Martin Luther and Me

837415eeffe744ae07f5e31dbac3e579--reformation-day-martin-lutherToday is a big day. The 500 year anniversary of Reformation Day–October 31, 1517, the day that Martin Luther publicly posted his 95 theses.

As Mormons, we have a sort of love-hate relationship with Martin Luther.

On the one hand, through our belief in the Great Apostasy, we are inheritors of the protestant version of ecclesiastical history. Luther is the hero of that story. As we inherited that story from our protestant forbears, we put Joseph Smith in as the hero, but we still keep Luther and the other reformers as inspired forerunners to the restoration. When we talk of the sale of indulgences and other perceived excesses of medieval Catholicism, we tell a story that casts Luther as the hero.

On the other hand, Luther, with his loud, untiring, obnoxious, sometimes foul-mouthed insistence on salvation by grace through faith alone, is also the principal author (or at least the most vocal, insistent, and prolific defender) [1] of what has often been cast as one of the most prominent doctrinal differences between our faith and American Christianity. As we insist on the need to do good works, obey the commandments, and submit to the ordinances of the priesthood, proclaiming salvation by grace, but only “after all we can do,” we tell a story that casts Luther as the villain.

My own attitude toward Luther over the years has reflected this dichotomy. As a missionary I read Elder Talmage’s The Great Apostasy and absorbed its heavily protestant-slanted version of history. (It would only be years later that I would read some of the excellent scholarship that complicates that story. [2]) I thought of Luther largely as something of a “foolish hero” who took a courageous stand against evil, but who was hopelessly confused when it came to doctrine: wrong on salvation by grace, wrong on the Book of James, but one of the good guys.

This attitude was first challenged when I was assigned in a BYU honors class to read a book that collected the published writings of Luther and Erasmus on the free will debate. I knew nothing about the substance of that debate, but with my pro-Luther prejudice, I went into the book expecting to cheer Luther and see how wrong and crazy Erasmus was. Boy was I wrong. Luther takes the idea of salvation by faith to its logical extreme: our good works are nothing to God, only faith can save us, and faith itself is not our own, but is a gift of God, so if we have faith, it is because God wills us to have faith. We have no free will. As a Mormon, the concept of free agency [3]–the thing we’re taught we fought a war in heaven to defend–was sacrosanct. So Luther was the bad guy. And it wasn’t just Luther’s position, either. His bombastic style grated me. The man was a brawler, a rhetorical streetfighter, prone to hyperbole, not above ad hominem insults, and not above scatological rhetoric.

The way that book flipped the script on me caused me to reevaluate my inherited (and largely unexamined) anti-Catholic bias. And I began to see that on many of the classic doctrinal questions of the reformation (free will, the need for good works and obedience, the need for priesthood authority, the need for ordinances), the LDS positions are in many ways closer to the Catholic positions than they are to the protestant positions. And then I learned about many of the truly inspiring medieval Catholics (I think St. Patrick was one of the first I learned about) and began to re-examine my assumptions about the Great Apostasy. Sure, priesthood authority needed to be restored, so it’s logical that it was lost. But it doesn’t follow that the medieval church was as thoroughly corrupt as the protestant historians that Elder Talmage relied on made it out to be. I learned charity, and over a period of years, Luther became for me more of a bad guy that happened to get a couple things right.

But a funny thing happened. Beginning when I was a missionary, and increasingly over my post-mission years, I began to come around to Luther’s point of view. Pretty early on I adopted the Steve Robinson view of 2 Nephi 25:23–that it was a mistake to read this verse as setting up some kind of prerequisite for grace. Instead of grace saving us only after we’ve done all we can do, it is that grace saves us even after all we can do leaves us short of salvation. There are lots of verses in the Book of Mormon I could talk about here, but the short version is that as I read the Book of Mormon more carefully I began to see all that talk of grace not working for us until we did all we can do as mistaken, based on a piece of a verse taken out of context, and really more about differentiating ourselves from (often a straw-man version of) other Christians than about understanding the message of the Book of Mormon itself, firmly advocates for salvation by grace.

A while after I graduated from law school I went through a few years where I sort of neglected scripture study, and a few years later I had a bit of spiritual reawakening and began to study the Book of Mormon with fresh eyes. As I did, I was blown away at how grace was there staring me in the face in ways I never saw before on almost every page (except for the war chapters, but whatever). Around the same time, I read Craig Harline’s 2015 talk about Luther (he also did a guest BCC post on it), which pushed me further explore what the salvation by grace that spoke to me so powerfully on the pages of the Book of Mormon really means in practice. Craig asks 18 questions about what a “Luther-like infusion of grace” into Mormonism would look like. I think every member should read and think deeply about those questions.

