Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Martin Luther

Martin Luther

 

Martin Luther is famous for posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg and for attempting to reform the Catholic Church, but what exactly did he believe, and what else did he contribute to Christendom? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther—and why he still matters today.

Who Was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany, just as the Middle Ages were coming to an end. His plan was to become a lawyer, but while experiencing the terror of being caught in a thunderstorm, he vowed to become a Catholic monk if St. Anne would rescue him. Serving as an Augustinian friar and priest, Luther was often insecure about whether God would truly forgive him. He wondered whether he could ever be assured of salvation by following the church’s practices of confession, repentance, and performing good works. In order to encourage him, a spiritual advisor counseled him to study Scripture. It was his biblical studies and his discovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith that led him to protest certain medieval Catholic beliefs and practices and subsequently birth the Protestant Reformation. He became the greatest theologian of what would become the third major branch of Christendom—Protestantism. Martin Luther’s words and actions changed Christendom and thus Western civilization forever.

What Did Martin Luther Write?

Luther was a truly prolific author, but perhaps his two most important books are The Bondage of the Will and his Catechism. The first is considered a theological masterpiece in which Luther responds in debate to theologian Desiderius Erasmus on the topic of the freedom of the human will in salvation. The second book, which includes both his Large Catechism and Small Catechism, summarizes the faith and contains specific discussions of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

CRASH COURSE- LUTHER

What Did Martin Luther Believe?

Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of Martin Luther’s beliefs. Martin Luther’s three most important theological ideas reflect the truths of the Protestant Reformation:

  1. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone): Salvation comes solely by the grace (unmerited favor) of the Triune God and not by human works.
  2. Sola Fide (Faith Alone): Salvation comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, apart from human good works.
  3. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone): Scripture is the final authority in justifying belief and practice for the corporate church and for the individual Christian believer.

Why Does Martin Luther Matter Today?

Martin Luther is criticized today for the controversial and condemnatory statements he made about the Jews of his time. Though to provide some context, Luther’s unfortunate words came near the end of his life when he was quite ill and emotionally unsettled. Yet Martin Luther is considered one of the greatest Christian theologians and one of the most influential people in Christian church history. As the father of the Protestant Reformation, he rediscovered and transformed many Christian beliefs and left an enduring mark on the world. He is buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—the church on which he nailed his 95 Theses, sparking the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Evangelical Christians today are deeply influenced by Luther’s beliefs about salvation by grace and by his conviction that Scripture is the believer’s supreme authority. In fact, to understand the ethos of Protestantism, one must study the life and doctrinal beliefs of Martin Luther.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure

Reflections: Your Turn

Knowing that salvation is a free gift of divine grace, how should this truth affect how we live as Christians?

Resources

  • For an outstanding biography of Luther, read Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton.
  • A defense of some of Martin Luther’s more controversial statements is found in In Defense of Martin Luther by John Warwick Montgomery.
  • I highly recommend the 2003 film Luther in which Martin Luther is portrayed by actor Joseph Fiennes.

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Martin Luther

  1. August 2, 2016 at 5:45 am

    2Pet. 3:15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,

    2Pet. 3:16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

    2Pet. 3:17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.

  2. August 2, 2016 at 6:22 am

    James 2:20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

    • August 3, 2016 at 10:48 am

      Chris:

      Luther didn’t see Paul and James as being at odds over faith and works. I suspect he might say that Paul was addressing the issue as to whether good works can justify a person before God. Thus: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law’ (Rom. 3:28).

      But James was addressing the error that a purely theoretical faith can save. Thus: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14)

      It seems that Paul and James would readily agree with Paul’s statement in the Book of Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

      All the best.

      Ken Samples

  3. August 2, 2016 at 7:09 am

    Rom. 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

    • August 3, 2016 at 11:09 am

      Chris:

      But isn’t the critical problem that none of us can keep God’s law in order to be justified? I honestly don’t think I’ve kept any of God’s laws perfectly for even a single day of my life.

      “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20).

      Thus: “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

      My sincere question is if we are justified by sacramental grace, through faith, but completed by works of loving obedience, then can anyone have reasonable assurance of salvation? As a Protestant, I believe I have been forgiven through trusting Christ (justified through faith) and my life does give evidence of an authentic faith because of my Christian lifestyle. But that lifestyle when examined closely is expressing love but in a very inconsistent and ultimately an incomplete manner.

