Today, February 18, is the feast day of Martin Luther. In honour of our father Luther, I have compiled here two separate articles I have published here in the past, slightly revised. My aim in this brief historical survey of Luther’s life and death is to honour this saint and his legacy whose life struggles and great theological work has freed many Christians from the chains of the Babylonian captivity of the Roman Church to freedom in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will begin with a brief survey of his life and then his death.
Luther’s Search for Certainty
In Martin Marty’s book on Luther’s life (Martin Luther: A Life), he discusses Luther’s “positive contributions to the development of human liberty, the free expression of conscience, support of music, development of literary style, and his role in reshaping religious life” (Marty, xii). Marty’s goal in his book is to give a positive account of Luther’s influence on the world. He desires to leave the reader with “the accounts of [Luther’s] posthumous influence and its global consequences” and thus leave the reader with their own inference of Luther’s contribution to the world (Marty, xv). In each chapter, Marty describes Luther’s life through four unique motifs that lead the reader, whether Lutheran or not, to acknowledge his unequivocal global influence as it pertains to the Christian life in the world and the church.
Luther’s Hunger for Certainty
With Marty’s goal in mind for the reader to formulate their own positive inference of Luther, the inference I will be covering here is what I believe to be the primary motif throughout Luther’s life, which was his search for certainty of salvation. For Lutherans, the heart of the Lutheran Reformation—and the material principle of the Scriptures—is justification by faith. For Luther, and all Lutherans worldwide, we have no greater certainty than justification by faith in Christ.
To understand Luther’s hunger and search for certainty, we have to start at a point prior to his mendicant years. Before entering the Augustinian order of monasticism, Luther obeyed his father’s wishes in studying to become a lawyer. During his studies, however, he came to find that “law represented nothing but uncertainty” (Marty, 5). In his university studies, the professors taught Luther to be inquisitive of every author, even the most noble ones, rather than blindly accepting their claims. Although this has some merit, Luther that that since one must question even the noblest of philosophers, everything is uncertain. How do you know what is true?
So, Luther conjectured that perhaps he can find certainty in the Scriptures. It strikes me as odd that a man of pragmatism would search for certainty in the Scriptures. Today, lawyers and scientists and self-proclaimed philosophers are considered the most pragmatic people who seldom link rationality to religion, let alone Christianity. As 21st century thinkers, it is surprising to us that Luther—a pragmatic, logical law student—would turn to the Christian Scriptures to search for the mystery of certainty. However, when we consider the historical context of the religious prevalence in his day, it is not so surprising at all.
Most well-learnt Protestants know the story of Luther’s sudden change in professional vocation. Bound between the constraints of law and theology, on his way back to his university, Luther was nearly struck by lightning, and he prayed, “Help me, St. Anne… I will become a monk” (Marty, 7). Luther survived the wild thunderstorm and assuming St. Anne to have truly come to his aid, Luther kept his oath and became a monk in the Augustinian monastery.
But even in his years spent as a monk, he still ran headlong into uncertainty. With the monasteries’ focus on good works, Luther “became increasingly convinced that no one could ever do what he fervently aspired to do, that is, please God through monastic efforts” (Marty, 10). Luther came to realise his unworthiness as a sinner. Even during his first Mass as a newly ordained priest, he had these feelings of unworthiness. Recognising his sinfulness, he came to wonder how he could be worthy of receiving the Lord’s Supper, growing uncertain of his standing before God.
What assurance can a person truly have? For Luther, this uncertainty came from Scripture itself: “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed” (Romans 1:17). The way Luther first understood this was: How can the Gospel ever be Good News when the revelation of God’s righteousness in the Gospel forces human creatures to see how unworthy they are before the Perfect, Divine God?
Luther spent several years in this turmoil searching for the answer—the answer he would eventually find to be one that does not rely on human efforts but rather on God, thus consoling God-fearing people who desire to be free from sin and stop fearing death (Marty, 19-20). As he researched and wrote about this certainty, Luther used a German word that does not translate well into English: Anfechtungen. These are essentially “the spiritual assaults that… kept people from finding certainty in a loving God” (Marty, 23). This uncertainty, Luther said, was his pledge to rescue other miserable sinners from like himself. He wrote that these spiritual assaults were God’s devices to rob people “of all certainty, until they found no place to go except to the God of mercy and grace” (Marty, 24). In other words, in order for one to totally rely on God’s grace, they must first recognise their utter despair in sin and the perennial uncertainty our own efforts bring and turn to the only remedy for this condition’s reversal: Jesus Christ. Today, we call this our Law & Gospel paradigm in preaching and pastoral care.
