Martin Luther knew people. Like the Lord Whom he served, he could be “touched with the feeling of the infirmities” of God’s people. He could weep with the sorrowing. He could laugh with the joyful. He could pity the distressed and downcast. He could sympathize with the believer who struggled with the guilt of his sin. Luther knew people because he knew himself. He never stood aloof from Gods people in his office as minister of the gospel, because Luther knew himself to be but a man among men. He identified with the people of God in their struggles, burdens, temptations, and sins.

Identifying with God’s people, Luther identified with the youth. He understood youth. He understood youth because he himself had been a youth. He had himself experienced the enthusiasm and vigor of young manhood. He had himself gone through the struggles that mold the boy into the mature man of God. He had faced the temptations that confront young men, and, like every young man, had more than once fallen into those temptations. 

Besides, Luther knew youth as a parent. Luther, along with his beloved wife, Katie, raised a family of children and teenagers. He knew the challenges and the frustrations, the joys and the sorrows of bringing up young men and women.

And Luther knew youth as a pastor. He was, of course, the outstanding leader of the Protestant Reformation. He was a man whose time was constantly demanded by all the work that belonged to reforming and rebuilding the church. He was, besides, a theological professor, engaged in the training of prospective ministers of the gospel. But in addition to all this, Luther was also a simple pastor—and then a pastor who had a care not only for the sheep, but for the lambs of the flock. 

In this article, we want to witness Luther’s pastoral concern for the youth in the church, and hear what Luther has to say to the youth. 

Luther’s first concern was with parents and with the responsibility of parents to bring forth and train their children. The strength of youth depended on godly parents carrying out their calling in the church. In “A Sermon On Keeping Children In School” Luther exhorted the congregation:

He has not given you your children and the means to support them simply so that you may do with them as you please, or train them to get ahead in the world. You have been earnestly commanded to raise them for God’s service . . . .

It must exactly be a motive with God-fearing parents, Luther insisted, that out of love and concern for the welfare of their children they support the cause of the reform of the church. In the same sermon as quoted above, he asked the rhetorical question, “But how will you raise them (your children) for God’s service if the office of preaching and the spiritual estate have fallen into oblivion?” 

In the rearing of their children, Luther warned that parents must not destroy and stifle, but direct the natural enthusiasm of youth. Luther reacted to the suffocating tendencies of monasticism and the medieval schools. In one place, commenting onEcclesiastes 11:9, he said:

Solomon is, therefore, the best of teachers of youth. He does not forbid joys and pleasures, as those foolish teachers, the monks, did. For this is nothing else than making young people into stumps and, as even Anselm, the most monkish of monks, said, trying to plant a tree in a narrow pot. So the monks confined their pupils as though in a cage and forbade them to see or talk with people, with the result that they learned and experienced nothing, even though there is nothing more dangerous to youth than solitude. The mind needs to be trained with good sense and ideas, so that people are not corrupted by association and contact with evil men, since according to the body they have to live in the very midst of such things. Therefore one must see and hear the world, so long as there is a good teacher present.

This, of course, must not be understood to mean that young people must be given a free rein, be allowed to do as they please.

Therefore one must be indulgent with youth, and must let them be happy and do everything with a happy spirit. Yet one must see to it that they are not corrupted by the desires of the flesh. For carousals, drinking-bouts, and love affairs are not the happiness of the heart, but rather make the spirit sad.

Over against the disrespect and disobedience to parents that characterized already the young people of Luther’s day, Luther insisted on the calling of the young people of the church to honor and obey their parents. There is probably no calling which the young people so need to be reminded of today. Commenting on the account in Genesis 23 of Abraham’s prostrating himself before the children of Heth at the time he made his request of them for the Cave of Machpelah for a burying-place, Luther said:

These are commendable customs of humility, respect, and courtesy; they should be especially praised and presented to our youth, so that it may accustom itself to them and rid itself of its habitual boorishness.

In another place he wrote:

Therefore I urge and earnestly beseech all young men (young women, too) to shun and detest this sin and to accustom their hearts to respect their parents and to that end to implore God’s help with unceasing prayers.

In many places Luther called the children and young people to receive the instruction of their parents and the church. The parents and the church must not only give this instruction, but this instruction must be willingly and eagerly received by the youth.

