1912) Luther’s Right Hand Man

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Philipp Melancthon  (1497-1560)

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From “Picking Up The Pieces,” in 100 Bible Verses That Changed the World, by William and Randy Peterson, pages 45-46, 2001.

     Superheroes have sidekicks. Sheriffs have deputies.  Reformers have … people like Philipp Melanchthon.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Martin Luther made everybody’s list of the most important people of the millennium.  But Luther might not have made so much of a splash without the support of Melanchthon.  Together they changed the world—but always with the awareness that God was calling the shots.

     Luther and Melanchthon met at the University of Wittenberg, where Melanchthon was already teaching Greek at the tender age of twenty-one.  He quickly developed an admiration for Luther, fourteen years his senior, a Bible professor who had already tacked his Ninety-five Theses on the church door.  As Luther’s reform work I grew, Melanchthon offered his help.

     They made an interesting team.  Both men were scholars and theologians, but Melanchthon was more careful than his blustery colleague.  Luther had huge ideas; Melanchthon organized them. Luther was the bull in the proverbial china shop, making brash statements and challenging the authorities; Melanchthon scurried around, picking up after him and deciding which pieces were worth gluing back together.  Luther himself wrote, “I am rough, stormy, and altogether warlike.  I am here to fight innumerable monsters and devils …but Master Philippus comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy.”

     While Luther stared down church councils and faced excommunication, Melanchthon was back home writing down the reasons for the Reformation.  In 1521 he published Loci Communes Theologici (Theological Common Places), exploring the issues of law and grace, the good news of Christ, and justification by faith.  Martin was a master of the fiery challenge; Philipp served up sweet persuasion.

     Melanchthon also did most of the writing of the Augsburg Confession, setting out the basics of their faith.  When they got flak for this, Melanchthon wrote another work explaining the Augsburg Confession.  This was the pattern throughout his career—filling in the gaps in Luther’s writings, answering his critics, systematizing his views.

     When Luther died in 1546, the movement looked to Melanchthon for leadership, but he lacked the fire of his late associate.  Without Luther leading the way, Melanchthon had no one to pick up after.  Some Lutherans accused Melanchthon of being too soft and wishy-washy, and of compromising Luther’s positions.

     This ineffectiveness later in life was certainly a sad chapter, but it speaks volumes about the unique teamwork between these two men.  Luther needed Melanchthon to rein him in; Melanchthon needed Luther to coax him out.  After all, it was Melanchthon who received Luther’s famous advice: “Sin boldly.”  Of course Luther wasn’t promoting sin, but he wanted his young friend to get past guilt and worry in order to step out strongly for God.

     Perhaps it was to overcome those worries that Melanchthon adopted Romans 8:31 (“If God be for us, who can be against us?”) as a kind of theme verse.  He had gained many enemies throughout his career, so he needed the assurance that he still had one friend, the only friend who really mattered.  Someone even stronger than Martin Luther.

     Today you can visit Philipp Melanchthon’s home in Wittenberg, the place where he quietly wrote the documents that helped to change the world. Carved over the doorway in German are these words: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

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This quote describes Melancthon’s approach to church and theological conflicts.

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Romans 8:31  —   What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Proverbs 27:17  —  As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10  —  Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

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Lord Jesus, when our brief time on earth is ended, take us unto Thee, for we are Thine and Thou art ours, and we long to be with Thee.  Here on earth let our small service be a part of Thy great work in this world; and then, at the last, receive us into Thy Kingdom.  Amen.

–Philip Melancthon  (1497-1560), German reformer