As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Living Lutheran is exploring 500 of its unique aspects, continuing the series this month with 50 Reformation things you may not know about the Reformation.
This list is not meant as an all-encompassing compendium of everything essential to the Reformation and its theology, but rather as a glimpse of the variety of ways the movement that Luther sparked in 1517 would influence the history of the world.
We know that Martin Luther considered justification by grace through faith the most important teaching of Christian faith—the one by which everything else we say and believe is judged (Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, page 59). But what we need to remember is that salvation is not something yet to come; justification is already complete (LW, Vol. 34, pages 152-153).
Every baptized Lutheran is a “born-again Christian.” And since that’s who we are, Luther said we are to start living that way—living our baptisms (Book of Concord, pages 359-360).
The righteousness of God is not something God is, but what he does to us—he makes us righteous (LW, Vol. 34, pages 336-337). Luther tells us that this insight is the essence of the spiritual experience that changed his life, the famed “Tower Experience.”
Luther often said justification involves a pronouncement by God, declaring us sinners righteous (LW, Vol. 25, page 46). But more frequently he compares justification to a marriage. We receive all that Christ has in the marriage, and having his love and righteousness qualifies us for salvation and makes us more loving in faith (LW, Vol. 44, pages 26-27).
Luther wanted us to be sure that Christ’s work is “for us” (LW, Vol. 34). But the strength of one’s faith is not his hang-up. Even a weak faith saves, Luther said (LW, 12:262). In fact, when it comes to salvation, we’re passive—getters, not givers (LW, Vol. 52).
The reformer also taught that we can’t even believe on our own—it takes the Spirit, who gives us faith (The Small Catechism, II.III.6). Lutherans are, in fact, big on the Spirit, believing that the Spirit is active in every aspect of our lives. Every good idea we have is a work of the Spirit, who sets us on fire, Luther said (LW, Vol. 24, pages 130, 89; Complete Sermons, Vol. 3/1, page 188).
But grace isn’t cheap for Luther! Christ’s love starts moving us to do good like a spouse’s love moves us to faithfulness to our marriage vows (LW, Vol. 44, pages 26-27). We’re so filled up with the goodness God pours into us that we can’t help but spill out to others (LW, Vol. 31, page 367).
Indeed, Luther said we’re so filled up with God’s goodness that it’s as if we were intoxicated with him, doing the bidding of God and the Spirit without being in control of ourselves (LW, Vol. 31, page 349).
Good works transpire without our willing them, like a good tree can’t help but produce good fruit (LW, Vol. 34, page 111). Faith is such a busy thing, Luther added, that it’s impossible for the faithful not to be doing good works (LW, Vol. 35, page 370).
Luther taught that the Christian life is “hidden,” that one can’t judge Christians by their lifestyles, and that sometimes non-Christians will do more external good deeds than the faithful (LW, Vol. 26, 376). God himself acts in hidden and surprising ways, as he did with Jesus on the cross (LW, Vol. 31, page 39).
God is so in control that the good we do is really God’s work (LW, Vol. 34, page 111). We’re nothing but the hands of Christ, Luther asserted (LW, Vol. 24, page 226). In the good we do, we are just “little Christs” to each other (LW, Vol. 31, pages 367-368).
Living as “little Christs” entails life having a free, easy quality, filled with happiness (even when plagued with the suffering that comes from being Christian) (LW, Vol. 24, page 230; Complete Sermons, Vol. 3/2, page 257). That’s why Luther wants us to look at our jobs as good things—a chance (or “mask”) to serve God and other people (LW, Vol. 35, pages 40-41).
Luther knows that sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. That’s why he said Christ takes us away from ourselves, making us dependent on what is outside ourselves (LW, Vol. 26, page 387). The righteousness of God given to us is external or alien, not something that is in us or belongs to us (LW, Vol. 31, page 297).
The reformer didn’t teach universal salvation, insisting that we must have faith. But he expressed an openness to hoping for the salvation of all, that God might give the gift of salvation to all, even in death (LW, Vol. 43, page 54).
We sin in everything we do because everything we do is inspired by selfishness (Luther calls this “concupiscence”). The best we can do is sin bravely—confess we are sinning in all we do and yet seek to do God’s will anyway (LW, Vol. 48, pages 281-282).
Even when we do good, we act in selfish ways (LW, Vol. 33, pages 263-264). We are free: The law and failure to do works can’t condemn us (LW, Vol. 31, page 356). But we are also free from the law in the sense that we may break the law to do good (Complete Sermons, Vol. 3/1, page 166).
While the reformer read the Bible critically (LW, Vol. 34, page 317), at times he referred to Scripture as “inerrant” (Weimar Ausgabe, Vol. 40 III, pages 254, 618). He suggested there are two kinds of word of God in Scripture—the word that has to do with us and our context and the word that does not (LW, Vol. 35, page 170).
The reformer spoke of the three persons of the Trinity as speaker, sermon and hearer (LW, Vol. 24, pages 364-365), or as the mind, intellect and will of God (LW, Vol. 1, page 50).
Church and state weren’t separate for Luther in the sense that he didn’t see the state as secular, for it is still ruled by God. However, Christian values on Luther’s grounds aren’t imposed on the state. Political judgments are to be made on the basis of reason (LW, Vol. 45, pages 82-89).
Although the majority of the time Luther spoke of God as male, he did refer at times to God as “mother” (LW, Vol. 17, pages 139, 16).
He called the church “a hospital for sinners” (LW, Vol. 25, page 263)—the church is only for sick people like us.
