Altar Call - Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 18, 2016


Martin Luther's portrait a treasure for this Methodist


Martin Luther was one of the most colorful characters in church history. Besides spearheading the Protestant Reformation Luther lived a fascinating life as a priest and theology professor. Had I lived 500 years ago in Germany I would have loved teaming up with Luther. 

A portrait of Luther hangs on the wall in my office, a gift from my good friend John Wertz, a longtime Lutheran pastor. I treasure that portrait because of the kindness of my Lutheran friend and my admiration for the remarkable life Luther lived. While the likeness of John Wesley also adorns my office wall, I have enjoyed learning in recent years Luther's interesting views on many subjects. 

When, for example, an admiring woman told Luther she hoped he could live another forty years, he replied, “God forbid!” He said he did not to live much longer mainly because the world was “full of nothing but devils.” He had no use for physicians and insisted that “in God’s name” he would eat “whatever tastes good to me.” While I do not share Luther’s disdain for doctors, I share his enormous desire to “eat whatever tastes good to me.”

For many years Luther condemned vows of celibacy for priests. But in late November 1524 Luther wrote to a friend, "I shall never take a wife." Six months later he married a former nun who bore him six children. While Luther was busy preaching and writing his wife Katharina helped earn a living by farming the land and taking in boarders.   

Luther was a very practical man. If water, for example, was not available for a baptism, beer would serve just as well. During a time of drought Luther prayed earnestly for rain. And that very night some rain fell. When he was a young man games with cards and dice were forbidden. In later years he embraced such games as good exercise for the mind.

Luther scolded preachers for their scholarly sermons on lofty themes. He advised them to be simple and direct in preaching so that they could be understood by young people and children. As for the “learned doctors,” if they do not want to listen, “they can leave.” Luther once observed that “there are many fluent preachers who speak at length but say nothing, who have words without substance.” Sadly, such preachers were not limited to the days of Luther.

Not everything about Luther was admirable. The German reformer had no patience with atheists. Once he was asked about a citizen of Wittenberg who confessed publicly that he had not received communion for 15 years. Luther said that after a couple of admonitions he would declare the man excommunicated and to be “treated like a dog.” He went on to say, “If the unbeliever dies in this condition, let him be buried in the carrion pit like a dog.”

Luther was asked about a man who felt called to preach but whose wife had a haughty spirit and did not want to have a parson for a husband. What should the man do? Luther replied, “If she were my wife I’d say to her, ‘Will you go with me?’ Say quickly, No or Yes.’ If she said No, I would at once take another wife and leave her.”

When asked if a priest should give the sacrament to a man he knew to be a liar, Luther replied, “Do what Christ did; he gave the sacrament to the betrayer Judas.”

One man asked Luther about where God was before the creation of the world. Luther quoted Augustine whose answer to the question had been, “God was making hell for those who are inquisitive.”

Luther had a way of saying things that were not always polite and spiritual. The forgiveness of his sins was terribly important to Luther. Good old boys could understand him well when he observed: “Apart from the forgiveness of sins I can’t stand a bad conscience at all; the devil hounds me about a single sin until the world becomes too small for me, and afterward I feel like spitting on myself for having been afraid of such a small thing.” Some of us have shared that feeling at times.

Luther and his wife struggled in their marriage like most couples do. But he found great joy in his marriage. I found myself saying Amen to this tender observation by the reformer: “There is no sweeter union than that in a good marriage. Nor is there any death more bitter than that which separates a married couple. Only the deaths of children come close to this; how much this hurts I have myself experienced.” Luther and his wife lost their daughter Elizabeth in her first year.

Martin had a delightful sense of humor. One evening he attended a wedding. Before the evening meal he advised the bridegroom to be content with the general custom and “be lord in his house whenever his wife is not at home!”

Luther endured poor health in his later years but was able to continue preaching. He preached his last sermon three days before his death in 1546 at age 62. Aware that Luther was dying during his last night on earth, Luther's two companions shouted to him: "Reverend Father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine which you have taught in his name?" Luther replied "Yes" and died a few minutes later. 

Salvation, Luther believed, is not earned by good deeds but is received only as the free gift of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That remains to this day a cardinal belief of Protestants, all of whom are indebted to Martin Luther for his life and his teaching.  

When I glance at Luther's portrait on my office wall I thank God for what that man's courage and conviction meant to all who believe in the priesthood of all believers. + + +