Reformation 500

Luther’s reflections on spiritual formation

Martin Luther sits at his table discussing the Gospel with other reformers.

Martin Luther is known for many things, but one aspect of his character that gets overlooked at times is his contemplative nature. Richard Foster describes Luther as “a man of deep piety” with an “experience of God [that] was deep and abiding.” People are aware of his writings and other works on theology and doctrine, but he also emphasized spiritual formation. He was influenced significantly by Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Among the individuals whom Luther has deeply influenced are John Bunyan, John and Charles Wesley, Søren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In this month’s Wholly Living, we’ll look at some of the ways Luther expressed his faith and his spiritual formation.

Our first examples are passages taken from Luther’s preaching about Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The passages are specifically from sermons preached from Matthew 6:25–7:11. We see here how Luther’s relationship to Scripture influenced his thoughts about creation.

“The birds, our schoolmasters…the lilies, our theologians.”

Luther remarks in the passage that Jesus is “making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers. It is a great and abiding disgrace to us that in the Gospel a helpless sparrow should become a theologian and a preacher to the wisest of men…

“In other words, we have as many teachers and preachers as there are little birds in the air.”

Luther’s preaching on these familiar passages brings with it a rather unorthodox approach. “How much we have to learn from the birds and the lilies!” he seems to say, echoing the same compelling message as Jesus. Luther willingly turns to the Gospel, alive in creation, and opens his heart and mind to it, inviting us to do the same.

Luther willingly turns to the Gospel, alive in creation, and opens his heart and mind to it, inviting us to do the same.”
“Whenever you listen to a nightingale, therefore, you are listening to an excellent preacher. He exhorts you with this Gospel, not with mere simple words, but with a living deed and an example. He sings all night and practically screams his lungs out. He is happier in the woods than cooped up in a cage, where he has to be taken care of constantly and where he rarely gets along very well or even stays alive. It’s as if he were saying: ‘I prefer to be in the Lord’s kitchen. He has made heaven and earth, and He Himself is the cook and the host. Every day He feeds and nourishes innumerable little birds out of His hand. For He does not have merely a bag full of grain, but heaven and earth.”

Luther goes on to speak on the lilies, “Yet our Lord God regards these tiny and transient things so highly that He lavishes His gifts upon them and adorns them more beautifully than any earthly king or other human being. Yet they do not need this adornment; indeed, it is wasted upon them, since, with the flower, it soon perishes. But we are His highest creatures, for whose sakes He made all things and to whom He gives everything. We matter so much to Him that this life is not to be the end of us, but after this life He intends to give us eternal life.”

Although Luther was a well–educated and informed theologian, he sought to understand his faith through venues beyond the classroom and the pulpit, such as in God’s creation around Him. He heard the Gospel preached through the sounds of songbirds. He saw it bloom and grow in the flowers of the fields. He nurtured the same creative, redemptive story in his own life and through his teaching, preaching, and writing.

Luther on Prayer

Unceasing Prayer
“There is no Christian who does not have time to pray without ceasing. But I mean the spiritual praying, that is: no one is so heavily burdened with his labor, but that if he will he can, while working, speak with God in his heart, lay before Him his need and that of other men, ask for help, make petition, and in all this exercise and strengthen his faith.”

Praying in Faith
“Prayer is a special exercise of faith.
Faith makes the prayer acceptable because it believes that either the prayer will be answered, or that something better will be given instead. This is why James says, ‘Let him who asks of God not waver in faith, for if he wavers, let him not think that he shall receive anything from the Lord.’ This is a clear statement which says directly: he who does not trust will receive nothing, neither that which he asks nor anything better.”

Laying the Need
Not Prescribing the Answer
“From this it follows that the one who prays correctly never doubts that their prayer will be answered, even if the very thing for which one prays is not given. For we are to lay our need before God in prayer but not prescribe to God a measure, manner, time, or place.  We must leave that to God, for he may wish to give it to us in another, perhaps better, way than we think is best. Frequently we do not know what to pray as St. Paul says in Romans 8, and we know that God’s ways are above all that we can ever understand, as he says in Ephesians 3. Therefore, we should have no doubt that our prayer is acceptable and heard, and we must leave to God the measure, manner, time, and place, for God will surely do what is right.”

Whether it’s through his sermons or his writing and teaching on prayer, Luther certainly carried and shared a rich understanding of a “deep and abiding” relationship with God. Can the same be said of your experience with God? Is it “deep and abiding”? Do you find the Gospel evident and working in the world around you? Have you considered the preaching that Luther saw so evident in creation? Is your prayer life deep and constant, praying in faith and waiting upon the best answer that eternity can provide?

Whether you consider yourself contemplative or the entire idea is brand new to you, we can all learn from Luther as we yearn for our own “deep and abiding” relationship with God.

by Chris Stoker

Quotations and Excerpts in the above article were taken from: Spiritual Classics, Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin. Devotional Classics, Richard J. Foster and James Bryan.

Recommended Reading for more on Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s spiritual formation: Explore the contemplative
experience of the Christian faith:
The Table-Talk of Martin Luther
by Martin Luther
Edited by Robert Van de Weyer


Martin Luther:
Selections from His Writing
by John Dillenberger


Here I Stand
by Roland Bainton

An Invitation to the Contemplative Life
by Thomas Merton


Contemplation in Action
by Richard Rohr


Contemplative Bible Reading: Experiencing God
Through Scripture
by Richard Peace

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