THE LEGACY OF LUTHER, edited by R. C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols

Published on April 17, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Reformation Trust, 2016 | 308 pages


About the Editors

C. Sproul is founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and chancellor of Reformation Bible College. Stephen J Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries.


Table of Contents

Introduction – “Why Luther Matters Today” by R. C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols

Part One: Luther’s Life
Chapter 1 – “A Gracious and Neurotic Monk” by Stephen J. Nichols
Chapter 2 – “A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Luther as a Man of Conflict (1520s)” by Steven J. Lawson
Chapter 3 – “Faithful to the End: Luther in His Later Years (1530s-1546)” by David B. Calhoun
Chapter 4 – “The Family Man: Luther at Home” by Joel R. Beeke

Part Two: Luther’s Thought
Chapter 5 – “Scripture Alone: Luther’s Doctrine of Scripture” by Michael S. Horton
Chapter 6 – “By Faith Alone: Luther and the Doctrine of Justification” by Guy Prentiss Waters
Chapter 7 – “Grace Alone: Luther and the Christian Life” by Sinclair B. Ferguson
Chapter 8 – “Christ Alone: Luther on Christ, the Sacraments, and the Church” by W. Robert Godfrey
Chapter 9 – “The Glory of God Alone: Luther on Vocation” by Gene Edward Veith

Part Three: Luther’s Legacy
Chapter 10 – “Correctly and Profitably Read Scripture: Luther the Biblical Scholar” by Aaron Clay Denlinger
Chapter 11 – “The Man in the Middle: Luther Among the Reformers” by Scott M. Manetsch
Chapter 12 – “The Fury of the Theologians: Lutheran Theology after Luther” by Sean Michael Lucas
Chapter 13 – “A New Song Begun: Luther and Music” by Terry Yount
Chapter 14 – “Spare Everything but the Word: Luther as Preacher” by Derek W. H. Thomas
Reflection – “Luther and the Life of the Pastor-Theologian” by R. C. Sproul
Appendix – The Ninety-Five Theses


Summary and Review

Sproul and Nichols pulled this book together as a summary of Martin Luther’s vast and varied legacy. They intended it to be a “one-stop shop for those who are interested in Martin Luther” (8). The “interested” the editors have in view include both those who have little knowledge of the reformer and those who know him well, a balance they successfully strike. However, Luther as a model for the church today is the larger purpose of the book. About his example, the editors write “the moral of this story is clear. If the church today also stands confidently upon the convictions of God’s Word, if the church today also runs everything through the grid of God’s Word, then God may bless our work with faithfulness and bless our legacy with fruitfulness, too” (10). This greater aim allows the authors to draw explicit lessons and timely applications from the historical material, making this book a tremendous resource for the church today.

Part one tells the story of Luther’s life. In 1517, Luther was a monk, university professor, and preacher. He spoke out against the sale of indulgences and in the years surrounding this momentous event he moved quickly along a theological trajectory toward sola Scriptura and sola fide. The realization of these truths brought peace to Luther’s troubled conscience and provided the scaffolding for his life’s work. The decade of the 1520s was one of controversy for Luther. He was excommunicated in 1521, which marked his official break with the Church of Rome. He married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, in 1525. The later years of Luther’s life saw the consolidation of the Reformation. Calhoun writes, “despite advancing age, chronic illness, and debilitating depression, Luther gave himself to the preservation of the church that he had done so much to create and define” (54). These later years are often ignored, but they are key to a true picture of the pioneer, as they reveal his mature theology and his pastoral heart.

Part two uses the five solas as a taxonomy for exploring Luther’s theology. Scripture alone for Luther meant that Scripture is the final authority. It is God’s inerrant revelation and it is sufficient and clear. Justification by faith alone was central to Luther’s thought and is central to his legacy. Faith receives the alien righteousness of Christ, imputed to the believer for justification. Neither faith nor works contribute to justification, yet Luther does emphasize proper righteousness, or sanctification, as a fruit and consequence of one’s alien righteousness. The Christian life is lived by grace alone. The believer at one and the same time is justified and yet a sinner. Her life is one of suffering, but great assurance and joy. For Luther, Christ alone was the hope of salvation and he is found in the preaching and sacraments of the church. In response to these great truths, all of life is to be lived for the glory of God alone, which captures Luther’s doctrine of vocation.

