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Wednesday, January 11, 2017 | Comments (15)

Last fall, John MacArthur contributed a foreword to R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols’s book, The Legacy of Luther. We thought it appropriate to share John's words with you here, both to coincide with Carl Trueman’s guest lectures at The Master’s Seminary on the Reformation this week (which you can watch live here), and to encourage your further study of Luther and the other Reformers in this, the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. –GTY Staff

by John MacArthur

Much of the discussion about Martin Luther these days seems to focus on his flaws rather than his faith, and that’s a pity. It’s quite true that some conspicuous blemishes mar the great Reformer’s reputation. His most glaring faults arose from a brooding disposition. He seemed naturally prone to melancholy, impatience, a vehement temper, and a sharp tongue. Even Luther’s most devoted friends recognized those traits as serious shortcomings. At the Reformer’s funeral, his lifelong friend and best-known colleague, Philip Melancthon, noted in his eulogy that Luther had a reputation for “too much asperity”—then added, “I will not affirm the reverse.”

So there’s no denying that Luther had feet of clay.

In fact, to be completely candid, some of Luther’s more infamous transgressions were downright reprehensible. We are rightly appalled, for example, at his fondness for scatology, the cutting sarcasm that characterizes his polemical writings, and his crass xenophobia—especially his anti-Semitism. Those were colossal defects in Luther’s character, and it would be folly to pretend they did not exist.

But Luther was, after all, a product of his times. It is a sad fact of history that parochial points of view, illiberal opinions, and harsh rhetoric were quite common features in the discourse of the early Reformation—on all sides of the debate. Sir Thomas More, for example, published a blistering critique of Luther’s teaching so full of scatological invective that key parts of More’s anti-Lutheran tract are unquotable. The English statesman called Luther many defamatory names, dismissing him as a liar, a “pestilential buffoon,” a pig, an ape, a dolt, “a piece of scurf,” and a “lousy little friar.” (Ironically, Thomas More has been canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, and he is highly venerated by many of the same critics who cite Luther’s own intemperate language as a way of discrediting the Reformer.)

Luther was of course influenced by some of the quirks and superstitions that infected the entire culture of sixteenth-century Europe. He and his contemporaries all stood with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot in the Enlightenment. The vernacular of that time was frequently earthy to the point of obscenity—even in supposedly genteel settings such as courtrooms, palaces, and ecclesiastical settings. Death was always imminent. Minds were rife with irrational fears.

Indeed, some of Luther’s most disturbing imperfections were rooted in a naive, lingering attachment to certain medieval superstitions. His obsession with the devil, his fear of sorcery, and his occasional gullibility regarding tales of monsters and magic all reflect a mind swayed by the folklore of that time.

Nevertheless, it would be grossly inaccurate to categorize Martin Luther as a slave to superstition. His opposition to the Roman Catholic system began when he rejected (and openly challenged) the Papal mythology regarding relics and indulgences. He especially objected to the Roman Church’s practice of preying on the foolish superstitions of common people. Any objective evaluation of Luther’s legacy must take all of that into account.

Luther himself was keenly aware that he was a fallen man with sinful proclivities. To his friend George Spalatin, he wrote, “I cannot deny that I am more vehement than I ought to be.” He acknowledged that his temper and the sharpness of his pen sometimes carried him “beyond the decorum of modesty.” But he was trying to walk a fine line. Luther firmly believed it was necessary for him to challenge the artificial refinement that squelched theological debate. He knew many men in positions of authority in the church who clearly saw and abhorred how corrupt the papacy had become, but they were too fainthearted to confront even the grossest ecclesiastical wrongdoing. In that same letter to Spalatin, Luther wrote, “I wonder where this new religion arose, in which anything said against an adversary is labeled abuse.”

Luther’s best-known intellectual adversary was Erasmus, the famous humanist, theologian, and Catholic priest. When someone complained to him about Luther’s harshness, the Catholic scholar replied, “God has sent in this latter age a severe physician because of the gravity of the existing ailments.”

Luther faced his own sins honestly. He sought (and found) grace and full forgiveness in Christ alone. No one ever seriously accused Luther of unchastity, dishonesty, greed, or any other manifestation of the wanton lasciviousness Scripture points to as the key identifying mark of false teachers (2 Peter 2:17-22). Impartial readers of the firsthand historical data will discover that Luther was a humble, generous, hospitable, respectable man of high principles, profound compassion, a tender conscience, unflinching truthfulness, and (above all) a passion for God. He was deeply beloved by those close to him, universally admired by his countrymen, and well respected (though perhaps reluctantly) even by many of his theological adversaries. Erasmus stated emphatically in a letter to Cardinal Wolsey that Luther’s personal life and conduct were above reproach.

