Luther's Very Mixed Legacy

Next month, October 31st, will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Whether one thinks Luther was right or wrong, this was one of the most important events in history. Western Civilization was rent in half.

My views concerning Luther have gone all over the place during my lifetime, Was he a villain? Was he a hero? At times, I have held these diametrically opposed views. Now, I am of the opinion that he was a bit of both. Luther's chief attraction as a role model was that he was flawed. God was able to use a very flawed man to achieve a positive good. One did not have to be outwardly holy like a pope to do God's will -- and Luther proved it.

As time goes by, however, I am gravitating more to the opinion that the deity should have picked a better man to clean up Western Christianity.

One thing is clear: The Reformation was going to come, with or without Luther. The Czechs had already spawned the Hussite reformers, a century earlier. Wycliff, in the 14th century, had produced major changes in England.  Meanwhile, Tyndale in England, Zwingli in Zurich, and Calvin in Geneva were contemporaries of Luther. Something was brewing. Luther may have been the catalyst to coalesce the movement, but he was not the indispensable man.

Luther's great breakthrough was to re-emphasize that man is reconciled to God through faith in the accomplished work of Christ on the cross, not through human effort. Catholic indulgences were out. Luther had been brought to this crisis and understanding by his study through Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Luther's account of his own conversion cuts to the very heart of the gospel.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice [of] God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven. -- Therefore Now

Man was set right before God, by faith, apart from works. 

Romans 1:16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

Of course, defenders of Catholicism would counter that the epistle of James is a defense of human effort being a necessary requirement for salvation. Luther despised James, and called it an epistle of straw.

James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

This was a powerful rebuttal by the Catholic side, but the Reformers had equally powerful counterrebuttals, chiefly that even James had conceded justification by faith in the preceding verse, and so James could not be arguing that salvation was by human effort.

James 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness:

Hence, the Reformers said James was not referring to being justified by works unto salvation, but merely pointing out that a saving faith ideally should produce some works as evidence. Good works are not required for salvation, but are merely a consequence of it.

Besides, as other reformers would note also, man was too imperfect, too flawed, to have any merit before a holy God. The whole work would have to be Christ’s, which was appropriated only by faith alone.

Once the theological gauntlet had been tossed down, Europe would be split.

What is clear is that Luther's version of the Reformation was barely a change at all. Classic Lutheranism kept the mass. Unlike other Protestant groups, the Lutherans kept the Eucharist. They substituted Catholicism's transubstantiation with consubstantiation. If Catholics believe the elements are turned into the body and blood of Christ, Lutherans believed that only a part of the elements -- a few molecules as it were -- were changed. I have asked Lutherans to explain the difference, and many cannot.

Lutherans kept infant baptism, and placed far more emphasis on it than most other pedobaptizing denominations do. Luther, while not as slavish to Augustine of Hippo's theology as Calvin was, was still too saddled with Augustinian thought. One could argue that it was not enough to get rid of the Vatican, one had to get rid of Augustine as well. Luther did not. Luther also approved of persecuting Anabaptists. He was not a Renaissance man by any stretch of the imagination.

Luther maintained a lot of Catholic views on Mary.

If Luther allowed clerical marriage, it has to be admitted that clerical celibacy was and is not an article of Catholic doctrine, but merely an organizational preference. Luther merely bucked the organizational rules. Maybe the rules merited bucking, but it was not a doctrinal issue. In fact, Lutheranism is remarkably similar to Catholicism in so many ways, compared to later Protestant denominations.

Luther was so desperate to get rid of the pope, and he identified himself with local German rulers as a countermeasure so strongly, that Germany acquired a culture accepting of state tyranny. Luther had merely switched despotisms. He was noticeably ruthless in asking the German princes to crush the Peasant's War. One can trace the origins of modern German authoritarian government to Luther.

But it was Luther's attacks on the Jews where he did the most damage. Initially, Luther started off quite friendly to the Jewish community, going so far was to write a pamphlet: That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. Luther assumed that that Jews would flock to his Reformation. When they didn't, he later turned on them.

Luther's most infamous work was On the Jews and Their Lies. Luther, who could read Hebrew, had translated some religious Jewish texts, and found their discourse on Jesus and his mother quite horrifying. Had it been left at that, Luther could have engaged in intellectual debate to much good effect; but Luther publicly recommended a series of societal actions so severe that they read like Nazi legislation. Contemporary German Reformers were horrified at Luther's tirades.

- to burn down Jewish synagogues and schools and warn people against them;

- to refuse to let Jews own houses among Christians;

- for Jewish religious writings to be taken away;

- for rabbis to be forbidden to preach;

- to offer no protection to Jews on highways;

- for usury to be prohibited and for all silver and gold to be removed, put aside for safekeeping, and given back to Jews who truly convert; and

- to give young, strong Jews flail, axe, spade, and spindle, and let them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow. -- Wikipedia

This was no mere rant. Luther's writings would embed themselves in German culture so strongly that even the Roman Catholic Adolf Hitler would list Luther as one of his favorite Germans in Mein Kampf

To this group belong not only the genuinely great statesmen but all the great reformersas well. Beside Frederick the Great we have such men as Martin Luther and Richard Wagner. -- Mein Kampf

Indeed, Kristallnacht started on the evening of Luther's birthday.

On the night of Martin Luther’s birthday, November 9-10, 1938, 191 synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire, and 76 were completely destroyed. 815 Jewish-owned shops were demolished, 29 warehouses and 171 homes were set on fire or likewise destroyed. -- Outreach Judaism

Historians do not exaggerate when they draw a connection from Luther to the Nazis, and while  many Lutherans dismiss the charges, it is hard to fully separate Luther from Hitler.

The Nazis organized Luther Day celebrations, calling Luther “the first German spiritual Führer,” and enlisted his teachings to support the idea that German exceptionalism and anti-Semitism were inseparable. We have no reason to think Luther would have approved of the Holocaust. But -- and this is always the danger with rabble-rousers -- he set his followers on the path. -- Washington City Paper

My own opinion is that Luther almost simultaneously started and killed the Reformation. When the dust settled, with the exception of Scotland and a few French-speaking areas adjacent to Germany, the Reformation was almost totally confined to the Germanic areas of Europe. It would remain so confined until three centuries after Luther. I do believe that God operates through history; and so, while Luther's good ideas were too good to let die, his anti-Semitic poison was so severe that the deity had to confine the Reformation until the 18th century Enlightenment temporarily toned down anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, Luther's influence would resurface in the 20th century.

Some contemporary Baptist writers, such as Max Younce, have gone so far as to question if Luther was even saved. Even dissident Protestants and the Messianic Jacob Prasch have reconsidered Luther.

This is not to condemn the Reformation. As noted, it would have come anyway, apart from Luther. Catholicism had become abysmally corrupt by the 16th century. There was a need to return to the gospel truth of grace alone through faith alone.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

Romans 11:6 And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.

The Bible is full of stories of heroes who started off well, but ended in disaster -- for example, Solomon, or Samson. Solomon had built the temple, but then fell prey to the paganisms of his foreign wives. Samson defeated Israel's enemies only to fall to the wiles of one of their women: Delilah. They destroyed a lot of the good foundations they had laid down.

…Luther was a man who began right, and ended badly -- Messianic Teacher Jacob Prasch

Luther is such a man. He began a mighty work -- and for that, I give Luther credit -- but then he nearly capsized the work he had begun. If the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is remembered, let it be remembered with that cautionary note.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish in high school, lo those many decades ago. He writes on the Arabs of South America at He also just started a