Part three transitions from Luther’s life and thought to his legacy. One of Luther’s most significant accomplishments was the translation of the Bible into everyday German from the original languages. Luther was also a tireless interpreter of the Bible, primarily using the Reformation principle that Scripture interprets itself. Luther had some musical training and much appreciated music as a past time and form of worship. His legacy in this regard culminated in Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther’s legacy is also one of a preacher. Over the course of his career he preached four thousand sermons, an average of one sermon every three days. Lutherans after Luther struggled with his theological legacy for three controversial decades, at the end of which the Lutheran Church largely confessed the theology of their namesake.

As with any edited volume there are varying degrees in the quality of scholarship, but overall the authors demonstrate awareness of Luther’s theological development and historical context. It would have been helpful to see more sensitivity to Luther’s apocalypticism, the reality of spiritual warfare and the nearness of the end of history specifically, as an explanation for his motivations and approach. On the other hand, there are many important insights, several of which are worthy of note. First, Beeke argues that Luther’s views on family and vocation revolutionized the social order. Domestic life offers one of the best environments in which to cultivate Christian discipleship, therefore honoring women, sexuality, and marriage. And as Veith shows, this is just one part of Christian vocation, which extends to church, state, and other relationships and affirms the goodness of secular work. Second, Denlinger helpfully nuances Luther’s popular Christocentric hermeneutic. Yes, Luther says that all of Scripture deals with Christ, but this must be qualified with his teaching on law and gospel and that “Christ” entailed his person and work. Third, in chapter 11, Manetsch accurately describes Luther’s many relationships with other Protestant reformers—some friends, but many enemies. This serves to correct the misconception of the reformers as a unified group, a handful of brilliant men who defied the Church of Rome. Fourth, Lucas clarifies the fact that Lutheran theology is not a mere parroting of Luther. Second and third generation Lutherans fought over indifferent aspects of worship, the role of the will in salvation, and the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The 1580 Book of Concord which ended the decades of factionalism and constitutes the Lutheran confession did largely side with Luther’s theology, but it was a compromise nonetheless. Lastly, Yount debunks the myth of Luther’s use of tavern tunes for hymns, most famously, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. They are called “bar tunes” because of their structure of musical notation and have “no connection to consuming ale in a tavern” (260).

As the authors are careful to correct misunderstandings circulating around Luther’s legacy, they are also sensitive to his character flaws. There is no attempt to hide his brashness and vulgarity, his support of slaughter in the Peasants War, his harsh and violent treatment of the Jews in his later writings, and his infamous view of the book of James as “an epistle of straw.” The other oft cited blemish that is not discussed in this work was Luther’s secret consent to Philip of Hesse’s bigamy. However, it is refreshing to read a book on Luther that focuses on his faith rather than his flaws.

Given the editors’ purpose to mine Luther’s legacy for contemporary lessons, application is peppered throughout the book. One such particularly potent section is drawn from Luther’s understanding of sola Scriptura. Horton asks if Christians today really share Luther’s confidence in the proclamation of God’s word to create the world of which it speaks? Or do they think that it needs the help of clever techniques and tricks? The Enlightenment created a new papacy of the biblical scholar. We must take care not to alienate biblical interpretation from the average layperson. If the Enlightenment shifted the authority in religion from the church to the mind of the individual, pietism located it in individual experience. Evangelicals must defend against enthusiasts eerily like the ones Luther himself dealt with. Horton also points out that Luther did not take the slogan sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the all-sufficient manual for everything or that the individual Christian can understand it without being part of the community of faith, instructed by faithful ministers.

The Legacy of Luther’s dust jacket reads, “The Protestant Reformation was launched that day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, and since that time, Luther has loomed large in Christian history as a brilliant, confounding, and wholly original figure.” The book serves as a helpful introduction to the great Reformer and as a launching pad into the various themes uncovered in his life and thought. It honors Luther’s memory at the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, not through hagiography, but through the presentation of a human being mightily used of the Lord. As Luther himself said, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.”


Andrew Ballitch is Associate Pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and a PhD candidate in church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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The Legacy of Luther

Reformation Trust, 2016 | 308 pages

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