Nevertheless, Luther’s more militant enemies have always emphasized and exaggerated his flaws. Some have even suggested that he may have suffered from some kind of mental illness. A simple reading of Luther’s life and writings should disabuse any fair-minded person of that notion. Unfortunately, like any oft-repeated lie, the long-term, systematic defamation of Luther’s character has attained the status of truth in the minds of many—especially those who can’t be bothered to investigate history for themselves and have no real clue what Luther was genuinely like.

Getting to know the real Martin Luther is not terribly difficult. Few men’s lives were more thoroughly documented than Martin Luther’s before the development of electronic recording technology. Practically everything he said was dutifully noted and logged in journals and notebooks by Luther’s regular dinner guests and students. Even offhand comments made in private conversations were taken down and collected. Those who made the notes originally intended them for their own private use. But two decades after Luther’s death, a large anthology of these notes was assembled from multiple sources, edited, and published in German under the title Tischreden, which translates as Table Talk in English. The work fills six volumes in the German Weimar edition.

Table Talk is a fascinating window into the mind and personality of Martin Luther. His wit, his keen insight, his boldness, and the strength of his convictions are clearly discernible. He is, as we would expect, passionate, opinionated, articulate, provocative, and zealous for the truth. Somewhat surprisingly, he is also jovial, engaging, well-versed in many subjects, and full of good-natured mischief. Unlike the younger Luther of the monastery, the Luther of Table Talk comes across as confident, mature, and secure in his faith. He was clearly a fascinating dinner host.

On the other hand, Table Talk is the source from which Luther’s most objectionable remarks and absurd opinions are generally drawn. It must be borne in mind that Luther himself had no hand in the publication of Table Talk. Different versions of the work were published by friends of Luther, and it is clear by comparing them that Luther’s sayings have been heavily paraphrased and embellished by those who compiled the collection. It is also clear that Luther himself never intended most of these comments to be published. Though he was always a deliberate provocateur, Luther the writer was much more guarded than Luther the dinner host.

But it’s not necessarily clear in the Table Talk entries when Luther is joking, purposely overstating his case, speaking satirically, playing devil’s advocate, or just trying to get a rise out of his dinner guests. Luther’s critics tend to read Table Talk through the same critical lens they use to appraise his more thoughtful publications. That is not fair to Luther. If our idle words were all recorded and subjected to the judgment of our adversaries, none of us would fare very well. We will one day give account for every careless thing we have said (Matthew 12:36). But we will answer to the just and merciful judge of all the earth, not to an unfair or hostile jury of worldlings.

Despite all the publicity given to his flaws, Luther’s indelible legacy will always be the example of his faith. His heroic courage, deep passion, steadfast integrity, infectious zeal, and all his other virtues are the fruit of his faith. This one man made an impact on the church and on the world that still influences all Bible-believing Christians today.

Luther would not have sought any honor for himself. By his own testimony, he owed everything to Christ. The story of his life confirms that testimony. Conversion utterly transformed Luther from an anxious, fainthearted monk into a paragon of confident, contagious faith. The more he faced opposition from Rome, the more his biblical convictions deepened. Everything positive in Luther’s life points back to his life-changing encounter with the righteousness of God and the glory of Christ in the gospel.

Of course, we can’t affirm all the distinctive doctrines Luther taught. Virtually no one follows Luther’s teaching slavishly today. In fact, some of my own disagreements with his teaching are profound. But on the core principle of gospel truth—namely, the doctrine of justification by faith—Luther was sound and biblical. More than that, he was instrumental in recovering that biblical precept after it had long lain buried under an avalanche of Roman dogmas and papal traditions. Moreover, Luther held firmly to the authority of Scripture, the work of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the promises of God. For his firm stance in defense of all those truths, he deserves our profound gratitude and respect.


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Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble. (Proverbs 21:23 ESV)


#1  Posted by Ellen Thurston  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 5:03 AM

I really respect Martin Luther, and the Lutheran church I attended was more spiritual than any other church I've been too. They held out the Bible so the children could see it and I saw the Holy Spirit. When someone really follows the Word of God above the everything else, you know he is truly a follower of Christ. Christ = kindness.

#2  Posted by rocco rubino  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Thank you for a balanced look at the life of Brother Luther. thank you, Dr. MacArthur.

#3  Posted by Jason Larose  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 7:29 AM

“I wonder where this new religion arose, in which anything said against an adversary is labeled abuse."

The more things change... This seems like something that could easily be said of today.

Makes me think we just don't notice the tendency that's always been there until we started discussing truths uncomfortable enough for people to get frustrated by them.

