The Legacy of Martin Luther (Part 1)

When one considers the life of the great Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), one often thinks of his discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Or one thinks of his “Here I Stand” speech. These events are important highlights of Luther’s public life and we must remember them.

However, it is also beneficial to concentrate on Luther’s private life. Luther’s private life set precedents for the Protestant church in many areas. Hence a study of his private life will offer us many rich lessons. With this aim, we will consider Luther’s prayer life and his counseling methodology in this post. In the next post, we will focus on Luther’s family life and his educational methods.

Luther: A Man of Prayer

Luther was a man of prayer. He loved prayer and spent several hours in prayer every day. After discovering the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Luther went about reforming the various practices of the church one by one. Prayer was one of the chief among them.

In medieval times, the Catholic church had largely reduced prayer to a recitation of written texts. The priests read these written prayers in Latin during the Mass. Since most Christians did not know Latin, these prayers were largely unintelligible to them. The Catholic church compounded the problem even more. The church hardly encouraged Christians to pray in their private lives. If Christians had problems in their lives, the church encouraged them to attend Mass and receive sacraments rather than engage in private prayer.

Luther sought to reverse this culture. He asserted that Jesus had commanded all his disciples to pray, not just the leaders. In fact, the Reformer believed that the commandment to pray was as important as the Ten Commandments themselves and that all Christians must obey it.¹ To help Christians to learn to pray, Luther wrote a small book, A Simple Way to Pray. This book was actually a letter which Luther wrote to his barber. In a private conversation with Luther, Luther’s barber had expressed his inability to pray. So, Luther wrote this “letter-book” to help his barber-friend.

In the letter, Luther encouraged his barber-friend to prepare his heart before prayer so that it is not mixed up with diverse thoughts. He then advocated going through the Lord’s Prayer verse by verse with reflection and response in between. Luther also advised praying through the Ten Commandments. Luther’s fourfold method to pray through the commandments were: a) think or ponder the commandment b) thank God for any benefits revealed by the commandment c) confess sins related to the commandment and d) pray for grace to obey the commandment. Throughout this letter, Luther never separated prayer from the Word but rather treated the Word as a guide to prayer.

Through all these emphases, Luther restored prayer as the rightful privilege of all Christians.

Luther: A Counselor

Luther also pioneered biblical counseling by helping people solve their personal problems by turning to the gospel. Luther’s understanding of the gospel radically influenced his counseling method and marked a great departure from the medieval church. The medieval church taught Christians that they can solve their spiritual problems by receiving the sacraments, confessing their sins to priests, purchasing indulgences, and performing acts of penance.  The stress in all these activities was doing.

On the contrary, Luther stressed on believing. Luther never of tired of saying that Christians receive forgiveness of sins by believing rather than doing. In keeping with this theology, Luther counseled troubled souls to look to God’s promise of forgiveness through Christ when their consciences or the devil condemned them. Contemplation of the gospel and its benefits were at the root of Luther’s counseling methodology. As Theodore Tappert, a Lutheran scholar, observes, “In Luther’s eyes, therefore, spiritual counsel is always concerned above all else with faith – nurturing, strengthening, establishing, practicing faith – and because ‘faith comes by hearing,’ the Word of God (or the gospel) occupies a central place in it.”²

The way Luther applied this theology to counsel his flock is perhaps best seen in a letter he wrote to his depressed friend Jerome. Jerome Weller, a student of Luther, who also tutored Luther’s children, suffered from depression and anxiety. Luther counseled Jerome by writing a personal letter to him. Luther began by saying,

You must believe that this temptation of yours is of the devil, who vexes you so because you believe in Christ…you ought to rejoice in this temptation of the devil because it is a certain sign that God is propitious and merciful to you.

Later, Luther offered some practical suggestions to avoid these temptations:

Whenever this temptation comes to you, avoid entering upon a disputation with the devil and do not allow yourself to dwell on those deadly thoughts…In this sort of temptation and struggle, contempt is the best and easiest method of winning over the devil…Therefore, Jerome, joke and play games with my wife and others [i.e. when Jerome is with the Luthers at their home]. In this way you will drive out your diabolical thoughts and take courage.

Finally, Luther concluded the letter by reminding Jerome of the gospel:

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’

Luther counseled people who suffered from doubt, anxiety, bereavement, physical needs, physical diseases, marriage problems, youthful lusts and many more. In all his letters, one finds a great emphasis on faith, combined with practical advice and sympathy. Luther is a fine role model to imitate when it comes to counseling God’s flock.

The Book of Concord, ed. and trans., Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 420-421.
2 Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox,
2006), 15.