Book Review: Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Carl R. Trueman)

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I’ve been anticipating this book for nearly four months now. After reading Dane Ortlund’s splendid volume on Jonathan Edwards, I knew this series’ volume on Luther by the always enjoyable Carl Trueman would certainly not disappoint.

A Reformed reader reading a book on Luther is kind of like a basketball fan watching a documentary on Michael Jordan. The highlights of their career are pretty well already cemented in history and well-remembered, and their coming to prominence is old news. The most avid of their “fanbase” even know small, unique stories they love to recount and tell. Anyone familiar with the Protestant Reformation can tell you about Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, his opposition to the papacy, his brash yet whimsical attitude, and his passion for justification by faith alone. Such people mention his marquee work The Bondage of the Will, or his famed commentary in Galatians. Yet what Trueman does in this volume is not merely recant old hat; he enlightens us on what made Luther tick, the convictions that drove his actions, and how to sort through the various controversies of the life of one of the Reformation’s perennial pioneers.

I particularly liked this quote from Trueman’s introduction as he reflects on Luther:

I find Luther to be one of the most human theologians there is, certainly among Protestants. His humor alone endears him to me. His last written words—”We are beggars; this is true”—set all human pretensions to greatness and divinity in tragicomic perspective. A theologian who ultimately helps us to remember that we are of no lasting earthly importance whatsoever has crucial importance in an era obsessed with numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook friends (29).

As I prepare for pastoral ministry, I sometimes struggle to read men like Calvin and Owen and Edwards, as they seem so perfect, even inhuman, most of the time. All we know of such men is their deep passion for the Scriptures and God Himself; they seem so above the humanity of heart we’re subjected to daily! But with Luther, we are able to not only read him, but laugh with him, and identify with him. Trueman kept Luther’s humanness intact throughout, making it an easy read to my surprise.

There is more to Martin than the average evangelical knows of. I’ve read a fair amount of Luther, from essays to commentaries to catechisms, but along the way I’ve missed some of Luther’s passions and motivations. From my personal study I know he devoted a great deal to the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, for example, but Trueman’s book helped me see Luther’s passion for sound liturgy, and his deep view of the sacraments. Above all, I was glad to see Trueman speak extensively on the distinction between the “theologian of glory” and “theologian of cross.” I had seen this concept associated with Luther before, but not to this length. The distinction really helped me grab some key insights to take from Luther’s theology and apply to my preaching of solus Christus (another Luther-centric pillar expounded by Trueman).

Some key quotes:

Throughout the centuries, theologians have often been preoccupied with the cross for what it offers: penal substitutionary atonement, expiation of sin, triumph over the Devil, an example of devotion to God that others should strive to follow. Luther’s understanding of the cross, however, brings out another important aspect; the cross as revelation of God toward us and also as an indicator of where we stand before God (81).

“I would gladly have a German mass today. I am also occupied with it. But I would very much like it to have a true German character. For to translate the Latin text and retain the Latin tone or notes has my sanction, though it doesn’t sound polished or well done. Both the text and notes, accent, melody, and manner of rendering ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection, otherwise all of it becomes an imitation. In the manner of the apes” (113).

If Luther were alive today, he would no doubt see the passion aroused in the secular world by the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality as an example of this: God’s Word does not just tell us certain things are wrong; in so doing, it tells us that we are not who we like to think we are, the masters of our own self-created identities and destinies, but instead creatures subject to the Creator (98).

With a figure like Martin Luther, the tendency will always be to make him a hero or a villain…What are we to do with him? The answer, I believe, is actually very simple: we are to see him as one of us (59).

The last quote is the reason you should read this book. This man is one of us, and we’d do well to understand a brother like Martin. Carl Trueman has written a very well researched account of Luther. It’s not just a summation of doctrine, it’s not biography. It’s a peek inside the mind, heart, and life of one of the most prolific figures of the Church we would all do well to learn from.

I was provided this book via Crossway in exchange for my review. All page references relate to iBooks edition.

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