#4  Posted by Douglas Brinkman  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 7:49 AM

when i die, all i want people to remember of me is that i was faithful.

the rest of my personality, which is far from perfect (well, at least i share that with Luther!), is of secondary importance.

God does not demand that only perfect people believe in Him. He takes all sinners who are faithful. if that was not so, heaven would be a very lonely place.

#5  Posted by Dan Bruce  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 10:05 AM

My primary ministry involves sharing the Gospel of Jesus with Jews, so I look at Luther through the lens of the virulent anti-Semitism he espoused late in his life, and I'm afraid it always negatively colors my opinion of him. And, it usually prevents me from quoting him or referring to him in any way. However, as a Protestant Christian, I must honor his memory for his courageous act of standing against the eccelesastial-political system of his day. Breaking with the corrupted doctrines and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church that dominated the thought and actions of the masses in medieval Europe was a life-threatening action that has been equalled by few believers in the history of the church. As brave as his public action was, the internal struggle that he must have gone through to reach the point of challenging the system, well, I can hardly imagine how tortured his soul must have been at times. Luther confronted an "artificial refinement that squelched theological debate" back then, and unfortunately I see some of that same "refinement" among evangelicals today, especially when eschatology is involved. So many of our Bible-believing pastors and theologians in conservative circles are wedded to traditional prophetic interpretations, exposition that recent history has shown to be incorrect. Any appeal to re-examining our eschatological assumptions is squelched before it can begin. Hopefully that will change in coming years, but until it does we are consigned to propagating interpretive errors to the next generation, in some ways much like the RCC did pre-Luther.

#6  Posted by Cameron Buettel (GTY Admin)  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 11:03 AM

Dan #5, I'm thankful you commented because it gives me an opportunity to add some helpful context to the matter of what Luther wrote about the Jews. We shouldn't excuse what Luther wrote but we should try to better understand his reasons.

To put it briefly, Luther's problems with the Jews were theological and not biological. His animosity wasn't racially driven. And that's a very important distinction. Like you, he spent a considerable amount of time evangelizing Jewish people. In 1523 he wrote:

"I would request and advise that one deal gently with them [the Jews] and instruct them from Scripture; then some of them may come along. Instead of this we are trying only to drive them by force, slandering them, accusing them of having Christian blood if they don’t stink, and I know not whatever foolishness. So long as we thus treat them like dogs, how can we expect them to work any good among them? Again, when we forbid them to labor and do business and have any human fellowship with us, thereby forcing them into usury, how is that supposed to do them any good? If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either."

But Luther's evangelism was met with relentless rejection and plenty of vile blasphemy. It seems that Luther eventually cracked under the strain of it all and wrongly concluded that the blindness God had placed upon the Jewish people (Romans 11:25) was permanent based upon his own empirical evidence. He was also highly agitated by Jewish efforts to convert Christians. Thus twenty years later he wrote his seven measures of "sharp mercy" against the Jews.

As John stated in this article, Martin Luther had feet of clay. And he knew it and readily admitted to it. It has been reported that Luther responded to Thomas More's very personal attacks by agreeing that the terrible things said about his personal life were largely true. Luther didn't have an inflated view of himself. He knew he was a sinner saved by grace. It could even be said that he was too humble. Late in his life he argued that most of his writings should be burnt with the exception of Bondage of the Will and his Catechism.

Dan, my hope is that bringing these things to light would serve to soften your indignation and deepen your love for the flawed man God used to retrieve the glorious gospel that had been buried beneath the Roman Catholic system of works righteousness.

#7  Posted by Dan Bruce  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 12:51 PM

No indignation is intended. I do not judge Luther one way or the other, even about what he said about the Jews later in his life, and, as I said above, I appreciate his courageous stand for the Gospel that is revealed in the Scriptures. It's just that, in talking with Jewish people, I avoid any mention of Luther when explaining why the faith I am sharing with them is not the same as that taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Many Jews know very little about Christianity except what they have picked up through movies and television (usually a "gospel" with an RCC or liberal slant) and almost nothing about the true ministry of Jesus, but quite a few of them are familiar with Luther and the invective he aimed at Jews. It has had a very negative effect on the subsequent reformation movement in Europe over the centuries as regards their relationship with their Jewish neighbors. I can't ignore the part Luther's teachings have had in that disgraceful history.

#8  Posted by Douglas Brinkman  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 1:26 PM

it's common in today's society, as it appears it was common in Luther's times, to look for the faults of men, and then to use those faults to discredit whatever they were saying.

