The Father of the Reformation

by J.I. Packer

Posted 10/27/20; World Magazine

Today is Reformation Day, marking the 503rd anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, jumpstarting the Protestant Reformation. In July, we lost another great Protestant theologian, J.I. Packer. But praise God his decades of work remain with us. In the mid-1960s, Packer participated in the annual Puritan and Reformed Studies Conferences in London and submitted the following paper on the life and influence of Luther. We share it with you today, courtesy of P&R Publishing, which published it as part of Puritan Papers, Volume Four: 1965–1967. —Mickey McLean

Luther was the Father of the Reformation in the same sense in which George Stephenson was the Father of Railways—that is, he pioneered the whole subsequent development. Without Luther, nationalist revolts against the Papacy and Empire would still have taken place; absolutism and capitalism would still have reshaped community life; the principle that the civil power determines the form of religion in its own territory (cuius regioeius religio, the basic principle of the Religious Peace of Augsburg, 1555) would still have been established in Western Europe; the Renaissance would still have run its course, secularizing culture and challenging all forms of authoritarianism; but the gospel would not have been recovered, nor would Christian faith and life have been renewed, nor would there have been any evangel­ical leaven to work in the upsurging life of the new European na­tional states. There would have been no Bucer, Tyndale, Cran­mer, or Calvin, for all these were disciples of Luther. Apart from Luther, the historical Reformation is as unintelligible as Hamlet would be without the Prince.

Luther put forward the idea that whenever God means to move decisively in His Church, He raises up a wonder-man (Wun­dermann), a hero (vir heroicus), a great individual leader, to be His instrument. Certainly this principle was exemplified in Luther himself. By 1521 he had caught the imagination of all Europe. He was idolized as a crusader of superhuman stature, the champion of Germany, of freedom, and of truth. A Holbein cartoon of 1522 pictures him as “the German Hercules.” In the same year, Spalatin compared him with Elijah, and the description stuck: a Saxon medallion calls him “Elijah of the last time” (Elias ultimi saeculi)and Melanchthon broke the news of his passing to the Wittenberg students by adapting 2 Kings 2:12, “Alas, gone is the horseman and the chariots of Israel.” What manner of man was this, we ask, to have called forth such estimates of himself?

What manner of man was this, we ask, to have called forth such estimates of himself?

The first thing to say is that he was a remarkable man by na­ture. Though a commoner (his father ran a copper mine), with a racy, homely style of speech and what we now call the common touch, he was no boorish countryman, as is sometimes supposed. He was in fact a gifted don, a brilliant scholar, a tremendous worker, and a magnetic teacher. In 1505, having crammed a six-year course into four years, he headed the list in the M.A. exam­ination at Erfurt. In 1512, at the age of twenty-nine, he became a Doctor of Theology and professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg. He was a star lecturer from his first term to his death. A man of great personal force—his eyes, they said, looked right through you—and also of great charm and vivacity, he would have won affection and made his mark as a leader in any context. Also, he was a man temperamentally made for battle, at his strongest in debate and polemics, as his reforming career showed. Once he had grasped the truth of sovereign grace that was locked up in the biblical phrase “the righteousness of God”—­an event probably belonging to 1513, when he was thirty and preparing his first lectures on the Psalms—he became an evan­gelical volcano. In the University he challenged “Aristotle” (semi­-Pelagian legalistic scholasticism) in the name of “Augustine” (biblically-controlled reasoning about sin, grace, and faith in Christ). On a wider stage, he challenged the theory of Indulgences in 1517, with his Ninety-five Theses, and in 1519, at the Leipzig Disputation with John Eck, he allowed his opponent to bring out the fact that he was really challenging the whole basis of Papal jurisdiction. In 1520 he defied the Pope by publicly burning the Bull which excommunicated him, and adding the Canon Law to the bonfire; a gesture which he followed up by be­coming a pamphleteer and issuing his three great Reformation manifestos—The Babylonish Captivity of the Church, An Appeal to the Christian Nobility, and The Liberty of a Christian Man. In 1521, hav­ing stood firm before the Emperor at Worms, he was put under the Imperial ban. But Frederick the Wise and, later, other princes kept him safe, and he continued till his death in 1546 teaching at Wittenberg, and writing for the furtherance of reformation in the German kingdoms. It has been estimated that for many years he produced on an average a tract a fortnight. His complete works fill ninety-four volumes of about 750 pages each in the stan­dard Weimar edition. He wrote almost twice as much as Calvin!

