What Does Luther Give Us to Tell Our Children?

What Does Luther Give Us to Tell Our Children?

Robert Kolb, Ph.D., International Research Emeritus Professor for Institute for Mission Studies, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri; Gastdozen at the Lutherische Theologische Hochschule, Oberursel, Germany, kolbr@csl.edu

Almost all children have some bad memories of school. Martin Luther was no exception. He recalled being labeled the “wolf” of the class for the day, no honor at all. But Luther kept on going to school. He had little choice. The rising middle class ambitions of his parents needed a son who, they dreamed, would follow the trajectory set by his father’s rise from the agricultural peasantry into the smelting industry by becoming a lawyer. To that end the family sent Martin at age twelve off to Magdeburg with another Mansfeld smelter’s son, Hans Reinicke. Then Martin spent three years in preparation for the university in Eisenach, where moderate success in bachelor studies primed him for more successful completion of a master’s degree and thus for the study of law. The full significance of his being educated did not become clear for him, however, until he had discovered that learning—the cultivation of the art of listening, absorbing, and applying—was vital for his relationship with his Creator. That was not yet clear as he briefly passed through the study of law and moved into the monastery in 1505.

Luther’s Path to Redefinition and Reform

Hardly had Luther begun learning the law when the world his parents had constructed for him collapsed with one flash of lightning on the road to his classes in Erfurt—coincident with a much longer developing crisis of his relationship to God and his view of himself. He fled to the Augustinian Hermits’ cloister and foreswore education, wanting only to be the lowliest of the brothers in the cloister, serving the others in the most menial tasks. His superiors in the Order, however, like his father, saw much more promise in the young man than he saw in himself. They directed him to study further, imposed ordination as a priest on him so that he could preach God’s Word, as the Augustinians were designed to do, aiding in parishes where priests needed help with proclaiming God’s Word and hearing confession.

Luther performed those tasks all too well. His Order’s vicar general, his friend, Johannes von Staupitz, was promoting several members of his circle in Erfurt for his program of reform, sending them through the course of studies that culminated at the pinnacle of medieval learning, a doctorate in the queen of the disciplines, theology. Thus, it came to pass that on October 12, 1512, Martin Luther became a teacher of Bible, Doctor in Biblia, against his own will and better judgment, as the hand-picked candidate to follow Staupitz as a theological professor at the young University of Wittenberg.1

The young professor’s being forced more deeply into the study of Scripture did not trouble him, for the Bible had intrigued him from the time he entered the cloister seven years earlier.2  He had devoured it and found the distractions of the scholastic theologians the curriculum compelled him to consume a bother. But publicly teaching the Bible made him more than a little anxious. As he integrated his own inner voice ever more deeply into the Psalms, the subject of his first lectures, delivered 1513–1515, and then explored the realities of God and of being human with Paul in Romans and Galatians in the following two years, Luther slowly came to reject the understanding of being Christian that his parents, priests, and professors had bequeathed to him. For theirs was a less or more sophisticated piety that had been formed by Germanic religious thinking since the time of the conversion of the tribes of Luther’s native Thuringia seven centuries earlier. Without sufficient personnel to preach or catechize effectively, the church was unable to recast the worldview of the people. Their thinking remained within the structures of pagan religion, which had believed that contact with the divine is established, or at least maintained, by human performance and, above all, by human performance of sacred or religious activities.3

Luther’s professors in Erfurt and Wittenberg had not substantially altered this framework of defining the relationship between God and his human creatures, though they had filled it with more biblical content than parents and priests had been able to give. The professors’ insistence that God’s grace could help the feeble efforts of the young Friar Luther to win God’s favor fell on rather deaf ears, for he knew that the best he could muster was not really good enough to please God.

