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The Complex Legacy of Martin Luther

by Stephen Davey

Kevin asked: 

How do you reconcile the duality in Martin Luther as both a great reformer and an antisemite?

Martin Luther stands as a towering figure in Christian history, celebrated for his pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation—a movement that reshaped Western Christianity and its practices. His bold stand against the sale of indulgences and his insistence on salvation by faith alone are cornerstone contributions to evangelical belief. Yet, Luther's legacy is also marred by his later writings, which contain vehemently anti-Semitic views. For evangelicals and Christians at large, reconciling the duality of Luther as both a profound reformer and a figure espousing harmful prejudice presents a complex challenge. Allow me to try and navigate this duality, advocating for a nuanced approach that recognizes Luther's contributions to the faith while unequivocally condemning his anti-Semitic sentiments.

Acknowledging the Contribution

Martin Luther's theological insights and actions were instrumental in returning the church to foundational biblical truths. His translation of the Bible into the common language made the Scriptures accessible to ordinary people, empowering individuals to engage directly with God's Word. His emphasis on justification by faith alone (sola fide) reoriented Christian doctrine back to the core message of the Gospel. These contributions are undeniably significant, and their positive impact on evangelical Christianity is profound and lasting.

Confronting the Prejudice

However, Luther's later writings against the Jewish people were deeply troubling and have had a long-lasting negative impact, contributing to centuries of anti-Semitic attitudes within parts of Christian culture. For example, in his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he writes:

"What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. . . . I shall give you my sincere advice:  First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.”

His calls for the persecution of Jews are wholly antithetical to the teachings of Christ, who called His followers to love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:31). It is essential for evangelicals to confront and condemn these aspects of Luther's legacy, acknowledging that no historical figure, regardless of their contributions to the faith, is beyond accountability.

Balancing Legacy with Accountability

In navigating the duality of Luther's legacy, we are called to a posture of discernment that neither dismisses Luther's contributions to Christian theology nor excuses his prejudices. This requires a commitment to truth and a willingness to critically examine historical figures through the lens of Scripture, which stands as the ultimate authority for faith and practice.

Learning from the Past

Luther's life and legacy also serve as a poignant reminder of the human capacity for both profound insight and grievous error. They challenge contemporary Christians to reflect on their own beliefs and attitudes, ensuring they align with the Gospel's call to love, grace, and reconciliation. It encourages an ongoing reformation within the church, one that continually seeks to align more closely with biblical teachings and the example of Christ.

Moving Forward in Grace and Truth

Finally, Luther's duality invites us to pursue a deeper understanding of grace and truth. Grace reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), yet are offered redemption through Christ. Truth compels us to stand against injustice and prejudice in all its forms, recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of every individual made in the image of God.


As we grapple with the complexities of Martin Luther's legacy, we are called to a nuanced and biblically grounded approach that honors the truth, confronts prejudice, and seeks a more Christ-like faith and practice. By doing so, we can appreciate Luther's role in church history while unequivocally rejecting his anti-Semitic views, committing instead to a path of love, justice, and ongoing reformation within the church and the world.

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