Book Review — Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation

Rescuing the Gospel -- LutzerErwin W. Lutzer, the venerated pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, puts his prolific pen to paper once again to give us a historic recounting of the highlights of the life of Martin Luther and other reformers of the sixteenth century. Lutzer places these historic lives into the context of the need to constantly purify or “rescue” the gospel and prevent a drift from the clear message found in scripture.

Lutzer is qualified to write this book because he has led several tours to the various historic sites across Europe where the events of the Reformation occurred. His years as a pastor and his deep study of the scriptures has also prepared him for this undertaking.

Though the book concentrates on Luther, the author acknowledges the contributions of men such as John Wycliffe and John Hus, who preceded Luther. These men pointed out the abuses and corruption that had become common in the medieval Roman Catholic church and paved the way for Luther’s condemnation of the church. When Luther nailed his “95 theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the congregants had already been stirred by these prior luminaries of discontent. The popularity of these reforming ideas probably spared Luther’s life.  Hus had been burned at the stake and John Wycliffe escaped a martyr’s death by dying of natural causes days before he would have been killed.

As for Luther, Lutzer steps us through his life’s story. He was born to devout parents and became a monk, fulfilling a vow to St. Anne, who presumably saved him during a thunderstorm. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer, but reluctantly accepted his call to the clergy eventually. While studying the scriptures, Luther realized that salvation was obtained by grace through faith and not through the buying of indulgences. This realization prompted his posting of the ninety-five grievances on the Wittenberg door.

Luther’s real break with Rome came when he burned the papal bull, the document from the pope which condemned Luther’s ideas and his followers. He was also commanded to recant his writings on the subject. Luther and his adherents, with much fanfare, publicly burned the papal bull as an act of protest.

Since the pope refused to give Luther an audience, he appealed to the Emperor Charles V. Luther was given the opportunity to defend his beliefs before the king of the Roman Empire at the Diet of Worms (which has nothing to do with eating worms.) Afterwards, Luther imposed a self-exile at Wartburg castle where he spent his days writing.

Later on, Luther married an ex-nun, Katherine von Bora, with whom he had six children. He died in 1546 and was buried in the Wittenberg church where it all began.

In addition to Luther’s story, Lutzer also speaks briefly of the Swiss reformers. He tells of Huldrych Zwingli who was the reformer that greatly influenced Zurich, Switzerland. He also speaks of John Calvin, the expositor of reformed doctrine in Geneva. Lutzer also dedicated a chapter to the Anabaptists, who Lutzer seems to have admired, though he is careful to separate mainstream Anabaptists from what he calls the “lunatic fringe.” This radical sect of Anabaptism advocated the violent overthrow of the civil authorities in the city of Munster.

My only criticism of this history is that Lutzer reveals his bias toward Calvinism and Calvin’s reformed doctrine as the true gospel. He may not state this bias overtly, but it is certainly implied. While Calvin’s gospel is popular and I am reluctant and unqualified to dispute it, many sincere, educated, and pious believers have pointed to flawed logic and have argued that the doctrine is the result of misinterpreted scripture.

Lutzer concludes the book by asking, “Is the reformation over?” His answer is “yes” in one sense. But he also points out the need for continuous rescue of the gospel from the heretical views of those who preach another gospel. Despite promising reforms in the Roman Catholic church, there is still a wide gulf between Catholics and Protestants. Lutzer believes the Roman church still clings to a “works-based” gospel in spite of their stated beliefs in justification by faith.

I agree that we must be vigilant to defend the essentials of the scriptural doctrines of salvation and justification. However, I am suspect of anyone who vehemently declares that their interpretation of history and scripture is the correct one and all others are errant. I’m not saying that Rev. Lutzer is guilty of this, just cautioning him. Scripture is inerrant; our hermeneutics can’t make such a claim.

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