I can relate quite well to Luther’s Anfechtungen. During college, I suffered from what Luther calls Anfechtungen that barred me from the certainty of the loving God. Due to particular habitual sins I had committed, I could not fathom how God could forgive me no matter how many times I repented until it came to the point that I even doubted the power of God’s forgiveness. This was the direct result of my Calvinistic-Pentecostal Christianity at the time. As a Calvinist, I could never produce enough fruit of repentance (i.e., good works) to prove I’m among God’s elect. As a Pentecostal, I never experienced the emotional high of the Holy Spirit indicative in evangelicalism’s contemporary worship. Eventually, because I could never produce enough fruit of repentance or ever “feel” the Holy Spirit, the Anfechtungen of self-loathing and deep shame kept me from the certainty of God’s grace (this was the Law at work in my heart, thus killing me much as St. Paul describes in Romans 7:7-13).
I felt this depravity inherent in my humanity and there was nothing I could do to alleviate myself from its burden until one particular day when I found enormous comfort—enormous certainty—in God’s mercy, grace, and love in the Word of God as expressed in Lutheran hymns, Matins, and Divine Service Setting Three. Rather than the hopeless search of finding certainty in my fruit of repentance (human efforts) and my emotions, my certainty is in the efficacious Word of Christ.
Going with this, Marty likens Luther to the patriarch Jacob—they both wrestled with God (Marty, 25). As Jacob wrestled with God, so Luther wrestled with Him as he viewed Him as a cruel God while God was sending these Anfechtungen to lead him toward the comforting reality of God’s grace and mercy. Likewise, during my own Anfechtungen, I viewed God as distant until they eventually led me to His grace in the Gospel and I learnt He’s actually a God near to me in His Word and Sacraments.
Through his study on Jacob, Luther finally discovered that salvific certainty comes by faith, not mere human efforts. Using Jacob’s faith as an example, Luther wrote that God “is not conquered in such a way that He is subjected to us, but His judgement, or His wrath and fury and whatever opposes us, is conquered by us by praying, seeking, and knocking, so that from an angry judge, as He seemed to be previously, He becomes a most loving Father” (Marty, 26-27). Faith conquers God’s judgement and wrath because it is only by faith in which He becomes our loving Father; human works always fall short of this. As St. James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13).
Soon thereafter, Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church doors that exposed the burden of the indulgences on the consciences of the German people, thus changing the course of history forever. Luther finally found his greatest comfort and certainty in what scholars call his “Aha!” moment in the latter half of Romans 1:17, “The one who is righteous shall live by faith” (Marty, 38). Luther concluded, “It is the nature of faith that it presumes on the grace of God… Faith does not require information, knowledge, or certainty” (Marty, 39). Yet, while faith does not require certainty, faith nevertheless produces certainty because that faith is upheld and sustained by God, not by meagre human efforts. This is only the beginning of Luther’s freeing the human conscience toward human liberty.
Defining the Life of Faith
The next motif of Luther’s life—and the context surrounding the Christian’s certainty—was defining the Christian life, that is, sanctification (i.e., how the Christian lives in the world). He wrote four major documents speaking on this issue. First, in his Address to the Christian Nobility, Luther defined the priesthood of all believers from 1 Peter 2:5, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Luther argued this verse has nothing to do with the governing practices of the church—that is, ecclesiology—but rather with Baptism and prayer.
He argued all baptised Christians are “worthy equally to stand before God, forgiving and praying for others without priestly mediation” (Marty, 59). Luther was not trying to eliminate the office of priest. Instead, he was exegetically emphasising the Scripture’s application to all believers and that priests are to be representatives “for the whole body of believers as they carried on pastoral tasks,” not as a “superior class that held unique powers and sanctions” (Marty, 59). In other words, as a baptised child of God, the Christian can stand in certainty before God because of what God has done in his or her Baptism. Not only that, but also because of this stature before God, as a priestly nation all Christians can forgive and pray for others—to give and proclaim this certainty to others. This does not belittle the pastoral office; rather, the church proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to the nations and praying for others is the result of the good and right use of the pastoral office (i.e., the pastor equips, motivates, and inspires his congregation to proclaim and do the Gospel).
In this publication, Luther sought to redefine the role of the priest (= pastor). Additionally, in addressing an earlier question from his life on how one is worthy to stand before God, he stresses that one’s worthiness is not dependent on one’s works but on God who effects our Baptism and invites us to prayer. In other words, one is worthy not on the basis of their worthiness through human effort but on the basis that God deems them worthy via His gracious action. This means that as a Christian, you can look back to your Baptism and see that in it, God has made you worthy before Him not because of your garbage works, but because of all He has done for you in Christ Jesus. Thus, the Christian has certainty as he or she lives their daily life because God’s act in Baptism is efficacious.