Naturally, so titanic a figure has been variously estimated. Four centuries of Germans have seen him primarily as a patriot. Thomas Carlyle saw him as the archetypal “free man,” defying tradition and convention to follow his inner vision—a proto-liberal, in fact! But Luther saw himself simply as a theologian and a pas­tor, a preacher and teacher of the Word of God. He never thought of himself even as a reformer; the Reformation, he insisted, was not his work, but the work of God through His Word in the first instance and then, under God, of the German princes obeying God’s word. His own part had merely been to let the Word loose. Thus, his approach to reformation appears as wholly theological and theocentric. Reformation in its essence was to him not a human achievement, any more than salvation was, but God’s own work of restoring His Church from a state of ruin to one of life and health through the power of His Word.

The phrase “the Word of God,” or “the Word” simply, is a key phrase in Luther’s thought. It meant to him, not just the Scrip­tures formally regarded as inspired (though of course he as­sumed their inspiration, as all churchmen did in his day), but something wider—namely, the message and content of the Scriptures, that is, the gospel concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the sum and substance of what God has to say to man. Often, indeed, Luther applies the phrase “the Word of God” to Christ Himself, and when he uses it of biblical teaching the thought of the living Word whom the written Word sets forth is never far from his mind. Only by exploring Luther’s understanding of “the Word of God” can we fully grasp his approach to reformation; to this task, therefore, we now turn.

The Theology of Luther

The theology which Luther reached through study, prayer, and inner conflict between 1512 and 1517, and which from then on he taught virtually without change, had three overall characteristics, It was exegetical, being propounded by the method of let­ting individual texts talk; it was evangelical, being a sustained as­sertion of the gospel of God’s grace to sinners; and it was polemical, firing in turn at Roman superstition, radical Protestant “enthusiasm,” and the folly and futility of the ways of this proud and sinful world. It represented essentially a rediscovery of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The title of P.S. Watson’s introduction to Luther’s thought, Let God Be God! well focuses its ruling motivation. Luther asserts God’s active sovereignty in prov­idence and grace with tremendous vigor. All created things, he says, are God’s “masks” (larvae Dei)—that is, behind all that hap­pens with such seeming haphazardness in this world of sight and sense is the hidden face, the guiding hand, the ruling mind of its Maker. And in The Bondage of the Will, Luther’s broadside against Erasmus, he speaks of the truth of man’s absolute enslavement by nature to sin and Satan, and his consequent absolute depen­dence on sovereign divine grace for salvation as the “hinge” on which the whole theological conflict of the Reformation really turned.

Luther’s constant aim was to inculcate the biblical knowledge of God, and to this end he constantly rang the changes on the fol­lowing five staple themes: (1) the authority of the biblical Word of God, (2) the greatness of sin, (3) the graciousness of Christ, (4) the vitality of faith, and (5) the spiritual nature of the Church.

Luther affirmed the authority of the biblical Word of God against the practice of appealing to unwritten traditions, Papal pro­nouncements, canon law, and the trivial sophistries of allegorical exegesis—all of which appeals, so he maintained, have the effect of gagging the Scriptures, so that their true voice cannot be heard. His account of the Scriptures was essentially as follows. The Bible is a clear, straightforward book, for “the Holy Ghost is the plainest writer and speaker in heaven and earth.” It should therefore be understood in its “literal, ordinary, natural sense,” letting one text and phrase throw light on another. (It was by this means, as it seems, that Luther’s evangelical enlightenment took place: the words “deliver me in thy righteousness” in Psalm 31:1 and 71:2 suggested to him that “the righteousness of God” in Ro­mans 1:17 also signified an outgoing, not of vindicatory justice, but of saving mercy.) Thus “literally” understood, Scripture proved to contain a double communication from God: a disclo­sure of law, to induce self-knowledge and self-despair, and a proclamation of promises, and of Christ as the sum and substance of these promises, to be the object of faith and hope. From this standpoint, the Scriptures, and those of the New Testament in particular, appear as “the swaddling-clothes in which Christ is wrapped.” Romans is the key to the Bible, “the true masterpiece of the New Testament, the purest gospel of all. … We find in this epistle in the most abundant fashion that which a Christian ought to know, viz. what are Law, Gospel, Sin, Punishment, Grace, Faith, Righteousness, Christ, God, Good Works, Love, Hope, the Cross . … It seems as if Paul wanted briefly to summarize in this epistle the whole of Christian evangelical teaching, and to provide an in­troduction to the whole Old Testament. …” This evangelical teaching is the true rule of Christian faith: we must ask that the Holy Spirit will enable us to grasp it by teaching us its application to ourselves, and that we may be enabled to cleave to it amid the distractions and errors whereby Satan seeks to wean us from it.

