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On this day in 1546, Martin Luther fell asleep in the Lord. Lutherans therefore recognize him this day and thank God for him.

But let’s be honest: Luther wasn’t always a very nice man. While he takes the time to carefully deconstruct his opponent’s arguments, he does so with a rather liberal dose of insult. Nor can we forget the truly terrible things he wrote concerning Jewish people late in life.

And Luther’s legacy is muddied by other things, too. For example, many Christians today—Catholic and Protestant alike (including Lutherans)—would express concern over Luther’s reservations regarding the canonical status of the so-called antilegomena. And need we mention the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse?

Some feel that all of these things (and many others besides) should be excused in Luther. Yes, defenders might say, Luther was given to inflammatory language, but then so were his opponents. Yes, he wrote On the Jews and their Lies, they continue, but he was a product of a larger anti-Semitic medieval culture. Yes, Luther questioned the canonicity of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, the argument goes on, but these books were also questioned in the early Church; besides, Luther included them in his translation of the Bible anyway. And on it goes.

It is easy to understand why people seek to justify Luther’s errors. We consider Luther to be a hero of the faith. Consequently, we sometimes feel compelled to gloss over that which is distasteful about him. But Lutherans cannot and should not wish to ignore these failings in Luther. They must be recognized; and they must be rejected.

In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, it is Luther’s sinfulness itself which illustrates why his message remains so vital today: “The fact is, Luther was a man. God accomplished incredibly important things through him . . . but he was nevertheless human. He was flawed and sinful, like you and me. And really, when you think about it, that is the good news of the Gospel. God justifies us despite our failings. He covers us with the blood of Christ and forgives our sin. The recognition that we are simul iustus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”) is a cornerstone of the faith rediscovered by Luther. On the one hand, we understand that we are sinners because of our evil inclinations and actions; on the other hand, we know we are saints because God has forgiven us.”

This truly is why we remember Luther: not because he was always nice, not because he was always good, and certainly not because he was always right. He wasn’t. Instead, we remember Luther because he directed attention always away from himself to Christ. It is to Christ we look for salvation, not our own holiness. Indeed, this is the context of Luther’s oft-quoted and much-maligned “sin boldly” comments.

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners,” Luther writes. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [ie, sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” It is to Christ, not ourselves, that we look for salvation, Luther is saying. He is calling us to be honest about our sin—to recognize its severity—so that we more fully understand our need for Christ. “We will commit sins while we are here,” Luther continues, “for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.”

Luther, then, did not excuse sin. Nor should we today ignore Luther’s sins. But with Luther, we recognize that the sacrifice of Christ is greater than our sin. We confess with him that the Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world—our sin—through the free gift of grace. We therefore still stand where Luther himself took his stand—indeed, where all the saints throughout the long history of the Church have always stood: at the foot of the cross.

Luther was a sinner who sought salvation at the feet of the Son of God, bleeding and dying for him at Calvary. We must do likewise.

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