Dear Church Family,
This past Sunday, in our adult Sunday school class in “Turning Points in Church History,” we picked up where we left off by examining some of Martin Luther’s major contributions to Christian doctrine and practice. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get through all of the lesson as we had a good discussion about “vocation.” Since we didn’t get to finish the lesson, I thought that I would take this opportunity to summarize this study.
One of the major contributions of Martin Luther, and probably the one which we speak about the most, is his understanding and teaching about the doctrine of justification. Through his study of Scripture, Luther came to understand that man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s free grace alone (Romans 4:1-7; Galatians 2:16). As Luther put it, Christians are simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneous justified and sinner”). At the same time, Luther also clearly taught the necessity of good works which are grounded in true faith. Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “Faith…is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (WCF 11.2).
Theology of the Cross
Luther also reformed the worship of the church in making the service one which the congregation was more fully engaged (especially in singing), seeing worship not as a sacrificial work on man’s part but a gift from God. Undergirding much of Luther’s teaching was also his understanding of what it means to be a “theologian of the cross.” Reasoning from the Bible’s teaching that the foolishness and weakness of the cross is God’s means of manifesting His power and saving men (1 Corinthians 1:21-25; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10), Luther promoted a “theology of the cross” as a pattern of ministry, as well as a way of life for every Christian.
As a former monk who married a former nun, Luther also made a bold statement about the institution of marriage. Where the church had formerly taught that the celibate life of a priest or a nun was a higher, more spiritual, calling, Luther argued that marriage was the best Christian life. He taught that that there are three main purposes in marriage: the procreation of children, the avoidance of sin, and mutual help and companionship. With this teaching, the Westminster Standards are also in agreement (WCF 24.2).
In keeping with his denunciation of the vows of celibacy and the supposed “higher calling” of the priesthood, Luther also taught a fresh understanding of the meaning of “vocation.” Formerly, and still today in the Roman Catholic Church, vocation (or calling) is limited to ‘holy orders’ and the celibate life of the priest or nun. But, for Luther, the value of one’s vocation (all vocations) comes from the inherent call to love and serve one’s neighbor. According to Luther, God is the one who ultimately calls each person to a particular productive form of work and He is the one that ennobles the pursuit of each one’s calling.
Unfortunately, it is in vogue these days to misunderstand and misapply Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Contrary to the biblical teaching on the uniqueness of ordination to gospel ministry (e.g., Romans 10:12-15; 1 Timothy 4:14), some erroneously teach that every believer or every member of the church is a minister. And, contrary to the doctrine of the biblical teaching on the spiritual nature of the mission of the church to preach the gospel and make disciples (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 12:13; John 18:36), some erroneously teach that the church is to involve itself in the temporal affairs of this world.
As we began to discuss this topic in class, I tried to explain how Luther’s doctrine of vocation can sometimes be misunderstood in these ways. Yet, as I sought to explain and answer questions, it seems that I may have caused some confusion. One or two people inferred that I was saying that only those ordained to gospel ministry ought to share the gospel. If that’s what came across, I apologize. That is not what I meant. Let me try to be as clear and as succinct as possible: while we may make a distinction between the ecclesial calling of ordained gospel ministry and other equally legitimate vocations, God exhorts all believers to bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, “to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). To better understand these distinctions and categories, I refer you to two things that I’ve previously written that deal with this topic: “The Church and the Individual Christian” and “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine in Work and Politics.”
The Priesthood of Believers
In the class on Sunday, we ran out of time and didn’t have the opportunity to discuss this last contribution of Luther’s, but it helps to clarify some of the confusion in the previous topic. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about the special (and necessary) intercession of the priest in absolving a believer of their sins, Luther emphasized the “priesthood of believers”: since Jesus Christ is the one and only high-priest (Hebrews 7:23-28), every Christian believer is a part of the holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:4-5) and has direct access to God through His Son (Hebrews 13:10).
The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks to the concept of the priesthood of believers when it describes the liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the Gospel to include, in part, “freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected,” “greater boldness of access to the throne of grace,” and “fuller communication of the free Spirit of God” (WCF 20.1).
Like many of the other contributions of Luther, the doctrine of the priesthood of believers has been misunderstood, as well. Some have interpreted this concept as teaching that there are no special church offices in the new covenant church, at all. Here, T. David Gordon helpfully points out:
Some have taken the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of believers to mean that the Reformation did not believe in an ordained ministry. The Reformers taught no such thing. For them, the ‘priesthood of believers’ recognized that the priestly duties of consecrating our lives to God were incumbent upon all believers, as was the priestly duty of interceding for others. The Reformers thus taught that the particular office of priest within the Sinai covenant became both general and non-sacrificial in the new covenant. But the Reformation recognized that other, non-priestly offices rightly existed in the NT church; they taught the priesthood of believers, but not the clergy-hood of believers.
I hope that what I have written here might help to mitigate any of the confusion from the class this past Sunday; however, if still more clarification is needed, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’d be happy to discuss these things further.
Allow me to conclude, though, with a statement from Ronald H. Bainton’s biography of the magisterial Reformer, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, in which he enumerates Luther’s remarkable accomplishments and impact:
If no Englishman occupies a similar place in the religious life of his people, it is because no Englishman had anything like Luther’s range. The Bible translation in England was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Cranmer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer; the hymnbook from Watts. And not all of these lived in one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare.
We do not worship the man, but we are grateful for the ways in which the Lord used Martin Luther in the Reformation of the Church. Soli Deo Glory.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch