It is quite easy (and oh so common!) to throw Martin Luther under the bus of our privileged historical vantage point. He has become easy sport of late for all he “missed.” Many exegetes have criticized him for his use of pre-critical interpretational methods. Others note the dreadful and scandalous anti-Semitism that manifested toward the end of his life. And don’t forget his wanton sacramentology! Many other grievances could be dually catalogued and registered, and for these sins and shortcomings, I trust Luther will give an account to the Lord Almighty (Hebrews 13:17), as we will for ours (Heb 9:27).
Nevertheless, Luther was God’s wrecking ball. He was God’s appointed servant for such a time as the Protestant Reformation, a time when the Lord shined a great light on the false theologies and dead doctrines of the Romish Papacy. There exists, then, an ever-present temptation for moderns to have a kind of high-brow chronological snobbery when analyzing Luther’s life precisely because he was a wrecking ball. He made quite a few messes along the way as he sought to clean up Rome.
We might sit back, though, and simply be amazed that, by God’s grace, Luther grasped the gospel and ecclesiology as well as he did when he looked into the Scriptures. Five hundred years of meditation and threshing on the Scriptures, in community and through scholarship, have surely afforded modern evangelicals advantages Luther was utterly cut off from. Luther, however, was commissioned with a tabula rasa type of ministry in the landscape of church history. He was cooking from scratch. The Scriptures were locked away from the people by the Latin Mass, the gospel had long been eclipsed, and right ecclesiology was tertiary, if it was anything at all. That is the ecclesial world and theological inheritance Luther was bequeathed, and it is the one he was summoned by God to wreck.
So, maybe we could bring ourselves low enough—humble ourselves enough—to take off our 21st-century spectacles, cease dismantling Luther for a bit, and just stand in awe that God made such a creature. In this cursory tribute, I will look at Luther’s hermeneutic which drove his theology and, in turn, led to his ecclesiocentric spirituality.
In Luther’s Preface to the New Testament (1522/1546), we read that Luther essentially interpreted the Old Testament as a book of the law. It recorded “examples” and “stories” of how the Lord’s law was either kept or broken by the people of God. While this is not a sufficient treatment of the OT, it is headed in a better direction than Rome was. The New Testament, then, for Luther was a book of gospel and grace. It chiefly speaks to “where one gets the power to fulfill the law.” He did not believe the NT spoke only of grace and the OT only of law, but as a general rule, the former was taken up with the law and the latter with grace.
In The Freedom of the Christian, Luther is careful to never espouse to the Pope any true, authentic, or binding interpretational authority for the church or individual Christians. Rather, for Luther, that privilege belonged to each person with the gift and opportunity of holding the Scriptures in hand. He forcefully—and quite humorously—challenged the tyrannical mind control that ex cathedra doctrines held over the populace. Based on 2 Timothy 2:9 (“…but the word of God is not bound”), Luther taught that the Scriptures were unbound and accessible by all who would endeavor to both take them up and be subject to them.
Luther’s hermeneutic (and I knowingly commit the great academic faux pas of speaking anachronistically—but here I do stand!) was an utterly gospel-centered one. The interpretational lens through which he interpreted all of Scripture could be summarized in this summative thought: “One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.” He was gospel-centered and Christ-centered. These were the pulsing heart of his interpretational method.
Luther's Christocentricity is clearly displayed in his early meditation, A Meditation on Christ’s Passion. Toward the end, he writes, “You cast your sins from yourself and onto Christ when you firmly believe that his wounds and sufferings are your sins…You must stake everything on these and similar verses [cf. 1 Pet 2:24, 2 Cor 5:21]. The more your conscience torments you, the more tenaciously must you cling to them…Sin cannot remain on Christ, since it is swallowed up by his resurrection.”
Luther’s hermeneutic was the engine room of his theology; it drove his theological conclusions as well as his ecclesiocentric spirituality. In The Freedom of the Christian, Luther was laying down one of his typical anti-papal diatribes to abolish ex cathedra directives. In that sense, Luther was utterly Protestant despite the fact that Sola language didn’t emerge until after his time. He repeatedly disavowed the Romish Church for her spiritual adulteries. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that Luther would have signed onto and worked from a fully functioning doctrine of sola scriptura.
