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Church historian recounts Reformation links to today

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Seldom has there been an age more similar to Martin Luther’s era than our own, Timothy George told students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary during a chapel service Oct. 30 commemorating the Reformation.
George, noted church historian and dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., told NOBTS students the late 15th century (Luther was born in 1483) and early 16th century (Luther nailed up his 95 theses on Oct. 31, 1517) were both “the best of times and the worst of times,” just as today.
Luther’s era was the best of times, George recounted, as it was the age of invention; the age of discovery; the age of great splendor, art and architecture — just as today. However, it was the worst of times, just as today, George said, because of violence, death, war and rebellion; decay in both the church and society; and seemingly uncontrollable, horrible disease.
“What AIDS is to us, the bubonic plague, the black plague, was to them,” George said.
Just as today, “it seemed the gates of hell were about to prevail,” until Luther dared to say, “Here I stand” against the corruption of his day.
“Fundamentally,” however, “the Reformation was not about correcting abuses,” George said, since Luther had several predecessors in religious reform such as John Wycliffe, John Huss and Savonarola, who each were accused of heresy and suffered for their beliefs.
“Fundamentally the Reformation was about the Word of God,” George said, and specifically “what kind of Word and what kind of God?”
“That’s what drove Luther to the gates of the monastery when he vowed to become a monk,” George said, referring to Luther as “scrupulous in his deprivation and suffering,” and a man who said, “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.”
However, Luther continually wondered if he were good enough, George said, and wondered if there would ever be enough that could please and satisfy God.
As Luther plunged deeper into his studies, he went “deeper into darkness and doubt,” George said, wondering if God were “good or a capricious tyrant.”
A turning point came to Luther’s life when he realized Jesus Christ had voiced the same thoughts which had tormented Luther when on the cross Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The realization that Jesus Christ had identified himself with man led Luther to “a recovery of the doctrine of grace,” George said. The two passages of Scripture most important to Luther in his discovery were Psalm 22 and Romans 1:17.
Four fundamental legacies of the Reformation, George said, were:
— an understanding of the gracious character of God.
Contrary to the powerful religious giant of Luther’s day, the Roman Catholic Church, God’s grace was not for sale, George said, neither by money nor by works. God’s grace was to be received by faith, and faith alone, Luther taught.
— an open, unfettered Bible.
The common people should be free to read the Scriptures when they choose and they should be free to interpret the Scriptures for themselves, Luther believed. For this reason, George said, Luther struggled night and day to translate the Bible into German and to have it printed for the first time so non-clergy could read and understand God’s Word for themselves.
— a new understanding of the church.
Luther saw the church as a “koinonia,” a fellowship, George said, rather than simply a dominating oppressor. He saw the church as “a community of prayer, love and forgiveness.” He wanted members to be aware of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and of their responsibility to bear the love of God to the world by the love they would show and by the deeds they would do.
— a legacy of an unconstrained conscience before God.
The greatest challenge to Luther’s faith was the Diet of Worms, an inquisition designed to make him deny his new beliefs, George related. As he stood before the pope, the emperor and the princes of Europe, Luther “was willing to give his life” because he could not violate his conscience, George said, quoting from Luther’s most famous speech: “Unless I am persuaded by reason and by conscience, I cannot recant. Here I stand.”
“Do you believe in anything deep enough, strong enough, that you would be willing to die for that belief?” George asked, reminding students they are living in an age when there are more martyrs for Christ than in all church history.
“Martin Luther was willing to die because he believed there was something more important than institutional loyalty,” George said.
“Martin Luther had a message we need to hear in this the best of times, the worst of times. Grace by faith alone, by the saving work of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone should give us the courage and the conviction to stand for the eternal things of God,” George said.

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  • Debbie Moore & Linda Joyce Zygiel