Reformer Martin Luther: A Flawed Legacy
Updated: Oct 25
When I mention the name Martin Luther, do you think of the great theologian and reformer? Or perhaps you swing into the other camp, those who recall Martin Luther, the not-so-great ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘potty mouth’. What is a protestant Christian in 2023 supposed to make of Martin Luther and his sometimes vulgar musings, especially his scatological references? Yet, that’s not even the worst of it.
In my youth, as an upcoming minister, when I first heard of Martin Luther's earlier life and ministry, I thought it was extremely inspiring. Who wouldn’t love a story about a German monk who stood against the major doctrinal flaws within the Catholic Church? It could even be likened to the showdown between David and Goliath. Here is young Luther, an average, everyday man, taking on the giant that no one dared to come against. Every new, fresh-faced, bible college student has heard about Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which was nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), Wittenberg, on October 31st 1517. It was actually common practice among priests to nail their work on the door but no one expected that this particular piece would become what is known today as the beginning of the protestant reformation. This one action began a revolution that would echo into our reality today. So how did this inspiring monk garner a very different kind of reputation later on in his life?
I personally and not surprisingly heard a sanitised version of Luther’s life and ministry at Bible College and it wasn’t until I reached my middle-aged years that I finally discovered the shocking truth about Martin Luther and his bizarre backflip in his thinking towards the Jews. Some simply dismiss Luther as a fairly harmless, hot-tempered monk with a potty mouth, one who was willing to use vulgarity in order to defend the gospel and stand against the devil’s schemes.
It is frequently repeated that Luther became more bitter and angry as he aged and battled with health issues. This is often the excuse as to why his writings had become increasingly disturbing, even inciting hate and violence against the Jewish people and their property. Luther once said, ‘You are not only responsible for what you say but also for what you do not say.’ Did he even think about this when he later wrote the book, ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’? This book was filled with unchristian-like sayings towards the Jews, like; “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” or that Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed.” He suggested that "these poisonous envenomed worms" be subjected to hard labour and be afforded no legal protection. He also suggested taking away their religious writings and forbidding rabbis from preaching. Among other insults, he said they are full of the "devil's faeces ... which they wallow in like swine." He mentioned that the synagogue was a "defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil sl*t ..."
Before he died, Luther also preached a final warning against Jews, suggesting that the authorities should “expel” the Jews if they don’t convert to the Christian faith. He warned that the authorities would make themselves "partners in another's sins" if they didn’t take action. This seed was planted in the hearts and minds of the German people, so is it a coincidence that Hitler did what Luther dreamed about? All this in the name of Christianity? One thinks of the severe warning in Romans 11:18 where Paul instructs the Gentiles not to become arrogant against the natural branch (the Jews). I find this part of Luther’s legacy hard to fathom. It’s absolutely inexcusable and not exactly the fruit that you would expect from an ambassador of Jesus Christ.
When I think of Apostle Paul, I remember the verse from, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ Paul places a major emphasis on obedience, loving others and how we ought to grow and mature as we progress in our Christian walk. How could Luther start so well and finish so badly? Isn’t our walk supposed to be the opposite to this? Young Luther stood for biblical truth and even defended the Jews from being persecuted by the Catholic Church - and rightly so.
It begs the question, can we look past the swearing and vulgar scatological phrases, in addition to his bizarre rantings at the devil? If so, then can we ignore his incitement of hatred and violence towards God's chosen people? Does this ruin our memory of him? Many preachers say ‘no’ and that they can remember him fondly. John Macarthur, who I greatly admire, is one such minister. In January 2017 he wrote an article called, ‘John MacArthur on the Legacy of Martin Luther’. While he recognised Luther’s overall excellent work as a reformer, he also mentioned his weak points. ‘In fact, to be completely candid, some of Luther’s more infamous transgressions were downright reprehensible. We are rightly appalled, for example, at his fondness for scatology, the cutting sarcasm that characterizes his polemical writings, and his crass xenophobia—especially his anti-Semitism. Those were colossal defects in Luther’s character, and it would be folly to pretend they did not exist.’ MacArthur also adds, ‘Indeed, some of Luther’s most disturbing imperfections were rooted in a naive, lingering attachment to certain medieval superstitions. His obsession with the devil, his fear of sorcery, and his occasional gullibility regarding tales of monsters and magic all reflect a mind swayed by the folklore of that time.’
John summed up Martin’s legacy by adding that, ‘Of course, we can’t affirm all the distinctive doctrines Luther taught. Virtually no one follows Luther’s teaching slavishly today. In fact, some of my own disagreements with his teaching are profound. But on the core principle of gospel truth—namely, the doctrine of justification by faith—Luther was sound and biblical… Despite all the publicity given to his flaws, Luther’s indelible legacy will always be the example of his faith. His heroic courage, deep passion, steadfast integrity, infectious zeal, and all his other virtues are the fruit of his faith.’
The calling of an elder in the church demands much. While no one could ever meet all of these demands perfectly all of the time, a minister must be fully submitted to the leading of the Holy Spirit and seek to conduct themselves in an upright manner. According to 1 Timothy 3:1-7, when a Christian is called to ministry, amongst other things, he must be above reproach, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, not pugnacious, gentle, uncontentious, self-controlled, sensible, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, loving what is good, just, and devout. Could we say that Martin Luther's later writings and sermons reflect any of these virtues? If he had lived, would he have been disqualified from ministry until he repented? As far as we know, he never repented of these evil deeds but instead, he became even more obstinate in his view, even refusing to listen to his friends who were calling his behaviour into question.
I think Luther is a story of God's grace. God used this man despite the fact that he would end up poorly representing the God he so passionately defended. He did not extend the love of Christ to the Jewish people but rather so vehemently condemned them. Even if Luther’s distorted view of the Jew was true, shouldn’t he have fulfilled the very basic commandments of Jesus? In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Instead, not only didn’t he show love to the Jews, he persecuted them.
We should never misrepresent God but instead, we must learn from Moses. Moses’ punishment for misrepresenting God was costly, leading to him being disqualified from entering the Promised Land. Just as Moses didn’t trust God’s Word, the same could be said of Luther in my humble opinion. Luther ought to have trusted that God is the God of salvation and He will bring His plan to completion. Perhaps Martin became proud and tried to save the Jews in his own strength and not by the grace he so often boasted of. After all, Romans 11:26 records that one day, ‘all Israel will be saved.’ Just as Moses became frustrated and angry with God’s chosen people and struck the rock, so too did Luther become angry with the Jews and mispresented the love of God. Moses had walked with God as a friend and the Lord trusted Moses with a mighty work. To much is given, much will be required. The same could be said for Luther. The work he began was the greatest move in church history. Just like with Moses, God’s grace upon Luther’s life is not dependant upon the faithfulness of Luther but rather on the faithfulness of God. In the words of Luther, ‘only scripture, only grace, only faith’. For Luther, for you and for me, that’s a good thing. We are commanded to forgive Luther for his flawed and inexcusable legacy relating to the Jews but I lament the damage it has done. I am also sad that, to our knowledge, he never repented. The work in his former years compared with the latter was so extremely different that we cannot ignore this part of Christian history. Given the rising antisemitism in this current culture, I feel the need to address the fact that Luther's latter works do not reflect the true Christian view. Christians ought to love and treat all people with kindness and this especially includes the Jewish people. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we begin to operate in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. God will be the judge of Luther but for us that still remain here at such a time as this, we should learn from Martin Luther's mistakes and ensure that we finish the race well. By Judah Ayling 24/10/2023