What did Luther ever do for evangelism?
Barry Cooper is our Director of Product Development and presenter and narrator of the feature-length documentary Luther
You sometimes hear critics of the Reformation saying that it did very little for missions or evangelism. But is that right?
Last weekend, I was teaching at a church in Tacoma, Washington, where people were celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They’d created an excellent walk-through of the key events in Martin Luther’s life, complete with thunder and lightning effects. As a big fan of Disney World, I very much approved.
One of the exhibits in the Luther walk-through was about the Wartburg Castle, the place where Luther translated the New Testament from Latin into German.
Now, given that none of us can evangelise unless we know what the 'evangel' actually is, what could be more motivating to missions and evangelism than translating the Bible into a language every German could understand?
What could be more motivating to missions and evangelism than translating the Bible into a language every German could understand?
Luther was making it possible for everyone to have the experience he himself had in Wittenburg as he studied Romans 1:17: “He who through faith is righteous shall live”.
For years, with the Church’s teaching ringing in his ears, that text had made him hate God. It sounded as if righteousness was being demanded of him - and how could that be good news? To tell someone that their only hope of salvation is to try and accumulate enough merit to appease a God whose holiness is infinitely higher than theirs, and then to concede that even then, they couldn’t be sure their lifelong efforts will be enough - it sounded like a death sentence to Luther.
But as he pored over Romans 1:17 in Wittenburg, Luther’s hatred of the text was melted into overwhelming love and joy. He began to realise that this 'righteousness' wasn’t an impossible demand. It was a priceless gift.
For the first time, he truly loved God - because God had freely gifted him the righteousness of his Son.
What does this mean for our evangelism?
As a friend of mine says: if you’re a dancer, there’s a world of difference between dancing to music you truly love, and trying to dance by copying the moves of other dancers.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that what we need in order to be better at evangelism is to copy someone else’s (apparently successful) new technique or methodology. But these things are useless - actually worse than useless - unless, like Luther, we are in love with the good news ourselves.
If we want to be better evangelists this week, we should do everything we can to kindle our love for the gospel. Luther’s advice would be: read Scripture, especially the gospels and Paul’s epistles. Read and listen to anything that will help you develop a sense of wonder at what God has done in Christ. Let Jesus captivate you before you seek to captivate others with him.
If we want to be better evangelists this week, we should do everything we can to kindle our love for the gospel.
And then speak. As Luther wrote in his Preface to the New Testament, “If he have faith, the believer cannot be restrained. He betrays himself. He breaks out. He confesses and teaches this gospel to the people at the risk of life itself.”
Not sure where to start? Find out more about Discipleship Explored, which takes you through the book of Philippians.