Review: Martin Luther – A Life

martinlutherbiographyAuthor: Martin Marty
Publisher: Penguin Group, 2004
Rating: 5/5 stars
Amazon Price: $13.30

Bottom Line

Martin Marty is a Lutheran pastor and scholar who wrote an objective biography on Martin Luther. Marty’s objective was to give an account primarily on Luther’s life and not as a historical account of the religious, social, and political ramifications involved. In covering Luther’s life, Marty planned on discussing 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). His goal, then, is to give a positive account of Luther’s influence on the world. If the reader formulates any negative view of Luther from this book, he says, it would be from Luther’s own mouth rather than the biographer (xii). While claiming Luther’s positive influence on the world, Marty wants to leave the reader with “the accounts of his posthumous influence and its global consequences” (xv) and thus leave the reader with their own inference of Luther’s contribution to the world. In each chapter, Martin Marty objectively 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.

Chapter 1, The Hunger for Certainty

Martin Marty begins the theme of Luther’s life with his search for certainty, which we will see is the primary motif playing throughout Luther’s life. In his university studies to be a lawyer, Luther found no certainty since his professors taught him to be inquisitive of every author, even the most noble ones, rather than blindly accepting their claims. Since one must question even the noblest of philosophers, Luther thought, everything is uncertain. So he 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 are considered the most pragmatic people and we often do not link rationality with religion. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued in his Summa Theologica that reason and revelation go together. He made distinctions between the two, but they don’t (or shouldn’t) contradict each other. He argued that reason could prove God’s existence, but one could only come to the full knowledge of God through revelation (i.e. the Scriptures) (Shelley, 210-211). As a 21st century reader, it is surprising to us that Luther—a pragmatic lawyer—would turn to the Scriptures to search for the mystery of certainty. This is odd to the 21st century reader because many are in the mindset of finding certainty in science and logic. Luther, however, only found things to be uncertain through law and logic and found certainty in the Scriptures.

spiritualassaultsLuther sought the answer to certainty for several years—the answer that does not rely on human efforts and would console 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, which are essentially “the spiritual assaults that… kept people from finding certainty in a loving God” (23). This uncertainty, he 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” (24). In other words, in order for one to totally rely on God’s grace, they must first recognize their utter despair and depravity in sin and turn to the only remedy for this condition: Jesus Christ.

I can relate a lot to Luther’s Anfectungen. Years ago, I suffered from what Luther calls Anfechtungen that barred me from the certainty of the loving God. Due to particular 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 where I even doubted God’s forgiveness. The Anfechtungen of self-loathing and deep shame kept me from the certainty of God’s love. 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—certainty—in God’s mercy, grace ,and love through the Holy Spirit. Since that moment, I have had absolute certainty in the loving God. Going along with this, Marty likens Luther to the patriarch Jacob—one who wrestled with God (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 Anfechtungen I viewed God as distant until they eventually led me into His grace and I learned that He’s actually a God near to me. This experience is likely a common experience that serious Christians endure. The serious Christian reading this biography will likely relate to Luther’s Anfechtungen and cause him or her to be empathetic towards his goals.

Chapter 2, Defining the Life of Faith

As the title of the chapter suggests, the next motif of Luther’s life was defining the Christian life—how a Christian should live. He wrote four major documents speaking on this issue. In his Address to the Christian Nobility, he 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.” He argued that all baptised Christians are “worthy equally to stand before God, forgiving and praying for others without priestly mediation” (59). Why is this proper understanding of the priesthood of all believers so vital? How does it still have significance for modern Christians? It is the common American mindset that we have to do things in order to earn anything. We view any concept of “free” as being suspicious. Any time I give an extra book to someone for free, they immediately want to pay for it or grow suspicious that the gift comes with strings attached. The idea of something being free is so strange to us. That’s why Luther’s theology on the priesthood of all believers was so strange because he stressed that one’s worthiness before God is free. There are no strings attached! It does not depend on one’s works but on God who effects our baptism and invites us to prayer. In other words, one is worthy not because they earn worthiness, but because God deems them worthy out of His grace. This means as a Christian, I can look back to my baptism and see that in it, God makes me worthy before Him not because of anything I’ve done, but because of all He’s done for me. This is an enormous comfort to the Christian conscience.

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. In the remaining five, he found corruption. 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” (60). The Catholic corruptions became burdens on the Christian conscience. Luther sought to alleviate those burdens by connecting the appropriate sacraments to God’s grace, which was missing in each of the Catholic sacraments. As a Christian, this means you and I can approach God’s given sacraments with the certainty of receiving His grace and forgiveness. This was not possible in Luther’s day. Today, we can thank Luther for clarifying what the sacraments are and what they do for us as they are connected to God’s grace.

A terrific illustration of our wickedness imputed to Christ, and His righteousness to us.

A terrific illustration of our wickedness imputed to Christ on the cross, and His righteousness to us.

In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (63). To explain this with a metaphor, Luther likens a believer’s relationship with Christ to marriage, which is a common metaphor the Scriptures use. 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” (65). In other words, our wickedness is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us. He took hold of our wickedness and on Him was placed God’s wrath that we justly 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'” (64). As a seeming contradiction, Luther also states the Christian is “servant of all, subject to all.” What Luther highlighted was that “faith was to be active in love” (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 their neighbour. Again, this seems odd to us even today because this salvation and grace from God is free. There is nothing we can do or have to do in order to earn it. Solidifying even more the freedom of the Christian conscience, Luther discussed in detail the Christian’s freedom not just from sin and the Devil, but also his or her freedom to graciously serve their neighbour.

