August 19, 2019

iMonk Classic: Looking for Luther

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From July 2009

Earlier in the day, Blue Raja and I had a discussion at the Boar’s Head Tavern about an earlier post where I quoted a Semi-Pelagian IM commenter. It’s discouraging to read that the atonement “opened the door” for us to now live a life worthy of the Kingdom of God. As I usually do, I expressed my despair at these kinds of “living to please God” systems of salvation and the blatant dishonesty they encourage and despair they induce.

So here was one of my replies.

The Gospel was never good news for me until Luther helped me see that life could continue to be tragic. I never worry about abundant life doing more than the occasional appearance in the present. I’m content with Christ in the shadowlands if he guarantees to raise me from the dead and bring me home.

This keeps coming back to me from readers who say it’s hit home with them, and where can they find more.

Before I talk about finding more of that, let me assure you that I responded to the Lutheran altar call a very long time ago.

In 1987, I was living in Louavul, going to seminary and working at a church just off campus. One J-term- a one week, intensive summer session, I believe- I was taking “Theology of Martin Luther” from the new church history guy, Dr. Timothy George.

I’ve had very, very few mystical experiences in my life, but during one lecture in that class, heaven opened up to me like never before or since. I was transported. The personal, existential dimension of the incarnation as it applies to my salvation fell on me like a gigantic wave.

To say the least, I became a Luther reader, which led me, unfortunately, to be susceptible to 16 years of Calvinism. The reason for that was simple: I didn’t know any Lutherans. The few I met wouldn’t talk to me. It was a crucial error. If I had developed relationships with Lutherans, I could have found the Lutheran reformation. Instead, the Calvinistic resurgence in Baptist life found me (Al Martin variety) and led me to some good things (Founder’s, Spurgeon) and a lot of wasted time and self-effort disguised as doing everything “to the Glory of God.”

Thank God for Steve Brown, The White Horse Inn and Michael Horton, Calvinists who stayed on more than friendly terms with the Lutheran reformation and knew how to communicate its heart.

It was Luther’s approach to his own humanity that saved me. Literally. Luther led me out of the “victorious Christian life” swamp. He simplified the Gospel. He stayed earthy and didn’t play the goofy spiritual games that evangelicalism was so prone to adore. The center was Christ and the Gospel was for sinners.

[In the interests of fairness, I should also say that in 1980, I had visited an LCMS church and was turned away at the altar abruptly, without explanation. That was my own ignorance, of course, and my own church at the time practiced closed communion. But the experience gave me a bad taste that has never entirely gone away.]

I found Luther in several places:

1. I found him in his own writings and sermons. Especially in Dillenberger’s Luther Reader,Luther’s own Table Talk, the commentary on Galatians and the “House Postils,” usually sold as the “Sermons of Martin Luther” in sets.

2. I found him at the White Horse Inn, where Rod Rosenbladt’s voice became synonymous with all I liked about Lutheran spirituality.

3. I came to appreciate that a lot of what I was hearing from Michael Horton wasn’t typical Baptist Calvinism as a kind of Kuyperian Calvinism deeply influenced by Lutheran theology. Horton has no bad books, but In the Face of GodA Better Way and Too Good To Be Trueespecially apply here. I haven’t read Christless Christianity, but it surely would be included. Horton’s work on the web is archived at his Monergism fan page and MP3 site. If my quote appealed to you, read “Singing the Blues With Jesus.”

4. More recently, I’ve appreciated the Lutheran Confessionsthe Treasury of Daily Prayer, theLutheran Service Book (I really love this complete guide to all worship resources + hymnal) and the many hours of fine Lutheran teaching available at Pirate Christian Radio and, especially, the best program on the radio/internet, Issues, Etc. Check out the topics at Issues, etc. the past few days. Is your church going to address “The Super Christian Myth” in a series about depression in the lives of Christians anytime soon?

5. I have to mention my friend Josh Strodtbeck. He infuriates me. I’ve kicked him off the BHT multiple times. No one has shown me less mercy in my writing. But he’s turned out to be a true friend and has made me think about Lutheranism more than any one human being. Now all he does is rant about politics, but in the golden era of his blogging, he was a very helpful teacher.

I’m a Baptist. I can’t imagine I will ever be a Lutheran. I have sacramental issues with infant Baptism. If we could get rid of the babies and not talk about “what’s really happening,” I’d probably be fine. But Lutheranism is a long way from being the core of who I am, but it has deeply influenced the way I preach, read the Bible and understand the Gospel. Today, my Lutheran side reads Capon and Zahl, both Anglicans. Go figure. I know that Luther was just as Catholic as he was Protestant, and some of that side of him is inaccessible to me given my own journey. I can let it rest.

