In preparation for my Reformation Preaching class this week I’ve been enjoying Herman Selderhuis’s Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography. In discussing Luther’s A Faithful Exhortation to All Christians to Guard Against Turmoil and Anger, Selderhuis notes how Luther sought to “distance himself from those wanting to define themselves by his name”:
People should stop using my name, and instead of calling themselves Lutheran, they should be willing to be called Christian. What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. And I have not been crucified for anybody. . . . How would I, a bag full of maggots, come to the point that people, the children of Christ, call themselves after my unwholesome name?1
Luther shunned this kind of allegiance by people because he knew himself as a sinner (“a bag full of maggots”) and whose merits actually save (“I have not been crucified for anybody”). Furthermore, Luther understood that ultimately people were not his followers if they were born again, but “the children of Christ.” This had everything to do with the origin of his teaching (“The doctrine is not mine”). This meant that people must be willing to reject the designation ‘Lutheran’ and embrace the title ‘Christian’.
The reasons Luther gave for rejecting rather than embracing his popularity are all at root deeply theological. He had his anthropology right as well as his Christology. He also was gripped by his doctrine of Scripture. All of this theology was powerfully practical in Luther’s life as it kept him from turning the gospel into a means of “shameful gain” (1 Peter 5:2) while becoming “puffed up with conceit” and falling into the “condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).
In a ministry age when pastors are tempted to work for greater “platform” and “influence” to further spread their “brand” (which is themselves), Luther’s theologically-driven understanding of his role as a leader is vital for us to see. The Siren Song of fame is too strong to resist without the winds of sound doctrine at our sails.
THE APOSTOLIC RESOLUTION
Before there was Luther there was Paul. What was happening in Luther’s day in Germany with the cult of personality, was happening in Paul’s day in Corinth. Here’s how the apostle responded to this virus in the church:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?2
Why was Paul so earnest about the quarreling going on in Corinth? What was so dangerous about what was happening? He knew that the cult of personality destroys churches.
AN ANCIENT PROBLEM WITH AN ANCIENT SOLUTION
The idolatry of the “famous pastor” in our time is not new. It is the continuation of an ancient problem resulting from our fall into sin. That said, given our digital age with all its technological tools at our disposal to (almost) effortlessly promote self, the temptations to attract followers in our name are legion. But just as the problem is ancient, so is the solution: Christ. Ministry after all is not about us, but him. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”3 In other words, we serve the fame of Jesus as we steward what is not ours, namely, the gospel entrusted to us by God.
So, from one bag full of maggots to another, lets get on with the glorious work of gospel ministry for a reformation and revival in our day.
Selderhuis, Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Crossway, 2017), 171.
1 Corinthians 1:11–14.
1 Corinthians 4:1.