How to understand Luther

Dr. Joachim Mörlin asks: “How to read the books and pamphlets of the dear and blessed man of God Dr. Martin Luther beneficially.” [1]

Back in 1585 he answers this rhetorical question: Firstly, note, that Luther has three marked advantages over and above many other theologians since the apostolic times. Of these three the first advantage is, that he had grasped the main and chief parts of Christian doctrine and of all Holy Writ and that he shared this not just in general terms, but rather in a thorough and truthful understanding. That is why his books don´t just follow the common trend of dialectics, but go to the bottom of the matter, highlight the nerve of the biblical discourse in line with the argumentation of the Holy Spirit.  That´s why even his enemies confess, that his issues are not as easily contradicted or invalidated as those of Erasmus or other learned men. All in all, it is just too powerful and systematically sound. To discredit Luther, you would have to discredit huge chunks of his works, which however are so intrinsically interwoven with God´s Word, that it is fairly impossible to get away with such futile attempts without being put to shame oneself. The second advantage of ML is this: He has the most beautiful and magnificent dictation to put this thorough theological understanding into words – pure, orderly and most fittingly too. He does not prattle empty stuff like those, who redundantly waffle on and on about nothing. On the contrary, he uses simple words to get across mighty stuff with profound meaning. He does not use words in vain, but most effectively. Therefore, whoever reads Luther carefully and discerns, what he says and how he says it, cannot just skip lightly over this and pass on. Rather, he keeps you spellbound. You need to attend to a page or two for half a day or even for three weeks or four, whereas in the same time you could finish other books quite easily and summarize them on but a little piece of paper. The third advantage of following Luther is that all his efforts are concentrated on being faithfully based on God´s Word and teaching the divine doctrine most purely and surely in accordance with it. That´s why he doesn´t get fixated on rhetoric, quibbling or nitpicking nor does he try to please everyone by accommodating all and everything. Rather, Luther says things as they are – clear cut and pure sometimes roughshod.  He earnestly refutes wrong teachings just as a faithful servant of Christ ought too. Thus, keeping the doctrine undiluted, undefiled, but rather pure and wholesome.

Secondly, whoever wants to come to grips with the teachings and read Luther fruitfully and usefully, should not just start haphazardly reading Luther´s books. This is because, Luther did not become such a special person (“Wundermann”) by learning in schools and churches. Rather, God introduced him directly into the heaviest battles of this world. Luther had to work, fight and win, where this worlds powers, arts and facilities were to small and weak. Yes, he had to encounter the deceitful devil and evil antichrist himself. Normally, all else shy away from this arch enemy, who rebelled against the living God, corrupts churches and schools, but Luther had to face this old fiend. With God´s Holy Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit Luther was to attack, reveal, tear down, suppress and mortally wound this backstabbing monster as was prophesied by St. Paul in the 2nd letter to the Thessalonians in chapter 2 etc.

That is why, Luther did not address the Christian doctrine as a whole at first. Rather, he had to proceed step by step – as the battle raged back and forth. Initially, it was against the Pope and his ilk. Here, Luther cleaned out the popish mischief, filth and corruption one part after the other – until the main articles of the Christian Faith once again gleamed in purity, clarity, authority and efficacy.

So, whoever wants to fruitfully study these, should follow this order. First of all, and mainly read and learn Luther´s Small Catechism by heart and word for word, so that they are known literally and with explanations. Don´t change any of this. Now note, that Luther deals with three main parts: Law, Gospel and table of duties. The Gospel again is divided into the three articles of creation, salvation and sanctification, the doctrine of prayer and the highly venerated sacraments. Luther´s Catechism is the precious crown and best of all, even if other catechisms are as good as they may be and as close to the Lutheran original: “We should fear, love and trust God above all things.” I´m not going to delve on this further, but I know, what I´m writing.

Third: Then proceed to read his Large Catechism. Further his exposition of the Ten Commandments in the 19-20 chapters of Exodus in German. This will go a long way to show, what profound depth lies in the few and simple words of the Small Catechism.  

Fourth: When this short summary is grasped, you will recognize the entire body of Christian doctrine and its chief parts. So, read the Swabach Articles on which the Augsburg Confession (1530) is based. Further Luther´s confession of all parts of the Christian faith, which he added to his “Large confession of the Lord´s Supper” (1528), his pamphlet on “How to pray”. The “Smalcald Articles” (1536) and the “Instruction of the visitors” (1528). Finally, the Augsburg Confession (1530) and its Apology, which is a summary of all this.    

Fifth: Law and Gospel are the main source of understanding the power and authority of Christian Doctrine properly and wholesomely. Here all else has its source. Without this all else fails. Therefore, take on the beautiful and precious treasure, the flourishing paradise of the most lovely and winsome flowers: Luther´s exposition of St. Paul´s epistle to the Galatians. Don´t just scan over it, nor pick this or that verse from it as some fools do, raising a lot of noise and trouble, because they don´t understand, what and how Luther talks.   

Be attentive to carefully understand Luther’s reasoning, what he says and does not say in comparison with St. Paul, and how he refutes his opponents and gives good reason for this and that.