Over the past couple years I’ve come to appreciate Luther as a towering figure of Christianity–whatever specifics I might disagree with in his doctrine, his contribution to Christianity is undeniable. For better or for worse (for better, I think), he changed the way people think and talk about salvation for at least 500 years, and for a long time yet to be seen, I think. Wherever you come down on the details of Luther’s theology and how far you take it, there’s no denying its influence. Much of the restoration is a response to questions that the reformation teased out.

There is still plenty to disagree with Luther on. Luther’s theology still has problems. His anti-Semitism is inexcusable. Denial of free will is a non-starter for me. And people who are way smarter than me have written about how Luther misreads Paul.

But here’s the great genius of Luther’s theology: it works. Regardless of whether he gets Paul right or whether he takes his logic too far when it comes to free will, as a practical matter, helping people to stop relying on their own obedience helps them to repent and have faith. Whatever Luther got right or wrong as a matter of doctrine or scripture, here’s what he got right as a matter of insight into human nature: people are no good. I know, some of you reading this are going to recoil at that, but hear me out. We’re no good. If we’re honest with ourselves, part of us wants to do evil things most of the time. But that’s not all. Even the good part of us is no good. It’s not that part of us doesn’t yearn for goodness, it’s not that we don’t want, at least some of the time, to be good. It’s that even when we follow our best desires and try to be good, we never quite get there. We want to be good but we muck it up so badly. Even at our best, goodness is just out of reach. As humans in a fallen world, we are Aragorn scrambling on the banks of the Anduin while the people he was responsible for are kidnapped, killed, or run off alone into the wild. His lament is the lament of mortality: “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss.” The Lord of the Rings, Book 3, Ch. 1, p. 413 (HarperCollins 2004). “All that I have done today has gone amiss.” Id. at 415.

What Luther understood so well is the danger of the seductive lie we tell ourselves: that our sins are small, that they’re outweighed by our good deeds. “Yes, I lie to myself and to God, I hate my neighbors, and I lie on my taxes,” we tell ourselves, “but it’s no big deal, I have it under control, I’ll just be extra-diligent at keeping the commandments I’m good at, I’ll just keep praying and reading my scriptures. It will balance out. And if it doesn’t, I’ll eventually be able to stop. I can control this.” We’re addicts telling ourselves the lie that we can quit whenever we want to, that our goodness can control our badness, that we’ll start tomorrow. We often dismiss such procrastination as mere laziness, but Luther understood that the heart of procrastination is often the lie that we can make ourselves good by willing ourselves to obey the commandments, instead of by throwing ourselves on the mercy of our savior and trusting him to save us from ourselves and make us good. So many of us want to make ourselves righteous, and then offer our righteous selves to God, but righteousness does not come from personal obedience or from self-improvement; it comes only from God’s mercy. As Nephi said of the Twelve disciples: “behold, they are righteous forever.” 1 Nephi 12:10. Why? Because they were so spiritual and obedient? No. “[F]or because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood.” Id.

Why is that important? Because it is freeing. Relying on obedience leads to despair because in a fallen world, human obedience will always go amiss in the end. But if we believe in Jesus we have faith, and if because of that faith we rely on grace, then instead of despair, we have hope, and if we remember our own sinful nature, then we will have charity. If we stop relying on ourselves, and rely instead on our God, he frees us from the paralysis and despair of trying to be perfectly obedient. His grace not only saves at the final judgment, it saves us here and now. It saves us from self-justification and self-deception. It frees us to repent more fully and more completely. Paradoxically, it frees us to be more obedient to the gospel. [4]

To be human is to be constantly assailed by sin but the grace of God is a “mighty fortress,” and “tower of strength” where we can take refuge from our own broken nature. Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Hymn No. 68. Human nature itself has “become evil continually” because of the fall. Ether 3:2. And we can’t change human nature. That requires an act of God. The fall is real. But, as Luther put it with blunt simplicity, “He overcometh all; He saveth from the fall.”






[1] With the possible exception of the apostle Paul, that is.

[2] The 2014 volume “Standing Apart” is a great introduction to some of this. To be clear, I don’t intend that as a criticism of Elder Talmage. I admire him a lot. His dedication to the church, his work ethic, his intellectual and spiritual fearlessness and curiosity still inspire me. He relied on history that was marginally outdated at that time, and he was working outside of his area of expertise, so he can hardly be faulted for not seeing that.

