Missio Dei (The Mission of God), Martin Luther, and Why All Believers Are Missionaries
by Rev. Eric Jonas Swensson
“Even those who are sent do not know themselves how they got there.”
Martin Luther (WA 24:262)
Very early in my graduate studies in theology the professor teaching the class on methodology told me to read a certain book by Gustav Warnecke. Seems that since I was a Lutheran I needed to be put wise to the fact that Martin Luther was totally confused about mission. Naive church-historian-to-be that I was, I took this for fact. Only later did I learn that the professor and Warnecke did not understand Luther and his methodology of mission. Those who think Luther was not in the business of making missionaries are wrong.
If Lutherans follow the lead of their namesake they understand world mission not as a separate category of church work. Mission comes out of every church that has been planted. It is not so much that certain individuals have the gift of evangelism or an inner call to become a missionary (they do), rather we should all understand mission is always pre-eminently the work of the triune God (missio Dei) and all believers are supposed to share the Gospel. Luther was misunderstood by scholars to have said that the Gospel had already gone out to all the world and so was not terribly interested in “foreign missions”. Such was not the case. In fact, this misunderstanding perhaps sheds light on another: Luther probably would not have foreseen a special order of missionaries because he in fact assumes that all believers are at the disposal of God to convey the word of salvation. All of us.
When we rightly understand what Luther said and kept saying, we also see how simple it is to be involved. Believers are to participate in the missio Dei. The Word evangelizes. God does the mission. We have opportunities to participate. God arranges and God performs. It is always God’s own mission that dominates Luther’s thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God is what is always on his horizon. We are drawn into it.
Therefore, Martin Luther was hands down the most effective missionary of the 16th century. How could Luther be greater than his contemporary, Francis Xavier? Luther never drew up a missions plan; Vavier founded a missionary order. Luther never set foot outside of his native land (besides that one trip to Rome he made as a monk); Xavier journeyed to India, Japan and Borneo. Stated simply, Luther was one of the greatest missionaries of all time because, as he said, “I let the word do the work.” What Martin Luther was able to do was to get out of the way so that believers could see that it is God that does mission.
I did not come to this discovery on my own. There have been a number of Lutheran theologians and missiologists who have been pointing this out in recent years. Richard Bliese wrote a chapter that appears in a report from Aarhus University ten years ago that names Holl, Holsten, Gensichen, Elert, Scherer, Bunkowske and others as having identified “the missionary thrust of the Reformers’ theology.” Eugene Bunkowske has two articles that make a convincing argument, therefore it should be understood that everything said from here on is based on his work. It is self-evident that no matter how well a thing is said, one judges a tree by the fruit. Let’s look at Luther and his contribution to missiology using the eight points Bunkowske lays out as “Luther’s Methods” in an article already referenced.
Prayer: A Priority
Let us now consider each briefly and then draw some conclusions about the benefits.
Spontaneity We, of course, like being spontaneous (as long as we don’t make fools of ourselves). However, we are not the starting point; God is. We want to get out of the way and let God be God. Instead of trying to put God in a box, we need God to get us out of being boxed in! Luther said that faith was a lively thing, therefore our approach to mission is exegetical. We turn to Scripture for our first steps and then use the Word to keep us in step. We start with the Word of God, rather than human need or church growth or any other thing. God said “Go” and Abram went, and so on and so on. However, the key here is proclamation. We learn about God and the missio Dei from the Word proclaimed. Mission therefore is nothing but the Word embodied by the believers. We hear and are sent. We learn and we enact.
Biblically Based Luther’s goal should be ours: to understand the Word as clear as possible. We therefore rely on Scripture. We practice sola Scriptura. Luther’s break from Late Medieval Roman Catholic methodology was successfully handed on, i.e., sola Scriptura is a well-known slogan. However, like much that we Lutherans have had passed onto us, we wonder how well it is understood and practiced. If we took it seriously, we would be an evangelistic people.
The Priority of Prayer Luther said, “Next to the preaching of the Gospel (whereby God speaks to us and offers to give us all His grace and blessings) the highest and foremost work is prayer.” Luther taught that prayer was about imploring God to be merciful, and it was also to establish a relationship with the One to whom we are praying. Prayer is also about having certainty that our prayers are heard. In prayer we realize that being in conversation and unity with the One who said “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” has the implicit meaning that all who pray are assuming the same mission, i.e. there is no escaping the fact that all true believers are missionaries the rest of their days wherever it is that they find themselves.
