What, then, is Luther’s contribution to history? Consider 5 primary areas of his lasting influence.
Luther’s wrestling with Romans 1:16-17 is the seminal theological moment of the Reformation. The doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, came from his commitment to the authority of Scripture over all of life.
2. Bible Translation
One of the Reformers’ great legacies is the return of the Word of God to the people. For centuries, not only were there no good translations in the common language, the official church position was that lay people should be forbidden from reading the Bible. The Council of Toulouse decreed in 1229: “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”
Like other Reformation figures, Luther valued the Bible in the language of the people. Because he believed in the priesthood of every believer, he wanted every person to have a Bible for himself. His linguistic skills were brilliant, and he set translation and the German language forward by hundreds of years.
While Luther recognized that the Bible itself is the chief educational tool for believers, he also believed that children and adults alike needed targeted discipleship and training in the faith. So Luther produced two catechisms in 1529. The Large Catechism is for adults and contains a lengthy section on marriage. The Small Catechism is designed for children and is much shorter. Each catechism focused on the same five points: the Ten Commandments (as a way of understanding sin and moral will of God), the Apostles’ Creed (as a summary of doctrine and understanding of forgiveness), the Lord’s Prayer (to help understand God’s mercy), and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of God’s grace to us.
Luther wanted the catechism to be used in church as a basis for teaching, but he emphasized in an even greater way its importance for the home. Fathers, as the heads of home, should quiz children and servants at least once each week to make sure they were learning their catechism. Children who failed their catechism check shouldn’t be allowed to eat, and servants who failed were to be kicked out of the household.
4. Congregational Singing
It’s hard to define Luther’s greatest legacy, because he’s such a prodigious figure, but the reformation of church music must rank near the top of the list. Luther: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. … Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”
Prior to Luther, the congregation was rarely involved in participating in worship. Luther changed that tradition so much that he’s often considered “the father of congregational singing.” It’s in the singing of the entire congregation that Luther most clearly embodies his doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. In Luther’s church, everyone sang.
Because Luther so valued congregational singing, he published a hymnal in 1524, with 23 hymn texts he authored (and tunes which he may have helped compose). His most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” was published in a later hymnal. Luther taught his people to sing, having choir practices during the week … for the entire congregation. One of Luther’s opponents commented, “The hymns of Luther killed more souls than his sermons.”
5. Preaching the Word
Luther believed in the centrality and authority of the Word of God for all of life. Protestant churches began placing the pulpit higher than the altar, because salvation comes to us through the Word. Luther was remarkable in his ability to preach in church and lecture at the university.
We have 2300 extant sermons of Luther’s. In the year 1528 alone, he preached 195 sermons in 145 days. He believed that the preacher’s job is to lay open God’s Word for the people.
He offered this advice to a struggling preacher:
“Do not try to imitate other people. Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honor and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears. I can tell you preaching is not a work of man. Although I am old and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach. You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; secondly, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace. You will preach your very best. The audience will be pleased, but you won’t. And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself. So pray to God and leave all the rest to him.”
And I love this section from one of Luther’s Christmas sermons:
‘The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand. There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!’ Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself. The birth was still more pitiable. No one regarded this young wife bringing forth her first-born. No one took her condition to heart.”
Praise God for Martin Luther, the lion of the Reformation, who more than anyone else embodies the personality and boldness that produced a spiritual and theological revival that—in many ways—continues today.