the good Doctor himself

the good Doctor himself

Read the rest in this series here

If you’ve ever visited my office you will have noticed fifty-five red and black volumes to the right of my computer on a bookshelf behind my desk. Those volumes are the American Edition of Martin Luther’s collected works. Of the fifty-five volumes, thirty are dedicated to Martin Luther’s verse by verse exposition of the Scriptures. Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis alone is eight volumes long. Luther’s exposition of the Old and New Testaments fills literally hundreds of thousands of pages, so who better to turn to for help reading the Bible than this German theologian who dedicated so much of his life to understanding it?

First off all, let us start with some practicalities.

  1. Luther would tell us first to buy a good translation that you can read and understand.  One of Luther’s immediate goals was to translate the entire Bible into the language of the people. However, this did not simply mean that Luther translated the Hebrew to the German, but he translated the Hebrew into the popular German of the time so that it could be easily read by all.  For modern day North America, I would reccomend to you the ESV or NIV.  Sadly, it might be time to hang up the ole’ King James Version until Elizabethan English makes a comeback. 
  2. Luther would also tell us to spend a lot of time in Scripture.  It is said that Luther was so saturated in the language of the Bible that he often quoted it without even being conscious of it (Pelikan, Exegetical Writtings, 49).  Luther would be an advocate for spending hours upon hours in the Scriptures.  Maybe you don’t have hours upon hours.  Well, how much time do you have?  Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes?  Don’t fritter them away by pushing the snooze button for thirty minutes.  Get up early and get in the Scriptures.  Let them saturate you. 
  3. Finally, Luther would say if you want to understand the Bible better you need to sit under the feet of a good preacher.  Luther once said, “the church is not a pen-house but a mouth house!,” and also “Christ did not command the apostles to write, but only to preach.”  Luther thought that one could read the Bible many times over and yet fail to understand it or apply it.  But when it is was proclaimed by another, Spirit inspired insight, clarity and personal application followed. 

So how did Luther read the Bible?  Of the many things we could focus on, let us look at two that may help you as you read the Scriptures.  These two things have typically been identified as “Law and Gospel.”  To keep it simple, the “Law” is anything in Scripture that brings awareness of sin, fear of judgement, and affliction of conscience.  The “Gospel” is anything in Scripture that causes us to trust in God to forgive sin, forego judgement, and relieve conscience.  In Luther’s understanding, the passages that were “law” were meant to drive us to the promises of the “Gospel.” 

Reading the “Law”
For Luther the “Law” accomplishes many things, but I would like to hone in on what it does to the heart while we read Scripture. Luther writes on Romans

“The chief purpose of this letter is to break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh. This includes all the works which in the eyes of people or even in our own eyes may be great works. No matter whether these works are done with a sincere heart and min, this letter is to affirm and state and magnify sin, no matter how much someone insists that it does not exist” (LW vol. 25 pg 135).

 Luther understood that as humans we have an aversion to recognizing sin in our life.  We either cover it up or explain it away with weak justifications.  That is why Scripture is so valuable.  It magnifies the hidden sin in our life and shatters belief in our weak attempts at righteousness and justification.  So what impact does this have on our reading of Scripture?  When we come across a difficult and convicting passage (Rom 3.9-18 for example) we do not seek to explain it away or say “that’s not me.”  Rather, we apply that passage to our hearts and let it reveal our sinfulness in ways we had not previously imagined.  In other words, we allow Scripture to magnify our sin, making it both real and known to us. 

Reading the “Gospel”
As the reality of sin in our life begins to dawn on us through those passages of Scripture that are “law”, we begin to become fearful before God and in despair over the reality of our sinful nature.  It is at this point of fear and despair that we must intentionally turn our hearts to those passages of Scripture that Luther described as “Gospel.”  Concerning this skill Luther writes:

“When I see that a man is sufficiently contrite, oppressed by the Law, terrified by sin, and thirsting for comfort, then it is time for me to take the Law and active (works) righteousness form his sight and to set forth before him, through the Gospel, the passive (faith) righteousness which exlcudes Moses adn the law adn shows the promise of Christ, who came for the afflicted and sinners.  Here a man is raised up again and gains hope.”  (LW vol 26. pg 7).

How then does this affect the way we read Scripture?  We must not let ourselves stop at the convicting passages and wallow in despair or set forth with a renewed sense of determination.  Rather, as we read convicting passages of Scripture we must intentionally redirect our hearts to Christ on the cross and his saving righteousness.  As we read Scripture and come across especially comforting passages (1 John 4.1-11 or the Doxology of Jude for example) then we must make a great effort to apply them to ourselves and appropriate them to our hearts.  When I come across passages such as these I make a point to memorize them, so that when the knowledge of sin convicts me I might turn as quickly as possible to faith in Christ.

While by no means comprehensive, I believe these are a few of the things near and dear to the heart of Martin Luther and his study of the Bible.  I hope they were a help to you!  More to come soon…

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  1. […] Help Me Read My Bible Part I:  What I think Martin Luther’s advice would be for good Bible study.  There are now three posts in this category.  They include John Calvin, and a good piece guest written by Iain Boyd on Jonathan Edwards.  The Calvin and Edwards piece didn’t get too much attention but I think they’re worth your time, especially Iain’s piece on Edwards.  […]

  2. […] unlike Calvin and Luther who we have featured in previous entries for this series, was not widely known for his exegetical […]

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