What I like about Lutherans is their anthropology and their stubborn refusal to fall for the various “victorious life” or “holiness” schemes that evangelicals and others frequently can’t resist. Luther was realistic about himself and he was realistic about what he was doing. He had very little tolerance for the abuse of religion or the complicating/polluting of the Gospel. I’ve been reading some of his epistles on liturgical reform and it’s plain that he wants the basics to remain front and center, and the additions, inventions and accretions to be thrown overboard.

So Luther lived with a lot of mystery. He didn’t mind asserting that two different things could both be true in the language of the Bible. He didn’t bother himself with speculations a la Jonathan Edwards or an army of marching Calvinists. He didn’t try to impress anyone with how pious he was.

I’m not attracted to Lutheranism because of Lutherans or their outreaching churches. A lot of the Lutherans I’ve met won no merit badges for representing their tradition with any generosity toward other traditions. Some Lutherans are legendary for their intolerance of other Christians and lack of concern for anyone with a curiosity about Lutheranism. This is acknowledged by many Lutherans, and it is changing. Confessional Lutheranism is learning a different manner and discovering a constructive conversation with other Christians. This is a good thing, and I am glad to see it. But there is a long way to go. I am still hours away from a Lutheran church.

I used to have a co-worker who was Charismatic. He’d been raised Lutheran. He would come to my breakfast table, see I was reading something liturgical and start in. “None of those Lutherans were saved. I never heard the Word of God from them. They aren’t free.”

I heard three things here: 1) These are people who aren’t constantly trying to re-save everyone. 2) They probably used lots and lots of scripture. 3) There weren’t any ridiculous hi-jinks blamed on God.

Sounded good to me.

Some of you reading this heard what I said about Luther allowing life to still be tragic, and your heart beat faster. Could it be that there is a way off that treadmill? Is there a way out from under that pressure? Is there a door out of the evangelical circus into something else that won’t drive you to despair?

Yes, and chances are, if you are a typical evangelical or Calvinist, you know almost nothing about the Lutheran way. So spend some time getting to know it.


  1. I do really appreciate letting the Gospel be the Gospel, Lutheran understanding of Galatians changed my life. But from what I can see on the web the Lutheran de-emphasis on the Law as a formation of morality…balances on antinomanium (sp?). While I get that the best part of the law is its ability to prove I can’t follow it and thereby point me to Christ, I don’t buy that the Law should only be used as a segues to the Gospel. I’ve really been struggling to find how do I preach the Law faithfully without “beating” the sheep but without ignoring the call to “go and do likewise”.

    • Is it just me or does anyone else see a potential conflict between “Kingdom” gospel and Lutheran’s “salvific” gospel? Isn’t Kingdom gospel centered around living?

    • I don’t have time now to say much more, but I think your complaint is more with Lutherans than with Luther.

    • Aidan Clevinger says

      That’s part of the 3rd Use, and no Lutheran theologian worth his salt would deny that “go and do likewise” is a huge part of discipleship. The Confessions are good on this particular issue.

    • Law is not the cure for antinomianism; in fact, in many cases, it the cause. Legalism becomes a cover for sin, as demonstrated by the Pharisees. The Lutheran Articles of Concord address the place of law in the life of the believer. Simply put, it is not a means to please God. That needs to be settled once and for all at the cross. The sinful nature seeks to do just enough to please God, rather than what is right.

  2. I’m content with Christ in the shadowlands if he guarantees to raise me from the dead and bring me home.

    If there are no guarantees, would you take your hand from the plow and turn back?

    Understanding what the Law is trying to get you to do (and why/how people always fail in doing it) leads in the direction of abundant life, which I think is what Jesus was about: improving understanding. Not perfect life, let alone my perfect life, but more abundant life.

  3. I have great sympathy with this article. I also started out trying to live the Victorious Christian Life and failing miserably. I am glad I met Luther and Calvin before I encountered Lutheranism and Calvinism. While I also have problems with the idea of infant baptism, much of what I believe otherwise has been formed by Luther.

  4. Luther never spoke about the “3rd use of the Law”.

    The supposed “3rd use” is already contained in the first two uses. So talking about it just lets the fox back into the henhouse.

    “Go and do likewise”? Does that mean trying to use the law to make people better? I think not.

    “Go and do likewise” is to go and hand over Christ. Freely…with no strings attached. “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”

    Preach the law, for living in the world and to expose our sinfulness. But living in the world has nothing to do with gaining ANY leg up where God is concerned. We Christians don’t need a leg up because we are already “dead to sin” (for righteousness sake) , and we are already raised with Christ. But this needs to happen again and again and again, in preaching and in the sacraments.

