I Beat Importunately Upon Paul

Martin Luther and His Bible

The Reformation Heritage Lectures | Birmingham

The following is a lightly edited transcript

On this last day, let me take the occasion to thank Dr. George, who I know can’t be here, and to the faculty and to the administration for inviting me and giving me this remarkable privilege to speak to you in the Reformation Heritage lecture. It’s been my high honor to be here, and I'm deeply thankful for that gift. Someone asked me why I did Calvin first and Luther second, since that’s out of chronological order. The reason had to do with the substance rather than the chronology. Yesterday was the portrait that I think both of them would share of being mastered by the majesty of God, and today, I’m going to talk about what we learn from Luther. I could have done the same thing I think with Calvin, concerning the way they worked and the way they studied. Let’s pray.

People of the Book

Heiko Oberman, whose biography was most helpful to me, said what is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities, be they popes or councils. That’s what’s new. In 1539, Luther, commenting on Psalm 119, wrote:

In this Psalm, David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, and read, day and night, constantly, about nothing else than God’s word and commandments, for God wants to give you his Spirit only through the external word.

That’s a remarkable phrase from Luther, and becomes very crucial. The external word means we have a book. God speaks to us through a book — an external, objective grammatical set of sentences in Greek and Hebrew. The immense implication for pastoral ministry for Luther and us is that pastors are essentially brokers of the word of God in a book. It’s transmitted in a book. We are readers. We are teachers of what’s in a book. We are proclaimers of what’s in a book. We mediate the living Christ through the written word. We avail ourselves of the Holy Spirit for understanding the written word. We transform lives by means of the Spirit through the written word.

We are a book people, and that book took on extraordinary proportions in the Reformation, for which we should be deeply grateful. My question for Luther is, what difference did it make in your life that this book so mastered you? Yesterday with Calvin, it was being mastered by the majesty of God in the book, and now, I’m eager to get down to the nitty gritty of daily interaction with the book and ask Luther, how did you handle the book? I want to learn from him as a pastor how to handle the word of God. That’s where we’re going today.

Entering Paradise through Open Gates

I have a conviction that Luther’s conversion dictated how he handled the book. It flows from his encounter with the gospel and how he encountered the gospel. It became utterly crucial for Luther that he handled the book in the way that the book gave him life. Let’s go to 1518. The story that he told was actually much later. He told it in the preface to the complete edition of his Latin writings, but this happened, he said, in 1518. Luther dates his awakening after 1517, which is interesting. I’m going to read the key passage for Luther, and probably the most familiar, regarding his conversion. Here’s what I want you to watch for as I read it: Watch for the implications for study. There are about five of them. He writes:

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up until then, it was a single word in Romans 1:17 — “in it, the righteousness of God is revealed” — that had stood in my way. For I hated that word, righteousness of God, which according to the custom and use of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal, or active, righteousness as they called it with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sin, and thus, I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.

Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what Saint Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely “in it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” And there I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith. As it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” And here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered into paradise itself through open gates.

Here a totally other face of the entire Scriptures showed itself to me. And there upon I ran through all the Scriptures from memory, and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word righteousness of God. And thus, that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.

I think that experience, and how he entered paradise, governed his handling of the Bible for the rest of his life. I’ll point out five or six things that relate definitely to his study. He said:

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for the understanding of the Epistle to the Romans. I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what he wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context. There upon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. That place in Paul was for me truly a gate to paradise.

Let that land on you. That place in Paul, that word, those grammatical structures, and the Greek text was paradise for him. He would not be able to comprehend anyone who set study and paradise at odds with each other, or experience of God and rigorous dealing with Greek and Hebrew. He would have no categories for understanding such a person. It was that place which was a door to paradise for him. What doors will you open for people?

In the School of Martin Luther

Let me break this down and give you six marks, or characteristics, of Luther at studying his Bible. What did he do and what can we learn? I want to learn from this man. I want to be inspired for the last chapter of my life so that I don’t slack off. So many pastors begin to carve ducks in their basement because it’s just gotten old. I pray that I will burn to understand that place in Hebrew, or that place in Ecclesiastes, give myself to it, and then open it for life as a door to paradise for my people until I die. I hope I never coast. I want to learn. I want to be inspired here by Martin Luther.

1. Keep the Bible Primary.

Luther came to elevate the biblical text far above all commentators and all church fathers. In 1533, he wrote:

For a number of years. I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree, and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches eager to know what was there and what it had to offer. He who is well acquainted with the text of Scripture is a distinguished theologian.

