The Old Testament prophets spoke of a famine of the Word of God. As we look through the pages of the Bible and through church history, we find such times of famine. One of the severest of these times of famine came on the eve of the Reformation.
It’s one of those moments we wish we could have seen firsthand. It took place in the square before the Water Gate. At daybreak, Ezra brought out the law. He unrolled the scroll and began reading. He kept on until noon, and all the while the great crowd gave their rapt attention. The law was read, interpreted, and studied. Nehemiah 8, which records this event, also tells us that this Bible study session resulted in worship. The people were humbled, and their faces looked to the ground. They bowed before God as He revealed Himself in His holy Word.
This event from the Old Testament is a precedent-setting moment. God’s people gather, they hear God’s Word read, they hear God’s Word interpreted and taught, and they worship. This is how it’s supposed to be. As the decades pass and generations come and go, however, God’s Word sadly recedes from the center of His people’s lives and from prominence in His congregation. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a famine of the Word of God. As we look through the pages of the Bible and through church history, we find such times of famine. One of the severest of these times of famine came on the eve of the Reformation.
Martin Luther originally launched his protest against the church over the issue of indulgences. He wanted a debate. While he was involved in various disputations in the wake of posting the Ninety-Five Theses, he finally got a real and true debate at Leipzig. Over the summer months, Luther squared off with Johann Eck, Rome’s premier theologian. Over the course of the debate, Luther declared the Reformation plank of sola Scriptura, the firm and unwavering commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture. Luther’s writings and the reports of these debates convinced Pope Leo X that this German monk was a heretic. The date and the time was set for the ultimate showdown: April 17–18, 1521, at the Imperial Diet, or meeting, at Worms.
Worms is another one of those moments that we all wish we could have seen first-hand. Luther, adorned in his simple monk’s garb, stood before—and against—princes and nobles, cardinals and priests, all wearing the trappings of their offices. On the throne sat the twenty-one-year-old Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. Luther’s books were spread out on a table before him. He was commanded, “Revoco!” —to recant his writings, to recant his views of sola fide(faith alone as the instrument of justification) and of sola Scriptura. That was April 17. Luther asked for a day to consider, and he was granted it. He spent the night in prayer and appeared again the next day. Then, he delivered his famous speech:
I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.
That moment led to one more moment that would have been wonderful to have seen firsthand. Actually, it was not a moment, but a few months, as Luther was holed up in Wartburg Castle overlooking the town of Eisenach. There he translated the Greek New Testament into German, and there, in his modest study, he wrote a series of sermons called the Church Postils (Kirchenpostille). The New Testament is, of course, the Word of God, and the Church Postils are a series of sermons that expound the Word of God. The Word needed to be proclaimed, but the Word also needed to be interpreted and taught. Ezra set the precedent in Nehemiah 8. Luther was not do-ing anything new. Instead, he was doing something very old.