  5. Growing up LCMS was formative for me…I got the basics of Christ and Scripture there. Born again Christian kids my age in college understood less than I did when I was 12. This didn’t necessarily equal discipleship, and I certainly had a long way to go, but I now credit that tradition with doing some key things right (for me personally). I was sheltered from the worst, even though the worst is indeed very bad, and was probably right there on our doorstep.

    It was later after moving away and ceasing to identify as Lutheran, and after a stint of cursing Lutheranism and its traditions, that I discovered Brennan Manning and some other ragamuffins who understood the Gospel was all grace all the time, including after you were a Christian. Getting this is probably why I continued to bother with Christianity. Gradually it dawned on me that this was exactly what the Lutheran theology I had been taught was trying to get across. Whether the Lutherans I knew got it or not is debatable, but I now go back to Luther and I see what Christ-centeredness means, what it means to receive God’s unshakable love again and again, and to rejoice in freedom from exactly what Michael is calling the “victorious Christian life,” and the “yeah but…” trap that has away of springing up after the Gospel is given.

    I’d be a Lutheran, but I just found other churches first. Instead I guess I’m content to hear Luther’s voice tell me that Christ really is crucified once for all, and to enjoy the breeze and cold beer…

  6. It has been said by someone, I don’t remember who at this moment, that the greatest heresy ever foisted upon Christendom is that of “Christians, trying to live the Christian life.” The attempt to ‘behave’ in a Christian way is straight out of Satan’s playbook. We are saved and delivered from sin by the blood of Christ, an unwarranted gift, and after a honeymoon period of months or a year, give or take, we begin to be murdered a millimeter at a time. “Oh yes you are free except that we and Jesus frown upon short skirts, rock music, books by non Christian authors, spending too much time with the unsaved, drinking alcohol………What would Jesus do?” These young babes don’t have a clue what Jesus would do. They only know what we do and what we tell them. Our good intentions are laced with fears that they will misbehave and be a bad witness so we get them up to speed as fast as we can to keep things in order and gaurd the reputation of the kingdom. What ought we to do? The obvious is intensive training in scripture and encouragement and training in prayer and communication with God. “Show yourself approved, a workman rightfully dividing the word of truth..” “In all things, through prayer and supplication..” The fundamentals of relationship to Christ. In short order the young Christian confesses, “I have a problem.” This is where a vast spectrum of Christianity enters into the program; the systematic, methodical reformation of the old man. The dead man within. The body of sin. The heart that is wicked and decietful above all things. THE GREAT MAKEOVER!! We, young man, are here to help you fight. We are going to teach you techniques to overcome. Yet anyone who has walked with Jesus for any time at all knows what Paul was talking about when he said, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Is there a hint of frustration there? Of course there is. Extraordinary frustration. Paul, the great seer and expositor of our faith, had come to the end of his ability to resist sin. He was a bad witness for the kingdom. He would not be tamed, much as he wished to be, and found his illustrious self at enmity with God. AHA! Just where God wanted him. In utter frustration and ineptitude he gave up! Paul finally internalized, deep in himself, the good news. “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” He then goes on to state the greatest heresy known to mankind. “But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” What? Who can tell that to their flock? That’s not you sinning. I don’t envy the job of a pastor. The fact is, our job as Christians is not to reform Ishmael; he and his mother are to be evicted. There is no making the wild man behave. It is just not in his character. We may tame him for a time but he will jump up when least expect and create total havoc. Our true task is to raise up the other child, Isaac, who has also taken up residence within us. He is not born of the bondservant but is the miraculously born child of faith. His seed is incorruptable. The whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. This seed, or sperma in the greek, must grow inside our being until it reaches the full stature of Christ and overwhelms Ishmael. Our job is to nurture that seed, not to follow some system of rules in the futile hope of redeeming the old man. He’s out. That’s it. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have PUT ON CHRIST. We are wearing Christ, breathing Christ seeing and hearing Christ. The law is utterly futile and empty. It never brought life and never will.. in fact, it is quite the opposite. It hides death in its wings. The big stumbling block that stops us in our tracks is that real Christianity, bringing up the child within to full stature, requires the cross. We must accept ourselves as we are with all of our lust and jealousy and anger, etc. and present that daily. Then we must obey, not the law of death, but the law of life which will carry us who knows where. Forsaking all, we must forget our father’s house and go like Abraham to Ur of the Chaldeans. It costs everything to find The Living Christ. It is not for the weak-kneed. But if you find a pearl of great price in a field, you sell everything you own to buy the field where that pearl lays. When we obey the law of the spirit of life, rivers of living water flow out of our being and the world gets a taste of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  7. Brennan Manning made it possible for me to read and appreciate Luther. Luther made it possible for me to read and appreciate Capon. Capon has made it possible for me to read the Gospels and see Jesus as I’ve never seen Him before. Now Paul, that Fool of Christ, makes sense.