Sixth: Then read “On the last words of David” (1543), where Luther goes to some length to explain the 2nd article of our faith – specially the words: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…” etc.  Further, take the booklet “On council and churches” (1939), which deals with the 3rd Article of our Faith – just as in the tractate “Contra Hans Worst” – on how the Holy Spirit gains and gathers His one Church, what and where this Holy Christian Church is to be found, what she does and how she proceeds in all things. Also, what the false church is and how this is to be distinguished from the true Church, etc.

Seventh: Now all other writings of Dr. Martin Luther can be adjudicated and assorted in the pattern laid down in his catechisms and the other Lutheran confessions. This is also practice of the “Loci communes” (“General chief parts”: Systematics composed by Philip Melanchthon). Learn from this arrangement, what Luther writes in the specific document, what he aims at, how he goes about it and what he emphasizes and leaves out.

Eighth: Read the last work of this man – his beloved Genesis. Here he does not just deal with single parts and pieces but reveals all the treasures and precious jewels of divine wisdom as revealed in God´s Word. Theologically there is nothing comparable in post-apostolic times. Luther´s “Genesis” makes all learners.   

Ninth: Remember, that You are not Luther and You will not be Luther either. He was it, and nobody else. Therefore, if You don´t reach his level, remember, that it is more fitting for us to confess our lack and shortcoming, but praise God´s great gift and graces bestowed in such awesome measure on the venerable doctor: Martin Luther.  Don´t be a fool and try to change Lutheran doctrine as if such teachings were but hyperbole as the Pelagians would make us believe of St. Paul´s teaching according to the comments of St. Augustine (“Contra Julianum Pelagianum”). Even if you are a learned doctor but stand tempted to degenerate or diminish Luther´s status, you will finally stand exposed ashamed as comic in comparison to him.

Tenth: There are plenty fools, who use Luther as a “quarry” to use words, ideas or similar. However, this is just tomfoolery as it is contrary to the Bible – just as if you would put a finger on the mouth of the Holy Spirit to silence Him. Still, the Holy Spirit calls such big, clever, pious, holy and learned people fools, snakes, dogs, howling wolves, stinking graves, children of the devil, harlots and their piety dirty rags etc.

Eleventh: Don´t be put off by the many calls, that Luther was too hasty, fiery tempered, an angry and quarrelsome hothead etc. This would be put forward by those, who don´t know the grave situation faced by the church and the gospel in this world. Rather, they would try to accommodate themselves in the world – and find a diplomatic arrangement with anyone – be it emperor, pope or devil. Yet, Martin Luther did not see God´s Word, Church matters, eternal life and salvation as slight matters. For him, these were holy and godly matters, for which he would gladly sacrificed his life, body and all. That is why, he was truly on fire for and in defense of these matters. He experienced both, what the holy Prophet Isaiah says in chapter 49,2: “He has sharpened my mouth as sword…” and in 51,16: “you are protected in the shadow of my hand!” His was truly God´s work. In this calling, he served in joyful and glad perseverance – he the faithful man of God. Others weren´t pleased by this and opposed him, to their own shame and pitiful disgrace.

Summary: Luther is a true “Wundermann” – man of miracles and wonders. God graciously gave him close to the end of the world. Would God in His mercy grant, that we would understand – if not fathom – what Luther was! Yet, it is a well-earned punishment – due to damnable sin and ungratefulness, that so few recognize this. Yes, far too many degenerate and minimalize him. Not, because Luther would give them cause for this. Rather, it is because the dear old sow prefers dirt rather than precious cinnamon and tasty spice. That´s how things are.

Finally, whoever wants to witness the great and wonderful story, the miracles and wonders, the weightiest occurrence since apostolic days in the exposure of the antichrist and thank the good Lord for His ongoing grace, the renewed revelation of the long-hidden gospel and praise Him accordingly, should not miss out to read Luther´s works as available in many forms. There you will find the history, but also the pope´s devilry and how this was misused against God´s people and to suppress the truth. Yes, you will read, how poor Luther was – bound and tied up by popish foolery. Bound in body and soul. Still, God opened his eyes that he could see clearly. God strengthened this poor, weak vessel to become a mighty tool and weapon against the unholy Babylon – tearing it down and throwing it into the fiery pit. Luther, however, persevered and his doctrine based and grounded in God´s Word has flourished since – against Pope, devil, ilk, sects and all sorts of enthusiastic masquerading, because whatever God does is good and He will see it through. We laud and praise the triune God for this man Luther and the high and many gifts, He bestowed on him in richest abundance for the benefit of the Church and many, many people. Amen.

Such should be the prayers of pious Christians.

Joachim Mörlin, Doctor (1585)


[1] This is a translation of Jürgen Diestelmann´s version of this short pamphlet in his biography: “Joachim Mörlin: Luther´s chaplain and pope of the Lutherans. A sketch of the times and a life-story from the 16th century” Freimund Verlag, Neuendettelsau: 2003.

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Lutheran World, Old Latin School in Wittenberg, Theologie and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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