A Lesson from Martin Luther to Modern Day Reformers

by Ian Conrey September 23, 2016

There are many pastors (and Christians in general) who understand the great need for doctrinal change in churches throughout our country and in our own communities. Legalism, prosperity gospels, antinomianism, secularism, low-views of discipleship, the replacement of absolute truths for post-modernism, lack of gospel-centeredness, shallow and unbiblical sermons; you name it... it's ripe in America. And though some doctrinal issues are worse than others, Christians have found themselves a part of well-meaning congregations that have fallen into several of these traps. 

For those of us who are there, we know that every situation is unique and often times, messy. We know what needs to be done, but we aren't always sure on how to go about reforming it. It would be nice to have a perfect how-to manual for every situation we encounter in our particular context, but we know it doesn't exist. Instead, we must rely on prayer, the Holy Spirit, and His Word to guide us. In the midst of this, we become anxious and frustrated in our desire to see reform happen.

This is especially true for young pastors, much like myself. We want to see reformation take place quickly. We prayed twice last week, now it's time for action. We want strong expositional preaching, God-glorifying discipleship, and rock solid doctrine. And we want it now. Patience is no longer an option.  So let's push aside the older generations, toss out their Bill Gothard books, and make it happen.  

This might have the right doctrine and biblical practices at the heart of it, but that kind of how-to attitude is destructive. Many young pastors burn with a desire to see reform, but how they go about it can be devastating. For those of us who see this need, it is wise to pause and make sure we aren't doing the right thing in the wrong way. Consider Martin Luther:

In 1522, Luther preached a series of sermons known as the Invocavit Sermons.[1] They were addressed to fellow reformers who rejected the Catholic Church, decided to take communion in regular clothes, and decided to do so in an evangelical manner. You would think Martin Luther would have praised them. Instead, he criticized them.

Why would this great reformer, who just a few years prior nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, criticize the practice of what he so adamantly preached? For one simple reason: because his fellow reformers were doing the right thing in the wrong way.

These particular reformers had a desire to send a message to the Catholic Church; they were going to do communion the way the Bible taught no matter what. Yet what they did wasn't out of love, but out of arrogance, divisiveness, and impatience. Yes, they were right. Yes, their doctrine was correctly motivated, but their hearts were not. After Luther quotes Paul's famous love passage in 1 Corinthians 13, he goes on to say, 

God does not want hearers and repeaters of words but followers and doers, and this occurs in faith through love... and here, dear friends, one must not insist upon his rights but must see what may be useful and helpful to his brother, as Paul says, 'All things are lawful to me but not all things are helpful' (1 Cor 6:12).. for there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won... Therefore, all those have erred who have helped and consented to abolish the mass; not that it was not a good thing, but that it was not done in an orderly way. You say it was right according to the Scriptures. I agree, but what becomes of order? For it was done in wantonness, with no regard for proper order and with the offense to your neighbor.

The man who ignited the greatest reform in Church history also had a heart to lovingly help his brothers in Christ even within a corrupt Church. Even though his convictions for true biblical doctrine brought an inevitable split, he sought to build up the body of Christ, not tear it down.  

The way we go about bringing change in our congregation is essential. Again, it is possible to do the right thing in the wrong way. Though there may be tension and parting ways way be inevitable, our desire should be to seek growth and unity, not division and uncertainty. We want to build one another up, not become stumbling blocks. We want to help and encourage one another, not simply prove their doctrines wrong.

In seeking reform, we must approach change in Christ-honoring ways. We must be patient, gentle, and humble. That’s not to say we cannot be firm, or even bold in proclaiming biblical truth, but we far too easily fall into impatience, pride, and arrogance. Proving somebody's doctrine wrong out of arrogance does far more damage than good. We are to do nothing from rivalry or conceit (Philippians 2:3) and we are to always speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

And finally brothers, let’s not press our doctrines with forceful coercion, impressive "intellect,” impatient annoyance, or any other means centered on man's ways. Instead let us patiently and prayerfully rely on the Word of God to do its work through the Holy Spirit. As Martin Luther said,

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp Melanchthon and Amdorf, the word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the word did everything.

Notes

  1. ^ All Luther quotes credited to: Leroux, Neil R. Luther's Rhetoric: Strategies and Style from the Invocavit Sermons. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Academic, 2002. Print.