Martin Luther was complicated. Imperfect. Awesome. Transformational. Immovable. Inspirational. Difficult. Convicting. Human. Born in 1483, Luther died in 1546 at age sixty-two. He was a 16th century Esther; “For such a time as this.”
On the far side of 2017’s 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, Luther clearly deserves his singular place in history. He changed the landscape of Christianity and the world. This book describes the enormity of his role and contribution to personal freedoms we take for granted today.
The heart of Luther is accessibility to God, without intermediary or apologist. No priest. No saint. No holy mother. God’s Word clearly establishes a direct line between God’s Spirit in man and Himself. Luther’s world split apart when he realized what God’s Word taught, and how different it was from church teaching.
“Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit wine and abolish women?” – Luther
Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer was a masterpiece, not so his Luther.
Metaxas’s Luther isn’t like his Bonhoeffer
I don’t regret reading Eric Metaxas’s Martin Luther, but wouldn’t read it again. If his Bonhoeffer accelerated his career as biographer into overdrive, his Luther is a speed bump. I loved Bonhoeffer, sending copies to several friends.
The author obviously ties his two works together through his choice of titles:
- The Bonhoeffer subtitle is, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
- The Luther Introduction is titled, Pastor, Rebel, Prophet, Monk.
Permit me to handle my issues with the author first, then move on to the heart of the matter – the content and value of the book.
Metaxas intrudes on the narrative with personal asides and commentary. Color and personality should come from the subject of the book, not the author. Whether you love or hate them, Luther is as colorful as Donald Trump. The author’s narrative voice wanders from ponderous scholar to vocabulary snob to skilled biographer.
From Biographer to Humorist
Elsewhere he plays the humorist, trusting the reader so little, he sinks to explaining the joke by footnote.
I expected to finish all 451 pages in a couple of days, but couldn’t. The book put me to sleep. Thankfully, the pace quickened as both the end of the book and library due date neared.
Metaxas includes a massive amount of detail about related events and people. Readers will disagree about it’s value.
In my opinion, the book is somewhat spoiled by arcane or esoteric vocabulary. That is, outdated or known to only a few. It stops the action. Instead of consistent immersion in Luther, the author interrupts to say, “look at me.”
Now for the meat –
Martin Luther – a Confessing Fanatic
Luther believed church teachings, that forgiveness and absolution are given by priests to those who catalogue and confess every sin, no matter how small. Or possible sin. Luther was a fanatical confessor.
Any forgotten sin remained unforgiven and heaven was lost. When Luther finished each day’s meticulously prepared transgression list, he feared he was committing the sin of thinking he was out of sins for the day. And what if he sinned before his next confession?
Either way he lost. He was depressed. As a young monk, Luther was a brilliant, pious wreck.
Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone
Apparently Luther often remarked that no one read the Bible. Considering the Bible the inspired word of God set Luther and his superior, Johannes von Staupitz, apart from both peers and the church.
Monks, theologians, and even priests were kept at arm’s length from the Bible as a complete work. They studied commentaries and works by church fathers. Not the Word of our heavenly Father.
Staupitz lured Luther into studying for a doctorate with the carrot of teaching the Bible. The offer Luther couldn’t refuse was teaching the Bible exclusively. Nothing else. No logic. No philosophy. No commentary. God’s Word alone.
As do we, Luther considered every verse in God’s Word true. But every verse is not equally substantive. In a note following his New Testament he wrote,
John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books. They ought properly to be the foremost books, and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading to make them as much his own as his daily bread. For in them you do not find many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find depicted in masterly fashion how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation.
After years of angst, Luther finally discovered the answer to his dilemma regarding sin and confession.
God’s Word clearly teaches that Jesus saves the imperfect, including sinners unable to list every sin and beg forgiveness. Salvation wasn’t Luther’s to earn, but to receive as the finished work of Christ.
The catalyst of Luther’s rebellion was indulgences and the churches willingness to release souls from Purgatory by transaction. You pay. They spring the dead. It was ecclesiastical blackmail. And a lie.
The church held Luther in its vise. The reformation released other souls from the same trap – church control of access to both God and eternity. Luther accused the Roman church of keeping people from Christ, not paving the way to Him.
Luther’s Goal was Truth
Luther wanted the truth to be known so others wouldn’t be caught as he had been; desperate for salvation but with no guarantee. There is a guarantee. In the Bible it’s the Holy Spirit. Luther learned about faith, salvation, and God’s truth from the Bible. And realized the church charted a course to a different destination.
