Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom


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Offering readers an accessible portrait of Martin Luther’s life and theology, this book explores the impact of his cross-centered theology on living the Christian life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433525025
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 02/28/2015
Series: Theologians on the Christian Life
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 816,757
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Carl R. Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series and also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worlds—hosted by the Gospel Coalition.

Read an Excerpt



The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.


Martin Luther, the man who should perhaps shoulder the greatest responsibility for rupturing the Western church in the Reformation, came from a relatively humble background that gave no hint of the controversial stature he would later achieve. He was born on November 10, 1483, to Hans and Margaret Luther in the town of Eisleben. Ironically, while this town played little role in Luther's life as a whole, he was to die there in 1546, shortly after preaching his last sermon in the local church.

Hans Luther was a son of the soil, but in accordance with medieval inheritance laws, he did not inherit the family farm. Instead, as the oldest son, he was expected to make his own way in the world. This he did, first as a miner and then as a mine manager. The need for work meant that the Luther family had to leave Eisleben for Mansfeld just a few weeks after Martin's birth, but Hans ultimately did well and rose to the level of his managerial position.

Like many parents who have worked hard and enjoyed social mobility, Hans Luther had greater hopes for his son. Thus, he decided that the young Martin would not have to work at the physically hard labor that had marked his own early life but would go to university to study for a career in law. And so it was in 1501 that Martin left home and matriculated at the University of Erfurt.

Studies at the university were typical of late medieval institutions. Law was one of the three higher faculties, along with medicine and theology, and in order to qualify to study it, the student first had to pass through the general arts curriculum, which Luther did. Thus, he was typical of his age in pursuing an unexceptional education. This ordinary start, however, was to be dramatically disrupted.

It was in 1505, while returning to the university after a visit to his parents, that Luther found himself in a situation which changed his life forever. Caught in a thunderstorm, he was almost killed when a bolt of lightning came crashing down at his side. Today, we regard such things as natural phenomena, the result of massive ionic imbalances in the atmosphere created by the collision of ice crystals at high altitude; in Luther's day, such things were supernatural acts of God, intimations of divine judgment. Consequently, as the lightning bolt earthed beside him, Luther threw himself to the ground and screamed, "St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk!" St. Anne being the patron saint of miners, it was quite probably instinctive for Luther to call upon the saint who was presumably central to the piety of the household in which he had grown up.

All the evidence suggests that Luther was rather earnest and an intense young man. Such a vow to God, even when made in panic at what he must have thought could be his moment of death, was to him a very serious matter, and within a few days he presented himself at the door of the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt.

The choice of the Augustinian Order might at first appear to be significant. As it bears the name of the great Bishop Augustine of Hippo, the great opponent of Pelagius, might not Luther have chosen this order because of its view of God's grace? This is unlikely. The name was certainly taken from Augustine, but the order itself was not particularly committed to an especially pristine Augustinianism. In fact, as all medieval theology was to some extent a dialogue with Augustine, one might say that all medieval theology could be categorized as broadly Augustinian.

Luther's decision to abandon a potentially lucrative career in law and pursue a monastic vocation proved extremely upsetting to Hans, and the relationship between father and son was badly disrupted for some years. In modern Luther studies this has led the psychoanalyst and writer Erik Erikson to argue that Luther's theological struggles were really a projection of his dispute with his father onto God. Thus, Luther ostensibly sought to be right with God when, in reality, he was seeking to be right with his earthly father.

Evangelical Christians have tended to dismiss Erikson's thesis as speculative and reductionist. In fact, while it is undoubtedly reductionist to make Luther's theology merely a cipher for his personal anxieties about his family, it is surely also true that the relationship between a father and a son is both complex and important. Thus, it stands to reason that Hans's disapproval of his son's move to the cloister impacted Luther's life in significant ways.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the father-son drama came as a result of another decision Luther made: to become a priest. Monks were members of religious orders but were not necessarily ordained to the priesthood and thus would not have the sacramental duties and pastoral responsibilities of the parish priest. Luther, however, was ordained as priest in 1507 and officiated at his first Mass. The moment was one of high drama for him: not only was his father present, but Luther was also aware that as a priest he was in effect making, touching, and holding the real body and blood of Christ in the bread and the cup. The question that burned Luther's soul for many years became acute at this point: how could he, knowing how sinful he was, possibly stand in such proximity to a holy and righteous God?

