Why Martin Luther Changed Scripture

Written by Keith Brown

Open a bible and it likely has Martin Luther's fingerprints. His bible translation freed the common man then, but now, it can imprison. In the 1500's, it was Luther who was willing to die to proclaim that faith alone saves, not the church. At the time, the church was selling indulgences. Redemption could be bought with money. In 1517 John Tetzel said in his sermon, "Don't you hear the voices of your dead parents and other relatives crying out, 'Have mercy on us, for we suffer great punishment and pain. From this, you could release us with a few alms....We have created you, fed you, cared for you and left you our goods. Why do you treat us so cruelly and leave us to suffer in the flames, when it only takes a little to save us?'"

If Luther were alive today, he would likely provide an updated translation removing his emphasis on our faith and restoring Jesus’ faithfulness which saves. Prior to Luther, earlier Middle Eastern versions of the New Testament emphasized Jesus' faithfulness, not our faith. For example (there are seven examples in all), prior to Luther, Romans 3:22 read, "This righteousness from God through the faithfulness of Messiah Jesus..." And Luther's translation, "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ..." (I’ll send you the other examples when you write me [email protected])

While I was at a Presbyterian camp, a few hundred kids packed into a cobbled-together movie theater to watch a "come to Jesus" film. Though much of the movie has faded with time, one scene continues to be etched in my memory some 35 years later. In the last scene, a non-believing jeweler, while displaying diamonds to a customer, inexplicitly vomits volumes of blood onto his glass counter. From under the glass, a camera zooms in on the jeweler’s dead face. The screen goes white and the movie ends. Then a young enthusiastic camp counselor appeared offering a personal relationship with Jesus. The point was not lost on the hundreds of kids who were climbing over each other to respond to the altar call. And although the counselor probably did justice to the topic of sin and grace that summer night, we frightened campers simply wanted to avoid a similar fate of eternal suffering because we didn’t believe.

The camp’s approach could be seen as manipulative. However, if it's believed that our proclamation of faith is the thing that saves us from hell, then most tactics that evoke personal faith are beneficial. In looking back on my history with camp counselors, pastors, and church members alike, my overall experience has been positive and genuine. Yet, today it's the YouTube generation that questions whether god is all loving – or whether he exists at all. From their perspective, god doesn't offer unconditional love but a love based on the precondition of personal faith. The Greek word for faith, pistis, translates to trust. So would you trust (have faith in) a god who is willing to eternally torture you if you don't trust him?

When I was a new father, I took to heart the training of my boy. Bedtimes were strictly observed. At the appointed time, unaided by Super Nanny, I would send Alex to his bedroom. Pleas for milk, a bed time story, or anything, fell on deaf ears. If he persisted, I would threaten his most terrifying punishment, "I'll turn-out the lights." When the lights were turned-off, it sounded much like he was trying to claw his way out of a coffin. Now fast forward 10 years, my approach with my youngest turned to the other extreme. Bedtimes were defined by her, not the clock. At the hoped for bedtime, milk flowed like honey and bedtime stories were measured in volumes, not chapters. Only a gorged and passed-out Kelsey denoted a successful bedtime.

Knowing that neither of my approaches to raising kids was healthy, it’s not surprising that when I would hold out my arm for my four year old Kelsey to sit on, she would hold her hands high in the air and, with reckless abandon, throw her whole body backwards as she would swing-back-and-forth. Even when she had grown to a point where my arm could no longer support her, she would say, "I trust you dad, let me swing again." Now consider my son. Would he trust me to hold him when he was four? I don’t think so. My point is that my kid’s trust (faith) was a function of my character, not a result of their decision. It was my faithfulness to Kelsey that allowed her to trust me. She saw swinging on my arm as one more opportunity to enjoy life. And in contrast, it was my lack of faithfulness to Alex that created in him fear and anger which prevented him from letting go.

It’s God’s faithfulness that creates trust (pistis) in us.

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Picture of Grace

To clearly paint the picture that it's God who does the finding and restoring of prodigals, Jesus told the related parable of the lost sheep. Dr. Ken Bailey indicates that when a sheep realizes that it's lost, all it can do is bleat, cry out. In the time of Jesus, it often took two-to-three days for a shepherd to find and restore a sheep. Even when a shepherd has found it and calls to it, it won't move because it's too terrified. The shepherd must pick up it up and carry it home. A sheep in those times typcially weighed between 40 and 75 pounds. So what's the response of the Shepherd in the lost sheep parable to this difficult task? ...Joy! ...Really?

Just as a sheep can't restore itself neither can the prodigal restore himself. It takes the efforts of a shepherd to find and to restore a sheep; it takes the loving efforts of the Father to find and to restore each of us. It's not our will, not our efforts, not even our faith that saves us. It's Him.

Click here to see the Lost Sheep parable explained.