Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 1, 1961
NUMBER 5, PAGE 4,12b-13a

Notes On Martin Luther

F. Y. T.

The human race has produced but few men who were the equal of Martin Luther in moral courage. Towering like a giant above his contemporaries, his stature increases rather than diminishes with the passing of the centuries. Four centuries since his death, he still is unquestionably the most influential single figure in world religious history since the days of the apostles.

Yet for all his greatness, Luther was the hapless victim of some of his own false positions. Rebelling against the decadent and demoralizing (almost amoral) Catholicism of his day, the great Reformer was entrapped in a "swing of the pendulum" extremism to a radical insistence on the old "salvation by faith only" concept advanced more than a thousand years earlier by Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. While Luther's contemporary, John Calvin, is perhaps more truly the spiritual successor of Augustine, it is no less true that Luther himself fell into egregious (and at times ludicrous) errors in picking his way through the theological wilderness of medieval Catholicism via the "faith only" route.

While re-studying the life of Luther these past few months in preparing material for a young people's class in Church History, we were again made aware of how far afield even a good and brilliant man can get once he becomes obsessed with a false theory. Consider, for example, some of these from Luther:

"Thou owest God nothing save to believe and confess. In all things else he gives thee absolute freedom to do as thou wilt without any peril of conscience, so that he on his part does not even make any inquiry as to whether you put away your wife, run away from your master, and violate your covenant." He hedges on this declaration somewhat by going on to explain that where one's actions may involve others he is under obligation to do them no wrong. He states: "Before God it is a matter or indifference that a man should forsake his wife, for the body is not bound to God, but is made free by him with respect to all things external, and is only inwardly God's own through faith; but before men the obligation holds." By this dictum, a husband and wife could freely separate, or each, or both of them could indulge in extra-marital affairs if done by mutual consent, and involving no hurt to any other party. The exchange of wives, or husbands, could be carried out without any pangs of conscience.

"Sometimes we ought to drink, sport, trifle more largely, and so commit some sin in hatred and contempt of the devil, lest we leave him any place for troubling our consciences with matters of no moment; otherwise we are vanquished, if we are too much concerned to avoid sinning. Accordingly, if the devil should say, 'Refuse to drink,' do you make response to him: 'But yet I will drink just because you prohibit, and so in Christ's name I will drink more largely?' "Whoever is able to drive out these Satanic thoughts by other thoughts, as concerning a pretty girl, avarice, drunkenness, etc., or by some vehement fit of anger, I advise that this course be pursued; although this is the supreme remedy, to believe in Jesus Christ and to invoke him."

Such quotations as these from Luther (and they could be multiplied almost without number) indicate how perverted a man's thinking can became under the spell of a false doctrine. We understand what he meant when he once wrote, "The true saints of Christ must be good strong sinners!"

This is the very doctrine that Paul rejected with the passionate cry, "God forbid!" of Romans 6:2. In the latter part of chapter five he had shown that where sin abounded, grace did much more abound; man's sin actually provided the opportunity for a greater exhibition of God's grace. Some captious critic might then say, "That being so, let us sin more abundantly; for in so doing we will afford God greater opportunity to reveal his grace — the greater the sin the greater the grace, and the more God is glorified!" This is the specious argument Paul rejects with such horror. But, in effect, this is very near to the thing Luther was advocating.

These painful and embarrassing aspects of Luther's teaching but reflects the influence of an obsession in his life — his obsession with the "faith only" heresy. There would probably be little point in raking over these old and well-nigh forgotten aspect of his life were it not for the fact that we see the same evil principle again and again — and again! — in religious history. Obsession with a heresy can make a man do things that to succeeding generations appear stupid and incredible. But to the man, in his own lifetime, these very items seem to be the height of wisdom, prudence, and loyalty to Christ.

We have tried to impress on brethren who write for the Gospel Guardian that we are not only writing for our own day, but also we are writing for the verdict of history — and for God. Let every word, every attitude be measured by the Divine standard. Let the bitterness, the littleness, and the cynicism of sectarianism appear elsewhere, not in these columns. Let those of a later generation who chance to read these yellowed pages in some obscure library recognize here a spirit, a consecration, and a true devotion to God which will be recognized in any generation as belonging to men of faith and humility. We have nothing to "promote" but the kingdom of Christ; nothing to defend but the church of our Lord; nothing to glory in save the cross of Christ! Let those who write for this journal be utterly devoid of all ambition to "make a name" for the church of Christ, whether it be by way of huge institutions, popular entertainers, or awe-inspiring "statistics of growth."

We hold Martin Luther in profound respect as a great and noble man; we grieve over his folly and error. But, by God's grace, let every man seriously search his own heart, his life his teaching, lest the passing years demonstrate in our lives some false teaching, or wrong attitude, fully as monstrous as that we find in Luther.