Martin Luther’s most dangerous moment

On 18 April, 1521, almost exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther experienced what was probably the most dangerous moment of his entire life.

He had been asked to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, the Spaniard Charles V, at the imperial Parliament (Diet) which had been called to meet at Worms, which was situated on the Upper Rhine, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt.

Luther’s teaching

In the previous four years there had been a number of attempts by key authorities in the Roman Church to convince Luther of the errors of his teaching that Christians are declared righteous by a holy God simply by faith alone in the crucified Christ. It was rightly understood by all who took part in the ensuing controversy that Luther’s views rendered much of the medieval system of piety utterly worthless. Charles had been given the authority to burn Luther at the stake if he refused to recant.

Luther first appeared before the emperor on 17 April. It would have be an awe-inspiring occasion with all of the German princes and nobles and their retinues as well as the emperor and his Spanish guard. Luther was presented with the 30 or so books he had written since 1517 and asked if he would renounce them.

It was an unusually diffident Luther who replied. He asked for 24 hours to consider his reply. This was granted and he appeared before Charles V again the following day, 18 April. When asked the same question as the day before, Luther’s diffidence was gone, swept away by his more usual boldness.

Luther’s response to the emperor

He told the emperor that his books fell into three categories: there were books of piety, like his marvellous The Freedom of a Christian (1520), and of course, he felt there was nothing wrong in those and how could he reject their teachings. Then there were those books in which he had criticised the papacy, and there was no way he was going to recant from such attacks, because the pope was wrong in maintaining views at odds with a plain reading of Scripture. And then there were books responding to those who had critiqued his attacks on the bishop of Rome. Again, he was not prepared to recant from anything in those, since they should not have defended such blatant errors, though he was sorry for the harshness of the tone of his attacks.

He then declared in words that have echoed down to the present-day: ‘Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’

The significance of Luther’s words

Luther’s brave stand at Worms, face to face most likely with a fiery death, sealed the break with Rome of those who came to be called Protestants. It also decisively determined that the movement that followed in his train – Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and even Anabaptist – would be a Biblicist one in which a spirituality of the word shaped its piety. And, though the Reformers did not realise it in their day, Luther standing before the most powerful prince in Europe with the Scriptures as his only armament set the tone for the church in the far future, when she cast the support of princes to the four winds and relied solely upon the Holy Spirit – solo Sancto Spiritu.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Photograph: Monument to Martin Luther in Wittenberg. Photograph by iStock.

Is evangelism to blame? A Buddhist critiques our lack of godliness

On the Speak Life Podcast, Paul Feesey and I have been discussing the various scandals rocking the evangelical world — particularly those of Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher.

While some have questioned our focus on these topics (when we’re meant to be inspiring evangelism), one listener had the opposite observation. Writing as a Buddhist he had some blistering criticisms of the evangelical church – a critique which I think is very worth considering.

Observation and questions

First an observation:

‘Christians are preoccupied, perhaps even obsessed, with bringing others to Jesus. The amount of time, money, ingenuity, effort, and sacrifices Christians expend to convert others is truly astonishing. You pray for it, have conferences on how to do it, celebrate it when it’s successful, vow to keep trying when it isn’t, donate money for it. Even the many admirable projects Christians have to help the sick and marginalised often have a conversion agenda behind them.’

Then come the searching questions:

‘Could Christians suffer fewer scandals if they paid less attention to converting others and more to transforming themselves? Might their time be better spent teaching congregations to develop self-awareness than encouraging them to evangelise their neighbours? Could it even be that the imperative to convert others is really a subtle, unconscious strategy to avoid looking at oneself?’

The shoe does fit, a bit

When we consider that Ravi Zacharias leveraged his status as a world-renowned evangelist in order to spiritually and sexually abuse his victims, when we remember how he told victims that ‘millions of souls’ would be lost if they blew the whistle on his sins, when we note how many scandals are hushed up because ‘So-and-So is a good man, doing a good work’, the shoe does seem to fit – at least a bit. And what of the whole orientation of the evangelistically-driven Christian life? When all the focus is on winning the lost, what place is there for looking within?

