Martin Luther – a compelling new biography by Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther statue in Wittenberg
Martin Luther – a compelling new biography by Eric Metaxas

Can anything more be said about the great reformer Martin Luther? Fortunately for the reader the answer is yes.

This new biography does give a fresh perspective on Luther and attempts as well to put right some common errors. Like all good biographers, Metaxas not only describes the life of Luther but also places him firmly in the context of his time.

It is clear in reading Metaxas’ book that he is well read in other works about Luther, both in English and German, referring to several along the way. This book is not some slap-dash effort to meet the deadline of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, but a well-researched, long term project.

Most Christians know at least a few facts about the German monk. They know of Luther defiantly nailing the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg—although they will have little idea why Luther needed 95 statements to denounce the practice of selling indulgences. They may know of Luther’s defiance at the Imperial Diet of Worms—but not knowing what he actually said or its profound consequences for the future of Western civilization.

They may also know, in a general way, that Luther made it possible for the common man to read the Bible for him- or herself, without the intervention and interpretation of the Roman church; that he translated the Bible into German and that the recent invention of the printing press made not only the Bible but also Luther’s many tracts widely available to the public.

These individual snippets are merely the broadest outline of the life of Martin Luther. Metaxas weaves these and many other less familiar events into a story that gives meaning not only to the whole of Luther’s life but also puts Luther in the context of his time, and of ours.

Why, for example, was Luther not simply burned at the stake for heresy, as Savonarola and Jan Hus before him? Indeed, others were burned at the stake after him. And why did the Reformation proceed, instead of being stamped out by the combined forces of church and state? After Worms, Luther was branded a heretic by the Church and declared outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Man Who Rediscovered God

The first theme of Luther’s life, as Metaxas tell it, is the re-discovery of the roots of the Christian faith. It didn’t start out that way. As the story goes, while in the middle of a thunderstorm he made a vow to St. Anne that he would dedicate his life to God if his life were spared. He did survive and much to his father’s chagrin he abandoned his studies to become a lawyer and instead became an Augustinian monk.

There was in Luther’s day a huge gulf between the clergy and the Christian laity. The former led celibate and regimented, cloistered lives of prayer and study. They also officiated at mass. The laity, on the other hand, were not much more than spectators.

What most clergy didn’t do, surprisingly, was study the Bible. They learned Greek and Latin, they read Aristotle and Christian theologians like Aquinas and Augustine—but not the Bible itself.

Luther was what we might today call an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. He aimed to do his duties completely and perfectly. Every mistake or omission was a sin to be confessed. The church taught that salvation came from confession and absolution and Luther wanted to make sure that no sin went unforgiven. In the end, Luther found that he could never be sure. He was certain that he had, unknowingly perhaps, forgotten some sin and would therefore fall short.

Because he was a brilliant student—and perhaps to relieve his confessor—Luther was sent to study the Bible and become a professor of theology. There, finally able to read and understand the message of the Gospel for himself, Luther rediscovered the truth that he could never through his own efforts reach God but that Christ, through grace, instead reached out to us and gave us the salvation that we could never achieve through our own efforts.

This is Luther’s rediscovery of the meaning of the Gospel and the key to the Reformation.

The Man Who Changed the World

This “news” was not welcomed by the church. Pope Leo X was busy raising money for the building of St. Peter’s in Rome and Luther’s preaching against indulgences attacked not only that practice but also the whole theology behind it.

The date October 31, 1517 is not the day he may or may not have nailed his theses to the church door; it is the day he mailed a copy of them to the Archbishop of Mainz, his church superior. Instead of being receptive, the archbishop became a life-long enemy.

This point in history is where Metaxas’ biography differentiates itself from others. He makes the claim that Luther and the Reformation he set in motion mark no less than the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity in the West.

Whereas before there was that sharp distinction between clergy and laity, the rediscovery of the Gospel truth erases it. They even pick their own priests, now called pastors. Instead of simply and blindly following what the established church told them the Bible says, they can read and understand for themselves.

This, Metaxas says, has implications down to our own times. This is the seed that bears the fruit not only of religious liberty and breaks the power of the medieval Church, but it also leads to the end of absolutism in the political realm. Political and religious power are no longer in the same hands. In time, a new political and religious order is formed in the New World based on the conscience and dignity of the individual—something unthinkable before Luther.

Eric Metaxas is perhaps uniquely qualified to produce such a biography. He is a Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Large for the King’s College in New York City and also the author of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—both books being New York Times best sellers. Like Luther himself, Metaxas is a prolific writer and speaker. Unlike Luther, Metaxas hosts a nationally syndicated radio program.

Even if you’ve read other Luther biographies, read this one. You’re certain to learn something new.

Metaxas, Eric. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. October 2017, Penguin Publishing Group.