Martin Luther - Reformation's 500th Anniversary

A Wesleyan’s Debt to Luther on Reformation's 500th Anniversary

By Prof. Ben Williamson

One is tempted to ask what has Wittenberg to do with Circleville? The answer is Wittenberg’s impact on the spiritual ancestors of the American Holiness Movement cannot be overstated. Discoveries made by Luther that led to the moment on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his “95 Theses” to the Wittenberg Chapel door had a profound effect upon John Wesley.  All Wesleyans are children of the Reformation.

The three great hallmarks of Reformation theology are: Salvation by grace through faith alone, Sola Scriptura (scripture alone), and the priesthood of all believers. Today, these words might spark more of a sense of nostalgia than feelings of revolution, but as Tolkien warns us in The Lord of the Rings, “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became Legend. Legend became myth.” We should not forget the true revolutionary nature of what Luther did that day. To do so is to our detriment.

First, the doctrine of salvation by Grace through faith alone that Luther rediscovered has a direct connection to John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience” when his heart was “strangely warmed”.  The society he was attending was studying Luther’s preface to his commentary on the Book of Romans.  Wesley connected in a profound way with Luther’s words, and that moment changed the course of history.

The second hallmark of Protestantism is also a hallmark among those who stand in the spiritual lineage of Wesley. Wesley, with Luther, valued scripture above all other books.  That is not to suggest he devalued tradition.  In fact, he celebrated the Lord’s Supper so often he was accused of being a closet papist!  He read and actively defended the writings of the Church fathers.  However, for Wesley all “tradition” must be judged by scripture and not the other way around.  In the sixteenth-century, Luther’s assertion on this point sparked a revolution.

The Bible was placed in the hands of the common person.  The most important result was the direct experience with divine revelation that this afforded. However, it also put limits upon what Church authorities could command on the basis of “tradition”.  This accelerated the growth of Protestantism and, of course, defections from the Catholic Church.

Finally, the “priesthood of all believers” began to diminish the divide between clergy and laity. However, it also enabled lay Christians to approach God in search of grace without going through a priest.  This idea, initiated by Luther, enabled Wesley’s eventual, at first reluctant, use of lay preachers.  These lay preachers were primarily responsible for the explosive growth of Methodism in Britain and its colonies after 1750.

As we come to this landmark anniversary, all Protestants should share in celebration of God’s intervention in heart of Martin Luther and the ripple effects that continue to be felt by us all.

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