The man behind Reformation Day

Earlier this year I picked up a used copy of Martin Marty’s Martin Luther: A Life for $4 at the public library and read most of it on a weekend getaway with my wife (who says romance is dead?). The book turned out to be a steal. It’s well-written, an easy read and, I think, a good book for those who would otherwise be scared away by biography & church history.

So as we commemorate October 31 as Reformation Day (ahem), here are just a few excerpts from the biography that I found arresting, encouraging, or just plain weird [Marty’s text has been italicized]:

1) Luther believed that God was at work spiritual conflict that he called “Anfechtungen”–spiritual assaults that prevented one from finding certainty in God: He wrote that he found that God provoked Anfechtungen as if in an embrace and called Anfechtungen “delicious despair.” Such despair offered sinners opportunities to grow in faith. The assaults robbed them of all certainty, until they found no place to go except to the God of mercy and grace. (p24)

2) Luther encountered doubt throughout his Christian life but discovered Christ was greater than his doubts: …when God made one just, he observed, the sinner became certain. This did not mean that anyone, and especially not Luther, would henceforth be free from all doubt or from mental trauma. No one going through the sea of life, he thought, could totally evade uncertainty any more than could those on long voyages at sea. Like Jacob, he would keep on wrestling. But the doubt, he contended, was itself a stirring up by the Christ who drove a person to make an appeal to him. So in Luther’s writing, Christ says, “I am more certain to you than your own heart and conscience.” And, he added, “Christ came into this world to make us most certain.” (p77-78)

3) Luther credited all of “his” success to Scripture: “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” (p86)

4) Luther broke with much religious tradition even as he observed lesser cultural traditions: John Bugehagen officiated [Luther’s wedding to Katherine von Bora], with five witnesses present, among them artist Lucas Cranach and his wife, Barbara. Friend Justus Jonas next drew duty upstairs to observe the copulation, a formal term for the sealing of the betrothal bond…Couples in the Saxon culture of the day were to be witnessed thrashing around on the marital bed demonstrating that they had achieved consummation. (p106)

5) Luther understood that faith precedes good works: “If one has a gracious God, then everything is good. Furthermore, we also say that if good works do not follow, then faith is false and not true.”

Happy Reformation Day.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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