The reformer focused on the authority of Scripture, but not without tradition. Tradition mandated for him the desirability of maintaining liturgical worsgip, and was the basis for the validity of infant baptism—do it because God has always had the church do it (LW, Vol. 40, pages 255-257).
The reformer preferred immersion in baptism (LW, Vol. 35, page 29). He also embraced the ancient African Christian practice of kissing infants before they are to be baptized to honor the hands of God that the baptized child will become (LW, Vol. 45, page 41).
Luther was open to maintaining a papacy if the pope would acknowledge that sinners have free forgiveness and submit to Scripture (LW, Vol. 26, page 224; LW, Vol. 39, pages 101-102).
Contrary to any notion that he may not have been strong on evangelism, Luther taught that the only reason God lets us live is so we can bring others to him (LW, Vol. 30, page 11).
Although different from Calvinist doctrine, Luther gave God so much credit for all that we have that he even sometimes arguably supported predestination (LW, Vol. 33, page 190).
Sometimes Luther taught that works did not cause salvation, but that they were necessary for salvation and outward righteousness (LW, Vol. 25, page 186).
Other times, he even said we become divine in faith (Complete Sermons, Vol. 2/1, page 216).
Luther believed that we are all religious to some extent. He taught that what you trust and believe with your whole heart is your god (Book of Concord, page 386). He urged us to be sure that we have the true God, not an idol.
Although he was referring to Europeans enslaved by feudalism, not the enslavement of Africans, Luther seemingly opposed slavery. He advocated that slaves run away and that a just government would guarantee the life and livelihood of the freedmen (LW, Vol. 9, page 232).
Luther defended the virtues of African culture (LW, Vol. 2, page 305) against detractors. In fact, he taught that the Greek philosophers got their ideas from Africa (LW, Vol. 1, page 4).
The reformer praised the ancient African churches—especially the Coptic church in Egypt. He said they were valid churches without acknowledging the pope’s authority, so the Reformation movement had much in common with them (LW, Vol. 31, page 281).
While Luther said some notoriously vicious things in anger against the Jewish community, earlier in his life he demanded equal rights for Jewish citizens (LW, Vol. 45, pages 199-229).
The first reformer admired Islamic society. He may have criticized the Quran and feared Islamic invasions in Europe (LW, Vol. 46, page 177, 183), but he praised Islamic morality and Muslim culture (Weimar Ausgasbe, Vol. 30II, pages 189, 206).
The reformer advocated generous safety nets for the poor (LW, Vol. 45, pages 169-194). Luther believed that God has a bias toward the poor and weak, as he claimed that it is God’s nature to feed the hungry and comfort the miserable (LW, Vol. 26, page 314).
Critical as he was of the free market (Book of Concord, pages 416, 419), the reformer opted for government to set interest rates and manage the economy (LW, Vol. 45, page 249).
The reformer also said that God doesn’t tell time like we do—that from his perspective, all time is one (LW, Vol. 30, page 196). This affirmation, suggestive of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, entails that, in God’s sight, your mother is caring for you in your infancy at the same time that your great-grandchildren are being born. In God’s time you are never alone, bereft of your loved ones.
Although Luther predates the development of the theory of evolution, his view of God’s way of telling time entails that God’s six days of creation are not completed, for God is still creating (LW, Vol. 4, page 136).
Luther envisioned God in a way compatible with the Higgs boson particle (the idea that there is a field that holds all the subatomic particles together and makes matter possible)—as being in every single thing individually, present at the same time in many ways (LW, Vol. 37, page 60).
As a result, the reformer recognized that God is always “meddling” in our affairs—that everything that we have, even our homes, families and the food on our tables, is God’s work (Book of Concord, page 354).
Luther believed that the universe is a body never in one place, a bit like how the Big Bang theory posits that the universe is ever expanding (LW, Vol. 38, page 60).
Luther also said the church was our mother—“the mother of all Christians” (LW, Vol. 51, page 166). In fact, he said the church can get along fine without us (LW, Vol. 47, page 118)—but we need our mom.
Luther didn’t always teach only two sacraments. Sometimes he claimed that there were three—and once even said there are seven (LW, Vol. 41, page 166).
In communion, at least at one point, Luther believed we actually swallow Jesus—that he enters our bodies (LW, Vol. 37, page 100).
Since we all receive Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper, Luther said we receive all the members of his body. You can lean on them and support all others who receive the sacrament, so their problems and joys are now yours too (LW, Vol. 35, pages 50ff). Luther seems to have been open to the communion of infants as well (LW, Vol. 35, page 110).
Luther taught that we should regard the possessions we have as a traveler does the items in a hotel room: they are yours for a while, but they are the owner’s. This makes it easy to leave behind to others what we think of as ours—they’re just on loan (LW, Vol. 21, page 13).
Luther called Mary “the Mother of God” (LW, Vol. 21, page 308) because he believed everything said of Christ’s divinity must be said of his humanity (LW, Vol. 22, page 346). The reformer even remained open to believing the perpetual virginity of Mary and her immaculate conception (LW, Vol. 45, page 205; LW, Vol. 21, 327.)
Inasmuch as all that happens to Christ’s humanity happens to his divinity, Luther said it follows that God himself suffered on the cross and still suffers with us (LW, Vol. 30, page 223).
The reformer believed that we are already in the “end-times”: the kingdom is already present when the Spirit works faith in us or compels us to do good (Book of Concord, page 356).
Luther believed that the dead “sleep in God’s bosom,” not that their souls go directly to heaven (LW, Vol. 4, page 313).
an ELCA pastor, serves on the faculty of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. His latest book is Martin Luther’s Legacy: Reforming Reformation Theology for the 21st Century