by John Warwick Montgomery
0n October 31 of this year Christendom celebrates the 450th anniversary of an event that decisively altered the religious climate of the Western world: Luther’s posting of the ninety-five theses on the castle church door at Wittenberg.
0n October 31 of this year Christendom celebrates the 450th anniversary of an event that decisively altered the religious climate of the Western world: Luther’s posting of the ninety-five theses on the castle church door at Wittenberg. The original door has long since disappeared, but it has been appropriately replaced by a monumental door on which the text of the theses has been permanently engraved. Luther’s message is indeed permanently engraved on the history of the world, and his recovery of the Gospel stands behind evangelical proclamation from that day to this. But was his "Copernican revolution in theology" (as Philip Watson has felicitously termed it more than an evangelical monument? Was it also an evangelical movement? A current joke has to do with a new Martin Luther doll: you wind it up and it just "stands these!" Did Luther just stand there-at Wittenberg, at Leipzig, at Worms, at Marburg-or did he move dynamically with a sense of mission to the lost?
THE STEREOTYPE OF AN UNCONCERNED LUTHER
The great Protestant missionary scholar Gustav Warneck of Halle regarded the Reformation in general and Luther in particular as anything but missionary-minded, and Warneck’s negative evaluation has had much influence on lesser writers. Wrote Warneck in the standard New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (based on the great Herzog and Hauck Realencyklopaedie) : "The comprehension of a continuous missionary duty of the Church was limited among the Reformers and their successors by a narrow-minded dogmatism combined with a lack of historical sense. They knew of the great missions of the past, but according to their ideas the apostles had already gone forth to the whole world and they and their disciples had essentially accomplished the missionary task. Christianity, therefore, had already proved its universal vocation as a world religion." Elsewhere, Warneck stated that in Luther one misses not only "missionary activity" but also the very "idea of missions," and he refers to the reformer as hardly "a man of missions in our sense of the word."
To which Luther scholar Werner Elert replied sarcastically in his Structure o f Lutheranism: "Poor Luther! Instead of founding a missionary society, accompanying Cortez to Mexico, or at least assuring for himself a professorship of missionary science, he devoted himself, of all things, to the reformation of the church! . . . How could Luther, who expounded the Psalms, the Prophets, and Paul, have overlooked or doubted the universal purpose of the mission of Christ and of His Gospel?" A good question-and one that gains even greater force when one considers the extent of missionary activity carried on by the church bearing Luther’s name during the two centuries immediately following his split with Rome. Charles Porterfield Krauth nicely tabulated the record in his important work, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology:
Nor has the Lutheran Church been satisfied with meeting the wants of her own children. She has been, and is a Church of Missions. In 1559, Gustavus Vasa, of Sweden, founded a mission among the Laplanders, which was continued with renewed earnestness by Gustavus Adolphus, Denmark also aiding. Thomas von Westen (died 1737) was the apostle of this mission. Heyling, of Lubeck, without any aid labored as a missionary in Abyssinia (163:), and others, of the circle of his friends, engaged in the same cause in various parts of the East. Frederick IV, of Denmark, established the East India mission at Tranquebar (1706), for which Francke furnished him two devoted laborers, Plutzschau and Ziegenbalg, the latter of whom translated the New Testament into Tamil (1715). The labors of this mission were also extended to the English possessions. From the orphan-house at Halle went forth a succession of missionaries, among whom Schwartz (died 1798 ) is pre-eminent. An institution for the conversion of the Jews was established at Halle, in 1728. Egede of Norway (died 1758) commenced his labors in Greenland, in 1721. In 1736, he returned, and established in Copenhagen a mission seminary:
But could it not be argued that much of this Lutheran missionary zeal stemmed not from Luther himself, but from the influence of post-Deformation Pietism? Perhaps–but only if one neglects to examine Luther’s own views on the subject of missions. In this area of Luther’s thought, as in so many others, the reformer has suffered greatly from his 18th and 19th century interpreters, who have often seriously misunderstood and misrepresented his actual beliefs. Indeed, the great Luther research movement of the present century, deriving largely from the work of Karl Holl, has revolutionized our understanding of the reformer precisely because it has insisted on letting him speak for himself.
LUTHER ON MISSIONS
Two deadly misconceptions concerning Luther’s missionary stance need to be removed at the outset. It has been held that Luther’s views lie at the root of a famous (better, infamous) post-Reformation judgment of the Wittenberg theological faculty as to the scope of the Great Commission. When Count Truchsess posed this question to the faculty, its members issued a document declaring that the command to go into all the world was only a personale privilegium of the apostles, and had already been fulfilled; were this not so, the faculty reasoned, the duty of becoming a missionary evangelist would fall to every Christian-an absurd conclusion! World evangelism would violate the creative orders (Schopfungsordnungen) by which God gives each man a stable place in society, sets rulers over their subjects, and requires a definite and limited call for ministerial service. Thus, the argument goes, Luther himself held that the world had already been totally evangelized, and maintained that since all church workers must be "duly called" (rite vocati), and the heathen obviously are not going to call Christian evangelists to serve them, missionary work is unjustifiable in principle.
To attribute such views to Luther is, however, to fly directly in the face of the evidence. In the first place, as Elert notes, "the idea of many later theologians-that the church of the present time is no longer obligated to preach among the heathen, because the apostles have already reached all-is totally foreign to Luther, just as it is to Melanchthon." Indeed, Luther specifically says of the "islands" brought to light during the Renaissance age of discovery that they are "heathen and no one has preached to them" (Weimarer Ausgabe*, 23, 533, 10; etc.). As to the second charge against Luther, the Reformer himself asserts that when the Christian is at a place "where there are no Christians, there he needs no other call than that he is a Christian who is inwardly called and anointed by God. There it is his obligation to preach to the erring heathen and non-Christians, and to teach the Gospel as a duty of Christian love, even though no one calls him to do this" (WA, 11, 412, l 1ff.).
The standard, critical, German-Latin edition of Luther’s writings; hereafter cited as WA.
For Luther, the proclamation of the Gospel is the Christian’s highest privilege, and he should begin by exercising it in the normal situations of life. In a sermon he preached in his own home in 1533, he said: "The noblest and greatest work and the most important service we can perform for God on earth is bringing other people, and especially those who are entrusted to us, to the knowledge of God by the holy Gospel" (WA, 53, 415). It was Luther’s conviction that missionary work ideally proceeds from the home base. True, as a child of his time, he held the common 16th century view that Christian "home bases" were more widely distributed in the world than was actually the case, but he certainly did not limit his vision to "home missions." Rather, his approach has strong parallels with the widely held view of 20th century evangelicals that the person who does not witness at home will not witness abroad, and that the individual who wants to go to the foreign field to escape the responsibility of living a life of Christian witness at home is the worst kind of missionary candidate.
If we doubt that Luther had a burden for the "foreign field," what will we do with such express words as these from his pen? "The very best of all works is that the heathen have been led from idolatry to the knowledge of God" (WA, 47, 466; sermon of Sept. 25, 1538, on Matt. 23:15). "In these New Testament times there is always a lack of Christians; there never are enough of them. Therefore we must not stop inviting guests to partake of this Paschal Lamb. We must keep on preaching. We must also go to those to whom Christ has hither to not been proclaimed. We must teach the people who have not known Christ, so that they, too, may be brought to the spiritual kingdom of Christ" (WA, 16, 215f. ).
Luther considered it axiomatic that the salvation of men everywhere depended squarely on the universal proclamation of the Gospel to them. In this, as in his central doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Luther’s conscience was captive to the Pauline message.
If all the heathen are to praise God, He must first have been made their God. If He is to be their God, they must know Him and believe on Him and let go of all idolatry. For man cannot praise God with idolatrous lips and an unbelieving heart. If they are to believe, they must first hear His Word and thus receive the Holy Spirit, who purifies and enlightens their heart by faith. For one cannot come to faith or receive the Holy Spirit before one has heard the Word, as Paul says ( Rom. 10:14) : "How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?" (Gal. 3:2): You have received the Spirit by the preaching of faith. If they are to hear His Word, preachers who proclaim the Word of God to them must be sent to them ( WA, 31 I, 228f.).
Nit only in preaching and teaching, but also in hymnody Luther expressed his profound missionary vision. The composer of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," which so magnificently conveys the doctrinal heart of the Reformation, composed a missions hymn that could be regarded as its evangelistic counterpart. Luther wrote the hymn in 1524, basing it on Psalm 67. Here is the psalm, followed by the first stanza o£ Luther’s rendition:
God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us.
That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.
Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth.
Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.
May God bestow on us His grace,
With blessings rich provide us, And may the brightness of His face To life eternal guide us That we His saving health may know,
His gracious will and pleasure, And also to the heathen show Christ’s riches without measure And unto God convert them.
