Rev. Eric Brown
Sometimes we can view the Reformation as though what was taught was “fighting words.” We can sometimes think of the Reformation as the big, bold battle where we played our theological version of King of the Mountain, where Luther knocked down all his opponents then jumped up and down shouting, “We’re number 1! In your face, losers!”
Yet, if you look at the history of the Reformation, that’s not how Luther approached things. Oh, to be sure, Luther could verbally spar with the best of them, but what actually stands out is how much Luther was willing to yield to his opponents, if only they would let the Gospel be preached.
It was this way at the beginning of the Reformation. In the beginning of 1519, Luther was asked by Cardinal Cajetan (whom the Pope had sent to Germany to settle the burgeoning debates there) to stop writing anymore on these things; and Luther agreed… so long as those who were actively condemning his teaching would be silent as well. It was not a matter of ego for Luther—he didn’t have to prove himself right. His point was to not let the Gospel be condemned. But they continued to rant against the Gospel, so Luther was compelled then to defend the Gospel. And the Reformation continued.
This was also Luther’s approach when dealing with other reformers. By the late 1520s there was a raging debate between Luther and Zwingli about the Real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Supper. They had a famous meeting in Marburg in 1529, where they went back and forth, but when it came time to conclude, Luther offered a phrasing that was in the middle: We’ll let you be, just don’t condemn us for confessing that Christ is bodily present in His Supper as His Word says. But Zwingli wouldn’t go for it. He was determined to denigrate the Real Presence. Thus, the Lutherans were compelled to proclaim loudly Christ’s presence. And the Reformation continued.
Even when the Lutherans gathered at Augsburg and presented the Augsburg Confession, it was not a massive “we’re right, you’re wrong” screed. Over and over the Lutherans point out that what we believe, teach, and confess is nothing less than what the Scriptures teach and what the Church used to teach. There’s no need for battles; please, just let the Gospel be preached! In fact, the last article of the Augsburg Confession says, “It is not our design now to wrest the government from the bishops, but this one thing is asked, namely, that they allow the Gospel to be purely taught, and that they relax some few observances which cannot be kept without sin.” (AC 28:77) Just allow the Gospel to be purely taught. But they wouldn’t, so there was separation and division. And the Reformation continued.
This whole approach was summed up by Luther in 1535 when he was lecturing on Galatians. Luther noted, “In the same way we are willing to concede everything possible to the papists, in fact, more than we should; but we will not give up the freedom of conscience that we have in Christ Jesus.” (AE 26 – Galatians 2:6) The reformers were willing to let other folks do what they want, even retain positions of leadership and authority, just so long as they didn’t undercut the Gospel. But they kept on diminishing Christ, and so we, the evangelical Lutheran church to this day remains adamant that the Gospel of Christ Jesus—that we are saved by faith through grace—must never be silenced.
We don’t seek victory. We don’t seek to destroy. Instead, we strive to remain faithful, and if others reject the Gospel, so be it. As we sing, “The Word they still shall let remain/ nor any thanks have for it.” So be it. “He’s by our side upon the plain/ with His good gifts and Spirit./ And take they our life,/ goods, fame, child, and wife,/ though these all be gone,/ Our victory has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.” We don’t need to defeat anyone, for our victory isn’t won by us. It was won for us by Christ upon the Cross. To Him alone be the glory!
Eric Brown serves as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Herscher, Illinois.