Five hundred years ago, the writing and teaching of Martin Luther set in motion within the church a series of reforms that were so widespread and foundational that we still speak of them as The Reformation. In this anniversary year, much is being written about the lives of the reformers, but direct access to Luther’s commentaries, sermons, and lectures is an irreplaceable part of understanding the truth that triggered such sweeping changes in the way we understand justification by faith, freedom of religion, the nature of salvation, and the wonder of God’s grace. Based on updated translations by Dr. Jack D. Kilcrease, he and Erwin Lutzer have compiled and edited Martin Luther in His Own Words so that the essential writings of the reformation are available as a resource for study and for inspiration.
The text is arranged around the five solas of the reformation with supporting excerpts from books, catechisms, commentaries, sermons, and lectures that flowed from Luther’s pen:
Sola Fide: Faith Alone
“A Christian is free lord of all and subject to none;
a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone.”
From On Christian Liberty
Although Luther did not hold to mind/body dualism, he often used language of “spirit” and “flesh,” and this quote differentiates between the believer’s standing before God and her relationship with others on this planet. Both statements are rooted in the writing of Paul who “made [himself] a servant to all” while at the same time urged believers to “owe no one anything except to love each other.”
Luther’s Commentary on Galatians further explicates this relationship between faith and works with the stunning conclusion that, while the works of the law do not assist us in salvation, it is only people of faith who are truly “doers of the law.”
Sola Gratia: Grace Alone
“To fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly, and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment.”
From Preface to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Luther’s translation of the Bible eventually became the standard translation within the German-speaking world (equivalent to our English KJV). In his introductions to each book, his teaching lived on long after his death, influencing both Tyndale and Wesley in their spiritual development.
In his teaching and his writing, Luther affirmed the role of the law as teacher, but declared its insufficiency to bring about righteousness since it is impossible for humans to consistently obey the law. The role of the gospel is to pave the way for new life, a work of grace in which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believing heart.
Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
“The clarity of Scripture is twofold, just as the obscurity is also twofold. The one is external, placed in the ministry of the Word; the other internal, placed in the understanding of the heart. If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scripture but he that has the Spirit of God. . . If you speak of he external clearness, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous. But all things that are in the Scriptures are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world.”
From The Bondage of the Will
Luther held a high view of Scripture, affirming that, indeed, the believer can understand what it teaches on a particular subject with careful teaching, and that knowledge of Christ’s saving death on the cross, the central teaching of Scripture, is through the Word and by grace.
Solus Christus: Christ Alone
“The sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves on Christ and condemned him. But because Christ is God, he had an everlasting and unconquerable righteousness.”
From Commentary on Galatians: Christ Took Our Sin
Death of the sinless Christ earned justification for those who believe. Luther’s Christology differed from medieval theologians who were unwilling to accept Paul’s teaching that Christ’s work on our behalf was a sin-bearing work rather than merely a “superior moral behavior.” He argued that if we do not believe our sins have been laid on Christ, “then it is up to us to bear them.”
Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God Alone
But let this be said . . . that we are to trust in God alone and look to him and expect from him nothing but good, as from one who gives us body, life, food, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all necessaries of both temporal and eternal things . . . as an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good and from which flows forth all that is and is called ‘good.'”
From The Large Catechism
When Luther and his colleagues discovered through visitations to country parishes that the state of Christian belief and practice were far from orthodox, he began writing summaries of basic Christian beliefs — not to replace the Bible, but to facilitate study of the Bible and worship with understanding of who God is and all that He has done.
Kilcrease and Lutzer provide just the right amount of editorial input and background material, and then allow the words of Luther to stand on their own. Looking through the cultural lens of 2017, Luther’s quest for salvation and earnest pursuit of truth stands out in startling relief against our backdrop of spiritual malaise and cultural assimilation. Thanks be to God that the realities trumpeted by Luther and his colleagues assure us that it is possible even today to embrace a livelier faith and that those who believingly follow Jesus Christ are privileged and compelled to be among those who are always growing, always striving for clarity of belief and faithfulness in practice. Because of the work of Christ and the revealed truth of God’s Word, by grace and through faith, we are always reforming — to the glory of God.
This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Michelle DeRusha has written a biographical account of Martin Luther’s life through the lens of his marriage to Katharina von Bora. Click here to read my review of Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.
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