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The Word gave Martin Luther the strength to take his stand, and it continues to strengthen us today.
Joshua E. Stahmann
“Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
My first memory of these rousing words from Martin Luther comes from a Reformation skit during a fellowship night at church long ago. The Sunday school children acted out this famous scene of Luther standing up to Emperor Charles V. I was privileged to play Dr. Luther himself. I memorized and declared Luther’s words in front of the crowd as if I were the real Reformer (even though he probably didn’t actually dress in a brown bathrobe, like my costume). Though I was barely a teenager, the power of Luther’s conviction was obvious to me. He was willing to risk disgrace and death to stand up for God’s Word and its truth.
Filled with self-doubt
That’s the image we usually have of Luther, isn’t it? Confident and articulate, fiery and full of conviction—as if Luther was born being certain of the truth of the gospel and ready to proclaim it. However, Luther’s confidence in God’s Word didn’t just happen overnight. A brief survey of Luther’s own descriptions of the early days of the Reformation shows a man who was wrestling with self-doubt and who might just have been willing to negotiate an end to his career as a reformer before it even started. Luther states that in 1519 he actually had agreed to remain silent, as long as his opponents would also be silent. Two years later, he admits that he wondered how he alone could be right and all of the church leaders of his day be wrong. Had Luther backed down, he might be just a minor footnote in church history and the Reformation an unaccomplished dream.
Strengthened by the Word
What is it that strengthened and steeled Luther to take his stand? In his own words to the emperor, Luther said, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” It was the testimony of God that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for all sins (1 John 2:2) that convinced Luther. It was the truth of Scripture that we are justified by God’s grace through the redeeming work of Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24) that galvanized him. And it was the declaration of God that there is no condemnation for anyone who is in Christ (Romans 8:1) that took Luther captive, making him willing to die rather than deny God’s revealed truth.
As I recited Luther’s words decades ago, I think it’s fair to say that I wanted to be like him—strong, confident and secure. However, what I realize now—better than I did then—is that such conviction of faith does not come from the strength of my own character or the power of my own effort. No, it is truly as God declares: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 Evangelical Heritage Version). It was not Luther who was strong. It was the Word itself, which strengthened him and strengthens me.
In that way, each of us is more like Luther than we might realize. We might be plagued by self-doubt, wishing that we were stronger in faith and frustrated that we’d rather shrink away from those who challenge us instead of declaring, “Here I stand.” At these times, remember that it is the Word that strengthens us and makes us stand. God’s clear and trustworthy promises of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ provided the backbone for Luther and the Reformation, and it does the same for us today.
Author: Joshua E. Stahmann
Volume 106, Number 10
Issue: October 2019