His study of Scripture took place in the context of his own sensitive, scrupulous personality and the presuppositions of the system of thinking he learned from his instructors in Erfurt, a system launched two centuries earlier by William of Ockham. Ockham had indeed held that sinners must do their best from their own natural powers if they are to merit the divine grace that would aid them in performing works that truly please God. But he also emphasized that God is almighty. From that theme Luther drew his conviction that God is almighty and gives unconditional, undeserved favor as he comes to restore the relationship broken by human doubt of his Word. Ockham had taught that human beings depend totally on God’s revelation for ultimate truths. And from that theme Luther perceived that God approaches sinners even before they turn to him, and he does so with the promise of new life achieved apart from any human performance, given totally through Christ’s sacrificial death and his resurrecting triumph over sin, death, and Satan. The second person of the Holy Trinity, the Word made flesh, approached humankind as one of us. He keeps approaching us as the Holy Spirit initiates, establishes, and maintains the relationship that God wishes to have with his human creatures.4

Luther came to recognize that all reality stems from God’s speaking (Genesis 1), and he identified the source of the new life that sinners receive through forgiveness in God’s Word of absolution conveyed in oral, written, and sacramental forms of verbal communication. God is, Luther perceived, a God of conversation and community. He loves to talk and talks his way through the entire biblical account of his history and that of the human race which he created. Listening to God’s Word and learning what he has to say became the key to truly human living for Luther.

Learning the Faith at Home and in School

Whatever the child Martin had thought of school, the adult Luther came to realize that the Christian faith is dependent on learning (though not necessarily on the literacy that he also highly prized). Thus, Luther’s understanding of being Christian centers on receiving God’s Word, His words that convey new life through absolution, and His words that tell this story of creation, fall, rescue and restoration. God’s story, which is also the human story, has unfolded throughout the history of God’s conversations with Adam and Eve, with Sarah and Abraham, and with all their spiritual progeny, who number like the sands on the beach.

To keep this conversation going became Luther’s prime task. He enlisted every baptized Christian in the effort. He told the people of Wittenberg as he commented on 1 Peter that Christ’s people “have no other reason for living on earth than to be of help to others. … He permits us to live here in order that we may bring others to faith, just as he brought us.”5  When he came to 1 Peter 2:9, he told the congregation that being “royal priests” is synonymous with being Christian. God expected them as His priests to share the message that God had performed the wonderful deed of bringing them out of darkness into Christ’s light. “Thus you should also teach other people how they, too, come into such light. For you must bend every effort to realize what God has done for you. Then let it be your chief work to proclaim this publicly and to call everyone into the light into which you have been called.”6  Believers cannot help but deliver the story of Christ to others.

Luther knew that around 90 percent of his contemporaries in the German-speaking lands could not read or write. Therefore, he resolved to help parents to meet God’s expectations for them, as expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4–7 or Ephesians 6:4, by memorizing his “Small” Catechism and having their children recite parts of it each day.7 His catechism explains that each part is to be used by the father—and the mother—of the household for the cultivation of that conversation in which God gives life to His people.8

The Wittenberg theologians did not view the illiteracy of the population with resignation, however. In 1528, their Instructions for the Visitors appeared in print, with guidance for the electoral Saxon officials and theologians to visit congregations and help implement reforms. Melanchthon and Luther dedicated several pages of this work to plans for village schools, outlining curriculum in detail. They promoted schools for boys and schools for girls.9 In 1533 the town of Wittenberg adopted Church Ordinances, which also included detailed plans for the conduct of primary education for all girls and boys.10 Instruction in the basics of the Christian faith focused on Luther’s outline for Law, Gospel, and the living of the Christian life: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. In 1545, in response to a request from Emperor Charles V for proposals for reform, the Wittenberg theologians again insisted that due attention be paid to the education of all people, from primary school to university.11 The God of conversation and community seeks conversation partners who know who they are and who He is.

The Core of Christian Learning

Luther presumed that children have some sense of the existence of God, and so he could begin his plan for cultivating their faith with reflections on who they were and specifically what was wrong with their lives—or why they need God. Luther wanted children to begin to learn how to thoroughly examine their lives on the basis of God’s design and plan for human life. This was to remind them that because we are not placing God at the center of our perception of the world, things are not in the best working order. Luther’s explanation of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism focused all the attention children pay to what is wrong with their lives on our failure to “fear and love God.” Each commandment is explained with reference to the first: the heart of our humanity, Luther wanted children to know, is our fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all else. We have found other persons or things in which we place our ultimate trust for a sense of who we are, for a feeling of safety, and for meaning in daily life. That can happen either because we violate God’s design or because others violate us in going against the divine design of human life. Luther first of all helps us tell our children that there is more to life than we can grasp, either by hand or mind, that there are holes in our own perceptions and plans and in the actions of others toward us. How intimidatingly large those holes can sometimes become is often clearer to children than to their parents. Children experience that no matter what they do, no matter how good their very best is, life still opens up terrifying or at least threatening chasms in our preferred paths through life.

