Luther’s Happy Discovery

1. Dr. Michael Reeves: Luther’s Happy Discovery

Luther's Happy Discovery from Union on Vimeo.

2. Dr. Michael Reeves preaches Luther’s early sermon on Luke 18 entitled ‘The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector’ which gets to the heart of his gospel discovery.

This talk was delivered at Immanuel Nashville’s Reformation 500 Celebration in 2017.

Martin Luther: The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector from Union on Vimeo.

Was Martin Luther Insane?

Article: Was Luther Insane? by Dr. R. C. Sproul (original source here)

With the advent of modern psychoanalysis, it’s become popular to evaluate the psyches of famous historical figures: people like Alexander the Great, Moses, Nero, and others. One of the favorite targets of study is Martin Luther. Erik Erikson, for example, emphasized that Martin Luther was not only neurotic, but psychotic as well. This accusation implies that one of our great heroes of the faith is one whose sanity is seriously questioned.

Why do some thinkers come to the conclusion that Martin Luther was a madman? To be fair, even a cursory glance at the readings of Luther reveal a man of tempestuous spirit, personal intensity, and profound passion. There are certain events in his life that seem not only strange, but at times even bizarre. We can understand, to some degree, why some people think Luther might not have been sane.

We know Luther was preoccupied with a foreboding sense of his own death, having predicted it at least six times falsely. We know also that Luther went through several peculiar episodes, such as his being knocked from his horse by lightning, which led him to become a monk. Some think this episode explains his neurosis or psychosis. We also know the story of his pilgrimage to Rome and his going through emotional turmoil in climbing the stairs of the Scala Sancta on his knees. We know of first experience in celebrating the Mass. When he came to the part when he had to say, “Hoc est corpus meum,” the words lodged in his throat. There was an awkward silence as his family and friends waited. Luther stood there quivering, unable to complete the saying. He was terrified of the thought that he was holding in his hands the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ. A strange experience indeed for a man of great poise and presence—but not enough to deem him insane.

Luther was also obstinate and single-minded in his debates with Johann Eck and Thomas Cajetan. These debates led to the confrontation at Worms, where Luther dared to defy the church on a major point of doctrine. We know how Hollywood portrays Luther’s stance at Worms. When he’s called upon to recant, Luther stands with his chest out and says: “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I shall not recant. For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” He then jumps on his horse and rides off to start the Reformation.

Perhaps it happened like that, but have you ever read the prayer Luther wrote the night before that meeting? Do you remember what happened in his first encounter before the princes of the church and of the state? When they asked him to recant, he stood there meekly. He looked at the princes, and he said in a hesitant voice, “Could I have twenty-four hours to think it over?” They granted him this time. He went back to the privacy of his own chambers, and he composed a prayer. If ever a man was broken before God and experienced a sense of utter helplessness and loneliness against the forces of this world, it was Luther at that moment.

But even that moment isn’t why people think he was crazy. The biggest reason for questioning Luther’s sanity has to do with his period of intense scrupulosity in the confessional. It was customary and required of the young monks of the monastery to go through daily confession. As a matter of prescribed procedure, the monks would come into the confessional in the morning, and they would confess the sins of the last twenty-four hours, receive the absolution of the priest, and go about the day’s labors. This would typically take each monk two or three minutes.

Not Luther. He would go into the confessional and recite the previous day’s sins not for five minutes, but for two hours, three hours, sometimes even four hours—reciting in detail every sin he could remember. Luther felt the imminent wrath and judgment of God. If it was crazy to feel this imminence, then Luther was undoubtedly a crazy man. He would come back from the confessional tormented after spending hours confessing his sins. As soon as he got back to his room, he would remember a sin he had forgotten to confess. This is a neurotic preoccupation with guilt, and so they say Luther was crazy. But was he really?

One of the things about Luther that’s often overlooked is that before the episode of his being knocked from his horse, Luther had already distinguished himself as one of the most brilliant students of law in all of Europe. His father was furious when Luther left a promising career in law to waste his life on religion. The keen analytical ability of Luther’s mind in understanding the demands of law were applied to Scripture.

Luther’s logic worked like this: “If the great commandment is to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as much as yourself, then what’s the great transgression? The failure to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and to love every human being in this world as much as you love yourself. To fail to do that is to commit an act of cosmic treason against the Lord God Almighty. That’s not a peccadillo. That’s enough to send me to hell forever, and so I tremble with every slightest act that transgresses the holiness of God and the sanctity of those who are created in His image.”