Later Protestants have often forgotten that Luther's existential struggles with God's righteousness cannot be separated from his sacramental theology. The Mass left a lasting impression on his soul, not only on the grounds that he was making God but also because he later came to see the medieval view of it as the centerpiece of a works righteousness that served only to fool individuals into thinking they were doing good works. It was never transubstantiation that he found so obnoxious in the medieval sacrament; it was the implication of sacrifice, of offering something to God, that was so disturbing to him.

In 1508, Luther was transferred from Erfurt to the relatively new University of Wittenberg. Founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, this was to be Luther's home, with brief exceptions, for the rest of his days. Later in Luther's story, this university had two particular points of significance. First, it was a new foundation and, as such, its founder was eager for it to make its name. When Luther became infamous in 1517 and beyond, it is thus not so surprising that Frederick would exert his influence to protect his controversial professor. Then, as now, there was a sense that all publicity could at least be made into good publicity, if the time was right.

The other significant factor was the location of the institution in Electoral Saxony. While the Holy Roman Empire had been founded by Charlemagne in 800, it had undergone considerable political development in the Middle Ages. Under the Golden Bull of 1356, it was established that the emperor should be appointed by a vote of a college of seven electors, among whom was numbered the prince of Saxony. Thus, when Luther moved to Wittenberg in 1508, he came under the authority — and, crucially, the protection — of an imperial elector. This position effectively gave Frederick the Wise political power and influence beyond what the economic and military strength of his territory might have suggested. As history played out, it also meant that Luther was far safer there than he might have been elsewhere.

For the rest of his life, Luther would have the dual role of professor of theology and pastor. As professor, he followed the standard career path of a late medieval theologian, lecturing on Peter Lombard's Four Books of Sentences and then on large sections of Scripture. It is the ignorance and snobbery of modern Protestantism which derides the Middle Ages for a failure to engage with the text of Scripture. While it is true that the text of choice — indeed, for most, the only accessible text — was the Latin Vulgate, the average medieval professor was expected to have exegeted his way through more Scripture before he was deemed remotely competent as a theologian than any seminary professor in North America today.

The years 1510–1511 saw Luther traveling to Rome on business for the Augustinian Order. As for many before and since, his visit to the Eternal City was a profoundly moving and conflicted experience. In addition to its obvious historical and theological significance, he was impressed by the opportunities for piety that the city represented, with its multitude of relics and religious artifacts. Nevertheless, he also witnessed firsthand the corruption that coexisted amid the piety. The images of excess that the papal court presented to him would shape his later opinions of the papacy and, indeed, fuel the kind of rhetoric he was happy to deploy against it.

Back in the classroom, Luther continued to exegete his way through books of Scripture, particularly the Psalms and Romans. This routine work was to have a major impact upon his theology, as it led to two significant changes in his thinking between 1512 and 1517. First, he changed his mind on the nature of sin and baptism. He had been taught that sin was a fomes, akin to a piece of tinder. The implication was that sin was a weakness that needed to be dealt with via the sacraments. One might say that such an understanding of sin meant baptism was understood as a kind of damping down of the problem or a temporary fix. Once sin reared its ugly head within the life of the subject after baptism, then there was need for further moral triage in the form of the other sacraments. Luther, however, became convinced that sin meant that human beings were morally dead. We will explore this in more detail in the later chapters, but the key point to note here is that this change in thinking came about through his wrestling with the teaching of the Psalms and with Paul. These labors in exegesis intensified his understanding of the seriousness of sin: no longer were sinners highly defective; they were dead. Sin is a root problem. It defines human beings before God in a profound and radical manner. And that has all manner of implications for how fallen humanity and salvation are to be understood.

One immediate implication is that one's understanding of baptism needs to be changed: baptism can no longer be simply a damping down of sinful weakness and tendencies. If the sinner is dead, then he needs more than cleaning or even healing; he needs to be resurrected. Luther thus moved from seeing baptism as primarily indicating a washing or a cleansing to signifying death and resurrection.

This points to the second change that this alteration on baptism and sin required: a critical reevaluation of the way of salvation Luther had learned at the hands of his medieval teachers. Luther was schooled in what later scholars have come to term the via moderna, or "modern way." This tradition of theology is closely associated with later medieval theologians such as William of Occam (1288–1347) and Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–1495). The latter was particularly important to Luther as he would have had to study and lecture upon Biel's seminal text The Canon of the Mass (1488). Basically, Biel understood God as being utterly transcendent and sovereign, able to do anything he chose with the exception of logically contradicting himself. So, for example, he could make a world where human beings have four legs, but he could not make a world where triangles have four sides. This is what medieval theologians typically referred to as God's absolute power.