LUTHER’S MISSIONARY DYNAMIC
As Luther scholars such as Reu have shown, Luther considered Holy Scripture as the "formal principle" of all true theology: the fully authoritative, inerrant Word of God to man. For this reason he devoted tireless energy to translating the Bible into the German vernacular, so "any ploughboy could hear Christ’s word"; and for this reason he searched the Scriptures for God’s missionary message. Thus Luther drew from Abraham’s faith-directed journeys an important lesson concerning God’s sovereign guidance in the spread of Hip Gospel.
God is wont to deal so with His own that He does not let them stay long at one place. He rushes them here and there, not merely for their own sakes, so that their faith be tested, but also for the benefit of other people. For Abraham could, of course, not remain silent. Nor was it fitting that he should not, preach to the people about the grace of God. God drove him into Egypt by hunger that he might do some good there too and enlighten some with the true knowledge of God. This he no doubt did, for it is impossible for one to associate with people without revealing what serves their soul’s salvation ( WA, 24, 261).
How little such a passage as this conforms to the stereotype of a Luther who expected Christians to remain statically where they were-in the fixed orders of life-witnessing solely to those locked into the same life-structures with them!
Similarly, Luther draws a powerful missionary lesson from the story of Joseph. As Joseph in Egypt told his brothers to hurry back to their father Jacob with the good news of God’s providence, so God through Christ (whom Joseph typified) wants us to tell others of His grace: "After we have learned to know God in His Son and have received the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit, who endues hearts with joy and with the peace of soul by which we look with contempt on sin and death, what remains to be done? Go, and do not be silent. You are not the only one to be saved; a multitude of others remain who must be preserved from destruction" (WA, 44, 612).
What was the source of Luther’s missionary dynamic, as revealed in these scriptural applications? Professor George Forell has well termed it "faith active in love." For Luther, the fact that God has saved us freely in Christ, in spite of our unworthiness, means that we are freed from the bondage and anxiety of our sins to serve our fellow men with self-giving love. Instead of attempting to placate God through monastic piety or other supposed methods of self-salvation, we will listen to God, who, "having no need for our work and benefactions for Himself, bids us to do for our neighbor what we would do for God" (WA, 17, 98; cf. Ziemke’s Love for the Neighbor in Luther’s Theology). And what, above all, ought we to do for our neighbors on this sin-sick globe? Proclaim to them the eternal riches of Christ!
Nothing but faith is needed to be saved, to give God the honor due Him and to accept Him as my God, confessing that He is just, true, and merciful. Such faith sets us free from sin and all evil. If I have thus given God His due, I live the rest of my life for the benefit of my neighbor, to serve and help him. The greatest work that follows from faith is that with my mouth I confess Christ, sealing that confession with my blood and, if it is so to be, laying down my life for it. Not that God needs this work. But I am to do it that my faith may thereby be proved and known, that others may likewise be brought to believe. Then other works follow; they must all be directed toward serving my neighbor ( WA, 12, 288).
The Lord wants to say: You have received enough from Me peace and joy and everything you ought to have; personally you need no more. Therefore work now, look at what I have done, and imitate it. My Father has sent Me into the world for your sake alone, in order to help you, not to benefit Myself. This I have done; I have died for you and have given you all I am and have. Therefore you should spend your lives serving and helping everyone; otherwise you would have nothing to do on earth, for through faith you have enough of everything. Therefore I send you into the world as My Father has sent sent Me, that is, that every Christian may instruct and teach his fellow man also to come to Christ (WA, 12, 521).
Missions, in sum, is the fruit of the Gospel. Luther sees the active declaration of God’s saving message as a natural concomitant of the Christian life. Specifically, missionary effort follows dynamically from (1) the personal relationship with Christ, (2) the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believing heart, and (3) the powerful working of God’s Word, which never returns void. In his exposition of John 14:12-14 (1537),
Luther describes the connection between the saving experience and the proclamation of the Gospel to others:
When a Christian begins to know Christ as His Lord and Savior,
who has redeemed him from death, and is brought into His dominion and heritage, his heart is thoroughly permeated by God then he would like to help everybody attain this blessedness. For he has no greater joy than the treasured knowledge of Christ. So he begins to teach and exhort others, confesses and commends his blessedness before everybody, and sighs and prays that they, too, may come to this grace. He has a restless spirit while enjoying rest supreme, that is, God’s grace and peace. Therefore he cannot be quiet or idle but is forever struggling and striving with all his powers, as one living only to spread God’s honor and praise farther among man, to cause others also to receive this spirit of grace and through it also to help him pray ( WA, 45, 540).
