At the end of this month, Protestant Christians around the world will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s fateful decision to go public with his theological criticisms of the Church in Rome. Historians still debate whether or not Luther actually nailed his 95 Theses to the front door of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany, but nobody doubts the significance of what happened on October 31, 1517. Luther’s bold, provocative call for reform within the Roman Catholic Church eventually sparked a cultural, political, and religious revolution that, in many ways, marked the end of an old, medieval world and the beginning of modernity.
While we Baptists are not direct descendants of Luther, his ideas have powerfully shaped what we believe to be true about the way God has chosen to reveal His truth to us and restore us to a right relationship, both with Him, and with one another. Luther’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture as the written word of God—and his insistence that the Bible be made available to ordinary people in a language they could read—anticipated by about a hundred years Baptist convictions about the centrality of the Bible to the Christian life and our freedom to read and interpret it for ourselves. Likewise, Luther’s doctrines of salvation by grace alone and the priesthood of all believers anticipated our faith conviction that every person has the freedom—and the responsibility—to either accept or reject God’s generous, undeserved offer of new life through Jesus Christ.
In the spirit of marking the Reformation’s 500th anniversary and encouraging continued dialogue amongst fellow Christians in different traditions, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina scheduled a breakout session on Luther at its annual gathering this past spring. I went to the session, led by David Ratke, who teaches theology at Lenoir-Rhyne University. I’m glad I did. While teaching me things about Luther that I had long forgotten from church history class in divinity school, Ratke’s presentation (more importantly) also gave me a deeper appreciation for Luther’s “theology of the cross”—that is, his belief that, just as Jesus fully revealed God’s true nature in the pain and agony of the cross, we encounter and understand God most fully in the dark, difficult places of our own lives. That alone is worth pondering, particularly when we’re inclined to give credence to those who equate happiness with holiness.
Ratke, though, took this idea a step further by reminding us of how the cross keeps us—or, at least, should keep us—from being presumptuous about who God is, how God acts, and what God’s true priorities are. Whenever we’re tempted to assume that because something is important to us, then it must be important to God, the cross insists that we put the proverbial horse back where it belongs, in front of the cart. God does not bless what we want. Instead, the long, slow work of salvation—that is, our participation in God’s will being done on earth, as it is done in heaven—is about the Holy Spirit transforming us into people who want what God blesses.
There is a difference—and the cross has a way of clarifying that difference. Ratke cited these words of the apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 1:25: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The cross, in other words, calls us to be humble about our convictions and modest in our certainties, for even at our best, we are far less wise than we think we are—and God is far less foolish than we sometimes imagine. Remember that next time you hear someone say that the Sermon on the Mount sounds nice in theory, but just isn’t practical in the “real world.” Just because we doubt, doesn’t mean it’s not true—and vice versa. Following a crucified Savior necessarily means that we sometimes end up finding God in places where we’d rather not go.
So, thank you, Martin Luther—not just for being brave enough to ask hard questions in 1517, but also for inspiring teachers in 2017 to serve their fellow Christians by reminding us of how the cross of Jesus Christ must shape our lives, either decisively—or not at all. May the peace of Christ be with you!