In the year of our Lord 1517, on the thirty first day of October, a lowly monk – who never dreamed that he was about to change the history of the world – nailed 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg Germany. The name of that monk was Martin Luther, and his act of posting those theses (for debate) began the greatest revival in history, a revival that has continued to bear fruit down to our present day.
Amazingly enough, without the benefit of radio, television, or even organized news services those theses were the talk of all Germany within two weeks. In fact, the news spread so rapidly that it seemed to some like the angels in heaven were spreading the good news (Revelation 14:6).
As Luther’s resounding cry “the just shall live by faith” spread through the country, thousands of monks – who had been enslaved by vows required by the church of Rome – left their monasteries, carrying the gospel wherever they went. As a result, entire nations embraced the gospel. First Saxony, then northern Germany, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. For fifteen years that revival spread like wildfire, eventually bringing religious reform to England and Scotland, while only being suppressed in France by decades of persecution. Nevertheless, the fires of revival gradually began to bog down in theological debates, the priesthood of believers was de-emphasized, and zeal for the gospel slowly gave way to a sleepy “orthodoxy.”
While Luther labored long and hard to spread the good news of free forgiveness in Christ, the Church of Rome opposed him every step of the way. That Church burned anyone caught with a copy of the Bible, insisted that it alone could interpret the Bible, and obscured the truth with a bogus tradition. Luther responded by translating the Bible into the language of the people, emphasizing the fact that the Bible interprets itself, and teaching that the true doctrine is exactly what the Bible says. In other words, if the Bible says that we are “justified by faith without the deeds of the law” then the true church will teach that we are justified by faith without the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28). If the Bible says, “by grace are ye saved through faith” then the true church will teach that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
Because the Church of Rome taught that baptism would convey forgiveness mechanically, through the mere performance of a sacramental act, Luther stressed the fact that without faith in Christ baptism avails nothing.
Because the Church of Rome taught that works were needed to secure one’s salvation, Luther stressed the fact that we are justified and saved by faith alone, without the works of the law (Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-9). Just as God has saved us by His grace, He will keep us by His grace (1Peter 1:5).
Because the Church of Rome taught that at the last judgement works would determine who entered heaven, Luther stressed the fact that grace alone will determine whether one spends eternity in heaven or hell (Romans 9:33).
By 1538 it seemed like the Lutheran revival was going to sweep through England. Even though William Tyndale had been burned at the stake in 1536, his translation of the Bible had been completed, and many people were coming to faith in Christ. However, when “bloody Mary” came to power she sought to put Lutherans to death, and when her reign of terror finally ended the followers of John Calvin were in control.
While the Calvinists did not reject Luther's theology of grace, the Church of England never experienced many of the reforms that Luther called for. That Church continued to be ruled by bishops, failed to rid itself of superstition, and used the power of the state to suppress dissent. At the same time, the puritan emphasis on works, coupled with the Calvinistic idea that one has to live according to a covenant of dos and don'ts in order to have God's blessing, often differed little from the heresy condemned in the Book of Galatians.
Those within the Church of England who favored congregational autonomy, were known as congregationalists. And, the first Baptist church on English soil was organized by a group of congregationalists who had come to reject infant baptism. While those Baptists (General Baptists) rejected the theology of Calvin, instead of returning to Luther’s theology of grace they followed an Arminian theology that made salvation depend in part on man. As a result, by 1680 all but a few of the General Baptist churches had become liberal, and a century later had become part of the Unitarian cult.
By 1633 there were Baptists who followed the theology of Calvin (Particular Baptists), and by 1644 they had begun to baptize by immersion. During that period, John Bunyan, who would later author “Pilgrims Progress,” was desperately searching for assurance of salvation. Although he had grown up under the influence of Calvinism, that theology left him with many doubts and fears. He was afraid that God might not want to save him, and also afraid that he might have committed the unpardonable sin. However, in the midst of his struggle someone gave him an old copy of Luther's commentary on Galatians. Of that commentary he later said, “I prefer this book of Martin Luther on the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, to all the books that I have ever seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience. (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, by John Bunyan, page 75)
Having found peace with God, through Luther’s commentary, John Bunyan began to preach the Reformation gospel, and through his preaching the fires of revival began to stir. Large crowds came to hear him preach, and many were saved. As a result, more than one hundred congregations were started, and he has been called the Baptist Apostle of England. Nevertheless, because he was not approved by the state, he spent twelve years in prison for preaching without a license.
Although the revival started by John Bunyan did not continue after his death (1688), fifteen years later a man was born who would renew that revival, and his name was John Wesley. Although John Wesley was a clergyman and the son of a clergyman, neither he nor his brother Charles had heard the gospel until they “heard” it through the writings of Martin Luther. According to his own journal, John Wesley was born again on May 24th, 1738, as the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans was being read at an informal prayer meeting. He then learned that his brother Charles had experienced the new birth three days earlier, while reading Luther's commentary on the book of Galatians (Just like John Bunyan). Through their efforts, the fires of revival again came to England.