Children then need to hear that God comes near to them with deliverance, giving life without asking or being invited, without condition or prerequisite. The Creed offers the text in which to explore who God is. Apart from what God has revealed of Himself in Scripture, summarized in the Creed, we can know nothing certain about Him. The Creed gives us vital information both about Him and about ourselves. The first article tells us that we are God’s creatures. He is the Creator, who “out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy” created each individual child—“me”! But He did not create me alone. He created me “together with all creatures,” in the context of all of humankind and all of nature surrounding us. This parental generosity, unsolicited and unmerited, did not stop with setting us on earth. He provides all that we have and stands by us in the conflicts with evils within our own hearts and outside ourselves. He did and does all this “without any merit or worthiness in me.” Even before human beings fell into sin, they stood in God’s presence as totally dependent creatures. Creatures have nothing apart from their Creator and His gifts. Our dependence goes beyond the powerlessness we experience because we fail at too many things. It rests on our nature as creatures, Luther reminds us. He also reminds us that God designed us to enjoy the gift of being human by “thanking and praising Him, serving and obeying Him.” Our gratitude toward God and adoration of Him as the fatherly figure then combine with our finding satisfaction and fulfillment in being part of the human community in which we learn to give and receive graciously. All this makes daily life enjoyable and sets us at peace.

Conducting the Conversation

In exploring the Creed’s second article, Luther tells children the solution to those holes left by our doubt of God’s Word and defiance of Him and His plan for life. The solution springs from God’s action in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This solution results in our living that life of gratitude and adoration, service and obedience, that brings joy and peace. Because “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him,” I experience the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit as He calls and enlightens through the conversation that centers on Christ. Luther’s understanding of this God who wants to be in constant conversation and enduring community with His human creatures focused on God speaking in his Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. He is “truly God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also truly this particular human being, born of the Virgin Mary.” This Jesus, Luther repeatedly confirmed, “is my Lord.” “Lord” seems like a formidable word to 21st century people, who think of lords as oppressive overlords.

Luther thought of Jesus as the liberating lord, who burst into the prison of sin and death to free us and restore us to his family.

 … we lay under God’s wrath and displeasure, sentenced to eternal damnation, as we had merited it and deserved it. We were without resources, help, and comfort until this only and eternal Son of God, in his unfathomable goodness, had mercy on us because of our misery and distress and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed, and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, righteousness, and every good and blessing. He has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father’s favor and grace. As his own possession, he has taken us under his protection and shelter, in order that he may rule us by his righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.12

That is what Luther wanted the children learning his catechism to hear from parents, teachers, and pastors about their God and themselves. God’s “incongruous” goodness has resulted in our restoration to truly human life.13 In this vein, Luther titled his most important treatise on the doctrine of justification The Freedom of a Christian,14 and viewed it as liberation from sin, death, Satan, God’s wrath, and the condemnation of the Law, an emancipation that results in our being bound in love to serve the neighbor.

<Body text>In his Small Catechism the reformer expressed this restoration of human righteousness—being the way God designed human beings to be—in terms of Christ’s acquiring possession of lost and condemned creatures.15 He did so, as Peter says (1 Peter 1:18-19), not by a commercial purchase with gold or silver, but by taking upon Himself the wages of our disregard for the boundaries set by God’s design of life. That wage amounts to death, and Christ satisfied the Law’s claim on us with the precious blood of the innocent, unblemished lamb. He did that “so that I might belong to Him and live under His rule,” where ultimate safety and limitless provision completes both the person and the community and fuels the continuing conversation between creature and Creator.

Luther teaches our children that faith or trust constitutes the link between us and this God who daily reintroduces Himself through our use of the Creed and who resumes the conversation by reminding us who He is and who we are. As he was growing up, Luther’s teachers explained to him that the Christian “faith” was the belief that what the Bible says about Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection was fact. Luther’s colleague, Philip Melanchthon, explained to him that when Paul speaks of “faith,” he means not merely the facticity of the story (though certainly that, too) but also “trust,” an experience, confidence, and dependence of throwing oneself completely on another. Luther had tried to put his full spiritual weight on his attendance at the mass and then on his monastic vows, on his own performance of good deeds toward God and toward others. He had always crashed. When he put his full weight on Christ, life settled down on the firm and unshakable foundation that God alone can provide.

