Martin Luther would be unknown to us if it were not for Scripture. The Spirit did not write the name “Martin Luther” in Scripture as He did the name “Moses” or “Malachi.” But the Spirit wrote the Scriptures in Martin Luther, giving to him the convictions that made him the historical giant that he was, and propelling him into the spotlight of the ecclesiastical and national scene in sixteenth-century Germany. Without Scripture and the profound impact it had on his life, Martin Luther was just another man that time, like an ever-rolling stream, would silently bear away. Sure, he was a brilliant man, industrious in character and dynamic in personality; but that alone would not have made him known.
We never would have heard of Luther if it were not for Scripture. Scripture made Luther, Luther. It made him the man that the two most powerful and recognizable figures of the world of his day—the pope and emperor Charles V—had to deal with. It made him the pivotal figure of whom all secular historians must give an account in recounting the shaping of the sixteenth century. It made him the dear father we Reformed believers remember as a token of God’s covenant faithfulness.
Instead of presenting Luther’s doctrine of Scripture by drawing from Luther’s writings on the subject of Scripture, we will draw from Luther’s life. What Luther did with the Scriptures tells us as much of his view of the Scriptures as what he wrote about them.
Martin Luther joyfully lived in Scripture. It was his Delight.
Martin Luther boldly struck with Scripture. It was his Hammer.
Martin Luther humbly stood under Scripture. It was his Authority.
If we are truly sons and daughters of the Reformation, the same must be said of us.
While Luther did address the topic of the inspiration of Scripture and other related doctrines, his writings abound in exhaustive treatments of the value of Scripture. Luther knew from experience that Scripture is not a book of dead letters for a few elevated clerics to pour over in vain study, but the very Word of God, revealing the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ as sweetness to the soul of every believer. “How sweet are thy words unto my taste, yea sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (). Luther’s life proves he delighted in Scripture as sweetness to his soul.
First, Scripture continually delivered him from spiritual unrest and even depression. Often, but especially in his early years as a monk in the Augustinian monasteries, true peace of heart and comfort of conscience were painfully elusive. He grew up in the medieval religious system that was established on and that played on fear—the fear of failing to be a good enough monk in establishing his own righteousness by the law, and thus incurring the inexpressibly terrifying wrath of God in purgatory and hell. Profoundly painful were the inner torments of miserable Martin’s bitter soul.
But how the Scriptures filled his soul with rapturous delight! In 1513, God’s wonderful providence brought Luther to the university in Wittenberg to lecture from the Scriptures. Although he was initially apprehensive that a spiritually sick man could teach others, Luther began to pour over the Scriptures for class lectures, and it was in that personal study that God showed him the gospel of peace in Jesus Christ. He began with the Psalms. How sweet was, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Luther could not immediately penetrate to the meaning. Those had to be the words of Christ, he thought. Christ had to have experienced the agony of God’s judgments in hellish torments, a suffering far worse than anything Martin himself had ever endured. Why else would Christ cry like that? But why did God punish and forsake the sinlessly perfect Christ? How could…? Ah… then the disquieted monk was given to see the gospel of grace: Christ had taken Martin Luther’s sins and the curse due to Martin Luther for them. God forsook Christ for Martin Luther.
Near the end of his commentary on the first verse of Psalm 22, Luther, speaking from experience, writes,
I have dwelt a little at length upon these things, in order that I might commend unto you more highly the grace of faith and the mercy of God, and that you might have a more full knowledge of Christ. For by this verse those are instructed who are exercised in the depths of the abyss of death and hell, and they are here furnished with an antidote against despair.1
Second, that Luther delighted in Scripture is witnessed by his motivation to begin and complete the incredibly difficult and historically monumental work of translating Scripture into German. After the Diet of Worms where Luther made his famous stand in 1521, he spent some time hiding in the Wartburg Castle and there began his project. His New Testament was finished quickly and published in 1522. However, the whole Bible was not completed and published as one volume until 1534. The work was as challenging as any work could be. To a friend Luther remarked, as only he could,
We are sweating over the work of putting the Prophets into German. God, how much of it there is, and how hard it is to make these Hebrew writers talk German! They resist us, and do not want to leave their Hebrew and imitate our German barbarisms. It is like making a nightingale leave her own sweet song and imitate the monotonous voice of a cuckoo, which she detests.2
Sweat and all, Luther pressed on determined to put a German Bible in the hands of the people. Had he never tasted Scripture’s sweetness, Luther would have abandoned the project. But he was determined to have others share his delight in the Word of God read and preached.
Third, Luther’s delight in Scripture as the Word of God was in part what energized him later in life to reject the teaching and antics of the radicals and revolutionaries like Thomas Munster and the Zwickau Prophets, who claimed to have special gifts of prophesy and continued revelations from the Spirit. This was a deeply personal matter with Luther, for if in the deep despair of his younger days he had to look beyond the living, objective Word of God in Scripture in expectation of some special, private revelation from the Spirit or had to look to his own spirit within, he would have found nothing but darkness.
Finally, it should be noted that the reason Luther was able to draw from Scripture delightful sweetness for his soul was that Luther believed all of Scripture testified of Christ. Luther read Christ; but his great service to the church was that he entered the pulpit and preached Christ. A half-year before he died, Luther preached a sermon on John 5:39ff. that was so well received in the city of Halle that the city council presented him with a golden cup. In the sermon he reveals the secret to profitable Bible-reading and preaching: “Therefore he who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it; then he finds life eternal without fail.”3
Luther delighted in reading, teaching, and preaching Scripture, because he found the sweetness of the gospel of Christ there.