Luther showed that we are saved by grace alone, not by works, and that upset the entire working of the Roman church. so he was, and still is, accused of being anti-Jew. as though that charge had any bearing on his insight of the Gospel.

and today men of God are chased down with various spurious (and not so spurious in some cases) charges that they are sinners, and that is supposed to make us question the truth they have preached.

and it's carried further, when Christians point out the rightness or wrongness of something, society retorts back that we should be quiet, because we are sinners, and therefore in no position to proclaim what is right. and many do silence themselves.

if i tell you a truth (like if you don't believe in Christ then you are going to hell), and you don't like what i've just told you, your argument isn't with me, it's with God. i'm just telling you what God says.

this just shows that the battle is always the same, just the actors change. but the essence remains the same.

#9  Posted by Liz Offer  |  Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 3:20 PM

Luther's evangelizing the Jews, and his pamphlets is worth study of the pros and cons. It may help us in evangelizing the Muslims who are coming to America

#11  Posted by Frances M.  |  Thursday, January 12, 2017 at 1:58 AM

What a great analysis, so helpful! It is so encouraging to learn how. God can use us even as flawed believers. And so helpful to me to learn how to discern between flawed believers and false teachers who must be completely rejected in their teachings. I really struggle with this sometimes when confronted with flaws in a formerly respected bible teacher. Do I now reject everything they taught formerly or do I endeavour to sift through the wheat and chaff? What criteria do I use to decide?

I would love the same on Calvin as he is often vilified for his cruelty in Geneva. Should I now reject his teachings because of this? Was he a godly man or another false doctrine teacher. So confusing!

Thank you once again, Dr Mcarthur.

#13  Posted by Cameron Buettel (GTY Admin)  |  Thursday, January 12, 2017 at 9:34 AM

Frances #11, I'm not aware of any cruel tendencies with Calvin whether in Geneva or not. The execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva is often cited by people who don't like Calvin as "proof" of his supposed tyrannical behavior. But we shouldn't project modern views of capital punishment onto people who lived at the time of the Reformation (when capital punishment was widely accepted) and judge them by it. Moreover, Servetus was a well-known heretic who had been warned by Calvin to stop preaching his anti-Trinitarian heresies and also not to visit Geneva. Servetus ignored all the warnings and entered Geneva and persisted with his heresy and was subsequently arrested. Calvin was neither judge nor a prosecutor in his case. He was an expert witness in the subject of blasphemy and was consenting to Servetus' death penalty (which was the same position that gentler reformers like Melancthon also held). Calvin did however visit Servetus in prison, tried to evangelize him, and also pleaded for a less painful mode of capital punishment than burning at the stake. Calvin was hardly a proponent of cruelty.

Calvin is widely regarded as the great theologian of the Reformation. You will benefit immensely from reading his many commentaries and most famous literary work: The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

#12  Posted by bill proud  |  Thursday, January 12, 2017 at 8:11 AM

Every generation is the same. Ambitious men build churches and become self-righteous. God then sends them a prophet, who outwardly seems crass or poor or just a plain nobody and which they reject. The Bible is pretty clear on this point. The disciples were poor and illiterate as was Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Paul. Every prophet God sent the religious leaders was a nobody. They don't want to hear what he says because they are now holy and he is just a complainer. They are just looking for sycophants as evidenced by their Proverbs warning at the bottom of this page.

There are none righteous, certainly not Luther. But God used him for his purpose, as He always does and always will use anyone He wants to make His point.

Ellen. How is your Lutheran church more spiritual by holding out a Bible? Jesus said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside you are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."

#14  Posted by Douglas Brinkman  |  Thursday, January 12, 2017 at 9:52 AM

excellent point.

Acts 4:13 ¶ Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.

not a new thing. if you haven't attended the proper schools, and earned the proper degrees from attending the correct classes, then you are rarely permitted to speak in public. this internet thing allows those who do not hold the proper credentials an opportunity to express views that the 'experts' do not agree with and do not want to hear in their closed offices. but it also requires those who speak to know what they are saying and to be able to back it up with proper reference to the Bible.

i am always amazed at the wide variety of people in the Bible who God has used. old/young, learned and unlearned, rich/poor, men and women. and even after the Bible was done being written, that same variety has continued to this day.

Luther just wanted to 'fix' things, and next thing he knew, he had started a new to that time religion that re-captured the original intent of Scripture. he didn't have the highest office, he didn't have a grand 10 year plan with milestones along the way. he just wanted what was right.

#16  Posted by john lamb  |  Friday, January 13, 2017 at 7:05 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed the blog on martin luther jl

#17  Posted by Sharon Weems  |  Saturday, January 14, 2017 at 7:55 AM

Thank you for this great insight. All of us, men and women alike, have to fight against these two parts of our nature. I love Martin Luther and all the saints before and after him who died that we might have this beautiful truth of "saved by grace". I hate what the Catholic church and Islam teach and many other false religions do to destroy this truth.