Toward the end of his life, church reformer and educator Martin Luther (1483-1546) looked back on an important moment in his faith development. As a young university professor, he was studying Paul’s Letter to the Romans when he came to a new understanding. Previously he believed the righteousness of God was a standard by which God measures human behavior. As he wrestled with Romans, Luther began to see the righteousness of God as a gift that God gives us.

This insight transformed the way Luther read the Scriptures. He described the wisdom of God as how God makes us wise, the strength of God as how God makes us strong and so on.

Several years after this breakthrough, Luther wrote an introduction to a collection of sermons (“A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels”) to help preachers communicate the life-giving encounter with God’s gracious action that he had experienced. Luther was critical of those who looked to Jesus primarily as an example to be followed. This, he thought, turned Jesus into “a new Moses.” Instead, Luther insisted that we should “accept and recognize [Jesus] as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own.” We should read the Scriptures, he wrote, as “a book of divine promises in which God promises, offers, and gives us all [God’s] possessions and benefits in Christ.”

This is a powerful message. This is good news.

This gift is for you

Luther didn’t intend to start a new church. He wanted to reform the Christian church to place this Gospel good news at its center. In addition to good preaching, education was key to this work of reformation.

Luther wrote catechisms to encourage the teaching and learning of the faith. We might think of the Small Catechism, which many lifelong Lutherans remember from confirmation class, and the Large Catechism, written for pastors and teachers, as the 16th-century equivalent of a student workbook and an instructor’s manual.

The constant refrain in the Small Catechism is the question “What does this mean?” It’s important for us to recognize that this was a real question for Luther. More than a formula for memorization, he intended the questions and answers in the Small Catechism as a way for Christians to understand the gifts of God’s grace that are at the heart of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and communion.

Luther insisted that we should “accept and recognize Jesus as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own.”

These gifts were personal for Luther. The gifts of God’s grace are intended to be received! By us! Writing about communion, he said the most important words are “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Explaining the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed, he doesn’t describe the work of the Triune God as abstract but emphasizes that the Creator of all has created us, the Savior has redeemed us and the Spirit makes us holy.

These gifts are personal but not private, as we see when Luther wrote that the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and makes me holy together “with the whole Christian church on earth.”

This gift is for all

In order for Christians to read the Scriptures for themselves, Luther and the other reformers insisted on the importance of a basic education for all—boys and girls, regardless of the social or economic status of their families.

The University of Wittenberg, where Luther and his colleague Phillip Melanchthon taught, quickly became the largest school in Germany. Even William Shakespeare knew of its reputation since his character Hamlet returns to Denmark from his studies at Wittenberg.

Students came to Wittenberg from throughout Europe and returned to their home countries to promote education and to share the Reformation insight of grace as God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. The Reformation was definitely a team effort!

The Castle Church in Wittenberg is a monument to this effort. Statues of Luther, Melanchthon and other German reformers
are placed around the nave. In 1983, for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, a dozen stained-glass windows were installed in the church featuring the work of students who had spread the Reformation to their countries—Jan Łaski of Poland, Leonhard Stöckel and Matthias Dévai Biro of Hungary, and Johannes Honter of Transylvania (now Romania), among others.

Luther insisted that we should “accept and recognize Jesus as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own.”

Lutherans of German or Scandinavian descent, like many in the ELCA, may not be familiar with the spread of Lutheranism into Eastern Europe—yet spread it did, already in Luther’s lifetime. A Lutheran witness continued in Eastern Europe even under four decades of Communist repression following World War II.

This September, hundreds of Lutherans from around the globe are gathering in Krakow, Poland, for the 13th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Founded in 1947, the LWF is a communion of 149 member churches in 99 countries, representing over 77 million Christians in the Lutheran tradition. How the Reformation has spread! Of the 10 largest church bodies in the LWF, three are in Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar) and two are in Asia (India and Indonesia). The ELCA, with nearly 3.3 million members, is part of a much larger global family!

As we in the ELCA challenge ourselves to engage new, younger and diverse members, let’s remember that this is not new behavior for Lutherans. From the beginning, Lutherans have reached out beyond themselves, bearing witness to the life-giving good news of God’s gift in Jesus Christ. May our Reformation heritage be the gift that keeps on giving!

Kathryn Kleinhans
Kathryn A. Kleinhans is dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

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