‘Out of the Strong Came Something Sweet:’ A Practical Pastoral Luther?

By Neil Earle

Martin Luther preaching at the Wartburg

Many are the theologians and church historians who would agree with the observation that a psychiatric analysis might disqualify Martin Luther from teaching at a present-day seminary. For Master Martin was a turbulent tempestuous man, with an unsteady temperament, a word much in vogue today.

The sometimes deadly enemy of peasants, radicals and Jews could be a dangerous man to cross. He himself was supposed to have said: “I was born to go to war and give battle…I must root out the stumps and bushes. I am the great lumberjack, who must clear the land and level it.” His sometime correspondent the Dutch Reformer Erasmus said of him, “God gave this last age a sharp physician on account of its great sickness.”

Yet there are reasons why pastors – the ultimate “people-person types” – should relate to this pivotal figure of the Reformation. Historian Owen Chadwick wrote: “Luther was a man of the people…Luther always remained a man of the heart…He opened his inward thoughts and feelings to the sight and affection.”

There is so much more to add, beginning with what Hollywood script writers might call Luther’s POV, his Point of View. Tom Lapacka, former Communications Director for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod after pastoring for two decades in Germany, praises Luther’s laser focus on grace. “Having lived 30 years enmeshed in law I became truly free when I understood the message of ‘grace alone’…One can’t grasp Luther, his impact or legacy without appreciating what really drove him. That is the center of the Christian faith.”

Church President and former pastor Joseph Tkach of Grace Communion International, agrees: “Luther used an interesting word to explain how legalism blinds us to our true need for grace. He used the Latin word incurvitas (“turned inward”) to show how human nature prevents us from seeing clearly and tricks us into thinking we can contribute to our salvation with our works.”

One of Luther’s noteworthy phrases was what he called the “passive righteousness of God.” This God gives to us, we drink it in, like the ground absorbs the moisture from heaven, he taught. Salvation is therefore not something God owes us.

So that’s number one – Luther can claim the title given to his mentor St. Augustine, “the doctor of grace.”

Also, both Luther and his contemporary John Calvin were great communicators, Calvin with his French precision but Luther even more outstanding with his forceful folksy (sometimes crude) analogies and metaphors. He wrote and preached dynamically, a strength flowing from his colorful, multi-faceted personality.

Reverend Bob Rowlands of the Anglican Church of Canada touches on this after a life-long fascination with Luther. Commenting on Luther’s often-quoted “Love God and sin boldly,” Rowlands says: “We’re all sinners through and through. So come to terms with it. Accept it. It’s the most fundamental fact of your humanity. But Jesus paid the price at Calvary once and for all, so believe this good news with all your heart and accept it gracefully.”

Remembering time spent as a parish priest, Rowlands reflected: “Over the years this quote has given me what I call a Cosmic Confidence that in all my trials and tribulations, my failures and flops as a pastor, Christ has carried me through victoriously. When I get to heaven the first person I want to meet is Luther.”

Inherent in Luther was not only this powerful articulation of saving grace but his almost unmatched ability to convey it in preaching and writing. His pulpit style cut through the din. Consider his folksy undercutting of the “cheap grace” argument. His imagination conjured up a forgiven sinner, yes, being covered with Christ’s robe of grace but—given that his feet are sticking out—the Devil is able to gnaw at them and cause the Christian much distraction.

Here is the personal touch. Here is the pastoral touch. Indeed, Luther’s forceful expressionism often raises him to the level of a great tragedian or dramatist. Consider his stinging rebuke to the Law done in typical bombastic style. “Law, you want to ascend into the realm of conscience and rule there. You want to denounce its sins and take away the joy of my heart, which I have through faith in Christ. You want to plunge me into despair in order that I may perish. You are exceeding your jurisdiction. Stay within your limits, and exercise your dominion over the flesh. You shall not reach my conscience. For I am baptized…Do not disturb me in these matters.”

Here is empathy cleverly expressed wrapped in lively Gospel hope. Princeton psychologist James Loder referenced this very quote in a lecture given just days before his death. Yes, Luther could preach and he could write, and that was that. He portrayed hope in a pounding rhetorical style, utilizing above what English teachers call “Apostrophe” – the dramatic address to an inanimate object that is quite successful when used well.

It is just possible that pastors have a built-in advantage when reading Luther. Amid the all-or-nothing style of his best works, there is his incessant capacity to align himself with the tormented sinner. Those personal torments he openly shared, the way pastors sometimes feel compelled to do. “As if indeed it is not enough,” Luther wrote, “that miserable sinners, eternally lost through eternal sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Ten Commandments, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospels’ threatening us with his righteousness and wrath.”

Here Luther shares his pre-awakening experience of anger with God and with God’s supposed unfair demands refracted through Law. Here is a preacher who can get down on the sinner’s level with rare candor and to great effect. So much robust compassion, so much ability to preach what many parishioners look for every week – “a saving message.” In the final analysis, Luther could share gospel hope. Chadwick praised Luther’s “genius for popular preaching, for clear, unpretentious instruction” coming from his “clear pictorial mind.”

One more pastoral proclivity of the Wittenberg reformer was his commitment to discipleship, today a congregational imperative. This is shown in Luther’s many written catechisms, his thousands of hymns and devotionals and above all his supreme literary work of translating the Bible into the vernacular German. To rephrase a tribute to Winston Churchill, “He mobilized the German language and sent it into battle.”

Luther had a flair for what pastors must do every weekend – enter into the mental terrain of his or her listeners. This means outflanking the cunning defenses of the heart, assessing the damage, showing the enormity of sin and yet compellingly expressing God’s offer of forgiveness. Luther’s ability to project himself into the sinner’s sense of loss struck at the conscience of Europe. That ability to draw the hearer into his confidence with candid, well-phrased confession – this was a trait that not all Luther’s fellow-Reformers possessed.

Perhaps we miss the freshness of this approach after 500 years of analysis.

How fortunate for the Reformation that its leading theologian had the common touch. Some of his rhetorical pronouncements can make us wince today but his “bringing it home” style was of untold advantage in winning the masses to the Reformation banner.

What else might we expect in reporting on a theologian who, according to reports, felt it was better to be in the alehouse thinking of church than in church thinking of the alehouse.

Martin Luther portrayed to the world a lively conquering hope that more than balanced his undoubted controversial traits. “They say best men are molded out of faults” Shakespeare says in “Measure for Measure.” Luther seems to be one of those.