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The missionary Luther

October 17, 2012 No Comment

by Glenn Schaeffer

“A current joke has to do with a new Martin Luther doll,” writes John Warwick Montgomery almost 40 years ago. “You wind it up and it just ‘stands there!” Montgomery asks, “Did Luther just stand there—at Wittenberg, at Leipzig, at Worms, at Marburg—or did he move dynamically with a sense of mission to the lost?”

Over the centuries scholars have suggested Martin Luther had no interest in taking the Gospel to other lands, but Montgomery, reacting to such assertions, says that “to attribute such views to Luther is, however, to fly directly in the face of the evidence.” You need only read Martin Luther’s own writing: “In these New Testament times,” he writes, “there is always a lack of Christians; there never are enough of them. Therefore we must not stop inviting guests to partake of this Paschal Lamb. We must keep on preaching. We must also go to those whom Christ has hitherto not been proclaimed. We must teach the people who have not known Christ, so that they, too, may be brought to the spiritual kingdom of Christ.”

We must also go to those whom Christ has hitherto not been proclaimed. We must teach the people who have not known Christ, so that they, too, may be brought to the spiritual kingdom of Christ.

Why must Christians “go to those whom Christ has hitherto not been proclaimed?” Answer: Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, people cannot be saved.  As Luther explains in the Large Catechism, “Outside the Christian church (that is, where the Gospel is not) there is no forgiveness, and hence no holiness.”

Luther goes on to explain his concept of the Church’s missionary role:

“He [the Holy Spirit] has a unique community in the world. It is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God. The Holy Spirit reveals and preaches that Word, and by it he illumines and kindles hearts so that they grasp and accept it, cling to it and persevere in it …. Until the last day the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community or Christian people. Through it he gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases sanctification, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in the fruits of the Spirit.”

Luther speaks in terms of this “unique community” as a “profane church.” Not “profane” in the sense of the church being crude or using gutter language, but “profane” in the Latin sense of the term, meaning to “move outside the temple.” There is a temptation for Christians to insulate themselves from the evil world in which they live or to make Sunday worship the end goal of what they say and do, but Christians are to “move outside the temple.” The Holy Spirit not only “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies” us by the Gospel, but He sends us as His missionary people into the world. Commenting on 1 Peter 2:9, Luther says, “We live on earth only so that we should be a help to other people. Otherwise, it should be best if God would strangle us and let us die as soon as we were baptized and had begun to believe. For this reason, however, he lets us live that we may bring other people also to faith as he has done for us.” Having been the recipient of God’s overflowing love and forgiveness, the Christian delights in sharing Christ with others. Luther says,

“Once a Christian begins to know Christ as his Lord and Savior, through whom he is redeemed from death and brought into His dominion and inheritance, God completely permeates his heart. Now he is eager to help everyone acquire the same benefits. For his greatest delight is in this treasure, the knowledge of Christ. Therefore he steps forth boldly, teaches and admonishes others, praises and confesses his treasure before everybody, prays and yearns that they too, may obtain such mercy. There is a spirit of restlessness amid the greatest calm, that is, in God’s grace and peace. A Christian cannot be still or idle. He constantly strives and struggles with all his might, as one who has no other object in life than to disseminate God’s honor and glory among the people, that others may also receive such a spirit of grace.”

A Christian cannot be still or idle. He constantly strives and struggles with all his might, as one who has no other object in life than to disseminate God’s honor and glory among the people, that others may also receive such a spirit of grace.

For Luther, there is a vital connection between missionary proclamation and the power of God’s Word because God’s Word provokes Christians to speak the Good News. Again, Luther observes, “This noble Word brings with it a great hunger and an insatiable thirst, so that we could not be satisfied even though many thousands of people believe on it; we wish that no one should be without it. This thirst ever strives for more and does not rest; it moves us to speak, as David says, ‘I believe, therefore have I spoken’ (Ps. 116:10). And we have (says St. Paul, II Cor. 4:13) ‘the same spirit of faith … we also believe and therefore speak.’”

A Missionary in Action

Martin Luther’s lifelong body of work demonstrates the connection between God’s Word and a Christian’s insatiable desire to share God’s Word. According to Lutheran missiologist, Eugene Bunkowske, Martin Luther was a missionary in action. During his lifetime, Luther:

  1. Published 350 works and penned 3,000 letters to people.
  2. Instructed no fewer than 16,000 theological students enrolled at the University of Wittenberg between 1520-1560. One third of the students came from other lands. This means no fewer than 5,000 students who learned from Luther’s sermon and lectures (and his successors) went out to spread Luther’s deep desire that all should be brought to a saving knowledge of Christ, even to the very end of the earth.
  3. Authored a plethora of pamphlets to instruct and edify God’s people. These tracts were translated into many languages and distributed by missionaries so that they might be read by young and old.
  4. Composed more than 35 hymns communicating the Good News of Jesus and expressing his desire to have all people come to faith in Jesus Christ. For example, in Luther’s hymn, “May God Embrace Us With His Grace” we find the mission message, “Let Jesus’ healing power be revealed in richest measure, converting every nation,” and “May people everywhere be won to love and praise you truly” (Lutheran Worship 288).
  5. Wrote the Large and Small Catechisms. With the Catechisms Luther introduced a thorough instruction in church and school in which, according to his own words, “the heathen who want to be Christians are taught and guided in what they should believe, know, do and leave undone according to the Christian faith.”
  6. Translated the Bible into the German language. Luther’s German translation of the Bible did much to evangelize the spiritually-lost, not only in Germany but also throughout Europe where other Bible translations were made with reference to Luther’s German translation.
  7. Encouraged the study of Islam and Judaism. Luther desired that the Turks (Muslims) and Jews would know the Gospel of Christ. On various occasions he discussed different methodologies that might be used to convert Muslims and Jews.

Our calling

Martin Luther lived by the conviction that the Holy Spirit converts people through the proclamation of the Gospel, whether spoken by pastors or by the priesthood of all believers who—by virtue of their baptisms—are sent as missionaries to participate in Jesus’ mission of seeking and saving lost people. In Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty (The Freedom of a Christian Man), he states, “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor.”

A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian.

Followers of Jesus Christ share the love of Christ in their own “Jerusalem” through word and deed, moving ever outward to the ends of the earth. Luther writes,

“With this message or preaching, it is just as if one throws a stone into the water. It makes waves and circles or wheels around itself, and the waves roll always further outward.  One drives the other until they reach the shore.… So it is with the preaching. It is started through the apostles and always proceeds and is driven farther through the preacher to and fro in the world, driven out and persecuted; nevertheless, it is always being made more widely known to those that have never heard it before.”

God’s Gospel, working in the hearts of God’s people, will simply not allow them to say, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” A static church is an unfaithful church. Dr. Reinhard Slenczka, in his keynote address at the International Lutheran Council’s Third World “Seminaries” Conference in Pretoria, South Africa said, “If a confessional church is not a confessing church, it is no church at all.” As the confessional and missional grandchildren of Martin Luther may we heed his evangelical call to “convert every nation” by seeing ourselves as missionaries sent by God so share His Gospel in our own homes, workplaces, neighbourhoods, provinces, and country. To this end we pray with Martin Luther, “Dear Father, we pray Thee, give us thy Word, that the Gospel may be sincerely preached throughout the world and that it may be received by faith and may work and live in us.” Amen.”

——————–

Rev. Dr. Glenn Schaeffer is Executive Assistant-Outreach for the Alberta-British Columbia District of Lutheran Church–Canada. He blogs at “Go!“, a site dedicated to encouraging God’s people to participate in Christ’s mission of seeking and saving the lost.

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