Luther’s Untamed Tongue: The Man, the Mistakes, & the Mission
Without question, my favorite quote in LUTHER: The Life and Legacy of the German Monk is by W. Robert Godfrey captured in the clip above:
As we venture into another aspect of this historical man’s life, it is absolutely critical to understand Martin Luther’s utter hatred for anything that would hinder the truth of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone and how he rightly recognized that any type of works righteousness was (and still is) Satan’s calling card.
A Man with Vices
Most often, people have a certain quality, characteristic, or gifting that serves as their greatest asset, yet simultaneously can be their greatest vice. Martin Luther was no exception. The Lord gifted him with a unique boldness, a fiery zeal, a passionate anger, a skillful tongue, and a sharp mind. He used all of those things to further the kingdom of God on this planet during his life. His giftings were undeniably used to demolish strongholds of works righteousness in the culture around him and to spread the gospel throughout the entire world for the next five hundred years. His passion for the doctrine of grace is arguably unmatched among men. And Jesus’ name was glorified in and through Martin Luther.
However, as mentioned, a certain character quality can be both the best and worst thing about us. Admittedly, the word worst is both strong and harsh, but Martin Luther’s tongue remains to this day the biggest criticism and question mark surrounding his life and faith. Since he is currently in the presence of his Savior, he is not among us today to dispute or defend his writings, nor can he repent, recant, or restate his views. So, we can only do our best to evaluate and interpret this man in complete context of his life, culture, and of course, his sinfulness.
An Angry Man
Martin Luther himself said that his angry fervor was his most valued commodity promoting his prayer, preaching, and pen in the most significant and beneficial ways. Although as the saying goes, “hindsight is always 20-20,” even if the hindsight belongs to those of us looking back on Luther’s life and ministry. His anger toward any kind of works righteousness coupled at times with an ungodly, unbridled tongue led to many a questionable teaching or writing. Luther was characteristically and unapologetically ungracious toward his opponents.
Luther’s condemnation of the Pope was ruthless and dogmatic because he honestly believed that the Pope was the antichrist. This was not metaphorical for Luther--this was reality. His accusations and rhetoric surrounding the Roman Church were consistent with the New Testament’s words against the antichrist, false teachers, and false religions. He pulled no punches and offered no amount of grace. This however is more acceptable than his other more widely criticized teachings about Jews.
An Anti-Semitic Man?
One of the most common accusations against Martin Luther is that he hated Jewish people. This is based on his writings later in life in which there is highly offensive, disturbing, and wince-inducing rhetoric, where he calls for the destruction of all things Jewish. The criticism is absolutely understandable based on Luther’s own words. In fact, it is most despicable to know that the teachings of Luther, a servant of Jesus Christ, was used to aid, justify, and support Nazi Germany’s efforts toward the extinction of the Jews. It’s unquestionably reprehensible.
However, this passage needs to be understood in light of Martin Luther’s theo-centric mind: he was not condemning based on race, but rather based on theology. Judaism was (and is) based solely on keeping the tenets of God’s law, thus depending on one’s own righteousness and not Christ’s. All of the destruction for which he called was of their law-based teaching, not of their person, being, or ethnicity.
This is instead a clear instance of Martin Luther’s righteous and passionate anger against works righteousness that opposed the gospel of grace. It’s seen most clearly when we view his writings in totality (and over a number of years). Luther had a clear understanding of eschatology (end time events as described in Scripture) and his role in it. He knew that pre-cursors to Jesus’ second coming were: (1) the spread of the gospel around the world and (2) the conversion of the Jewish people. Thus beginning in 1523 and for many years thereafter, Luther unashamedly exhorted his fellow Christians to embrace their Jewish neighbors in friendship and community, for the expressed purpose of sharing Christ and his gospel with them. He elevated Jews in a time (the 16th century) when their race was viewed explicitly as second class. Luther used his influence and worked hard for the equality and acceptance of Jews in Germany.
Additionally, it is believed that the supposed anti-semitic writing was penned only after Luther came to understand that many Christians were being encouraged to Judaize their faith by following the Old Testament law. Luther believed that this robbed the Christian of his/her freedom that is promised in Christ. His anger, although justified in context, has now been misunderstood for centuries.
A Forgiven Man
The undeniable fact is that Martin Luther was a man, fallen and sinful, but he was incomparably used by God five hundred years ago to change the course of Christendom forever. By understanding his sins, his errors, and his refusal to submit to sanctification in certain areas of his life, we are pointed back to the gracious and glorious God whom he served. Martin Luther is not our ultimate hero, Jesus Christ who died for him--and for us--is the Hero in this story--and in every story!
Martin Luther perhaps understood this better than anyone as he wrote,
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Courtney Cherest currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. and serves as the Communications Director at a local church in the area. She earned her bachelor's degree in biblical studies in 2003.
By God's grace, Courtney has been able to work in communications and leadership with incredible ministries and organizations across the country.