Hero of The Christian Faith or Stain Upon the Legacy?

The idolization of Martin Luther


Anagi Pieris

“I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all, but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” —Martin Luther

Celebrities, athletes, and actors all tend to garner more praise than they are due, often even becoming the foremost role models in kids’ lives. Except, when it comes to Christian saints, we can fall into the same mistake of idolizing history. In reality, even renowned leaders in Church history like Martin Luther and other Reformers possess attributes most people would distance themselves from in addition to admirable traits.

A one-time Franciscan monk, Martin Luther courageously stood up for the truth in the face of overwhelming opposition to the contrary, yet remained humble and unassuming throughout the burgeoning Reformation. For instance, when called to testify at the Diet of Worms in Germany before an audience of cardinals, bishops, and various princes of Pope Leo X’s Holy Roman Empire, Martin Luther proved he did not take his convictions and counter-cultural revolution lightly. Even having heeded the call Ad Fontes! (go to the source) by putting every inch of law and theological training into practice scrutinizing the Word of God, Luther demonstrated marked cognizance of the magnitude of what he was undertaking as he pleaded for an extra day to consider. With such a dire consequence as ex-communication at stake, the wisest decision was naturally to either commit fully or back down as graciously as one can under those circumstances. However, the book of Romans—later attributed to the man’s inspiration— is abundantly clear that only through sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, and solo Christo are we truly saved. This, coming from the man who once climbed the stone steps of a monastery tower on his knees in an effort to accumulate good works, powerfully represents the essence of the Christian faith and God’s power to transform people. To the profuse gratitude of we who are living in the 21st century, Brother Luther refused to say one little word, recants and, in the process, saved his own skin: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” While he himself might not have been aware of how God intended to use him, the fervency with which Martin Luther followed that still, small voice set into motion a whirlwind of events within the Protestant Reformation across Europe. 

Secondly, once the critical period of change and upheaval was passed, Martin Luther— past his prime and frequently bedridden—began a train of virulent tirades against the Jews. In hindsight, Mr. Luther’s quite uncalled for obscenities against God’s Chosen People represent one of his most revolting affronts of later years. To illustrate, despite Martin Luther’s earlier level-headed works like That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, within fifteen years he had reverted to extremely anti-Jewish publications, including The Jews and Their Lies. For many people, the transformation from the forerunner of the Reformation to the intolerant skeptic seems hard to believe.  Yet, when Martin Luther is put into context with the beliefs and expectations of his time period, perhaps we can see his actions with more dimensions. In light of the earth-shattering truths Martin Luther uncovered in the Bible, he anticipated and looked forward to the conversion of many Jewish brethren. After all, he noted the parallels between the Jews and himself before he came to know Christ: both seeking to attain a perfect standard by salvation through works. Martin Luther had once felt the keenness of his brokenness so much that he climbed a monastery’s stone tower all the way to the top, on his knees. Naturally, the former monk had experienced the guilt of not measuring up and he could not wait for future brothers and sisters in the Jewish nation to discover the same peace through Jesus. However, upon finding that multitudes of converts were not forthcoming, Martin Luther became indignant, which precipitated into unrighteous anger. And while this line of reasoning is not excusable by any means, it may perhaps bring people of the 21st century into a better understanding of the trials of our forefathers of the faith and what we may learn from them still.