How Carl Trueman Changed My Mind About Luther

April 30, 2015 — 10 Comments


Carl Trueman and I go way back. He doesn’t probably know it (or care), but his writing style and point of view tend wake me from my dogmatic slumbers. The first things I read from him were Wages of Spin and Minority Report, both checked out from the DTS Library. Around this time, Republocrat came out. Later, I’d come across Histories and Fallacies, and it was one of the first book reviews I did on this blog. Then another collection of essays emerged, Fools Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread, which like the first two Trueman books I read, was really a collection of blog posts and short essays.

All of that is to say, I’ve been reading and enjoying Carl Trueman’s thoughts for a while now. Even though I don’t always agree with him (nor would he want me to I think), he stimulates conversation better than most. So, it was with significant anticipation that I pre-ordered and then read shortly after arrival Luther on The Christian Life. At this point, I have read all but one book in this series, though I own them all. The series itself I would highly recommend, and while this book ranks high, several others, on the whole, are more commendable. But this one affected me in a different way than the rest.

Historically, I haven’t been a fan of Luther. I realize he is important and all, but I just wasn’t interested in reading much of his writings based on what I knew from a distance. While I recognized his role in starting the Reformation, he was a bit reactionary for my taste. Granted, at the time, that’s what the church may have needed, but I tended to view it as a potential pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction.

This seemed to be confirmed by the way the semi-recent debates on sanctification and Christian growth went on between Tullian Tchividjian and Kevin DeYoung, Tchividjian’s point of view is more less also articulated by Gerhard Forde in Christian Spirituality: Five Views. That view is the Lutheran view, in contrast to the Reformed view, and from my point of view, was more or less antinomian. I say “more or less” because Tchividjian might not outright deny the third use of the law (a rule of law for believers that reminds them of their duties), but his rhetoric makes it seem at times that obedience and the law are in antithesis to the gospel and grace. I’m not alone in that assessment, as another author has pointed out that Tchividjian’s views are more at home in post-Reformation antinoniamism than the casual reader would guess (see also).

The problem with Tchividjian’s formulations, I think, is trying to drive too sharp of a wedge between law and gospel. Treating them as radical disjunctives is a theological presupposition that won’t bear the weight of the available exegetical evidence. I tend to avoid anyone who is real big on this type of thinking, and from what I knew, Luther was the one primarily responsible for it.

But then I read Trueman’s book.

As Trueman notes early on, “An understanding of Luther’s approach to the Christian life is fundamental to understanding the varieties of practical Western Christianity over the last five hundred years” (21). Also important to note is that Luther’s thought developed over time. Trueman explains:

One of the interesting things about the reception of Luther in contemporary evangelical Protestant circles is that it is entirely the early Reformation Luther – the Luther of the Heidelberg Disputation, of The Freedom of the Christian Man, and of The Bondage of the Will – who generally provides the quotations, the sound bites, and the cliches. Thus, it is the Luther of 1525 and earlier who receives all the attention (24).

But, as Trueman goes on to explain, it is the post-1525 Luther that is vital for actually understanding Luther on the Christian life:

In 1522, Luther could lightheartedly explain the success of the Reformation by commenting that he just sat around in the pub drinking beer with Amsdorf and Melanchthon while God’s Word was out doing all the work; the years after 1525 taught Luther that it was a whole lot more difficult than that. The Peasant’s War of 1525 and the dispute with Zwingli throughout the latter half of the 1520’s demonstrated how illusory was the Protestant consensus and how socially dangerous were the times. The rising antinomianism in the parishes showed how the preaching of the Word needed to be set within a more disciplined pastoral and ecclesiastical framework. The failure of the emperor to subscribe to the Augsburg Confession, of the pope to acknowledge the correctness of Luther’s stand, and of the Jews to convert to Christianity all indicated that the Reformation was going to be a long haul (24-25).

In a later chapter, Trueman expands on this. After the Reformation had moved into consolidation phase (by 1526ish), Luther received word back from Melanchthon’s Visitation Articles what parish life was actually like. Trueman notes,

What is clear from the Visitation Articles is that there were serious weaknesses in the effects of Reformation preaching stemming from imbalances in the way Luther’s teachings were being received and transmitted by parish priests. The tendency noted in the articles to preach gospel without law and to try to cultivate faith without repentance had led to behavior that could in no way be considered Christian. Jesus plus nothing was proving to be problematic, and Luther and his colleagues understood that and wished to address it. The law needed to be given its place as that which drives one to repentance. In a subtle way it also needed to be given a role in shaping exactly what the Christian response of love to God and neighbor should look like (169-170).