  8. Pastor Don says

    I was born into a Lutheran home. My dad was LCMS and graduated from parochial school in the 8th grade. And that was his education. My confirmation was one of my spiritual high points. But the world got me and I for awhile saw church as boring. I got married to a nice Lutheran girl. Sometime after our first child was born a retired Lutheran pastor encouraged a congregation to “not wait until your my age to ‘get it’.” The Lord began to draw me back. But the ALC was getting very liberal and it drove us away…into the waiting arms of Evangelicals/Pentecostals. I told my dad it was because of Luther’s love for the Word and for his church’s abandoning it that I went the way I did. My dad (the 8th grade educated Lutheran) said, “you people don’t understand grace.”

    Time has passed. Some of the people of the church we planted decided I wasn’t doing enough and that they wanted to rescind the raise they gave me after 17 years at the same (low) salary. We eventually couldn’t take it any more and I resigned. I entered a wilderness. I didn’t have a name for it until I found Internet Monk. I didn’t begin grasping the Gospel and grace until I found the White Horse Inn. And then I found out what my dad had meant. The people of our former church didn’t understand grace. I didn’t either. Which only added to my guilt–what had I been preaching to people for 23 years? I wasn’t worthy to think about teaching again. Ah, but grace.

    Luther, and IM, and White Horse Inn (all four guys) has brought me back. I can’t say that I don’t read something somewhere and the waters of grace get a little “brackish” but somehow I am drawn back into the pure waters of the Gospel–of knowing I’m loved, accepted, and forgiven (to use the words of the title of Jerry Cook’s book). Further reading of Luther, Horton, et al, help me keep the law and the Gospel straight. I am saved through faith by grace.

    Grace doesn’t allow me to define sin the way I want to but lets me see that my father in heaven has forgiven me my sin through faith in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ my Lord and God. And it is only by that grace I am able to really see how horrible of a person I am. I hate sin. I can hate myself. But the Word of God tells me that God loves me the way I am. And that loving me the way I am does not deter him from his ultimate will for me–my sanctification.

    I am a sinner. I sin every moment of every day. I don’t like it. I wish it wasn’t part of me. I can only go so far in refusing to admit my sin (defined as Scripture defines it in all its varieties) before I bow in spirit and confess it, confess it all. What to do? Exactly what Paul says in chapter 7 of Romans: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Ah, the Good News! Love and acceptance and forgiveness based not on what I do or want to do, but based on what Jesus did.

    I hope I’m finally understanding grace. As Martin Luther taught it. As an 8th grade Lutheran boy understood it.

  9. Thanks Pastor Don. Encouraging, to say the least.


  10. “As I usually do, I expressed my despair at these kinds of ‘living to please God’ systems of salvation and the blatant dishonesty they encourage and despair they induce.”

    A woman who attended a recent Beth Moore retreat said that one of the best messages given there was on Jesus’ words, “It is Finished”, which concluded with Moore exhorting her audience to consider what task God has given them to finish. I stood there in a shocked, dumbfounded silence. It would appear that from Beth Moore’s perspective, Jesus upon the cross merely provided a moral example for us to follow of finishing mission we have been given, “Git ‘er Done” in other words.

    I think it is important to understand why this is the type of message that people want to hear. Michael was right that “living to please God” ultimately leads to the hang-over of despair, but first it gives the incredible high and enthusiasm brought on by self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is as much a work of the flesh as any sin. It works as well to attract “seekers” as other appeals to the base nature, such as sex seminars and faith-prosperity. You can’t bring people to Christ by appealing to the desires of the sinful nature, but market-driven church growth proponents seem to disagree.

  11. I don’t really have a lot to add in this conversation, but I do find it rather ironic that several people have brought up Brennan Manning, a Catholic (whom I love, too) in this conversation about Luther… 🙂 Although, it’s true Manning isn’t really what you’d call a conventional Catholic.

