Was Martin Luther A Born-Again Christian?

Rick Ritchie
Thursday, January 2nd 1992
Jan/Feb 1992

Martin Luther was a Protestant. He was the father of Protestantism. Martin Luther was an evangelical. He defended the authority of Scripture and restored the Gospel to its central position in the church. Martin Luther was a Protestant, and an evangelical; but was he a born-again Christian?

Absolutely Yes! Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born-again to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3). Clearly, in order to be a Christian, one must be born again in the way Jesus intended. If Martin Luther was a Christian–and he certainly was–then he must have been a born again Christian.

Absolutely No! In twentieth century America, there are many zealous Christians whose experience of the faith bears little resemblance to that of Luther. We may think that if we just strip away the cultural accretions that have attached themselves to today’s born again Christianity, we might discover the type of faith that Luther advocated, but that is mistaken. When all the cultural layers are peeled back, what is revealed is, at best, the faith that Luther left behind in the monastery when he discovered the gospel. If Martin Luther was a born again Christian in the biblical sense, he was not a born again Christian in the modern sense.

Born-Againism Versus the Gospel

The thought of pitting born again Christianity against the gospel is bound to strike some as bizarre. If it is not the born again Christians who know the gospel, who does? How many times have we heard of staunch church-goers who were converted at a Billy Graham crusade after years of spiritual deadness in their mainline churches? Are we to discount all of these stories? If not, what does it mean to say that born again Christianity is in conflict with the gospel?

It is not its emphasis on evangelistic outreach that the born again movement is to be faulted for. Its evangelistic crusades and campus ministries are probably responsible for more unchurched Americans hearing the gospel than all other means combined. The born again movement is to be commended for preaching the cross to those who have not heard, wherever it has done this faithfully. The real problem is that this movement preaches not only two births, but two gospels, and is not even aware of it. One gospel tells us of our estrangement from God and how, while we were dead in sin and hostile to God, God reconciled us to himself on the cross. The other gospel tells us how we can be saved by making a decision for Christ and asking him into our hearts. Most of us were taught to think that these teachings were two parts of the same message. When we study the life of Martin Luther, we find that the Reformation occurred when Luther abandoned the second message for the first.

Martin Luther the Monk

Just like their spiritual brethren today, Christians in the Middle Ages liked to pattern their lives after the great saints in the Bible. It has been said that the entire monastic movement was a commentary on the text, “We have left all to follow you.” Like St. Paul before him, Martin Luther had a catastrophic conversion experience while journeying on a road. In his youth, Luther, caught in a storm, was struck by lightning. This experience filled the young man with dread at the majesty of God. He knew that he had to get right with his divine Judge.

Luther did this by vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience. He dedicated himself to a lifestyle of learning about God and subduing the flesh. Praying and fasting, his consecration and effort was to no avail, however. The harder Luther strove to please God, the more distant God seemed. The harder Luther struggled, the greater his sense of sin became. To make matters worse, God could read Luther’s heart, and know that he was motivated by fear and not love. How could Luther escape?

Mortifying the flesh would not help. One cannot get to heaven by works. But what about love? Luther was advised by the mystics to come to God by loving him. This mystical piety was the sixteenth century version of “Christianity is not a religion, but a personal relationship.” Instead of being a solution to Luther’s spiritual anxiety, however, it only made things worse. He wanted to love God so that God would grant him salvation, but how could he produce this love within himself? How could he be sure that his love for God was genuine when it sprang not from a desire for God, but a desire to escape wrath? No, this would not work. If law-keeping was an impossibility, producing a pure love for God in oneself was doubly impossible.

Luther the Evangelical

If the new life that Luther found after his conversion experience was a living death, Luther found true life when he repented of his youthful repentance. While teaching on the book of Romans as a university professor, Luther’s anxiety was only intensified by those passages that spoke of the righteousness of God. At first Luther thought that this righteousness meant solely his justice–that God must punish the wicked. Then he came to see that if the righteous were to live by faith, and if there were to be any righteous, then God’s righteousness must find its foremost expression in his demonstration of mercy, when he declared the wicked to be righteous by punishing Christ in their place. It was in abandoning the manufacture of a new life within himself (Yes, even with the help of the Holy Spirit–medieval Christians were quite familiar with that!) that Luther discovered the Gospel.

Luther the Enemy of Free Will

Luther discovered that trying to find peace with God apart from the work of Christ was a dead-end, even if pursued by a devoted person desiring a personal relationship with God. Fine. This may be an indictment against the excesses of born again Christianity, but Luther’s criticisms of medieval Catholicism do not seem to militate against its essence. What about those churches where people are warned that the only way to God is through Christ? Surely Luther would not have had harsh words for any of them–or would he?

Many of those who were raised in churches which advocated born again Christianity were taught that they were the true heirs of Luther’s reformation. The evidence used to support this claim was the fact that we could compare born again Christianity to medieval Catholicism, and of the two, born again Christianity had produced a more biblically literate laity which was less attached to superstitious ceremony. Was not this the result that Martin Luther had envisioned for his work?

The problem with this reasoning is not that there is no difference between today’s born again Christian and his medieval Catholic cousin, but that this contrast does not run deep enough. This becomes more apparent to us when we discover how hospitably today’s born-again Christianity would have been received by one of Luther’s opponents. While Pope Leo would have been irate over the success of our present born again Christianity, one of his fellow churchmen, Desiderus Erasmus, would have been quite pleased.

