Essential Luther - Lesson 6

Luther's Spirituality

Luther's treatise on Christ's Passion was used by common people to focus their meditation on the significance of this period of Christ's ministry. Luther urges people to be sensitive to what the Spirit might speak to them as they pray through Scripture passages. Luther's writings are sprinkled with short dialogues that help us deal with everyday matters according to the gospel.

Gordon Isaac
Essential Luther
Lesson 6
Watching Now
Luther's Spirituality

The new devotional practices Luther used to work out the teaching of justification by faith:

1. A Meditation on Christ's Passion – 1519

2. Because of images provided by modern technology, most peoples' imaginations are less developed than those of people in the Middle Ages.

3. A Simple Way to Pray – 1535

4. Our spiritual experience is proved out in how we respond during moments of inner doubt and turmoil.

5. We need to inform our conscience.

6. Luther's writings indicate that he is realistic about the struggles we face in life.

7. The catechisms Luther wrote are a valuable resource to help us continue in the faith.

  • The joy and promise of reading Luther. Luther has keen theological insights and expresses them using wit and lively word pictures. Luther's innovative thoughts are a result, not only of profound wrestling with theological ideas, but with Scripture itself. Luther uses polemic language, which was common in his time.

  • Some of the historical milestones that took place in the life of Martin Luther.

  • Luther has an unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and a unique way of going about it. When discussing sin, Luther says that our problem is not just a moral lapse, but it's our spiritual presumption that is our greatest and worst of sins. Theology for Luther is our being grasped by the Word of God, not just a speculative academic pursuit.

  • Justification by faith is the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity and is unique compared to other religions. It is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God. To Luther, it is more than just a doctrine, it is a death and a resurrection joining us to the living Christ. 

  • Luther presents his view of the atonement in the form and shape of the theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something new. Christ did not come to give us a new law. Christ came into the closed circle of law and death by being born under the law, then dying and being raised from the dead to redeem those who were under the law. We get what Jesus has to offer by going through the cross ourselves, not just accepting theories about the cross.

  • Luther's treatise on Christ's Passion was used by common people to focus their meditation on the significance of this period of Christ's ministry. Luther urges people to be sensitive to what the Spirit might speak to them as they pray through Scripture passages. Luther's writings are sprinkled with short dialogues that help us deal with everyday matters according to the gospel.

Martin Luther used wit and lively word pictures to communicate his keen theological insights. His innovative thoughts are a result of his wrestling with Scripture as well as thoughtfully considering current theological teachings.

Essential Luther

Dr. Gordon Isaac


Luther's Spirituality

Lesson Transcript


Thanks for clicking on the essential Luther. And this last session, I'd like to speak with you just a little bit about Luther spirituality. This is a topic which is of great interest to me personally, but it's fraught with some problem because the term spirituality itself is somewhat difficult to define and the term is used by so many people. It has really become quite plastic and it's hard to know exactly what it means further. Luther himself did not use the term spirituality. The terms that were used in his time period much more like Flemish kind piety. So Luther himself does not use this term spirituality. What I'm attempting to point at by using this phrase, I'm trying to use terminology that's contemporary. But what I'd like to do is to expose you to Luther's new devotion. There were devotional practices and piety, which became a part of his working out of justification by faith, which had a very important impact upon the life of the church and the life of those who would attempt to live as Christians in this emerging new world. So I'd like to highlight certain kinds of writings that we might call devotional writings of Luther. We need to remember that Luther was a theologian in the older sense of the term, and so his responsibilities included not simply lecturing at the university, but he also was called upon quite often to preaching responsibilities. And further, he had other responsibilities that brought him into contact with individual Christians who had various issues that they needed to handle. And so quite often, Luther found himself counseling individuals, writing numbers of letters to people. And there's a volume in the Library of Christian Classics on Luther's Letters of Spiritual counsel. And I would recommend that you're reading it's a marvelous compilation, translation of select letters that really give you a window into Luther's work as a pastoral theologian.


