Recently I returned from two weeks in Europe, leading a group of seminary and church friends through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. It was eleven days of walking, looking at and listening to the story of the Protestant Reformation. It was also a time of warm fellowship, spectacular sights, and great food. All who journeyed with us found the trip to be worthwhile in every way.
I logged over sixty miles of walking. We climbed to the top of cathedrals (including St. Peter’s Basilica) and explored the underground catacombs of St. Callixtus with its 500,000 graves and twelve miles of tunnels. According to tradition, these once held the graves of sixteen of the early popes and fifty martyrs. We walked over cobblestone streets, viewed numerous churches—Protestant as well as Roman Catholic—and saw more art that you can imagine. Among the artists represented were names like Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Bernini, Cranach, and Botticelli, as well as some moderns including Picasso, Cézanne, and Monet. We even visited the home of Johann Sebastian Bach and heard a brief concert of his music on period instruments like the harpsichord. It really was a great trip.
While interesting from an historical perspective, the tour was also spiritually edifying. We had devotions as a group on a number of days and asked the various ministers among us to bring us something from the Word. It was a rich journey all the way around. This week and next, I want to draw out a number of lessons we learned from this excursion, reflecting on our great Protestant heritage.
After a long flight from the United States to Berlin and then finding no luggage on arrival (due to a weather issue, the passengers made the flight to Europe but their luggage did not), we boarded a bus and toured Berlin. From Berlin, our group made the two-hour journey to Wittenberg and the formal beginning of our tour. After a hearty meal, we were ready for a good night’s sleep.
We were blessed to have as our guide Dr. Marcus Held, a German PhD who teaches theology at a university in Germany. He was knowledgeable about the people and places we visited and had a firm grasp of the theological dynamics of the Reformation. The first morning, we made our way to Luther’s house, a former monastery. Among the other sites we saw in Wittenberg was the house of Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man. We also visited the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) where the celebrated door still hangs and in which Luther and Melanchthon are buried under the shadow of the pulpit from which Luther often preached. It was here we had our first time together in the Word.
I had asked a pastor from Wisconsin to bring us a brief message on the first day of touring without really thinking about the location where this would be done. The busyness of attending to the details of the trip caused the significance of the moment to elude me. Here we were, sitting in the Castle Church before Luther’s grave and under his pulpit listening to the Word of God preached by an American Baptist. For the pastor who brought the devotional, the privilege of standing in that august place was the highlight of his trip. Can you imagine preaching the gospel in Wittenberg? We preach the same Scripture, though not in the same language but with the same emphases that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin preached. We do so with the same goals in mind—the conversion of the lost and the sanctification of the saved. Our message has not changed materially in 500 years! Luther’s “discovery” of justification by faith alone—sola fide—moved him to labor all his life to make that doctrine the central focus of his ministry. We still preach that message today. Though we are Baptists, we stand in a great theological tradition. There are points where the followers of Luther and the Baptists disagree. But we stand together on the gospel. What a moving thought!
This gospel-centrism led Luther into a conflict with Rome. He never set out to destabilize the Church. His goal was to correct certain deviations which led average “Christians” away from the truth of God. This hints at a second observation from the trip. The message of Romanism and the message of the Bible are not the same. Even if a union with Catholicism were desired, evangelicals are at opposite ends of the theological spectrum on significant issues from Roman Catholics. The obstacles to cooperation that existed in Luther’s day still exist in our day. The matter of indulgences remains a contested point. In principle and in practice, Catholicism still has a role for them. The Catholic Catechism defines an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (Paragraph 1471). This is no less scandalous today than it was in Luther’s day.
Last fall, I visited Seth Grotzke in Spain. He ministers in Ponferrada on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Seth showed me a flyer promising an indulgence for those who follow the Camino. A visit to the Eternal City today suggests that even after the passing of 500 years, some things have not changed. The Rome that Luther saw and from which he recoiled is much the same as it was in his day: smells and bells but no clear presentation of the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. If Luther were alive today, he would do it all over again. Of this I have no doubt.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
In Peace and Joy I Now Depart
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
Trans. by Leonard W. Bacon (1802–1881)
In peace and joy I now depart
At God’s disposing;
For full of comfort is my heart,
So the Lord hath promised me,
And death is but a slumber.
’Tis Christ that wrought this work for me,
My faithful Savior,
Whom Thou hast made mine eyes to see
By Thy favor.
Now I know He is my Life,
My Help in need and dying.
Him Thou hast unto all set forth
Their great Salvation
And to His kingdom called the earth,
By Thy dear and wholesome Word,
In every place resounding.
He is the Hope and saving Light
Of lands benighted;
By Him are they who dwelt in night
Fed and lighted.
He is Israel’s Praise and Bliss,
Their Joy, Reward, and Glory.