Even though the Wesley brothers came to faith through the writings of Martin Luther, neither of them went back to the theology that had produced the Reformation, or to the doctrines that are explicitly stated in God's Word. Instead, they adopted the same Arminian theology that had destroyed the General Baptists, and has robbed many of assurance of salvation.
While they did teach justification by faith, they also taught the Catholic doctrine of justification, calling it “sanctification,” “holiness,” or “a second work of grace.” And, many have found that emphasis on works to be a stumbling block. In fact, one Wesleyan pastor told me that he knew that preaching “holiness” led people to trust in works, but he held revivals to compensate for that fact. Can you believe it? He would rather rely on “revival” meetings to straighten out his mess, than teach the people the right doctrine to begin with. What does he think is going to happen to the souls who die trusting in works? [Note: When the Bible speaks of holiness, it is not talking about making ourselves holy, but about living in accord with the holiness that is already ours through faith in Christ (Hebrews 10:10, 14).]
Since the followers of John Wesley were zealous in spreading the good news of justification by faith, their circuit riders wound up establishing congregations in almost every American community. For many, the message of free forgiveness in Christ was like water in a desert. However, the emphasis on works slowly poisoned the well. In his book, “Holiness, The False and The True,” H.A. Ironsides tells us that the “holiness” doctrine turned him into a Pharisee. Although he was striving to do right, and thought that he was righteous, inwardly he felt spiritually dead, cold, and empty. Nevertheless, he eventually did find the peace that comes with knowing what it means to be justified by faith. As a result, he went on to become a great soul-winner. However, even though he was leading many people to faith, by preaching the Lutheran doctrine of justification, he allowed his work to be compromised by a man-centered approach to Bible interpretation. Although I have been told that he later recognized some of the problems with the dispensational approach, he never changed what he had already written. However, his book, “Full Assurance,” written only a few years before his death, is (except for a few statements) in full accord with Lutheran Theology.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the good news of justification by faith produced one revival after another. Men like Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, Sam Jones, C. I. Scofield, and many others, proclaimed it from one end of the nation to the other. As the twentieth century opened the soul-winning continued under the preaching of such men as Bob Shuler (no relation to the one on television), H.A. Ironsides, Oliver Green, Billy Graham, Dr. DeHaan, R. G. Lee, and Dr. Walter A. Maier (a Lutheran). While some of these men called themselves Calvinists, Arminians, or Dispensationalists it was the central message of Luther's revival, Justification by faith, that won souls. The doctrine of particular atonement has never saved anyone! Nor has any doctrine that makes salvation depend on man! Such doctrines not only do not save, they hinder the work of salvation.
When I was about four years old, my father, who was listening to Dr. Walter A. Maier on radio, told me to be quiet and listen. As I listened, the preaching began to grip my heart in a way that I do not understand and cannot explain. However, at that young age I began to look forward to hearing Dr. Walter A. Maier every week, and even though he died only one year later, I have never forgotten his preaching.
Although he began with only one small radio transmitter set up in an attic, by the time of his death in 1950 Dr. Maier was being heard on more than 1200 stations worldwide. And, at the first meeting of the Lutheran world federation in 1947, every delegate knew of someone who had come to faith through the preaching of Dr. Walter A. Maier.
In addition to his radio ministry, Dr. Maier also held “rallies” during which he would preach to thousands of people. And, at the end of each sermon, as the song “Just As I Am Without One Plea” was being sung, multitudes would come forward to find assurance of salvation.
Upon hearing of an inner city church that was going to be closed down and sold, Dr. Maier started a campaign to raise enough money to buy it. At the same time, he began a visitation program to find members for it. As a result, more than 1,200 people attended the first worship service that he held there, and thirty years later that congregation still had over 1,000 members.
Although the preaching of Dr. Walter A. Maier brought multitudes to faith in Christ, very few Lutheran pastors followed his example. As with the apostle Paul, all of his energy was directed at preaching Christ and Christ crucified. Yet he did not neglect the law, but used it to expose, condemn, and rebuke sin while pointing people to Christ for forgiveness. He never tried to make people holy through works, but instead preached faith into their hearts, knowing that the fruits of faith would follow. He did not confuse the water with abstract theological terminology, but proclaimed the good news of forgiveness that is explicitly stated in Scripture. The same good news that started the Lutheran reformation to begin with.
Since all of the revivals that have taken place in the past 500 years are offshoots of the Lutheran revival, that revival is still going on, and can be seen today in the work of many around the world. One example of it can be seen in the work of Dr. M. A. Thomas, of Kota, India, who in the past forty years has seen multitudes come to Christ. Other examples can be seen in China, Africa and South America. Of course, the opposition is great and Satan would like nothing more than to discredit Luther while turning the churches against him. However, as long as the Holy Spirit is working to bring the world to Christ that that will never happen, for there is only one message that stirs the fire of revival, and that is Luther’s message of justification through faith in Christ.