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The Lionhearted Listener

The Habit That Set Luther on Fire

Article by Marshall Segal

“See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all” (Here I Stand, 212). On this date, now more than five hundred years ago, the word of God waged a serious war against threats to the gospel emerging from the Roman Catholic Church, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Ninety-Five Theses may not have been nailed to the door, as the scene has been famously painted. They were probably pasted with glue. Pieces like these were often posted to the door, which served as a bulletin board for the university. Luther likely did not even post the theses himself. But his ninety-five nails drove deeper than any metal might have, because they were forged for this emerging war in the fire of divine revelation.

His Ears Led the Way

Timothy George writes,

What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. . . . He listened to the Word because it was his job to do so and because he had come to believe his soul’s salvation depended upon it. Luther did not become a reformer because he attacked indulgences. He attacked indulgences because the Word had already taken deep root in his heart. (Theology of the Reformers, 55–56)

George goes on to quote Luther: “If you were to ask a Christian what his task is and by what he is worthy of the name of Christian, there could be no other response than hearing the Word of God, that is, faith. Ears are the only organs of the Christian” (56). We often remember Luther for his extraordinary mouth, but it was first and foremost his ears that led to his challenging the Roman Church. He launched a revival of faithful and valiant listening — to God.

Long before he composed “A Mighty Fortress,” before he was driven into exile, before he stood fast at the Diet of Worms, before he courageously debated Eck at Leipzig, before he posted his ninety-five theses at the Castle Church, Martin Luther listened. And while he listened to God, he gave birth to centuries of lionhearted listeners.

How Luther Listened

The listening began for Luther long before the reforming, while he still lived and served as a devoted monk in the cloister at Erfurt. Herman Selderhuis writes,

While in the monastery, Luther learned that Bible reading is actually ‘listening to the Bible’: a text had to be read but also heard, again and again, as frequently as necessary until one gained an understanding of what the text said. . . . The goal was to read and listen until one heard God’s voice in the Word. (Luther: Spiritual Biography, 59)

Luther himself explains the importance of good listening: “If you want to become a Christian, you must take the word of Christ, realizing that you will never be finished learning, and then with me, you will recognize that you still do not even know the ABCs. If one was to boast, then I could certainly do that about myself, because day and night I was busy studying the Bible, and yet I have remained a student. Every day I begin like someone in the primary school” (Spiritual Biography, 59).

Behind the brilliant rhetoric and revolutionary leadership was a tenacious humility to hear from God. Luther did not pretend to have mastered Scripture, even as one of the greatest theologians in history, but considered himself always a student, and an elementary school student at that. And by opening the Bible as if he had not seen anything yet, he saw far more than most — certainly far more than the respected priests and scholars of his day.

Selderhuis continues, “Luther searched in the Bible, he ‘knocked’ on the texts, he shook them like the branch of a fruit tree, and then he listened to find words of comfort and reassurance to drive away his fears” (59). Good listeners search and knock and shake the word of God until they hear God speak — until he gives the long-awaited answer, or whispers their fears away, or leads them with clear direction, or breathes fresh inspiration and strength into their life and ministry, or reassures them with his promises. Listening to the very words of God in the Scriptures is not only the quiet key to the Protestant Reformation, but to the faithful, fruitful, and happy Christian life.

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Martin Luther - Reformation Day

Martin Luther (1483–1546)

One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation — especially of Martin Luther — was that the word of God comes to us in the form of a book, the Bible. Luther grasped this powerful fact: God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a book of revelation, not a bishop in Rome.

The life-giving and life-threatening risk of the Reformation was the rejection of the pope and councils as the infallible, final authority of the church. Luther’s adversary, Sylvester Prierias, wrote, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic” (Luther, 193). It followed that Luther would be excluded from the Roman Catholic Church. “What is new in Luther,” Heiko Oberman says, “is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils” (Luther, 204).

This rediscovery of the word of God above all earthly powers shaped Luther and the entire Reformation. But Luther’s path to that rediscovery was a tortuous one, beginning with a lightning storm at age 21.

Fearful Monk

On July 2, 1505, on the way home from law school, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and was hurled to the ground by lightning. He cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk.” Fifteen days later, to his father’s dismay, Luther left his legal studies and kept his vow.

He knocked at the gate of the Augustinian hermits in Erfurt and asked the prior to accept him into the order. At 21, he became an Augustinian monk. At his first Mass two years later, Luther was so overwhelmed at the thought of God’s majesty that he almost ran away. The prior persuaded him to continue.

But this incident of fear and trembling would not be an isolated one in Luther’s life. Luther himself would later remember of these years, “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” (Selections, 12).

Luther would not be married for another twenty years — to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525 — which means he lived with sexual temptations as a single man till he was 42. But “in the monastery,” he said, “I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me.” His all-consuming longing was to know the happiness of God’s favor. “If I could believe that God was not angry with me,” he said, “I would stand on my head for joy.”

