Review: R. C. Sproul’s Luther and the Reformation

With his characteristic clarity and story-telling ability,  R. C. Sproul’s Luther and the Reformation: How a Monk Discovered the Gospel reveals the lines of connection between the personal crises of Martin Luther’s life and the development of his theological thought. As the book’s synopsis reads, “In this book, Dr. R. C. Sproul guides us through several crisis moments in the life of Martin Luther that led to his recovery of the gospel revealed in Scripture. Justification by faith alone was a liberating truth for Luther and the other Protestant Reformers, and it is good news for us to cherish today.”

The crises of Luther’s life serve as the structural pillars for the first half of the book (chapters 1–6). These chapters read like a guided church history tour with Dr. Sproul serving as tour guide, stopping at key points along the way to fill in the details of Luther’s personal and spiritual biography. The last half of the book has the familiar feel of a Ligonier classroom (with the green chalkboard included, of course). In these chapters (7–10), Sproul examines the Roman Catholic view of justification side by side with the Protestant view and argues that Luther’s view of justification better accords with the teaching of Scripture.

The first familiar crisis of Luther’s life came in 1505 when he was nearly struck by lightning on his way home from university. After crying out to St. Anne to spare his life, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt where his frequent trips to the confessional tired his priestly confessors. These years in Erfurt presented the great problem that Luther would spend the next two decades trying to solve—what must a man do to be free from guilt?

The book then recounts how Luther’s pilgrimage to Rome only added to his crippling sense of angst. After watching the Roman priests fly through five to six Masses in an hour and indulge in all manner of sexual immorality, Luther began to doubt that the pilgrimages, Sacred Steps, and indulgences of Rome could provide the peace of conscience he so desired. It was only through his study of Romans 1:17 (the “Tower Experience”) that Luther came to realize that the “righteous shall live by faith,” not by works. This newfound conviction changed the course of Luther’s life and served as the theological basis for his public critique of the sale of indulgences.

The remaining chapters of this first section deal with the underlying theology of indulgences themselves, the key players beyond John Tetzel who made their sale possible, and the eventual fallout from Luther’s posting the Ninety-Five Theses. The events leading up to Worms are complex enough to make even the able historian go a bit cross-eyed, but Sproul does an excellent job summarizing the period and getting the reader to Luther’s climactic, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

In the remaining four chapters, Sproul takes up his chalk and contrasts the Roman Catholic understanding of justification with that of the Reformers. The crux of the issue, he argues, is how one understands the meaning of the word “justification” itself. Rome, borrowing from the legal system of the Roman Empire and consulting the Latin Vulgate, believes that justification (justificare) means “to make righteous.” This definition feeds in to the Roman notion that justification occurs only after sanctification, “when we exhibit a righteousness that is acceptable to God” (p. 67). Luther and his spiritual decedents looked farther back to the ancient Greek meaning of dikaioo (justificare’s equivalent) which translated “to declare righteous.” Being “justified” then did not mean developing an inherent righteousness based upon one’s own effort but accepting the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ which is imputed to the sinner by grace through the instrumentality of faith. This put justification logically prior to sanctification and marked a clear break from the Roman scheme of salvation. From this point forward, the chasm between the two only became wider.

The book’s presentation of Rome’s teaching on baptism and penance and the roles they play in justification was fairly straightforward. For Rome, baptism and penance were the instruments that began and maintained one’s state of justification. I appreciate the care that Sproul showed in not caricaturing Rome’s view on the place of grace and faith in salvation. He rightly identifies that Rome believes both are necessary to be saved, but that neither is sufficient to save. On this point he refers the reader back to Luther who denied that baptism and penance served as the instrumental means of salvation (and ex opere operato at that) and affirmed that faith alone was the sole instrument of justification. The gracious gift of faith was enough. This was the answer Luther had been looking for, and so he jealously guarded it.

Another thing I appreciate about this book is that it takes familiar concepts and presents them in new, thought-provoking ways. For instance, Sproul notes that Rome’s doctrine of justification is analytical whereas the Reformed doctrine of justification is synthetic in nature (pp. 93–94). To most ears, this may sound confusing. I personally had not heard of this distinction prior to reading the book. One could argue that Sproul probably did not need to include it, but his illuminating explanation more than justifies its inclusion. “An analytical statement is true by definition: ‘Two plus two is four’ or ‘A bachelor is an unmarried man.’ There is nothing in the predicate that is not already contained in the subject” (p. 93). In the same fashion, Rome teaches that God will only declare an individual to be righteous if upon examination he finds righteousness inherent within him.1 Sproul continues, “In a synthetic statement, something new is added to the predicate that is not analytically contained in the subject. If I said to you, ‘The bachelor was a poor man,’ I would have told you something new in the second part of the sentence that wasn’t already simply contained in the word bachelor…” (p. 94). Luther taught that God declares a sinner righteous not because God sees him as righteous in himself (analytical), but because something has been added to him from outside (synthetic), namely the righteousness of Christ. These pages stretched my mind in a very satisfying way. Though such a fine distinction may not resonate with every reader, it keeps things fresh for those who already have a working knowledge of Luther and are looking for new ways to explain his theology to others.

This book would be an excellent resource in the hands of a Sunday School teacher or small group leader with participants ranging anywhere from late high school all the way to the nursing home. The early chapters have enough familiar material to keep the new-to-Luther reader from feeling immediately out of their depth but enough historical nuggets of interest to keep the church history buff engaged. Once readers get to the last half of the book, they will find themselves slowing down, putting it down, pondering, and filing away what they have learned for their next reading of Luther.

If you are looking for a unique contribution to the field of Lutheran scholarship, then this is not the book for you. It is by parts, devotional, historical, and theological. If, however, you are planning to study Luther’s theology in depth, this book may serve you well as an appetizer before chewing on The Bondage of the Will, The Freedom of the Christian, or secondary academic literature. A pastor may read this book and say, “I knew all of this already.” But, I would ask, “Did you know it to this degree already? Could you explain it this well to a member of your congregation?” Until one can explain these concepts as ably as Sproul, there will always be value in sitting under the instruction of one who can distill big concepts into their simplest parts, which is the chief sign of mastery. There are books for broadening and deepening one’s knowledge—this book definitely falls into the latter category.

Overall, I would say that Sproul succeeded in demonstrating that the crises of Luther’s life helped to shape his theology. He was chronically guilty, which drove him to the careful study of Scripture and eventually to the good news of justification by grace through faith. His disenchantment with the corruption of Rome compelled him to protest the sale of indulgences and to stand his ground when called upon to recant. The seeds of the Reformation were sown into Luther’s life long before he ever took his Ninety-Five Theses in hand.

© Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.

Endnotes

1. Having been enabled to be so (inherently righteous) by the grace of God offered in the sacramental system. Sproul, once again, is careful to cast his opponent’s views in a fair manner.

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  • Stephen Spinnenweber
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    Stephen Spinnenweber is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). He was born and raised in Pasadena, MD and was educated at the University of Maryland and and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with a local campus minister, he cohosts The Shorter Podcast, a podcast on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Stephen and his wife Sarah have been married since 2013. They are proud parents to Reid (3), Ruthie (1), and recently welcomed their third child, Wesley.

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