Devotional Writings of Martin Luther


By Daniel L. Sonnenberg

Having grown up a Lutheran and transferred my membership to Presbyterianism as a college student, curiosity urged me to return to my roots to seek out the devotional writings of Martin Luther. I was not sure what I might find among his writings, having read only the Catechism in my early years and other brief excerpts in the intervening period. I felt somewhat overwhelmed surveying the library shelves full of his many volumes wondering where to begin. I was pleasantly surprised to find two volumes of Luther’s Works published by Fortress Press entitled Devotional Writings. These contain relatively short treatises, tracts and letters that are more pastoral in tone and content than much of his other writings. Luther’s primary intention was to communicate with lay persons facing particular concrete questions and situations.[1]

Some of these writings are more general: for example, A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519), written as an evangelical analog for Christians who are accustomed to a more superstitious Roman Catholic Good Friday vigil before the cross. Others are more specific: for example, A Simple Way to Pray (1535), a treatise written on the Lord’s Prayer for Luther’s barber, and Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage (1542).[2] The first volume contains works of this type written during his earlier years between 1519 (two years after posting his Ninety-Five Theses) and 1521 (when he appeared before the Diet of Worms where he was labeled an outlaw, then went into seclusion at Wartburg Castle).[3] The second volume includes works from his later life, 1522 (a year after the Diet of Worms) to 1545 (a year before his death).[4] Surprisingly, none of the selections from Foster and Smith’s book are taken from either of these two volumes.

Another satisfying surprise was my discovery of Table Talk. These are collections of Luther’s words during conversations around the family dinner table taken from notes recorded by a number of students who lived with Luther’s family for periods of time through the years.[5] These conversations range in length and in subject matter from personal remembrances of Luther’s childhood and comments on marriage and family life, to politics, the papacy and predestination. They vary from serious denunciations to humorous anecdotes.[6] Many editions of Table Talk have appeared over the years. Perhaps the most well-known until recent years is that of Aurifaber, who, to serve his own purposes, often suppressed, omitted, expanded and altered the original notes. More recent editions have been truer to the original text, bringing out a more accurate picture of Luther’s home environment and his personal characteristics and opinions.[7] A portion of Foster and Smith’s selection is taken from these conversations on the subject of prayer. The editors of Devotional Classics appear to have selected freely from a variety of Luther’s works on the topic of prayer perhaps to demonstrate his consistency of thought in the various genres.

A third and fourth source of Luther’s devotional writings are his sermons and longer treatises. Foster and Smith excerpted part of his “Epistle Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Advent” based on the text Philippians 4:4-7. The editors seem to have chosen this sermon because verse 6 deals in particular with prayer, “In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”[8] This is only a small portion of the overall text and message but seems to serve the editors’ purposes for our reading. A somewhat surprising source chosen by Foster and Smith is Luther’s “Treatise on Good Works.” This is an exposition of the Ten Commandments written in 1520, originally intended as a sermon, which gradually grew into a much longer treatise filling one hundred pages of volume 44 of Luther’s Works. One might not expect to find much on the subject of prayer in this treatise. However, on closer inspection, there are many passages dealing with prayer. Even in a longer, more involved work of this type one can find practical, edifying instruction for the faithful in Luther’s works.

A brief sketch of Luther’s life is found in Foster and Smith and other works. Born into a family of peasants in Eisleben, Germany in 1483, Luther hoped to improve his lot by studying law. At the age of twenty, however, concerned with his salvation, he joined an Augustinian monastery. By 1507 he accepted a call to the priesthood and was ordained. He was soon assigned to the University of Wittenberg as a professor of biblical literature. Over the next decade, his study of Scripture, particularly the Psalms and the Epistle to the Romans, led him to the conviction that salvation is received solely through faith and is not based on works. In 1515, Luther began to serve as the standing substitute for the ailing pastor of the city of Wittenberg, Simon Heinse. His posting of the Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences in 1517 catapulted him to national celebrity and earned him a number of meetings with papal authorities resulting in formal excommunication in 1521 and his retreat to Wartburg. Later, he returned to Wittenberg where he spent the remainder of his years. [9]

Those remaining years were spent as a pastor, theologian, husband, father, teacher and friend. In 1525, Friar Martin married a nun, Sister Catharine, renouncing their vows of celibacy and remaining together until his death twenty years later. Together they bore six children: Hans; Elizabeth, who died at an early age; Magdalene, who died at the age of fourteen; Martin, a sickly boy who was considered his father’s “dearest treasure”; Paul, the most intelligent of the lot; and Margaret. They lived together in a large brick building which had previously served as the Augustinian cloister until Luther proclaimed the emancipation of the monastery, leaving it mostly empty. The family was permitted temporary residence until 1532 when it was permanently deeded jointly to Luther and his wife. Here dwelt Martin, his wife Katie and their children along with some of their poorer relatives and many temporary visitors, including distinguished guests and poor students.[10]

