Learning from Luther\'s Lockdown

Déjà vu

So here we are. Again. Déjà vu. Lockdown number two. Or is it three – or four? It is all a blur, isn’t it? This time around, rather than wondering, ‘How will we survive this?’, the big question I’m asking is, ‘How can we be faithful in lockdown’? Beyond survival, how can we win? I ask that, in part, because I feel my lockdown performance, first time around, was less than stellar. Surviving – yes! Thriving and succeeding and producing? Not so much. Should we make peace with the malaise that so easily grips our souls, or press forward and upward and beyond for Spirit-empowered fruitfulness?

From Worms to the Wartburg

In the process of probing my own lockdown deficiencies, I was reminded of a great Christian who endured a 10-month lockdown. Martin Luther is famous for launching the Back to the Bible movement known as the Reformation. He was an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg who in 1517 wrote 95 theses for disputation; this started a series of fortunate and unfortunate events that culminated in a trial organised by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

At this trial, known as the Diet of Worms (an imperial deliberative assembly in a German city; not an earthy but protein-rich eating plan), Luther was challenged to recant what the religious authorities considered to be heretical teaching. He was unwilling to back down; Luther had the audacity to believe and teach that Romans 3.21-26 means what it says. He believed – and taught – that people are saved by God’s grace, through faith, apart from works.

Rather than recanting, Luther made this bold statement in his closing argument:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen’.

There was already more than enough material for Luther to be condemned as a heretic; his appeal to scripture above the authority of the pope broke the camel’s back, so to speak. The Diet of Worms produced the Edict of Worms - not a command to eat creepy crawlies, but the condemnation of Luther as a heretic and outlaw, banning his books, issuing a warrant for his arrest, and permitting anyone to kill Luther without risk of punishment. In short, it was ‘open hunting season’ on Luther.

But as it turns out, Luther couldn’t be arrested at Worms because his prince, Frederick III, had arranged a letter of safe conduct to and from the hearing. Thus, when he was dismissed from the proceedings, he was free to return home to Wittenberg. However, while eastward bound, he was ‘kidnapped’ by Frederick in a staged abduction and led away to the Wartburg castle where he spent the next 10 months in a kind of house arrest for his own protection.

The Wartburg was a hunting castle owned by the dukes of Saxony located in the Thuringian forest in central Germany. Luther was hidden and his location was kept secret; he grew a beard and adopted an alias – George the Knight. He was given a single work room with a narrow, adjoining bedroom. For the next ten months, this meager accommodation served as the setting for Luther’s Lockdown.
© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Luther's Battle

Now, we might be tempted to think that this giant of the faith – a first-rate intellect, a prodigious worker, a committed Reformer – we might want to think that he would use this enforced lockdown to advance the gospel and get lots of work done. And he did – eventually. But first, he had to defeat his inner enemies.

Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Luther, to his friend and co-reformer, Philip Melancthon, on 13 July, 1521, just over two months after his kidnapping:

'That you ascribe so much to me, as if I alone could look after God's concerns, for here I sit, careless and idle, consumed by my fleshly desires. Instead of being ardent in spirit I am the prey of sinful appetiteslaziness and love of sleep. For eight days I have neither prayed nor studied, through fleshly temptations. .... And even God seems to tempt me, by making me wish to escape from this wilderness'.

I love Luther's honesty! All of us can related to Luther’s desire to escape lockdown; later in the letter he writes that ‘I know nothing of my return. You know with whom that rests’. Like us, Luther didn’t know how long he would be living with ‘stay at home’ orders. But notice the personal battles Luther faced: idleness, fleshly desires, sinful appetites, laziness and love of sleep.

Remember, this is a giant of the faith – a man who genuinely and literally changed history. And in his lockdown, it seems that his flesh was aroused and his spirit grew dull. He goes on to describe the deeply spiritual nature of this battle:

'But believe me, in this solitude, with nothing to do, I am the prey of a thousand devils. It is much easier to fight a devil in the flesh (men) than evil spirits in heavenly things (or under heaven). I often fall … (1 November, 1521, to Nicolas Gerbel).

‘I am, God be praised, sound in body and well cared for, but much tried by sins and temptations’. (18 December 1521, to John Lange).

The devil means to assail us with incredible cunning and all his might…. For Satan rages as well as those about me, and threatens me with death and hell, and tries to destroy my flock’. (to Nicolas Gerbel, 18 March 1522)

Although he was in lockdown, Luther recognised that he was in a spiritual battle. He didn’t dismiss the natural issues he faced, but he clearly understood that ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness’ (Eph. 6.10-12).

