Martin Luther on receptive spirituality…

Martin Luther

Karl Marx pointed out that Martin Luther “turned priests into laymen because he turned laymen into priests.”  Marx was surely right in his observation—regardless of all that else flowed from his pen as an atheist.


Marx’s remark, along with similar observations by others, is more theologically correct than historically accurate.  Alas, the Church continues to suffer from the lay-clergy split that Luther sought to correct by emphasizing the “priesthood of all believers.”  The callings of the pastor and the missionary are still seen as requiring greater devotion than the callings of lay persons—in prayer, in holy living, in Scripture meditation, in vocational service to others, and so on. 


For Luther, all Christians are priests, both plowman and preacher.  The life of personal devotion is common to all Christians.  And for all Christians, devotion is a matter of “reception rather than performance.”


A summary of Luther’s views on Christian devotion (spirituality or piety) is found in his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings.


I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that. . . .


This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented in the whole Psalm. They are Oratio [prayer], Meditatio [meditation], Tentatio [temptation].


Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, because not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone. Therefore you should straightway despair of your own reason and understanding. With them you will not attain eternal life, but, on the contrary, your presumptuousness will plunge you and others with you out of heaven (as happened to Lucifer) into the abyss of hell. But kneel down in your little room [Matt. 6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.


Thus you see how David keeps praying in the above-mentioned Psalm, “Teach me, Lord, instruct me, lead me, show me,” and many more words like these. Although he well knew and daily heard and read the text of Moses and other books besides, still he wants to lay hold of the real teacher of the Scriptures himself, so that he may not seize upon them pell-mell with his reason and become his own teacher. For such practice gives rise to factious spirits who allow themselves to nurture the delusion that the Scriptures are subject to them and can be easily grasped with their reason, as if they were Markolf or Aesop’s Fables, for which no Holy Spirit and no prayers are needed.


Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart but also externally, by repeating the written words externally and rubbing them (like a herb for its flavor), reading and re-reading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. . . . Thus you see in this same Psalm how David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, and read, by day and night and always, about nothing except God’s Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc., externally was not given in vain.


Thirdly, there is tentatio [testing/temptation], Anfechtung [attack/assault]. This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom. Thus you see how David, in the Psalm mentioned, complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s word (as has been said) in all manner of ways. For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor [of theology] of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. …


Commenting on this passage, Lutheran scholar John W. Kleinig sums up Martin Luther’s spirituality this way:


[Luther] does not, as we would expect, propose a method for the study of academic theology. Rather, he describes the practice of receptive spirituality that he had learned from singing, saying, and praying the Psalms. But even that is misleading. He does not advocate a particular practice of spirituality, but outlines the dynamic process of spiritual formation in every Christian’s life by the interplay between three factors: the Holy Spirit, God’s Word, and Satan.



The entire Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings (Vol. 34 of Luther’s Works) is available online.


An excellent discussion of Luther’s views on Christian spirituality is found in the Introduction to Grace Upon Grace:  Spirituality for Today, by John W. Kleinig, Lutheran scholar and teacher.  An online article by Dr. Kleinig, “Luther on the Spiritual Life,” covers much of the same material as this Introduction.


Now retired, Dr. Kleinig served as dean of chapel and head of biblical studies at Australian Lutheran College, Adelaide, Australia.




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