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April 24, 2004

Luther the Reformer

Luther Luther the Reformer
by James M. Kittelson
334 pages

Being a Lutheran myself, I felt it was high time that I learned more about the man whose name appears on the majority of churches in Minnesota. Martin Luther is a fascinating man whose ideas truly reformed the entire Christian church. Beliefs that we take for granted today, such as justification by faith and the amazing grace of God, Luther struggled to come to grips with given the stifling doctrine of the Catholic church of the time. Throughout his life as a monk, a professor, and later as the leader of the church in Germany, Luther shaped his philosophy as a reaction to the problems he saw with the faith of his day. Remarkably, Luther's central beliefs of the justification of faith and the grace of God are for the most part the same beliefs most Lutherans, and most Protestants in general, hold dear today. However, Luther also proved to be somewhat arrogrant, intractable, and inflexible when it came to many matters of faith, which was ironic given his stance towards the belief of his day in the infallability of the pope. If anyone disagreed with Luther concerning matters of faith, even if it was a close friend, Luther rarely hesitated to label that person a "tool of Satan." Read more of the review by clicking on the link below if you are interested!

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben. Throughout his life Luther's father valued his son's education and ultimately wanted Luther to become a lawyer. Story has it, though, that Luther was traveling when he was caught in a violent storm. Fearing for his life Luther vowed to devote his life to God if he survived. Shortly thereafter, Luther told his father the news and entered an Augustinian monastery. While there Luther learned and practiced the faith of the day which held that people retained a small amount of faith after the fall, but that it had to be augmented by the sacraments and "good works" to ensure salvation. One of the sacraments in particular, confession of one's sins to a priest, began to trouble Luther a great deal. The act of confession caused Luther an inordinate amount of grief since as a monk his lack of sins forced him to look deep into every aspect of his life for wrongdoing. Through this process he became utterly depsondent and began to question whether he was doing enough of the Mass, enough of the sacraments, enough penance to guarantee his place in heaven. Luther also discovered a paradox of sorts in that the more that he focused on himself and his attempts to make himself right in the eyes of God, the more truly selfish he became and the further he moved away from the kingdom of heaven. As Kittelson writes, "Just when they thought they were being most spiritual, human beings sought themselves and their own advantage." Luther was beginning to realize there was nothing humans could do to please God enough to warrant salvation.

This would probably be enough to drive anyone over the edge, but especially a Catholic monk. However, it is at this point that Luther began to fully understand the wonder of God's grace. Through the letters of Paul, especially the letter to the Romans, Luther began to understand that man lives in a constant state of sin, and that there is nothing we can do about it. No amount of good deeds, no amount of sacraments would change this fact. The wonder of it is that God through his wisdom, righteousness, and grace forgives us our sins through our faith and our faith alone. This is an important concept: God's grace requires nothing but our faith and belief in Jesus. As Kittelson writes:

"Good deeds (in particualr, acts of love for one's neighbor) were part of this life, but neither they nor special spiritual exercises added anything to faith, which was created and constantly refreshed by the Word. Consequently, those who were truly faithful were not in a state of loving God, but rather of being loved by God. All they required was the Word."

Therefore Christians live in the faith of salvation, the hope of eternal life, and the love of God. It is a journey that is always beginning and never reaching its goal ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 comes to mind) since, according to Luther, faith takes daily dilligence. However, it makes much more sense than performing an infinite number of good works with no guarantee of the grace of God. Luther said, "The law says 'Do this!' and it is never done. Grace says, 'Believe in this man!' and immediately everything is done." All we have to do is believe in Jesus and we are guaranteed salvation.

Needless to say, this idea of "justification through faith" as it became to be called was revolutionary. It would also get Luther into a fair amount of trouble. At this time the church in Rome was building St. Peter and needed extra funds to make this happen. The pope sent out salesmen of sorts to sell indulgences among the populace to raise the needed money. Indulgences could be purchased by the laity to shorten the amount of time a deceased relative had to stay in purgatory (only souls free from sin could enter heaven which made purgatory necessary to cleanse those souls). Johann Tetzel, the most famous of the indulgence salesmen, is often quoted as saying, "Once a coin into the coffer clings, a sould from purgatory heavenward springs!" Eventually, Tetzel made his way to Germany, and the rest as they say, is history. Given his new understanding of justification by faith, Luther dilligently wrote his arguments concerning the sale of indulgences and tacked them on the door of the Wittenberg church as the "95 Theses." Again, according to Luther there was no amount of money, no amount of good works, that could guarantee our place in heaven, let alone that of a relative. Faith and faith alone is all that matters.

This quickly snowballed and Luther was forced to defend himself to the church leadership of the time. Not only was Luther questioning the sale of indulgences, but ultimately he was questioning the infallability of the pope himself, who had declared the sale and purchase of indulgences to be both godly and necessary. As you might imagine, this could get a guy burned at the stake! However, Luther skillfully defended himself at public debates and through many, many published works until eventually he was declared an outlaw by the church and the Holy Roman Empire. Thankfully, the German princes where he lived at the time protected him until his death.

That is the first half of the book. And it is fascinating. The second half, however, painted a somewhat different picture of Luther and has me convinced that he would be seriously ticked off at most of the churches that bear his name today. For one thing, Luther believed passionately in transubstantiation, or the miracle of the bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ. If you did not agree with him you were a "tool of Satan." Luther also did not believe in the free will of man, at least in the way it was taught during the time (for more info on this see this web page). If you disagreed with him you were a "tool of Satan." According to Kittelson Luther was a master name caller and would have a coarse nickname ready for anyone who disputed his teachings or, in his mind, did anything to detract from the gospel. In fact, Luther had little mercy for anyone who rejected the gospel as he saw it. Unfortunately this included the Jews of the area who were told to leave, sometimes based on Luther's own teachings and publications. On top of all of this, however, Luther kept his utmost vindictiveness for the pope. Luther had a very special dislike for the pope.

This did not happen suddenly, but over the course of the second half of his life Luther began to despise the papacy and all it stood for. Of course, the papacy reciprocated this dislike back at Luther. Later in his life Luther was said to have remarked at the table, "It is enough. I have worked myself to death. For one person, I have done enough. I'll go lie down in the sand and sleep now. It is over for me, except for just an occasional little whack at the pope." And whack he did. In 1545 he wrote Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil in which Luther referred to the pope as:

"... the head of the damned church of the very worst knaves on earth; vicar of the devil; an enemy of God; an opponent of Christ; and a destroyer of the church of Christ; a teacher of all lies, blasphemy, and idolatries; an archthief of the church and robber of the keys ... a murderer of kings and inciter of all sorts of bloodshed; a brothel-keeper above all brothel-keepers and all lewdness, including what cannot be named; an antichrist; a man of sin and a child of perdition; a genuine werewolf."

Luther died in 1546. During his life he did more to shake up the church and ultimately reform it than any man since St. Paul. I've often joked with my in-laws, who are Catholic, that Luther should be canonized by the church due to the good he did for it, although the church certainly didn't think it was very good at the time. He certainly had his faults, especially his belief in the infallability of his own teachings and his lack of mercy towards the Jews. But more than any other man of his time, his teachings form the basis for our beliefs today concerning the grace of God and justification by faith alone. His own sins, however, certainly demonstrate his belief in the sinfulness of man and the necessity of God's grace on a daily basis.

So, that is Luther: the Reformer as I saw it. It was a great book and one I would recommend whole heartedly. It is concise, well written, and easy to understand. Check it out from your local public library today

Posted by snackeru at April 24, 2004 10:22 PM | Books


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