Logically and theologically then, Luther was the sanest man in Europe. He understood the demands of the law of God, and it seemed to be driving him crazy. That is, until his brilliant mind, in his preparation of lectures for Romans, turned its attention to Romans 3: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Then Luther read a word that is the most precious word in all of Scripture. It’s the gospel in one word—but: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” Then he read the conclusion in verse 28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Luther said, “When that message made an impact on my mind and penetrated my understanding, the gates of paradise swung open and I walked in. The just shall live by faith.” Luther moved from torment to peace, from neurosis to confidence, from seeming insanity to sanity, giving him the strength and the courage to change the world.

Therefore, I hope that during this significant 500th anniversary of the Reformation, you are sane like Luther. On the one hand, Luther understood the holiness of the law of God, and on the other hand, he understood his utter and complete dependence upon the righteousness of Christ for peace and justification.

It’s one thing to understand justification by faith in the head. It’s another thing to get it in your bloodstream—to let it flow into the lives of everyone you meet. By this and by God’s grace, we can ensure that this gospel may never be hidden or obscured again.

Luther was a flawed man

God has only ever had one Person He used who had no flaws, namely the Lord Jesus Christ.

We celebrate the Protestant Reformation. We admire and respect the men (and women) God used in what was the greatest move of God in Church history, outside of the book of Acts. And yet, even while we do so, we never wish to ignore historical reality. For the sake of honesty and truth, we need to acknowledge the presence of very real flaws even in those God used in dramatic and far reaching ways.

One such example of this is the treatment of Fritz Erbe. Fritz did not embrace infant baptism and the terribly severe treatment he endured because of this, even in the same location where Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular (the Wartburg Castle), reveals a sad truth that is often overlooked. Dr. James White explains (beginning at the 1:05:04 minute mark):

The Story of Martin Luther (Playmobil Animation)

Stop motion animation that uses Playmobil to tell the story of Martin Luther, and the Reformation. Over 5000 individual photos bring to life scenes from the life of Luther like the castle where he hid as an outlaw, Wittenberg where he taught, the monastery where he was gripped by the Bible, and the Imperial Council at Worms.

Voice Over: Mike Reeves

Animation: Dan Rackham

Here’s the script from the Martin Luther video:

This is the story of Martin Luther.

He got up to some pretty adventurous things. He was kidnapped by knights on horseback; lived in disguise in a castle and helped some nuns escape from a monastery, by hiding them in barrels.

But as a young man he was troubled by a deep sense that he wasn’t right with God. Once, in a thunderstorm, a lightening bolt nearly struck him. He thought he was going to die.

He cried out for help to one of the saints, saying rashly: “Save me, and I’ll become a monk”.

He survived, and so, true to his word he gave up his studies as a lawyer and became a monk. His friends and family said he was wasting his talent.

In the monastery he started reading the Bible. He discovered that it was God’s mercy & love that was all that was needed to be right with God. For the first time in his life, he found a deep peace with God.

Luther was invited to be a lecturer at the university in Wittenberg. He taught through books of the Bible. His lectures were popular, even ordinary people from the town came along.

In those days the Catholic church was telling Christians that their good behaviour could earn them heaven. Luther knew from the Bible though, that no amount of good works could earn you forgiveness! Not even the pope was able to give forgiveness from God – only God could do that.

Luther saw that the church had left behind what the Bible taught and was even making things up for it’s own gain. He decided that he must teach against these false ideas.

He made his complaints public by nailing them to the place in town where people published important documents…the door of the castle church.

He explained that it wasn’t possible to buy God’s forgiveness or to live a life that was good enough to deserve to know God.

His writings, showed that God wants to forgive the wrong we have done. And that this is only possible because Jesus, the son of God, came to pay the punishment our wrong deserved. Jesus did this as he died in our place.

Luther’s ideas quickly spread throughout Europe thanks to a recent invention – the printing press.

The pope wrote a document saying that Luther had to take it all back. And if he didn’t he’d be treated as a heretic. Luther refused and publicly burnt a copy of the pope’s letter.

Luther’s ideas shook things up religiously, politically and culturally. He was summoned to stand before the emperor and answer for his supposed crimes of explaining what the Bible said.

