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Luther: 'The Word Did Everything'

Martin Luther is often described as a theologian of the Word. One can understand this in several ways. First, Luther’s formal vocation was “doctor in Biblia”— a teacher and professor of the Bible. It was not an uncommon calling, yet Luther transformed his work at a small university into a platform for widespread church reform and the reshaping of Christian life and piety across Europe.

In the university, Luther brought the Bible into the center of theological instruction by changing the focus of the curriculum and, for the common person, Luther produced his magisterial German translation of the Bible. His work with the Bible became the touchstone for new forms of worship, hymns and catechisms, alongside a renewed appreciation for the sacredness of domestic life and the workplace. All of this was kindled by Luther’s profound conviction that the Bible was the Word of God.

Such a view was not in itself unusual in his day. What was unusual, however, was his singular focus on the Word as the source and goal of the Christian life. While the medieval church tended to focus its faith and piety on devotional and liturgical ritual — both priestly and lay — Luther believed that the Church was born and sustained solely by the Word — preached, heard, read, sung and believed. As we remember Luther and the Reformation 500 years later, we do well to remember clearly that the religious core of his work was his deep love and reverence for the Word of God.

Luther’s concept of the Word of God permeated his entire theology; it always included the Bible, but it also was much more than this. For Luther, God’s Word was, first of all, the primordial Word of creation that brought into being all things from nothing: “and God said, ‘Let there be’ … and there was.” Yet this Word of creation was not simply a thing from the ancient past but continued to sound throughout the creation, sustaining, making new, making life possible without which no life could be. Not just “God has made the heavens and the earth,” but “God has made me, my eyes and ears and all my senses” (Small Catechism). And it is this same creative Word that, incomprehensibly, also became flesh (John 1:14). This means that the very life and light of creation became inseparable from Jesus who embodied and proclaimed this creative, Spirit-filled Word to a broken, dark and chaotic world. This was, for Luther, the primary sense of “the Word of God.” Jesus was a preacher; this was not accidental or incidental. It was the crucial core of how God deals with his people:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(Luke 4:18-19; Is. 61:1-2 ESV).

Thus, when it came to the Bible, it too was the Word of God, but especially because it was a witness to this same Jesus. Through its recorded histories, its laws, its poetic and prophetic utterances, and its apostolic testimonies, the Bible is the Word that urges us onward toward Christ, or as Luther put it, “was Christum treibet.” Thus, the Old Testament was like the “swaddling cloths” of Christ, clothing God’s great plan of salvation with age-old acts of judgment and deliverance. The ancient people described therein appear to us as a kind of “mirror of life,” indicating by their encounters with God and His Word the range of responses in both faith and unbelief. All of this would point to God’s definitive act of judgment and deliverance exhibited in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This Christ-centered view also holds for Luther’s understanding of the New Testament. For Luther the New Testament is not so much a book, as we are accustomed to think — (I suppose we owe that to the printing press as much as anything) — but it is first and foremost a divine promise. The New Testament is God’s promise to save humankind from its own destructive path — a promise that stretches back to Eden and runs through the lives of the patriarchs, prophets and kings until its fulfillment arrives in Christ.

Another word for promise is “covenant” or “testament,” and Luther especially latched on to this last word. This promise is God’s “testament” — his last will and testament, in fact (cf. Hebrews (9:16f.) — and in making it, God has set forth the scope of the whole redemption of Christ: “For if God is to make a testament, as he promises, then he must die; and if he is to die, then he must be a man. And so, that little word ‘testament’ is a short summary of all God’s wonders and grace, fulfilled in Christ.”

At its heart, then, the New Testament is not only a set of writings but God’s faithful fulfillment of a promise, a declaration of grace, an announcement of good news — that God has reconciled us in His Son: “It is the manner of the New Testament and the Gospel that it must be preached and performed by word of mouth and a living voice. Christ Himself has not written anything, nor has He ordered anything to be written, but rather to be preached by word of mouth.”

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Luther’s dealings with the New Testament books are largely in his sermons rather than lectures or commentaries. In the sermon, the living voice of the New Testament finds its home, that is, in the faith of the one who hears. The promise that was fulfilled in Christ spills over and is fulfilled again and again in the hearts of those that believe. Consider this excerpt from Luther’s Advent sermon in 1522:

[Christ’s] taking upon himself of humanity would have profited no one had it not meant the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel was to present him to the whole world, revealing the fact that he became man for the sake of imparting the blessing to all who, accepting the Gospel, should believe in him. Paul tells us the Gospel was promised of God; from which we may infer God placed more emphasis upon the Gospel, the public revelation of Christ through the Word, than upon his physical birth, his advent in human form. God’s purpose was concerning the Gospel and our faith, and he permitted his Son to assume humanity for the sake of making possible the preaching of the Gospel of Christ; that through the revealed Word salvation in Christ might be brought near — might come — to all the world. … How can Christ profit us unless he be embraced by faith? But how can he be embraced by faith where the Gospel is not preached?

Preaching, then — when it rightly proclaims Christ — is every bit as much the Word of God as the Bible or that which brought the world into existence. Through the proclamation of the Word — whether publicly by a pastor or by any brother or sister baptized into Christ — God continues to destroy our presumptions, idols and false pieties in order to create new hearts that cling to “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). Through hearing the Word, we are brought to repentance, receive forgiveness and find reconciliation to God in Christ and with one another. Even the Sacraments are such a proclamation of the Word, bringing the faithful into a new world and new kingdom in which the Savior’s supper and story are celebrated until He comes again.

For all of Luther’s lofty language about the Word, he also celebrated the lowly, quotidian, even fragile means through which God’s Word comes to us. The “swaddling cloths” mentioned above are “shabby and poor, yet precious is the treasure wrapped in them for it is Christ.” The preacher, too, is just one sinner among many — a clay vessel carrying this same treasure. God’s Word takes up no uniquely divine language, but clothes itself in what seems all too human and too foolish to accomplish such great things. Nevertheless, both prophet and apostle profess the same: the Word of God endures forever.

As we commemorate Luther and the Reformation, there is much to remember and celebrate. But nothing gives us greater cause for confidence, humility or gratitude, than the life God gives us by His Word.

What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone … How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name? … I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.

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