Eric Metaxas' Luther (Book Review)

The parts of this biography that relate the historical events of Luther’s life are well-written and very readable. All the major events of his life and also some that are rather obscure (for example, something I didn’t know about was his stop in Augsburg on his way home from Rome in 1511 to visit a “holy woman” named Anna Laminit, later exposed as fraudulent) are presented with an adequate amount of detail and with appropriate quotations from Luther’s works and other contemporary sources. If it weren’t for one huge flaw, I would have said that this book is a good first biography of Luther for those who want to know more about him. But unfortunately Metaxas’ skewed understanding of Luther’s teaching leads him to present Luther as a reformer who is primarily significant for being the unwitting but key figure in moving the world toward individualism, egalitarianism, political freedom, and democracy. The real significance of Luther’s life and teaching is missing from this book, replaced by something that is almost its opposite. Often Metaxas will quote a passage from Luther and then, sometimes slowly, sometimes immediately, veer away from a discussion of the Biblical terms in the passage that Luther thought important to get right (Law, Gospel, sin, repentance, grace, faith, righteousness, justification) to a discussion of the modern, mostly political concepts above that are not found in Luther but of which Metaxas wants to make him the originator.

Consider, for example, the following paragraphs in which Metaxas is discussing Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German:

So all of Luther’s commentaries were meant to be helpful, but none of them were meant to be exhaustive or definitive. Of all of Luther’s prefaces, the one he wrote to the book of Romans is almost universally regarded as the masterpiece:

Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performed in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.

Luther’s words in this preface so purely communicated what it meant to be “born anew” that more than two centuries hence, in May 1738, John Wesley heard them read aloud and instantly had a profound conversion experience.

This led to Wesley’s preaching this same Gospel message on a grand scale, which had tremendous historical ramifications, including the Methodist revival of the eighteenth century, which in turn led to the conversion of William Wilberforce, who led the battle to end the slave trade in the British Empire. It also led to the ministry and preaching of George Whitefield in the American colonies, which over several decades led to the unification of the colonies under the same egalitarian ideas as those that Germans were encountering in the early sixteenth century through the preaching of Luther and other Reformation preachers. Ideas have consequences, and Luther’s had more than most.1

Metaxas here asserts that Wesley preached the “same Gospel message” as Luther when in fact he preached a very different one. In spite of the fact that Wesley attributed his true conversion to hearing Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans read at that 1738 meeting in Aldersgate Street, Wesley was deeply shocked when he later read Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and encountered Luther’s denunciation of human reason as “an irreconcilable enemy of the Gospel of Christ” and Luther’s “constant coupling of the law with sin, hell, death, or the devil.“2 Wesley was shocked because he regarded both human reason and the law of God as good friends to his own Gospel message.

As for human reason, Wesley was its advocate because, though he knew it doesn’t produce faith, he nevertheless thought it “directs us in every point both of faith and practice.” He preached against those who would undervalue it, and one can’t help but feel he had Luther in mind:

It is the true remark of an eminent man, who had made many observations on human nature, “If reason be against a man, a man will always be against reason.” This has been confirmed by the experience of all ages. Very many have been the instances of it in the Christian as well as the heathen world; yea, and that in the earliest times. Even then there were not wanting well-meaning men who, not having much reason themselves, imagined that reason was of no use in religion; yea, rather, that it was a hindrance to it...

Suffer me now to add a few plain words, first to you who under-value reason. Never more declaim in that wild, loose, ranting manner, against this precious gift of God. Acknowledge “the candle of the Lord,” which he hath fixed in our souls for excellent purposes. You see how many admirable ends it answers, were it only in the things of this life: Of what unspeakable use is even a moderate share of reason in all our worldly employments, from the lowest and meanest offices of life, through all the intermediate branches of business; till we ascend to those that are of the highest importance and the greatest difficulty! When therefore you despise or depreciate reason, you must not imagine you are doing God service: Least of all, are you promoting the cause of God when you are endeavouring to exclude reason out of religion. Unless you wilfully shut your eyes, you cannot but see of what service it is both in laying the foundation of true religion, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and in raising the superstructure. You see it directs us in every point both of faith and practice: It guides us with regard to every branch both of inward and outward holiness. Do we not glory in this, that the whole of our religion is a “reasonable service” yea, and that every part of it, when it is duly performed, is the highest exercise of our understanding.3