Luther affirmed the greatness of sin against current scholastic teaching about natural ability and the perfection (i.e., sinlessness) of a Christian’s good deeds. It was on this teaching that the contemporary doctrine of merit, a blatant assertion of salvation by works and effort, was based. Luther in effect addressed its ex­positors in the accents of Anselm: “You have not yet considered the weightiness of sin (quanti ponderis sit peccatum).” Claiming Au­gustine as his forerunner, Luther stressed the total inability of the natural man, and the guilt of the Christian, even at his best, be­cause all his service of God is stained by sin. Like Augustine, Luther made much of Romans 7:14–25 as proving the latter point. Romans, the key book of the Bible, as we saw, was written, so Luther strikingly tells us, “to pull down, and pluck up, and de­stroy, all the wisdom and righteousness of the flesh, however great it may be … and to implant, establish, and magnify sin …”; for it is not till this job is done, and self-righteousness finally abol­ished, that we can grasp the dimensions of the divine mercy. We cannot know the greatness of grace, says Luther, till we have learned the greatness of sin.

We cannot know the greatness of grace, says Luther, till we have learned the greatness of sin.

Against the background of the popular picture of Jesus as a stern and dreadful judge, whom sinful men dare not approach directly at all, Luther stressed the point that the incarnation, lowly manhood, and patient suffering of the Son of God all prove the graciousness of Christ, whose attitude toward us is really one of overflowing love. The thought of Jesus’ voluntary identification of Himself with us in our helplessness and misery and, on the cross, in the deepest spiritual darkness and distress (anfechtung), and of His continuing sympathy with others who are tempted, was basic to Luther’s teaching on the life of faith. Also, Luther challenged all forms of the doctrine of salvation by works, whether by personal merit or by the purchase of indul­gences or by the offering of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, by appealing to the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death as a ground of full salvation for “everyone that believeth.” Luther was the first theologian to give prominence to the thought that the satisfaction to God for sin which, as Anselm had established, Christ rendered on our behalf on the cross, was penal and substitutionary in its nature. Anselm had thought of satisfaction as an alternative to the inflicting of the due penalty, a compensatory act of homage which “made up” for the damage God had suffered through our sins. “Damages,” indeed, is the precise modern equivalent for Anselm’s conception of the atonement. But Luther saw that in Scripture satisfaction to God means satisfaction of the penal claims of divine law—that is, punishment vicariously borne. The following extract from Luther’s com­ment on Galatians 3:13 shows how vividly he set forth this thought:

The doctrine of the gospel … speaketh nothing of our works, or of the works of the law, but of the inestimable mercy and love of God towards most wretched and mis­erable sinners; to wit, that our most merciful Father … sent his only Son into the world, and laid upon him all the sins of all men, saying, Be thou Peter, that denier; Paul, that persecutor, blasphemer, and cruel oppressor; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief hanged upon the cross—briefly, be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them. Now cometh the law, and saith: I find him a sinner, one that hath taken upon him the sins of all men, and I see no sins but in him: therefore let him die upon the cross; and so it setteth upon him, and killeth him. By this means the whole world is purged … God would see nothing else in the whole world, if it did believe, but a mere cleansing and righteousness.

