Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labor

Pastor John Piper’s 1996 biographical address on the great reformer Martin Luther has been encouraging me these past few days. I post a few tidbits and encouragements here, but go read the whole thing for yourself. Be you unbeliever or Christian, layperson or deacon or elder, teacher or student, man or woman – it will be good for your soul to see such a vessel of God’s grace.

Piper does a wonderful job of picking a theme from Luther’s life and hammering it home with really good quotes:

In this psalm [119] David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word.

Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.

Be assured that no one will make a doctor of the Holy Scripture save only the Holy Ghost from heaven.

The apostles themselves considered it necessary to put the New Testament into Greek and to bind it fast to that language, doubtless in order to preserve it for us safe and sound as in a sacred ark. For they foresaw all that was to come and now has come to pass, and knew that if it were contained only in one’s heads, wild and fearful disorder and confusion, and many various interpretations, fancies and doctrines would arise in the Church, which could be prevented and from which the plain man could be protected only by committing the New Testament to writing the language.

(Of his struggles with trusting God’s grace during his monastery days he said,) If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy!

Dear Lord God, I want to preach so that you are glorified. I want to speak of you, praise you, praise your name. Although I probably cannot make it turn out well, won’t you make it turn out well?

Of his groundbreaking discovery on Romans 1:17, Luther wrote:

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. . . I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory …

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truth the gate to paradise

More on the Bible, languages, and preaching:

For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer.

He who is well acquainted with the text of Scripture, is a distinguished theologian. For a Bible passage or text is of more value than the comments of four authors.

… the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought all to work and toil.

I then read the commentators, but soon threw them aside, … ’tis always better to see with one’s own eyes than with those of other people.

Solomon the preacher is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield.

It is certain that unless the languages [Greek and Hebrew] remain, the Gospel must finally perish.

Without languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude.

If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister; the pope, the sophists, and their anti-Christian empire would have remained unshaken.

It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book.

Some pastors and preachers are lazy and no good. They do not pray; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture … The call is: watch, study attend to reading. In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well … The devil … the world … and our flesh are raging and raving against us. Therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent … This evil. shameful time is not the season for being lazy, for sleeping and snoring.

Let ministers daily pursue their studies with diligence and constantly busy themselves with them … Let them steadily keep on reading, teaching, studying, pondering, and meditating. Nor let them cease until they have discovered and are sure that they have taught the devil to death and have become more learned than God himself and all His saints [which, of course means never].

On triblulation:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself … Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm [119] and run thus: Oration, meditatio, tentatio (Prayer, meditation, trial).

For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you will make a real doctor of you, nd will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself … owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

[Trials] teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

On prayer:

That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory—not for yours or any other person’s—He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: ‘They shall be all taught of God’ (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit.

Since the Holy Writ wants to be dealt with in fear and humility and penetrated more by studying with pious prayer than with keenness of intellect, therefore it is impossible for those who rely only on their intellect and rush into Scripture with dirty feet, like pigs, as though Scripture were merely a sort of human knowledge not to harm themselves and others whom they instruct.

You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal … Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through His dear Son, graciously to grant you His Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding.

The natural mind cannot do anything godly. It does not perceive the wrath of God, there cannot rightly fear him. It does not see the goodness of God, therefore cannot trust or believe in him either. Therefore we should constantly pray that God will bring forth his gifts in us.

On the lies of “free will” teaching:

I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrines which exalt our “free will” as being directly opposed to this mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For since, apart from Christ, sin and death are our masters and the devil is our god and prince, there can be no strength or power, no wit or wisdom, by which we can fit or fashion ourselves for righteousness and life. On the contrary, blinded and captivated, we are bound to be the subjects of Satan and sin, doing and thinking what pleases him and is opposed to God and His commandments.

And finally, on GOD-centered theology:

I recall that at the beginning of my cause Dr. Staupitz … said to me: It pleases me that the doctrine which you preach ascribes the glory and everything to God alone and nothing to man; for to God (that is clearer than the sun) one cannot ascribe too much glory, goodness, etc. This word comforted and strengthened me greatly at the time. And it is true that the doctrine of the Gospel takes all glory, wisdom, righteousness, etc., from men and ascribes them to the Creator alone, who makes everything out of nothing.

Amen. Praise the Sovereign Lord for those who have gone before us and taught the Word of God to us. May we imitate their faith.

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About B Treece
loved by God before I ever loved Him, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by the authority of the Bible alone to the glory of God alone, made to enjoy Him forever, happily married with wonder-filled children.

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