Martin Luther: Medieval Reformissionary


As both a follow-up to yesterday’s post on Martin Luther and a historical postscript to what I wrote last week on ‘Reformation as Mission‘ (i.e. reformission), I would like to quote a section from Scott Hendrix’s excellent book on Reformation history entitled Recultivating the Vineyard. In this section, Hendrix paints a portrait of Luther somewhat contrary to that which is sometimes depicted by others, namely, that Luther and the other Reformers were not interested or engaged in missions and evangelism. To the contrary, Hendrix shows that Luther understood his vocation as a Reformer explicitly in terms of the apostolic or missionary task:

[T]he conviction of being accountable to Christ alone reinforced both the christocentric dimension of [Luther’s] Reformation discovery and the Christianizing character of the agenda that accompanied it. The opposite of idolatry was not just faith in God but faith in Christ, who was the only Savior and provided exclusive access to the Father. For that reason, Christianizing Germany meant more to Luther than pushing traditional Christianity into the corners of the empire where it had not arrived. It meant changing Christianity in order to make  Christ central to its faith and practice and thus to intensify the specifically Christian character of European religion. Although he was discarding a medieval monastic identity and leaving his Augustinian superiors behind, Luther was adopting Christ as his new abbot and reaching for the old ideal of turning the world into a monastery. He wanted to bring Germany, and more of Europe if possible, into the same subjection to Christ that he had experienced for himself…

In Luther’s mind, therefore, the Reformation became a missionary movement that was under his leadership. As his own vocation crystallized during exile in 1521, he identified closely with Paul and chose the apostolic mission recounted in Acts as an early Christian paradigm for the reform that as beginning in Wittenberg. From the Wartburg, Luther wrote to Philipp Melanchthon, comparing Wittenberg to Antioch and his colleagues to early Christian missionaries: “You lecture, Amsdorf lectures; Jonas will lecture; do you want the kingdom of God to be proclaimed only in your town? Do not others also need the gospel? Will your Antioch not release a Silas or a Paul or a Barnabas for some other work of the Spirit?” He would not be disturbed, claimed Luther, if the Lord opened a door for the word at Erfurt or Cologne or anywhere else, since there was a surplus of preachers in Wittenberg and a big harvest everywhere else…

For Luther to regard the Reformation as a missionary movement did not mean that one day an unbelieving world would be fully converted. He explicitly rejected that view in 1523. The majority would always persecute Christians because the cross was the truest mark of the church. The gospel had to be preached continually in order to bring people to faith, for “the kingdom of Christ was always in the process of becoming, never a finished event.” The mission was urgent, however, because the last days were at hand and reformers were convinced that idolatry had almost ruined the current state of Christendom. Even though only a few believed, the kingdom would extend its presence throughout the earth. Luther and his colleagues, however, regarded themselves as apostles whose work began at home: they were not being called to convert the heathen but to reconvert the faithful.[1]

As I have explained before with reference to T.F. Torrance, the missionary task does not always consist in, as Hendrix states, ‘converting the heathen’, but also, depending on the context, in ‘reconverting the faithful’. To be sure, many places and peoples still exist that, as far as we know, have never heard the gospel and thus desperately need someone to go to them. Yet it is also true, as in the case of sixteenth-century Germany (or twentieth-century Europe and North America), that places and peoples once ‘Christianized’ may no longer be such and thus likewise stand in desperate need of the gospel. As per Hendrix’s account, Luther serves as a great (though of course not perfect!) example of what the task of ‘reformission’ entails.

To keep this post brief, let me highlight just a couple of aspects of this. First, we see traces of Luther’s theologia crucis in his acknowledgement that the work of reformission may not yield outstanding results. The gospel that is the driving force of reformission is, as Paul reminds us 1 Corinthians 1, foolish and scandalous to the world. As Luther knew all too well, reformissionaries cannot expect to be applauded and acclaimed. Rather they should prepare themselves for hardship and persecution. Yet this should not in any way deter them from obedience to their calling.

Second, we see that reformission does not aim only to evangelize those who have never believed in Christ. It also seeks to intensify the Christ-centeredness of Christianity. As often tragically happens, the church that bears the name of Christ can become enamored with and caught up in all kinds of pursuits and activities, many of them good, that nevertheless displace Christ from his place of absolute primacy. The preaching, teaching, and theology of the church can frequently manifest an astonishing lack of the Christ who alone makes it Christian. When the church no longer bows its knee in humble submission and confesses with its tongue that Jesus is Lord, then reformissionaries are needed to call it back to its first love. Speaking personally, this is what drew me to the Evangelical Calvinism of which I so often speak here at Reformissio. In its most basic form, Evangelical Calvinism is none other than the attempt to ground all of Christian faith and practice in the great Reformation understanding of solus Christus. Thus, by its very nature Evangelical Calvinism is, in my view, a missionary endeavor not only to those outside of the church but also to those within.

Luther’s example encourages and motivates me, and I hope it does so for you as well.


[1] Hendrix, S.H., 2004. Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, pp.55-57.