Martin Luther’s Disappointment

This may sound strange, but I find great encouragement in the discouragement of others. I don’t mean this in the sense that I enjoy seeing other people in difficulty. What I mean is that in reading about the lives and labors of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, I am often more invigorated and strengthened by the disappointments and the setbacks of those whom I admire than I am by the accomplishments and successes for which I primarily admire them. I think that this is because it humanizes them in a way that historical depictions fail to convey. It encourages me to realize that I am not the only one to face frustration and failure, for those whom I esteem often faced monumental trials and tribulations and yet, by God’s grace, they ran their race with faithfulness until the end.

I was encouraged in this way once again as I read Scott Hendrix’s description of the great disappointment that Martin Luther experienced in failing to realize all that he had hoped to see accomplished during his lifetime:

Cranach the Younger’s depiction of the Reformation as recultivating the vineyard is an apt portrayal of Luther’s program to Christianize Europe. As he saw it, the medieval church had planted the faith in the soil of pagan Europe but, after the faith had germinated, the bad husbandry of the papal church had neglected the field. Christianity had withered almost beyond recognition, and now the faith, in its genuine form, had to vineyard-of-the-lord-by-cranach-the-younger600be replanted and cultivated. New growth might appear slowly and the reaper might come at any time. But, whenever the harvest was gathered, Luther hope that God would find, if not a perfect crop, at least a more bountiful Christendom than ever before…

Although the older Luther expressed contentment with the recultivation of Germany, at times he betrayed a deep disappointment that more fruit was not being produced. The vineyard to be recultivated was a large property, and even if he did not expect a perfect harvest before the last day, he had hoped for more healthy plants than he was able to see from his window in Wittenberg. It is helpful to remember that his disappointment was more structural than personal in the sense that a project as big as the Reformation could never completely succeed. Luther bit off more than he could chew. In spite of repeated affirmations that believers were not perfect and remained sinners, his agenda was formulated in idealistic terms and doomed never to be perfectly accomplished. Not even a robust eschatology could stave off his disappointment.[1]

As I have related before on this blog, I am a church-planting missionary in Italy. I too have big dreams; probably too big if I am honest. I would hope to see reformation come to Europe on a scale envisioned by Luther and the other Reformers. I also recognize that this probably will not occur, even though I am convinced that with God, nothing is impossible. What I don’t want to do, however, is lower my expectations in order to guard myself from disappointment. This is what I admire about Luther: he was not afraid to dream big, to hope big, and to believe big on the basis of his convictions regarding the power of the Word of God. If indeed the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16), then I should be utterly unashamed both in my preaching, teaching, and sharing of it as well as in my confidence that it is able to accomplish far more than I could even begin to imagine.

At the same time, as Luther himself could attest, this should not lead me to lapse into some kind of theologia gloriae – a theology of glory – for the gospel of Christ crucified is foolishness and a scandal to the world. This is why I find great encouragement in Luther’s disappointment: for now our lives and labors are characterized by a theologia crucis – a theology of the cross – and we move forward day by day, endeavoring to be faithful to our calling, simply on the basis of a promise, the promise that one day the kingdoms of this earth will give way to the kingdom of our God in which the knowledge of his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Until then, we work in the vineyard of the Lord among the thorns and thistles, earnestly longing for the day when our faith will be made sight and God will be all in all. This is indeed how Hendrix concludes his book:

The Reformation was a missionary campaign that envisioned a renewed Christian society in Europe. That vision and the different agendas that sought to realize it resulted in the formation of confessional churches that changed the shape of Christianity and decisively influenced its expansion into other parts of the world. That result was not what early reformers expected. When they set out to recultivate the vineyard, they did not anticipate that it would be divided in so many competitive fields or that the harvest would be so uneven. Nevertheless, lingering disappointments were tempered by the expectation of a great harvest to come that they would not see but that would finally fulfill their vision. Christendom was the object of faith as well as a historical reality. By hoping for the transformation of hearts and minds, the reformers of early modern Europe were also hoping for a transformation of history, and if that transformation could not be accomplished in the present, then it would be completed, they believed, in an age yet to come.[2]


[1] Hendrix, S.H., 2004. Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press. pp.63-64, 66.

[2] Ibid., p.174.