Pastoring like a Theologian: Five Lessons from the Life of Martin Luther

This is part one in a series of posts that will considers the spiritual and ministerial practices of historic pastor theologians, especially the unique tendencies in their pastoral work which were clearly influenced by, or related to, their ability as theologians. Part two on John Calvin can be found here. Part three on Athanasius can be found here.

It may be cause for rejoicing that someone who regularly calls his opponents ‘swineherds’ or the ‘ass to cap all asses’ (and those are some of his politer idioms) is not typically analyzed as a pastor. Martin Luther is remembered primarily for his larger than life persona, which aided his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and his ensuing tête-à-tête with the Pope. In fact, much of the popular media concerning last year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation re-enforced this view of Luther as rebel prophet, persecuted saint, and defender of the gospel of grace.

But Martin Luther was, by all accounts, an ordinary pastor — a good one, at that — and we would be misled to think that he was constantly gallivanting from one barn-burning meeting to another. He was appointed by the Augustinian order to be a professor at the unheralded University of Wittenberg, where his role included regular preaching duties. As anyone who reads Luther’s collected works can attest, his main Reformation treatises are dwarfed by volume upon volume of sermons and letters that reveal a more relational, down-to-earth Luther.

The eminent Luther scholar Gerhard Ebeling reminds us that one of Luther’s most-utilized Bible passages for soul care was not from Romans, where the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith is clearest, but from 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”[1] This is still a Luther-esque verse, but it reveals to us that humility and a deep interest in others’ suffering are woven into this bombastic reformer’s career. So let’s consider some notable, even surprising, tendencies from Luther’s ministry that can help us in our efforts to be modern pastor theologians.

1. Pepper your conversations with grace. I love John Calvin’s work, but if given the choice between reading Calvin or Luther, I would choose the German reformer almost every time. Luther is a lively writer with the uncanny ability to communicate the transformative nature of the gospel. In his Heidelberg Disputation, he characteristically avoids an abstract explanation of the difference between Law and Gospel in favor of a heart-piercing dichotomy: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done.”[2]

Arguably more important, though, is how often Luther integrates the gospel of Jesus Christ into normal conversation. Look no further for examples than his ‘Table Talk,’ a collection of transcripts which record dinner conversation in the Luther household. For instance, after explaining his lenient view on disciplining children, Luther suddenly catapults the conversation into theology proper with this conclusion: “God acts like this [for he says], ‘I’ll chastise you, my children…but if you cry out and run to me, I’ll rescue you and raise you up again.’”[3]

Many ministers are told that they must ‘practice what they preach’. But Luther’s ability to apply the gospel to everyday concerns is much more than that. It signifies the gospel’s true end: to bring us into relationship with God without the need for holy sites and religious rituals. In Luther’s Table Talk, the divine infiltrates the ordinary.

2. Carry a generous correspondence. In our busy world, some choose to increase productivity by limiting their personal correspondence. Emails are never longer than one line, conversations quickly get to the point, and the art of the written letter is all but dead.

I’m not here to condemn these realities, only to suggest that they do not capture Luther’s approach to relationships. His articulation of incongruous grace worked itself into his mode of communication. He wrote generously to his family, friends, and congregants. Amidst a busy schedule, he even found time to respond to queries that one’s personal secretary might otherwise screen and dismiss. Perhaps the most precious example is his treatment of the Lord’s Prayer — “A Simple Way to Pray” — which he dedicated to his barber, Peter. So far as we know, Peter was a new convert to the Protestant faith and, upon asking Luther how he should pray without a priest’s help, the reformer responded in full. Scholars have never been so thankful to a barber for his indirect contribution to Christian theology!

3. Think seriously about suffering. A significant interest for Luther throughout his career was the topic of human suffering and weakness. It may surprise some to learn that Luther’s first public appearance after his publication of the Ninety-Five Theses was a gathering of Augustinians in April 1518, where he presented the Heidelberg Disputation — a document that addresses personal suffering alongside questions of justification and other issues. This piece would become the foundation for what is known as Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’, which argues that true theology knows God through the cross (i.e. through Jesus) and that this single fact has consequences for the whole practice of theology. If God is revealed in Jesus, then we can only know God through being like Jesus in his suffering. Luther would later say, “Living, even dying and being damned, make a theologian, not understanding, reading, or speculating.”[4]

It is commonplace for pastors to talk about God, the atonement, and eschatology, but it is far less common to see a pastor think theologically about human experiences. Luther manages to do exactly this without losing perspective—he thinks seriously about suffering so that he can know more of Jesus.

4. Consider creative avenues for your theological work. If you’re anything like me, you fight a crisis of conscience on whether to use Facebook or Twitter. Luther may not have held the same reservations. Perhaps the first great master of the printing press—the technological marvel of his age—it is estimated that 3.1 million copies of Luther’s writings were sold in Germany between 1516-46, accounting for as much as 20% of all inexpensive, broadsheet publications from 1520-26.[5]

Luther was bent upon making his work accessible to the German people not only in form but content. Before translating the first German New Testament, Luther would visit local butchers, farmers, and merchants to learn the best German words for translating the cultural language of the Old and New Testaments. The Luther Bibel would become a best-seller and is still celebrated as a cultural treasure that effectively created modern High German.

Other than being absolutely overwhelmed by the mountain of Luther’s achievement at this point, modern pastor theologians should aspire to engage deeply with their congregation, city, and society. Luther transformed Europe, indeed, the world, precisely because he took the time to learn how to do so and adopted the necessary means.  

5. Utilize paradox. There is an irony in the reception of Luther today. His articulation of the gospel has been immortalized in many of the most basic Protestant presentations of the Christian faith. For many believers (whether they know it or not), Luther’s theology is the rock upon which the Bible is interpreted. So it might be surprising to learn that Luther was extremely fond of paradoxes, so much so that the best scholars of his day, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, were rather weary of Luther’s ideas. Luther taught that the Christian is simultaneously sinner and saint, the ideal of Christian freedom is bondage, and God is best known on the cross, precisely where he is hidden from Jesus at his death (Mt 27.46).

This way of doing theology is nonetheless useful in pastoral ministry because so many believers rest their faith on platitudes that fail to match reality. We believe God is good so he won’t send suffering, and consequently forget the paradox of Jesus’s death. I know of someone whose faith was destroyed when they learned that their mentor was having an affair. Luther would probably have been unsurprised and replied that every Christian — no matter how great — maintains a sin nature. So Luther’s paradoxes help us to prepare for the complexities of earthly life. Far from a confusing device, Luther believed that many paradoxes were a sign of God’s grace. When we know God, we cannot help but be powerfully changed in unexpected ways.


B.G. White is Instructor of Biblical Studies at The King’s College in New York City. He is in the final stages of his Ph.D. in New Testament at Durham University, where he served as a Pastoral Tutor at St. John’s College. He is a fellow of the St. Augustine Fellowship at the CPT. You can follow him on Twitter @bg__white.


[1] Gerhard Ebeling, Luthers Seelsorge: Theologie in Der Vielfalt Der Lebenssituationen an Seinen Briefen Dargestellt (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997), 462.

[2] Luther’s Works (LW), vol. 31 (St Louis: Concordia Press; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1986), 39-58.

[3] LW 54:157.

[4] Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Schriften) (Weimar: H. Bohlau, 1883-1993), 5.163.28-29.