      So I have questions and concerns about a theological system that says we’re saved by grace but a necessary level of good works must be achieved.

      Best regards, my friend.

      Ken Samples

  4. August 2, 2016 at 7:28 am

    What Luther failed to see was that Paul is talking about doing good deeds in faith, with ginuine motives toward our neighbor, whom we see and our Father in heaven, whom we cannot see. For example, our Lord and Savior taught us to give to the poor anonymously, & to pray in private, out of the sight of others, a deed that requires faith. Luther’s theology reduces these activities to mere extra credit. He throws the baby out with the bath water.

    • August 3, 2016 at 10:33 am

      Hello, Chris.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      If I recall correctly from our previous interaction, you are a Roman Catholic. In my view conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants have significant doctrinal common ground (for example, the content of the Nicene Creed). Yet the theological differences between the two traditions is also consequential (for example, authority, justification, Mary and the saints, inclusivism).

      I wonder if you have read at least a portion of Luther’s writings on the topic of grace, faith, and good works? I ask because my reading of him gives me no indication that he played fast and loose with the importance of Christians doing good works out of love for God and their fellow man. Luther’s sentiment on the topic can be expressed in such popular expressions as: Faith alone saves but saving faith is never alone. It is always pregnant with good works. These expressions don’t seem to place godly actions in the category of “extra credit.”

      It seems the critical difference that Luther had with the medieval Catholic Church was that he distinguished between the divine acts of justification (for him a forensic declaration of righteousness on the part of the believer because of Christ’s merit) and sanctification (an inner moral transformation of the forgiven sinner). Thus for Luther a believer in Christ is justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone, the faith inevitably gives evidence of its authenticity through performing loving works of obedience.

      Just some thoughts in response to your comments.

      My best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • August 4, 2016 at 10:29 am

        I am merely a Christian, I follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. Please define faith. For if faith is never alone, neither is salvation.

      • August 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

        I’m sorry, Chris. Your critical response to Luther sounded very similar to the way many Catholic apologists respond.

        For Luther, saving faith (confident trust in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection) is simultaneously pregnant with good works via God’s grace. Having read Luther, I don’t think he in any way sets aside good works as unimportant or secondary in nature.

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

      • rhoadeschris
        August 4, 2016 at 1:49 pm

        Distinction without a difference, my understanding of “works of faith” as taught by Christ in his sermon on the mount, is no different than Luther’s “faith pregnant with works”, if those works are done as taught by Christ. Only problem with Luther’s definition is a faith pregnant with good deed’s, may never give birth to those deeds. Works of faith, requires faith to accomplish, and the two always exist together as they should. If you do a study of Scripture, you come to find out that everything we do in Christ boils down to a work, even when Abraham first believed, it boils down to a work of faith. All Luther accomplishes in his redefinition, is to confuse and make what is simple difficult. Most people view faith as merely strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. This then removes any works, if they misunderstand Luther. Moreover; was it not Luther who wanted to remove the epistle of James from the New Testament, because James contradicted him? I am not a practicing Catholic, but was raised as one. I am merely as I described, and well versed in Scripture.

      • August 4, 2016 at 6:51 pm

        Chris:

        Greetings.

        I’m curious, have you read any of Luther’s writings on grace, faith, and works? Or are you perhaps relying upon what you have heard others say (even my own brief summary of him). I ask that respectfully because you seem very sure that Luther is deeply misguided about good works when on my reading of him he attempts to follow Scripture very closely.

        If I may, I would rephrase your comments and say that everything we do in Christ depends foundationally upon grace and that even our response of works is made possible by God’s gifting.

        The apostle Paul summarizes the gracious formula of salvation thusly:
        For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8–10 NIV 1984)

        The historic Protestant position on salvation (with much original input from Luther) is that a person is saved (justified) by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by human works. But the grace active in salvation motivates a person to do good works (faith working in love). This position seems drawn from, and in concert with, Scripture.

