Book Review

"Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom" Theologians on the Christian Life Series by Carl R. Trueman

Adam S. Francisco
Carl R. Trueman
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

Martin Luther's historical significance is not only indisputable, it is also hard to overstate. His effort to clear away the artificial and arbitrary trappings of the Roman church in order to bring it in line with the teachings of the Bible was the impetus to the Protestant Reformation, a late medieval event that in some ways paved the way to the modern world. This has made Luther a common reference in historical literature and contemporary theological discourse. In fact, few historical figures have received as much attention. So there is a tremendous amount of sources covering every aspect of the Reformer's life and theology.

Why another book on him then? Like most influential figures, Luther is often misunderstood. This is particularly prevalent in contemporary evangelicalism and is one of the reasons Carl R. Trueman's Luther on the Christian Life is worth the read. Throughout, he draws attention to how radically different and "deeply alien" his theology (and context) was in comparison to modern evangelicalism.

He starts with a basic yet complete biography. In just over twenty pages he covers the course of the Reformer's dramatic life from the events leading to his trial and excommunication (1517-1521) and all that transpired up until the day he uttered Psalm 31:5 just before he took his last breath (1546): "Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God." This is followed, in the subsequent chapters, by an incisive examination of Luther's theology, particularly as it relates to the Christian life.

Here is where Trueman really distinguishes himself as both a historical and pastoral theologian of the highest caliber. He begins where Luther began to make his distinct theological mark as a theologian of the cross’at the Heidelberg Disputation. Such a theologian confesses the "visible and manifest"’the a posteriori‘"things" of God as he revealed them in a particular way in and through the person and work of Jesus. This is contrasted with the course many a medieval theologian took by speculating "upon the invisible things of God." This Luther called a theology of glory, and he spent over two decades teaching against it.

It is only through Christ that the good and gracious nature of God is revealed to us, especially in his atoning work on the cross. The way this news’this good news’reaches sinners is through the word of God. Luther certainly believed this word was located in the text of Scripture, but Trueman reminds us that as a preacher to Germans, many of whom were illiterate, he often emphasized the preached word of God, for that was where God especially dealt with sinners by convicting them of their sin and condemnation before the law. The law of God was never complete, however, unless it was attended by the proclamation of the gospel whereby terrified consciences were comforted by the accomplished fact of Christ's crucifixion for sin and resurrection for justification.

Trueman deals in chapter 4 with the implications this fundamental reorientation of Christian theology had on public worship. The Roman Mass was often regarded as a good work offered to God by Christians, Luther charged in Concerning the Order for Public Worship (1523). So he reformed it to ensure that the liturgy was not (and could not be seen as) something men and women performed for God but that its order allowed the "the word of God free course among us." It took quite some time, but finally Germans could worship and receive the word of God in their native tongue by 1526.

Later in the book, Trueman explains Luther's "highly sacramental" theology. To the modern evangelical, this aspect of the Reformer's thought might look basically Catholic, but it could certainly be said that, in restoring a biblical understanding of baptism and the Lord's Supper, he understood them as evangelical or gospel. Baptism’water combined with the word of God’drowned sinners and raised them to new life in Christ. The Lord's Supper, instead of being viewed as a sacrifice, was taught to be a gift God gives to Christians for the forgiveness of their sins as well as to strengthen them in their struggle "against the world, the flesh, and indeed the Devil."

It was this latter concern’the strengthening of Christians in their life of faith’that drove Luther to write the Small and Large Catechism in 1529. Providing instruction in doctrine and morality, they are in many ways essential for understanding Luther's basic theological disposition. Trueman does an outstanding job of unpacking their content and connection to Luther's overall pastoral and pedagogical focus. His treatment of the role good works plays in godly living is summarized particularly well when he writes, "Luther did not wish to see a unilateral emphasis on…grace which would then result in swallowing up the power of the law, eclipsing the holiness of God and effectively underplaying the perilous state in which fallen men and women existed." Although it is often overshadowed by his profound message of freedom in the gospel, Luther himself placed tremendous emphasis on the nurturing of faith through active study of biblical doctrine and holy living. This was never confused, however, with the sufficiency of Christ's holiness for the salvation of men and women who cannot live holy lives.

Throughout the book, Trueman leaves no stone unturned as he examines these and other central themes of Luther's theology. He strikes the right balance between serious scholarship and lucid historical and theological prose, making Luther on the Christian Life both comprehensible and useful for the Christian today. Anyone interested in Reformation theology and spirituality will benefit greatly from this superb book.

Monday, February 29th 2016

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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