The emperor declared Luther an outlaw, banning his literature. That’s when he was rescued and went to live in disguise in a castle. Dressing in knights’ clothing he changed his name to knight George and grew his hair and a beard.

He spent his time translating the New Testament – this again was published widely, meaning ordinary people could read the Bible for the first time.

Luther secretly returned to Wittenberg. He continued to write books and translate the bible. He also got married and had a family.

Europe was buzzing with Luther’s message about the Bible.

Today, 500 years on, the truths of the Bible that Luther knew continue to impact millions of people.

People who have come to know God personally, knowing the peace and forgiveness Jesus offers us.

The forgiveness that Luther found is still available today.
We can all be in a right relationship with God because of one man – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luther & Anti-Semitism

In this excerpt from Ligonier’s 2017 National Conference, Stephen Nichols and W. Robert Godfrey discuss whether Martin Luther was guilty of anti-Semitism.


Stephen Nichols: You know, this is a question you hear a lot, and I think we’ve got to look at the broad context of Luther and then we need to say, that we need to understand him in that context, but we also need to not give him a free pass. So, the first thing we see in Luther is his initial writings to the Jewish people are very favorable. He actually is countercultural in that, and he goes against the current consensus and actually favors a good treatment towards the Jews. As the Reformation went on and a few years on, Luther fully thought that that good treatment towards the Jews would result in their paying attention to the gospel and coming to Christ, and he was not seeing that happen. And he began to question, perhaps, he was too easy on them in his initial writings and should have pressed more, in order for them to be more aware and perhaps be challenged and then come after the gospel.

So, his early writings are very favorable. He begins to think through this, though, in his later writings and the writing that really trips Luther up is his, On the Jews and Their Detestable Lies. And it’s in that writing that Luther unleashes his rhetoric against the Jews and is very forceful in his rhetoric. Now we need to say that he was an equal opportunity offender. It wasn’t just—that rhetoric was not just reserved—for the Jews, he used the same rhetoric for the Papists, for the Anabaptists, for the nominal Christians, that he used for the Jews. But he was wrong. He spoke harshly, and I think he abused his influence that he had in speaking harshly. And so, we need to say that Luther was wrong in that. But this isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism, that’s really a 20th-century phenomenon. What Luther was interested in was really following the lead of the Apostle Paul and following the lead of the New Testament. He saw this as a betrayal of Christ, a betrayal of the gospel, as a failure to recognize Jesus’ coming as the Messiah. And so, it was not an ethnic motivation that prompted Luther to this, it was a theological one. So, the answer to this is we need to understand him in his context, but we should not give him a free pass. And we need to recognize that he has legs of iron but feet of clay. And this is one of those instances where his feet of clay do in fact come through.

W. Robert Godfrey: Just to add one more thing, that’s exactly right—but the one little that should be added is Luther, all his life, longed that Jews should be converted and join the church. Hitler never wanted Jews to join the Nazi party. That’s the difference between anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. Luther wasn’t opposed to the Jews because of their blood. He was opposed to the Jews because of their religion. And he wanted them to join the Christian church. If you’re really anti-Semitic, you’re against Jews because of their blood and there’s nothing Jews can do about that. There’s not change they can make to make a difference. You’re absolutely right, Luther’s language should not be defended by us because it’s violent against the Jews. It was not against an ethnic people, as you said, but against a religion that he reacted so sharply.

The Protestant Reformation (Lecture Series)

From the Master’s Seminary – a 19 lecture series on the Protestant Reformation taught by Dr. Carl Trueman personalities, and events that shook Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It will consist of lectures and guided reading.

The focus will be on the development of Protestantism in its social, political, and cultural contexts, starting with Luther and the late medieval background and tracing the story through to the birth of modernity in the seventeenth century. En route, the student will study primary texts, art work, Reformation popular culture, and pastoral practices in early modern Protestantism.

In addition, the course is designed to help students to think critically about the past in a way which allows them to think critically about the present. Men and women make history, but they do not make the history that they choose; and only by examining the past forces that shaped the present can we understand ourselves, the world in which we live, and thus mount any response to the challenges that face us today.

Learning Goals

At the conclusion of the course, each student should be able to:

Recognize the key personalities, controversies, and theological developments which marked the Reformation.
Distinguish between the various historic Christian traditions in terms of their distinctive theological convictions as formulated during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Articulate ways in which social and cultural contexts shaped the way the church developed during the Reformation.

