This month, 494 years ago, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo X. Luther was 38 at the time. The controversy which led to his eventual banishment from the church had been brewing for several years. He questioned the practice of indulgences, arguing that it had become a commercial racket without any sort of warrant in Scripture. He questioned the church’s understanding of salvation itself, arguing that it is only Christ’s death, not our merit, which secures our salvation. He questioned the authority of the pope, arguing that if the pope could be shown to be teaching something contrary to Scripture, one must stick to Scripture and ignore the pope.
If you read Luther’s later writings, in the 1530s and 40s, you’ll notice an increasingly bitter spirit in him. Luther’s famous biographer, Roland Bainton, once said that it would’ve been better for Luther’s legacy if he hadn’t written anything at all after his 1529 catechism. Luther’s attacks on the Roman Catholic Church become increasingly vicious, increasingly emphatic, and increasingly hostile. In his famous debate with Erasmus, Luther called his opponent’s book “dog drivel”. At first glance, you might surmise that Luther was a grouchy old man who didn’t really belong in the church after all if his heart was so full of malice.
To understand Luther’s venom, you must understand the context in which his books were written. From 1521 onward, Luther was an “outlaw”. According to the pope and the emperor, he was not worthy to live and should be killed by any who had the chance. His books were burned. Is it any wonder that his long years of persecution skewed his perspective and that he had some less than flattering words to say about his persecutors? Luther, great theologian that he was, after all was only human.
Luther fully expected God to vindicate him and for God to avenge his enemies who’d inflicted so much suffering on him. Was it a fleshly or ungodly desire for Luther to expect God to avenge his persecutors? No. This is entirely consistent with the psalms penned by David as he fled for his life from Saul. Consider also Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It asks, “What comfort is it to you that ‘Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead’?” The answer given is, “That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.”
When I first read this catechism years ago, I have to confess this question bothered me. It seemed wrong to, as this answer implies, take “comfort” at the thought of God casting “my enemies into everlasting condemnation”. I’ve come to see, though, that my response was what it was because at that time I’d never really had any serious enemies. It’s easy to condescendingly think someone is behaving in an uncivilized manner towards his enemies if you yourself have never really had any enemies to speak of. If you’ve really been persecuted, really been mistreated by really evil people with really diabolical plans against you, it’s not possible to not want (and want very badly) for God to vindicate you and set the record straight. The Heidelberg Catechism is not endorsing something contrary to the Sermon on the Mount, wherein Christ commands us to love our enemies. Heidelberg is not remotely encouraging Christians to avenge themselves when mistreated. Heidelberg is merely encouraging Christians to take comfort in knowing that God will avenge them.
If you are finding it difficult to bear up under unbearable injustice, take heart in knowing that Christ sees you suffering and Christ is just as offended by the injustice as you are–actually, infinitely more so. It’s not a sign of weakness if you are upset when you experience injustice; it merely means that you have a moral code, a conscience, that instinctively reacts against injustice. God doesn’t want you to approve or condone your enemies’ actions if they have mistreated you. Martin Luther understood this. Forgiving your enemies doesn’t remotely mean regarding their heinous acts as anything other than heinous. It is okay to ask for God to avenge you and to take comfort in knowing that he will. Luther didn’t become his own avenger, a vigilante who went tracking down his enemies. He entrusted the outcome to God. Trusting the outcome to God doesn’t mean, though, ceasing to petition God for vindication.
Did Luther sometimes go too far in lashing out verbally against his enemies? Perhaps. But really the only person qualified to chastise Luther in this regard would be someone who’d gone through the same sorts of trials Luther himself experienced. Let those who’ve never seen a day of combat think twice before barking out advice to those on the front line and in the trenches.