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A CHOICE OF PASTORS: N.T. Wright or Martin Luther -- Part 4

A CHOICE OF PASTORS: N.T. Wright or Martin Luther -- Part 4


By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
May 12, 2020

When Luther was made a Doctor of Theology, he made a solemn vow: "I swear manfully to defend the truth of the Gospel."

During the ARCIC discussions, debates, and group studies between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in England over recent decades it was customary in Church of England circles to hear apologetic or disparaging comments about the great Saxon Reformer. He was either a religious fanatic or psychologically deranged. He was, in softened voices, described as rash, obsessive, and abusive. Lutherans were politely and well thought of, but "their master" was so problematic. Some of us wished that there were more Anglican clergy who were as mad as Luther!

But given his flaws and unfortunate tendencies which cannot be justified, and considering the factors that affected his temperament (the hazards he faced, the poor health he endured, the tensions, burdens, and constant strains of his high profile ministry) some degree of leniency must be allowed. Luther was a vulnerable and sensitive soul and not the ironclad super hero that many suppose. John Osborne captures his doubt and distress in his play based on Luther.

Luther's humanity is so clear to see; his godliness evident. All of us can rage under sufficient pressure. All of us are driven by prejudice if the opportunity to vent presents itself. Those who rail against Luther are almost imitative of the character they deplore. He arouses hatred attributable to something beyond personality and behavior. He wields the sword of the Spirit with such adroitness that minds are disturbed and consciences wounded. Man's self-reliance and pride are offended.

Intimacy with Luther discovers his dominant side. A wholehearted servant of Jesus Christ, a humble student of the Word, a sensitive administrant of the consolation of the Gospel. A good way to meet him on a frequent and convenient basis is through James Galvin's "Faith Alone, A Daily Devotional, Martin Luther", Zondervan. Luther excites, uplifts, convicts, encourages, emboldens, strengthens, reassures as a pastor virtually unequalled. He transports you to the Gateway of Heaven. How? Because he has fought hard as an embattled soul, and been found by Christ. He knows the darkness of evil, the depths of the sinner's plight. He knows his theology, but beyond that he really knows Christ, and Christ knows him as he knows so many great sinners - perhaps even ourselves if grace seeks us out. Luther did not know a painted Christ, a stained-glass figure, nor a Christ portrayed merely in print and words. He knew Christ himself through the Spirit and that is why he chimes with troubled spirits everywhere.

There is nothing abstruse in his gospel, nothing medieval but truth timeless in the tradition of the faith before his time and beyond it. Luther speaks to the human heart because he had a large and generous heart, and a converted one. You can't sit stock still with Luther. You don't pore, mystified, over a baffling, tedious manual that leads you through a maze of muddled ideas. He stirs your soul, moves your body, and activates your voice. Praise the Lord! No one preaches grace better than Luther. He banishes the misery and mists of doubt. Look to Jesus, for Christ is our justification. Luther is a pastor not a perplexity! He could controvert with Erasmus and compose pastoral notes to his barber. He could criticize the pope and care for his people.

"When I preach I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom I have above forty in my congregation; I have all my eyes on the servant maids and on the children And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open."

A life could be spent in reading the thought of Luther - great commentaries, treatises, sermons, his favorite work on the Bondage of the Will, his wonderful counsel, his hymns, and his intimate thought preserved in Table Talk. None will agree with him totally, it is suspected. But the way of salvation is vividly, accurately delineated. He could be quoted endlessly. His publications are readily available. NTW should not have neglected him for so long. Better acquaintance would have led to a better assessment.

Luther can fire you with exuberance and inspire you toward ecstasy as his doctrine of justification by faith takes its hold upon your mind and cheers your heart.


It is most certain that the Holy Scriptures cannot be fathomed by study and scholarship alone. Therefore, your first duty in approaching the Bible is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect:
That if it please God to accomplish something through you for his own glory, and not for your own glory nor that of any other man, that of his grace, he will grant you a true understanding of his words. The reason for this is that no master of the divine word exists, except the author of these words, as Christ himself says, 'They shall all be taught of God.' Therefore, you on your part must stand in complete despair of your own industry and scholarship, and rely solely and utterly on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Believe me, I know the truth of this in my own life.