Textbooks and Reading Schedule

Students are expected to obtain a copies of:

Denis R Janz, A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts With Introductions. Some selections have been assigned, but the whole book is useful as giving short texts relevant to the various topics we will cover.
Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations.
The numbers appended below to Janz refer to the selection, not the page.

Schaff III is the third volume of P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (free pdf).

The readings from Lindberg are not synchronized with the lectures; they are merely a suggested timetable for taking you through the whole book by the end of the course.

1. Medieval Background and Martin Luther

Janz 14-19
Heidelberg Disputation
Lindberg, Chapters 1-2

2. Martin Luther

Freedom of the Christian
Lindberg, Chapters 3-4

3. Martin Luther

Exsurge Domine
Janz 25
Lindberg, Chapters 5-6

4. The Birth of the Reformed Church

Janz 30-37
The Sixty-Seven Articles of Huldrych Zwingli (in Schaff III)
Lindberg, Chapter 7

5. Geneva and Calvin

A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply
Lindberg, Chapter 8

6. The Spread of Lutheranism and the Reformed Faith

The Augsburg Confession
The Heidelberg Catechism
Lindberg, Chapter 9

7. The English Reformation

The Act of Supremacy (1534)
The Thirty-Nine Articles
Homily on the True and Lively Faith
Lindberg, Chapter 10

8. Reading the Reformation

Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies
Lindberg, Chapter 11

9. The Catholic Reformation

Council of Trent: Bull of Convocation; Fifth and Sixth Session
Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
Lindberg, Chapter 12

10. Seventeenth Century Developments: Reformed Confessionalism

Irish Articles of Religion (in Schaff III)
Westminster Directory for Public Worship
Lindberg, Chapter 13

11. Seventeenth Century Developments: Internal Catholic Conflicts

Pascal, Pensées
Lindberg, Chapter 14

12. The Birth of Modernity

Lindberg, Chapter 15

For further reading – see here.

Characteristics of the Church

the holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy word of God.” Martin Luther always returned to the foundational importance of the Scriptures and the gospel in his approach to any doctrinal question. The church must have and cherish the revelation of God. “And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”


“Second, God’s people or the Christian holy people are recognized by the holy sacrament of baptism, wherever it is taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s ordinance.” The church possessed and administered the sacrament of baptism as taught in the Bible, a visible expression of the gospel.

The Lord’s Supper

“Third, God’s people, or Christian holy people, are recognized by the holy sacrament of the altar, wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution. This too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession left behind by Christ by which his people are sanctified so that they also exercise themselves in faith and openly confess that they are Christian, just as they do with the word and baptism.” Again, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper must be treasured by the church as Christ has taught it in the Bible.


“Fourth, God’s people or holy Christians are recognized by the office of the keys exercised publicly. That is, as Christ decrees in Matthew 18[:15– 20], if a Christian sins, he should be reproved; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and cast out. If he does mend his ways, he should be absolved. That is the office of the keys.” For Luther, the real church exercised discipline over its members. This element of Luther’s understanding has often been missed, but he was crystal clear about it.

Biblical Offices

“Fifth, the church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer.” Luther recognized that the Bible established office in the church—not the sacral caste of priests—but the minister who faithfully preached the Word and administered the sacraments.

Luther’s focus on the simplicity and importance of the congregation came to quite radical expression, for his day, in his belief that in principle the congregation has the right to call its own minister. As early as 1523, he had written a treatise titled That a Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture. Ministers were not a mysterious order created and imposed by a hierarchy, but were to emerge from the congregation.


“Sixth, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God. Where you see and hear the Lord’s Prayer prayed and taught; or psalms or other spiritual songs sung, in accordance with the word of God and the true faith; also the creed, the Ten Commandments, and the catechism used in public, you may rest assured that a holy Christian people of God are present.” The church was visible in its simple, Word-centered worship.


“Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh.” Since the servant was not greater than the master, as Jesus had taught, the church would suffer in this world as it served Christ faithfully.

Luther derived these seven points from the first table of the Ten Commandments and recognized that, though these elements were never perfect in the church, they were truly present: “These are the true seven principal parts of the great holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification and vivification in Christ, according to the first table of Moses. By this we obey it, albeit never as perfectly as Christ. But we constantly strive to attain the goal, under his redemption or remission of sin, until we too shall one day become perfectly holy and no longer stand in need of forgiveness.”

