by Daniel Harrell
This morning’s look at the momentous life of Martin Luther marks the second in my annual summer sermon series on the Church Fathers (and Mothers). For fourteen summers I’ve alphabetically surveyed personalities throughout Church history who have shaped the faith as we’ve come to believe it. Now to be a genuine Church Father technically means you had to have lived during the first five centuries of Christianity. Last week I offered a brief glimpse at the fifth century’s Leo the Great, one of the most significant Popes of Christendom, which is why he’s called the Great. Almost single-handedly, Leo settled the mystery of the two natures of Jesus—his full humanity alongside his full divinity—by emphasizing Jesus’ uniqueness in this regard. Unfortunately, Leo’s success amassed considerable ecclesial and political power for the papacy in the waning days of the Roman Empire, boding badly for the years to come. Medieval Christendom during what we know as the Dark Ages was rife with papal abuses of power. Granted, had the Dark Ages not been so dark, we wouldn’t be here today talking about Martin Luther. While not technically a Church Father, living as he did in the sixteenth century, no other person had a greater impact on modern Christianity—Protestant and Catholic—than this mercurial German monk.
Minnesotans know this all too well. Lutherans comprise almost 35% of the state’s population, with Lutheran influence stretching way beyond that. An unavoidable authority on Lutheran life, Garrison Keillor, writes: “Here in the Midwest, we all have long memories of suffering and pain, because, for one thing, winter is so long, and when finally it gets warm and beautiful as it is now, we try to relieve these painful memories of cold, of neglect, of suspicion, darkness, anger, Bologna sandwiches, stupidity, and butterscotch pudding with mindless pleasure in the sun while wearing as few clothes as possible. But we were not brought up to experience pleasure. It doesn’t register on us. It’s like trying to write on glass with a pencil. We get into as few clothes as possible and the sight of ourselves depresses us. Sunlight makes us gloomy. We are not Mediterranean people. We are Lutheran people. Even the Catholics up here are Lutheran. And I don’t like to generalize about Lutherans, but one thing that’s true of every single last one of them without a single exception is that the low point of their year is their summer vacation.” (Wow, so glad we moved here!)
If this indeed is a portrait of Lutherans it’s a portrait of Luther too. Revered for his courageous confrontation of medieval church power, his standing up in the face of accusations of heresy, his establishing the authority of Scripture and then making it accessible by translating it into German, his writing some of the church’s best loved hymns—adaptations, perhaps, of the secular music in his day just like contemporary Christian music does in our own—his igniting a reformation that still burns brightly; Luther did all of this despite being a man tormented by depression, debilitating self-doubt and an almost paranoid fear of God.
It started early. Trained as a lawyer and excelling as a philosopher, Luther gave it all up at age 21. Making his way home one night through a tremendous thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near his path. He screamed, “Help me St. Anne I will become a monk!” And he did. Possessing what one biographer describes as “a high pressure fire hose” personality of shattering intensity, Luther plunged into monastic life—praying, fasting, going without sleep, enduring winter without blankets, flagellating himself and who knows, maybe eating mounds of butterscotch pudding: “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk,” he wrote, “It was I.”
And yet none of this diminished his paranoid fear of God’s judgment. He hated opening his Bible, and having to constantly read about God’s righteousness and realizing over and over again how he could never measure up. Ironically assigned to teach Bible at Wittenberg University, Luther gradually discovered a way through his dilemma. “At last, meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that the righteous [are justified] by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”
You’re likely familiar with the rest of the story—especially if you’ve seen the movie. Granted, Luther was no nearly so good looking (as the above photo shows), yet his legacy is enormous. Every Protestant stream, including our own Congregationalist one, flows from Luther’s reservoir.
Of course, Luther did not come up with justification by faith on his own. That’s always been in the Bible. It goes all the way back to Abraham. Yet just as the medieval church of Luther’s day controlled Biblical interpretation, so a group known as Judaizers tried to control things in New Testament Greece. In our text from Galatians this morning, these Judaizers—milking ancient Jewish prejudice against Gentiles—insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised as Jews first. Though the apostle Peter (a Jew) knew better, he apparently backed out of dinner with a group of Gentile Christians so not to offend Jews who still considered eating with Gentiles to be some sort of contagion. The apostle Paul (also a Jew) was livid. He considered Peter’s actions a direct assault on the integrity of the gospel. Paul gave it to Peter in front of everyone, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We Jews have put our faith in Christ Jesus just like the Gentiles that we too may be justified by faith in Christ and not by doing the works of the law, just like the Gentiles.”
“This is not to say that the Law is bad,” Luther explained. “Only that it is not able to justify us. … We must understand that we are merely beneficiaries and recipients of the treasures of Christ. Now, if I could perform any work acceptable to God and deserving of grace, … why should I stand in need of the grace of God and the suffering and death of Christ? Christ would be of no benefit to me. Christ’s mercy would be of no use to me. This shows how little insight the pope and the whole of his religious coterie have into spiritual matters, and how little they concern themselves with the spiritual health of their forlorn flocks. … God never yet gave to any person grace and everlasting life as a reward for merit. The opinions of the papists are the intellectual pipe-dreams of idle pates, that serve no other purpose but to draw men away from the true worship of God. The papacy is founded upon hallucinations.
