“Am I Alone Wise” – Martin Luther
By: Deji Yesufu
Ryan Reeves is a historian who publishes short videos on historical events on YouTube. I highly recommend his videos on the 16th century Reformation. He takes his time to describe the underlying factors around popular turning points in history. What we may know about a historical event will be one thing; Reeves, on the hand, explores other factors around the event, so that you understand why the individuals do what they do in those stories.
In one of such videos, Reeves recounts the underlying factors around Martin Luther’s Diet of Worms. In 1517, Luther had pasted 95 theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the town where he lived. Luther, a lowly monk, was calling the intelligentsia to debate the subject of indulgence as collected by some couriers in the Catholic Church. Events have followed quickly, leading to the Catholic Church excommunicating the monk, and Luther, defiantly, burning the papal bull sent to inform him of the excommunication. The real challenge, however, was that Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire at that time, was a friend of the Pope. Charles invited Luther to Worms to defend his teaching. When Luther arrived at the conference, the Diet of Worms in 1521, he was shown a mass of his own publications and asked to either own them or recant. Luther asked to think over the situation for one night and to give his response the following day.
That night, Luther could not sleep. He spent the whole night praying. To recant will be to renounce his belief in the reformation. To own the writing was to be led to be burnt at the stakes because Luther had already admitted that he was a “Hussite”. Jan Hus, a Czech Reformer, had been burnt at the stakes 100 years earlier at Prague for teaching similar doctrines as Luther. If Luther admits to his own writing, the emperor will kill him. Luther explained later at his Table Talks to his students that the question that ran through his mind throughout that night was: “…am I alone wise”? Of every person in all of Europe, how come he was the only one seeing this magnificent truth of justification by faith? How come he alone could see the errors of Rome?
In recent times, this has been a similar question running through my mind: am I alone wise? Let me state a caveat however: I am not Martin Luther, and I do not claim to be or want to be a modern Reformer of any kind. I would be happy if my writing brings reformation to Nigeria, but such high and lofty ideals are not my immediate concerns. I am just overwhelmed with Ryan Reeves describing of Luther’s concerns and that heart-felt despair he must have had as he sought God in prayers that night. It is good to know that some mighty persons in history have also shared in one’s kind of concern.
I understood a long time ago that a man’s calling and assignment in life is closely related to his care and passions. When you see an individual concerned about something most people are not, it is likely God has gifted him and called him to solve those concerns. When Paul talked about “my concern for all the churches” in 2 Corinthians 11, I could identify with those concerns. I have an independent concern for churches in Nigeria. I do not believe that righteousness and godly living are rocket science. I believe that God is able to impart sincere faith in the hearts of sinners after the gospel is preached to them. I believe that sinners can receive power from the Holy Spirit to walk in obedience. I believe that church is a conglomerate of such persons endeavouring to walk in the light while at the same time being a light to their communities. I think the consistent testimony of true believers in the Bible is godliness – it is the distinguishing factor between the saved and unsaved. I will never reconcile myself to a Christianity that handles sin with kid gloves.
“Am I Alone wise(?)” is the question on my mind as I look at the state of the reformed movement in Nigeria today. Am I the only one concerned with the fact that orthodoxy and orthopraxy must work hand in hand? Am I alone concerned with having integrity in the pulpit – that our ministers be known for telling the truth and not dwelling in lies? Am I alone concerned that unity can be achieved among professing reformed folks in this country – and such unity must be premised on sound doctrine? Am I Alone concerned with the rise of ecclesiastical hegemony even in a reformed movement that is still quite young in Nigeria? Am I alone concerned that freedom is not being given to the work of the Spirit in the hearts of men? Am I alone concerned with control emanating from reformed pulpits in this country? Am I the only one who is seeing that many movements have started like this, but are today lost in lifeless orthodoxy in Nigeria? Am I the only one seeing these things – am I alone wise? These are questions better left unanswered as only time, by the Spirit of Christ alone, can answer them. When Luther asked himself: Am I alone wise, it has taken half a millennium for us to receive the answer.
Ryan Reeves explained in that video that the death of Jan Hus, a century earlier, played to Luther’s advantage. Hus had requested free passage to answer questions of heresies levelled against him. It meant that whether he was found guilty or not at his trial, he was to at least return home a free man before being arrested. Hus was, however, denied this and was burnt at the stakes immediately after his trial. This was bad press for the Holy Roman Empire, and Charles V was not going to allow it to repeat itself. Luther’s ruler, Friedrich the Wise, had also requested free passage for Luther. Charles granted it, and Luther left Worms a free man. Friedrich organized Luther’s capture and concealed him in a castle for a year. Meanwhile, Charles was occupied with wars in other parts of Europe. By the time he returned to Luther, the Reformation had enveloped Europe. Luther died that night, yet he lived. It remains a wonder he was never killed, dying of natural causes at 61 in 1546.
There are salient questions the quest to reform religion must answer in Nigeria. I am asking some of those questions, and I am not saying I am the only one wise. Those questions must, however, be asked if we will be biblical in whatever reformed movement we are pursuing in this county, or else we are walking in lies. “Am I Alone Wise?” is a comforting thought as one presses towards seeing the right thing done in the churches of Jesus Christ.
So, help me God. Amen.