What to Do With Martin Luther: Holding the German Reformer in Tension

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I have no idea what to do with Martin Luther.

That was my first thought when Stephen McCaskell pitched me on the idea of writing the follow-up to Through The Eyes of Spurgeon. Now, don’t get me wrong: Luther fascinates me. But he frustrates me, too.

What could I do with him? One thing: tell the truth.

The Two Sides of Martin Luther

Luther cannot be considered mild-tempered. Nor could you call him moderate in his positions. He was, for lack of a better term, an extremist. As a monk, he fully investing himself in the monastic life, but it failed to provide him the peace he desperately sought. As a reformer, he invested himself in proclaiming the gospel and the centrality of justification by faith alone. His soul found rest, but his life was marked with conflict until the end of his days.

This part of him, I understand. He was committed to his cause. He was pursuing his God with all his might. He saw prayer as the most important activity of each day—and actually prayed like it! He never saw himself as having advanced beyond the need to know the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Despite his busy schedule, he was a loving husband and father. He believed Christians should be able to understand the Word of God for themselves, in their native languages. He saw in Paul’s writing the truth that our justification comes not through a mystical blending of faith and works, but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. He emphasized the priesthood of all believers, helped rescue runaway nuns from the monastic life, and even toyed with the concept of congregationalism. I am so grateful for Martin Luther’s example in these areas and more besides.

But as grateful as I am for him, there is much about him that troubles me. He was belligerent and prone to anger (though not without cause in many instances). He was often quite divisive, particularly when he, as Carl Trueman said during his interview for LUTHER, he caught hold of “the wrong end of the argument”.

 
 
And yet, this is the truth. The man God used to change the world was just that—a man. And we need to embrace that.

Then there are his later writings on the Jewish people, which are shocking to modern ears as he advocates the burning of their homes, schools, and synagogues. There are also some of his more peculiar writings on marriage, which included initially viewing marriage as a remedy for sin only, and others which have been used to justify polygamy. The deeper you go, the more certain aspects of Luther’s personality and teaching will make you uneasy.

Holding Luther in Tension

It’s tempting to ignore the more unsavory aspects of Luther, the man. To focus only on the great Reformer and all the powerful ways God used him, and offer (at most) a quick but ultimately dismissive acknowledgement of unpleasant things he said and did. To gloss over the inconvenient truths. At the same time, there’s the opposite temptation: to vilify the man and only focus on the horrible or embarrassing moments. We want to see him either as a hero or heretic. As brilliant or a buffoon. But to present either is to present a fictional Luther; a caricature that bears a passing resemblance but is, ultimately, empty.

The truth is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

That’s what I realized as I waded through a sea of biographies, articles and essays, trying to make sense of this man. For me to honor Luther, to tell his story honestly, I needed to embrace this tension. To strip away all the mystique we’ve built up around him, and get to the heart of Luther as he really was: a normal, frail, fallen, sinful human being who was used extraordinarily by a gracious God.

That sounds strange, doesn’t it? To say that Luther, this giant in the history of the world, was a normal man in as much need of grace, and forgiveness, as you and I are. A man who, undoubtedly, entered into his Master’s rest, and was shocked by what he got wrong, just as you and I will be. It seems absurd, if not bordering on blasphemous.

And yet, this is the truth. The man God used to change the world was just that—a man. And we need to embrace that. If we want to honor Martin Luther, we need to not recast him as a modern North American evangelical. We need to go past the legendary (but contested) words, “Here I stand,” and meet a 16th century German Augustinian Monk with a tender conscience. One so deeply assailed by guilt and shame that he confessed even the tiniest of infractions until his confessors demanded he leave until he’d done something worth confessing! One who would wrestle with the Word of God until it beat him into submission at every turn. Who would pen awe-inspiring hymns and sermons, and abhorrent insults. Who would fight back against the condemnation of the devil, admitting that he deserved death and hell, but, “I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

This is Martin Luther. And this is the Luther we want you to meet because it is the Martin Luther we discovered as we made this film. And, by God’s grace, this is the Martin Luther you and I will be spending eternity alongside as we worship before the throne—a man who was loved and redeemed by Christ.


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Aaron Armstrong

Aaron Armstrong is an author, blogger, speaker and Brand Manager for the Gospel Project. Additionally, Aaron Armstrong served as the writer of screenplay for LUTHER.