How do Luther’s actions affect Baptists?

By the Rev. John Burns

Although Baptists rarely think about Martin Luther, he has had a tremendous influence on our lives. Oct. 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the day Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.

The practice that spurred Luther in this direction was the willingness of the Catholic Church to sell indulgences to the peasants who longed for absolution for their sins. The Catholic Church needed an infusion of cash to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Lots of it. To gather those funds, the church sold indulgences — pieces of paper that authorized forgiveness for specific sins — to the masses. Luther found this practice abhorrent and contrary to Scripture and so posted his protest on the church door, launching what we now call The Reformation.

How do Luther’s actions affect Baptists? Let me count the ways.

  • Luther laid the groundwork for Baptists to preach that salvation is based on faith alone. Without his theological discoveries, the church of Jesus Christ might still be trying to prove we are worthy of God’s salvation because of our many good works.
  • Luther gave us a model of standing up for our convictions. When called before Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, at the Diet of Worms, Luther faced both excommunication from Pope Leo X and execution at the hands of the emperor if he did not recant his views. In the face of such high stakes, Luther said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
  • Luther inspired the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. When the Civil Rights leader’s father attended a Baptist conference in Germany, he was so inspired by the witness of Martin Luther that he came home and changed his name from Michael King to Martin Luther King. Since his son was a junior, he had to change his name, too, and Martin Luther King Jr. was renamed. The spirit of the great reformer guided King throughout his life.
  • Luther started classes in religion for children, which eventually led to the practice of Sunday school. Children were not taught the faith before Luther. He, beginning with his own children, prioritized weekly catechisms in the Christian faith for boys and girls. He was the first Christian leader after Jesus who taught girls alongside boys.
  • Luther initiated the church’s acceptance of married clergy. Before him, all clergy were celibate and single. His marriage to Katharina von Bora broke with that pattern.
  • He gave us the Bible in our own language. Luther translated Scripture from Latin into German so that, as he said, “Even plowboys can read the word of God.” This act led to other linguists and Biblical scholars who translated Scripture into English and eventually into most of the written languages in the world.

Of course, Luther added some negatives to the Christian witness as well. Some of his writings were deeply anti-Semitic, and he endorsed the German government’s reliance on violence in the quelling of many just peasant revolts.

In spite of his flaws, however, we owe a lot to the former monk. Happy 500th anniversary to all in the Protestant camp.

The Rev. John Burns is pastor of University Baptist Church in College Park, Md., and author of “Modeling Mary in Christian Discipleship,” available from Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.