Luther’s “Three Walls”

by Obbie T. Todd

The Protestant Reformation was, in many ways, the product of manifold political, social, and religious forces crashing together at a God-ordained moment in history. Still, in other ways, it began with a man. In his 16th century German Reformation, Martin Luther stood defiantly against an institution that had pontificated for over a millennium. Yet, in his theological and moral challenge to the Catholic Church, he did not stand alone. In 1520, while lecturing on the Psalms, Luther wrote an Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in order to gather support for his reform.

In his new biography entitled Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (2015), Scott H. Hendrix explains Luther’s aim for the address: “The goal was not to foment a German uprising against Rome but to reform the practice of religion in Christendom. Because the clergy were shirking their duty, the only recourse was an appeal to laypeople in authority who could twist arms and force change.” (90)

Luther begins his open letter by identifying the “three walls” of the Romanists: (1) their decrees erroneously stating that no temporal power has authority over them, (2) their claim that interpretation of Scripture belongs to no one except the pope, (3) and their assertion that no one is able to call a council except the pope himself. The first section of Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation is a an invective against these three walls.

1. Concerning the first “paper-wall,” Luther begins by eschewing the notion of spiritual elitism. For him, there is no “spiritual estate” for bishops, priests, and monks. According to Luther, “there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12.” Through baptism we are all consecrated to the royal priesthood of 1 Peter 2:9. In cases of baptism, Luther reminds us, anyone could baptize. (or give absolution, as Luther held penance to be the third sacrament) After all, we share one faith, and we believe in the same Gospel: “For whoever comes out the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, though it is not seemly that everyone should exercise the office.” This office is granted by the will and command of the community, not by one’s arbitrary whim. Therefore a priest, like any other temporal authority, is an office-holder. Just as spiritual authorities are charged with the administration of the Word and sacraments, the temporal authorities are to “bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good.” In Luther’s scheme, the temporal authority is not “above” that of the spiritual and may not punish it. However, it should be left to perform its role “without hindrance.” According to Luther, such tasks should be performed objectively and without discrimination, “regardless whether it be pope, bishop or priest whom it affects; whoever is guilty, let him suffer.” The freedom, life, and property of the clergy are no more important than the laity.

2. As to the second wall, Luther takes aim at those who deem themselves “Masters” of the Holy Scriptures: “For since they think that the Holy Spirit never leaves them, be they never so unlearned and wicked, they make bold to decree whatever they will.” To this Luther questions why there is even the need for a Bible! The Pope has “usurped” the power of the Holy Spirit. Luther further opines that the Romanists have misinterpreted Matthew 18 when they contend that the pope alone holds the “keys” to the kingdom. In reality, these keys are given to the “community” of the church. According to Luther, “the keys were not ordained for doctrine or government, but only for the binding and loosing.” When the pope claims supreme hermeneutical authority for himself and codifies his own man-made religion, he singlehandedly constrains the “Spirit of liberty” in the church. For this reason Luther calls together the church in this letter: to accuse the pope before the church.

3. Thirdly, concerning the authority to call together councils, Luther reminds his readers that it was in fact not Peter who convened the Apostolic Council in Acts 15:6, but rather the Apostles and elders! Luther thus contends that it is incumbent upon the temporal authorities to bring about a “truly free council” in order to restore Scriptural faithfulness and order. Luther likens the situation to a fire breaking out; the citizens have a duty to tell others. Citing 2 Corinthians 10:8, Luther heralds the edifying purpose of the Church. He then concludes that those who pursue destruction do so by “the power of the devil and of Antichrist.” Luther sees the Roman pope as the fulfillment of eschatological texts such as Matthew 24:24 and 2 Thessalonians 2:9. In the end, Luther’s only hope is Scripture: “Therefore we must cling with firm faith to the words of God, and then the devil will cease from wonders.” Luther contends that the Romanists have made the consciences of the people “timid and stupid,” and for this reason it is time to enact the power of the temporal authority in order to aid that of the spiritual.

In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther ripped down these three walls in order to shed further light upon the abuses of the Catholic Church and to rally the support of the educated laity in the Reformation.

No Moody Deity: Why the Wrath of God is Unlike the Wrath of Man

By Mathew Gilbert

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Lion King, then you’ll surely remember the scene where Mufasa, king of the lion tribe, gazes out at his entire kingdom with his young son, Simba. Mufasa is trying to help Simba see that one day he will be gone and the kingdom will belong to him. The royal lions are gazing out into their dominion of the African safari, which is marked by a glorious and booming sun shining down. Mufasa’s words are, “Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.” Then, little Simba notices another part of the kingdom that is untouched by the sun. He curiously asks his father, “But what about the shadowy place?” Mufasa responds, “That’s beyond our borders. You must never go there, Simba.”

Romans 1 is much like this scene from The Lion King. The first 17 verses shine with the glorious light of the gospel. However, picking up in verse 18 until the end of the chapter, Paul goes to a very dark place. The first half of Romans 1 is the domain of light we not only want to walk in, but all we want to talk about. The second half of Romans 1 is the domain of darkness we would rather ignore. Indeed, we stay away from this shadowy place in thought and action. But as New Testament scholar Douglas Moo has said, “Only when we have really come to grips with the extent of the human dilemma will we be able to respond as we should to the answer to that dilemma found in the good news about Jesus.”

Romans 1:18-32 really is a shadowy place filled with the wrath of God, the power and curse of sin, idolatry, depravity, and judgment. Paul seems to move from the light of the gospel to the darkness of sin and judgment to answer one question: “Why do we need the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation?”

There are few topics or truths in the Bible that ruffle feathers quite like the wrath of God. Even saying, the wrath of God, sounds scary. It’s not something we like to talk about much. In fact, I’ve heard non-Christians say they could easily believe in a God of love, but they could never believe in a God of wrath. In other words, they can believe in a John 3:16 God, but not a Romans 1:18 God.

The problem with this concern is that the John 3:16 God is also the Romans 1:18 God. There aren’t multiple gods revealed in Scripture. There is only one true and living God revealed in Scripture, and he is both loving and holy. Actually, because he is loving and holy, he pours out his wrath against unrighteousness and the unrighteous. But an important question for us to ask is, “What is the wrath of God?”

Wrath is just an intense word that basically means anger. God is angry at unrighteousness and ungodliness. But it is important to remember that God’s anger is not like our anger. It is possible for us to be angry in a righteous or holy way. For example, it is good to be angry at murder, injustice, and evil of all kinds. But most of the time we are angry in sinful ways. Our motivations and actions fueled by anger are usually sinful.

God is never angry in an unrighteous or sinful way. His anger is pure, holy, and right. It is also wrong to think about God’s wrath as the attitude and action of a moody deity. God doesn’t have mood swings or a temper. Instead, in the words of John Stott, “God’s wrath is his holy hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, his just judgment upon it.”

God’s righteousness is the origin of his wrath. If he did not hate and destroy that which is unrighteous, he would rob himself of glory and his people of joy. It is amazing news that God opposes unrighteousness and sin because he also absorbs the very wrath the unrighteous deserve. God’s wrath and God’s love are not enemies. The enemy of God’s wrath is neutrality. If God just ignored our sin, he could not save us from our sin. Instead, God’s wrath is against sin and sinners. And in God’s love he sent Jesus to fully bear his wrath in our place. In the finished work of Christ, God saves us from himself, to himself, and for himself.


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.