And then he said something about the fathers:

The dear fathers wished by their writing to lead us to the Scriptures, but we so used the fathers as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought to do all our work and toil.

And then he said this, which is so relevant for the 21st century seminarians at Beeson Divinity School with stacks and stacks of books being assigned to you to read besides the Bible. This is Luther talking:

The Bible is being buried by the wealth of commentaries, and the text is being neglected, although in every branch of learning, they are the best who are well acquainted with the text.

Oh, I would encourage teachers to assign fewer books. Much reading makes fools out of people. Deep reading makes wise people. I mean this deeply. I taught college for six years. I assigned one or two books and we read them carefully. Give me the page, the paragraph, the sentence, and the conjunction on which you’re basing your opinion. That’s the way we read our books. We didn’t just go flying over books to check it off; that makes fools out of people. We must give ourselves to deep, solid reflection.

Anybody who reads only in a chair with his feet up and no pencil and no pad — I’m just guarding my language here — is making a mistake. I think Dr. George Ladd was wrong when I walked into his office one day and he was stretched out on a couch, reading, and I said, “Do you read like that all the time?” And he said, “Why stand if you can sit? Why sit if you can lie?” My answer today would be, “You can’t think lying down. You can’t take notes. You can’t stamp your feet. You can’t shout. You have to interact with what you’re reading.” I don’t know what he would have said to that. He wrote a pretty good theology, but I’m concerned about the amount of reading outside the Bible and the amount of reading period. This is Luther:

The number of theological books should be reduced and a selection should be made of the best of them. For many books do not make men learned, nor does much reading. But reading something good and reading it frequently, however little it may be, is the best practice and makes men learned in the Scriptures and makes them pious beside.

Oberman said of Luther:

Luther came to his great discovery with increasing accuracy by living with the God of the Scriptures.

My first observation is that, for Luther, the Bible was elevated so far above commentaries, theologies, and the church fathers that he gave himself to it above all things. I plead with you; I know from experience and I know from observation that pastors do not study their Bibles. They read Piper, and other such books, which is a colossal mistake. Read and study your Bibles. You don’t know your Bibles yet. Could you give an exposition of Ezekiel? Could you give an exposition of Ecclesiastes?

2. Wrestle with the Text until It Yields a Blessing.

Secondly, this radical focus on the text of Scripture led him to an intense and serious grappling with the very words. He said, “I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what he wanted to say.” In the summer of 1526, he was lecturing on Ecclesiastes and he wrote this:

Solomon the preacher is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield.

Do you go to the text like that, as Jacob wrestled with the angel, saying, “I won’t let you go until you yield” (Genesis 32:26). If you have to preach on Sunday and it’s Friday, and you don’t get it yet, you will wrestle like Jacob, or you’ll be a storyteller — a lazy storyteller. It must yield. That’s your work. That’s your job. You will beat importunately upon that text.

3. Learn the Original Languages.

Therefore, he gave himself to study Greek and Hebrew with tremendous diligence. The original languages for Luther were the gateway to paradise. I’m now going to encourage you not to make light of Greek and Hebrew. Luther spoke against the backdrop of a thousand years of darkness and said:

It is certain that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish. Do you inquire what use there is in learning the languages? Do you say, “We can read the Bible very well in German”? Without languages, we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit. If we neglect the literature, we shall eventually lose the gospel. No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages, then Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the Pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted than this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom.

In former times, the fathers were frequently mistaken because they were ignorant of the languages. And in our days, there are some who, like the Waldensians, do not think the languages are of any use. But although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of sacred texts. They are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure.

The main issue for Luther, as you can hear, was the preservation and the prizing of the gospel. Where care with the languages goes down, precision and biblical thinking will go down, care for precise observation will go down, and concern with truth will go down, because it must. We have no tools to treat it otherwise. You cannot have a burden for the precise meaning of the text if you have thrown away the gateway to the precise meaning of the text. Therefore, there is spread abroad in church planting and in church growth, a gradual and now epidemic neglect of the Bible. And of course, if you neglect the Bible, and therefore it is opening no gate to paradise, producing no power, and no passion so as to compel anyone to come to church, you must replace it.