This led Luther to display atonement and justification as the two complementary stages of St. Paul’s “great exchange” as set forth in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “Learn to know Christ and him crucified; learn to sing unto him, and say, Lord Jesus, thou art my righteousness, I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thee what was mine, and hast set upon me what was thine. Thou hast become what thou wast not, that I might become what I was not.” Luther’s answer, therefore, to ideas of salvation by works and priestly meditation was to set forth the promise of full acceptance—the imputing of righteousness and the non-imputing of sin, together with the bestowal of sonship to God and liberty from the law—for all who rest their faith directly upon Jesus Christ and His atoning blood. This was the “theology of the cross,” the saving knowledge of God received through the gospel, which Luther opposed to the futile “theology of glory,” the conventional attempts of scholastic theologians to know God by abstract speculative logic. To know God, said Luther, is to know the grace of Christ, and this knowledge comes only through humbly contemplating Calvary.

To know God, said Luther, is to know the grace of Christ, and this knowledge comes only through humbly contemplating Calvary.

Luther challenged the current assumption that faith is essen­tially credence (fides), and as such a meritorious work, by insisting that faith is essentially trust (fiducia), and that, so far from being mer­itorious, it is trust in Christ on the basis of a clear recognition that one has no merit at all, but that all merit, first to last, is found in Him alone. Faith is thus an empty hand stretched out to receive Christ, grasping Him and holding Him fast. “Faith taketh hold of Christ, and hath him present, and holdeth him enclosed, as the ring doth the precious stone.” Faith is God’s gift, given as part of His gracious work of “calling” (effectual calling, as later generations would say). Faith, thus supernaturally given, is a vital principle, re­silient and active, triumphant in conflict and endlessly energetic:

When faith is of the kind that God awakens and creates in the heart, then a man trusts in Christ. He is then so se­curely founded on Christ, that he can hurl defiance at sin, death, hell, the devil, and all God’s enemies. He fears no ill, however hard and cruel it may prove to be. …

Right faith is a thing wrought by the Holy Ghost in us, which changeth us, turneth us into a new nature. … Faith is a lively thing, mighty in working, valiant and strong; so that it is impossible that he who is endued therewith should not work always good works without ceasing … for such is his nature. …

Luther repudiated the conventional equation of the Church with the Roman system. Indeed, before his excommunication in 1520, he had accepted the idea, which had ap­peared before among medieval radicals, that the Papacy was Antichrist, and he constantly insisted that according to the New Testament the Church was not to be thought of in the first instance as a system or organization at all. Luther held that the Church is essentially, as the Creed says, a fellowship of saints (com­munio sanctorum), “the lambs who hear the shepherd’s voice,” as he put it in the Schmalkald Articles. Though the Church has a visible aspect, i.e. its corporate life of worship and service, it is essentially invisible, for the relationship of faith in Christ is not the sort of fact that men can see. Only the Lord knows them that are His. One can belong to a congregation (Gemeine) and yet be outside the Church as God knows it; equally, one can be expelled from organized congregations (as Luther was when the Pope excommunicated him) and still belong to the Church. The visible life by which the presence of the Church is recognized has two leading features: the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, and the exercise of the priesthood of all be­lievers, which to Luther meant mutual service at all levels on the basis of recognized mutual responsibility. It is sometimes thought that Luther made nothing of discipline as a mark of the Church, but this is not so. In two works published in 1539 and 1540 respectively he included discipline among seven marks of the Church visible: preaching; Baptism; the Lord’s Supper; “the keys of Christian discipline and forgiveness”; an ordained ministry; public worship; and “suffering, the posses­sion of the holy Cross.”

We have now surveyed the five themes which made up the central content of “the Word” as Luther understood it. It was in this field that all Luther’s main concerns lay. It was here, rather than in his somewhat unreflective and stubborn speculations about, for instance, baptismal regeneration through infant faith (against the Anabaptists), or the physical reception of Christ in non-transubstantiated bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper (against Rome and Zwingli), that he made his abiding contribu­tion to theology. Here, then, we have “the Word” which under God, so Luther held, must reform the Church.


From Puritan Papers, Vol. 4: 1965–1967, edited by J.I. Packer. Published by P&R Publishing. Copyright © 2004 by the Committee of the Westminster Conference

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