Sacramental The Word of God is the key to mission. it is the power of God unto salvation. The Word of God is expressed in oral and written form as well as in a special form that can be seen and touched in Holy Baptism and even tasted in Holy Communion. As already said, Luther did not separate the church and its mission, and he did not think of a separate missionary order. Luther expected that the church would do mission, and so as the Word went out into the world, salvation would come to some and they would be gathered into churches and the Word would be preached and the Sacraments would be celebrated rightly. A missionary church would be a sacramental church.
People Oriented We can agree with Bunkowske that the Catechisms are an example that Luther gives us an example of how we missionaries are to express ourselves: using common words, addressing the common needs and aspirations of the common man and woman. Think of his words from the First Article that God has given me my body and soul, eyes and ears, my reason and senses and that he still preserves them, God gave me clothes and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children and so on. ‘He daily and richly provides me with all that I need to support this body and life; defends me from all danger, guards and protects me from all evil. And all of this out of pure fatherly and divine goodness.
When we rightly understand what Luther kept saying we also see how simple it is to be involved. Believers are to participate in the missio Dei. That’s all. That’s it. The Word evangelizes. God does the mission. We have opportunities to participate. God arranges and God performs. It is always God’s own mission that dominates Luther’s thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God is what is always on his horizon.
Student Centered No fewer than 16,000 students enrolled in Wittenberg University between 1520-1560. No fewer that one-third came from outside of Germany. Surely one of the reasons the evangelische spread as it did was Luther’s method. Sixteen thousand students sat under Luther’s preaching and teaching and heard again and again how this spontaneous Word made clear in biblically based proclamation, geared to the common man. Students are an effective channel for mission, one that we can utilize again once education is wrestled away from other approaches.
Teaching Focused As Dr Bunkowske said, “Luther was a teacher with a mission.” He was a teacher of teachers. He believed all people were entitled to a Christian education, something radical for his time. He thought each town should have a school for girls. Children were to be taught first about spiritual things and then secular. He used many means and media to teach. The Small Catechism was placed on posters. Luther played the lute and used hymns as another catechism. he wrote 35 hymns and encouraged his co-workers to do the same. Four different printing presses published hymnbook after hymnbook. By the end of his life 47 collections were published. Luther wrote letters, commentaries, sermons and collections of sermons (postils), he wrote for academic audience and for lay people. Luther modeled how all types of oral and written communication can be used to educate for the purpose of spreading the Gospel.
Indigenously Directed Luther did to need to go to England, Finland or Denmark. He taught his Wittenberg students and helped them to take the Word to their own countries. Luther encourage William Tyndale to translate the New Testament which was printed in Worms and smuggled into England in barrels of German wheat. When Luther saw the abilities of student Michael Agricola he wrote the King of Sweden and recommended he commission him to translate the Scriptures into the Finnish language. Peder Palladius came to Wittenberg from Denmark and later became known as the Father of the Danish Reformation. And so on and so on. This is the kind of work Lutherans have been doing since and we would be wise to do more of it. Members of a culture can witness to their community far more effectively than an outsider.
Literature on missiology is vast and growing, but it is rare to find the methodology of Martin Luther even mentioned. Clearly he is not seen as having their answers. We are waiting for a Lutheran missiology based on systematic Lutheran theology. It would be of immense benefit to our congregations and mission agencies. Until more of our theologians get excited by the possibility of missional theology that is centered on the gospel as Luther explained it, we can make do with Bunkowske’s categories. Of course there is a need for specialization in the work and let no one denigrate the need to be appropriately grounded in one’s context. That is necessary whether your context is Kansas or Kenya. It is to say though that the genius of Luther is that the Holy Spirit uses the Word and brings unbelievers into the Kingdom of God. Effective mission comes not from technique but belief. It sounds naive, but it works. Let’s tell the believers that their prayer partner Jesus wants the Gospel proclaimed from the housetop and that of course means housetops in Kansas and Kenya and every other place on earth.
This article originally appeared in the Institute of Lutheran Theology’s Word at Work magazine.
For your reading:
Richard H. Bliese, “Lutheran Missiology: Struggling to Move from Reactive Reform to Innovative Initiative”, The Role of Mission in The Future of Lutheran Theology, Viggo Mortensen, ed. (Centre for Multireligious Studies: University of Aarhus, 2003).
Dr. Eugene Bunkowske, “Luther and the Growth of the Church” in Church Growth: A Biblical Perspective, 70-93; “Luther the Missionary,” in God’s Mission in Action, 54-89.