Martin Luther is known today as a rather crass man, but it’s worth noting that he reflected his generation. As Roland Bainton notes, “Life itself stank. One could not walk around Wittenberg without encountering the odors of the pigsty, offal, and the slaughterhouse. And even the most genteel were not reticent about the facts of daily experience.”
Luther also enjoyed a good drink. He was rather proud of his ability to hold his beer. He had a large mug that had three rings around it. The first ring down he named “the Ten Commandments,” while the second was called “the Apostles’ Creed,” and the third “the Lord’s Prayer.” Luther reveled in the fact that he could drain the mug down through the Lord’s Prayer, while his friend could only get to the 10 Commandments. That being said, there’s no record of Luther’s ever getting drunk.
Luther struggled his whole life with severe depression. He tended to get physically ill, but the physical battles paled in comparison to his emotional and spiritual illness. In 1527, Luther wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.”
To those who struggle with depression, Luther offers help. He believed that intense struggles are often the only way to press through to genuine answers for major religious problems. He also commended various strategies for fighting darkness: (1) faith in Christ, (2) anger at the darkness, and (3) the love of a good woman. He also looked to music for help: “We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues. Getting outside in creation was a great source of encouragement, and he loved to get outside and work with his hands as well as a way of fighting anxiety and depression.”
Above all, Luther looked to Christ. On the cross, when Jesus was most desperate, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luther noted that in Christ’s abandonment, his cry was a cry of faith. In the middle of the worst year of his life, the year in which he suffered his deepest depression, Luther wrote these words:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
As we’ve already noted, Luther had more than his fair share of faults. Nevertheless, it’s the last period of his life in which his most notable issues arise. The strain of life took its toll on Luther, making him prematurely miserable and petulant. He grew harder in his views toward other Reformation movements, especially the Anabaptists. Luther wrote, “Although it seems cruel to punish (the Anabaptists) with the sword, it is cruder that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the truth and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.”
The biggest criticism of Luther is that he was a racist, because of his view toward Jews. He said that all Jews should be removed from Germany and sent back to Israel, that synagogues should be burned, and that their books should be taken away from them. That being noted, Luther’s condemnation of the Jews—while extremely regrettable—wasn’t for racial reasons but for reasons of faith. The worst sin that anyone can commit, in Luther’s view, is the rejection of Jesus. So Luther condemned the Jews harshly for their lack of faith in Christ.