[3] Apologies to Elder Bednar, who has pushed for “moral agency” as the more scripturally correct name for this doctrine. “Free agency” is what I grew up on, and in my defense, I never use “free agency” to mean that our choices are without consequences.

[4] No, of course relying on grace alone doesn’t mean that we get to sin all we want without regard for the consequences. Instead, it means that our motivation for doing “all we can do” to keep the commandments shifts from fear of punishment/hope for reward/self-preservation to gratitude/love/duty.


  1. An excellent and truthful post.

    We’re no good.

    In a very real sense, this is the beginning point of every proper understanding of Jesus’s message. If you don’t begin with this, you almost certainly won’t get to where he’s pointing, or so I think.

  2. Happy Hubby says:

    So Linda Ronstadt was right? (you have to be 50+ to get that reference).

    If Sunday School would dive into meat like this I would read a book to prepare for the class. As it is now, I can’t even read the lesson ahead of time and can rarely stay the entire hour.

  3. Your quote from Lord of the Rings is my favorite line in the entire trilogy (and the Hobbit too, I guess). I also appreciate the insight into 1 Ne 12. Thank you!

  4. Russell: Thanks, and yes, I totally agree. We can’t really get to faith and repentance if we don’t get to the fall first–and not just the “we will die” part. I used to sort of bristle at talks in conference that emphasized the fall, because they struck me as too pessimistic. I don’t feel that way anymore.

    HH: Thanks! I don’t get the reference. I’m 36, so your theory checks out.

    Thor: Thanks! People who have read my past posts here will not be surprised to find me quoting Tolkien, but I think you’re the first person I’ve met to identify that line as your favorite. It’s one that stays with me.

  5. Good essay. Two things that changed this for me. 1) Someone pointed out that John Taylor, in his earliest translations of the BoM into French (and German, too, I believe) translated “after” into something more like “in spite of” or “even after” that Robinson suggests. 2) I noticed that a lot of our dialog conflates “sola fide” (faith alone) with “sola grazie” (grace alone). Once I separated those two concepts, so that I could see that we believe very solidly in “grace alone”, as long as it is not coupled with “faith alone”, I began to see much better how grace fits into my LDS worldview.

  6. Faith without works is the very definition of hypocrisy. Works may not be enough to earn salvation, but the truly faithful do not engage in works in order to earn salvation anyway.

    Besides, Jesus is pretty explicit that it is inappropriate to speculate about who God forgives and what criteria He uses.

  7. Dave: I didn’t know that about John Taylor. It seems obvious now that that’s the correct reading, but it wasn’t obvious to everyone that has read the Book of Mormon. Your point about confusing faith alone with grace alone is an important one. In a very real sense, everybody agrees with grace alone, it’s just a question of what gets us to grace. For the majority Catholic tradition, the answer was good works, sacraments, the priesthood. For Luther, it was faith, but that didn’t mean that good works, sacraments, etc., were out the window, it just meant that they were there to strengthen faith. But many people, including lots of Mormons, think that grace alone means faith alone, and that faith alone means good works, ordinance, etc., are out the window.

    Nepos: Yeah, faith without works isn’t even really faith in a certain sense. Re your second point, Jesus is pretty clear that certain things (broken heart, baptism) are necessary for salvation, and that might make us think that we can judge that somebody that hasn’t done those things won’t be saved. But he’s also clear, as you note, that we can’t do that. Things like Joseph Smith’s vision of his unbaptized brother enjoying exaltation, and Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead (aka the updated harrowing of hell) show us that we can’t even use those baseline commandments as criteria to judge who gets saved and who doesn’t.

  8. kamschron says:

    A Linda Ronstadt reference:

  9. I find this post extremely disturbing. It seems like for the last few decades (or maybe longer) the BYU religion staff has been trying to move Mormonism closer and closer to Evangelical Christianity. I find this development troubling. This moves us away from the importance of works, and negates an important message of Mormonism: “Faith without Works is Dead.” Replacing it with humanity is saved by Grace alone, And this post’s message reinforces this BYU movement.

    Works is one of the principal justifications for religion. And just because someone believes in the importance of works doesn’t mean that they are trying to buy there way into heaven. It means that there is more to life than just faith and ordinances. We have other responsibilities. With a de-emphasis on works, Mormonism becomes much less attractive as a religious option.

  10. This is only tangentially related, but I’ve been wondering for a week or so who *did* write “He overcometh all; He saveth from the fall.” The corresponding part of Luther’s “Ein feste Burg” has more to do with the devil than with redemption from the fall.

  11. Jenny Harrison says:

    Gloriously Stated!! Amen!!