Second, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther addressed mainly the sacraments, affirming only two of the seven Catholic sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He found corruption in the remaining five. These corruptions led Christians into a “captivity” with a reliance on works. “Without the forgiveness of sin assured in the Mass, sinners were in danger of suffering eternal hellfire” (Marty, 60). Luther sought to explain how the Christian is to live in the gracious relationship with God as it pertains to the church. The Catholic corruptions became burdens on the Christian conscience when the right use of the sacraments is to console the conscience since they promise God’s grace and elicit faith. Luther sought to alleviate those burdens by connecting the appropriate sacraments to God’s grace. As a Christian, this means you can approach God’s instituted sacraments every Sabbath with the certainty of receiving His grace in the forgiveness of all your sins.
Third, recognising the many paradoxes in Scripture, Luther wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Marty, 63). To explain this with a metaphor, Luther likens a believer’s relationship with Christ to marriage (which is appropriate since the church is Christ’s Bride). What the wife has becomes the husband’s, and what the husband has becomes the wife’s. In the same way, “What Christ has is the property of the believing soul, what the soul has becomes the property of Christ” (Marty, 65). In other words, our wickedness is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us—Christ’s righteousness becomes ours, and our sins become Christ’s. Jesus took hold of our wickedness and on Him was placed God’s wrath as punishment for this wickedness—the punishment we deserve—and by faith we receive His righteousness. So, because of this union we have with Christ, “the Christian is a ‘perfectly free lord of all, subject to none'” (Marty, 64). Not to sin, death, or the devil.
As a seeming contradiction (hence the paradox), Luther also states that, on the other hand, the Christian is also a “servant of all, subject to all.” What Luther highlighted was that “faith was to be active in love” (Marty, 65). In this publication, Luther wrote how the Christian is free from sin because of Christ—and, therefore, the burdens of Catholic penance—and how the Christian is to live in relationship with his neighbour. Herein, then, lies the paradox: the Christian is free from serving sin and the devil and also free to graciously love and serve his neighbour. Furthermore, justification by faith is not freedom to sin but freedom from sin (see Romans 6). And by faith we are also free to love our neighbour, not free from loving our neighbour.
Lastly, in The Judgement on Monastic Vows, Luther wrote that such vows were “against faith” and “that the only vow which mattered came not from humans but from God: God makes a vow to us… to believers, in baptism” (Marty, 76). Luther wrote on the futility of good works as a method to please God because He does not need our works. Drawing from Isaiah (likely 64:6), Luther wrote that if humans perform good works in order to earn God’s favour, then they are no longer good works but evil and sin (Marty, 77). What matters is what God has done for us, not what we could possibly do for Him. In response to His goodness, we perform good works for the benefit of our neighbour, not as some imagined way to heaven, but simply on the basis of Christ’s love for us. This theology further frees the Christian’s conscience from the burden of good works for salvation.
Furthermore, Luther defined the life of faith this way: “Christ offered and was the promise, the gift of God, the grace that brought the believers into the scope of divine favor” (Marty, 78). In other words, it is not by good works in which we earn God’s favour; it is merely because of Christ in which we gain God’s favour. This was contrary to Medieval Catholic thinking, which taught that good works combined with God’s grace brought God’s favour (which is still taught by the Roman Catholic Church today). Here, however, Luther postulated it is only the receiving of Christ as God’s gift that gives one God’s favour, and this is not something that’s earned; it is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Luther also wrote that Christians are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner), meaning although God declares a Christian as a saint for Christ’s sake, they still struggle with the temporal effects of sin. Thus, Luther wrote, “Christ came into this world to make us most certain” (Marty, 78). This was a significant realisation and is still important for us because works always fail us and make us uncertain because the Law, which calls us to do works, reveals to us our sins and deficiencies and thus leaves the Christian destitute of grace.
In these four major documents, we see how Luther freed the human conscience from the burden of works and to rely on one’s Baptism for the stance of worthiness before God, which is effected by God. He also began to reshape religious life by redefining the role of a pastor to his congregants and the grace the two sacraments bring. He further solidified Christian liberty by writing about the Christian’s freedom from sin and the devil and how, in response, he is to freely live in service to his neighbour. And he freed the Christian’s conscience even more by stressing the futility of good works in regard to earning God’s favour and its vitality in benefiting our neighbour.
Living the Faith
The third motif within certainty is derivative of the second: how the Christian is to live in the secular world and the church. It is really a further solidification of defining the life of faith. Perhaps the most noteworthy theology coming out of this next period of Luther’s life is the term “vocation,” or “calling” (from the Latin vocatio), to replace monasticism (Marty, 104). Any Christian who fulfils their unique duty is pleasing God whether it is the mother breastfeeding her child, the farmer growing his crops, or the married couple engaging in coitus (Marty, 104). These are three simple examples of what Luther means by “vocation”; vocation goes beyond one’s profession.
