Preparing for Martin Luther's Feast Day on February 18

Feb 6, 2024 9:00:00 AM / by Jessica Davis

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”

- Martin Luther

The feast day associated with reformer Martin Luther (February 18) is widely celebrated not just in Lutheran congregations, but in a wide variety of denominations and traditions who have been affected by his transformative theological teachings, most particularly that salvation cannot be earned by good deeds, but rather received only as the free gift of God's grace. His life and ministry had far-reaching effects that reverberated around the globe and through time. Many of those effects were remarkably positive. His willingness to challenge the authority of the pope and his view that all baptized Christians were members of a holy priesthood, deserving of direct access to God, Scripture, and worship, paved the way for a spiritual revolution. But it also led to an actual revolution, one in which Luther sided with the oppressive princes and not the peasants who sought liberation.

The Peasants’ War is not the only time Martin Luther made choices that we would find questionable, even horrific, today. He is an incredibly complex figure, one who preached a word of power and liberation for millions of victims of church-based oppression, and one who also preached extraordinary violence towards not just the revolting peasants, but also Jewish people and Muslims, and who often lacked humility, fiercely challenging and often attacking anyone who disagreed with him. Many people know that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born Michael King, Jr., and that his father decided to change both of their names when his son was five years old, after a tour of Europe during Hitler’s rise to power in which he learned of Luther’s transformative theology and ministry. But most people do not know that it took the younger Reverend King a long time to become comfortable with the name change. He was well aware both of Martin Luther’s fame and his complicated legacy, in particular the ways in which Luther’s antisemitism paved the way for the antisemitism of the Third Reich. He did not use the name for himself until after his ordination, and he remained uneasy about the association throughout his life.

So how are we, especially those of us who are Protestants, to proceed in recognizing Luther’s critical importance to the life of the church, while not pretending the horrible things he said and did are okay, or worse, that we believe God is calling us to do likewise? The only faithful option is radical truth-telling. We can celebrate the best of Martin Luther’s life and work while also repenting for the ways in which we have failed to repudiate and make amends for the worst of his life and work. In planning our recognitions of Luther’s feast day, I strongly recommend a “both/and” approach in our worship. For each prayer or hymn or Luther’s we feature, consider featuring one from a group of people that he derided and naming for your congregants why you have done so. It is also important to ensure our worship and educational offerings do not portray honoring Martin Luther as the same as honoring Germanic or broadly European cultural heritage. There are countless theologians, liturgists, hymn writers and more from around the globe who we might honor on the same day that we honor Martin Luther or other historic reformers.

Lastly, I encourage you to reach out specifically to Jewish and Muslim communities in your area—learn the specific ways in which Luther’s legacy and the legacies of your other foundational figures has affected their lives and how they would like your church to respond. For all Christian traditions, a hand extended in friendship and repentance is a powerful way to honor both who we have been and who we are called to be.

Topics: reformation, Martin Luther, truth-telling

Jessica Davis

Written by Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis, MA is a Christian educator, pastoral counselor, church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Their ministry passions include youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, they can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with their work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.


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