Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom

Written by Carl R. Trueman Reviewed By William M. Marsh

The “Theologians on the Christian Life” series is based on the belief that the communion of saints from the past still speaks a much-needed message for Christians today. Spotlighted figures provide “wisdom for living the Christian life” that may not necessarily be discerned if believers only look and listen to the unprecedented abundance of contemporary resources available (p. 11). If any volume in this series demonstrates this claim, it is Carl Trueman’s, Luther on the Christian Life. This work is the only one in the series (thus far) that includes both a foreword (Robert Kolb) and an afterword (Martin Marty), allowing the Reformed author to be bookended by two prominent Lutheran “Luther” scholars who lend endorsement to Trueman’s presentation. These bookends serve Trueman well, but he himself is no stranger to this sixteenth-century German Reformer. Aside from teaching courses on Martin Luther, he has contributed to Luther scholarship with Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers, 1525–1556 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), based upon his doctoral dissertation.

The book begins with an introduction aptly titled, “What Has Geneva to Do with Wittenberg?,” which exhibits Trueman’s self-awareness of his Reformed vantage point as he undertakes a commendation of Luther to a broader evangelical audience. Many beneficial contextual points fill this introduction to prepare the reader for what follows, but most of all, Trueman contends, “we cannot understand Luther’s view of the Christian life in general without understanding his own Christian life in particular” (p. 24). Luther’s biography is crucial to understanding the Reformer’s vision of the Christian’s life, and too often is neglected, as can be the case generally, when past theologians are treated as simply an “abstract collection of ideas” (p. 26). With this aim established, chapter 1, “Martin Luther’s Christian Life,” briefly overviews Luther’s tumultuous life in order to set the backdrop for a critical analysis of Luther’s teaching in subsequent chapters. More precisely, Trueman wishes to manifest not only the connections between the Reformer’s biography and theology, but also “the human contradictions and failings that were part of who he was and what he did” (p. 54). Although Luther is a “giant” in the history of Christianity, Trueman desires to portray him equally as a “human,” which brings an added value to this contribution.

With the biography in place, Trueman delves into significant moments of Luther’s life where he espoused many of his distinctive insights into the Christian life. In the first place, Trueman presents Luther’s understanding of what it means to be a “theologian of the cross” in chapter 2, “Theologians, Priests, and Kings.” Here, Luther believes, is where Christians define true humanity, learning to measure all of reality by the cross (pp. 65, 76). Next, chapter 3, “The Theology of the Word Preached,” explicates that, for Luther, God may be found nowhere other than in the incarnate Christ through the preached Word of God (p. 79). For Luther, the Word creates and sustains life by bringing people into direct encounter with God through the preaching of the law and gospel (p. 89).

In chapter 4, “The Liturgy of the Christian life,” Trueman strives to illuminate the essential, ecclesial character of Christian living for Luther including gathered worship, sacraments, penance, and catechism. Chapter 5 considers how one engages in “Living by the Word” with an introduction to Luther’s threefold approach to studying the Word for the sake of doing theology in everyday life: oratio (prayer), meditatio (meditation), and tentatio/Anfechtungen (internal struggle) (pp. 118–23). In chapter 6, “Freed from Babylon: Baptism and the Mass,” Trueman returns to Luther’s vision of the sacraments and the central role they play for continuing to confront the believer with the objective Word from regeneration to the ongoing dying and rising of the believer’s daily life.

Readers will find chapter 7, “Luther and Christian Righteousness,” an especially pertinent resource for navigating the question of sanctification and personal holiness in Luther’s theology of Christian living. This chapter, in particular, demonstrates the value of Trueman’s biographical approach to Luther’s theology as he shows the necessity of gleaning not only from “the evangelical canon” of the “early” Luther, but also the oft-neglected wisdom of the “later” Luther, whose initial apocalyptic and Reformation expectations had not come to total fruition. The final chapter, “Life and Death in This Earthly Realm,” quickly covers other major facets of Luther’s comprehensive vision of the believer’s life in Christ including temporal government, vocation, marriage, sex, and children. Trueman’s conclusion entitled, “Life as Tragedy, Life as Comedy,” brings a compelling retrospect to the prospect of Luther for the present time.

This book rewards the careful reader on many levels. Yet, for a series that aims to be accessible for a broader audience of pastors and interested laypeople, Trueman’s introduction to Luther’s theology interwoven in faithful church history may prove challenging, even if that audience has read other entries from the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series. Even so, Trueman mines much wisdom and provides excellent clarification for evangelical readers of Luther.

One possible drawback of the book could be Trueman’s persistent reminder that Luther was neither a “modern American evangelical” nor would he have approved of most evangelicals, specifically referencing disagreements over the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (pp. 22–23). Trueman’s adamant stance on this point gives some healthy shock-value for the newcomer to Luther studies, but if not carefully understood within the historical and theological context that Trueman provides, that shock-value could have the unfortunate effect of distancing the reader from Luther. This warning rings especially loudly for the significant amount of the readership situated within the Reformed tradition who are attempting to understand “why Geneva should have anything to do with Wittenberg” after all.

Nonetheless, Trueman delivers a powerful portrait of “Luther for today” with insights that evangelicals should not miss. One counter-(evangelical) cultural point that Trueman foregrounds throughout the course of the study is Luther’s doctrine of the external, objective Word, emphasizing “Luther’s great stress upon the priority and objectivity of God’s revelation” (p. 196). This particular approach to the Word, the gospel, and the Triune God of the gospel radically overturns “the priority and subjectivity” of the idolatrous “self” of so much contemporary evangelical spirituality. As Trueman effectively shows in the book, “This objectivity of God,” for Luther, “undergirds those basic elements of the Christian life” (p. 196). The ongoing relevance of Luther’s vision of “the priority and objectivity” of God’s active presence in his Word manifests itself with force as it pertains to a whole range of subjects related to the Christian life whether in regeneration, preaching, the sacraments, sanctification, and assurance. Moreover, Trueman reflects upon the immediate implications this commitment has for pastoral ministry both in how it performs its own functions and how it counsels Christ’s sheep (pp. 197–98). On why Luther will never cease to be relevant, Trueman comments, “[Luther’s writings] offer a breath of fresh air amid a forced and stale piety. And his emphasis on the objectivity of the action of God in Christ puts all things in perspective and exposes our lives outside of Christ for what they are, acts in a silly farce played out in the shadow of the beckoning grave” (pp. 199–200).

Another front where Trueman’s presentation of Luther runs against the common evangelical stream is the place of church in the Christian’s life. If Luther’s conviction concerning the objectivity of the Word overcomes the supremacy of evangelical subjectivity, then the ecclesial character of the Reformer’s thought overturns the pride of individual autonomy often associated with evangelicals. Although some critics may identify the latter as an unintended result of Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, Trueman provides evangelical theology a much-needed reminder of this doctrine’s context within the grander sphere of the local church in Luther’s theology.

In sum, Luther on the Christian Life deserves a wide readership for important reasons beyond what has been captured in this short review. As a guide, Trueman’s “Concluding Reflections” in each chapter as well as his formal “Conclusion” provide significant points of critical evaluation and paths for immediate application of Luther’s approach to the life of a believer in today’s evangelical world. Obviously, this book will benefit individual readers but would also be edifying for reading groups, small groups in churches, and as an undergraduate textbook for courses that cover systematic, historical, and applied theology. Trueman’s treatment of Luther will most certainly encourage all believers who engage it to live a truly Word-centered, cross-centered life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

William M. Marsh

William M. Marsh
Cedarville University
Cedarville, Ohio, USA

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