You can love him, or you can hate him, but you can’t ignore him. That is the feeling that takes over as we read about the life, work, and teaching of one of the greatest reformers of the 16th century – the one and only Martin Luther.
His work is immense (theological tracts and books, sermon compilations, commentaries, etc.) and the number of studies on Luther is seemingly endless. It would be a futile attempt to list the various ideas and accomplishments of this German reformer, for this article is far too short.
However, I’d love us to spend a minute to pause and think about Luther the man and how his failures and shortcomings emphasize one of his central teachings. One of the turning points in Luther’s life was the moment he understood the meaning of one brief sentence: “The righteous shall live by faith”. All men are sinners and no amount of good works, thoughts, words, efforts can change that. The only thing that brings salvation to lost sinners is God’s grace demonstrated through the death on the cross of Jesus Christ. Everyone who by faith receives this grace, is saved and reconciled to God. What a glorious truth! And we still need to hold to this truth with both hands because we are mere humans.
Luther’s life is full of courageous, confident, even hero-like episodes: the Diet of Worms, hiding in the tower at Wartburg castle, smuggling nuns out of nunnery (yes, it’s true), and so many more. He was ready to fight and die for what he thought to be right according to the Scriptures. No compromises!
And yet, Luther was a sinner. His loud and bombastic nature spills out in his writings. He could get arrogant and verbally abusive towards his opponents (Luther’s “Table talks” contains some juicy descriptions of pope and Turks). Luther’s strong view on the sacraments lead him to call people with a different view “not true Christians” (poor Zwingli was considered to be evil fanatic). Period. It is no secret that towards the end of his remarkable life Luther was attacking the Jews in a very nasty manner. You can’t deny his antisemitism. Luther’s volcanic personality would make us cringle today.
We should not try to hide these ugly expressions of sin in Luther’s life only because he is our hero. Equally, we shouldn’t reject Luther or his work as useless only because he was a sinner.
Luther had his flaws – some bigger than others. And yet, he knew that the reality of sin in his life doesn’t cancel the work of Christ. No, Luther was not teaching cheap grace and yet he had clear confidence about the security he has though Christ. At the end of the day Luther was a man who understood that there is nothing we can bring before God. His last words ondeath bed summarize this attitude: “We are beggars: this is true.”
As we pause to reconsider our Protestant heritage let’s not close our eyes to the sins of our “fore-fathers”. And let it not nullify the Gospel truths they were ready to fight and die for. Let us follow Luther in standing for what the Bible teaches even at the risk of trials and tribulations. Let us rely on God’s grace both in salvation and Christian living. And maybe we need to add a bit of Luther’s humble volcanism to the way we engage with our culture and society around us. Soli Deo Gloria!