Reformation: A Pivotal Issue -- By: Tom Wells

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 01:1 (Winter 1992)
Article: Reformation: A Pivotal Issue
Author: Tom Wells

Reformation: A Pivotal Issue

Tom Wells

The Protestant Reformation is rich in images connected with Martin Luther. Our mind’s eye sees him nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of The Church of All Saints in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. These topics for debate among theologians kick off the controversy with Rome—inadvertently, to be sure. Again, in April, 1521, we can imagine Luther before Emperor Charles who has ordered him to recant. Charles Krauth has called this moment “the greatest scene in modern European history.” What will he do? Listen: “I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against conscience. Here I stand; I can do no other. May God help me! Amen!”

Speaking of images, who cannot see brother Martin throwing his inkwell at the devil! These images, whether quite accurate or not, are vividly before us in the late 20th century.

But the heart of the Reformation does not lend itself so readily to imagery. Theological issues rarely do. Images usually capture action rather than thought. Chief among the thoughts of Luther was the idea he captured in the title of his book The Bondage of the Will. To most of us neither his thought nor the title are familiar. They conjure up no image at all. We simply stand blankly before them.

The issue Luther grappled with in The Bondage of the Will can be turned into imagery by asking the question, “Just how dead is the dead sinner?” There he is; look at him. What can you expect of him? Can he move his arms or legs? Will he clean his plate? Will he sneeze? Just how dead is he? Look again. Is he, or is he not, a corpse? Luther’s answer: yes, he is. But what exactly does this mean?

For Martin Luther the natural man was a spiritual corpse, wholly insensitive to the will of God. In practical terms that meant the natural man would never turn to God. He would have to be resurrected from his spiritual death to do that. Unlike many evangelicals in our time, Luther was convinced

that the sinner could do nothing to gain eternal life. Even the sinner’s faith would have to be given to him.

This is what Luther meant by the bondage of the will. The natural man is a wicked man in all his parts. Since he is wicked, his will is wicked. His will, in other words, is bound to what he is. To imagine wicked man exercising his will to turn to a good God is to imagine what has never yet happened in all the world. It has not happened; it could not happen. No amount of time—not even billions of years could produce one wicked sinner that would turn to God or Christ. Man is dead spiritually. Really dead! And ...

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