By Dietrich Gruen
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed “95 Theses” to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany to protest the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sin. “Selling indulgences” is the widespread practice of doing good works or offering money to avoid punishment for sin. For this protest, Luther was declared a heretic and outlaw by Pope and Emperor alike in 1521. By 1529, his many followers were dubbed “protestants.” I visited Wittenberg last year; now, as the 500th anniversary of that seminal event is upon us, I explore the legacy of Luther on world missions.
Celebrations of Luther’s legacy in Germany are year-long, even years in the making. The theological and historical debates in the run-up to this 500th anniversary of the Reformation are fascinating. I am no scholar of church history, world mission, or Luther, so I cannot accurately assess the merits of each point of view and take a “Here I stand, I can do no other!” Mine is a mere discussion on current trends and thoughts, one that urges one and all to take the torch passed on by Luther. Hence I will simply call out pivotal paradigm shifts in missions that can be traced back to Luther.
Critics of Luther: He stood for Reform within the Church, but was not very missional
Some would argue that the spiritual forces unleashed by the Protestant Reformation inspired by Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel of grace and justification by faith were not sufficiently compelling to take the gospel to the ends of the earth in Luther’s century, which otherwise was a century of world-wide exploration and colonization. So how come? Luther’s detractors argue that the task of evangelizing the pagans would fall to others, such as the Pietists and monastic movements, a century later.
Luther, his critics say, had little concern for pagans or the heathen of foreign lands, but saw himself as a missionary over against the Roman Catholics of his day. That Church first had to be “evangelized,” as it were, before she could spread the evangel to anyone else.
But when Luther discovered that Roman Catholics accentuated human activities in mission work, he stressed that mission is first and foremost the work of God himself. Christ is Head of the church, and as such he leads her, saves her, sanctifies her, purifies her, and increases her—when and where he sees fit.
Other theological considerations may have held him back: Did Luther reserve the role of evangelist to the apostles of the first century? Alternately, did he hide behind an overemphasis on the sovereignty of God? Some historians think so.
Another theological excuse offered in Luther’s defense of human inactivity on the world mission front, one oft-repeated today, is that he left that special task to the Holy Spirit. Still others contend that Luther was so strongly convinced Christ would come back so soon that there was no room in his theology or eschatology for missiology. Here’s the logic of that view: If the world is going to end soon and Christ is coming back for his own even sooner, some see in Luther (and in themselves) an excuse to stay put and not go out with the gospel . And here we are 500 years later….
Yet word spread far and wide of the saving grace of God in Christ and the regenerating work of the Spirit. Did this happen despite Luther and his theology, or because of Luther and his doctrinal reforms? Other credit-worthy players and communication processes were certainly at work in Reformation times, such as in the hearts of John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Bucer. And later generations took these powers over and would develop them in obedience to the Great Commission, such that we have inherited a robust theology of missions today. But this month, fans of Martin Luther are most grateful.
Fans of Luther: His Protestant stance shapes ‘Evangelical’ mission then and now.
Having considered Luther as the champion of Church reform, to the possible neglect of world mission, we shall now consider the opposing view, where Luther is credited with several game-changing paradigm shifts and motivation for world missions today.
Granted, Luther was not the driver behind the business of missions; later generations of Protestants, even two centuries later, would establish missionary-sending societies and organize boards of missions. But once justified by faith through grace alone, Luther immediately began to spread that message among the intellectuals. He did this in university settings through debate, apologetics, and lectures.
The spread of Reformation thought came not only to the intellectual elite or academics, but also to lay people, mostly in the form of books in German. Luther’s use of the common language and printing press (invented by Gutenberg in 1440) are seminal to the spread of the gospel then and now. With the spread of literature, books and Bible products became the “missionaries.”
The power of the printing press helped shape not only theological communication of Luther’s works, but also the focus of mission. The neighborhood-type missionary approach of the early centuries was now a more removed, doctrinal, written and apologetically-preached approach that could be taken across state borders.
A culture becoming word-centric—people completely relying on words, either printed or spoken—is another legacy of Protestantism. Contemporary mission agencies who teach literacy, give away literature, and translate or contextualize the gospel into common idioms—they are doing the work that Luther championed.
The message of the gospel spread across Europe not only by word, as Luther’s words were read, but also in preached sermons. The supremacy of Scripture (solo scriptura vs. human authority) and the primacy of preaching (homily vs. liturgy) is another legacy of Luther and the Reformation, underscoring his impact on world missions to this day.
Luther’s theology of vocation also commended the gospel for dissemination, not just through priests & preachers, teachers & writers, but also through the life of ordinary workers—such as “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.”
Legacy of Luther: Missions rely on biblical literacy, personal decision, church plants
Putting books in the hands of people also begat today’s very specific emphasis on personal salvation. This individualized approach to mission and response, which we take for granted even in our highly individualist Western cultures, represented a new paradigm or pivotal shift in the mission work of Luther’s day. Individual salvation came to be viewed as superior to any kind of communal activity offered by the State church of Catholicism or the contemporary monastic communal orders (Celtic and Friar).
The priesthood of all believers is another hallmark of Luther’s Protestantism. Grace available by faith directly from Christ to the believer—who needs no other priestly mediation—simultaneously disempowered organized religious authority of Roman Catholicism and empowered individuals. Such individuals would go on to plant churches—and denominations. So much so, that some credit Luther with the (unintended?) consequence or legacy of giving birth and license to 40,000 denominations established since Luther’s Day.
Not only did Luther translate the Scriptures into the German language, he also composed the music and lyrics for several melodies and hymns. What used to be the exclusive domain of monks and priests is now, as a result of Luther, the privilege and joy of the laity. What we take for granted in worship today at was revolutionary back then.
As we think about “making disciples (of substance, we might add) of all nations,” the Reformation tradition of catechesis (Christian instruction in preparation for baptism or confirmation) is another legacy in missionary task. Certainly, theological education and character formation of disciples—whether those disciples are children nurtured within their particular tradition or adult converts to a new movement—that’s another legacy for disciple-making missions for which we can thank Martin Luther.