“The true way of salvation is this. First, a person must realize that he is a sinner, the kind of a sinner who is congenitally unable to do any good thing. “Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.” Those who seek to earn the grace of God by their own efforts are trying to please God with sins. They mock God, and provoke His anger. They must repent. The second part is this. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we may live through His merit. He was crucified and killed for us. By sacrificing His Son for us God revealed Himself to us as a merciful Father who donates remission of sins, righteousness, and life everlasting for Christ’s sake. God hands out His gifts freely unto all men. That is the praise and glory of His mercy.”
For all his fervency regarding God’s grace, Luther remained burdened by his own unworthiness of it. Despite all the assurance about which he wrote and preached, he struggled to ever feel any assurance himself. How could he? He firmly believed that grace justified the sinner, but he also believed it did nothing to change one’s sinful nature. Back and forth it went. As biographer Martin Marty writes, Luther’s life makes sense chiefly as one who wrestled obsessively with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed. Luther was often paralyzed by what he called Anfechtungen, an untranslatable word often defined as those spiritual assaults that keep people from finding certainty in a loving God—attacks of doubt and near-despair sent not from the devil but, quite possibly, from God himself.
I didn’t read much about Luther until I got to seminary—Congregationalists tend toward Calvin and Zwingli as our reformers of choice (though Luther had choice words for Calvin and Zwingli too). Once in seminary, given Luther’s stature, I figured I needed to read more about him. Besides, it was a class assignment. But being something of a non-conformist (which everyone considers themselves to be in seminary—don’t ask me why), I picked up a biography of Luther by a contemporary historian that was not on the recommended reading list. It was a fascinating retelling of Luther’s life, and inspiring as well as the author wrote in soaring prose of the power and brilliance of Luther’s theology. Everything was there: justification by grace through faith; the “joyful exchange” of identities with Christ; the forgiveness of sins; the authority of the Word; and the human as “sinner and at the same time justified.” But then, at the end, came a chapter on Luther’s later years and his vicious anti-Semitism. Granted, Luther was an equal-opportunity denouncer of Jews, papists, Turks, Calvinists, Anabaptists and even other Lutherans. Moreover, his anti-Semitism was not racial as much as it was religious; he welcomed Jewish converts to Christianity. But Luther believed with the world ending soon and with so many denying Christ, Jews were basically doomed.
“I write against the Jews,” Luther said, “for a Jew or a Jewish heart is a wooden, stone devil heart that can be moved by nothing.” That was Luther being kind. Most of the language he used is unspeakable in polite company. In fact, the last sermon Luther preached, three days before he died in February 1546, was an attack against Jews. He never seemed to contemplate how contradictory it might seem to see the sufferings of Christians as a sign of God’s blessing toward those God loved, while the suffering of Jews was a testimony of God’s wrath toward those he hated. Luther’s virulent railing against the Jews reflected his times to be sure; but they were still bad enough to leave a legacy of hateful consequences in Germany for centuries.
As for the contemporary biographer recording these things, Luther’s viciousness cancelled out for him all the good Luther accomplished. In the final chapter of his polemical biography, the author summarily rejected the Christian gospel and God’s grace all because of Martin Luther. As a young seminarian, I was dumbstruck by how anybody could so clearly and beautifully articulate the gospel of Jesus to which I had staked my own soul, only to then entirely dismiss it due to the words and acts of one person—and a sixteenth century person at that. If Martin Luther could cause somebody to reject the gospel and lose their faith, how many people were going to lose their faith because of me? I descended into my own bout of Anfechtungen which led me to schedule a weeklong personal retreat (at a Catholic monastery no less) where I dutifully read the biography of Luther that was on the approved reading list.
So many years since, I’ve thankfully come to realize the real question is how anyone could have expected Luther to be other than the sinful man he was. This goes for all of us. And it goes for Jesus too; inasmuch as he bore our sins on the cross. Luther argued that to truly know Christ is not to know him in the sublime, dreamed-up idealized ways we so often conceive of Him, (and wrongly imagine ourselves as able to emulate); but rather in the lowly, weak and dying ways Jesus reveals himself on the cross, where he takes on humanity in all of its sin and shame. In this Christ we see ourselves.
Through the cross, Luther wrote, God “calls humans by their real names and not by images of their attractive appearance. He does not name them as they would wish, but as they are accepted by the boundless suffering love of God. This has far-reaching consequences: religious desire for praise and might and self-affirmation are blind to suffering—their own and that of others—because they are in love with achievement and success. Their love is love for the beautiful, which is to make the one who loves beautiful himself. But in the cross and passion of Christ, faith experiences a quite different love of God, a love which loves what is quite different. God loves what is sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful, in order to make it beautiful and good and wise and righteous. Sinners are beautiful because they are loved by God; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”
Though too often sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful ourselves; God still loves us relentlessly. He makes us beautiful and good and wise and righteous by the hard edge of grace. It is all Jesus’ doing. As the apostle Paul put it here in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live.” Whatever is beautiful or good or wise or right about me is not me, “but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And you and Martin Luther too.