Last night I watched PBS’s new full-length documentary, “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World,” and was impressed. As soon as Carl Trueman showed up, I knew it was going to be good, but this thing is an achievement. It gets Luther right, warts and all, even if it does try a little too hard at the end to connect him with secular sensibilities. You will be more thankful for the Reformation this Augustinian monk started and better prepared to appreciate its 500th anniversary after watching this. If you’re fuzzy on the details of Luther’s life and work and don’t expect to get through a good biography before November, this program is for you.
For me, it also stirred up an unexpected awareness of how tentative my faith is. When Luther made the providential decision to become a monk after his crisis in a lightning storm, he was throwing away the life everyone expected him to live. His promising studies in law, his father’s approval, and any chances of ever getting married (or so he thought) went up in smoke with his monastic vows.
Luther, tortured and guilty soul that he was, took God seriously in a way that’s tough for me to grasp. He lived as if God were real–as if He might actually send a tempest to capture a young law student’s attention and expect him to make a life-changing decision in the terror of the moment. Luther didn’t just profess the reality of a holy God. He lived it in a radical, frighteningly earnest way.
Had I been in his circumstance, I can easily see myself rationalizing away my vow once the skies had cleared and I was safely home. Would God really hold me to a promise made under superstitious duress? Does God even work that way? I know I would have had my doubts. If Luther did, too, he didn’t let on.
It’s so easy, even for professing Christians, to keep God at arm’s length in the 21st century. Though I ultimately attribute the world around me to God, I have a dim sense that He hides behind layer upon layer of natural and indifferent causes. Though my life and work are explicit acknowledgements of God, He is less imminent for me than He was for Luther. God in my worldview is a little more like the Prime Mover or the God of the philosophers than the fiercely active, constantly present God whom Luther feared and eventually–through the writings of Saint Paul–learned to love and trust.
As a result, I take sin less seriously than Luther. C. S. Lewis once observed that modern people are silly for looking down our noses at medievals who burned witches. But the reason we do not burn witches has nothing to do with moral or theological progress, but with our anemic view of the supernatural, draped in cobwebs of smug skepticism:
Surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did–if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.
Satan, too, is less real to me than he was to Luther. When I disobey God, I chalk it up to bad temper, to not having eaten recently, to lack of sleep, or to the unfair way someone has treated me. Very rarely do I look at my temptations and failures as skirmishes in an actual spiritual war, raging all around me, pitting me against fallen cherubim and seraphim with only the Word of God as my weapon. Anyone who’s read even a little about Luther knows the devil was, for him, nearly as imminent as God.
Even during my prayers, at the back of my mind there is always a sense that if God doesn’t come through for me, man will stand in the gap. If God does not heal my family member’s illness, man’s medicines will do the trick. If God does not save me from the hurricane, man’s forecasts, storm shelters, and insurance policies will do that. If God does not bring me into an eternal, glorified purpose, at least man’s distractions, diversions, and this-worldly fulfillments will have satisfied me for a few years.
I know the theological reply to this: God works through means more often than through miracles. He providentially uses medicine, technology, trade, and even leisure to rescue us, shape us, and fill our needs. As God tells the proverbial flood victim who complains in Heaven that He didn’t save him from the rising water, “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” But if I’m honest with myself, these means function more as fallbacks for my faith, and less as consciously-recognized conduits for God’s grace.
In Luther’s shoes, would I be willing to throw everything away in a quest to be right with the invisible God? Would I rejoice so much in the rediscovery of grace in Romans, chapter 3 that I would stand against the rulers of my age and risk my very neck? I’m honestly not sure. And that leaves me wondering: though I profess the reality of God and the salvation I enjoy in His Son, is Christianity as real to me as it was to that German law student on his knees in a thunderstorm?