Voices of Freedom
Martin Luther – the Champion of Conscience and Personal Freedom
I’ve been accused of being a guy who marches to his own drum. My wife has often been stumped by the question, “And what does your husband do?” Knowing full well they are inquiring about my line of work, she has either responded with, “That’s a good question!” or tossed it to others who know me as, “How would you answer that question?”
This happened recently at a gathering she attended without me. A friend of ours quickly offered, “Oh Gary? He’s an entrepreneur!” Frankly, I like that answer because it doesn’t tie me down to any particular activity or job which defines me!
Which brings me to my choice for this month’s Voice of Freedom, Martin Luther.
Notice I didn’t give him a title or job description or even an accompanying adjective.
To me, Luther is a Voice of Freedom more because of who he was (or is in the annals of history) than because of what he did. Regardless of where you stand with Luther’s legacy I hope you will hear me out.
For the record, I’m not Lutheran nor do I claim expertise in Luther’s theology. What I do know from my rather cursory study of medieval history is that he stands tall in a major paradigm shift in the idea of individual conscience and the relationship of conscience to personal freedom.
What intrigues me about the whole story of Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church is that he never intended for it to happen. He did not set out to change the world or even reform the Church. He was a man who was listening to the voice of his conscience which ultimately set him on a crash course with the “estahlishment.”
Born to merchant class parents in a changing Germany-shortly after the invention of the printing press at a time when hard-working peasants began to rise from the hopeless state of their forebearers-young Martin showed great promise as a university student (receiving a Bachelor’s degree in one year and a Master’s Degree three years later!) He then entered Law school at his Father’s request until he came face to face with his true destiny.
After a close call with death in a severe thunderstorm (which revealed his deep fear of God’s judgment), he vowed to enter the monastery and devote his life to the service of God and the Church. Choosing theology as a pursuit and donning a monk’s habit put him at odds with his family and did nothing to quiet his restless heart. He was plagued with guilt which drove him to asceticism and near insanity. He literally wrestled with the devil to find inner peace.
In other words, even the rigorous routine of piety and religious exercises did not help. He found no rest until he opened the New Testament on the advice of his mentor, Johann Staupitz. There in the letter of Paul to the Romans in Chapter 1:17-18, Luther found the truth of the gospel and realized that salvation was a free gift available to all by faith– from beginning to end. He experienced the gift of forgiveness by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ.
Moving on with renewed energy, he eventually found himself at odds with some questionable practices of the Church. Times were difficult in Rome. Many of those in positions of authority were engaged in immoral and corrupt practices. The Basilica of St. Peter was unfinished and the Church was bankrupt. Hence the Vatican sanctioned sale of indulgences by one Johann Tetzel to raise money.
Enter Martin Luther-reformer. As he began to speak out against this approach to gaining favor with God, it became the driving force of his life to pose the question -
“How can one receive the grace of God?”
So rather than wringing his hands or hiding behind his priestly office, he wrote a series of “grievances” which became known as the 95 theses and nailed them to the door of Wittenberg Church where he had served as pastor.
Not to be trite, but the “rest is history.” To take on the entire Roman Church was not his goal – but it happened as a result of his allegiance to a conscience formed by the truth.
To Martin Luther, the truth was a life and death matter and he sincerely believed that the Church had lost its way. Soon his influence extended outside the local congregation. For Luther, a sincere seeker of God, selling an indulgence with the assurance of a shortened time in purgatory was paramount to a crime. Eventually, the Princes of Saxony took notice and garnered the support of the people to establish the Lutheran Church.
Even after Luther was condemned as a heretic by Pope Leo X and the edict for his ex-communication was signed, I don’t believe he saw himself as a rebel or revolutionary. It wasn’t until he was put on trial at the Diet of Worms, refusing to recant his claims about the Church while expressing his allegiance to a conscience held captive by the Word of God — that his destiny became clear to him.
As he stood for what he believed, he became a champion of the freedom of the individual to encounter God. This set him on course to translate the Greek New Testament into German; consequently, ordinary people had the opportunity to seek and find the inner freedom that Luther himself had found in Christ.
As the reformation spread through Europe to England, Scotland and Switzerland, great strides were made toward self-government as philosophers and theologians wrote on the significance of personal conscience in the service of political freedom. As the resurgence of ancient Greek thought accompanied a renewed interest in the arts and learning, the Renaissance took hold to guide the European continent into the modern age.
Many have alluded to the trend for a major paradigm shift in the history of Christendom every 500 years. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation fast approaches in 2017, I see cooperation between Catholics and Protestants growing as both camps see the need to stand in solidarity to protect the things our great country was founded upon.
We are more aware of the dangers which exist as a threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than any generation in history.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” – wrote the apostle Paul.
“You will know the truth-and the truth will set you free” – said Jesus Christ.
“How do I receive the grace of God?” asked Luther.
If we keep these truths at the forefront of our minds and confront the world with the source of what drives us in the pursuit of freedom, I believe there is real hope for the future of our country and the world around us.
When I was in the fourth grade I decided I wanted some new clothes. Since the year was 1968, (I was 10 years old) I had my eye on a pair of flowered bell bottomed pants in the JC Penney catalogue. Somehow I convinced my mother to let me ride the bus alone from McKenzie into Bismarck (17 miles – imagine that) and I came home with the first of many “signature” fashion statements. Like I said at the beginning – I am a free spirit and it is in the Spirit of freedom I continue today.
Thanks to those who have dared to listen to the Voices of Freedom which have paved the way for us!