The Power of the Word
October 5, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
October 31st will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part three of a multi-part series.
Martin Luther penned the famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God, in 1529. In it, Luther affirms the spiritual struggle we face with “our ancient foe,” Satan. With confidence, though, Luther states, “we tremble not for him.” Where does Luther find such confidence, especially when the world is filled with devils that threaten to undo us? The last line of the third verse reads, “his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”
In this poetic line of hope we receive a little window into Luther’s theology of the Word. As a champion of the Latin phrase, Sola Scriptura, Luther ignited a renewed focus on the power and sufficiency of Scripture. If we shared Luther’s view of Scripture, our hope and dependence on the Word would grow.
Luther’s theology of the Word starts with the philosophical discussion about the nature of words. Do words merely describe reality as it is found or do words create reality? Regarding the Word of God, Luther held this second view of words. As Carl Trueman explains, “God’s speech not only defined reality but also in a very real sense made reality. A thing is what it is because God says it is this thing and not another; but this thing exists only because God has first spoken it into existence” (p. 85).
In Genesis 1 God speaks the world and all that fills it into existence. The same is applied to new creation, or spiritual life. Ezekiel 37 gives a vivid picture of the powerful, creative Word. The preaching of the prophet was the avenue for dry bones to come to life again.
When Luther commented on the success of the Reformation, he did not take credit, but points to the power of the Word. He wrote, “I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (quoted in Trueman, p. 95).
What are some implications of this theology of the Word? Let me highlight a few that Trueman points out from Luther’s writings.
- Sin and temptations to sin are promises (words) that present an alternate reality. In commenting on the Fall in Genesis 3, “Luther sees the serpent’s attack on God’s Word as attempting to create a new reality, an alternative to that established by God himself. This assault on God’s Word and the meaning of that Word represents nothing less than an assault upon God’s status as sovereign Creator and as determiner of reality” (p. 86).
- The power of the church lies in the Word of God. “In short, the church is the place where God’s Word is spoken. Therein lies the church’s power, because the preached Word is how God is actively present” (p. 87). Let us not think too highly of ourselves, our visions and plans, and our gifts and talents. Let not our church drift away from the power of God’s Word.
- The presence of God is mediated through the presence of God’s Word. “The absence of God’s speech is, for Luther, the same as the absence of God, a very terrible situation to contemplate” (p. 88). Do you feel “distant” from God? Do you experience spiritual “dryness”? What place does God’s Word have in your life?
- The preached Word plays a significant role in the life of the Church and individual Christians. Of course, Luther lived at a time literacy was very low. Most Christians could not read the Bible on their own and were dependent on the preached Word at church. “Yet there is more to it than the question of literacy: the external Word—the Word mediated to me via another from outside and thus not immediately filtered through my own sinful mind—confronts me in a way that my own Bible reading can never do” (p. 90). Luther believed and practiced that the preaching of the Word of God must be the center the church.
May we come to love the Word of God and esteem its power both in our theology and in our practice.