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Radical. Renegade. Rebel. Revolutionary. Friends and foes alike have applied such labels to Martin Luther during the last year, the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. I won’t begrudge anyone’s use of these titles, but one neglected title deserves attention: Conservative.

Luther was so conservative that even after his evangelical breakthrough, he continued to believe in purgatory. He wrote in one of his Church Postils:

[The Holy Spirit] kindles a new flame or fire in us, namely, love and desire to do God’s commandments. In the kingdom of grace this should begin and ever grow until the day of judgment, when it shall no longer be called grace or forgiveness, but pure truth and perfect obedience. In the meantime He continues to give, forgive, to bear and forbear, until we are laid in our graves.
Now if we thus continue in faith, that is, in what the Holy Spirit gives and forgives, in what He begins and ends, then the fire on the judgment day, by which the whole world is to be consumed, will cleanse and purify us, so that we will no longer need this giving and forgiving, as if there were something unclean and sinful in us, as there really is at present; we will certainly be as the brightness of the dear sun, without spot and defect, full of love, as Adam was at the beginning in Paradise. (Emphasis added)

Admittedly, Luther’s notion of purgation differs from the Catholic view. This passage firmly holds that justification is wholly a matter of God’s grace, exclusive of man’s merit and purity. And yet Luther proclaims the cleansing, purifying, purgatorial fires, both the fire of the Holy Spirit within the Christian and the fire of judgment day. In this day the Holy Spirit impels Christians, those who belong to the kingdom of grace, to grow in love and obedience until the process is perfected and completed in the day to come.

Such was Luther’s method: Retain the good in what has been received in the Catholic tradition, reinterpreting or modifying it as necessary to promote and conform to the Gospel. As Charles Porterfield Krauth put it: “He tore up the mightiest evils by the root, but shielded with his own life the tenderest bud of good; he combined the aggressiveness of a just radicalism with the moral resistance—which seemed to the fanatic the passive weakness—of a true conservatism.” Not even the language of purgatorial fires was excepted from Luther’s conservative impulse. (Why would it, as such passages as 1 Corinthians 3 and 2 Peter 3 testify to these fires?)

Thoroughly radical reformers, therefore, would find no ally in him. Luther assiduously held to the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist and insisted that it, along with Baptism, was a means of grace, and so he opposed Zwingli. He could not abide Agricola’s antinomianism. Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, anti-clericalism, and indecorous conduct of the Mass led to a break with Luther. And on it goes; Luther’s conservatism led him to reject the more radical paths taken by other reformers.

Five hundred years after Luther posted the 95 Theses, Protestantism is a shambles. Protestant churches in Europe have withered, as have American mainline churches; demythologized theology and revisionist morality have provided thin soil. American evangelicalism is strong in numbers, but it faces an identity crisis. Will it be a movement for Americans’ faithfulness or for American greatness? Protestantism in the Global South is vibrant, but it is troubled by the Prosperity Gospel heresy, with leaders mired in simony, and ranking among the wealthiest men in places like Brazil and Nigeria.

Protestantism has undoubtedly imbibed Luther’s radical spirits and gotten drunk on them—neglecting his conservatism, which offers the meaty substance of Scripture and Gospel-affirming tradition. One might expect a different situation among the theological tradition that bears his name, but I wonder whether a better name for the Lutheran Church would be the Agrizwinglistadtian church—and I am not even discussing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but rather my own denomination, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). Revolutionary pastors have torn down ancient altars and replaced them with drum sets. I suspect Karlstadt and Zwingli would approve. Preaching progress in love and the desire to follow God’s commandments, as Luther did in the postil cited above, earns wide scorn and derision. Agricola smiles. My denomination is not free even from the dilemma facing American Evangelicalism. During the 2016 election, a major jurisdiction of the LCMS distributed pro-Trump voting guides, along with the admonition to “vote biblically.” (I had no idea that the Bible had anything to say about Obamacare or the death tax.)

I have painted a bleak picture, and the great goods among Protestantism, including in my own denomination, ought to be recognized. There is much to be proud of within the LCMS in particular and Protestantism in general. But the problems are real.

Luther, as a conservative, continued to believe in purgatorial fires, both for the Christian and for the Church. God reforms and refines wherever His Word is given free reign. Protestantism itself needs purgatory, God’s purifying work; she will be purified only insofar as she is willing to contend conservatively for the faith once delivered to the saints, turning aside from those who would lead her into ungodliness, sensuality, and denial of the lordship and mastership of Jesus Christ. 

Christopher Jackson is pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in northeast Wisconsin.

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