    Religion teaches me to obey so that I am accepted.
    The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches me that I am accepted, so I obey.
    The focus of religion is what I do or don’t do.
    The focus of the gospel is what Jesus did.
    Religion produces pride and despair.
    The gospel produces humility and confidence.

    By religion I mean any organized church. By the gospel I mean the fact that Jesus lived and died for us and was resurrected, in essence “the good news.” I am currently on my way out of the Mormon church. We have a difference of opinion on how one should treat their fellowmen.

  12. pconnornc says:

    To me, the article and some of the comments remind me that these principles are not either/or propositions – the Lord wants both. So many aspects of the gospel take what seem to be competing principles and our task is to find harmony between the two – faith/works, justice/mercy, self-reliance/charity, seeking knowledge/believing like children, testifying publicly/doing alms in private, etc.

  13. In the words of Elder Nick Cave: “People just ain’t no good.”

    And folks often misunderstand the Luther/Calvin angle on works. These Reformers are adamantly pro-works; they just don’t think that those works will ever merit you salvation. Good luck finding a more ardent defender of religious duty than John Calvin.

  14. Roger: I think you’ve misunderstood me (and the reformers). Jason is right: the reformers point was NOT that works don’t matter or that we can neglect our religious duties without risking our salvation. That’s an unfair strawman. The point was that we do those things out of love, gratitude, and duty, NOT out of fear of punishment or hope for reward. You’re absolutely right that just because someone believes in the importance of works doesn’t mean that they are trying to buy their way into heaven. (In fact, that’s a pretty accurate description of the reformers: they believed strongly in the importance of religious duty, they just felt it was important to clarify that doing such duties was not what would save you.) The converse is also true: just because someone believes in salvation by grace through faith doesn’t meant that they de-emphasize the importance of works.

    Mike R: Thanks for sharing that. Not being a German speaker, I’ve only read it in the LDS hymnal. This makes me want to put in some time to read it in the original.

    Jenny: I admit that it pains me to hear anybody say that they’re on their way out of the church; I wish you could find a place with us. Maybe there’s still hope that you can? But whether you can or can’t, may God bless you wherever your journey takes you. Thanks for sharing your insightful comments.

    pconnornc: I agree. I’ve found that there is truth on both sides of most religious debates.

    Jason: Yes! You’re so right.

  15. I disagree with your assessment that people are no good. You never knew my mother or my wife. I’d also point out that the Book of Mormon is rather inconsistent in its doctrine on some important points. Just as the Bible is.

  16. Jared: Loved this take on Luther! It is so “Mormon” and rings true to my growing up experiences, too. And at the same time, the post is a wonderful, universal comment on how to approach Jesus’ gospel. Wow — thank you.

  17. Luther was, indeed, a verbal brawler. For many, it was the style of the times. A quieter man might have given up his efforts at reforming the Catholic Church or met the fate of Jan Hus, cruelly executed by the Catholic authorities in 1415.

    Luther’s anti-Semitism was not wholly accidental since he misunderstood Judaism. Few people think they can earn or buy their way into heaven. Believers in and purchasers of Catholic indulgences during Luther’s time were an obvious exception to that rule. Luther read his critique against the corrupt Catholic indulgence system into Paul’s critique of the Jews. This is a profound misreading of Paul and of Judaism, but one that is easy for us to make in the wake of Luther. The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) corrects Luther’s error and would be valuable for Latter-day Saints to consider as it colors this whole discussion.

  18. JKC, re Luther’s hymn text — You might start with Hedge’s translation found, among other places, at It is reasonably close, for a singing version, to Luther’s German paraphrase of Psalm 46. You’ll see that the initial lines of the LDS “adapted” text are adapted from the initial lines of Hedge’s first stanza translation and that the rest of the LDS text has little or nothing to do with Luther’s hymn until its last line parallel;s the last line of Hedge’s stanza 4. I think you won’t find the LDS text anywhere that is not derived from the LDS 1948 hymnal, but I haven’t confirmed whether it showed up in any earlier LDS hymnals. The LDS text is not inconsistent with Luther’s theology, but the “adapted” language is not a translation of Luther’s hymn. I suspect the editors of the 1948 hymnal couldn’t countenance so much singing about how great and powerful Satan is. The LDS German Gesangbuch (1996) and, I think, its predecessor has 3 of Luther’s verses (and a version of the tune rhythmically closer to the “original” than is the LDS English version) including “mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan, wir sind gar bald verloren” (Hedge’s “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing [the battle]” but more literally ” with our power is nothing accomplished, we are even/truly soon lost”).