Our Buddhist listener continued:

‘How did [Fletcher and Zacharias] get that way. I am sure they started out as devoted, sincere Christians, but I’m just as sure that the need to fulfil “the Great Commission” led them to start making compromises, then exaggerating, then becoming a good actor, then becoming blind to their personal issues – pride, lust for power, sexual desire, etc. They had no time to look at themselves; they were too busy planning how to save others.’

How do we react?

We might react defensively to such critique. After all, if we had a cure for cancer and did not devote our lives to sharing it, that would be the unbalanced and unloving approach. That’s true. But does our listener have a point? I think so.

I think we have muddled a number of different elements in our theologies of church, mission and the Christian life.

First, evangelists have been divorced from the church. What Ephesians 4:11 has brought together – the ‘evangelists’ and the ministry of the whole body – we have put asunder. We send evangelists away on their solo missions when they’re meant to equip the saints for an all-of-life, whole-of-body mission.

Second, we have divorced pastoring from evangelising, imagining that seeking lost sheep can happen apart from the feeding and protection of the flock.

Third, we divorce in our thinking and practice the ‘building of the church’ from the ‘reaching of the world’, when in reality the church is God’s evangelistic strategy. And fourth, we consider our job to be ‘gaining converts’ when, more fundamentally, we must ‘offer Christ’.

Pyramid scheme?

The church is not empty, seeking to suck the world in, we are full and must flow out! Yet if we never consider our ‘fullness’ in the Lord Jesus, we have nothing to give. We become a pyramid scheme with little to offer our new recruits, except the expansion of the scheme.

What our Buddhist listener was urging us towards is, in fact, what will fuel a truly healthy mission. It’s the inward (and, more importantly, upward) look that will set our hearts on fire with a contagious love for Christ. He is the centre, not evangelism.

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.

Why do we disagree with X and call them heretics?

The case for theological triage
By Gavin Ortlund
Crossway / TGC. 152 pages. £11.99
ISBN 978 1 433 567 421

This is a brilliant book on a vital subject. On which doctrinal hills are you prepared to die? Can we rank Christian doctrines from top-flight essentials through to disputable and insignificant?

I was taught – and have often quoted – the adage attributed to Augustine, or Meldenius, or various others: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.’

But that only gives two categories: esssentials or non-essentials (sometimes called ‘adiaphora’). Gavin Ortlund says that won’t do; we need more categories. He proposes four:

• those that are essential to the gospel

• those that are urgent for the health and practice of the church

• those that are important to Christian theology

• those that are unimportant to our gospel ministry

He uses the analogy of medical triage, which he picked up from Albert Mohler. Faced with multiple casualties, how are the paramedics to know which patient must be treated first, and which can safely be treated later? There is an order of priorities, and so it is with our doctrines. He argues this Biblically, theologically and convincingly.

Ortlund does not claim to give all the answers (good thing too!), but he really helps with quotations from the Scriptures, and from Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Warfield, Gresham Machen, Packer, and others, to make us think about the issues where we may disagree with the church next door, or the Christian in the next chair, or our own pastor, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses … Why do we disagree with X and call them heretics? Why do we disagree with Y and call them fellow-Christians – yet in another denomination? Why do we disagree with Z and argue with them ferociously while remaining in the same fellowship? At what point do we need to separate? At what point do we need to stop fighting and join hands for the gospel? As a member of the Church of England, I found plenty of challenging food for thought!

He comments on areas of disagreement such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, premillennialism, spiritual gifts, men’s and women’s ministry, creation, and others.

He urges us to stand firm and fight for the essentials with no compromise. But his principal aim is to stop us tearing at one another over doctrinal matters that are not at the heart of the gospel. His conclusion is a plea for humility. Towards the end, he addresses us: ‘Friends, the unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that He died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.’

This is really a stimulating book. And if you still need convincing, it has a Foreword by Don Carson, and it’s short.

James Dudley-Smith

James Dudley-Smith is Rector of St John’s and St Andrew’s, in Yeovil town centre, South Somerset

Photograph: Fellowship of Independent Evangelicals Churches.