Today I’m beginning a short series that will be posted each Thursday titled, Do Not Worship the Reformers. The aim of the series is to point out why we love and respect these men, but at the same time, we should not hold them up to an unhealthy level of adoration and appreciation. The Reformers accomplished many things for the glory of God, but like you and I, they all had feet of clay.
We Should Applaud Luther’s Doctrine of Justification
Martin Luther was born November 10th, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. He would be baptized the following day. His family connections provided opportunity for education and to excel in life, but Luther’s life would take a different turn. One that he didn’t expect and one that his family opposed. He would enter the monastery in keeping with a promise he made out of fear to God in a violent thunderstorm. Little did he know that providence was guiding his footsteps. Those footsteps would eventually be led to the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517 in protest that would eventually be heard around the world.
Martin Luther has been hailed by some as a hero of church history. When we examine the history of the church, we see the enormous contribution of Luther as a man who brought the church back to the Bible and upheld justification by faith alone.
The material principle of the historic Protestant Reformation was justification by faith alone. Is the forgiveness of sins obtained by the work of Jesus alone, or is it obtained by the work of Jesus and the cooperation of sinners through external works, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches? That issue stood at the center of the debate in Luther’s day, and it remains central in our present day as well.
In thesis 52, Luther writes:
It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.
Luther was outraged by the offer of salvation by the purchase of indulgences. Eventually Luther’s protest would grow in intensity after his conversion. True biblical salvation had been lost in the day of the sixteenth century like a precious diamond in the muck of a pig’s pen. God chose to raise up men who would recover the biblical teaching of salvation and bring God’s people back to the Bible. One such man was an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. Commenting on the importance of justification by faith alone, Luther wrote:
The article of justification and of grace is the most delightful, and it alone makes a person a theologian and makes of a theologian a judge of the earth and of all affairs. Few there are, however, who have thought it through well and who teach it aright. 
We Should Question Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism
While Luther was a faithful opponent of the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of salvation, he seems to contradict himself at times on the subject of sola fide (faith alone). In discussing religious works in relation to the sacraments, Luther writes:
Therefore it cannot be true that there resides in the sacraments a power capable of giving justification, or that they are the “signs” of efficacious grace. All such things are said to the detriment of faith, and in ignorance of the divine promises. . . . In this way, the Romanists have put precepts in place of the sacraments, and works in place of faith. Now, if a sacrament were to give me grace just because I receive that sacrament, then surely I should obtain the grace, not by faith, but by my works. I should not gain the promise in the sacrament, but only the sign instituted and commanded by God. 
On a similar note, Luther writes the following about baptism:
A man can be saved without the sacrament, but not without the word; this is true of those who desire baptism but die before they can receive it. 
However, as we continue to read the works of Luther, we find statements that not only seem self-contradictory, but also seem to fall into tension with the faith alone formula of biblical salvation. The German Catechism was published in 1529. Concerning the effects of baptism, Luther appeals to Mark 16:16 and says:
This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves. For no one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, ‘to be saved.’ To be saved, as everyone knows, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death and the devil, to enter into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with him forever. 
When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church door in 1517, he wasn’t yet a true Christian. It would be over the next few years that he would come to embrace Christ by faith alone.
Moving beyond Wittenberg in 1517 and Worms in 1521, Luther wrote, preached, and taught much about the doctrine of salvation. In many points, we applaud his preaching and writing, but in some areas, we find ourselves confused about Luther’s beliefs.
The tension we find in Luther’s theology reminds us that he had feet of clay. Luther was an imperfect man with imperfect theology who lived in the looming shadows of the Roman Catholic Church in the days of the sixteenth century. In short, Luther should be appreciated and applauded, but not worshipped.
What exactly did Luther mean when he said that baptism saves? Did he have in mind something different than the Roman Catholics? I believe he did have something else in mind. However, he seems to move beyond the idea of baptism being a “means of grace” whereby God bestows blessings on His people. He seems to press toward something different. While Luther was not a heretic who nullified sola fide by baptismal regeneration, it seems that he did walk too close to the line on the subject of baptism.
Whatever he truly believed about baptism, we may never fully understand. However, we do know that Luther did champion the idea of infant baptism. Once again, he was saying something different than what the Roman Catholic Church said infant baptism accomplished, but he was still not clear enough. Although Luther should be respected on many levels theologically, the mode and efficacy of baptism in Luther’s system must be called into question.
Luther proved his humanity through his doctrine of baptism. It’s here that we see strange tensions in Luther’s beliefs rising to the surface. Martin Luther came out of Rome, but at times, it seems that not all of Rome came out of Luther.
While we should applaud Luther’s position on Scripture and his willingness to protest the false doctrine of salvation taught by the Roman Catholic Church—he should not be worshipped. He should be appreciated. He should be recognized and respected, but he should not be adored and worshipped. Martin Luther, like us all, had feet of clay. Martin Luther was a sinner who God saved and used for His glory—not a superhero Christian who lived above sin. We should be grateful for the man, but he must not be worshiped.
- WA, 25:375, quoted in What Luther Says, 704.
- Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 300–301.
- Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (trans. Robert C. Schultz; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 349.
- The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 459.
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