    Incidentally, there are a good number of Protestants (at least acquaintances of mine), as well as Mormons, who have misunderstood the Reformers’ doctrine as well as the relationships among faith and works and grace in the Book of Mormon. Thanks for your work on this.

  19. It’s a travesty that we only have one verse of A Mighty Fortress in the LDS hymnal.

    After reading Richard Marius’s biography of Luther I learned one of the things Luther believed in was a priesthood of all believers. By which he definitely did not mean female believers, but it was the 1500s. I think that’s another interesting similarity to Mormonism, the idea that all faithful people have the privilege of acting as a conduit for God’s power to bless others. We just need the all people to include women…

  20. Fra: Of course I don’t mean that there aren’t people that are good by human standards, or that there is no good within us. I address this in the OP. The point is simply that even the good that is in us falls far short of the glory of god, and that none of us is truly righteous (or none of us would be, but for grace).

    Hunter: Thanks!

    JR: Thanks for the info. Fascinating stuff.

    Emily: Priesthood is a complicated topic. We like to draw attention to our lack of a professional paid clergy, which sort of makes us sound like “priesthood of all believers,” but I think in reality we’re doctrinally much closer to the Catholic church, with our emphasis on the need for authorized ordination tracing back to the Savior. But on the other hand, when we start talking about whether women should be ordained, we focus on the fact that women can pray and access God’s power and blessings without formal ordination. The point is that women aren’t missing out by not being ordained, but making that argument sort of pushes us closer to the “priesthood of all believers” idea that the reformers championed. So you really see aspects of both sides of that debate in Mormonism.

  21. Leo: Thanks for your comments. The New Perspectives on Paul is what I was referring to in the OP. One nit to pick, though, I don’t think you’re being entirely fair to say that all those that bought and sold indulgences believed they were buying their way into heaven. Somewhat similar to the old LDS “steps of repentance,” the Catholic idea of repentance, as I understand it, is that it required a change of heart, confession, reformation (i.e. stop committing that sin), and penance (a punishment imposed by the church). Penance, as I understand it, was something that was supposed to help the sinner to feel and express godly sorrow, but it was never supposed to be a substitute for a real change of heart or for reformation. At least at first, the concept of an indulgence was only to relieve the sinner from some or all of the penance, but it did not substitute for a change of heart or reformation. I’m certainly not defending the practice as it developed in some places by Luther’s time, but the concept itself was not necessarily a belief that one could earn or buy their way into salvation.

  22. Duly noted. If contemporary documents are to be believed, Tetzel really did preach what Luther revolted against, at least for the dead. See Tetzel’s famous couplet. The dead didn’t have to do anything. For the living, indulgences, indeed, were more like paying off temporal and purgatorial punishments rather than avoiding guilt or receiving forgiveness (which would be heretical), but doubtless that distinction could easily be lost in the minds of both the peasants and the nobles, especially when confronted with an aggressive seller of indulgences. As Luther saw it, the “parishioners were full of the indulgences and not at all full of contrition….The Machine had got out of control, through the faults of the hierarchy.” (Thus Charles Williams in The Descent of the Dove.) Luther’s theses raised legitimate questions about the whole theology of indulgences and purgatory. Eastern Orthodoxy rejects both the Roman Catholic theology of indulgences and the related doctrine of purgatory, as do Protestants in general, but Eastern Orthodoxy also rejects Lutheran theology. Interestingly, the NPP has been a Protestant project, rather than a Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox, or LDS one. However, the main figures in the NPP movement have been American or British rather than Continental, reflecting the different strains of Protestantism.

  23. kamschron says:

    An SATB version of A Mightly Fortress Is Our God, translated and arranged by Noble Cain, was published by Hall & McCreary Company in 1943. The text of the LDS version is remarkably similar to the first verse of Dr. Cain’s version.

    A mighty fortress is our God,
    A tow’r of strength ne’erfailing.
    A helper mighty is our God,
    O’er ills of life prevailing.
    He overcometh all;
    He saveth from the fall;
    His skill and pow’r are great;
    He all things did create;
    His might shall rule forevermore.

    The word “reign” that is used in the LDS version appears at the end.

    Our God shall reign forevermore! Amen.

    Like most of Noble Cain’s many arrangements, this one apparently is out of print, but it may have been sung in the Reformation Service at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Mandan, North Dakota, on October 30, 2016.

  24. kamschrong, Thanks for the info. I’d looked quite unsuccessfully for a “translation” like this preceding the LDS 1948 hymnal and including the portions of the “LDS” text that are not derived from Luther’s hymn.

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