As I was saying, Luther was a theologian of the old kind, which meant that he did everything. He did commentaries. He did lecturing. He did pastoral work. In the 16th century. They did not have specializations, as we do today on a modern seminary faculty. Today, you'll find the faculty of Old Testament. You'll have New Testament scholars. You'll have church historians. You'll have the systematic theologians. And amongst the systematics in the Systematics department, you'll have someone who specializes in ethics, someone who's on philosophical theology, someone who does straight up dogmatic and a whole host of specializations in that regard. In the 16th century, that simply wasn't the case if you were a theologian. You did it all. And so we find that all of this is mixed together for Luther. In 1519, Luther wrote a treatise entitled A Meditation on Christ Passion. Luther wrote this treatise while he was in the midst of writing a treatise on the Lord's Prayer, a commentary on Galatians and reading canon law in preparation for the upcoming Leipzig debate. The writing of this meditation was occasioned no doubt by what he saw of the piety of the common people during a time when biblical imagination was much more lively than it is today with our media saturated circumstance. The common people would spend large periods of time in religious meditation. They would call to mind the images of the Bible, which were not far off to them and place themselves in the midst of the struggle and the turmoil. Luther's treatise helps the reader to orient their meditation to Christ in the proper way, countering the false approaches to meditation. Luther sets forward an evangelical way of proceeding. He says this We must give ourselves wholly to this matter for the main benefit of Christ.


Passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he'd be terrified and crushed by this unless we seek that knowledge. We do not derive much benefit from Christ passion. The real and true work of Christ passion is to make man conformable to Christ so that man's conscience is tormented by his sins and like measure as Christ was piteously, tormented in body and soul by our sins. It's interesting to note that Luther's definition of theology as knowledge of God and man is reflected very clearly in this kind of outline. Being conformed to Christ is the fruit of this meditation on His sufferings. This does not happen because of the depth of feeling or because of the strength of human will, but it is accomplished by God when the true work of Christ passion does its work. There is a death and a resurrection as Luther. Puts it, this meditation changes man's being and almost like baptism gives him a new birth. Here, the Passion of Christ performs its natural and noble work, strangling the old Adam and banishing all joy, delight and confidence which man could derive from other creatures, even as Christ was forsaken by all, even by God. So meditation on the sufferings of Christ is not a practice that has found widespread acceptance in modern Protestant circles. What strikes me as interesting in looking at this short and by the way, very popular writing of Luther, is that the elements of a monastic piety are very evident. Perhaps Luther was appealing to the lay monastic movement of the time. More likely he's just acting as a good pastor, using the thought forms that are popular in his time and adjusting them for his own purposes. In our modern world, we're used to seeing images moving and otherwise the speed with which telecommunications provide us with accurate and graphic information leaves us with an appetite for precision that forces our imagination into laziness.


Jean Leclerc reminds us, however, that for the writers of the Middle Ages, the imagination was vigorous and active. It permitted them to recount the details of an event or scene down to a facial expression or the color of an object. In the case of the meditation on Christ Passion, we find precisely this kind of religious imagination at work in which the sufferings of Christ are recounted and experienced by those participating. This biblical imagination is not unknown to monastic piety. In this treatise, Luther's unfamiliar medieval and monastic territory, even while he fills it in with evangelical content. In 1535, Luther wrote a little book entitled A Simple Way to Pray. And this is a marvelous insight, it seems to me, into how Luther conducted himself in his own private devotion. It's also a wonderful insight into how he recommends that others participate in this important action of prayer. As you'll remember, I think I was saying maybe I've sent Ambrose. He says Christians have not always been able to read, but they have always been able to pray. And so prayer has formed one of the most important portions of a Christian's life of discipline, a life of relatedness to the living God. In this 1535 treatise, he sets forward his understanding of how one ought to pray. And the treatise was written for one of his dear friends who experienced grave trial in his life. The short work is stuffed full of wonderful advice regarding prayer and meditation. It's in this treatise that we find the following quotation. First, when I feel that I've become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer, I take my little psalter hurry to my room, or if it be the day and hour for it to the church where a congregation is assembled.


