Biography Teaser: Martin Luther

The reading of Christian biography seems almost a means of grace. Indeed, if true fellowship is so, this form of fellowship with saints of old must be something of a shadow cousin of a means of grace. In any case, the crumbs that fall here from the Master's table are gladly devoured by his lowly servants.

The following excerpt is from Martin Luther: The Iron Pen, a short biographical sketch of Martin Luther from my Wrath and Grace Biographies series. It may be cliché to call Luther one's favorite Reformer, but it is not so to call him the Reformer. The Reformer is my personal favorite Reformer. The following introduction may betray something of my reasonings. Enjoy!

As one not entirely unacquainted with the judges, I fancy Luther as the Samson of the Reformers. He knew as well how to throw down his foes as to boast over them in the Lord. His words will speak for themselves. He took up, not the jawbone of a donkey, but the feather of a goose and forged it into an implement of great power, a pen of iron. Ink from this pen continues to bleed into our own day; may it be that many pens continue to spring forth from it. Were a lone preacher equipped by this little volume to thunder the truths of God in the plain speech of the people, I shall be forever grateful unto God. The Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of such unassuming servants in dark hours of great need.

Luther, like Samson, was not a sinless man. Lest I be accused of hagiography, I hasten to remind my readers that this short biography is written in the not unbiblical spirit of Hebrews eleven. I intend to visit Luther’s particular weaknesses in the next volume, Lord willing. For now, let us stand in wonder at what God did five centuries ago.

As we take up the tale of the Protestant Reformation once again, the reader will recall that the winds have wafted the spirit of the martyr John Huss to the paradise of God, while they have scattered the seeds of truth across Bohemia. Years have washed over the Bohemian believers as they await the expected day of deliverance. Wars have raged, blood has been shed, peace has been realized, and all seems to indicate some sort of awakening at the very threshold. The world is hushed and stilled, poised for some great happening. It was now that Martinus Luther was born. “We may say without exaggeration that the Re-formation was embodied in Martin Luther, that it lived in him as in no one else.”[1]

It is with great joy that we come now to what may be termed the sweet stuff. All has led to this. Just as the weary journey makes the sight of the destination that much sweeter, the long sweep of the Dark Ages makes Luther’s appearance as a breath of heavenly-fresh air.

Luther was destined for hardship. He has been compared to the eagle—Huss forecasted him as such—and even his youth bore this likeness:

"Let us mark the eagle and the bird of song, how dissimilar their rearing. The one is to spend its life in the groves, flitting from bough to bough, and enlivening the woods with its melody. Look what a warm nest it lies in; the thick branches cover it, and its dam sits brooding over it. How differently is the eaglet nursed! On yonder ledge, amid the naked crags, open to the lashing rain, and the pelting hail, and the stormy gust, are spread on the bare rock a few twigs. These are the nest of that bird which is to spend its after-life in soaring among the clouds, battling with the winds, and gazing upon the sun… It was thus [Luther] came to know that man lives not to enjoy, but to achieve."[2] 

God seemed to hand-pick the Reformers, much like the apostles, from the working classes of society. Although Luther was raised in a tough, disciplinary home, he was also taught the doctrines of God’s love. “The atmosphere of the family was that of the peasantry: rugged, rough, at times coarse, credulous, and devout.”[3] While the scholastic leaders of the Church sank into sophist niceties and speculations, a form of living religion dwelt on in the homes of the people. Veiled as it was, it was imparted to the Reformers in their childhood homes. While mixed with much false and evil superstition, it is not perhaps untrue that the truths they encountered in their youth “were what Luther and Zwingli and Calvin wove into the Reformation creeds and expanded in Reformation sermons.”[4]

Young Martin was a bright boy, sharp of wits, and the firstborn son of a miner. His father toiled and saved to send his promising son to law school. This would secure him prestige and a somewhat easier situation than his father had enjoyed in life. In this way “it fell to Martin Luder to advance his family’s standing.”[5] His family’s standing was to be greatly advanced, though not in the manner envisioned by the patriarch. In a twist of fate, the son was destined to take up the career of the father, but the heir would be a miner of truth.

You can find Martin Luther: The Iron Pen and my other biographies at Wrath and Grace.

[1] Thomas M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 1.193.

[2] James A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism (London: Cassell Petter & Galpin, 1899), 1.232.

[3] Ronald H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), 10-11.

[4] Thomas M. Lindsay, Luther and the German Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), 14.

[5] R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, The Legacy of Luther (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2016), 16.