Who is the first person that comes to mind at the mention of the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther, would most likely be the most popular answer, and for good reason. He is credited with starting the sixteenth century reformation with the nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. While Luther is most famous for this one event, he did much more for Christendom. As a pastor, theologian, and professor he wrote extensively on what it meant to be a Christian in every life. This is what Carl Trueman discusses in his book Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015).
As Carl Trueman discusses throughout the book, for Luther the Christian life boils down to right theology. How one lives in this life will be determined by how they view God. Luther distinguishes between two types of theologians (Note: Luther is not talking here about professional theologians, but about two ways people view God. Theology is simply thinking about God, so everyone is a theologian in that sense): the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. Theologians of glory are those who depend mostly on general revelation to determine their view of God. Theologians of the cross, on the other hand, depend on God’s special revelation, to determine their view of God. While Luther would have thought that general revelation was good, he would not want someone to build their life on it. Rather one must build their life on God as revealed in His Word.
When considering Luther’s theology on the Christian life, one must remember that he was not a “conservative evangelical” in the western cultural sense of the word. As with anybody, Luther was a product of his time, and he lived during a very tumultuous time in world and Church history. During the sixteenth century, the Roman church was losing its grip on Christendom, as leaders such as Martin Luther pointed people toward a more biblical understanding of life. As a leader of theological and cultural change, Luther was cultivating his theology though his lived experience. Much of Luther’s theology would not translate to twenty first century Christendom. One major example would be Luther’s view on the Lord’s Supper. He held to view that Christ was present “in, with, and under” the elements, and would strongly disagree with most Christians today who hold the memorial view. He would not only strongly disagree, but hold the view that most Christians today were not true believers for not hold the literal presence view.
Carl Trueman does an excellent job of providing an overview of Luther’s theology on the Christian life. One interesting point of discussion in the book is Luther’s writings later in life. If Luther had not written anything pas 1525 there would not be much negative to say about him as a theologian Yet, he continued to write, teach, and preach. Throughout his life, his views changed on the Jews. Earlier in life he wrote about trying to reach the Jews with the gospel. In later life, his writings became prejudiced and misguided. Sadly, many of these writings from Luther’s later life was used by the Third Reich to justify the holocaust. Also, his disagreement with Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy are a stain on his reputation as well. Yet, as Trueman argues, it is not fair to approach Luther by “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. For all of his flaws, specifically his later writings, Luther has much to teach the Church. His teachings on justification by faith alone, is invaluable and are to be commended.
I would highly recommend Luther on the Christian Life. It is an excellent resource, as are all of the volumes in the Theologians on the Christian Life (Crossway) series. The book serves as a great introduction to the theology and writings of Martin Luther. It whets the appetite for more, and serves a great jumping off point for further study in the primary sources referenced throughout. Luther’s life and legacy, while stained with sin, are a great reminder that a person is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone. Soli Deo Gloria!
Editor’s Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.