The difficulty of figuring out Martin Luther

“I have no idea what to do with Martin Luther.”

That was my first thought when Stephen McCaskell pitched me on the idea of writing a documentary about Martin Luther. Now, don’t get me wrong: Luther fascinates me. But he frustrates me, too.

The Two Sides of Martin Luther

Luther was hardly mild-tempered. Nor was he moderate in his positions. He was, for lack of a better term, an extremist. As a monk, he was fully investing in the monastic life. But that life 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.

Side 1: Luther’s Spiritual and Personal Strengths

This part of him, I understand. Luther was committed to his cause. He was pursuing his God with all his might. Luther saw prayer as the most important activity of each day—and actually prayed like it! He never saw himself as having advanced beyond the need to know the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.

Despite his busy schedule, he was a loving husband and father. He believed Christians should be able to understand the Word of God for themselves, in their native languages. Luther saw in Paul’s writing the truth that our justification comes not through a mystical blending of faith and works, but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

He emphasized the priesthood of all believers, helped rescue runaway nuns from the monastic life, and even toyed with the concept of congregationalism. I am so grateful for Martin Luther’s example in these areas and more besides.

Side 2: Luther’s Sinful and Troubling Flaws

But as grateful as I am for him, there is much about him that troubles me. He was belligerent and prone to anger (though not without cause in many instances). He was often quite divisive, particularly when he, as Carl Trueman said during his interview for LUTHER, he caught hold of “the wrong end of the argument”.

Then there are his later writings on the Jewish people, which are shocking to modern ears as he advocates the burning of their homes, schools, and synagogues.1 There are also some of his more peculiar writings on marriage, which included initially viewing marriage as a remedy for sin only, and others which have been used to justify polygamy. The deeper you go, the more certain aspects of Luther’s personality and teaching will make you uneasy.

Holding Luther in Tension

It’s tempting to ignore the more unsavory aspects of Luther, the man. To focus only on the great Reformer and all the powerful ways God used him, and offer (at most) a quick but ultimately dismissive acknowledgement of unpleasant things he said and did. To gloss over the inconvenient truths. At the same time, there’s the opposite temptation: to vilify the man and only focus on the horrible or embarrassing moments. We want to see him either as a hero or heretic. As brilliant or a buffoon. But to present either is to present a fictional Luther; a caricature that bears a passing resemblance but is, ultimately, empty.

That’s what I realized as I waded through a sea of biographies, articles and essays, trying to make sense of this man. For me to honor Luther, to tell his story honestly, I needed to embrace this tension. To strip away all the mystique we’ve built up around him, and get to the heart of Luther as he really was:

A normal, frail, fallen, sinful human being who was used extraordinarily by a gracious God.

The Man God Used Was Exactly That

That sounds strange, doesn’t it? To say that Luther, this giant in the history of the world, was a normal man in as much need of grace, and forgiveness, as you and I are. A man who entered into his Master’s rest, and was shocked by what he got wrong. It seems absurd, if not bordering on blasphemous.

And yet, this is the truth. The man God used to change the world was just that—a man. And we need to embrace that. If we want to honor Martin Luther, we need to not recast him as a modern North American evangelical. We need to go past the legendary (but contested) words, “Here I stand,” and meet a 16th century German Augustinian Monk with a tender conscience.

Luther was so deeply assailed by guilt and shame that he confessed even the tiniest of infractions. So exhaustive was he that confessors demanded he leave until he’d done something worth confessing! He wrestled with the Word of God until it “beat” him into submission at every turn. He penned pen awe-inspiring hymns and sermons, and abhorrent insults. Luther fought back against the condemnation of the devil, admitting that he deserved death and hell. But he would also say, “I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”2

This is Martin Luther. And this is the Luther I discovered while making a film about him. And, by God’s grace, this is the Martin Luther you and I will be spending eternity alongside as we worship before the throne. A man who was loved and redeemed by Christ.

Note: this article has been updated and adapted based on an article I wrote for Patrol in 2017 when the Luther Documentary was released.

Photo credit: Dresden Frauenkirche (Martin Luther) via photopin (license)

  1. For those interested, Eric Gritsch makes a strong case making sense of this here.[]
  2. Martin Luther from his letter to Jerome Weller, as published in Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 87[]

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.