Trueman goes on to explain Luther’s response to this and how he actually battled antinomianism in his later writings. What this helped me to see is that Luther himself was not the cause of what might be considered antinomian thought. Rather, a misapplication of his thought and an over-emphasis on his earlier writings can, but doesn’t have to, lead in that direction. As a result of reading Trueman’s book, I have a much higher respect for Luther and an interest in actually reading more of his writings myself over the summer. While I don’t have find the law-gospel dialectic helpful, Luther can’t be reduced to that. He may not be the most careful exegete or gifted preacher, he was a great theological mind that I can learn from if I’m willing to take the time. Thanks to Carl Trueman, I’m now ready to do just that.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

10 responses to How Carl Trueman Changed My Mind About Luther

  1. Timothy Durey May 1, 2015 at 7:26 am

    thanks for the review. While I still appreciate a law/gospel understanding especially for people who don’t seem to understand the glories of justification, I also believe that we must emphasize our privilege to obey God.

    This sounds like a great read.

    • You’re welcome! I appreciate distinguishing law/gospel as well, just not treating them as radical disjunctives, though that might not have come across clearly in the article. A healthy does of both seems in order, which for some people means more gospel wakefulness and for others more calls to obedience.

  2. Great post! I appreciated how you related it personally and to the times.

  3. Nate, this is very interesting. I will have look into Trueman’s book, especially since I recently purchased all of Luther’s sermons. I did so as to show my future students the good, the bad, and the ugly of his theology. ( : I have not yet had an opportunity to read them. Like you, I consider Luther to be a necessary evil within the church, a sledge hammer against Rome but a proponent of antinomism. From first hand experience in prison ministry, I actually have had men, which I mentor, literally quote Luther to justify their sexual immorality. God bless you and thanks for the post.

    • Very interesting, thanks for sharing about that. It seems like there are parts of Luther that could be used in that way, but Luther himself would be horrified at the prospect!

  4. I hope you’ll also reconsider your rejection of the distinction between law and gospel. It was basic to Reformed theology too. Here are some resources on this:

    The exegetical reason for distinguishing them is this: Paul did it. Relative to justification law and grace (gospel) are two distinct principles (Rom 11:6). In both confessional Lutheran and Reformed theology, beginning with Luther, the law-gospel distinction was their way of recognizing Paul’s distinction between the principle of works (“do this and live,” “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die”) and grace (“the seed of the woman shall,” “come to me all you who are weary…”).

    Historically, in reaction to he Gnostics and other dualists, the Patristic church began to speak widely of “the old law” and “the new law” in order to stress the continuity between the testaments. There was some recognition of the theological distinction between the principles of law and gospel but, over time, the stress on continuity overwhelmed the theological distinction. It was the loss of the distinction that contributed significantly to the medieval doctrine, ratified at Trent, that we are justified because and to the degree we are sanctified.

    Virtually all the Protestants agreed with Luther. Calvin articulated the distinction repeatedly both in terms of grace/works (most often) and law/gospel. Reza did so, Perkins did so, the Heidelberg theologians (Ursinus and Olevianus) etc ad fin. This was a basic datum for them.

    Has it been abused by antinomian (usually mainline, e.g., ELCA) Lutherans and others? Yes. The Book of Concord, however, held by the LCMS and WELS affirms the third use of the law as do all the confessional Reformed.

    Practically it’s important because denial of the law/gospel distinction has never in the history of the church produced the sanctity for which we all hope. The law/gospel distinction, when properly taught, has. The Puritans all adhered to it. The prosecutor of the Westminster Assembly taught it. Perkins taught. Ames taught it. Owen taught it. Baxter denied it and that denial was unfruitful among the Church of Scotland people who followed him. Boston, the Erskines et al who opposed his moralism were known as godly, sanctified men. If you haven’t seen it, you might take a look at Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity both of which affirm the distinction AND very strongly the third use of the moral law as the norm of the Christian life.

    • I was probably was not entirely clear in a couple of places in the post. I don’t deny the distinction between law and gospel, but I don’t find treating them as radical disjunctives helpful. Maybe that’s the same? I would affirm it as properly taught and used, but I suppose in my understanding there’s a difference and in some articulations they are

      Are you familiar with Bradley Green’s recent volume in NSBT series? I liked his way of articulating things and he was relying on people like Calvin and Owen contra Wright.

      Thanks for the resources, I actually came across a couple of them in putting together the post. I need to probably refine both my phrasing and my understanding in this area. Along those lines, could you think of any potential dissertation ideas that explore this further? One of the profs at RTS suggested I look at Fisher’s book, in connection with Owen and along the lines of the necessity of good works in the Christian life.

      • I think everyone should read The Marrow of Modern Divinity. It would be a great topic for a diss. since it evoked such controversy. It would involve Baxter, who’s interesting, and potentially get one all the way to the Marrow controversy in the Church of Scotland. FWIW, I did 13 episodes on the Marrow and antinomianism/neonomianism on the Heidelcast and 14 episodes on the 10 commandments/moral law (including the 3rd use) after that.



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