Luther’s trust looked first to what Christ had done. He loved Romans 4:25, “Christ was handed over [as a sacrifice into death] for our sin and was raised for our restoration to righteousness.”16 He believed that he had experienced the gift and benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection in his baptism and in every other reception—in oral, written, and sacramental forms—of this promise: the abolition of his sinfulness and the restoration of his righteousness which Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection. Thus, Luther’s trust looked secondly to this word of promise and what it said about himself.

For Luther, trust was agreeing with God’s judgment regarding himself on the basis of Christ’s absorbing his sin and sharing resurrected life with him. In the word of absolution that delivered what Christ had done came the message that God regarded Professor Luther as righteous—this man with his often too-short temper and his failures to fear, love, and trust in God above all else as he sometimes fell into melancholy. This word of absolution meant that he could accept himself as a real human being, the kind God had made for Eden, once again. Luther’s trust concluded that if God had that opinion about him—and God’s opinions create reality—he really was righteous, and he wanted to act in a righteous way. He used the term “imputation” for God’s opinion, and he relied on “trust” as the suitable human response. That trust was much more than recognizing the fact and truth of God’s report on what Christ has done for humankind. That trust not only grasped hold of Christ. It grasped hold of Luther’s entire being and moved him to live out God’s judging him to be His righteous child. He perceived that he was able to risk all that he had by serving God because God had so loved him that, without any merit or worthiness as creature or as sinner in himself, he had received forgiveness, life, and salvation (1 Corinthians 3:21–22).

In the midst of 21st century crises of authority and identity, parents can tell their children, on the basis of Luther’s catechisms, that the God of conversation and community, who confronts them in Scripture, is the ultimate authority they need. Parents can relate to children that whatever they think of themselves and however they evaluate what they have done in terms of their own expectations, Jesus thinks that they are more than cool. He thinks that they are His. Their core identities spring from what God deems them to be. Whatever the reality of their own experience of their failures and insufficiencies, of their ignoring God and wishing He were not looking, of their being rejected or ridiculed, disdained or despised, the more fundamental reality of their lives proceeds from the re-creative promise of Jesus Christ, who has claimed them as His own.

Luther’s message rings true still today.


1 For the best account of Luther’s early life, see Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
2 Robert Kolb, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God. The Wittenberg School and its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 27–34.
3 Scott H. Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard. The Reformation Agendas of Christianization (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 1–29.
4 On Luther’s path to this conclusion, see Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), chapter 5.
5 “Sermons on 1 Peter,” 1522, D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–1993 [henceforth WA]), 12:267,3–7. Luther’s Works (Saint Louis/Philadelphia: Concordia/Fortress, 1958–1986) [henceforth LW]), 30:11.
6 WA 12:318,26–319,6, LW 30:64–65.
7 Kolb, Luther and the Enduring Word, 230–235.
8 Small Catechism, Die Bekenntnisschrfiten der Evangelische-Lutherischen Kirche, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 862/863–898/899, The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).
9 Die evangelische n Kirchordnungen des XVI. Jahrhunderts, ed. Emil Sehling, 1,1 (Leipzig, 1902, Aalen: Scientia, 1979): 171–174.
10 Ibid. 1,1: 705–707.
11 Melanchthons Briefwechsel, ed. Heinz Scheible et al., Texte 14 (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: fromann-holzboog, 2014  [henceforth MBWT]): 76–77 (German), 105–106 (Latin); ET: The Wittenberg Reformation (1545), trans. John R. Stephenson (Saint Catherines: Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, 2016), 34.
12 BSELK1056/1057, BC 434–435.
13 Cf. John Baxter, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 97–116.
14 WA 7:3–38, 42–73, LW 31:333–77.
15 The German “erworben,” usually translated “purchased,” in fact has a broader meaning: to gain possession of.
16 Robert Kolb, “Resurrection and Justification. Luther’s Use of Romans 4,25,” Lutherjahrbuch 78 (2011), 39–60.

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