In my own life, for example, God has given me the vocations of son, husband, brother, friend, and pastor. When I was a student, I pleased God by fulfilling my duty as student when I put my greatest efforts into my studies and when I did not procrastinate. God-pleasing vocations also apply to professional jobs, although we must be careful not to limit vocation to these fields. One serves God in this way, Luther argued, whether they are a believer or an unbeliever whom God is using for His purposes. Luther calls such people “masks of God, since God [is] hidden within every person’s vocation” (Marty, 105). For example, a doctor pleases God when he or she aids a fellow human’s health whether or not they are a Christian since doctors are one instrument through which God cares for His creation, namely people. Fulfilling our duties as pleasing God is not a means of good works to earn His favour. Vocations are the means in which God takes care of His creation through His human agents. This means we are pleasing God when you and I are a good student, friend, employee, sibling, or significant other to someone.
Moving into matters of religious life, Luther viewed sermons not as “describing God” but rather the method in which God is brought to those who hear (Marty, 113). For Luther, worship was another important aspect of the Christian life, whether it was in one’s home or during ecclesiastical worship (Marty, 114). The tradition of the church in Luther’s time was the music coming from the monks and clerics who chanted. Now, Luther altered the tradition where the majority of the singing came from the congregants. So, when you go to church today and sing worship lyrics from the projection screen or hymnal, you can thank Luther.
In relation to this, Luther also changed the role of the pastoral office. With his “priesthood of all believers” emphasised in his Address to the Christian Nobility, many began to administer the Lord’s Supper in their own homes and even churches, which bothered Luther. He still defended the doctrine that all Christians are priests and as such can administer the sacraments (namely in emergency situations), but he extended his theology by saying not all Christians are pastors. The role of the pastor is to administer the Word and Sacraments; it is not the role in which ordinary Christians fulfil (Marty, 117). This is important for us today because it prohibits ordinary Christians from improperly or abusively administering the sacraments. Also, the Christian can always walk into church on Sunday morning—or their pastor’s office—with the certainty of knowing they will receive God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins.
The Heart Grown Cold, The Faith More Certain
Here, we enter the last and most intriguing—and perhaps troubling—period of Luther’s life. This last motif of his life is the final solidification of the certainty he first began to seek. What makes this period of Luther’s life intriguing and troubling is his heart growing cold as he attacked the pope, calling him “the spirit of the antichrist” (in which he is correct); the Turks/Muslims, calling them “the flesh of the antichrist” (again, also correct); and the Jews, whom he judged to be evil since they refused to believe in Christ (Marty, 168-169).
The most troubling, of course, was Luther’s so-called anti-Semitism, which was a result of “disappointments that turned to anger” (Marty, 169). How do we respond to this, especially as Lutherans? It is important to remember that Luther, as great of a man he was, was also a sinner. After all, Luther was soberly aware of this fact. Unfortunately, as a sinner, Luther let his anger get the better of him that led him toward saying some really dark things about the Jews, but they are hardly anti-Semitic.
Because it is true that Jews will not see the kingdom of God since Christ is the only way to salvation (John 14:6), and they don’t believe in Christ, Luther’s conclusion that they are not God’s true people is sound, but the anger in which he responded was certainly sinful and did not help at all to lead Jews toward Christian conversion. Another possible explanation is Luther’s decline into senility and manic-depression as a result of his failing health (Edwards, 129).
Moving on to the further solidification of certainty, Luther wrote the Schmalkald Articles, which are often referred to his last will and testament. He wrote that everything “came down to the reality that Christ gave up his own certainty to the point of death and, in perfect obedience, did what sinners could not do on their own, namely offer himself to God to give them forgiveness and assurance” (Marty, 176). Christ gave up “his own certainty” so that we may have certainty (“assurance”) in Him for salvation.
This adequately summarises Luther’s long search for certainty. In an autographed Bible, Luther signed with Isaiah 40:8 to encapsulate the motif of certainty in his life, “The Word of our God will stand forever” (Marty, 178). Unlike our human frailty—which Luther experienced quite painfully in mind, body, and spirit—God’s Word remains forever. The frailty of our human efforts cannot achieve anything, but the grace of God and His Word are eternal, whose eternity we can rest in absolute certainty. Before Luther died, it is reported that he prayed, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace. Yet I know as a certainty that I shall live with you eternally and that no one shall be able to pluck me out of your hands” (Marty, 186). Praying from John 10:28-29, Martin Luther died with the certainty rested in Christ alone on February 18, 1546.
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Edwards Jr., Mark U. “Luther’s Last Battles.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 48, no 2 & 3 (April-July 1983): 125-140.
Marty, Martin. Martin Luther: A Life. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.