His cross. “He must win the battle!”
Happy Reformation Day, friends! This Southern Baptist, whether I am Protestant or not, is very very thankful for it today!