Thursday, February 03, 2011

Luther's Fight for Recovering the Gospel
At the heart of everything Martin Luther (1483-1546) did as a reformer, it was fighting for the recovery of the Gospel. For Luther, this is what the Protestant Reformation was all about. Despite all the abuses and corruption which the Catholic Church was riddled with during the 16th century, Luther's ultimate battle with Rome was theological. Roman Catholicism had sabotaged the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther therefore made it his lifelong mission to recover the Gospel which Catholicism had buried underneath her man-made traditions and her system of a works-righteousness salvation.
This recovery effort was brought forth in several ways: first and foremost, it was by Luther's translation of the Bible in the German language. The New Testament was completed in 1522 and the Old Testament was brought forth ten years later in 1532. This one acheivement sealed the Reformation for Germany by placing God's Word in the hands of the common people to read in their own language. And of course by giving the people a vernacular Bible, no one in Germany would be barred from reading the Gospel for themselves.
Secondly, Luther's fight to recover the Gospel took shape in his influence as a Bible professor, pastor, and mentor for the next generation. This can be seen in the production of Luther's Small Catechism (1529) which would explain the theology of the Bible and Gospel for children. And also there was the enormous affect Luther had on his university students by what would be called his "Table Talk." These were informal discussions and exhortations Luther would give his students and other guests who would gather around the dinner table in Luther's home. Through these "talks" Luther took great advantage to unpack the Gospel and shepherd the impressionable and hungry hearts who sat at his table.
Thirdly, Luther's fight to recover the Gospel certainly took its greatest shape in the form of preaching. The act of preaching was central to the Reformation since the Reformation gave centrality to the sermon. As Roland Bainton said of Luther: "The pulpit was higher than the altar, for Luther held that salvation is through the Word and without the Word the elements are devoid of sacramental quality, but the Word is sterile unless it is spoken." And for Luther, he took this conviction to heart. From the years 1522 to his death in 1546, Luther preached some 6,000 sermons. He believed firmly that "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom.10:17).
Finally, next to preaching the Gospel, Luther also gave his labors to writing and publishing books that would work to spread the Gospel as well. And without question, this is where Luther's Gospel recovery efforts would have their longest lasting effects. For once Luther's physical voice was silenced in 1546, his written voice would keep fighting to reestablish the Gospel for future generations. But of everything Luther penned for this purpose, there would be no book more prized and revered for recovering the Gospel, than Luther's forceful, theological reply to Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) in 1525.
Originally titled in Latin as De Servo Arbitrio (which translated means "On the Enslaved Will") - we have come to know this book by its more popular title, The Bondage of the Will. Luther himself regarded this book as the only book of two that he wished to be preserved. The other book for preservation was The Small Catechism. But outside of these two books, Luther said you could burn everything else he wrote.
So by the mere fact that Luther would esteem The Bondage of the Will as holding that much importance in comparison to the rest of his writings (which fill 55 volumes in the English edition and 127 in German) - it would serve us well to know what this book was about and why it was written. Because in truth, The Bondage of the Will actually crystallizes Luther's fight for recovering the Gospel in written form with greater clarity than anything he ever wrote. Regarding its place of importance among all the books written by the Protestant Reformers, B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) called The Bondage of the Will "the manifesto of the Reformation." He then went on to say:
"It is the embodiment of Luther's reformation conceptions, the nearest to a systematic statement of them he ever made. It is the first exposition of the fundamental ideas of the Reformation in comprehensive form."
Now as already mentioned, The Bondage of the Will was a personal reply that Luther had made to the famed Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus. At that time in European history, there was no one who could rival Erasmus in reading and writing the classical tongues. His greatest gift to that age (and even to the church) was his reproduction of the Greek New Testament. Luther himself felt great indebtedness to Erasmus for this publication. And in addition to this work as a scholar, Erasmus also sought to reform the Catholic church. He was repulsed at the abuses and corruption he witnessed in every part of Medieval Catholicism.