We have many replacements, and it bodes ill for the church. I don’t care if the church has 20,000 people in it; it bodes ill for the church. Come back in 50 years and see what those churches are believing. Luther said:

If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister; the pope, the sophists, and their anti-Christian empire would have remained unshaken.

Embarrassment of Riches

Let me give one more quote:

It is a sin and shame not to know our book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. Oh, how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures!

That’s all gold, and we have Bible Works and Logos. Oh, how their effort puts our indolence to shame. Before I leave this point, I want to give just one word of encouragement for those of you who are far along in the ministry, and do not have the languages nor see the opportunity to go back. Frankly, I’ll be 60 in January, and if I didn’t have the languages right now, I think it would be a wise thing to ask for a sabbatical and go study Hebrew at age 60. I believe that. If you’re 40 and discouraged, just think of it as a 20 year project to get it back.

But my word of encouragement is that if you believe that you’re called to be Billy Graham and have a great impact without the languages, then at least make a test of your faithfulness to the word of God this: Do you encourage seminaries and young pastors to promote, learn, preserve, and teach the languages? Or are you so insecure in your ignorance that you must protect yourself by saying to many, “Languages don’t really matter that much, and so you don’t need them in the seminary, and you don’t need to study them,” because you’re just protecting yourself? It’s a beautiful thing when a person who lacks a gift praises the gift in others.

4. Work Hard.

He worked on this very wording in Greek and Hebrew with extraordinary diligence in spite of tremendous obstacles. He makes pygmies of us all, which is a great danger of having heroes, right? People like Spurgeon, or Calvin, or Luther, or Edwards, make pygmies of us all. You can be paralyzed by these guys. Well, try to get beyond that because they are worthy if we take them for who they are. We are not Luther. Nobody in this room will ever be close to a Luther or a Calvin, but the question is: Can we be inspired by them to work hard, to really work hard, and give an account someday to the King that we did our best with his word? Or are we slothful and casual about it as though nothing really great is at stake? Here’s Luther laying into pastors in his day:

Some pastors and preachers are lazy and no good. They do not pray. They do not read. They do not search the Scriptures. The call is to watch, study, and attend to reading. In truth, you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read, you cannot read too carefully; and what you read carefully, you cannot understand too well; and what you understand well, you cannot teach too well; and what you teach too well, you cannot live too well. The devil, the world, and our flesh are raging and raving against us, and therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors, preachers, pray, read, study, and be diligent. This evil shameful time is not the season for being lazy or sleeping or snoring.

In another place, he said:

The household sweat is great, the political sweat is greater, and the church sweat is greatest.

So if you don’t want to sweat, you’re in the wrong school. Go get an MBA. In 1532, he said:

A person should work in such a way that he remains well and does not injure his body …

Luther, what a hypocrite you are. But he knew he was a hypocrite, and that relieves you of the burden of hypocrisy. He continues:

A person should work in such a way that he remains well and does no injury to his body. We should not break our heads at work and injure our bodies. I myself used to do such things, and I have racked my brains because I still have not overcome the bad habit of overworking, nor shall I overcome it as long as I live.

Oh, he’s not a hypocrite; he’s just a fool, and we praise God for him. He lived 63 years. He ended up living nine years longer than Calvin did, but 63 years is young. That would give me three and a half more years. What about Paul the apostle? Would he have spoken like that? He said:

I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death (2 Corinthians 11:23).

I think he would. It’s better to burn out than rust out. You have to decide how many days off you need. I think a pastor should have a Sabbath, and it isn’t Sunday. You should. The Sabbath principle is smart for kingdom purposes. So unwind, brothers. Play Scrabble with your wife, take your 10 year old to Pizza Hut, rake some leaves, and read a good biography.

5. Study Scripture in the Crucible of Suffering.

Temptation and affliction are hermeneutical touchstones of Luther’s labor. In other words, we handle the Bible and come to know it by the hermeneutical key of suffering. He got this from Psalm 119, as you know. Here are the key verses that he was so shaped by in his thinking. Psalm 119:67 says:

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.

Then Psalm 119:71 says:

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.

That was so key for Luther. It says, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn…” And oh, how he wanted to learn what Paul meant. So he would say, “Bring it on, Pope and devil.” Listen to what he says:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method for myself. Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed through Psalm 119, and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio — prayer, meditation, and trial. They teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, and how comforting God’s word is. It is wisdom supreme.

