Life + Culture

The Lionhearted Listener: The Habit That Set Luther on Fire

The Lionhearted Listener

“See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all” (Here I Stand, 212). On this date, now more than five hundred years ago, the word of God waged a serious war against threats to the gospel emerging from the Roman Catholic Church, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Ninety-Five Theses may not have been nailed to the door, as the scene has been famously painted. They were probably pasted with glue. Pieces like these were often posted to the door, which served as a bulletin board for the university. Luther likely did not even post the theses himself. But his ninety-five nails drove deeper than any metal might have, because they were forged for this emerging war in the fire of divine revelation.

His Ears Led the Way

Timothy George writes,

What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. . . . He listened to the Word because it was his job to do so and because he had come to believe his soul’s salvation depended upon it. Luther did not become a reformer because he attacked indulgences. He attacked indulgences because the Word had already taken deep root in his heart. (Theology of the Reformers, 55–56)

George goes on to quote Luther: “If you were to ask a Christian what his task is and by what he is worthy of the name of Christian, there could be no other response than hearing the Word of God, that is, faith. Ears are the only organs of the Christian” (56). We often remember Luther for his extraordinary mouth, but it was first and foremost his ears that led to his challenging the Roman Church. He launched a revival of faithful and valiant listening — to God.

Long before he composed “A Mighty Fortress,” before he was driven into exile, before he stood fast at the Diet of Worms, before he courageously debated Eck at Leipzig, before he posted his ninety-five theses at the Castle Church, Martin Luther listened. And while he listened to God, he gave birth to centuries of lionhearted listeners.

How Luther Listened

The listening began for Luther long before the reforming, while he still lived and served as a devoted monk in the cloister at Erfurt. Herman Selderhuis writes,

While in the monastery, Luther learned that Bible reading is actually ‘listening to the Bible’: a text had to be read but also heard, again and again, as frequently as necessary until one gained an understanding of what the text said. . . . The goal was to read and listen until one heard God’s voice in the Word. (Luther: Spiritual Biography, 59)

Luther himself explains the importance of good listening: “If you want to become a Christian, you must take the word of Christ, realizing that you will never be finished learning, and then with me, you will recognize that you still do not even know the ABCs. If one was to boast, then I could certainly do that about myself, because day and night I was busy studying the Bible, and yet I have remained a student. Every day I begin like someone in the primary school” (Spiritual Biography, 59).

Behind the brilliant rhetoric and revolutionary leadership was a tenacious humility to hear from God. Luther did not pretend to have mastered Scripture, even as one of the greatest theologians in history, but considered himself always a student, and an elementary school student at that. And by opening the Bible as if he had not seen anything yet, he saw far more than most — certainly far more than the respected priests and scholars of his day.

Selderhuis continues, “Luther searched in the Bible, he ‘knocked’ on the texts, he shook them like the branch of a fruit tree, and then he listened to find words of comfort and reassurance to drive away his fears” (59). Good listeners search and knock and shake the word of God until they hear God speak — until he gives the long-awaited answer, or whispers their fears away, or leads them with clear direction, or breathes fresh inspiration and strength into their life and ministry, or reassures them with his promises. Listening to the very words of God in the Scriptures is not only the quiet key to the Protestant Reformation, but to the faithful, fruitful, and happy Christian life.

What Listening Will Do

We do not need Luther, however, to know what this kind of listening does to a man (or woman). The first psalm tells us, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:3). If our delight is in the law of the Lord — if we listen to the word of God day and night because we love to hear him — our lives, like Luther’s, will be marked by unusual strength, stability, and eternal productivity.

Writing about the Diet of Worms, biographer Roland Bainton describes what listening made of Luther:

At a time when the choicer sort were glorying in the accomplishments of man, strode this Luther, entranced by the song of angels, stunned by the wrath of God, speechless before the wonder of creation, lyrical over the divine mercy, a man aflame with God. . . . The ultimate problem was always God and man’s relationship to God. (Here I Stand, 214)

The joyful, focused, even relentless discipline of meditating on Scripture will inevitably plant God (and not ourselves) at the center of our universe; it will try all of our thoughts, desires, and ambitions against his living, active, and invincible word; and it will set us aflame — to enjoy him with all our hearts, to see him everywhere in his creation and providence, and to stand against anything that challenges or dishonors him. Ultimately, the pages of Scripture, not the abuses of Rome, kindled the fire of Luther’s faith-filled resistance.

When asked to repudiate what he had written about the fatal errors in the Catholic doctrine and practice of his day, he said, according to Bainton, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. . . . Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” (180). No one who casually or occasionally dabbles in reading the Bible will stare death in the face, and stand like Luther stood. Though he was never forced to die for his faith, listening had made a martyr out of Martin.

Adore Every Trace

After years of poor health, Martin Luther fell seriously ill at the age of 62. On February 18, 1546, we lost the lionhearted listener. His loved ones found the following written on a piece of paper by his deathbed:

Nobody can understand Vergil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has first been a shepherd or a farmer for five years. Nobody understands Cicero in his letters unless he has been engaged in public affairs of some consequence for twenty years. Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years. . . . “Lay not your hand on this divine Aeneid, but bow before it, adore its every trace.” We are beggars. That is true. (Theology of the Reformers, 104–5)

Adore its every trace. Do you want to imitate the boldness and faithfulness of Martin Luther? Adore every trace of God in Scripture. Do you want the courage to stand in your own day of trouble? Adore every syllable of what God has said to us. Do you want to preserve and spread the one true gospel — the only hope for anyone, anywhere, at any time in history? Listen to every word from him.

Aspire to say with Luther, when your last day comes — at 62, 82, or at 32 — “The Word did all the work.”

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