We recently explored ways Martin Luther comforted those experiencing sickness, depression, anxiety, and more through his Letters of Spiritual Counsel. We saw that Luther, the Reformation celebrity known for boldly clinging to the Word of God and taking a stand against the errors of the Catholic Church, also served as a personal pastor to many suffering souls in his hometown of Wittenberg.
It’s overwhelming to think about Martin Luther’s impact as a reformational figurehead and a caring pastor. His legacy looms large even today, and his personhood remains myth-like to those who know of him. How did this German monk get so much done in so little time?
My mind is prone to go straight to the measuring stick. I imagine yours is too. We want to quantify and ‘power rank’ everything, and favorite theological figures are no exception. Even with them we’ll count the beans and calculate some lasting significance. First to articulate the doctrine of original sin? Definitely bumped into the top ten list. Formulated the ontological proof for God’s existence? Impressive. Martyred by Nazis during WWII? Tough to beat.
Both are delivered to us, not by virtuous people or extraordinary means, but by fragile sinners and everyday water, bread, and wine.
Rediscovering the Gospel? For goodness sake...who can compete with that?
Alas, Martin Luther is not–or, at least should not–be the object of our affection. He was a man who died after having a stroke, and a living dog is better than a dead lion (Ecc. 9:4). We put our heroes to death because there is no power in the man, only power in the Word delivered to the man. Article V of the Augsburg Confession, which was written by Luther’s friend and fellow reformer Phillip Melancthon, reminds us of this through this Word, “the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel.” Indeed, this eternal Word, that is Christ, breaks in from the outside despite us, and upon hearing the devil’s accusation rightfully calls him “Liar” and silences his deceiving voice (Is. 40:8, John 8:44).
The Spoken Word and the visible Word, or the Sacraments, are the faith-creating elements that bring God’s grace directly to us. Both are delivered to us, not by virtuous people or extraordinary means, but by fragile sinners and everyday water, bread, and wine. This is the scandalous, inverted way Christ comes to us. It’s not through great power, glory, or influence that he justifies and absolves mankind. He doesn’t use success as a signpost directing us to salvation. It is in our weakness and brokenness, our ongoing struggle with sin, and our fear of death that he cleans us up feeds us a meal, gently turns us away from ourselves and back towards the cross, then looks at us, saying, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
That is why Luther was often found in the pews at Castle Church. He wasn’t sure if the Reformation movement was working, and he seriously doubted that it would. Similarly, he knew he was personally rot and doomed to death. He felt that weight for a long time. Without the Word spoken to him, he might have been tempted to believe that was the end of it.
But if he was sitting there, who was in the pulpit?
Enter a man who may, in fact, need an introduction: Johannes Bugenhagen. Johannes was born on an island off the Baltic coast of Pomerania, or modern Poland, in June of 1458. If we pull the measuring stick back out for a moment, we’ll find that he lived an insignificant life by comparison. But that’s precisely the way our God works; this is the reverse logic of the Gospel.
Despite his historical insignificance, Bugenhagen’s personal contribution to the Protestant Reformation was critical. In 1523, with the approval of Martin Luther and the vote of the congregation and city council, Johannes was elected pastor of Wittenberg (Castle) Church. He served as Luther’s pastor and friend for 23 years until Luther’s death in 1546.
Johannes Bugenhagen had a dramatic impact on Luther’s personal life. These two shared a deep friendship. So deep that it was Johannes Bugenhagen that Luther named his first son, “Hans,” after. Bugenhagen married Luther and Katherine, and it was to Bugenhagen that Luther entrusted the church and his family as he lay on his deathbed.
Bugenhagen was two years younger than Martin Luther, and he considered himself intellectually inferior to Luther. As Luther’s pastor, he often felt inadequate. This was especially true when Luther asked him to absolve his sins. Nonetheless, Bugenhagen knew that it was not his own strength that mattered when it came to absolution. As he leaned in near Luther’s ear, he reminded his friend,
“Dear Doctor [Luther], what I am telling you, you should accept not as my word but as God’s Word which He declares through me” (Doktor Pomeranus, Johannes Bugenhagen. Ein Lebensbild Aus Der Zeit Der Reformation, Hermann Hering, 19).
Luther often longed for Bugenhagen’s counsel and care when away from Wittenberg. Much like David’s lyre for an angry King Saul, he knew that Bugenhagen’s voice preaching Christ crucified for him would ease his heavy heart as the Reformation waged on.
In 1527, a severe outbreak of the plague consumed Wittenberg. As death hovered over this small German town, many residents fled to avoid catching the sickness. Urged by Luther in his piece, “On Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” some people stayed to fulfill their civic and pastoral duties for the sake of their neighbors.
During this time, Luther experienced serious (anfechtungen) illnesses. So severe was his condition that Johannes Bugenhagen began making preparations for his death. Rudimentary medical practices offered little relief and often made matters worse. Bugenhagen still made sure Luther had the best medical care available. He and other Wittenberg colleagues kept a close eye on his physical well being. Bugenhagen, in particular, paid extra attention to his eating habits.
Each of us is wholly dependent on other sinners preaching the Word to us.
But Bugenhagen was also keeping a close eye on Martin’s spirit. After all, this is the role of a pastor: To care for the spiritual and eternal welfare of people. While Luther would survive this spell, a few years later, he would eventually die his physical death. When he did, Johannes Bugenhagen was there to preach at his funeral and comfort those who knew and loved him.
Bugenhagen’s story is a nice reminder to us that no matter how successful we are as celebrities, doctors, real estate developers, bankers, entrepreneurs, or even theologians and pastors, each of us is wholly dependent on other sinners preaching the Word to us, so that we may know–and then be reminded again and again–that we are forgiven and made free by Christ’s death and resurrection.