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Martin Luther: Sinner/Saint

October 12, 2012 2 Comments

by Mathew Block

Occasionally when sharing my faith with others, I will be met with the reply: “You’re a Lutheran? But don’t you know the terrible things that Martin Luther did?”

More often than not, these people are referring to Luther’s treatise On the Jews and their Lies. In this work, Luther writes some dreadful things, including his “sincere advice” to Christians to go and burn down the Jews’ synagogues and schools; destroy their houses; forbid their rabbis to teach under pain of death; deprive them of wealth and property; force young Jewish men and women into hard labour; or simply drive them out of the country. In the years leading up to World War II, the Nazis would rediscover this book of Luther’s and use it in their twisted campaign to first imprison and then murder the Jewish people.

Now there are a whole host of defenses one could fall back on to try to excuse Luther for this book. One could argue that he was simply a product of his times. Antisemitism was prevalent in most of Europe during the Middle Ages, after all, and Luther was merely writing as many thinkers of his age did. Or one could point out that Luther’s book was precipitated by the publication of a Jewish tract which (apparently) aimed to convert Christians to Judaism; Luther was no doubt writing in anger rather than reasoned thought. One could even point out that Luther’s earlier writings on the Jews were generally counsels to love them, not persecute them. Yes, one could do all these things when confronted by people disgusted with Luther and what he wrote. But I suggest there is a better approach to take.

We should agree with them.

The fact is, Luther was a man. God accomplished incredibly important things through him—and we would do well to sit and learn at his feet—but he was nevertheless human. He was flawed and sinful, like you and me.

And really, when you think about it, that is the good news of the Gospel. God justifies us despite our failings. He covers us with the blood of Christ and forgives our sin. The recognition that we are simul iustus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”) is a cornerstone of the faith rediscovered by Luther. On the one hand, we understand that we are sinners because of our evil inclinations and actions; on the other hand, we know we are saints because God has forgiven us.

On the one hand, we understand that we are sinners because of our evil inclinations and actions; on the other hand, we know we are saints because God has forgiven us.

Luther was a saint only insofar as he was also a sinner, for his righteousness depended not on his own works but on the grace of Christ. He was not perfect nor are we today. Like Saint Paul, each of us must confess in brokenness, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:19, 24).

For St. Paul, there was only one answer to the problem of sin: Jesus Christ. Christ alone had died for St. Paul’s sins. Christ alone had risen again and promised St. Paul new life. For us today, the answer remains the same: salvation is found in Christ alone. Though we constantly fail to live the lives we should, He just as constantly offers us mercy. Coming to us again and again through the Scriptures, through Baptism, and through Holy Communion, He showers us with grace we do not deserve. We live in the light of forgiveness; we dwell in the house of His mercy.

In this issue of The Canadian Lutheran, we explore why the Reformation still matters for Lutherans today. We see what the granddaddy of reformers himself, Martin Luther, has to say to us on the subject of missions and evangelism. We explore how the faith handed down by the reformers has taken root in the mission ground of Quebec. Finally, we reacquaint ourselves with the teachings of the Reformation—reminding ourselves why “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone” remain ever-central tenets of our faith.

To put it simply, we’re reminded that Lutheranism is relevant today because the Gospel is relevant today. And that’s the message we can bring to our unbelieving friends. Christianity is not for the healthy; it’s for the sick. It’s for people like Martin Luther and St. Paul. It’s for people like you and me. And—the good news we are privileged to share!—it’s for people like those friends of ours so concerned with the sinfulness of Martin Luther.

Christianity is not for the healthy; it’s for the sick.

So when you’re asked, “Don’t you know the terrible things Luther did?,” say yes. Then respond, “But let me tell you what Christ did.”

“We are [God’s] children, and yet sinners; we are acceptable, and do not do enough—all this is the work of faith firmly grounded in God’s grace. But if you ask where faith and confidence may be found or whence they come, it is certainly the most necessary thing to know. First, without any doubt it does not come from your works or from your merits, but only from Jesus Christ, freely promised and freely given.”
– Martin Luther –

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
– St. Paul –

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Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran.