A Mormon's View of Luther

“Most of the things that Luther was against, Mormons would be for.” Craig Harline emphasized this in a recent podcast. His statement is especially striking because he is a history professor at BYU. He has written a book about Martin Luther. And yes, he is a Mormon.

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As I read the transcript of the podcast, I was struck by how well he knew the religious landscape of Luther’s day. For example, he said: “The system that Luther grew up in — and the reason he entered the monastery and the reason he had these pangs of conscience — said basically do the best you can, and Jesus will do the rest. That sounds a lot like ‘You're saved by grace after all you can do,’ in the usual way that’s interpreted.” This is one of the reasons he also states: “One of the things my students learn by the end of the Reformation class is that they have a lot more in common with Catholics than they do with Protestants.”

He also has a pretty good handle on Luther’s teaching of salvation by grace alone. “But the truth — if you believe in Luther’s truth — is quite against this idea of being saved by doing everything you can. It’s quite against that. He believes with Paul, it’s either grace or works. It cannot be a combination. It has to be one or the other, and he’s sure it’s grace because no human can do enough – or do anything, in fact – to save themselves.”

His thinking derails, however, when he disapprovingly states that Luther universalized his intense sensitivity to sin. “I think he believed that the way he felt about all this was the way everybody else should feel to. He saw how frail he was and how hopeless and what a sinner he was — and therefore, everybody else ought to see it the same way. He believed he had come to an objective solution.” In other words, it might have been alright for Luther to personally feel the heavy weight of sin, but he was mistaken by thinking that everybody was as sinful.

After reading the whole transcript, I sat at my computer somewhat stunned. On the one hand, he understood Luther’s teaching. On the other hand, he rejected it so casually. It was mind-boggling and frustrating.

It was also enlightening. He rejected it so quickly because he cannot believe sin has totally corrupted everyone. In this, he is not alone. One of the most common frustrations Christians have when talking with their Mormon friends or missionaries is how lightly they regard sin. They don’t see the deadly seriousness of any and all sin. Instead of seeing each sin as a capital crime, they view most as minor misdemeanors.

Nor do they see how frequently they sin. Most are shocked at everything Christians label as sinful. They have swallowed hook, line, and sinker the LDS definition of sin. “Sin is knowingly choosing to do wrong or not to do right” (Plan of Salvation, p.9). You have to make a conscious choice; in other words, sin has to be premeditated. Things done in weakness or in ignorance don’t qualify. And you have to “do” them. Not think them. Do them.

Luther often made the biblical point that people need to see their sin before they are willing to see their Savior. As we share Christ with our Mormon friends, let’s be sure to keep this in mind. Lovingly, but firmly, show them their sin. Hold up the mirror of God’s commands so they see just how much sin has infected them. Only after they take a good look at themselves will they be receptive to taking a good look at their Savior.

Don’t give into frustration. Instead, persist in talking about the greatness of sin so that you can emphasize the greatness of our Savior.