In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. – Ephesians 1:13-14
Luther translated the meaning of the gospel as Good News. For all. Equally available to peasant as priest.
Luther never accepted a penny for any of his books or pamphlets, but his printer made a mint.
Luther considered the separation of ordained and lay unbiblical. Preaching did not require ordination. In fact, ordination is anti-scriptural. There are offices but not hierarchies in the body.
“The priesthood of all believers.”
“Here I stand”
Luther’s most famous words come from his response to the question, “Will you recant?”
Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require of me a simple, clear and direct answer, I will give one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is as clear as noonday that they have fallen into error and even into glaring inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me! Amen.
“Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me! Amen.”
Luther was convicted of heresy. Before anyone could lay hold of him he escaped to Wartburg. For almost a year he grew out his hair and beard, and wore the garb of a knight on sabbatical.
Luther Established One Unifying German Language
While confined at Wartburg following the Worms Diet, Luther translated the New Testament from the original Greek. It took him only eleven weeks to translate the 1511 text into a new form of German, effectively establishing a single German national language.
Luther left the security of his retreat to address unrest in the reformed body. Sects and disturbing actions threatened everything Luther fought to achieve. Violence and intolerance of nonconformists rose just as it had in the Roman church.
Luther preached patience, faith, love, humility, and God’s Word. Disagreements regarding communion, baptism, works of art, and music lit fuses in the reformed body in much the same way circumcision separated the body of the earliest church. The Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians addressed that issue.
Faith or works?
Law or grace?
I took three years of constant study, reflection, and discussion to arrive where I now am, and can the common man, untutored in such matters, be expected to move the same distance in three months? Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit wine and abolish women?
The sun, the moon, and stars have been worshipped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? Such haste and violence betray a lack of confidence in God. See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, thought I did not more than pray and preach.
The Word did it all. Had I wished I might have started a conflagrations at Worms. But while i sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God death the papacy a mighty blow.
Many divisions in protestant ranks were left unhealed. Luther remarked,
“Formerly the devil made us too papist, and now he wants to make us too evangelical.”
Somewhere after age forty, Luther fell into the same error as most men. Rigid. Legalistic. Intolerant. Rude. Causing division rather than fomenting repair, even with previous friends.
Personal Notes on Luther
Most of the following scribbles and thoughts about faith and relationship to Christ are shared as originally noted. Sometimes my first thought is the most profound. Or not.
I hope they make some sense to you. Simply reviewing Martin Luther seems poor stuff when the whole of the message is considered.
How we do is nearly as important as what we do.
To His glory.
As His agent.
Fearlessly speaking God’s truth.
Knowing what it is.
Not by opinion.
Speaking into rather than at.
It’s difficult to explain relationship with Christ to anyone who hasn’t met Him. Sometimes it’s difficult enough explaining it to myself. We can, however, share a sense of being homesick for a place we have yet to visit.
The nuances of Luther enhance my sense of longing. To be in the presence of Christ. To give full voice to what is now a melody of only two or three notes.
To see fully, not in a dark mirror.
To discover the place where my spirit and God’s connect.
To understand the depth of Christian freedom.
How I long to express something my spirit only imperfectly understands.
How the intent and truth of heart, spirit, and otherness works in the world. To be as I long to be and do what I long to do. And not discover in hindsight that I’ve done precisely what I would not.
Christian liberty is available to all as part of the free gift every New Creation receives. Yet liberty and freedom isn’t as simple as most believe.
Luther summarized Christian freedom is his book, On Christian Liberty:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”
Whether to serve or not is Christian freedom.
Whether or not to revere items or traditions is liberty.
Forcing nonconformity is as bad as forcing conformity.
Liberty in Christ permits me everything.
Yet Christ restrains me in most.
Not my will, but Thine.
Not my good, but my neighbor’s.
Would that were true.
With good will in every instance.
To fully love my enemy.
To pray deeply and sincerely.
Even for those who berate me.
To offer all.
To recognize the divide between making disciples and protecting holy pearls.
To always feel the great faith I’ve received.
To hold palpable grace in my hand.
To know how to love my neighbor as myself.
Every Christian will benefit from studying Martin Luther. The path of Christianity from the apostolic age till now is messy. People rationalize, divide, register preferences as doctrine, and the line muddies. Every now and again God sends rivers of living water to clear away the sludge and reveal His vision.
Luther was a cleansing flood.
Perhaps we need another today.