✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Even many Lutherans may not know that a rather important thing happened almost exactly 500 years ago in the Reformation, in September 1522. It’s one of the most important things that happened during the Reformation, something we often take for granted now.
You’re familiar with the story of how Luther posted the 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg Germany. Those 95 statements for discussion called into question the practices of the pope and the church of Luther’s day in regards to purgatory and indulgences and the like. It was on All Hallows Eve that Luther did this, Hallow E’en, October 31st, 1517, the day before All Saints Day.
The publication of those 95 theses created a good deal of turmoil that eventually led to another key event you’re probably familiar with. In 1521 Martin Luther was called to stand trial before the Emperor himself. The pope’s emissaries at the trial called on him to recant his teaching and repent. For a moment Luther faltered; he asked for a day’s time to answer. But when he returned the next day and was again asked to recant, he spoke boldly in the face of those who could very well have executed him as a heretic. He said, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning–and my conscience is captive to the Word of God–then I cannot and will not recant.” Then Luther added, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me!” Note the importance there for Luther of God’s Word. That’s where he took his stand.
Which leads us to the key, less-well-known event of 1522. After this trial in the city of Worms, Luther was “kidnaped” by his prince and secretly taken to the Wartburg Castle in order to protect him. There was a price on Luther’s head, and Prince Frederick didn’t want any harm to come to him. Luther spent 10 months there holed up in the castle. He wasn’t the kind of person to just sit around, and so he set about translating the New Testament into German, the language of the people. With all the necessary resources brought to him and at his disposal, he completed his translation from the Greek in eleven weeks. His colleague at the University, Philip Melanchthon, put the finishing touches on the translation. This was revolutionary.
Two laymen in Wittenberg, Lucas Cranach the Elder and his partner Christian Doering, then made sure this New Testament in German was printed in time for the Leipzig book fair. About 4,000 copies were made, bundled up, and rushed to Leipzig.
And so we know exactly when the Bible began to be the “best-selling book of all time.” It was September 21, 1522, the date when the fair opened. All the copies of this German New Testament sold out before the fair ended. From there, Luther’s German New Testament spread around Europe. A second printing was started immediately and released in December. A pirated version was printed in Switzerland before the end of 1522. In the next year a total of twelve authorized and sixty-six unauthorized reprints appeared throughout Germany and Europe—hundreds of thousands of copies sold in just over twelve months. This Septembertestament as it was sometimes called, the New Testament Bible was a bestseller.
And so today, 500 years later, we celebrate this very important even for the church. It’s something we should see as a sort of Pentecost event, the Word of God and the Gospel being translated and spoken in the German tongue, the language of the people, not just for private reading but for public services. The Holy Spirit was surely at work causing the good news of Jesus to become much more accessible and to spread throughout Germany and beyond. It was a big influence on the Bible being translated also into English and many other languages. For Martin Luther, and for Christians of every age, it’s all about the Word of God.
Today is a good day for us to give thanks to God for one of the main principles of the Reformation, namely that the Word of God is not just for the clergy, it’s for all the people of God to have and to hear in their own language. We are reminded of how the Bereans in the book of Acts, when they heard the preaching of Paul, searched the Scriptures to see if what he was saying was true. So also, you are not merely given to just mindlessly accept whatever a pastor tells you apart from God’s Word, but to search the Scriptures and to have a good grasp of the Bible, that you may know the truth and be defended against false teaching.
This means that you must actually open your Bible and use it regularly. In many ways we have lost the sense of what a tremendous privilege it is for us to even have our own Bibles in our own homes. The Christians of most of the history of the Church would have considered that to be a priceless treasure, but we are frequently thankless for this great gift and take it for granted and leave it on the shelf or the coffee table as if it were merely a decoration. We’ve got study Bibles now with all sorts of notes and helps; you can read the Bible on your phone and even have it read to you! There are good Lutheran podcasts that discuss the Scriptures and online resources to help you understand it. Let this Reformation celebration, then, be an encouragement for you to again regularly have devotions and read and meditate on God’s Word. For Jesus’ words are the words of eternal life.
Jesus Himself said, “If you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” We hear a lot of talk about freedom and liberty in this country. And that’s fine. But it’s usually a political and personal liberty. And very often it turns out to be almost the opposite of what Jesus is talking about. Americans think of freedom as the liberty to do whatever we choose, whatever we want, to fulfill all the dreams and desires of our heart. But that can quickly turn out to be just another form of slavery. If we try to live outside of the way God ordered things to be, sooner or later we end up ensnared and imprisoned by our desires. Gluttony enslaves us to our belly and our food, as does alcoholism to drink. Lust enslaves us to our passions, to pornography, to adulterous behavior that tears people apart. Laziness enslaves us in a cycle of dependency and pessimism and excuse-making and blame. Greed enslaves us to our money and all the things we have to do to get and hold on to our stuff. “Free thinking” that is not grounded in God’s wisdom leads to all sorts of destructive ideologies and philosophies. Pride chains us to having to keep up our image and prop up the facade, when deep down we know it’s just hypocrisy. And on and on it goes . . . Deep down we know that things aren’t quite right with us, that we’re not truly free. Jesus said, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” And the wages of sin is death.
However, Jesus came to free us from that bondage. The way to be truly free, paradoxically, is to have Him as your Lord, to live under Him as His servant. Apart from Christ, the devil is our deceitful and cruel taskmaster. But Jesus came to rescue us from that dungeon and to give us a new life in His kingdom. Jesus did that by actually entering into the dungeon for us. He suffered death and shed His blood to serve our sentence and pay the price for our sins. He entered the grave on our behalf in order to blast a way out of it for us and destroy that prison, rising again bodily on the third day.
Listen to how Luther describes it in the Large Catechism: “The Lord Jesus has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before, I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness. For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved. There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.”
To be truly free is to belong to Jesus and follow Him. And that freedom is given to you through Jesus’ words. Listen again, “If you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” To abide in Jesus’ word is to continue to receive His Word in all the ways that it comes to you and to trust in it and believe its promises. It is to live in the gift of your baptism, where the Word of God was applied to you with the water, drowning the old Adam and bringing you forth to a new life. It is to hear absolution and the preaching of the Gospel, by which the Word is applied to you and its gifts are given to you. And it is to receive the Lord’s Supper, where the Word made flesh is truly present, giving you His flesh and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
So let us give thanks to God this Reformation Sunday/weekend for the gift of Holy Scripture, God’s Word. The Lord is not silent to you. He speaks words of comfort and mercy and life. He is your refuge and strength, and ever-present help in times of trouble. So do not fear. Be still and know that the Lord is God. He is on your side. He will never leave you or forsake you. You are His. You are righteous in Christ, the Son of God. And if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