We are going back to one of our favorite times, the Reformation, and to one of our favorite figures, Martin Luther. A relatively recent book on Luther talks about how Luther used the printing press to advance the ideas and the theology of the Reformation. But in addition to talking about Luther’s use of the printing press, this book also talks about how Luther used something rather innovative for scholars and theologians at the time. He used the language of the people and not Latin. The author of this book, Andrew Pettegree, says, “Luther was a cultured and purposeful theological writer. He wrote fine Latin, and his Latin works measured up well against those of talented adversaries.” Saying that Luther was cultured means that he was educated, and saying that he was a purposeful theological writer means that Luther could get into the technicalia. He could be exacting in his writing and in his logic, and he could go toe to toe with those in the academy.
But Pettegree says that Luther made the decision to make his case in German. Pettegree is referring to Luther’s crucial, momentous publication: his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace. In 1517, Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, and he wrote them in Latin. They were intended to be a debate within the church. We also know that they were quickly translated from the Latin into the German. And through the printing press, which could be found all over the hamlets and cities of Germany, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were quickly distributed—they spread like wildfire—across German-speaking lands. But in 1518, Luther purposely wrote his sermon in German and had it printed in German. And the reason is simple: the people needed to hear this message. They needed to hear this message because they lived in darkness.
In his classic biography on Luther, Here I Stand, Roland Bainton concludes, “The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. At his nod, the earth trembles, and the people before him are as a drop in the bucket. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet the All Terrible is the All Merciful too. ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord. . . .’ But how shall we know this? In Christ,” Bainton says. “Only in Christ.” That was Luther’s message. Luther trembled before a holy God, feeling the anger, the wrath of a righteous God against him, a very unrighteous man. And yet he realized that in Christ, this All Terrible one is the All Loving one, who loved Luther with a love that would not let him go.
That was the message of Martin Luther. He preached it his whole life, and he knew it was a message that was far more than simply a debate within the academy. It was a message that had to be taken directly to the people. And that’s what he did. Through the use of the German language and the printing press, he sent that message around Germany and even, as the centuries rolled on, around the world.