Good News: God’s Righteousness

In 1509, Luther’s beloved superior and counselor and friend, Johannes von Staupitz, allowed Luther to begin teaching the Bible. Three years later, on October 19, 1512, at the age of 28, Luther received his doctor’s degree in theology, and von Staupitz turned over to him the chair in biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, which Luther held the rest of his life.

As Luther set to work reading, studying, and teaching Scripture from the original languages, his troubled conscience seethed beneath the surface — especially as he confronted the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16–17. To Luther, “the righteousness of God” could only mean one thing: God’s righteous punishment of sinners. The phrase was not “gospel” to him; it was a death sentence.

But then, in the work of a moment, all Luther’s hatred for the righteousness of God turned to love. He remembers,

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” . . . And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

He concludes, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Standing on the Book

Luther was not the pastor of the town church in Wittenberg, but he did share the preaching with his pastor friend, Johannes Bugenhagen. The record bears witness to how utterly devoted he was to the preaching of Scripture. For example, in 1522 he preached 117 sermons, the next year 137 sermons. In 1528, he preached almost 200 times, and from 1529 we have 121 sermons. So the average in those four years was one sermon every two-and-a-half days.

Over the next 28 years, Luther would preach thousands of sermons, publish hundreds of pamphlets and books, endure scores of controversies, and counsel innumerable German citizens — all to spread the good news of God’s righteousness to a people trapped in a system of their own merit. Through it all, Luther had one weapon with which to rescue this gospel from being sold in the markets of Wittenberg — Scripture. He drove out the moneychangers — the indulgence sellers — with the whip of the word of God, the Bible.

Luther said with resounding forcefulness in 1545, the year before he died, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.”

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 Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at 9Marks.

The chime rang out from the bell tower. Time to gather for Mass.

Yet this was not a regular Sunday. Someone told us we would hear a homily. Usually we only heard homilies at Lent or Advent, as well as on the feast day of our church’s namesake. But this was October, and we weren’t sure why we would hear a homily in October.

Then Jonas, the cloth merchant, explained. Last week’s business took him to the town across the ridge. All his customers there were still reeling from what they had heard last Sunday. Their priest read a homily that could only be described as a tale of horror. He described dead relatives screaming out in pain in purgatory. He put his hand to his ear and bent down toward the ground as if he could hear the groans. He depicted flames so real that everyone in the pews thought they felt the temperature rising. One customer told Jonas that women had actually swooned. Afterward, no one dared to utter a single word. All shuffled out in silence.

All this happened last Sunday, Jonas said. Then on Monday a monk named Tetzel pulled into the same town in a grand wagon. Trumpets blew and banners unfurled. The archbishop’s own guards surrounded him. In the shadow of the steeple in the middle of the town square, his attendants set up a table. They piled a stack of parchment high on the one side and cautiously placed a chest on the other. The chest had three locks. Everyone knows that if a chest has three locks it’s owned by three people who don’t trust each other.

Then Tetzel cried out, “Friends of this town, you have heard how your loved ones suffer in purgatory. You have heard their cries. The flames have reached up and licked your very own boots.”

“How shamefully,” Tetzel continued, “you go about your business. You spend your money on every little trifle. And, oh, how your loved ones suffer. Enough. Step forward. Leo X, the Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ on earth, has been gracious and merciful to you and has affixed his seal to this indulgence. Now come and do your duty. And now you have a very special deal reserved for you. For a little extra guilder you can free yourself from purgatory. Yes, God be praised, give to the church your mite and the gracious Holy Father in Rome will see to it that you and all your dead relatives will be in Paradise itself, not enduring for a moment the purging flames of purgatory.”

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice:

Every time a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from purgatory springs.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal. For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Michael Reeves’s book Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation (10Publishing).

Almost certainly, the most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

In the centuries preceding the Reformation, preaching had been in steady decline. Eclipsed by the Mass and rendered non-essential by the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism, preaching had lost the primacy it once enjoyed in the days of the early post-apostolic church.

By the 15th century, only a small percentage of people could expect to hear their priest preach to them regularly in their local parish church. The English reformer Hugh Latimer spoke of “strawberry parsons” who, like strawberries, appeared but once a year. Even then, the homily would often be in Latin, unintelligible to the people (and, perhaps, to the priest).

The most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

As for the content of these rare delicacies, they were unlikely to go anywhere near Scripture. The vast majority of the clergy simply didn’t have the scriptural knowledge to make the attempt. Instead, John Calvin wrote, pre-Reformation sermons were usually divided according to this basic pattern:

The first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.

As a result, ignorance of God’s Word and gospel was profound and widespread.

Centrality of the Sacred Desk

In eye-catching contrast, the reformers made the sermon the focal point of the church’s regular worship, even emphasizing it architecturally through the physical and conspicuous centrality of the pulpit. And while today we tend to think of the leading reformers as theologians (and therefore, not preachers), it was preaching—especially expository preaching—that normally defined and took up the bulk of their ministry.

For a quarter-century in Wittenberg, Luther preached through the Bible, usually at least twice on Sundays and three times total each week.

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