God

Moving on to consider Luther’s writings found in Foster and Smith, I will reflect on the four questions assigned. First, I will discuss what this devotional caused me to think about God. From these excerpts on prayer we gain some understanding of Luther’s view of God’s nature, his relationship to his word and to his praying covenant people. God’s nature is represented as a loving Father who grants what is best for his covenant people in response to our prayers. He always does the right thing, both for himself and for us. However, his answers may not appear to match the “what,” “how” or “when” of some of our requests because his ways are often beyond the understanding of men.[11]  As to Jesus, we see him as the teacher, the elder brother and mediator in these passages. Luther quotes the Scripture here as he does often throughout his works. When teaching his disciples, Jesus seems to make an appeal as an elder brother when he urges us to pray, saying, “…what things ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them…” and, “Ask and it shall be given; seek and ye shall find…[F]or what father among you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? …[H]ow much more shall your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to all them that ask Him!”[12] Jesus knows his Father and he responds to his divine Son’s requests. Jesus seems to say to his disciples and to us, Yes! My Father will respond to you as He has to me. So don’t be afraid to believe in him as I do, to ask him, to seek him. For he desires to be found by you and will answer your requests in a way that dramatically exceeds that of any earthly father.  Here also, we see an aspect of the relationship between the members of the Trinity. The Father is the giver, the Son is the mediator and the Spirit is the gift to the believer.

My Relationship to Myself and to My Neighbor

Next, I will discuss what this devotion causes me to think about myself and my neighbor. Luther has much to say about the self in these passages on prayer. In fact, he says more about self than any of the other three categories. Luther tells us that we are to come to God with thanksgiving in our hearts, as weak creatures who trust by faith in his promises.[13] “In thanksgiving,” Luther points out, “we recount blessings received and thus strengthen our confidence and enable ourselves to wait trustingly for what we pray.”[14] Thanksgiving causes us to look back to what God has already done for us, so that we might be encouraged to believe for what we ask in the present. We are so weak and unbelieving, we often cannot imagine that God will do for us today what he did only yesterday without taking the time to look back in thanksgiving.

Second, we are to come as weak creatures to our Creator for his help. “…[W]e should keep in mind all of the shortcomings and excesses we feel, and pour them out freely to God, who is our faithful Father, who is ready to help.”[15] Keeping my weakness in mind is humbling and wars against my sinful nature which tells me I am doing just fine on my own. But this humbling is the only means to maintaining in a right relationship with my Creator. For he is not only my Creator, but also my faithful Father who stands ready to give me aid. When I fall into sin, then fail to  acknowledge it before God I compound that sin. I am reminded of my relationship to my wife at this point. When I sin against her in some way, if I simply acknowledge my sin quickly and honestly, the anger or hurt I aroused in her by my first act is not compounded by the second. This seems to be the way in our relationship with God as well, though God does not respond in exactly the same way as my wife. His response is often hidden and silent for a time. We are frequently reminded in Scripture that because the people continued in their sin, they eventually came under his judgment.

Third, we are to come to God in faith trusting in the promises of his word which is an expression of himself. Luther tells us we must not “pull away from God because of our sins and our unworthiness, or stand in doubt, or be scared away…[W]e must hold fast and believe that God has heard our prayer.”[16] Here he names several obstacles that stand between us and God in prayer. And they are all on our side: our sins, our unworthiness, our doubt, our fear. We must continue to remind ourselves of God’s word: “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ…” and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” With this assurance in mind, we can ask for what we need and be confident of his answer however it may come.

Finally, I will briefly outline what these excerpts cause me to think about my neighbor. Luther places prayer for our neighbor in the category of supplication which is a form of persuasion. We are to ask God, for example, not only for ourselves, but also “on behalf of…a father,” or “other men.”[17] This causes me to recall how infrequently I pray for other people – carefully, specifically. Persuasion requires thought and passion. Too often I don’t think carefully about the needs of others or care passionately enough about them to persuade God to act on their behalf. Lord, help me to “consider others more important than myself” so that I will ask with thanksgiving not only for myself but also on behalf my neighbor, who is also weak creature learning to trust You by faith!

The Church

Only a few references are made to the Church in the excerpts found in Foster and Smith. Luther notes that the Church, like the Old Testament fathers, has always practiced petition, supplication and thanksgiving.[18] But elsewhere he laments the fact that though the Church is filled with praying people, “so little improvement” is evident among them.[19] Finally, he notes that only those who have learned by experience can know the power of prayer.[20] It seems the key is to return to the practice of prayer handed down to us by the Church of the Old and New Testaments. To do this I must repent of my self-sufficiency and unbelief and walk in the grace of God in order to return to the ancient path. Not only that, my prayers cannot be empty words or forms that produce little lasting effect or improvement. It must be a dependent prayer, a heartfelt prayer and a prayer that trusts in the sufficiency and care of  a loving God who desires not only to enter into our world but to remain here with us by faith. As Luther says, “No one is so heavily burdened with his labor…that while working [he can not] speak with God in his heart, lay before Him his need and that of other men, ask for help, make petition, and in all this exercise and strengthen his faith.”[21] This is my aim by the grace of God: to continue to grow in the ability to make petitions and supplications with thanksgiving throughout the day in spite of whatever labor is before me.