I am seeking, searching, thirsting for nothing else than a gracious God. Yet God continually and earnestly offers himself as a God of grace, and urges even those who spurn him and are his enemies, to accept him as such. The promises of grace are all based on Christ from the beginning of the world, so that God promises his grace to no one in any other way than in Christ and through Christ. Christ is the messenger of God's promise to the entire world. Grace consists in this: that God is merciful to us, shows himself gracious for the sake of the Lord Christ, forgives all sins, and will not impute them to us for eternal death. This is grace: the forgiveness of sins for the sake of the Lord Christ, the covering up of all sins. Grace makes the Law dear to us. And then, sin is no more there, and the Law is no longer against us, but with us.


No man can obtain Christ, the Bread of God, by dint of his own efforts. Neither will he find him by studying, hearing, asking, seeking. If we are to know Christ all books are inadequate, all teachers incompetent, all intellects incapable. It is the Father himself who must reveal him, as Christ himself taught. 'No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the Last Day.'


By the one solid rock we call the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we mean that we are redeemed from sin, death, and the devil, and are made partakers of life eternal, not by self-help but by outside help, namely, by the work of the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ alone. God does not want to save us by our own personal and private righteousness and wisdom. He wants to save us by a righteousness and wisdom apart from this, other than this: a righteousness which does not come from ourselves, is not brought to birth by ourselves. It is a righteousness which comes into us from somewhere else.

It is not a righteousness which finds its origins in this world of ours. As men without anything at all, we must wait for the pure mercy of God, we must wait for him to reckon us righteous and wise. As long as I recognize that I can in no way be righteous in the sight of God . . . I then begin to ask for righteousness from him. The only thing that resists this idea of justification is the pride of the human heart, proud through unbelief. It does not believe because it does not regard the word of God as true. It does not regard it as true because it regards its own understanding as true, and the word of God runs contrary to that.

The dean of Reformed theology of the 20th century, Holland's G.C. Berkouwer, enthusiastically endorses the doctrine that Luther derives from the New Testament. "Whenever Paul speaks of the justification which has come to us, there is a single refrain - Christ has not died in vain. All striving and grasping makes sense only when it has been taken hold of by Christ (Phil 3:12). Our contribution amounts to precisely zero. Faith knows this and is thus true faith, given by God. For it knows that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8.10).

Justification on the ground of nothing is not a one-sided juridical concept. It is the preaching of grace, sheer, unalloyed, unmerited grace (Faith and Justification, Eerdmans, page 89).

"Faith is the 'yes' of the heart, a conviction on which one stakes one's life"
"When by the Spirit of God, I understood these words [The just shall live by faith. Rom 1:17] I felt born again like a new man. I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God!"
"Your faith comes from God, not from you. And everything that works faith in you comes from him and not from you."
"God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him."
"Certain it is that man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit to receive the grace of Christ."
"It is pleasing to God whenever you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart.

Luther does not sound unscriptural by any means. He doesn't sound unhinged in the least. He hasn't had to squeeze anything out of Scripture at all, as someone well known alleges. "No one understands Scripture unless it is brought home to him, that is unless he experiences it." For Luther Scripture came home to him by the grace of God and his rich experience is enviable. It is communicable because he is human like us. His knowledge of God and grace is infectious.

Luther's Prayer On his Deathbed

O heavenly Father, God of all comfort, I thank thee That thou hast revealed to me thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom I have believed, whom I have preached and confessed, whom I have loved and praised . . .

I pray thee, dear Lord Christ, let me commend my soul to thee.

O heavenly Father, If I leave this body and depart this life, I am certain that I will be with thee for ever and ever, and that I can never, never tear myself out of thy hands.

So God loved the world that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life (repeated thrice).

Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. Thou hast redeemed me, thou true God. Amen.


The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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