Erasmus was a brilliant contemporary of Luther who agreed with Luther concerning the need for church reform, but disagreed with Luther’s understanding of the gospel. For Luther the gospel was an offense to our reasoning, harsh in its condemnation of sinners, and generous in forgiving them. It was a message of guilt and grace. For Erasmus, the Bible was God’s guide to a better lifestyle: an owner’s manual. During the early years of the Reformation Erasmus and Luther appeared to be heading in the same direction. Erasmus’s scholarship had provided Luther with the Greek New Testament from which Luther produced the first widely circulated German translation of the Bible. Both men hoped that increased Bible knowledge among the laity would bring about a changed society. It was later that the divergence between the two men’s understandings of reformation was made evident.

In 1524, seven years into the reformation, Erasmus wrote a work titled The Freedom of the Will in which he argued that individuals were saved by a combination of God’s mercy and their efforts. While he tried to give proper credit to the operation of God’s grace in salvation, Erasmus’s focus was on the need for human effort. In his response to Erasmus, The Bondage of the Will, Luther thanked Erasmus for uncovering the true difference between Erasmus’s Romanism and Luther’s Protestantism. It was not in the presence or absence of ceremony, in the formality or informality of one’s approach to God, but in how they were to be made right with God in the first place.

Scripture is clear that in salvation God must act first. Had our debt not been paid on the cross, there would have been no way back to God for us no matter what we did. The question then arises as to what part we play now that the debt has been paid. Did God merely set up a system whereby we could now use our free will to save ourselves? That is what synergism (the teaching that we work together with God to save us) always boils down to, and this is what Luther saw in Erasmus’s teaching.

Erasmus taught that our salvation resulted from the working of new powers imparted to fallen humans by God’s grace. At first this sounds like a grace-centered theology. God makes the first move; we cannot save ourselves without his help. Who is supposed to use these new powers, though? Fallen man? The Bible teaches that man is dead in trespasses and sins and hostile to God (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 8:5-8). Will a dead man follow his doctor’s orders? Will a hostile man help his enemy to conquer him? We have wills that can choose to follow one course or another, but these wills always will sinfully even when they will what is outwardly good. As Luther used to say, we have all the free will in the world to choose which path to follow to hell. Getting into heaven will require something other than our sinful wills, even contrary to them. Perhaps it might be asked “Might credit not be shared with the new wills which God gives us?” At best this is how Erasmus’s position can be understood.

While Luther insisted that God does change our wills in salvation, he would flatly deny that our new nature was the cause of salvation. If God chose to save us when we were hostile, would it make sense to say that we were saved because we were not hostile? Even when credit was given not to fallen man, but to the new nature, Luther saw lurking behind this the desire of the old sinful nature to steal God’s glory. What Erasmus really wanted to do was to give the old nature credit. If the new nature were responsible for salvation, how come it did not turn out the same for all? All are equally sinful, and one would suppose that God gave equally good new natures to people, yet in the end some were not saved. Erasmus was trying to locate the explanation for this in man. Whether we were rewarded for cooperating with the new nature or for resisting it less, Erasmus really taught that some people were more deserving of salvation than others. Luther would have none of it. The only credit man could receive was for his own damnation. All glory, honor, and credit for the salvation of the saved belonged to God who could save us in spite of our wills.

Is it not strange that many who call themselves Protestant teach that a person is saved by doing that which Luther, the father of Protestantism, declared that a lost person could not do? Is it not even stranger that the type of conversion experience which evangelicals take to be the litmus test of genuine Christianity is based on the doctrine of free will, a doctrine which Erasmus had to defend against Luther, against Protestantism, and against the gospel which had just been rediscovered?<!–

True Reformation

If the gospel had not been rediscovered by a man who had tried to make his peace with God through every program of repentance, religious experience, and personal relationship with God, it might be harder to see how today’s born again Christianity is a deviation from the gospel. Today’s evangelicals have been taught to believe that the chief threats to genuine faith are lack of consecration and formality. A dead church, in popular terms, is a congregation of pew-warmers submitting to the ordinances of cold ritual. Perhaps. But the opposite is not true. Sincerity and resolve, vibrancy and warmth, are not the marks of life. On religious television we often view packed churches and excited crowds. The preachers gain credence because they promote becoming born again. Many of these same individuals have been shown to teach erroneous and blasphemous doctrines. They have been shown to be far from any clear understanding of the Gospel. We can have sincerity and resolve, vibrancy and warmth, and still not know God through the gospel of Christ crucified.

True reformation will not mean an end to evangelistic enterprises, but it will change the focus. It will involve preaching faith into people’s hearts, not pressuring them to make a decision which they cannot make. Abandoning the doctrine of free will does not mean fatalism, but hope. We know that our wills are sinful, because they desire to escape wrath, so we think they will lead us correctly. We are not certain that God, left to himself, will do the same for us. Take heart, Christian! Our sinful wills are our worst enemy; God is not! God willed to save you when you were still hostile to him. How much more, having been reconciled, will he want to do more for your salvation than you could ever think to do? True reformation, therefore, will not destroy evangelism, but will assist in bringing true gospel preaching to Christians who are weary of the gospel of will-power.–>

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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Thursday, January 2nd 1992

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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