Luther’s comments on the "fruits of the Spirit" in Gal. 5:22
(1531) include his affirmation that joy in spreading the Gospel is one of the Spirit’s benefits: "The godly rejoice when the Gospel is widely spread, many come to faith, and Christ’s kingdom is increased in this way" (WA, 40 II, 118). In a letter of March, 1522, Luther stresses the vital connection between missionary proclamation and the power of God’s Word-in the threefold sense of Christ, His Gospel, and the Scripture that conveys it: "This noble Word brings with it a great hunger and an insatiable thirst, so that we could not be satisfied even though many thousands of people believe on it; we wish that no one should be without it. This thirst ever strives for more and does not rest; it moves us to speak, as David says: `I believed, therefore have I spoken’ (Ps. 116:10 ). And we have (says St. Paul, 2 .Cor. 4:13) `the same spirit of faith . . . we also believe and therefore speak"’ (WA, 10 II, 54) . Here we have Luther’s philosophy of missions, distilled in six scriptural words: "I believed, therefore have I spoken."
LESSONS FROM LUTHER
Not only does Luther have a superlative missionary vision; he has vital lessons for us who live in a world of jet age, mass communications evangelism methods. Two paramount lessons can be drawn from Luther’s understanding of the missionary, task. Whatever our denominational or confessional connections, we should listen closely to his scriptural insights.
First, the focus of missions must be, not sociology but theology–not man in his sin, but God and His grace. When Luther’s critics condemn him for not setting forth specific missionary methods and techniques, they simply display their own obtuseness. "This reproach," says Elert with full justice, "belongs in the technical high schools, where the science of business is taught"; and in the spirit of Luther he adds: "Only from the dynamic of the Gospel itself can the ‘idea of missions,’ which should be evangelical, get its obligating power, not from reflecting on this or that kind of people." Today we have become preoccupied with methods and techniques of mission, to the point where the gravitational center of the missionary thrust has perceptibly shifted from God to man. Perhaps we are in need of a Copernican revolution" in missions, based on Luther’s insights, which will restore the proper center to evangelistic proclamation, even as Luther’s original message restored a Christocentric perspective to theology. In an address at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, C. Stacey Woods of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students made much the same point: evangelicals today are not having the missionary impact that the last generation did, in spite of (or perhaps because of ) their sociological techniques; the answer is a return to the Word as the source of all true missionary dynamic.
Second, we can learn from Luther that in the final analysis the motive for missions must be, not legalism but love. "God lets us live here on earth in order that we may lead other people to believe, doing for them what He has done for us" (WA, 12, 267). We love the lost because God in Christ loved us when we were lost. Missions follows the heart recognition that Christ has given Himself for us. Legal motivations are superfluous, for the good tree (as Luther was fond of saying) bears good fruit; you don’t have to waggle your finger and instruct it! Missionary activity, therefore, is not something to be legalistically schematized into "home" and "foreign" missions (with greater "merit" generally attaching to the latter); as the great 19th century Lutheran missions developer Wilhelm Loehe said, in Luther’s spirit, "Missions is nothing but the one church of God in its motion."
For Luther, the missionary enterprise is the outgrowth of love-no more, no less; and he characteristically employed two of the most fundamental biblical symbols of love, water and fire, in setting forth his dynamic vision of Christian proclamation to a world desperately needing an eternal Word of love. When the Gospel message is proclaimed, it is "as if one threw a stone into the water; the stone causes ripples, circles, and streams round about it; and the ripples always roll them farther and farther; one drives the other until they come to the shore. Although the water becomes calm in the center, the ripples do not rest but keep on flowing" (WA, 10 III, 140, 6ff.). "Christians should also bring forth much fruit among all the heathen by means of the Word, should convert and save many by eating about themselves like a fire that burns amid dry wood or straw; thus the fire of the Holy Spirit should consume the heathen according to the flesh and make room everywhere for the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ" (WA, 23, 645, 30) . May we in our day become so consumed by the fire of Christ’s love that we spend our lives conveying living water to all who thirst for the "pure river of life, clear as crystal, that proceedeth out of the throne of God and of the Lamb."
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