Yet the world is stable, contains a finite number of objects, and thus witnesses to the fact that God's absolute power is not fully realized. Thus, medieval theologians posited that God also has an ordained power, a finite set of possibilities that God has actually chosen to realize. Biel applied this to the realm of salvation: God can demand perfection from human beings prior to giving them grace but, in fact, has condescended via means of a pactum (or covenant) to give grace to "the one who does what is in oneself," a literal translation of the first part of the Latin phrase, facienti quod in se est, Deus gratiam non denegat.

This concept seems at first to be very useful. In answer to Luther's question, How can I be right before a righteous God? one might respond, "Do what is in you," that is, do your best. We should also note that the underlying understanding of what makes a human being right before God is shifted in this system from being an intrinsic quality in the Christian (actual, intrinsic righteousness) to the external declaration of God: I am right with God not because my works are, in and of themselves, worthy of his favor but because he has decided to consider them so. That concept was to have a profound influence on Luther and to provide the foundation for his later Protestant understanding of justification.

The pastoral problem generated by this pactum idea, of course, is that knowing how and when one has done one's best then becomes a highly subjective matter and, in the experience of Luther in the cloister, an increasingly terrifying one: the more Luther exerted himself in good works, the more he became certain that he had fallen catastrophically short of meeting the minimum condition of the pactum. This situation became much worse, of course, when Luther came to identify sin as death. How can a dead person do his or her best? This led to perhaps the most significant move in Luther's thinking, which is detectable in his lectures on Romans during 1515–1516: Luther came to identify the condition of the pactum as being humility, utter despair in oneself as a condition for throwing oneself entirely and without reserve upon God's mercy. This crucial insight paved the way for his later understanding of the necessary condition as faith, trust in God, a concept very closely related to this earlier understanding of humility.

The Indulgence Controversy

While Luther was undergoing this theological transformation, events in the wider European scene were conspiring to bring him to a much wider audience than might fit into the lecture hall at the University of Wittenberg or the parish church. Pope Leo X (1475–1521) was presiding over a Roman church that had exhausted its finances in wars and later in the massive building project of St. Peter's and the Vatican. Then, in the German lands to the north, an ambitious cleric, Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490–1545), was looking to add a third bishopric to his tally. Bishoprics brought revenue and were thus desirable; but the canon law of the church prevented anyone from holding three simultaneously without a license from the pope. Thus, there was a happy confluence of interest at this point between the financial needs of the papacy and the ecclesiastical aspirations of Albrecht. In short, the pope granted Albrecht permission to take the third bishopric, and Albrecht paid the pope a handsome sum for the privilege. To finance the deal, Albrecht borrowed a significant sum of money from the Fuggers bank, and the pope allowed Albrecht to raise an indulgence, half of the proceeds of which could be used to pay down the loan, and half of which would go straight into the papal coffers.

Indulgences were certificates sold by the church, and they guaranteed the purchaser, or the designated beneficiary, relief from a stipulated period of time in purgatory. In medieval Catholic eschatology, when people died, they went to hell, to heaven, or more likely, to purgatory, a place where the godly might be purged of their remaining impurities before being translated into paradise. The concept of purgatory found its origin in the Apocrypha and was present in the work of numerous early church fathers, including Augustine. In the early church, however, the doctrine had functioned merely as part of individual eschatology; by the late Middle Ages it had been connected to the penitential system of the church. Two papal bulls in particular are of relevance to this: Unigenitus (1343) and Salvator Noster (1476). The former established the dogma of the treasury of merits, consisting of the merits of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and all the great saints of the church, which could be distributed by the pope. The latter connected the treasury of merits to financial gifts to the church, such that those giving such money might enjoy eschatological benefit in the form of reduced time in purgatory. Thus, the dogmatic foundation of indulgences was established.

The sale of Albrecht's indulgence was entrusted to a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). He was a profane man but a brilliant salesman, using jingles (according to Luther's Ninety-Five Theses) such as the gem "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs," and asserting that even if one had raped the Virgin Mary, one of his indulgences would be sufficient to cover the sin.