But the vision of reform for Erasmus was poles apart from Luther. Erasmus was not a theologian. In fact, he detested theology. For him, a reformation in the Catholic church was a Christianity without Christ. It was nothing more than "a bald moralism", which said: "Be good and all will be well with you." Erasmus therefore saw nothing wrong with the doctrine of Catholicism. He applauded its high and impossible system of works-righteousness salvation.
Luther however, standing firmly against Rome's doctrine of salvation, was also at odds with Erasmus. But these two men had not drawn swords over this issue until 1524. After must pressure from popes and princes, Erasmus reluctantly wrote his first and only attack against Luther. It was a small book he simply entitled, A Discussion Concerning Free-Will. Surprisingly, despite all the subjects he could have chosen to rebut Luther on, Erasmus took the heart of Luther's doctrine as the battle-ground.
For Luther though, he could not have been more pleased. In his reply to Erasmus (which came a year later), he actually thanked him for "attacking the real thing...the essential issue." And that "essential issue" was the nature of salvation as it related to human freedom. There was no subject more important for Luther than this. As far as he was concerned this matter was the centerpiece of the Reformation because it struck at the heart of the Gospel. Luther's reply therefore to Erasmus would be nothing less than a strong, thorough, dogmatic exposition regarding the biblical doctrine of salvation. What Luther would labor to do with all zeal, was to defend "the absolute exclusion of works from salvation, and the casting of the soul wholly upon the grace of God."
You see, for Erasmus, his idea of salvation was nothing more than a regurgitation of both Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian doctrine. While Erasmus strongly maintained that he believed salvation was by God's grace yet he would not concede it was by grace alone. Man must play some part and make some contribution to salvation, however small it may be. And for Erasmus, man's contribution was in his freedom to make the final decision as to whether God would save him or not. In other words, though man was a sinner yet his sinfulness did not impair his ability to apply himself to those things which would lead to salvation. In short, God may provide salvation but it was man's "free will" that makes it happen.
Luther was neither impressed nor convinced by the eloquence of Erasmus' words. In fact, Luther compared Erasmus' book to that of using gold and silver plates to carry feces! Luther's point was that the Erasmian gospel of Free Will was worthless and abominating, since it called no man to see his total helplessness as a sinner to merit salvation; and in turn, would not point men to the sole efficiency of God's grace to save. For Luther, nothing could be worse for sinners to hear than a message like this.
Moreover, Luther called Erasmus' "free will" nothing but a "pure fiction." The only thing man is free to do is "build houses, milk cows" and sin. But left to himself, Luther contended, no sinner would ever strive after God since they are completely ignorant of Him, paying Him no regard whatsoever, bound up in a corrupt sinful nature. Furthermore, in our sinfulness, Luther maintained we would not even know we're sinners unless the Spirit of God convicted us of our sin. So rather than celebrating human freedom like Erasmus, Luther declared that man's freedom as a sinner only reveals his desperation and need to be saved. Therefore, since man in his sin has no power in himself to do any good that would merit salvation, then he must be exclusively dependent on God's grace alone in Christ alone if he would be truly saved.
Articulating this truth to Erasmus (which is the Gospel in a nutshell), Luther essentially gave his greatest fight for recovering the Gospel. For this was not some academic debate between two scholars. This was a battle for preserving and propagating the only message that will redeem sinful man. In fact, even throughout Luther's reply to Erasmus, he made personal evangelistic appeals to the humanist scholar. Luther wasn't trying to win an argument he was seeking to unpack with the greatest clarity the only way sinners can be saved - and Erasmus unwittingly gave Luther the platform upon which to do so. Some years after Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will, he recalled in one of his many "Table Talks" what was at the core of the controversy, which he declared would always be the stand he would take:
"Free will brought us sin and death...Every part of us suffers corruption. So my position is this. Anyone who thinks that by free will he can do anything says 'no' to Christ. I have always taken this position in my writings, especially against Erasmus, one of the world's most learned scholars. I stand resolutely by my thesis because I know it is true. I will stand by it even if all the world opposes it. Divine truth stands."

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