“Luther was a problem,” writes Herman Selderhuis in Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography. “Certainly for the pope and the emperor, but often he was also a problem for his fellow reformers.”
However, Luther was problematic to those people in different ways — good and bad — which complicates his legacy.
On October 31, 2017, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, Luther published his 95 Theses challenging “the power and efficacy of indulgences.” Today, November 10, is Luther’s birthday. (He was born in 1483.) These dates give us a suitable occasion to assess Luther’s legacy and learn what lessons we can from it.
Let us begin with the positive. No less an authority than Calvin said that Luther “gave the Gospel back to us.” By this, he meant the doctrine of justification by faith. Christ alone (solus Christus) saves sinners by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).
“This article of faith cannot be compromised,” wrote Luther about justification by faith in The Smalkald Articles of 1537. “Nothing can be taken away from it, even if the earth or heaven or whatever should fall.” Why? Because “if this article remains standing, the church remains standing, but if this article falls, the church also falls.”
Luther came to believe this gospel based on his close reading of Paul, especially the apostle’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Romans 1:17 says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The just will live by faith.’”
And that brings us to a second positive aspect of Luther’s legacy: the authority of Scripture. Luther was a professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg, able to read Scripture in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek. It was his close reading of Scripture that led him to begin to question the penitential practices of the late medieval Catholic church.
These questions first became public in the 95 Theses. When Catholic authorities pushed back on Luther’s questions, they drove him deeper into Scripture. The more he read, the more he questioned, until he concluded that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice — not papal authority, church tradition or even the decisions of church councils.
When called upon to recant his beliefs at the 1521 Diet of Worms, standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, German princes, church leaders and a representative of the pope himself, Luther refused:
If, then, I am not convinced by testimonies of Scripture or by clear rational arguments — for I do not believe in the pope or in the councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted each other — I am bound by the Bible texts that I have quoted. And as long as my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot nor do I want to retract anything when things become doubtful. Salvation will be threatened if you go against your conscience. May God help me. Amen.
The famous words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” were evidently added at a later time, but they capture the spirit of Luther’s refusal.
Later theologians called sola fide the material principle of the Reformation and sola Scriptura its formal principle. The principles answer humanity’s two most basic questions: How can I be saved? And how do I know? Luther’s rediscovery of them is the core of his positive legacy, in my opinion. Certainly they created problems for both the pope and the emperor, but they were necessary problems, essential reforms to a corrupt medieval church, and good news in every age.
As Selderhuis noted, however, Luther created other problems for his fellow reformers that can be neither overlooked nor excused. No doubt a man who takes a stand against the religious and political powers of his day must have a spine of steel. Unfortunately, Luther could be stiff-necked and abusive toward his fellow reformers on issues where compromise and gentle language were necessary.
Luther’s closest colleague, Philip Melanchthon, bore the brunt of that abuse. Luther’s temper was so well-known that Melanchthon usually served as a buffer between him and other Protestant reformers. Two years after Luther’s death, Melanchthon offered this blunt assessment: “I had to bear an almost degrading bondage because Luther was led by his militant temperament and exhibited a cocky self-righteousness, rather than that he would pay attention to his deferential position and the common good.”
But Luther’s cantankerousness toward allies pales in comparison to the worst aspects of his legacy: his violent rhetoric. Two examples should suffice. In 1524–25, German peasants rose in revolt against the aristocracy. Many had been inspired by Luther’s words and personal example, and Luther himself was initially sympathetic to their complaints.
But by 1525, Luther felt the peasants had gone too far, and encouraged authorities to deal harshly with them:
whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog, so, if you do not fight the rebels, they will fight you, and the whole country with you.
Then there’s what Luther said about Jews. Early in his career, Luther had hoped Jews would convert to Christianity once they heard the proclamation of the true gospel. Later in life, though, his attitude took a much darker turn. In Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1542), he advocated authorities take specific measures against Jews. Let me quote Selderhuis at length.
First of all, synagogues should be burned because that is where the blasphemy takes place. For the same reason, Jews’ homes should be destroyed. Their prayer books and their Talmuds should be confiscated. Since their money had been stolen from Christians, Luther thought [a false but common belief in the middle ages], their money and jewelry should be seized. That money must be used for the support of Jews who had become Christians. Jews who did not qualify would have to earn their money by means of forced labor.
These are hard words for anyone to read after the Holocaust, especially when we know that Nazis used Luther’s remarks in their anti-Semitic propaganda. They certainly tarnish the Protestant celebration of Luther’s positive legacy.
So, what do we make of Luther today? After narrating Luther’s life honestly, warts and all, Selderhuis concludes: “Luther needed the grace that he himself had proclaimed. Throughout his life he remained a good example of his view that a Christian remains a sinner all his life and remains justified at the same time.”
Simul iustus et peccator is how Luther expressed that view in Latin.
On Luther’s birthday and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, simul iustus et peccator summarizes Luther’s legacy, both the good and the bad. Herman Selderhuis should be thanked for writing a biography that so skillfully narrates the life of Martin Luther and helps us interpret its complicated meaning.
Herman Selderhuis, Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).
P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.
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