And as time permits I say quietly to myself and word for word the Ten Commandments, the creed. And if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul or some Psalms, just as a child might do. This beautiful vignette comes straight out of the monastery, doesn't it? Four In monastic practice, Luther, in his Augustinian monastery, prayed the Psalms. Scripture was a part of the prayer life of those monks and Luther. Even though he's come through to his evangelical experience, he takes that practice and turns it and shapes it for use of the common person. He also confesses that he continues to use this form and structure for his own edification. If possible. Luther adds, He would say his prayers with the congregation. The elements of scripture, meditation, prayer and worship all work together to give us a picture of an important aspect of the theological calling that Luther takes pains to live out this way of approaching prayer embraces the entire person, body and soul. The lips form the words. The voice brings them to sound, The muscles stretch and the ears hear the words of the Psalter commandments and creed. This is a meditation that is both inner and outer. Nothing of Luther's person is left idle in prayer. Rather, it's a mighty engagement that affirms the unity of body and soul and the theology of the cross that cuts across any dualism that would separate sacred and profane. His is not a piety that seeking to leave the body, but one that seeks to obey God on Earth and see His will done as it is in heaven. So as we move on in this treatise, we find that Luther urges his readers to pray the Lord's Prayer, the Commandments, and the creed.


This is how he describes the way in which this is best done. He says, If I have time and opportunity to go through the Lord's Prayer, I do the same with the Ten Commandments. I take one part after another and free myself as much as possible from distractions in order to pray. I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as first instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a Thanksgiving. Third, a confession. And fourth, a prayer. The garland of four strands allows time for the participant to ruminate on the text of Scripture, and thus to turn it into a prayer. The words of God are rolled over and over in the mind and on the mouth, precisely so that they do their work. Luther even indicates that it is in such times of meditation that the Holy Spirit will preach a sermon in his ears. And so Luther urges the simple people as they're praying to be open to hearing the spirit expound some part of the Scripture that they've been praying and illuminate that for them. When we begin to hear Luther talk about prayer in this relief, down to earth, sort of away, we hear the resonant chords of Luther's earlier life in the monastery. He brings that experience with him into the new world in which he finds himself functioning, and he is asking the common people to follow him in this. We can see clearly enough in reading Luther's treatise a simple way to pray that Luther would not have us marvel only at how unusual a notion it might be to pray the Ten Commandments.


His desire is that we should become careful not to break the habit of true prayer. So it's interesting to note that Luther's form of spirituality focuses on the idea of meditating on the word of Scripture. The true pilgrimage is not to Compostela or some other place to receive merits, but the true pilgrimage of the Christian is to make a pilgrimage to Scripture and allow Scripture to speak and inform the life of the believer. Meditation on that word. There is no substitute for it. And Luther urges us to do that. But also Luther asks us to pray, to take those words of Scripture and to make them our own in such a matter that we pray through them, using our lips to actually form the words, allowing the spirit to impress the knowledge of those words on our inner being and so be changed in the midst of it. Now, it's interesting to note also that Luther never gives up on meditation, never gives up on prayer, and neither does he believe that for the Christian, there will be any let up in terms of the spiritual trial that might come to one in the course of one's life. As a matter of fact, Luther is of the firm conviction that our Christian experience is proved out in moments of inner doubt and turmoil. Times that he would call on flesh tone. Spiritual trial is something that comes to each one of us, and it's in that moment when there is no ray of hope. There is no clear way out that the Holy Spirit comes to us and confirms our experience. As a matter of fact, even as Christ experienced the sufferings on the cross. So we, in our role as Christians, following after Christ, experience that kind of crucifixion as well in that moment of inner conflict and death.


The Holy Spirit comes to us and it's in that groaning and travail. Take a look at Romans Chapter eight. You'll find a three fold groaning that takes place. There's a groaning in creation as it longs for its exodus. It longs for its liberation to freedom. It's been subjected to sin. And creation itself is groaning in expectation for its liberation. The second round of groaning takes place within us as believers. That groaning that takes place is as we anticipate our redemption, Saint Paul says. Romans Chapter eight, verse 23, that we look forward to the redemption of our bodies. And so there is a groaning that takes place While we recognize that the promise of God has been given to us and the Word of the Gospel, that the claim of God is on our lives through baptism of the Lord's Supper. Even so, in this life, we continue to have spiritual struggle, and there are moments in which we groan, waiting, longing for the redemption of our bodies, the resurrection at the end of time. That's our hope as Christians. It's not going straight to heaven when we die. There's not much of that that's mentioned in the New Testament. That's not our hope. Our real hope is that God will renew heaven on Earth. At the end of time, He will release creation from its subjection to sin. He will restore our bodies. He will resurrect our bodies. And the third line of groaning that we find in Romans Chapter eight is the groaning that the Holy Spirit participates in. As the Holy Spirit groans for us, interceding for us in sighs that cannot be uttered. So some scripture. It's interesting when you think about that three fold groaning creation, our individual selves and also the Holy Spirit.


