An Unsolicited Book Review: Luther on the Christian Life

One of the hardest things for me about transitioning out of the seminary environment is that I have far fewer female friends who care to discuss theology and the deeper things of God. I didn’t realize how much I missed that until my friend Sarah sent me a copy of Carl Trueman’s book Luther on the Christian Life for my birthday this summer. Opening it was a moment of feeling so completely understood by someone. It was such a wonderful gift.

It was an even more wonderful gift as I read it.

I find Luther difficult to read. His style is bombastic and wordy and he assumes his readers to have his classical education. Carl Trueman, on the other hand, is pithy and entertaining. Reading Luther filtered through Trueman was ideal. Rev. Trueman does a masterful job of distilling a frankly overwhelming body of work and drawing out the essence of Luther’s theology. Rather than taking a single point in Luther’s life and calling that “true Luther,” the author takes the reader through the process of growth evident in Luther’s work. He quotes long passages, instead of tweetable sound bites, and he gives historical and biographical background through which to view the quotes. Rev. Trueman also does an admirable job of mostly separating himself from the work. In areas like the Lord’s Supper and the use of imagery, where a Presbyterian (Carl Trueman is an OPC minister, and professor at Westminster Seminary) would differ from Luther, Rev. Trueman offers those differences in footnotes, not within the text. There were only two places in which I felt Rev. Trueman’s voice rise above the work itself. In both places it was deliberate and added to the point being made about Luther rather than (in my opinion) detracting from it. Finally, Dr. Trueman does not permit himself to fall into hagiography or sensationalism. He is unafraid to mention the times in which Luther was “fundamentally wrongheaded” to quote the author, but he gives those moments the percentage of attention they deserve. He does not deny the later life anti-semitism, but he does not permit it to be the sole lens through which Luther can be seen.

Having completed the book, and now stepped back from it for a month or so, I find three major points have stayed with me.

  1. I found the inclusion and discussion of what Luther called “Anfechtungen” to be extremely helpful. Luther spoke of the essentials of the daily christian life as a. speech, b. meditation (not the eastern idea) and c. emotional distress or Anfechtungen. This idea that emotional struggle was not only a guaranteed part of the Christian walk, but a *necessary* element of it was a brain shifting one for me. Understand that Luther is not suggesting we should foster sinful emotional responses. Instead, Luther believed that if we are reading, speaking and crying out the Word of God (speech) and if we are actively pursuing the understanding of the Word of God (meditation) then we will naturally struggle with despair and hope (Anfechtungen.) The word will reveal to us the nature of our sin, and the holiness of God and that will cause a true believer to despair. Rather than being a downward spiral, however, Luther sees the emotional distress as a part of the sanctification process, that will drive us back to speaking and meditating upon the word of God. Luther believed that the emotional distress caused by the word of God was necessary, but that it was an internal response, and it should drive us away from ourselves and toward the external, objective, truth of God.
  2. That leads me to the second point that has stayed with me. All of Luther’s theology was shaped by his view that truth is objective, and therefore must come from outside of us. Dr. Trueman mentions at the beginning of Chapter 5, “. . . the more we examine Luther on the Christian life, the less he would seem to agree with the classic evangelical models.” (p.117) I had already reached the same conclusion by that point in the book. The idea that we must find truth within ourselves, or even that we are capable of some new understanding of God’s truth was anathema to him. Far from the rebel evangelical nailing the pope to a wall that is portrayed in popular culture and social media every October, Luther was seeking to return the Church of Christ to the objective truth that has been entrusted to her. If someone had said to him, as is the common parlance of our time, “I didn’t take that from the text,” Luther would have reprimanded her. There is the text. You take from it what is there, and you seek that outside of yourself, not from within. I was chastened (needfully) and driven back to speech and mediation.
  3. Finally, Luther’s habit of speaking to the devil when he faced questions was tremendously helpful to me. Whether Luther was actually conversing with the physical accuser of the brethren, or just facing his own sinful nature is of no significance, really. The point is, that when Luther found his mind assailed with doubt, he spoke truth audibly. This is a very practical application of Philippians 4:8 that I had once practiced and abandoned as mystical. Hearing the way in which Luther reminded the devil, and himself, of his standing before God, and the promises upon which that standing rested, gave me a sense of permission to do the same. My having a more robust theology now than then, I suspect has also helped it to be a more effective tool.

There is so much more to be commended in this book than a few hundred words can do justice. I recommend it highly, and I hope that this raving blog post also serves as the thank you card I did not send to my dear friend Sarah.

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About Coralie

After 11 years of infertility, I am now a mother to three, a wife of a Presbyterian (ARP) preacher and a struggling homemaker. Welcome to my little corner of the net. Kick off your shoes, put your feet up and join the conversation. View all posts by Coralie

One response to “An Unsolicited Book Review: Luther on the Christian Life

  • Sarah

    This definitely made my day! I loved hearing about the things that especially stood out to you.

    I liked the discussion of Anfechtungen too. I’ve appreciated the concept for awhile, but it was good for me to be reminded that it isn’t just “having lots of feels about God” (which I am good at), but that it has a specific content and plays a specific role in the Christian life.

    My other favorite parts were probably these:

    1. The emphasis throughout on the ordinary, routine nature of the Christian life and its groundedness in objective truth, not in extraordinary experiences or subjective feelings. I’ve come to the realization that I’m not much of a pietistic evangelical, in some respects, and Trueman’s and Luther’s comments on the priority of Word and sacraments and public worship finally made me feel that this is okay. It’s not that I’m hostile to pietism, it’s just that I’ve ALWAYS struggled to speak its “dialect” and to relate to the way some of my evangelical friends talk about their relationship with Jesus; for much of my life, this made me fear that I might not be a Christian after all. So reading this book was hugely refreshing and encouraging in that regard.

    2. The theologian of the cross/theologian of glory distinction has really laid hold of my imagination. It also made me wonder: could some of the argument over sanctification have to do with the fact that, to someone influenced by a particular reading of Luther, the way many Reformed believers talk about progressive sanctification sounds like it’s coming from a “theologian of glory” outlook? I don’t think that’s an accurate impression, of course, but I wonder if it contributes to the visceral way I’ve seen some react to sanctification language. Anyway, I’ve been waiting since summer to ask what you think about that. 🙂

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