To be a Christian is to face rejection.
Scripture clearly states this, personal experience confirms it, and church history twice affirms it.
One player in church history whom this truth surely would have resonated with is Martin Luther. Luther, the passionate and pious German monk, who pioneered Protestant Christianity in the 1500s, was confronted with frequent rejection throughout his theological career. From the moment that young Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, the resounding cry from church higher-ups was “Recant!”
Although Luther was not loved by the church as a whole, and though his convictions told him that the church had gone appallingly astray, Luther was a loyal lover of the church. In his biography Martin Luther, Eric Metaxas reminds readers that Luther’s posture when posting the Ninety Five Theses was not one of hostility, but rather one of humility and devotion to the church and to God. While Luther was firm in his beliefs that the church’s indulgence system and many other teachings of the church had overstepped what was actually written in the Bible, Luther respectfully brought these issues to the attention of his superiors with the betterment of the church and her members in mind.
While Luther was undeniably steadfast in his zeal for Scripture to be known to the public and used in church government, this zeal motivated him to seek the purification of the church and not its destruction. Luther’s ability to temper his unshakeable conscience with love and humility was part of what made Luther a successful reformer, and what makes him a celebrated theologian today.
These characteristics are also what make one chapter of Luther’s life so shocking. Towards the end of Luther’s life, he published On the Jews and Their Lies, a provocative antisemitic work which advocated all kinds of atrocities, including burning synagogues and destroying Jewish homes. The ill-will towards the Jews which Luther promoted has baffled many scholars. The violent streak Luther displayed in this work would be startling on its own, and considering that young Luther was a defender of the Jews who condemned historical Christian derision of the Jews and the seizing of their property, Luther’s later stance towards them seems particularly unfathomable. How could Luther, who cared so deeply for the faithful that he had formerly risked his reputation and his life for both his Jewish and Christian brethren, call for outright violence towards the Jews?
Scholars have answered this question a number of ways. Some suggest that the illnesses that plagued Luther in his final years may have embittered him, while some say that Luther wrote against the Jews in response to misinformation he had received about Jewish beliefs, and others posit that Luther was releasing years of pent up frustration centered around his failure to evangelize Jewish rabbis. While there is no way to uncover the exact route which led to Luther’s vile attacks on the Jews in the 1540’s, it is possible to pinpoint one of the ways in which Luther’s Jewish-Christian relations went wrong.
In Timothy Keller’s 2011 sermon “The Jealousy of God,” Keller explores the differences between jealousy and godly jealousy. Keller explains that earthly jealousy is love that turns into anger—perhaps because the recipient of one’s love failed to live up to a person’s expectations or betrayed them in some way– whereas godly jealousy is love that stays love; it is love that rescues failing recipients and fights extinction at all costs. To put it another way, godly jealousy is a fighting love, but it is never a destructive love. Godly jealousy will fight for people to be true to God, but the fight will always be done out of concern and love and will never start to seek the destruction or oppression of another.
Though Luther often succeeded in brazenly displaying godly jealousy, Luther’s later writing concerning the Jews after his agenda failed is a tragic example of a holy jealousy for people to come to God that has become hateful and destructive with earthly corruption.
As people on a mission who are bound to face rejection, Christians are also bound to be tempted to harbor resentment or hurt in response to this certain rejection. Knowing that we will be tempted in the same way that Luther and countless others were tempted, we must be prepared to answer the question of how we will respond when our evangelistic efforts fail or when others reject Scripture. Will we treat the recipients of our efforts with increasingly fierce love, or will we allow what was once love to decay into animosity?
The Jealousy of God-Timothy Keller Sermon, by Gospel in Life
Martin Luther, by Eric Metaxas
Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day, by John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III