As for the law of God, Wesley preached that we are saved in order to keep the “inward sense” of the moral law of the Old Testament, which is the same as the “law of love” spoken of by the New Testament. Though Wesley says obeying it is not a condition of justification, the law of love is really the law of God that believers must adhere to after they are justified by faith; that is, Wesley teaches our salvation is complete only if we go on to “entire sanctification” by obeying the law of love that Christ has revealed is the true meaning of the Old Testament law:

We then, by our doctrine, establish the law, when we thus openly declare it to all men; and that in the fullness wherein it is delivered by our blessed Lord and his Apostles; when we publish it in the height, and depth, and length, and breadth thereof. We then establish the law, when we declare every part of it, every commandment contained therein, not only in its full, literal sense, but likewise in its spiritual meaning; not only with regard to the outward actions, which it either forbids or enjoins, but also with respect to the inward principle, to the thoughts, desires, and intents of the heart...

To preach Christ, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, is to preach him, not only as our great High Priest, “taken from among men, and ordained for men, in things pertaining to God;” as such, “reconciling us to God by his blood,” and “ever living to make intercession for us;” — but likewise as the Prophet of the Lord, “who of God is made unto us wisdom,” who, by his word and his Spirit, is with us always, “guiding us into all truth;” — yea, and as remaining a King for ever; as giving laws to all whom he has bought with his blood; as restoring those to the image of God, whom he had first re-instated in his favour; as reigning in all believing hearts until he has “subdued all things to himself,” — until he hath utterly cast out all sin, and brought in everlasting righteousness...

Faith, then, was originally designed of God to re-establish the law of love. Therefore, in speaking thus, we are not undervaluing it, or robbing it of its due praise; but on the contrary showing its real worth, exalting it in its just proportion, and giving it that very place which the wisdom of God assigned it from the beginning. It is the grand means of restoring that holy love wherein man was originally created. It follows, that although faith is of no value in itself, (as neither is any other means whatsoever,) yet as it leads to that end, the establishing anew the law of love in our hearts; and as, in the present state of things, it is the only means under heaven for effecting it; it is on that account an unspeakable blessing to man, and of unspeakable value before God.4

As one reads the sermons of Wesley carefully, it becomes apparent that he believes the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ is only for those sins committed before we came to faith in him. The “imputed righteousness of Christ” (a term he generally prefers to avoid) doesn’t pertain to us after we have been justified. After justification by faith we are in the realm of sanctification, in which we become inherently righteous by keeping the true, inward sense of the moral law of the Old Testament, the law of love as revealed by Christ. Wesley bristles at the key question that was so important to Luther and the other early Reformers: “Are we saved by the imputed righteousness of Christ or by our own righteousness?” Wesley answers,

Do we read it [this question] in the Bible? Either in the Old Testament or the New? I doubt; it is an unscriptural, awkward phrase, which has no determinate meaning. If you mean by that odd, uncouth question: “In whose righteousness are you to stand at the last day,”—for whose sake, or by whose merit do you expect to enter into the glory of God? I answer, without the least hesitation, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the righteous. It is through his merits alone that all believers are saved; that is, justified, saved from the guilt, sanctified, saved from the nature of sin, and glorified, taken into heaven… It may be worth our while, to spend a few more words on this important point. Is it possible to devise a more unintelligible expression than this: “In what righteousness are we to stand before God at the last day?” Why do you not speak plainly, and say, “For whose sake do you look to be saved?” Any plain peasant would then readily answer, “For the sake of Jesus Christ.” But all those dark, ambiguous phrases, tend only to puzzle the cause, and open a way for unwary hearers to slide into Antinomianism.5

