Luther on the Christian Life (5)

In chapter five, entitled “Living by the Word,” Trueman moves from Luther’s understanding of the worship of the church to his view of the day-to-day Christian life. Here the reader is given insight into Luther’s understanding of how the Christian life is lived out in the “normal” daily life of the ordinary believer. It has already been pointed out that Luther’s view of the Christian life is ecclesiastical. That is, the church is front and center in the Christian life. The church is the hub around which all of activities of the Christian’s spiritual life revolve. The main exercise of Christian devotion is the worship of God from Sabbath to Sabbath. The main way the Christian “lives by the Word” is by regularly sitting under the preaching of the Gospel. This is an important point for our day. Today there are many who view the Christian life as a personal matter. Going to church is a nice thing to do if you’re into that kind of thing or if you find it spiritually uplifting, but it is certainly not necessary. Sadly, many Protestants promote this view-a view that Luther would have strongly condemned.

For Luther, the Christian life has its beating heart in the worship of the church gathered together as a body. The Christian cannot have a healthy spiritual life if he or she is removed from the church. The reasons for this are clear. The official preaching of the Gospel is God’s ordained means of grace, not one’s small group discussions. The preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments are the means God has chosen to use to nourish and strengthen His people. To try to live without them is like trying to live without food. Luther’s point is not that private devotions are unimportant, not at all. But the personal Christian life flows out of the corporate Christian life which the individual believer shares with his or her fellow saints in the church. We are members of a body, not isolated individuals doing our own thing. That being said, Luther certainly recognized the importance of the Christian’s private devotional life. In particular, Luther drew his teaching in this area from the psalms. In the psalms he saw the entirety of Christian experience set forth and given beautiful expression. Every Christian ought to be constant in personal prayers. The Psalms are our guide here.

Finally, one of the striking aspects of Luther’s view of the Christian life that Truman highlights is how routine it is. Today too many Christians are obsessed with the extraordinary and the novel. They equate “spiritual” with “exciting” and “out of the ordinary.” That which is routine, regular, and ordinary is despised and even called “false” piety. The Christian life is popularly recast in terms of social and political activism. There must be revival! There must be impressive results! But we find nothing of these contemporary ideas in Luther’s view of the Christian life. The Christian life is, for the most part, really quite ordinary. It is marked by the regular use of the means of grace, the regular discipline of prayer, the regular worship of the assembled church. These things, done from the heart, are in Luther’s view, the chief exercises of the Christian life.

Justin Smidstra

Luther’s Table Talk concerning prayer

As Reformation Day at the end of this month draws near, we have the opportunity to remember and give thanks for one of God’s greatest works in the history of the church, the Protestant Reformation, through which God restored the gospel to His people and purified the church from the accumulated corruptions of medieval Catholicism. The literature available to the Reformed Christian is voluminous, but may I suggest Luther’s Table Talk as an excellent read for the season (if we may speak of a Reformation day season–not a bad idea in my opinion)? Many are likely already familiar with Luther’s Table Talk, an informal collection of Luther’s sayings and conversations as they were committed to writing by various penmen. This work is a veritable treasure trove. In reading some of Luther’s down-to-earth and frank conversation recorded in Table Talk, I was struck by how important prayer was to the life of the great reformer, as well as the poor state of prayer in the life of the church of his day. Luther worked long and hard for the reformation of the church and of Christian life, and included in that reformation was the way in which Christians pray. Since Reformed Christians rightly put great emphasis on the importance of prayer for our spiritual lives, I thought it fitting to reflect briefly on Luther’s high view of prayer and his restoration of prayer to the people of God.

Throughout the Table Talk we find an excellent picture of Luther as a man of prayer. In this the Luther of the Table Talk is the Luther of everyday mundane life, the Luther not as the doctor of theology or the preacher behind the pulpit, but Luther the ordinary Christian man. Luther was a man who prayed continually and exhorted his flock to pray without ceasing. He describes prayer as the sinew which binds the people of God together, and the way by which the people of God commune with their Lord.  In the first place, Luther reveals his extremely high view of prayer, exalting it with such praise and ascribing to it such powers that it impresses upon one’s consciousness the central importance of prayer in the life of the Christian. “O how great a thing, how marvelous, a godly Christian’s prayer is! How powerful with God; that a poor human creature should speak with God’s high majesty in heaven, and not be affrighted, but, on the contrary, know that God smiles upon him for Christ’s sake, his dearly beloved Son. The heart and conscience, in this act of praying, must not fly and recoil backwards by reason of our sins and unworthiness, or stand in doubt, or be scared away” (Table Talk, CCCXXVIII.) As with the rest of his theology, Luther’s view of prayer is grounded in his deep understanding of man’s depravity and the redemption that is found in Christ alone through faith alone. This perfect work of Christ gives the individual Christian such confidence that he may approach the Lord in prayer, not through the mediation of a priest or some prescribed formula dictated by the Romish church, but he himself may come before the throne of grace with all confidence in Christ and pray with the confidence that God will answer him in mercy and love for Christ’s sake. As Luther says, “it is impossible that God should not hear the prayers which with faith are made in Christ.”  Being a mighty man of prayer himself, Luther understood the importance of prayer in the Christian life both as a means of perseverance in the faith and for the strengthening of the church. We also ought to have this high view of prayer. We must come before the Lord in prayer often in the full confidence that He will hear us for Christ’s sake. We do not need another man or priest or Mary to intercede for us, we have direct access to God our Father through Christ.

Luther restored this marvelous truth of the gospel to the people of God, and for this reason it can be said that Luther’s reformation restored prayer to the people of God. Under the bondage of Rome, prayer had become little but lip service. The laity prayed their rosaries and invoked the saints, while monks sang their canonical hours. All of the comfort of prayer was stripped away and replaced with the monotony of heartless and formulaic prayers. Luther described the state of prayer in the Roman Church of his day: “Prayer in popedom is mere tongue-threshing; not prayer, but a work of obedience. Thence a confused sea of Horae Canonicae, the howling and babbling in cells and monasteries, where they read and sing the psalms and collects, without any spiritual devotion, understanding neither the words, sentences, nor meaning” (Table Talk, CCCXXX.) Luther’s church was a praying church, just as his home was a praying home. We who stand as the direct heirs of the Reformation ought to be praying members of praying churches. This is vital for our own spiritual wellbeing as well as the spiritual wellbeing of our churches.

For those who are interested in reading this most enjoyable work of Luther’s pen, it may read online or obtained as a PDF from the following website: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/tabletalk. For those who have not read it, I would encourage you to take a look. Not only are there great theological meditations to be found in these collected sayings of the good doctor, but also many simply hilarious conversations and aphorisms.

JS