Luther believed in the substitutionary death of the Son of God (solus christus) on behalf of unrighteous sinners. He also held to the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone through faith alone—(sola fide). In fact, this may be the most prominent tenet of Luther’s theology. It was sola fide that so powerfully shook Luther as he beat importunately upon Paul in Romans 1:17 until it rendered to him the gospel-truth of “faith alone.”
Luther’s understanding of sola fide necessitates a recognition of sola gratia. At times, Luther has been condemned as a near-Antinomian. But, again, if we exercise a measure of humility and seek to nuance Luther, we see him reel it in: “If faith does all things and is alone sufficient unto righteousness, why then are good works commanded? ‘We will take our ease and do no work and be content with faith.’ I answer: not so, you wicked men, not so.”
For Luther, these four preceding solas combine to shed light upon the Scriptures and the gospel so gloriously contained therein. The Reformation was a God-sized task and the Lord realized this glorious task through his wrecking ball, Luther. As moderns, we now glory in and recognize that the glory is God’s alone (Soli Deo gloria) for this great return to truth.
In the next section, we will see that Luther’s theology was hammered out as a pastor in the daily grind of the local church. His interpretation of Scripture drove his theology which, in time, shaped his ecclesiological spirituality.
Luther’s spirituality was simple and catechetical. His ecclesiology and daily discipleship unto the Lord drove him to eschew any sort of ivory tower theology for a more rugged, ecclesiocentric spirituality. Luther spent most of his time edifying and being edified by common parishioners, illiterates, and children.
His catechism, translations, preaching, and writing were all an effort to build up the “Christian faith” among his Wittenberg parishioners. We see that the impetus for Luther’s catechism was the profound ignorance of the things of God he had seen in his preaching travels. Everything Luther did had its terminus in the local church—even his training of future pastors. One might even say Luther was "For the Church." He never wrote a Systematic Theology or any sort of magnum opus. Rather, his time was taken up with sermons, writing hymns, catechisms, diatribes against Rome, and the occasional commentary. He was cutting a completely new trail hermeneutically, theologically, and ecclesiologically. This is why we ought to read Luther with charity.
In A Meditation on Christ’s Passion, Luther holds out two magnificent spiritual realities: the gospel and faith. After dealing with the incidentals of his sermon, he writes, “[I]n his suffering Christ makes our sin known and thus destroys it, but through his resurrection he justifies us and delivers us from all sin if we believe this.” For Luther, the gospel and our faith in Christ were the A-Z of Christianity. This is the means by which our “heart has thus become firm in Christ, and love, not fear of pain, has made you a foe of sin, then Christ’s passion must from day one become a pattern for your entire life.” And this is why Luther is worthy of a tribute. He, despite his many failings, wishes to bring us to the bosom of Christ that we might find succor there for our restless and fragmented souls.
Martin Luther’s spirituality fused the supernatural and ecclesiological. In the section of his Small Catechism entitled “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism,” Luther writes, “What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? Answer: It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” In other words, Luther took his Bible seriously and, therefore, he took the Devil, heaven and hell, and the local church seriously. His sacramentology was far from perfect (remember again his tabula rasa moment), but we see in Luther an ecclesiologist in process. He desired, rightly so, to ground the Christ of the Scriptures, by grace through faith, first in his own heart and then within his local church. He was swallowed up in the glorious and doxological task as a man sitting on the precipice of the most important turn in history since the advent of Christ.
Martin Luther was a profoundly biblical, and ever-evolving pastor-theologian. We see this fleshed out in the hermeneutic that drove his theology and played itself out in his ecclesiology and spirituality. He was God’s wrecking ball, and we are the better for God having gifted him to us. May his sins and foibles warn us, may his zeal embolden us, and may we read him with charity in hopes that others might interpret our lives, too, with such charity. May Micah 7:18-19 be true for you and me as well as Luther: “He does not hold on to his anger forever because he delights in faithful love. He will again have compassion on us; he will vanquish our iniquities. You will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.” That was the real recovery project and message of the Reformation and is cause for much celebration on this Reformation Day!