Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom 

(Crossway, 2015) by Carl. R. Trueman
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Luther on the Christian Life is an eye-opening view of the life and theology of the Father of the Protestant Reformation and German Augustinian friar Martin Luther. The author Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian and therefore not a Lutheran, claims Martin Luther for the whole church of Jesus Christ and presents here a solid piece of scholarship yet accessible to and readable by contemporary readers.

Luther on the Christian Life right from the introduction acknowledges the immense debt that Western Christianity owes to the German Reformer while considering the problems that readers of Luther confront in contemporary society. First, dramatic sound bites are tirelessly, relentlessly and frequently echoed in phrases such as ‘theologian of glory,’ theologian of the cross,’ and justification by grace through faith alone,’ ‘the hidden God and the revealed God,’ ‘the bondage of the will,’ and ‘the epistle of straw.’ These are powerful, theologically-rich and worthy of broader discussion and debate for some while for others a cause for joy and celebration. The problem is that familiarity with these phrases does not mean understanding them. There is “evangelical propensity to reinvent heroes of the past as modern-day evangelicals … Luther was not a modern American evangelical … Luther and his world are deeply alien to the sensibilities of modern evangelicalism” (p. 22-23). Second, there is the common claim that Luther “was not a systematic thinker” (p. 23), a claim based on the fact that he did not write a systematic theology.   The issue here is that people who like to quote Luther need to consider the greater and overall context of his theology to make justice to what Luther intended or meant to say. Third, there is a critical need to acknowledge the differences between the early/younger Luther and the late/older Luther (post-1525). Not having so can lead the modern reader to ignore or miss the impact and significance of events particularly upon the preservation of the gospel for future generations. We as modern readers must make an effort to pay attention to these three problems lest we fall in the trap of owning the familiar evangelical mythology of a Luther who by all standards would look upon some of our core beliefs and practices as alien and at best unrecognizable.

Luther on the Christian Life is a fascinating and commendable account of the German Reformer for the author’s approach. We are reminded here that Luther was no mere theologian who entertain abstract ideas but a man who “lived a dramatic Christian life” (p. 26). The author informs us that “Luther was a man of real flesh and blood; he was a son, a priest, a pastor, a preacher, a politician, a controversialist, a depressive, a man who was to stand more than once at the grave of one of his beloved children. He baptized babies, performed marriages, heard confessions and presided at funerals. All of these things shaped his theology. Indeed, he wrote theology from the position of being immersed in the mucky reality of everyday life” (p. 26).

Luther on the Christian Life at the outset makes clear that it does not intend to neither “interact extensively with the vast and ever-growing scholarship on Luther” (p. 26) nor “offer significant critique of Luther” (p. 26). These caveats are enormously appreciate. In addition, one can quickly admire the author for opening himself as to the reasons why he considers the German Reformer a formidable conversation partner and “a worthy subject of personal study” (p. 28). Luther on the Christian Life consists of eight chapters. Here is a brief word on each chapter.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 1 invites us to a closer look at Luther’s life. After providing a brief narrative of Luther’s early life, we are informed of his existential and theological struggles. “How could he, knowing how sinful he was, possibly stand in such proximity to a holy and righteous God?” (p. 33) Luther was a pastor and professor of theology. His exegetical work on Psalms and Romans altered his theology. The transformed Luther denounced the abused of indulgences. The Heidelberg Disputation and the Leipzig Debate were foundational to his theological thinking and had an impact beyond the intended aim (merely academic). In the year 1520 Luther penned his famous three great treatises: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; The Freedom of the Christian Man; and An Appeal to the German Nobility. Luther on the Christian Life shortly cites the events leading to the Diet Worms and his excommunication, his clash with Erasmus (from which Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, his marriage to Katherine von Bora and his call to the nobles to suppress the Peasant’s War. Luther’s conflict with Huldrych Zwingli is also describe for it is foundational to Luther’s theology. Luther on the Christian Life chapter 1 concludes by noting Luther’s later years and events that tarnished his reputation.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 2 expose us to Luther’s most foundational theological concepts. The Heidelberg Disputation underscores Luther’s denouncing of the influence of Aristotelianism on Christian theology. Part of the theses associated with this disputation underscore Luther’s definitions of the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. This glory-cross antithesis would lead Luther to redefine love, particularly making a distinction between human and divine love. Other theological concepts explain here include: justification by grace through faith and its particular Luther’s understanding in terms of simul justus et peccator “simultaneously righteous and sinner” (p. 71); Luther’s division of Christ’s office as mediator as priest and king and its resulting provocative statement in The Freedom of the Christian Man which states: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (p. 72) and his advocacy for the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ a concept that would directly strike at medieval piety.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 3 reveals to us Luther’s appreciation for God’s Word preached. It is in the Word that we find the incarnate and crucified Christ today. It is in the corporate context of the church that we find the Word preached.   Contrary to popular appeals who present Luther and his 95 theses as a clean break from the Middle Ages, scholars have documented the positive continuity between late medieval theology and Luther’s Reformation thought (e.g. the absolute and the ordained power of God and the nature and function of words as determining reality). So when God speaks, that speech creates reality. The Word of God is creative. The content of preaching is Law and Gospel. The preacher’s task is “destroy self-righteousness and point hearers toward the alien, external righteousness of Christ” (p. 92). Luther’s preaching reminds us that we are not unique in terms of our status before God. “There are only two ways to approach God: by law or by gospel” (p. 96). There are also only two ways a person cab before God: “a person is under wrath or under grace” (p. 96).

