Meet the Real Luther: Table Talk
Historic testimony to Luther is grand. Not only have many of his letters, books, tracts, and sermons survived, but so have his table talks. Table Talk is a collection of Luther’s sayings amongst his friends. Thankfully, they have been preserved for our benefit. There we see glimpses of the real Martin Luther. There is no biographical tampering. It is what Luther himself said; good and bad. Knowing this, it will be good to think a little on the positives and negatives of Luther’s character in Table Talk
Despite the impact of his writings and testimony, Luther was still a flawed man. Were his flaws irredeemable though?
You may already know that Luther had a reputation for rude speech. His table talks were no exception. The worst of these are, perhaps, too vulgar to write here. A more polite example is as follows: A man once came to him, representing a widow. He wanted help to find her a husband. Luther’s response was not one of fluffy matchmaking. Instead, he said: “Am I to furnish husbands for these women? They must take me for a pimp!” Surely, we can see the funny side. Regardless, his comparing this request to pimping is too much. Luther did a lot of good by speaking God’s Word. Sadly, he failed (as we all do) to temper his words with grace. The result is a blotch on his character.
Luther’s attitude to his opponents is also concerning. At one point he said: “Erasmus is an eel. Nobody can grasp him except Christ alone.” While we can accept that some men are slippery, it is uncouth to call them names. There was also no love lost towards Zwingli either. He said: “Zwingli also made the mistake of thinking that he knew everything.” It was harsh for Luther to make this kind of statement about Zwingli without knowing his heart.
It is easy for us to sit in ivory towers to mock our opponents. Rather than do this, however, Jesus calls us to love our opponents (Matt. 5:43-44). May we learn to reach out to those who disagree with us in love. We can only have productive discussions with people if we gently and lovingly show them their errors.
Now that we have gotten through the harder material, we can bask in the delightful parts of Luther’s Table Talk.
One of the greatest strengths is Luther’s pithy sayings. During a discussion on the Sacraments. Luther said: “Whether one falls out of the ship in front or behind, therefore, one lands in water.” The fluidity helps us remember what was said, so we can later benefit by recalling it. Another statement, one which is famous, is: “A lie is like a snowball. The longer it is rolled on the ground the larger it becomes.” Such a pithy statement captures everything Luther wanted to say, illustrating it, and making it easy to understand at the same time. We would do well to reflect on the benefits of such speechcraft.
Not only was he a laconical speaker, but he also demonstrated great faithfulness as he battled against heresy. At the same time he was also faithful in practical living. He was a great and powerful instrument in the Lord’s hands. We can only stand back in great respect for his stance on truth. Speaking from heart-wrenching experience, he said: “Works never give us a peaceful heart.” Later he would affirm: “A good consciousness won’t set one free, but the distinction between law and gospel will.” This shows that he understood the place of law and Gospel: something quickly being lost today.
He was also immensely practical in the outworking of his faith. This is seen after his daughter’s death: “How well it has turned out for you!” He was referring to his belief in her eternal state. It takes a truly faithful man to react that way to the death of his daughter! Rarely can such a faithful man be found today.
How can we assess Luther’s character? We have seen some devastating flaws in his character. That, however, only goes to emphasize the need we have for the Gospel. Luther is most known for bringing Reformation light to the Church through faithful doctrine. How better could God demonstrate that than by using a man like Luther to proclaim it? Seeing all these flaws, against the backdrop of such grace, is cause to realize this truth. God truly justifies the ungodly, lifts them up as jars of clay, and uses them, despite their flaws (2 Cor. 4:7). Such is the will and testimony of our amazing, justifying God.
R D. Norman is a missionary in Romania. He is married to Ema and serves most predominantly through evangelism and counseling. He is also the author of two upcoming books; Phenomenal Grace and Restraint and Freedom: Biblical Advice for Self-Control.
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 Luther tries to defend his way of speaking and writing in Table Talk 397, however, his explanation is not overly clear and lacks biblical warrant.
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