Doctrine. . . must be constantly repeated on account of the adolescents and the tender youth, who are the seed-bed of the church, that they may learn that they must stand firmly and remain where God speaks, and that they may accustom themselves to those obligations which are commanded by God. . . .

More than once Luther stated his conviction that the permanence of the Reformation depended on the coming generation. If the youth were not instructed and called to stand for the truth of the Word of God represented by the Reformation, the Reformation would vanish like the morning dew. 

Especially did Luther call the young people of the church to a serious life of holiness. Time and again he exhorted them to keep the commandments of God and to flee “fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.” Luther is honored for his insistence on the truth of justification, justification by faith alone apart from our own works. But Luther’s teaching of justification by faith alone did not overthrow the life of good works to which the child of God is called. Justification has its great goal in sanctification, a life lived in obedience to all the commandments of God’s law. 

In a stirring passage, Luther calls the young people to holiness, and at the same time points out to them that there is nothing that so grieves godly parents as the unholiness of their children.

For there are very great and intense emotions that God has created in the whole nature of things and has implanted in parents toward their offspring. And if at any time their hearts are wounded by grief or sorrow on account of a misfortune suffered by their children, this is a very real plague and a poison for their lives. Therefore, parents are easily killed, if not by the sword, then by sorrow and grief. I myself have seen that many very honorable parents were slain by godless children because of sadness of heart. Young people neither consider nor understand this. But children should be taught and warned, lest they become murderers of mothers and murderers of fathers; for an exceedingly horrible judgment and punishment of God awaits them . . . . Children often fall smugly into various misdeeds without having any regard for respect towards parents. Daughters sully their chastity and disgrace their pious and honorable parents. But with these shameful acts they kill father and mother; for father and mother are endowed with that very tender affection and love toward their offspring which is not so intense and ardent in children. Indeed, they do not even very often understand it.

One of the outstanding means by which the youth of the church are led away from the church and a holy life is the influence of wicked friends. By associating with the young people of the world, the young people of the church are certainly going to come under the power of that bad example, which appeals, of course, to their own sinful flesh, and be led astray. In the following passage, Luther warns the young people against keeping company with the young people of the world, and warns the parents against allowing this to happen.

Now just when a father or a mother has devoted much toil and money to their child before it is trained a little and has been taught fine and mannerly conduct so that it knows how to behave sensibly and chastely over against all people, some pernicious animal comes along, an evil tongue says something into the child’s ear, or someone displays a bad example that poisons such a young heart and engenders bad blood of which it can never again rid itself. For instance, even when a young lad has been trained and disciplined well for a long time and to the parents delight, a wild, evil, frivolous rascal comes along and with a loose and shameless remark or example poisons and spoils with a single stroke the whole object of so much care, diligence, time, and expense. This works murderous harm and ruins whatever is well trained. It is like hail or lightning that ruins the vegetation in the field. And people who take pleasure in poisoning such innocent young people are despicable and devilish.

Especially guilty of deluding and corrupting the young people of Luther’s day were the universities. There is no new thing under the sun. Still today, the institutions for higher learning, even those which are nominally Reformed, take the lead in undermining the truth of God’s Word and the faith of the young people. Luther expressed, “I greatly fear that the universities are wide gates of hell, because they do not diligently teach the Holy Scriptures and impress them on the youth.” It was exactly out of his concern that not only in the primary grades, but also in the university, the truth of God’s Word be taught and upheld that Luther labored unceasingly on behalf of the University of Wittenberg. It was exactly the University of Wittenberg that was responsible, in large measure, for the spread of the Reformation throughout the lands of Europe. 

As he pointed all of the people of God, so Luther also pointed the youth to the cross of Jesus Christ as the only hope of salvation. To Christ the young people must look for the forgiveness of sins, and to Christ they must turn for the strength of the Spirit to live God-glorifying lives.

A youth who believes in Christ has victory over everything because of which Satan has power. Thus he has victory, not in such a way that sin, an evil conscience, and death are not felt, but because they are overcome. For Christ is greater.

This is the strength of youth: Christ. God grant that the youth of the church find their strength, as Luther exhorted them to find their strength and as the faithful church today exhorts them to find their strength, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.