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 4 explain to us that Luther defined and characterized the Christian life as liturgical. The Word of God was silenced consequently leading to the intrusion of fables and nonsensical hymns and the worship was presented as something offered to God. Luther pursued a reform of the medieval liturgical tradition. This primarily included formal catechisms and catechizing. Luther’s understanding of the Christian life underscored that we do not need “something more than the Bible” (p. 113). What we need is the Word of God. Luther’s model of Christian education for pastors should focus on the “preaching and teaching on the basics of the Christian life because such truths are in a sense the whole of the Christian life. Church should intentionally shape their liturgies to reflect their theological convictions” (p. 114). The calling of the church is to teach about God by the doctrines as laid out in the doctrines in the catechism. The theology of the cross ought to determine the Christian life and what the church ought to teach and preach.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 5 shows us how Luther’s view of how God’s Word works in the lives of individuals. “The Word addresses us at the core of our being; learning it is never a purely cerebral or rote exercise. It grips our souls, drives us to despair and lifts us up to the very portals of heaven” (p. 28). Luther finds in David the paradigmatic experience in the Christian (oratio, meditation, and tentatio in Latin). The latter of this (also called Anfechtungen) represents a “peculiar existential struggle, a kind of seesaw between despair and hope” (p. 123). It is here where Luther breaks with medieval piety. This notion includes the role of the devil whose task is to cultivate despair and whose main strategy is to create confusion between law and gospel.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 6 take us on a journey towards Luther’s understanding of the sacraments. Luther’s high view of baptism, its meaning and efficacy would have been alien to most evangelicals today. Baptism has an objective reality. God is the agent in baptism. For Luther, the Mass was central for “it makes Christ and his promise more real, more present, to the Christian” (p. 150). Luther maintained the real presence of Christian in the elements. The Mass had a pastoral function and was a pastoral tool in Luther’s day where life expectancy was shortened. The Mass helped the Christian who feared death to fix his gaze upon God. Luther’s sacramentalism points to the power of the gospel and to the corporate nature of the church.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 7 challenge us to consider how Luther treats intrinsic righteousness. The central question here is what is the place of sanctification in Luther’s theology? After situating Luther’s theological contexts and times, one who “very confident of the Reformation outcome and very confident that the simple preaching of the Word could do it all” (p. 162). Luther’s position on righteousness derives from his 1519 sermon “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” Alien righteousness is the one that the believer received from Christ (imputed upon the believer) and proper righteousness “involves the slaying of the flesh and the crucifying of wicked desires, coupled with the performance of good works for our neighbors” (p. 162-163). These two righteousness are rooted in Christology. Luther deals with the problematic assumptions that alien righteousness would lead to proper righteousness and to an ethic of love. Luther’s Parish visitations in 1527 and controversies with Johannes Agricola of Eisleben on the role of the law and its explicit teachings from the catechisms helped the German Reformers dealt with the rising antinomian and Christian love. We are reminded here that Luther’s theology was a work in progress when trying to grasp a deeper understanding of the role of personal holiness something usually undermined because of the Luther’s unilateral emphasis on grace.

Luther on the Christian Life chapter 8 presents us with Luther’s revolutionary vision and thinking on real life. Luther’s theology revolutionized thinking in the public sphere, earthly callings, marriage and family. Luther denounced the captivity of the institutional church which made a hierarchical distinction between the sacred and the secular. For Luther, “all Christians are priests” (p. 178). Luther “parallels the ministry with the calling of the secular magistrate and offers a point of clear distinction with significant implications: as the minister’s tools are Word and sacrament, so the secular magistrate’s tools are rod and sword” (p. 179). Herein lies Luther’s idea of the two kingdoms. There is the spiritual and secular spheres. Luther insisted that “all earthly callings become legitimately spiritual when done in faith” (p. 179). In addition to the civil magistrate, Luther also viewed marriage as that paradigmatic and pedagogical, analogically illustrated in the Bible by Christ and the Church (His bride), that far transcends any earthly calling. Luther loved children and often spoke of the catechetical faith that a believer needs as a little child is in need of instruction and as trust, humility and attitude that one must have before God.

Luther on the Christian Life concludes with a reflection by the author. “Luther’s great stress upon the priority and objectivity of God’s revelation” (p. 196) is the first lesson that has captivated the author of Luther on the Christian Life. The author was also impressed by Luther’s emphasis on existential struggles and by his sense of humor. This is an insight for Protestant theologians have not often been known for their laughter. Luther knew life as tragedy yet the foolishness of God exposes life as comedy.

Reading Luther on the Christian Life has enriched my life. I say this for three reasons. First, Luther on the Christian Life is an eye-opening text for the Father of the Protestant Reformation that will push you to go the primary sources. Second, the one thing that makes Luther on the Christian Life intriguing and irresistible that while we come to understand and appreciate how some of our beliefs and practices may be alien (and I am deeply appreciative of Trueman’s emphasis on context – when none of the traditional accusations are glossed over – although it may not sufficient given the purposes of this book) we are at the same time welcomed to see the man as he really was, a man who struggled existentially, a family man, a teacher, a leader etc. a view of his multifaceted role, one whom the public does not associate or relate well when they hear of theologians. Third and final, I want to commend this work because it is accessible to church leaders and lay people. One of the things that I always have in mind when reading books is my people, the people in church. Can they read it? Yeah, I know. There are many today calling for the renewal of the church. And I applaud that. I celebrate that. However, their writings are often directed at their own peers (nothing wrong with that with me as I am a theology fan and reader). Nonetheless, people in our pews and in our aggressively post-Christian context need to be introduced to the theological giants in a language and vocabulary that they can understand, relate to and appreciate so that they ultimately love the gospel and give glory to God and Luther on the Christian Life helps greatly in that endeavor.


The author David