Excerpted from "Luther on the Christian Life"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Carl R. Trueman.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Preface 11

Foreword Robert Kolb 13

Preface 15

Abbreviations 17

Introduction: What Has Geneva to Do with Wittenberg? 21

1 Martin Luther's Christian Life 31

2 Theologians, Priests, and Kings 57

3 The Theology of the Word Preached 79

4 The Liturgy of the Christian Life 99

5 Living by the Word 117

6 Freed from Babylon: Baptism and the Mass 137

7 Luther and Christian Righteousness 159

8 Life and Death in This Earthly Realm: Government, Calling, and Family 175

Conclusion: Life as Tragedy, Life as Comedy 195

Afterword Martin E. Marty 201

General Index 205

Scripture Index 213

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“If you think you know Luther, read this book. It is a remarkably edifying and illuminating piece of work. Displaying the interests of a pastor and the rigor of a historian, Carl Trueman provides us with an analysis of Luther on the Christian life that is as ‘human’ as the German Reformer himself. Yet it’s far more than Luther on the Christian life. It’s one of the very best summaries of Luther in context.”
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California

“Carl Trueman has pulled off a tremendous feat: he’s not only given us a volume that is scholarly and historically nuanced while still accessible and refreshingly contemporary; he’s also managed to capture the brilliance and boldness of Martin Luther in a relatively short space. Trueman is to be commended for presenting a Luther who is unlike us in so many ways, and yet a Luther from whom we can learn so much.”
Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor,Christ Covenant Church, Matthews, North Carolina

“This book illustrates again why Martin Luther remains a nearly inexhaustible resource. Trueman explains why Luther can be such a perceptive, encouraging, human, and even humorous guide to the Christian life. Especially important is Trueman’s clear communication of why the cross of Christ grounded Luther’s approach to almost everything and why a ‘theology of the cross’ might powerfully motivate believers today as well.”
Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame; editor, Protestantism after 500 Years

“Trueman gives us not only Luther’s theology, but Luther as a theologian, which in turn connects with us as theologians. We learn from Trueman’s insight into Luther that theology isn’t just what we know about God, or even how we know it, but is intimately connected to who we are. Trueman gives us Luther—constipation, wit, contradictions, and all. We also finally get a theological apologetic for a robust sense of humor.”
Aimee Byrd, author, Why Can’t We Be Friends? and No Little Women

“It is no easy task to write a small volume summing up the theology and significance for the Christian life of Martin Luther. Yet Trueman has done it superbly with aplomb and verve. Highly recommended as an excellent introduction to a remarkable Christian and human being.”
Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“This book takes us on an engaging, enjoyable tour of the thought of one of Christianity’s most influential theologians. Writing with wisdom and accessible style, Trueman gets to the heart of Luther’s theology, showing how his teachings in areas like law and gospel, justification by grace through faith, and the means of grace connect with the everyday Christian life of believers. Trueman’s insightful scholarship and clear writing give us a wonderful introduction to Luther’s thought. I highly recommend it.”
Justin S. Holcomb, Episcopal Priest; Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; coauthor, Rid of My Disgrace and God Made All of Me; editor, Christian Theologies of Scripture

“In this compelling book, we encounter an arresting portrait of Luther the pastor, a full-blooded man who knew the spiritual and physical joys and pains of life and the formidable daily challenges of being a Christian in a fallen world. In elegant, bracing prose full of pastoral and theological insight and leavened with his characteristic humor, Trueman both keeps Luther in his time and engages us in conversation about how the German doctor speaks to ours. Trueman’s profound exploration of one of the great writers on the Christian life challenges all of us to cancel our tickets for journeys of self-exploration and self-expression to pursue something more authentic. From a distance of five hundred years, Luther tells us that the story is not about us; it’s about what God has done for us.”
Bruce Gordon, Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Yale Divinity School

“This book deftly combines deep historical learning with sage pastoral wisdom to present us with an unaccommodated Luther—one who is sure to surprise as well as offend those only familiar with sanitized portraits of the Wittenberg Reformer. But this is the Luther that we need, for it is the real Luther—not the fictions of hagiographers—who has the most to teach us about the Christian life. Both new and longtime readers of Luther will derive much benefit from Trueman’s book.”
Scott R. Swain, President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando; coauthor, Reformed Catholicity

“Eminently readable, humorous, and always with an eye to the church today, Trueman brings us into Luther’s world, devils and all, and shows us the centrality of the cross and the objective power of God’s Word for Luther’s understanding of the Christian life. Most importantly, we meet Luther on Luther’s terms. His high view of the liturgy and sacraments stands alongside his more familiar views on the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone. All those interested in Luther or the Reformation need to read this excellent book.”
Carl Beckwith, Associate Professor of History and Doctrine, Beeson Divinity School; author, Hilary of Poitiers on the Trinity

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