Wesley evades the question because he can’t admit that the scheme of salvation he preaches makes our status before God at the last day depend on our own righteousness as well as on Christ’s. Wesley does say in places that by Christ’s imputed righteousness we are justified; but his words also make it plain that justification by faith doesn’t make us actually righteous—in Wesley’s gospel the imputed righteousness granted to us when we first believe doesn’t get us to full salvation but serves only to pardon us from the sins we’ve committed up to that point. After justification must come sanctification, in which we acquire real righteousness, the kind that consists in completely avoiding all sin, perfectly obeying the law of God, and continually doing good works. That’s the only kind of righteousness that will get you into heaven, according to Wesley. If you believe in a kind of justification that makes you righteous in God’s eyes without that kind of sanctification you are sadly mistaken, says Wesley, and you have departed from both reason and Scripture:

Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous. Surely no. The judgment of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with his unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man to whom God hath given understanding, weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture.6

Therefore it is plain from his own words that Wesley didn’t preach the same gospel message as Luther, and knew that he didn’t. What Luther taught was to Wesley antinomianism; and what Wesley proclaimed as saving faith Luther would have said was in fact corrupted by a kind of works-righteousness not unlike Rome’s (though of course different in the details), for in the final analysis it must be admitted Wesley taught that man has to cooperate with God’s grace in order to become righteous enough in himself to be counted worthy of heaven. That puts us back on the treadmill of works, always pursuing a goal (sinless perfection according to the law) which, if we are honest with ourselves, we come more and more to recognize that we are not going to reach; or, if we deceive ourselves and become hypocrites, we pride ourselves on having reached. In either case our faith becomes an empty show. But Luther faced reality honestly and taught (because he had come to see that the Bible taught) that man, even after justification, is not capable of becoming righteous enough in himself to enter heaven—he will always remain a sinner as well as a saint, and can never be made holy (sanctified) by his own works.

This doesn’t mean, as Wesley thought, that Luther was an antinomian or that he that he neglected the teaching of sanctification. Rather, it means Luther taught a view of sanctification that offended Wesley because it teaches that sinlessness in this life is not possible, and is not the goal of sanctification. Sanctification as well as justification depends only on Christ’s righteousness, which God imputes to us by his grace because of our faith in Jesus. According to Luther, the Christian life is one of persevering in believing that Christ has made satisfaction for all of our sins—not just those committed before we believed in Christ but all of them, past, present, and future. When we fall into sin, we repent, knowing Christ is our mediator before the Father not just the one time when we first believed, but continually until we are safe in heaven with him. Baptism is the key reality for Luther: there we die and are raised again in Christ, now clothed with his righteousness. We belong to God’s kingdom because of it, and because of it when the Father looks at us he sees only Christ. We have been made sons of the King, and no matter how many times we must repent after falling into sin, which will invariably happen in spite of our best efforts, we remain sons.7

Much more of course could be said about how much Wesley’s gospel differs from Luther’s, but my point here is that the differences between the two are completely overlooked by Metaxas, who not only says that they are the same but, even worse, also says that there’s a straight line from Luther’s and Wesley’s gospel message to Whitefield’s to the egalitarian ideas of the founding fathers of the United States. And also of course elsewhere in this book, Metaxas makes it plain that he thinks this line extends down to the message American Evangelicals are preaching today. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that there is a pretty straight line that leads from the Pietists of the 17th century through the Moravians and Wesley in the 18th century through Finney and the Holiness movements in the 19th century down to the American Evangelicals of the 20th century and today, but that line is not one of continuation but rather of greater and greater departure from Luther’s message. The tradition in which Metaxas stands isn’t that of Luther but of Pietism. Metaxas’ conviction that Luther is the point at which the American Evangelical line originates leads Metaxas to get other aspects of Luther’s teaching badly wrong, particularly on the nature of faith and the means of grace. I won’t belabor the point but will briefly explain two especially obvious examples:

Metaxas says when discussing Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper:

