Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World is the latest addition to Eric Metaxas’s pantheon of Protestant heroes—a worthwhile project, especially for millennials like me, who lose so many role models to deconstruction and disenchanting “wokeness.” Metaxas ascribes to his subject as many heroic qualities as he can: This Luther is a tortured genius, a holy man, a comedian, a world-class scholar, and Christ’s fourteenth apostle all at once. The book synthesizes these many personas through a tight focus on Luther’s personal viewpoint, drawing heavily on his writings and taking his commentary on the world as established fact.
But adherence to Luther’s point of view proves to be a double-edged sword for Metaxas. It reveals another Luther behind Metaxas’s brilliant-yet-relatable-yet-holy-yet-iconoclastic one—a Luther who closely resembles the struggling young evangelicals Metaxas aims to inspire.
Having recently been a Protestant undergraduate myself, I noticed this resemblance throughout the biography. Metaxas’s Luther follows a spiritual trajectory that is common in campus ministries. It begins when a faith formed with as few creeds and dogmas as possible, so as to avoid Pharisaism, meets a secular university culture that prizes doubt. Students who possess this kind of faith take refuge in campus ministries that, instead of answering doubts, encourage them. Students often come to prize doubt, too. Once, while leading a student discussion group, I asked one well-churched student to define “faith,” hoping she would offer Hebrews 11 for the consideration of our secular peers. Instead, she replied: “Well, faith always has to include doubt.”
This doubt, combined with an awareness of sin and suffering, often tempts students to despair. An obsession with sin and with the wrath of God can emerge, blinding even the most devout Protestant students to the grace available to them. One student ministry leader told me that Christianity seemed only a list of hell-enforced prohibitions, with nothing positive to offer. This outlook recalls that of the young Luther, whom Metaxas presents as “obsessive about confession,” because “for Luther, God was still and only the harsh and angry judge.” Luther despaired of the Church’s providing a point of contact between man and God, such as would give him “a way out of the miserable doubt and agony.”
Did it never occur to Luther that the body of Christ, broken for him, was offered even in his despair? Strikingly, not once does Metaxas show Luther writing about the Eucharist. Of course, Luther despaired at times of the efficacy of grace as well as its availability, writing that man “is not even assured of his salvation by the infusion of God’s grace.” All he knew was that “he did not feel an iota of comfort,” and on that basis concluded that his soul was in jeopardy.
In a similar way, young Protestants today tend to evaluate their religion based on emotional criteria. Practices of piety become performances of emotion. Most of the student Bible studies I attended asked two questions: “How are you doing?” and “What was your reaction to this week’s Scripture?” Each question occupied half of the ninety-minute study. Weekly worship gatherings are similarly designed to elicit feeling. The songs that take up most of the meeting time often contain poorly chosen lyrics (“the Savior of the world was fallen”) or are transparently therapeutic (“Nothing is impossible! / I believe I believe / I believe I believe in you”). But neither shallowness nor carelessness gives students pause, as long as they receive emotional assurance of true faith.
There are other similarities. In his frequent use of what Metaxas calls “gag-inducing scatology,” Luther anticipates Christian students who participate freely in the vulgar language on campus and gleefully speculate about whether Paul used the s-word in Philippians 3. Luther’s dismissal of Thomism as “rambling long-windedness” reminds me of the lack of interest in Christian tradition and philosophy (apart from Kierkegaardian angst) I observed among campus ministries. Luther’s “brazen and wild” reaction to a papal bull warning that his actions jeopardized his place in the Church sounds like the now-common charge that to hold fellow Christians to standards of conduct is judgmental and exclusionary.
But the single strongest resemblance between Luther and today’s young Protestants emerges at the end of his spiritual journey. Luther alleviated his obsession with sin and judgment by altering his beliefs, developing a theology of his own “in which one’s conscience is considered sacred,” (as Metaxas puts it), and which “makes the sacraments depend on the faith of the recipient” (as Cardinal Jerome Aleander put it). Luther believed, above all, in his belief, and found he could substitute it for any means of grace that the Roman Church located outside the self. His own conscience could sanctify; his own faith could save. Collegiate Protestants often find the same consolation, not necessarily by following Luther’s teaching but by taking mental possession of the means of salvation. Some of my friends were attracted to Process Theology, which envisions God as entirely passive before human development—too weak to judge, too weak to save—and elevates human agency to celestial heights. Others adopted bits and pieces of a charismatic Prosperity Gospel, which promises to give real power over God by way of positive declarations (“Nothing is impossible! / I believe, I believe”). Campus ministries encourage both.
The greatest dissimilarity is that Luther’s faith was not formed in today’s culture of doubt. But Metaxas proudly identifies Luther as the founder of this modern world, in which individuals are responsible for discerning truth from falsehood—a burden that drives many young Christians into crippling doubt. In Martin Luther, Metaxas intends to show us a saint, but all he really shows us is ourselves. Young Protestants need to be directed toward Christ—which may or may not be the same as being directed toward Luther.
Philip Jeffery is a researcher at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.