This month marks the 501st anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, long considered the start of the Reformation. Luther is a hero to me and many other Protestants for his courage, his conviction, and his rediscovery of the truth of justification by faith alone.
It may seem out of place to interrupt our celebration of Luther’s legacy by discussing some of the darker aspects of his life and thought. That’s how some reacted earlier this week when I tweeted a link to an article called “Luther’s Jewish Problem,” which lays out in all its awfulness the anti-Semitic turn of Luther in his later years. I agreed with the article in saying that we must look this evil square in the face and not explain it away.
The truth is the truth. And truth is not served by hagiography and exalted biographical sketches that minimize our heroes’ flaws. I believe Luther, who never minced words regarding sin and evil, would recommend we not minimize his sins.
Besides, if you love church history, you find yourself in this position on a regular basis. Most of the men and women on whose shoulders we stand are marred by sin in awful ways.
- John Chrysostom is one of the ancient commentators I read most regularly and quote from most often in my sermons. When I bump up against some of his anti-Semitic remarks, they always disappoint and unnerve me.
- Augustine’s Confessions is my favorite book of all time, yet I cannot avert my eyes from some of the egregious ways in which he and other church fathers spoke about women.
- Jonathan Edwards, the greatest American theologian and the man whose work inspired John Piper’s vision of finding our delight in God, owned slaves.
- William Carey gave his all for the sake of God’s mission in India, yet his treatment of his wife during a time of mental instability was, at the very least, negligent.
- Al Mohler recently described the shock and revulsion he felt when he came across a vile, racist comment from James P. Boyce, the founder of Southern Seminary (my alma mater).
- Karl Barth, arguably the most influential theologian of the 20th century, maintained an adulterous relationship for decades.
- A. W. Tozer, whose writings stir up in me a passion for God, was distant and cold toward his wife and children.
- This year, I’ve been making my way through Taylor Branch’s marvelous trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil-rights movement from 1955-68. Even as my admiration for King has grown, I’ve been deeply disturbed by the magnitude of his frequent betrayal of Coretta and shocked by more than one of his obscene comments uttered in private.
When we come into contact with serious character issues and egregious sins in our heroes, we may be tempted to toss all their works into the fire, to tear down their statues or strip their names off buildings. Why honor such tainted people?
But the best way to honor great men and women in the past is to do so holistically. We should not explain away their sins and imagine them as flawless; nor should we stand over them with a self-righteous posture, as if we can look down upon the people who carry us on their shoulders. Instead, we should note how easy it is for goodness and evil to become intertwined, and we should receive this news as a warning.
Sin As Parasite
In seminary, I remember reading Cornelius Plantinga’s book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. In a chapter called “Parasite,” Plantinga points out how evil and good aspects show up in many reform movements.
“The sobering fact is that reforms need constant reforming. Rescuers need rescue. Amendments need amendment. . . . Evil contaminates every scalpel designed to remove it.” (79)
Plantinga explains how this reality affects even those people whose work is, largely, a force for good in the world:
“Evil always appears in tandem with good. . . . In general, good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.” (80)
Plantinga relies on Augustine’s definition of evil as privation in order to describe sin as a parasite:
“. . . an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host for sustenance. Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it.” (89)
Seeing sin as a parasite has helped me come to grips with some of the shocking sins in the lives of people I’ve long admired. The parasite targets the healthy, the strong, and the good. That’s how the sin grows in power.
“Good is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness. . . . The smartest blows against shalom are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence—that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.” (89)
“The parasitic nature of sin accounts for certain facts that otherwise puzzle us. It accounts for the fact that, in various complicated and ironic ways, good and evil keep showing up, and even growing up together. . . . Sin is fruitful just because, like a virus, it attaches the life force and dynamics of its host.” (90)
Gratitude for Sinful Saints
Where does all of this leave us? With deep gratitude for sinful saints.
During this season of celebrating the Reformation, I am happy to lift up Reformation heroes. I love Martin Luther for his zeal and courage in proclaiming the precious truth of justification by faith alone, no matter the cost to him personally. I am grateful to God for him.
Luther’s anti-Semitism, egregious as it is, does not lead me to abandon his rediscovery of justification; it leads me to lean harder into it. Here’s the glorious truth: the reality Luther saw so clearly provides the answer to the sin he didn’t.
In other words, Luther discerned the reality of justification by faith alone better than he discerned the sinfulness in his own heart and life. And it’s that reality of justification by faith alone that levels us all and drives us to our knees—thankful for the clear example of horrendously flawed theologians articulating the only doctrine that gives hope to all of us who are horrendously flawed. It’s only in the security of being wrapped up in the righteousness of Christ that we can say, “Challenge me, Lord. Change me, Lord. Expose my wickedness.”
In the end, when death came for Luther’s mortal body, and the last of his parasitical sinfulness was destroyed, his final words contained no more vile epithets toward the Jews, but only a deathbed confession of his Jewish Messiah: “We are beggars; this is true.”