[Luther held] that the plain meaning of Scripture must be grasped, and no more or less. Jesus said that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood (“This is my body,” and “This is my blood”). He did not say, “This bread will become my body” or “This wine will soon be my blood.” Rather he simply said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Luther said that when a Christian in faith says these words, the body and blood of Christ are present, because he has spoken these words of Jesus in faith. Whatever the Scripture says is true and needn’t be finessed into being merely a symbol or a metaphor. Luther called this doctrine the Real Presence. Jesus really was genuinely present in the elements. He did not become present when a priest prayed, but he was present when we believed in the words he spoke. The Word of God was true, and believing that—faith in the Word—was all that mattered. So it was the faith of the believer in the Word of God—and not the transforming words of any priest—that effected the change.8

Luther emphatically did not teach that it is the believer’s faith that makes Christ’s body and blood present in the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. He taught instead that it is Christ’s command in the words of institution (Matthew 26:26, 27; Mark 14:22, 24; Luke 22: 19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25) that make the body and blood of Christ present in the bread and the wine. It is the power of the Word of God that “effects the change,” to use Metaxas’ phrase, but Luther was not very concerned to explain exactly how or when that “change” happens. He rejected the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation because it held that the bread and wine were no longer bread and wine after the priest spoke the words of institution even though they still looked like bread and wine. Luther notes that the Scriptures still speak of the elements as bread and wine after Christ’s words of institution, so they are still bread and wine as well as being his body and blood. The body and the blood of the Lord are now somehow supernaturally present in the elements. But it is important to understand that the change is not due to the faith of the one receiving the elements. Luther taught that even unbelievers, if they were to come to the Lord’s Supper, would receive the body and blood of Christ physically in their mouths, but they would dishonor it by doing so and receive it to their condemnation instead of to their benefit as it was intended; this is why most Lutheran congregations practice closed communion, that is, offer the Lord’s Supper only to members of their congregation and to visitors from other Lutheran congregations that believe they same as they do regarding the Lord’s Supper.

When discussing baptism, Metaxas says:

It was by simple faith that the water of baptism transformed the infant baptized. The water was not “magical water” and did not become other than water, but by faith all things were transformed. So the faith of those doing the baptism that God was as good as his Word was all that was necessary. In a way, Luther believed in what we may think of as the “magic” of faith to very genuinely change things. It was not merely a spiritual transformation but the spiritual sacramentally united with the physical, forever and genuinely changing it, redeeming it from merely physical into something more, but not forgoing the physical.9

Again emphatically, Luther did not believe it was the “magic” of faith that changes things. That would be faith in faith, not in Christ and his merits. Faith by itself is nothing unless its object is true. It is the word of God that changes things, not faith itself; if God hasn’t really promised to do what you believe he will do, then that faith is useless - it’s not magically operative in whatever it believes. Also, it is not the faith of those doing the baptism that matters. The faith that matters in baptism is the faith of the one being baptized that God does what he promises, and that he has promised to wash us clean of our sins in baptism (and, yes, Luther believed that the Holy Spirit can and does work faith even in infants). Again it is the power of the Word of God that changes things, not our act of believing something to be true.

In conclusion, I have to repeat that although Metaxas is good on narrating the historical events of Luther’s life, he not only misses Luther’s real significance but actually misrepresents it in several ways, seemingly intent on bringing Luther fully in line with modern American Evangelicalism. Metaxas has done this before. A reviewer of his 2011 biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following about it, and if one changed the words “Bonhoeffer” to “Luther,” and “Hitler” to “the Roman Catholic Church,” it would be just as true about this Luther biography:

Metaxas, then, has presented us with a sanitized Bonhoeffer fit for evangelical audiences. Evangelicals can continue to believe comfortingly that Bonhoeffer is one of them, and that his heroic stance against Hitler was the product of evangelical-style theology. This view is naive, but many wish it to be so. They might prefer Metaxas’s counterfeit Bonhoeffer to the real, much more complex, German theologian...10

Notes and References:
This is a review of the book Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas. All quotations from it are taken from the Kindle edition (Penguin Publishing Group, 2017).