Martin Luther – A Pastor-Theologian & His Personality

The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2Tim 2:24-26).

Anyone who has read anything written by Martin Luther might immediately think Luther did not have access to Paul’s exhortation in 2 Tim 2:24-26. We cannot excuse Luther’s harshness of words, but we must understand his words in context, as a courageous man who defended the truths he found sweet in Scripture; truths which were being hidden and twisted by the very authorities in the Roman Catholic Church (and political empire) who were supposed to be faithfully teaching them.

First off, we are told by Roland Bainton, Luther’s biographer, about the “coarseness and insensitivity of that whole generation” in which Luther was reared and lived (Bainton, Here I Stand, 119). So before we get off charging Luther with words that were too harsh or impatient, condemning him as a pompous and grouchy old theologian, we should see him in his context. What is considered coarse or harsh in one culture or generation is nothing of the sort in another.

Next, we should listen to this eyewitness account by an observer of the Leipzig debate in July 1519:

Martin is of middle height, emaciated from care and study, so that you can almost count his bones through his skin. He is in the vigor of manhood and has a clear, penetrating voice. He is learned and has the Scripture at his fingers’ ends. He knows Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge of the interpretations. A perfect forest of words and ideas stands at his command. He is affable and friendly, in no sense dour or arrogant. He is equal to anything. In company he is vivacious, jocose, always cheerful and gay no matter how hard his adversaries press him. Everyone chides him for the fault of being a little too insolent in his reproaches and more caustic than is prudent for an innovator in religion or becoming to a theologian. (Bainton, Here I Stand, 113).

Before we lambaste Luther for his abrasive speech, we ought to temper our judgments with the understanding that different cultures and time-periods of history have practiced widely varying levels of assessments on what is and is not caustic speech. We also do well to consider all the admonitions in Scripture for defending the truth, not to mention the many harsh words that Jesus spoke to Pharisees, or even to his beloved Peter (Mark 8:33). Pastors are charged by God to feed and protect His flock, to speak hard words of truth against false teachers.

Having issued that warning, we who are pastors are to be models for the flock to follow, and this modeling includes godly speech and godly lives. We must certainly defend the truth, but with humility, kindness, patience, gentleness, and without quarrelsomeness. We trust God to do the work of repentance, which He does in part by our preaching the truth of the Word and defending it with our lives, but not with ungodly speech or attitudes. As one of my favorite pastors likes to tell me, so I tell you, “You need to smile more!”

We all have different personalities. Some of us see the horrors of a sin-cursed world where the fight of faith is a daily reality that wars against basking in the hope and joy that are ours in Christ, seeing only now as through a dim and dark mirror what we will experience perfectly in heaven. Others of us have the promises of God ready on our lips and see the wonderful reality that Christ is victorious and we have nothing to be anxious for; He has defeated sin and death through His perfect life, substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection, ascending in His magnificence to be our Mediator at God’s right hand, until the day the Father sends Him to return to Judge the earth and bring about the new heavens and new earth where righteousness reigns. We all have our struggles and thus we all need to serve one another in our local churches, sharpening one another to become more and more like Christ. Brother pastors, recognize your personality weaknesses and seek God’s grace to be sharpened and formed into the image of Christ; His Word is near; His people stand ready to walk with you; His Spirit is anxious to transform you day-by-day.