One lesson from Reformation history

Mark G. Schroeder

The bus made its way through rolling hills and green pastures, very much reminding me of the beautiful landscape of southern Wisconsin. But it was not Wisconsin.  Piercing the morning sky in the distance was the spire of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. I soon would be standing in the birthplace of the Lutheran Reformation. 

At our first stop in Wittenberg we found ourselves at the doors of the church where Martin Luther posted 95 theological statements, or theses, that he wanted to debate. Inside that church, we stood before the grave of the Reformer himself, with his right-hand man Philip Melanchthon buried just a few feet away. 

Just a few blocks down the street, we stopped at another church—the City Church of St. Mary’s. It was here that Luther preached hundreds of sermons, explaining scriptural truths in a language that the lowliest peasant and the youngest child could understand.  

Strolling down the cobblestone streets of Wittenberg, we passed the home where Philip Melanchthon lived and stopped at the home of Lucas Cranach, an artist and friend of Luther. 

Then, at the end of the street, I found myself at the Black Cloister, the former monastery given to Luther as a home for his family and a place where visitors and students became lodgers. I stood in the room where Luther sat at the head of the massive table—Katie seated to his right—and where often 40 or more people would gather for meals and lively conversation.  

It may have all happened five hundred years ago, but seeing those places made the events of the Reformation seem anything but ancient history or dusty remnants of the past. 

One thing, perhaps more than any other, struck me as I strolled the streets of Wittenberg. Halfway through the tour, it began to rain—softly at first, then more heavily. We ducked inside a café, and then the rain stopped. I couldn’t help but think of one of Luther’s more memorable illustrations: “For you should know that God’s Word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. . . . And [you should] not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, p. 352,353). 

Sadly, the empty Lutheran churches and the decline of Christianity in Europe have proven Luther’s words to be true. In the centuries after Luther, the gospel has moved from its gracious downpour in Europe to other lands. Here in the United States, we have been blessed with the nourishing showers of the gospel for centuries. One can’t help but wonder: Are we about to see history repeated through our own ingratitude and contempt? Will the gospel shower continue its move to other lands and other people because of closed ears, hard hearts, and thankless complacency? 

By God’s grace, it is never too late for us as individuals and as a synod to listen to Luther’s warning and seize the gospel and hold it fast; to hunger and thirst for the Word as if our eternal life depended on it (because it does); to feel the precious raindrops of God’s grace and to pray that the rain of his gospel continues to nourish our faith and to equip us to serve; and to rededicate ourselves to proclaiming the truths we treasure as Lutherans. 

If that is the lesson we learn from the history of the Reformation, it will be a lesson well worth learning. 

Mark Schroeder is president of WELS.



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Author: Mark G. Schroeder
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

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