My Battle

I’m encouraged by Luther’s candour! I can relate. I have indulged in more peanut butter during lockdown than anyone should eat in a lifetime (but all natural, and with no additives!). Not that peanut butter is particular sinful – but the pull of the flesh and the push (through laziness) away from industriousness and focused productivity … why has lockdown been so hard?

I remember at the beginning of the first lockdown – back in March, if you can remember it. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is going to be great! I’m going to get so much done!’. Not so – it’s been sluggish, like swimming through peanut butter.

In a book called Warfighting a former commandant of the US Marine Corps describes the friction of war in which easy things become difficult and difficult things becoming seemingly impossible. That’s been my lockdown. Grandiose plans of hyper-productivity smashed; long-subdued pockets of fleshiness awoken. What, then, can we do? We can learn from Luther’s lockdown.

Luther's Victory

Through faith and perseverance, Luther was able to turn the corner. First, he came to understand God’s will in placing him in confinement: ‘So, willingly as I would strive for freedom, I shall remain where God has placed me’. Leaving some of his lethargy behind, he wrote to George Spalatin on 10 June 1521, ‘I am at one and the same time both idle and very busy. I study Greek and Hebrew, and write without ceasing’.

This being ‘very busy’ was not simply to pass the time, but Luther changed the course of history through one tedious but important act: ‘I shall remain here in seclusion till Easter, and ... translate the New Testament into German, which so many people are anxious to have. (To John Lange, 18 December 1521).

Luther didn’t simply espouse sola scriptura; if God’s people are going to live by God’s word, they need to be able to read God’s word! He continued in his December letter to Lange: ‘Would to God that every town had its interpreter, and that this book could be had in every language, and dwell in the hearts and hands of all’. Every town did not have its interpreter, and so He set out to interpret it so that at least people in Germany could get this Bible in their hearts and hands.

Just three month’s after the first mention of translating the New Testament into German, it was done: 'I have not only translated the Gospel of St. John in my Patmos, but the whole of the New Testament, and Philip and I are now busy correcting it, and, with God's help, it will be a splendid work’ (To Georg Spalatin, 30 March 1522).

Yes, with God’s help, it was a splendid work and it transformed the German language and the German nation. But what can we learn?

The Basis of Luther's Victory

In the battle of Luther vs. the devil and his flesh, Luther won. Though not without ups and downs along the way, Luther triumphed over the limitations of his lockdown by pressing into God and remembering his mission. How was able to overcome the darkness and get his groove back?

1. His relationship with God: In all of his theologising, Luther never forgot that the heart of following Jesus is a relationship with God. Note the tenderness of this statement: ‘The Father has, out of His loving- kindness, made us, through the gospel, joyous lords over all the devils and death itself, and has permitted us to call him beloved Father (5 March, to Elector Frederick of Saxony). We overcome darkness by remembering whose we are.

2. His commitment to the gospel: Luther not only believed the gospel, he had a vision that it would bring salvation and liberation to Germany. This is why he translated the New Testament; but he also recognised the spiritual opposition that came with this calling. ‘Cleave to the gospel with fervent prayer, for Satan wishes to root out the gospel and deluge Germany in its own blood (to Nicolas Gerbel, 18 March 1522).  Vision helps people get up in the morning and get on with the they're called to do; without vision, people perish. Luther turned his gaze away from the dark demons and to the vision of gospel advance.

3. His faith: following Jesus is always about faith, trusting God and believing his promises. We never outgrow that; any day or week or month in which we win, we only ever always win by faith. There is no other pathway to victory. Look at what Luther writes to his good friend, encouraging him to stand strong: ‘We have often talked of faith and hope, so let us try for once to put our theory into practice, seeing God has brought it all about, and not we ourselves…. Do not be troubled in spirit; but sing the Lord's song in the night, as we are commanded, and I shall join in. Let us only be concerned about the Word' (To Philip Melanchthon, 26 May, 1521). As the apostle John wrote, 'This is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith' (1 John 5.4).

Our Victory

So, here we are again - lockdown number two. Or three. Or four. Our God is a God of victory, and he has victory for us, even in the midst of lockdown.

But what does victory look like? The good news is that we don't need to eat any worms. Or peanut butter. If we we could interview Luther, I don't think he'd say victory was easy, but he would say victory is possible. And even more than possible. He would encourage us to stay close to God our father, embrace God's vision for the place he's put us, and stir our faith through God's word.

Like Luther, in our cycle of lockdowns, we will face darkness; clouds of dark thought roll in across the lovely skies of our soul to block the rays of God's mercy beaming down upon us daily. Like Luther, we’ll win some days and lose some others. But if, like Luther, we can remember our God and remember our purpose and ‘only be concerned about the Word’, we too can win.