  12. It’s difficult to let this one rest. There are few things as dangerous to the faith as the notion of doing things out of motivation to please, appease, or otherwise glorify God. I just read an article shared on Ann Rice’s Facebook page talking about the epidemic of girls being brutally murdered primarily in Islamic countries (but among Christian and Hindu as well) for dishonoring their families. The stories are absolutely horrific. Here again is another great example of the wondrous effects of the law and our efforts to please God. Another example was mentioned in church this morning, as we read how some Jewish men took a vow to fast until they had killed the Apostle Paul. The whole issue of right and wrong goes out the window once we become terrified of displeasing God. We are the ones guilty of the most heinous form of moral relativism.

    I have a love-hate relationship with atonement theology, but I think it should be a sobering point of reflection: if we don’t believe that Jesus dying on the cross in atonement for our sins was enough, what level of Barbary are we willing to stoop to please God through our own efforts? From the previous examples, there appears to be no limits.

  13. Earlier I said I didn’t have anything to add to this conversation, but I think I may have lied…

    One thing that I’ve been wondering is that if there isn’t a personality component behind all of this, because, really I’d expect to see a lot more despairing people than I do. It just seems that some people naturally beat themselves up over failures more than others and they tend to internalize these feelings a lot. On the other hand, it seems there are other people who don’t see the demands that people give them as all that grievous – they just live their lives, do the best they can, and don’t seem to enter these shadowlands. I guess that’s my biggest problem with trying to make a Lutheran-style experience normative for every Christian. I just don’t see that it works that way.

    • I think there is another possibility. Most church-goers, put on the masks and pretend to go along with the act. As long as no one finds out the truth, everything is good. I think there is a general understanding to not ask questions or rock the boat.

  14. Bill Metzger says

    If you are accused of being an antinomian- that’s GOOD. It means that you’re really preaching the true Gospel of Grace! When your sins convict you, hear NOTHING BUT GOSPEL!!! Romans 3:23-24; Romans 5:20b!!!

  15. As I’ve said before, for a Baptist, Spencer did a lot of pushing down the Wittenburg trail. I just can’t believe his major hangup was on infant baptism. The debate between Sproul and MacArthur sealed the deal for me, and neither of them are Lutheran! But believe me, spending time in the Lutheran Service Book had the power to convert him, on the sheer merit of lyrical quality alone. Lutheran hymnody is miles deeper than anything I’ve encountered elsewhere. As a musician, I’ve used a hymnal in my personal devotions since college. The Trinity Hymnal was a revolution for me, but it pales in comparison.

    I believe that today, the confessional Lutheran voice is getting even stronger. Zahl and Capon should get honorary Lutheran status.

  16. Hi Michael,
    I came across your web-site by way of a link to one of your essays. I’m a lay Christian and began my Christian walk in the Lutheran Church for a year or so and over the last 40 years or so attended the Baptist Church as well as many other denominations. I spent 20 years reading the Puritan writers and I used to consider myself a Calvinist. I enjoy your thinking and I’m quite sure you are miles ahead of me spiritually but in the last ten years or so I have become less engaged with denominations and traditional evangelical thought. Less engaged, or maybe less dependent. Actually this is what prompted my response to this piece. There comes across to me in your writings a need to identify yourself with an organization or person more than I would expect. I read a quote from Frederick W. Robertson, an older and admittedly liberal thinker. But I’ll include this piece in hope that you find some merit in it and it may give a better idea of my point.

    “It is an awful moment when the soul begins to find that the props on which it has blindly rested so long are, many of them, rotten, and begins to suspect them all; when it begins to feel the nothingness of many of the traditionary opinions which have been received with implicit confidence, and in that horrible insecurity begins also to doubt whether there be any thing to believe at all………
    I appeal to the recollection of any man who has passed through that hour of agony, and stood upon the rock at last, the surges stilled below him, and the last cloud drifted from the sky above, with a faith, and hope, and trust no longer traditional, but of his own – a trust which neither earth nor hell shall shake thenceforth forever.
    I am quite sure that what you say is true about getting truth – at least truth enough – at last, and I am quite willing to struggle on in twilight until the light comes. True, manly struggle cannot fail. I know that. Only a man must struggle alone. His own view of truth, or rather his own way of viewing it, and that alone, will give him rest.
    He can only adopt the views of other minds for a time; and so long as his own is inert, the help that he gets directly from others generally does no good.”

    I hope this post of mine doesn’t seem pompous but I am a bit of a mystic and as I have pursued Christ through the word and following the mystical Help he gives on occasion, and seeking to understand Christ’s humanity, His intense love for all mankind, I have found, (admittedly I’m still in the “twilight” about many things,) a far clearer understanding of His direction for me personally. So, like fellow huntsmen, I hope there may be some line or two in this that is encouraging.
    God bless,