Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, Carl R. Trueman, 2015, Crossway, Wheaton, Ill., ISBN 9781433525025, 214 pages, $17.99, softcover.
In the realm of Christian biography, we often look to those who have done great deeds in obedience to Christ-missionaries, martyrs, and evangelists-for inspiration and encouragement as we follow Him. Less often, perhaps, do we consider theologians as role models for our Christian walk. We read their work and their ideas impact us, but the Theologians on the Christian Life series from Crossway takes this to another level. Each book in this series explores the great thinkers of the faith in their personal life and the development of their theology, mining it for wisdom for today's Christians.
The latest installment in the series is Carl Trueman's work on The Great Reformer, Martin Luther. Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Seminary, has studied Luther for the better part of his career and writes about him with affection and admiration (without sugar-coating his sins and shortcomings). As a scholar, he draws on thorough reading of Luther's works, and as a Presbyterian standing apart from Luther's tradition, he provides an instructive introduction to his life and thought from an outsider's perspective.
This short volume is richly packed with scriptural and practical insight. Trueman begins by briefly summarizing Luther's biography, illuminating the personal and cultural contexts that influenced his study, teaching, and actions. In this, he reminds us that theology never happens in a vacuum, and that there are very real consequences to our belief and our choices. Notably, Trueman urges readers to consider all of Luther's life and work, not just his exuberant, bold pre-1525 writings (before which he had not had to wrestle extensively with the need for liturgical and ecclesiological precision in order to protect church order, among other things).
Over seven other chapters, Trueman unpacks several key concepts in Luther's thought. The first is his distinction between theologians of glory (who see God's character as a reflection of the way the world works) and theologians of the cross (who see God working in ways the world deems foolish, subverting the sinful order). Importantly, Trueman points out that these are not "theologies" but "theologians", that is, attitudes of approaching God and His Word rather than organized systems of thought.
Trueman also spends a great deal of time exploring Luther's views of baptism and the Lord's Supper, pointing out that he would have viewed most modern evangelicals as outside the bounds of orthodoxy for seeing these sacraments as symbols only (rather than understanding baptism as a seal of grace and communion as containing the real, physical presence of Christ). Instead of explaining away these differences as unreformed holdovers from Luther's medieval Catholic theology, Trueman endeavors to show how Luther came to these positions through careful study of the Word and a fervent commitment to justification by faith. In this way Luther reckoned the sacraments as tangible gifts from God to remind His people that their salvation came wholly from outside themselves.
On justification, Trueman delves into Luther's statement that "The Love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it." In this idea and the reasoning behind it, we see a radical departure from the worldly view that we love that which pleases us, and, by implication, that we must somehow make ourselves acceptable to God before He will love us. In this, as in every area of his theology, Luther is adamant that man is helpless to save himself, thus magnifying God's glory in the work of salvation.
In all, this book was a tremendous blessing to me. Trueman's winsome writing style brings depth of content to bear on the reader with application as the goal. The result is a historically enlightening, theologically challenging, and profoundly pastoral work. Martin Luther has clearly been used by God to advance the spread of His truth, and Trueman engages him "as one of us," a man whose "strengths were his weaknesses" but who was faithful to strive after humble obedience to his Heavenly Father.
Type: Church history/biography/theology
Take: Must Read