Theologian Spotlight: Martin Luther

This post in the Theologian Spotlight series was guest written by Emilee Snyder, a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, whom I’ve had the pleasure of studying Christianity alongside for 3 years – and someone personally shaped by our figure for this week, Martin Luther.


As many close to me know, I have quite a soft spot for Luther’s theology and what he was trying to do in his time. As a Christian who has experienced personally much of the religious legalism that Luther was avidly seeking to refute in the 16th century, I’m encouraged by his works and convictions. A great deal of the spiritual healing I’ve found in the last few years has much to do with my exposure to the works of Luther (among many other theologians and personal mentors, of course). But I’m also aware of some of his downfalls and occasional disgraces, and even more aware of common disenchantment with and disregard of Luther because of these. Some, I must say, may be warranted, but let me start by being candid: I’m not convinced that Luther is irrelevant for us in the 21st century; in fact, I tend to think quite the opposite.

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So, let’s start with a little preliminary overview of some of the popular conceptions and criticisms surrounding this historical reformer. First, his infamous nailing of the 95 Theses often suggests that he’s an outrageously polemic instigator of religious division; his ongoing offensive remarks don’t help in repairing this image… although some, I must say, can’t help but make you laugh (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this Luther-insult-generator). Other people, fixated on his famous line, “justification by faith alone,” perceive a problematically passive understanding of the Christian faith. In short, it may seem that no activities or responsibilities are required of the Christian, except to receive Christ’s justifying righteousness.

Some of these, as I said, are justified. Based on a selective view of his work, in fact, it is easy to see Luther as a trouble-making figure, obsessed with God’s unconditional grace. But I’m suggesting a different method to exploring this Luther madness, one that takes into account his context and culture. For, when we look at the larger picture and explore what Luther was aiming to accomplish in 16th century Christian Germany, these popular conceptions may prove to be slightly less warranted, maybe even closer to misconceptions than conceptions. Of course, I cannot genuinely hope to radically alter anyone’s opinion of Martin Luther through a brief blog post such as this, but my hope is that you may, at the very least, give Luther and his theology a closer look, and allow it to speak on its own terms.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany and died there too, in 1546. In between these years, however, he spent a few years as a monk in Erfurt, before travelling to Wittenberg, Germany in 1507 to become a priest and eventually teach theology at the university there. This progression from monk to priest to professor is important to remember, for as he was teaching theology at the university level, he was also engaging first hand with congregants on a pastoral level, bringing to the table all his experiences he had as a monk. Equally important, however, is his time: Historians commonly cite 1500 as the end of the Middle Ages, which would place Martin Luther as a figure operating at the end of one era as well as on the cusp of another.

But first, flashback to 1483 and Luther’s early years, where he was raised in a home in which spiritual superstition and religious anxiety were central. His father was a miner, one of the most dangerous occupations at the time, and common practice was to attribute all accidents on the job to Satan. He also endured harsh discipline under his father, and grew up watching his mother engaged and consumed by perpetual spiritual warfare on an everyday basis.  Needless to say, Luther’s early life was dominated by the same spiritual anxiety that tormented his mother, coupled with the constant fear of his father’s strictness. Luther’s concept of God, as a result, was painstakingly similar to that of his earthly father.

In 1505, he began his stint as a monk, carrying with him all the religious torment he had from his earlier years. A regular day consisted of multi-hour confessions of his sins hoping that this would appease God’s wrath toward him. He fasted so excessively that portraits of him from these years depict a frail and withered figure. And not to mention, we have his own writings from these years. The uncertainty he harbored concerning his salvation was chronic and constant: how can I know I am saved, that I’ve done enough to please God? This was his piercing question.

Let’s take a step back and look at the broader religious culture of the late 15th century. Cultural factors such as the Black Death and outbreaks of other horrific diseases compelled Christians to believe that God truly was punishing all of humankind, that his wrath was relentless. With the development of early capitalism came also new developments in the religious system: just as hard work was rewarded economically, God also rewarded your “spiritual” hard work “eternally.” The dominant theologies at the time, as such, taught that Christians have necessary “grace” within them to live righteously and please God, and that by exercising these graces through good works, God bestows further grace to do even better. In simple terms: justification was a gift to be earned, certainly not without God’s grace, but it was dependent on the believer to activate and maintain this grace.

