I’m fascinated by Martin Luther. I’m frustrated by him, too.
I’ve been reading about him for the last while, working my way through a small stack of books while trying to work on a documentary script about him. And honestly, I can’t figure the man out.
Luther cannot be considered mild-tempered. Nor could you call him moderate in his positions. He was, for lack of a better term, an extremist. As a monk, he fully investing himself in the monastic life, but it failed to provide him the peace he desperately sought. As a reformer, he invested himself in proclaiming the gospel and the centrality of justification by faith alone. His soul found rest, but his life was marked with conflict until the end of his days.
This part of him, I understand. He was committed to his cause. He was pursuing his God with all his might. In his personal life, he was a loving husband and devoted family man, another quality I admire. He thought deeply about what the Scriptures mean and teach, and what truths like the priesthood of all believers meant for all of life. These are things I am so grateful for. In fact, I admire them.
But he was also belligerent and prone to anger (though not without cause in many instances). He was, at times, quite divisive. And then there are his later writings on the Jewish people, which hardly put him in a good light (although, for those interested, Eric Gritsch makes a strong case making sense of this here). These are the things we wish we could pretend didn’t happen. But they did.
In reading about Luther, I’ve come to one significant conclusion: Martin Luther was, by and large, a normal human being.
Recognizing Martin Luther for what he is
And that kind of makes things more difficult, doesn’t it? Strip away all the stuff we’ve built up around him, and what you’ll find is a man like you or me. A man in need of grace, and forgiveness, just as much as you and I are. A man who, undoubtedly, entered into his Master’s rest, and was shocked by what he got wrong, just as you and I will be.
That’s what reading so much about Luther of late has reminded me. But the difficulty is shedding preconceived notions, of recasting him as a modern North American evangelical instead of a 15th century German Augustinian Monk. It’s easy to read in the legend of Martin Luther when reading about him. And that won’t do him justice. Reading about him is forcing me to wrestle with him as he was. He wasn’t an easy man to figure out. I doubt he was an easy man to get along with. But even so, even as I sit here still trying to figure out if what I’ve written even makes sense, I’m glad I’m trying. The legend is fine, but the man I want to know is the one I’ll be spending eternity in heaven worshipping alongside—the man who was loved and redeemed by Christ.
I doubt I’ll get a complete picture of this man until I meet him there, but for now, I’m glad I have biographies to help.