        Yes, Luther originally wondered whether the Book of James was canonical because of his struggle to reconcile the epistle’s content with that of the apostle Paul’s teaching. But he finally accepted James an an authentic part of the New Testament. But I think to reject Luther’s take on good works because he had initial doubts about the Book of James is to engage in a red herring (diversion). Luther made a number of mistakes in judgment (like all forgiven sinners do) but his commentaries on the books of Romans and Galatians demonstrate extraordinary exegetical and theological skill and have influenced the development of Western Christendom.

        I invite you to read my crash course article on Luther and, if you haven’t already, maybe consider reading some of Luther’s writings. I don’t doubt your love of Scripture nor your skill in interpreting it. But, respectfully, some of your comments about Luther sound very similar to the way Catholic apologists respond to him. Unfortunately, too often both Catholics and Protestants speak passed each other without taking the time to carefully read and consider each other’s viewpoints. When I can, I like to promote honest dialogue between the two Western branches of Christendom.

        With my best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

  5. rhoadeschris
    August 5, 2016 at 10:34 am

    You seem to think my Catholic roots dictate and shape my thinking on Luther’s theology, they don’t, I am not a practicing Catholic, I actually attend a Mennonite Congregation at the moment, in the resent past I attended an Eastern Orthodox Church, before that a Baptist Church, and before that a Jehovah’s Witness Congregation. I believe all the Christian Churches have great diversity, and all have great things to share, but not all have it all together. Neither do I claim to have it all together, but I have observed something in some of the Protestant Churches that clearly goes against common sense Scripture, and in fact because of it, has caused many to to go off the narrow path as taught by Christ, and the apostles. Here is an example of the thinking I hear from Luther’s Theology:

    Saved By Grace/Faith alone: I have a free ticket into heaven given to me by God and I know my name is written in the book of life, despite any evidence aside from a feeling I had one time in my heart. I have no obligations to God because the gift was free, Jesus the God-man did all the work, and so anything good I do can’t save me, nor can anything bad I do condemn me, for no one can pluck me out of the hand of Jesus, and if I doubt this I am probably not saved. Even though I am saved, the only work I should do, out of appreciation is teach other people to believe the same thing I believe.

    Scripture Alone: Scriptures must fit my belief, or it can be ignored, denied, or reinterpreted to do so.

    To be continued time permitting.

    • August 5, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      Chris:

      One last time: Have you actually read any of Luther’s writings? It is okay if you haven’t but if you do I think you’ll discover that Luther’s theology is deeply grace-oriented but it doesn’t correspond to your popular, description. In fact, conservative Lutheran theology would never say that believers have no obligation to God and you seem to be unaware that Lutherans believe people can fall away from their faith commitment.

      Your description which I think actually affirms a number of solid biblical truths (such as salvation is solely a gift of God’s grace) also adds rather irresponsible elements (life actions are unimportant and unnecessary) rather reflects a theologically unsophisticated form of evangelicalism. Popular evangelicalism often has elements of Luther’s ideas but the two are not necessarily the same.

      May I with all due respect remind you that if you are going to continue to critique Luther’s theology then you have an intellectual and moral obligation to get his theology correct. The golden rule of apologetics says treat other people’s beliefs and viewpoints the way you want yours treated (accurately, fairly, giving the benefit of the doubt when possible). This intellectual and moral responsibility isn’t easy to accomplish but I think all Christians have an obligation to try.

      Before you respond again why don’t you do some more homework on what Luther actually taught and what conservative Lutheran churches today affirm. Then, and only then, can we accurately and fairly discuss theological issues in an intellectually honest and gracious way. You can find resources on Luther at the end of my crash course article.

      I wish you all the best in your life and faith.

      Sincerely in Christ,

      Ken Samples

    • rhoadeschris
      August 5, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      I will look in to reading some of Luther’s arguments when time permits but to continue.

      These Grace and Faith alone believers also will tell you that if someone continues sinning, they probably aren’t saved. Basically what they have done is create a Question begging definition. They will say, A Saved individuals is defined as one who can never lose their salvation. If someone does lose their salvation on judgment day, then they were never really saved. This fallacy is considered unacceptable circular reasoning. By the way, the Mennonites do believe salvation can be lost, perhaps they agree with Luther’s original thoughts.

