What Does Martin Luther Have to Say to Us Today?

Rolf Sons

There are statements in Luther’s counseling which are very special and apply to a certain situation, and may not be passed on indiscriminately. This is particularly the case in the following advice given to Philip Melanchthon.

The latter had reached a point, on account of his continual worrying and working, which could have been dangerous for him. Luther advised him that he should look after the needs of his body, or else he would become suicidal. On top of this, Melanchthon imagined falsely that he was acting in obedience to God. Luther gave him the following advice:

“God is also served through leisure and through nothing more than leisure. For this reason, it is His will that the Sabbath is kept above other days. Do not forget that! It is the Word of God that I am writing you.”

To serve God through leisure seems at the first glance of every Protestant (and Swabian pietist) to contradict work ethics. “Leisure” has a negative sound to it in the ears of many people. Proverbs such as, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop,” have given leisure a bad name.

Theologically speaking, leisure reminds us of the seventh day of creation, the Sabbath. To keep it was the first thing that man had to do after creation. Simultaneously, it reminds us of the eternal Sabbath, the completion of the world. Leisure always anticipates the future. As long as we are living in this world, rest reminds us that man does not live from work alone. It also gives us a foretaste of the eternal rest with God.

Luther develops at this point a piece of Protestant lifestyle that in our time has become second nature, and which must not be lost. Leisure lets us rest, but it is not passive. It lets us receive, watch, perceive. It is time in which we do not have to do anything productive, and yet it is not wasted time.

It is not man called Atlas holding up the world. Christ bears it. Whoever knows this can, like Luther, afford to rest because he knows that the Creator is incessantly at work.

The question of the image of God is of great significance in counseling. Is God perceived as the One who gives and loves, or the One who demands? Is He the One who punishes, or the One who forgives? We must remember that Luther was in desperation over a God who demands, and almost perished over this. Images of God have something to do with our experiences and what has influenced us. Often, wrong images of God result in legalistic faith and its accompanying symptoms. Many times the image of God is confused with a person’s own desire for power and indispensability.

Established images of God do not have to be permanent, however. They can change, and this can lead to liberating experiences, as we see from Luther’s biography.

In a Christmas sermon in the year 1519, Luther developed his view of things: “I do not want you to consider the Godhead in Christ. I do not want you to surrender to the majesty. Collect the considerations of your spirit on this flesh, on this boy Christ. Man can only be frightened of the Godhead, of this unheard of majesty.

“We must portray Christ as the One who is coming to bring salvation and grace. It seems to me as though the whole of humanity has no more effective comfort than this: that Christ is man, boy, child, who nursed at the breast of a young woman, His mother. Who would not be captivated and comforted by this picture?”

Luther does not draw attention here to the exalted, majestic God. Before Him one could tremble and fear. He focuses the eyes and heart of his listeners on the incarnate God, the child in the manger. One must look at this in pictures. Luther himself was at home in this sphere. He is not afraid to go into detail. Jesus lies at the breast of His mother, Mary. We see how near God is. We are amazed at His humility. We see how He partook of our human fate. Nothing human is strange to Him. He shares the same sorrows, pain, joys and troubles as we humans. He does not come from above. In contemplative observation of this picture, the observer should be comforted. Meditation becomes counseling.

Luther was not only a counselor at many funerals in his surroundings. Death came to his own family again and again. Two of his six children died early. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in the hard year of the plague, 1527, died at the age of nine months. We know very little about the death of little Elizabeth, but we know more about the death of Luther’s second daughter, Magdalena. Six months after the death of Elizabeth, in the spring of 1529, Magdalena was born. The birth of Magdalena was, in view of the loss of Elizabeth, a consolation to Luther, and it is understandable that she was particularly close to his heart. However, he would also lose Magdalena in childhood. In September 1542, when Magdalena was just 13 years old, Luther wrote to his son, Hans, in Torgau, that he should come home. His sister, Magdalena, was very ill and she would “soon go home to her Father in heaven,” and wanted to see Hans again. From the record of a dinner speech, we know how lovingly and fatherly Luther accompanied
his daughter on the last part of her journey. When Magdalena lay dying and wanted to go, he dropped to his knees by her bed, wept profusely and prayed that God would deliver her. A little later she died.

By her casket, Luther said, “My lovely darling, you will rise again and shine like a star, like the sun!” They had made the casket too narrow and too short, upon which Luther said, “The bed is too small, since she is dead. I am joyful in my spirit, but my flesh is very sad; the flesh does not want to go here. The taking leave of her torments me beyond measure. It is strange to know she is at peace and is doing well, and yet to be so sad.”

Luther appears here completely human and fatherly. In the face of death in his own family, we do not see the strong Reformer who faced death defiantly. We see rather the mourning and weeping father.

On the tombstone of his daughter, Luther expressed his hope in the sense of reformatory comfort. The inscription written by Luther said, “Here I, Magdalena, Dr. Luther’s daughter, sleep, resting with all the saints in my narrow bed. I, who was born in sin, should have been lost forever, but now I live and am well redeemed with your blood, Lord Christ.”

The undeserved gift of eternal life becomes a real and abiding comfort, when there is nothing more to hope for or expect. Luther himself died in April 1546, in Eisleben with these words on his lips, “We are beggars; this is true. Amen.” This is the deepest justification. God makes beggars saints!

Midnight Call - 11/2017

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