Lastly, in The Judgment 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” (76). He wrote on the futility of good works as a method to please God because He doesn’t need our good works. 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 salvation, but simply on the basis of Christ’s love. 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 believer into the scope of divine favor” (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 good works combined with God’s grace brought God’s favour. Here, however, Luther argued 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. Thus, Luther wrote, “Christ came into this world to make us most certain” (78). This was a significant realisation and is still important for us today because works always fail us and only make us uncertain because the Law, which demands us to do works, reveals to us our sins and deficiencies and thus leaves the Christian destitute of grace. The Law for the Christian is not how he relates to God, but how he relates to neighbour and society (79).

Chapter 3, Living the Faith

Vocations are really just building relationships that are a partnership with God.

Vocations are really just building relationships that are a partnership with God.

This third motif is really just a further derivation of the second—how the Christian is to live in the church and the secular world; it is 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,” to replace monasticism (104). Any Christian who fulfils their unique duty is pleasing God whether it’s the mother feeding her child, the farmer growing his crops, or the married couple engaging in coitus (104). These are three simple examples of what Luther means by “vocation.” In my own life, I have vocations of son, brother, student, employee, and others. As a student, then, I am pleasing God by fulfilling my duty as student when I put forth my greatest efforts into my studies. God-pleasing vocations also apply to professional jobs. One serves God in this way, he argued, whether they are a believer or an unbeliever whom God is using for His purposes. Luther calls such vocations “masks of God, since God was hidden within every person’s vocation” (105). Fulfilling our duties as pleasing God is not a means of good works to earn God’s 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. What are your own vocations? How are you pleasing God by fulfilling your duties?

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 (113). For Luther, worship was another important aspect of the Christian life, whether it was in one’s home or during ecclesiastical worship (114). The tradition of the church was the music coming from the monks and clerics who chanted. Now, Luther altered it where the majority of the singing came from the congregants. So when you go to church today and sing worship lyrics from the projector screen, you can thank Luther.

Chapter 4; 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 part of Luther’s life intriguing and troubling is his heart growing cold as he attacked the pope, calling him “the spirit of the antichrist”; the Turks/Muslims, calling them “the flesh of the antichrist”; and the Jews, whom he judged to be evil since they refused to believe in Christ (168-169). Luther’s animosity and antichrist mentality toward the pope is understandable when we examine the historical context. With the threat of the Turks and other forces and the pope’s supremacy, one can see how it seemed like the end times. After all, we Christians have thought the same thing during World War II and other significant historical events. Indeed, there are many today who are convinced Jesus’ return is imminent. Of course, we could be wrong; we’ve been wrong before. Yet the amateur historian can properly deduce that the pope was not the antichrist but certainly a type of antichrist, just as there are multiple types of antichrists today. Yet perhaps the most troubling part was Luther’s developed anti-Semitism, which was a result of “disappointments that turned to anger” (169).

How do we respond to this, especially as Lutherans? It is important to remember that Martin Luther, highly influential as he was as a man of God, was a sinner. Unfortunately, as a sinner, Luther let his anger get the better of him and led him toward a hatred of the Jews. While it is true that Jews will not see the kingdom of God since Christ is the only way to salvation (John 14:6), 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 the 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). We can reasonably deduced, then, that it would not be intellectually honest to take Luther seriously and as a result disregard the rest of his phenomenal theology when he wrote his anti-Semitism works during his senile years.

Moving on to the further solidification of certainty, Luther wrote the Smalcald Articles, which are often referred to as 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 God will stand forever” (178). Unlike our human frailty, 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, 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” (186). Praying from John 10:28-29, Martin Luther died with the certainty rested on Christ.

Conclusion

It is without unequivocal certainty that Martin Luther both reshaped and redefined Christian identity. Where it relied on good works for certainty under the captivity of the Catholic Church, Luther exposed its substantial failure to satisfy the Christian conscience for salvation through the Scriptures. He addressed the numerous ways in which the Christian is free from good works and the burdens of penance. He also reshaped religious worship in changing how the pastor properly relates to his congregation, allowing the congregants to engage in worship, and even highly supported music and education. His wife, Katharina von Bora, wrote in a lamenting letter after his death, “He did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world” (188). After everything covered, I believe Martin Marty leaves the reader with a positive conclusion of Luther and his life—that he indeed has left a positive global influence. It is thanks to Luther that Christians today know they are free from performing good works to earn God’s favour because he revealed to us the Scriptures’ doctrine on receiving God’s favour as merely a gift in baptism. His theology satisfies the consciences of today’s Christians in that we never have to earn salvation, for it is freely given to us. I encourage every Christian to read this biography, whether you are Lutheran or not. For Lutherans, you gain additional insight into Luther’s life than what we normally learn in Lutheran universities or our catechism class. For non-Lutherans, this books give a good understanding of the circumstances of Luther’s life that led him to see and speak against the captivity of the Medieval Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s life is an example to all of us that even during Anfechtungen, we always have stable certainty in the grace and mercy of God.

Bibliography

Edwards Jr., Mark U. “Luther’s Last Battles.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 48, no. 2 & 3 (April-July 1983): 125-140. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/edwardslutherslastbattles.pdf

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plan Language, 4th edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.

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