      I am sure that Luther’s theology was closer to the First Century Christians as was Calvin’s, but they have both evolved to what we have today, Luther and Calvin would probably be appalled to see what happened to their work. I am also aware that the evil doings of the Catholic Church have much to do with Luther’s and Calvin’s motivations; however, I am only giving you some concrete evidence of what I have seen out there, it is extreme but it sums up what one might predict would happen from such doctrines as Grace alone, and Faith alone. I have watched a few documentaries on Luther, I have read some of John Calvin and agree with what little I did read, but I reject and disagree with today’s Calvinism. One very powerful argument against faith/grace alone, is found in first Corinthian’s 13. There we see Charity is greater than faith, greater than good deeds, greater than hope. if we allow Charity (as defined in Scripture) to be our foundational cornerstone, and reread the entire Bible with Charity as our lenses through which we view the world, faith and grace only become trees in the forest Agape Love produces. I also agree with the verse you point out there, and we can extend the idea of grace to everyone, for no one would exist without God’s grace, so no one can boast about anything they have, but many do. There are plenty of verses that shut down Calvinism as well, one set of such verses seems almost prophetically tailored for Calvinist, found in James 4:13-17, thank God Luther didn’t remove them.

      • August 5, 2016 at 6:29 pm

        Chris:

        A good place to end our theological discussion is with your point about the importance of charity.

        I pray my life is characterized by it and that I treat Christians of other traditions with a charitable spirit.

        Best regards in the Lord.

        Ken Samples

  6. August 6, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for writing this up! “The Bondage of the Will” is one of my favorite theological works ever. I have struggled with it for many years, finding new layers of meaning and insights, while still fighting against its conclusions and then ultimately accepting them. I’m a Lutheran so this post made me particularly happy.

    I think one aspect of Luther’s theology that cannot be missed is that he remained staunchly sacramental in his theology and sees Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as central to a life of faith.

    • August 6, 2016 at 7:38 pm

      JW:

      I didn’t know you are Lutheran. I took my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Irvine, California.

      Luther is one of my favorite theologians. Your point about his commitment to sacramentalism is very important.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • August 12, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Thanks, JW.

      Ken Samples

  7. Rita Gorski
    August 13, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I’m very late in reading the previous interaction, but want to add a few words. I think Chris is a deep thinker and wants to be right in his theology. But what I hear missing is an intimate love relationship with the Lord where His presence and fellowship with us settles our salvation within us and His love evokes in us enormous gratitude for that precious gift purchased by His sacrifice. Thinking we have to do more to earn that salvation is to mock that sacrifice as not sufficient. Our love for Him causes us to want to please Him, which is a natural response to anyone we love. Besides more reading of Luther, I humbly submit Charles Stanley’s,Eternal Security (Can you be Sure?). He presents all the arguments anyone can come up with and deals wit them. Simple, but profound.

    • August 13, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Thank you, Rita.

      For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

  8. J.D. Collner
    August 15, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Ken, I appreciate your short course on Luther. It would seem that he was Arminian in his theology. I used to believe that way when attending the Methodist Church, but now am Anglican and the Doctrine of Election makes clear a lot of Scripture that I never understood before. Still though, Does “Free Will” play a part with Irresistible Grace in Salvation? Comments? Thanks JDC

    • August 15, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      Hello, JD.

      Modern Lutheranism paradoxically affirms that believers can fall away from their faith but this apostasy can never be permanent for the elect (a type of perseverance or assurance if you will). So for Lutherans, salvation is not graspable in sin (regenerative grace is needed), but salvation is resistible in grace (except for the elect).

      In the Augustinian (Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Anglican) tradition, God’s regenerative grace frees the once enslaved human will. So for Augustinians, the only person with genuine freedom is the person who is the recipient of irresistible grace.

      Here’s my crash course article on Augustine: https://reflectionsbyken.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/christian-thinkers-101-a-crash-course-on-st-augustine/

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  9. J.D. Collner
    August 15, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks Ken.

  10. January 30, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Reblogged this on Is Christianity True? and commented:
    Given that this year is the 500 anniversary of the Reformation, this post by Kenneth Samples is timely:

    • January 30, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Thanks for the reblog, Steve.

      Ken Samples

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