To make matters worse, popular preaching shouted about the wrath of God, leaving any mention of God’s mercy and forgiveness to a silent whisper. To those who had any comfort in God’s forgiveness, they were still virtually guaranteed an “eternal delay” following their death called purgatory, an unpleasant place where one’s remaining sins were purged before eternal life with God. Even the greatest strives toward holiness, in other words, were still ultimately insufficient for immediate eternal life with God. Yet, the Church had a clever idea to alleviate these terrors and concerns: unsettled Christians could pay a fee to the priest in order to lessen this time spent in purgatory – the technical term for this is an indulgence. Eventually, and this is important, these payments to lessen purgatorial penalties escalated into payments for salvation. And it is precisely this evolution in indulgences that Luther’s 95 Theses were most directly detesting to. Not to the Catholic church as a system and not even to indulgences altogether, but simply the unchecked development of indulgences, that had resulted in laity coming to believe that salvation could be bought. Again, to reiterate, his concern was for the laity, the common people of the Church, who knew minimal theology and were ill-equipped to denounce such an error as this when it appeared. It is precisely these people that Luther sought to be an advocate for. For people such as you and me.

And this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. For a monk who spent most of his time consumed in these same anxieties, whose early life was dominated by them, Luther was uncannily sympathetic to these issues he perceived amid congregations. He empathized with their persistent attempts to appease God’s wrath, to present God a perfect or satisfactory “spiritual report card” and he empathized even more with the ensuing spiritual disappointment and despair. He knew their exhaustion and he knew their misery.

Now, of course, this is not to say that Christianity in the Late Middle Ages was unwaveringly legalistic as a whole, or that all individuals suffered under spiritual anxiety with the same intensity that Luther did. Such a generalization is not only inaccurate, but it’s historically inappropriate. What’s important for us, rather, is simply that this is what Luther perceived, these were issues that did exist, and they were ones that Luther believed adamantly and deeply needed to be resolved, for the sake of laity who knew not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but the distorted path to salvation prominent in the Late Middle Ages. Whether it was truly pervasive across all of Christendom is a question for another time. For now, it’s sufficient to say that it was pervasive in Luther’s immediate context.

And so, it’s within this context of immense spiritual uncertainty, wherein Christ’s forgiveness was mentioned minimally and God’s love was demoted to secondary, that Luther advocated for an alternative form of righteousness — one he believed was far more faithful to the God of the Bible and Christ the Redeemer than the prevailing system of righteousness of the day. This he called passive righteousness, or “alien righteousness,” righteousness instilled by Jesus into Christians, following their confession of faith. In Luther’s model, God did not watch and wait for the weak Christian to conjure up enough spiritual goods to merit His forgiveness and justification. He turned the tables, and instead made Christians the recipients of God’s forgiveness and righteousness on account of faith. For, as Luther reasoned, if salvation was a matter of merit, then what did Christ die for?

Luther didn’t stop at alien righteousness, however. After having been justified by faith, Christians lived a life of holiness and grew in “proper righteousness,” which was a fruit of alien righteousness. Holy living and Christian sanctification, in other words, was not neglected by Luther, but resituated into its proper place: as a result of Christ’s love and forgiveness, rather than as a prerequisite.

As I mentioned, I found this proposal of Luther to be one of the most life-giving works of theology I had ever encountered. I learned from him (as well as none other than St. Augustine!) that God wanted me to serve him not out of the fear of punishment, but out of genuine love. This was to be the sole motivator of my Christian endeavors, the fuel that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, strengthens me to grow in conformity to Christ throughout my Christian walk.

If I would have been a 16th century layperson in Luther’s German congregation, who was exposed not primarily to the Gospel, but to God’s judgment and wrath, who lived a life of striving for God’s approval rather than resting in God’s love, who understood holiness as grounds for love rather than the fruit of it, I think Luther would have been an advocate for people like me. Perhaps he may be an advocate for you, too, compelling you to re-fix your eyes on the overwhelming and unchanging love of Christ that longs for your heart and promises to form you in holiness along the way. Really, I think he can be an advocate for all of us. Because who doesn’t need to be reminded that we’ve been justified by Christ?


To learn more about Martin Luther, be sure to read some of his own writings such as his Commentary on Galatians and The Freedom of a Christian, both of which are contained in Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings.

In addition, for top-notch biographies, see Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Baiton and Luther: Man Between God and the Devil by Heiko Oberman.

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