Who Was Martin Luther? Part 14

Rev. Donavon Riley

One topic Luther engaged as a lecturer was the place of humility in a Christian's life. In the Late Middle Ages humility was central to a person's faith and life. It was taught that if a Christian wasn't devastated by his sin, then he wasn't ready to receive God's grace. To help a person arrive at this state, the church came up with various spiritual exercises for him. Confession, penance, and other spiritual exercises were taught as necessary to achieve the proper mental and physical condition to receive God's grace.

For Luther the monk, judging oneself in order to be in harmony with God, was necessary to salvation. Only the meekest would be blessed. Only a person in a state of tribe penance, who's made a genuine confession of his sin, can be raised up by God. However, for Luther the lecturer who taught the Psalms day after day, this belief began to lose traction. Martin concluded that either humility was a human work, which then led to self-righteousness, or a work of God, which led to pride. By the end of his first psalms lectures, Luther concluded that either way there was no comfort for a Christian who worked to become truly humble.

Of course, critics point out that Luther was always troubled by his inability to stand before God in true, genius humility. His sin and lack of righteousness weighed heavy on him. His inability to work with God's grace to achieve a state of genius humility that led to salvation gnawed at him. Luther was always crying out to God for mercy, but didn't believe himself worthy to of being heard by the Lord.

This all changed as Martin worked his way through the psalms and St. Paul's letter to the Romans. By the end of his Romans lectures, Luther was convinced that human beings were only capable of living themselves. Even their profession of love for God was a confession of self-love, of loving a god formed in the image of man. Self-love was "the sum of all vices" for Luther.

Therefore, the underlying motive for striving after humility wasn't a desire to enter into God's grace, but the urgency of a sinner to put himself first, last, and always. Luther said it was "plainly insane" what he'd been taught, that a man had the ability to love God above all things and with the help of grace, obey the commands. He referred to his teachers and those who believed such things as "fools" and "pig theologians."

What Luther taught shocked his students, that, "The term 'old Adam' describes what sort of person is born of Adam... the term 'old Adam' is used not only because he performs the works of the flesh but more especially when he acts righteously and practices wisdom and exercises himself in all spiritual works, even to the point of loving and worshipping God himself." Because the old Adam always hangs round our necks, Luther taught, human beings not only "enjoy the gifts of God," but also, "seek to use God."

Just at that point when he believes he is most humble, most spiritual, most in harmony with God's grace, human beings because they are "in the flesh" seek to use God to their advantage.

Next time we will look some more at how Luther changed what the Church taught about humility, but how this led him to proclaim Christ alone and cleared the way to a proper understanding of the Gospel.

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for Higher Things.


Woodcut ("Sauritt des Papsts") after Lucas Cranach the Elder, used by Christian Roedinger the Elder of Magdeburg. According to I. Gobry, it is a reproduction of a Cranach woodcut (no. 6) in Martin Luther's 1545 polemic Abbildung des Bapstum (cf. Image de la papaute (Grenoble: Millon, 1997), p. 118).

Created: January 6th, 2017