Was Martin Luther An Evangelical?

Martin Luther

These are my reflections on an essay by Carl Trueman in The Practical Calvinist entitled “Was Luther An Evangelical?”.

Listen to Carl Trueman on Martin Luther (mp3)

Trueman thesis, that Luther was not really cast in the same mold as later evangelicalism, is a reminder that Luther was at the forefront of the magisterial branch of the Reformation in the 16th century, and that he was not sympathetic to many of the Anabaptist and radical Reformation concerns of his day.  Popular evangelicalism, the kind that is blind to its history and enamored with image, novelty, and Christian “myth”, picks and chooses what it likes from the Christian tradition, often without understanding the historical, ecclesiastical, or doctrinal soup from which it dips.  The rock band U2 once sang that Charles Manson stole the song “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles, so they “were stealing it back.”  Similarly, Trueman’s essay is “stealing back” Luther from modern day evangelicals for his rightful owners—the magisterial Protestants.

Of particular interest is the relationship between Luther’s role as church reformer, his evangelical faith, and his high sacramental theology.  Trueman stresses that a popular evangelical reading of Luther becomes more difficult when Luther’s view of the sacraments is given its proper due.  How does one harmonize Luther’s evangelical views of the gospel and the necessity of personal conversion with his doctrine of paedobaptism?  Luther rooted assurance of salvation not in the decision of faith or the recognized moment of conversion (like evangelicalism), but in the objective event of one’s baptism—even if that baptism was received as an infant.  Luther tried to resolve this seemingly illogical position by stressing the importance of the relationship between the institutional church and the priesthood of all believers (pp. 140-145).  This was in Luther’s day a good resolution for the problem of individualistic Christianity, and still is for similar maladies today.  I wonder how my faith would have been shaped during my youth if I had been taught to look to my baptism and what it symbolizes for assurance that God loves me and chose to save me by marking me with his sign, washing my sins away and cleansing my conscience, and giving me a personal reason to trust his goodness and grace in the promises of the gospel.  Luther was convinced the sacraments are not mere religious rituals.  His understanding of the import and significance of his own water baptism, that through it believers “had been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and, through baptism and trusting in the promise of that baptism, had been united with their saviour” (p. 146) is richer and fuller than today’s common evangelical doctrine of baptism as an initiation rite and the first act of obedience for new Christians.  Reading Luther’s theology of baptism in particular and the sacraments in general makes me realize that ministers of the gospel need to lucidly, plainly, and regularly instruct their sheep in the deep biblical truths it conveys—not merely to gain understanding for the sake of right doctrine, but for the edification of the saints.

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