These seven characteristics were only the beginning of what could be said about the church. He said:

In addition to these seven principal parts there are other outward signs that identify the Christian church, namely, those signs whereby the Holy Spirit sanctifies us according to the second table of Moses… . We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obligations, but we also need it to discern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ!

Martin Luther on Preaching

derek-thomasArticle: Simple and Straightforward: Martin Luther on Preaching

This excerpt is taken from Derek Thomas’ contribution in The Legacy of Luther.

According to Fred Meuser, it would be hard to imagine that Luther’s preaching was dull and devoid of rhetorical passion. It is equally hard to fathom, then, that Luther felt the need to chastise some who did not listen well, saying that some fell asleep and some even snored during the sermon, adding that they sometimes coughed whenever he preached on justification, only to wake up again whenever he told a story. Times do not seem to have changed. All the more reason, then, for the Reformer to keep his sermons relatively simple and straightforward.

Those who have studied Luther’s theological works find themselves in deep waters. Luther’s theology is complex at best. Concepts such as his theology of the cross (theologia crucis), the doctrine of consubstantiation, and the exact distinction between law and gospel (did Luther advance in his understanding of the so-called third use of the law, as some have suggested?) continue to occupy scholars of Luther to this day. Is it surprising, then, that Luther’s preaching was essentially simple and plain? Not really. According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Luther “made no attempt to be a great orator.” Old expands, “[Luther] had none of the rhetorical culture that Basil, Chrysostom, or Augustine had. Luther was a popular preacher with a natural mastery of language. He taught preachers of the Reformation to preach in the language of the people.”

Garry Williams cites a similar statement that Luther makes in his Table Talk:

In the pulpit we are to lay bare the breasts and nourish the people with milk. . . . Complicated thoughts and issues we should discuss in private with the eggheads [Klueglinge]. I don’t think of Dr. Pomeraneus, Jonas, or Philip [Melanchthon] in my sermon. They know more about it than I do. So I don’t preach to them. I just preach to Hansie and Betsy.

Although Luther had been schooled in classical rhetoric as part of the awakening of the Renaissance movement in late-medieval Europe, the Reformer seemed deliberately to avoid its more elaborate affectations, employing in its place a more conversational style. He was, for example, particularly scornful of the use of Hebrew in the pulpit. Though able to converse in both Greek and Hebrew with the best of Renaissance scholarship—scholarship that had triumphed in returning to the sources for meaning (ad fontes)—Luther did not employ Greek and Hebrew terms in his sermons. Williams cites Luther’s acerbic comment about Zwingli: “How I do hate people who lug in so many languages as Zwingli does; he spoke Greek and Hebrew in the pulpit at Marburg.”

Despite these warnings, Luther was firmly committed to the study of the original languages and urged that all preachers have the same passion:

Though the faith and the Gospel may be proclaimed by simple preachers without the languages, such preaching is flat and tame, men grow at last wearied and disgusted and it falls to the ground. But when the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of Scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and works.

On another occasion, Luther is even stronger in urging the use of the original languages:

It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor—yes, almost without any labor at all—can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame.

Commenting on these statements of Luther, John Piper makes the following deduction:

Now that is a discouraging overstatement for many pastors who have lost their Greek and Hebrew. What I would say is that knowing the languages can make any devoted preacher a better preacher—more fresh, more faithful, more confident, more penetrating. But it is possible to preach faithfully without them—at least for a season. . . . The test of our faithfulness to the Word, if we cannot read the languages, is this: Do we have a large enough concern for the church of Christ to promote their preservation and widespread teaching and use in the churches? Or do we, out of self-protection, minimize their importance because to do otherwise stings too badly?

Luther’s insistence upon simplicity of language is, in part at least, a byproduct of the free delivery of his sermons; his sermons were extemporaneous rather than read from a manuscript. This fact alone almost guarantees that the language employed is simpler, ensuring that if a complex thought is uttered, sufficient explanation is given to elucidate it, drawn from (among other things) eye contact with one’s listeners that often reveals understanding or perplexity. One puzzled look from a listener, or clear signs that no one is actually listening, will urge simplicity of language—repeating a thought in different language until the point is made clear.