So it's while we are in the midst of a crucifixion, as it were, when we faced inner conflict and turmoil, as we face that moment of death, our final moment, that's the moment in which the Holy Spirit comes to us and confirms us and lives through that moment so that we might live as it were. And so it is that the Holy Spirit comes with us and allows that spiritual trial that we experience in life to confirm the reality of the gospel for us. God, the Holy Spirit is able to unite the certainty of experience to the outward acceptance of the truth of the Gospel. Without this experience, the whole content of the Gospel remains in the sphere of history, or simply an idea may also be expressed in this manner. Only the Holy Spirit can make the message about Christ into the Gospel without the experience. The message about Christ remains the law, without the experience given by the Spirit in that inner struggle. Our relation to the word is simply our personal religion. So once more we find Luther talking about spiritual trial precisely in the context of a theology of the cross. When the gospel comes, that person in Christ knows the certainty of a righteousness acquired solely by faith in Christ. And therefore, self chosen works are cast off. And instead we enter into the works of vocation and calling, and we render them up to God as an act of praise. And this new creation is not a sham. It's real. It produces a new mind, a new will, new senses, and even new action. So on fact, tune was very important for Luther in his personal life. Luther Scholarship has shown that on fact is an important part of Luther shaping and framing the entire understanding of a Christian's walk in this life.


Faith and doubt for Luther remain very close. It's absolutely critical to understanding Luther's understanding of the nature of Christian life in this world. Now, it's interesting to note that Luther, in the course of instructing Christians how to live their lives, makes mention of how we need to inform our conscience, as I mentioned in another session. Conscience is the battlefield on which our Christian life is played out. The experience of the believer is one in which the world takes a central role, and when the inner conflict comes. Luther wants us to be ready. The Christian conscience is to be dead to the law, as he puts it in his Galatians commentary of 1535 Christ's rules and the conscience. The law continues to rule the body and its actions. The law is holy and good, but it cannot rule on the conscience. And this is how Luther puts it. Blessed is the man who knows this properly amid a conflict of conscience who, when sin attacks him in the law, accuses and terrifies him. He can say law. What is it to me if you make me guilty and convict me of having committed many sins? In fact, I am still committing many sins every day. This does not affect me. I am deaf and do not hear you. Therefore, you are telling your story to a deaf man, for I am deaf to you. But if you really want to argue with me about sins, then go over to my flesh and my limbs. Which are my servants. Teach them discipline and crucify them. But do not trouble my conscience, which is Lord and King. For I have nothing to do with you. For I am dead to you. I now live to Christ where I am under another law, namely the law of grace, which rules over sin and the law by what means through faith in Christ.


So Luther, interestingly enough, in his spirituality, teaches the believer in vivid language and personal dialog. How to make an important theological distinction. But more than that, he actually gives the believer a vocabulary by which to engage in the inner struggle. Spiritual trial on fact, even tentative. Who does not end when one comes to faith? In fact, it may be said that the struggle intensifies because a Christian has a feeling for sin and a respect for God. But Luther does this to show how the Word of God is exceedingly sweet, useful and full of wisdom. When the accusation of the of the law afflicts the conscience, there is no other defense. Now, it's interesting to note, you know, as you read Luther in his writings, you can find that there are dialogs sprinkled throughout Luther's writings where he helps a believer who's in the midst of this inner conflict. In one instance, Luther tells us that the strategy of the devil is to tear believers away from the comfort of the gospel and lead them into an argument about how good they are. He gets the discouraged and the timid and terrified consciences. That's clear. The others he has because they go on living in insolence and security. These he tries to get through despondency and despair. And this is what Luther says. But you must learn to say, Devil, you're coming at the wrong time. No devil is going to argue with me now, but rather I shall talk with my Lord Jesus Christ that I may learn that He suffered for me and died and rose again for my sins, and that God will bring me with Him on the last day. The struggle of faith is real, and the source for confidence is the Holy Spirit who is present in the battle.


