Martin Luther: Prayer, Study, and Scripture (John Piper)

From John Piper’s Pastor’s conference biography on Martin Luther (which was excellent, of course):

In typical paradoxical form, Luther seems to take back almost everything he has said about study when he writes in 1518,

That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory—not for yours or any other person’s—He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: ‘They shall be all taught of God’ (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit (see note 65).

But for Luther that does not mean leaving the “external Word” in mystical reverie, but bathing all our work in prayer, and casting ourselves so on God that he enters and sustains and prospers all our study.

Since the Holy Writ wants to be dealt with in fear and humility and penetrated more by studying [!] with pious prayer than with keenness of intellect, therefore it is impossible for those who rely only on their intellect and rush into Scripture with dirty feet, like pigs, as though Scripture were merely a sort of human knowledge not to harm themselves and others whom they instruct” (see note 66).

Again he sees the psalmist in Psalm 119 not only suffering and meditating but praying again and again:

Psalm 119:18 Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy law. 27 Make me understand the way of Thy precepts, teach me, O LORD, the way of Thy statutes. 23 Give me understanding, that I may observe Thy law. 35 Make me walk in the path of Thy commandments, for I delight in it. 36 Incline my heart to Thy testimonies, and not to dishonest gain. 37 Revive me in Thy ways.

So he concludes that the true biblical way to study the Bible will be saturated with prayer and self-doubt and God-reliance moment by moment:

You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal … Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through His dear Son, graciously to grant you His Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding (see note 67).

Luther’s emphasis on prayer in study is rooted in his theology, and here is where his methodology and his theology become one. He was persuaded from Romans 8:7 and elsewhere that “The natural mind cannot do anything godly. It does not perceive the wrath of God, there cannot rightly fear him. It does not see the goodness of God, therefore cannot trust or believe in him either. Therefore [!] we should constantly pray that God will bring forth his gifts in us” (see note 68). All our study is futile without the work of God overcoming our blindness and hardheartedness.

At the hear of Luther’s theology was a total dependence on the freedom of God’s omnipotent grace rescuing powerless man from the bondage of the will. His book by that name, The Bondage of the Will, published in 1525, was an answer to Erasmus’ book, The Freedom of the Will. Luther regarded this one book of his‐The Bondage of the Will —as his “best theological book, and the only one in that class worthy of publication” (see note 69).

To understand Luther’s theology and his methodology of study it is extremely important to recognize that he conceded that Erasmus, more than any other opponent had realized that the powerlessness of man before God, not the indulgence controversy or purgatory was the central question of the Christian faith. Man is powerless to justify himself, powerless to sanctify himself, powerless to study as he ought and powerless to trust God to do anything about this.

Erasmus’ exaltation of man’s will as free to overcome its own sin and bondage was, in Luther’s mind, an assault on the freedom of God’s grace and therefore on the very gospel itself. In his summary of faith in 1528 he writes,

I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrines which exalt our “free will” as being directly opposed to this mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For since, apart from Christ, sin and death are our masters and the devil is our god and prince, there can be no strength or power, no wit or wisdom, by which we can fit or fashion ourselves for righteousness and life. On the contrary, blinded and captivated, we are bound to be the subjects of Satan and sin, doing and thinking what pleases him and is opposed to God and His commandments (see note 70).

For Luther the issue of man’s bondage to sin and his moral inability to believe or make himself right—including the inability to study rightly —was the root issue of the Reformation. The freedom of God, and therefore the freedom of the Gospel and therefore the Glory of God and the salvation of men were at stake in this controversy. Therefore Luther loved the message of The Bondage of the Will, ascribing all freedom and power and grace to God, and all powerlessness and dependency to man.

In his explanation of Gal. 1:1-12 he recounted:

I recall that at the beginning of my cause Dr. Staupitz … said to me: It pleases me that the doctrine which you preach ascribes the glory and everything to God alone and nothing to man; for to God (that is clearer than the sun) one cannot ascribe too much glory, goodness, etc. This word comforted and strengthened me greatly at the time. And it is true that the doctrine of the Gospel takes all glory, wisdom, righteousness, etc., from men and ascribes them to the Creator alone, who makes everything out of nothing (see note 71).

This is why prayer is the root of Luther’s approach to studying God’s word. Prayer is the echo of the freedom and sufficiency of God in the heart of powerless man. It is the way he conceived of his theology and the way he pursued his studies. And it is the way he died.

At 3:00 a.m. on February 18, 1546, Luther died. His last recorded words were, “Wir sein Bettler. Hoc est verum.” “We are beggars. This is true” (see note 72). God is free—utterly free—in his grace. And we are beggars—pray-ers. That is how we live, and that is how we study, so that God gets the glory and we get the grace.

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