The Scriptures

This final section will address what these excerpts cause me to think about the Scriptures. As mentioned above, Scripture passages and allusions abound in the Foster and Smith’s selections as in most of Luther’s other works surveyed. Moreover, there is a strong emphasis on the use of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in practical piety, though there are also vestiges of medieval theology in his earlier works. When Luther writes here on the subject of prayer, he frequently refers to what the Scriptures say about that subject quoting numerous passages. This is a refreshing change from many of the devotional writers of earlier periods. Unless the visions and ecstatic experiences of some of the writers can be related to Scripture, they have little benefit for the average devotional reader, including myself, who cannot recreate those experiences.

I also welcome Luther’s emphasis on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer for use in practical piety, in particular here, for use in prayer. The Ten Commandments, he says, tell us both what we need and what we should seek.[22] This emphasis causes me to desire to return to God’s law to discover what it says about prayer and how it might apply to my life. Likewise, A Simple Way to Pray (1535) is a treatise written to Luther’s barber on the subject of prayer based on the Lord’s Prayer.[23]

However, some vestiges of medieval theology can still be found in his earlier writings. In Foster and Smith’s excerpts, Luther refers not only to entreating God, his Son, his promises and his name, but also his saints. Such unbiblical views are found in other early works. In A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519), the editor notes that Luther still held to the doctrine of purgatory at this point.[24] Moreover, in A Sermon on Preparing to Die (1519) Luther affirms the Church’s belief in the sacrament of extreme unction and prayers to Mary and the saints, though combined with a more evangelical faith in Christ.[25] However, these seem to disappear in his later works. Perhaps his controversial practice of utilizing familiar traditional forms so as not to overwhelm the people with too much novelty, while replacing much of the superstitious content with Scriptural teaching, contributed to the retention of some of these vestiges in the early writings. This practice is evident in his Personal Prayer Book (1522) which was similar to the traditional Book of Hours in form but whose content was more Scriptural. An example of this is  Luther’s retention of the traditional form of the  Hail Mary from the Book of Hours, while giving its content a more evangelical emphasis in the Personal Prayer Book.[26] That being said, overall, Luther seems to treat Scripture as authoritative in his devotional works with a view to building up the faith of the covenant community based on faith in God’s powerful and infallible word rather than on tradition. These readings, then, cause me to continue to examine, with God’s help, my own traditions and beliefs in the light of God’s word so that my faith, like Luther’s, might not fail.

Works Cited

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Edited by Gustav K. Wiencke. Vol. 43, Devotional Writings II.           Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968.

__________. Luther’s Works. Edited by Martin O. Dietrich. Vol. 42, Devotional Writings I.            Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.

__________. “Martin Luther (1483-1546).” In Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for   Individuals & Groups. Edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, 135-138.           New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

__________. Sermons of Martin Luther. Edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Vol. VI. Grand            Rapids: Baker, 1988.

__________. Table Talk: Conversations with Luther. Edited by Preserved Smith and Herbert      Percival Gallinger. New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Publishing, 1979.

__________. Works of Martin Luther. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Holman, 1915.

[1] Luther’s Works, ed. Martin O. Dietrich, vol. 42, Devotional Writings I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) , xiii-xiv.

[2] Ibid., xv.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Luther’s Works, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke, vol. 43, Devotional Writings II (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968) , xi.

[5] Martin Luther, Table Talk: Conversations with Luther, eds. Preserved Smith and Herbert Percival Gallinger (New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Publishing, 1979) , xii-xvii.

[6] Ibid., v-vi.

[7] Ibid., xxv-xxvii.

[8] Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. VI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988) , 93.

[9] Martin Luther, “Martin Luther (1483-1546)” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, eds. Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) , 133. The Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia, 5th ed., s.v. “Luther, Martin.” Works of Martin Luther, vol. I (Philadelphia: Holman, 1915) , 175-176.

[10]Martin Luther, Table Talk: Conversations with Luther, eds. Preserved Smith and Herbert Percival Gallinger (New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Publishing, 1979) , ix-xii.

[11] Martin Luther, “Martin Luther (1483-1546)” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, eds. Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) , 133-134.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 133-135.

[14] Ibid., 133.

[15] Ibid., 134.

[16] Ibid., 135.

[17] Ibid., 132-133.

[18] Ibid., 133.

[19] Ibid., 134.

[20] Ibid., 135.

[21] Ibid., 133.

[22] Ibid., 135.

[23]Luther’s Works,  ed. Martin O. Dietrich, vol. 42, Devotional Writings I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) , xv.

[24] Ibid., 11.

[25] Ibid., 98.

[26] Luther’s Works, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke, vol. 43, Devotional Writings II (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968) , 6-7.

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