And sometimes Luther can identify the struggle as being with the law. Sometimes it's with the devil. And at times we find Luther urging us to defiantly boast and defy the terror of the enemy. The violence of his language matches the violence of the conflict. For here, Luther is concerned that we're talking about a matter of life and death. The Scripture says the book of John, we read in this life you will have tribulation but be of good cheer for Christ has overcome the world. In these short dialogs, what Luther is attempting to do is to instruct simple Christians how to deal with everyday matters according to the Gospel. It's as though Luther is taking us to school and he's saying, Look, we need to learn what it means to think according to the Gospel. We need to learn what it means to comfort consciences. We need to know how to stand up in the midst of this kind of trial. And here I find Luther's spirituality wonderfully realistic. There's a realism about Luther that recognizes the fact that we do struggle in this life. I don't know about you, but I've had experience in going to worship services where there's been so much talk about triumph and victory and success and Jesus that I thought that really they were talking about someone else or something else other than Christian faith. I like Luther's realism because he recognizes that there are. Moments when our own minds turn against us, when the circumstances of life don't seem to confirm us or affirm us in the faith. And so he helps to provide a vocabulary for Christians to enter in and to continue in on that battle and that struggle of faith. I find this really a fascinating kind of action that Luther makes.


There's a marvelous quotation in which Luther does this. He talks about the conflict that we have in the matter of our lives. And then he says this We defiantly boast of that. And in addition, we scoff at the devil saying, because you hanker so to devour us as Christians and assume that you are acquiring a dainty morsel. Go ahead and kill and butcher us, fry us and devour us. Hide in hair. However, begin behind with this and then you will have mustard and salt in advance. But what do you have after you have completely devoured us? It will be far from satisfying your insatiable appetite for you will not find what you are seeking and desiring. And that is the best and greatest part of us, indeed our whole life and treasure, namely this article of the resurrection in Christ. Through this we have already been wrested from your teeth and have been moved too far on high, for this treasure does not reside with us or in us. If it did, you would soon tear it away from us. But on high in Christ there you will have to let it rest on assailed and without any thanks. What does it harm us? That you now kill our body for? The only thing that you effect thereby is to help this poor sack of maggots out of its misery and arrive at its destination where the head, the heart and everything is except all misfortune that we look forward to daily and that we desire. Then you shall perceive and feel what you have eaten. It will be most distressing to no one, but only to you the very pestilence and poison that you gave us. You yourself will have to eat and devour and guzzle down, and it will tear both your jaws and your belly, putting an end to your raging behold.


Thus we must fend off and defy all terror of the vile enemy. Because he can, after all, but afflict us with all distress and grief. This he does to distract our eyes and our heart from this article and the first fruits Christ making us forget whose we are or what we have and what we are called. Luther, in talking about the defiance of the devil, would have us keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ, and thus to have our conscience set firmly and squarely there. Luther gives interesting advice then in terms of the Daily Walk, and he affirms the importance of meditation, of prayer and of spiritual trial. And it should be noted also that the cataclysms that Luther left to the church are a wonderful resource for continuing in the faith. I know that I and my son have been greatly blessed by using the the small catechism as a source for our devotion to the Lord takes us to the commandments in succinct fashion. Luther teaches the essence of the faith. It goes through the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and teaches about baptism and the Lord's Supper. And I must say, just from a personal point of view, my own entrance into Luther had to do with a study of his understanding of baptism in the Lord's Supper. And one of the things that I found absolutely enthralling and compelling was that Luther defined baptism as a summary of the Gospel. He defined the Lord's Supper as a summary of the Gospel. This is the word given for you. This is my body and blood broken for you. Shed For you for what? For the forgiveness of sins. And I was astounded as I went through Luther's writings on this, because I had not learned it in church growing up.


But the Lord's Supper really is a proclamation of that justifying word. Your sins are forgiven you. The sermon goes out to a whole audience of people, and the word can go in your ears. You can believe it or not believe it. But the Lord's Supper, when it comes to you, is as though personal address from God Almighty to you saying, This is my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. This is the kind of down to earth spirituality, the direct address that Luther has captured profoundly in his theology, both baptism, the Lord's Supper, but also in this small catechism. In the larger catechism as well. You find Luther in wonderful literature. Manner, embracing the entirety of Christian theology, setting it forward as something which really is a wonderful and marvelous thing to live. I would say that in wrapping up and coming down to our conclusion here today that Luther's spirituality is one which is full of realism. It's one which is centered around the Word of God, and as such, it has marvelous resource for daily living, for confidence, for boldness, and for recognizing one's place in this world.