If anyone in church history could swing a hammer it was Martin Luther. His primary hammer was not what he may have used to post his theses to Wittenberg’s church door on October 31, 1517. His hammer was Scripture: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (). Because his voluminous writings were faithful explanations of the truth of divine Scripture, the powerful Word of God was communicated through those writings, making them many hammers to break in pieces the rock of Roman Catholic false doctrine lodged in the hearts of men. Luther’s writings were not like the fluff of many Christian publishing houses today. His writings infuriated the pope, served as kindling for the enemies’ fires, and continually jeopardized his safety. But the Reformer kept taking the hammer of God’s Word, swinging away in the service of the truth that salvation is of grace alone and, therefore, through faith alone in Christ alone.
With his Ninety-five Theses of 1517 Luther smashed into pieces the lie of papal authority and the efficacy of indulgences captured in Tetzel’s famed jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This was only the beginning.
With his “Address to the Christian Nobility” of 1520 Luther hammered away at the Romish doctrine of papal authority and infallibility, the sole authority of the Romish church to interpret Scripture, and the corruption of the distinction between clergy and laity. With the heavy “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” written also in 1520, Luther pounded away at the entire system of works-righteousness by smashing to pieces the Roman Catholic idea of the sacerdotal system and the sacraments—in particular the accursed idolatry that is the mass, so central to the life and work of the priests and of all the people. It is said that even Erasmus read this tract and declared that the breach with Rome was irreparable. Luther’s commentary on Galatians, published in 1535, was another heavy-hitting piece of writing.
Not every blow fell upon the rock of Rome. The erroneous theology of the aforementioned Erasmus also took a pounding. Erasmus was not one of the fathers of the Reformation, but a Dutch scholar of the Renaissance merely looking for some moral reform in the church. In response to Erasmus’ treatise in support of natural man’s free will, Luther published a careful point-for-point refutation in 1525 entitled On the Bondage of the Will. This was a work Luther reckoned to be among his greatest. It contains some of Luther’s doctrine of Scripture, including the perspicuity of Scripture, the authority of Scripture, and the rule of interpreting Scripture that requires taking the words in their grammatical and literal sense unless circumstances plainly forbid it. But especially, this work contains one Scripture passage after another, carefully explained and applied as a continual hammering against the heresy of free will and in praise of sovereign grace.
Additionally, Luther had to bring the hammer of Scripture down upon the practices of the Anabaptist radicals and revolutionaries in the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525.
Man’s word, even when vehemently expressed, as Luther’s often was, is straw. God’s Word is the Hammer. Luther’s writings were like hammers because they were consciously and clearly grounded in the divinely inspired Word of God. One Luther scholar said of him,
We know of no man’s writings that are more saturated with Scripture than those of this great champion of the Bible. Typical is his impatient exclamation in a writing against a papal antagonist: “Give me Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. Do you hear me? Scripture.” We repeat: the permeation of Luther’s writings by both the letter and spirit of Scripture is one of his outstanding characteristics as an author.4
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…” (). Luther found Scripture profitable for sweet comfort in his personal life and profitable for destroying the strongholds of Satan in the church. But Scripture is only profitable because it is “God-breathed,” possessing the authority of God Himself. The most important truth of Scripture believed by Luther was the truth of Scripture’s absolute, underived, unquestionable authority. Especially this conviction made Luther, Luther. Two examples of Luther’s submission to and confidence in the authority of Scripture stand out in his life.
The first is the Leipzig Debate. Before Luther was officially excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church, his teachings were challenged and debates were arranged. At Leipzig he engaged in an important debate in 1522 with a university professor named John Eck, a brilliant and formidable foe. The debate was about indulgences, but Luther went deeper and made papal authority the fundamental issue. He recognized that indulgences are based upon an erroneous doctrine of papal authority. During the debate Eck appealed to the decisions of church councils, to the decretals of the pope, and to history. It was not that Luther rejected the authority of church councils or the authority of lawfully ordained officebearers or the testimony of history. But because Scripture is the inspired and infallible Word of God, it has supreme authority, such that to it the pope himself must submit. Thus Luther appealed to Scripture. In the course of the debate Luther declared,
A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it. As for the pope’s decretal on indulgences I say that neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils.5
By far, the most memorable event in Luther’s life was his famous stand before the ecclesiastical and civil powers at the Diet of Worms in 1521. He was the number-one heretic on the most-wanted list of the church and the state. Luther knew his life was in jeopardy. He came to the Diet of Worms and was asked to recant and renounce his writings. He would gladly have thrown any of his works into the fire—his hammers into the sea—if it could be proved that they were in contradiction of Scripture. Standing before the emperor himself, Luther declared those familiar words,
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of people and councils for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.6
The humble monk had no fear before these earthly powers because he stood under the supreme authority of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth. To stand under the authority of Scripture is to stand under the protection of the Almighty.
1 Martin Luther, Complete Commentary on the first Twenty-Two Psalms, https://archive.org (accessed September 13, 2016).
2 Martin Luther, “Prefaces to the Books of the Bible” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 35 (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 229.
3 Cited in Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 69-70.
4 Plass, xv.
5 Cited in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 103.
6 Bainton, 180.