And then in his own inimitable way, he said:

For myself, I owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have made of me a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

Oh, what a life of suffering Luther knew, and how it opened the Scriptures to him. King Charles V said of Luther:

I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther — my kingdoms, my dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, and my soul against that man.

That’s the emperor talking. In other words, it would have been legal in the empire for anybody to kill Luther. How would you like doing your ministry in Birmingham under that if the governor had said anything to get rid of you? That’s the kind of work and the kind of pressure he lived under. It was relentless slander. I don’t know if anybody’s ever been slandered more than Martin Luther. The language in those days, of course, was going back and forth and vicious on both sides. Luther said:

If the devil can do nothing against the teachings, he attacks the person. Lying, slandering, cursing, and ranting at him, just as the papist’s Beelzebub did to me. When he could not subdue my gospel, he wrote that I was possessed by the devil and was a changeling, and that my mother was a whore and a bath attendant.

Physically, I read you some of Calvin’s struggles. Anybody who lived 200 years ago had horrible stories to tell physically, right? Most of ours are so concealed behind doors. Nobody knows them because we’re in hospitals, but they didn’t have hospitals like we do. Referring to the effects of his incapacitating constipation, Luther said:

I nearly gave up the ghost, and now bathed in blood can find no peace. What took four days to heal, immediately tears open again. For more than a week, I have been thrown back and forth in death and hell. My whole body feels beaten. My limbs are still trembling. I almost lost Christ completely, driven about on the waves and storms of despair and blasphemy against God. But because of the intercession of the faithful, God began to take mercy on me and tore my soul from the depth of hell.

Do you think you’re an emotional wreck at times? Join the company of the interpreters of the Bible. Tentatio, or trial, is the key to understanding the Bible.

Submerged in Sins

Let this encourage you. We read these guys and we think they are beyond ordinary human power and never struggle with the things we struggle with. Listen to this. This is Luther. He was supposed to be hidden away, working night and day like a hero on the translation of the German Bible:

I sit here at ease, hardened and unfeeling; alas, praying little, grieving little for the church of God, burning rather in the fierce fires of my untamed flesh. It comes to this. I should be a fire in the spirit; in reality, I am a fire in the flesh with lust, laziness, idleness, and sleepiness. It is perhaps because you have all ceased praying for me that God has turned away from me. For the last eight days, I have written nothing, nor prayed, nor studied, partly from self-indulgence, partly from another vexatious handicap. I really cannot stand it any longer. Pray for me. I beg you, pray for me. For in my seclusion here, I am submerged in sins.

That’s our hero, and it made him a theologian. Those sufferings, those trials, those blank days, those seasons when you want to sit down in the grass between the garage and the back door and think that you just can’t move another step; they make a theologian of you. Just don’t quit. Break through. Wait for the Lord in the hour of darkness.

I carry around little pieces of paper because my memory is no good anymore. I read my Bible in the morning and I write down lifesavers for periods in the day when everything grows blank. Listen to this one from Isaiah 50:10:

Let him who walks in darkness
     and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
     and rely on his God.

Are you in one of those seasons? “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light” — that’s not the way it should be. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). It’s not supposed to be this way, but it is from time to time; it’s reality. It makes a theologian of you if you break through, if you endure, if you don’t throw in the towel, shack up with your secretary, make shipwreck of your faith, and throw the church away. “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon his God.” Trials were the hermeneutical key for Luther.

Before I leave that again, I just have to give you one other illustration. Suppose you’re sitting in your study, you’re working hard on a text, and you’re beating on a place in Paul, James, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Moses; you have work to do and you have deadlines, and then there’s a knock at the door and there’s some kind of crisis. Do not begrudge this. This may be God saying, “I have an insight into that text for you. It’s at the hospital. Go there.”

That is the way it works. It does work that way. God sometimes says, “I have a way to open this text for you.” Just trust him. Get something for that text from this unexpected, painful, undesirable moment.

6. Pray in Dependence upon God’s Grace.

Prayer and reverent dependence on the all sufficiency of God. In a typical, paradoxical way, Luther seems to undo, in this paragraph I’m about to read to you, everything I’ve just said about study. Listen to this:

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 pleases 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 all be 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.

I take to mean that he did not walk away from the external word. He did not walk away from his Bible into the Zwickau prophecies and just kind of stopped and wanted to vibrate with something from God, and then deliver that on Sunday morning. That is not what he means and that is not what he did. He means bathe your study in prayer. As you beat with your brain on the place in Paul, and with your commentaries, and with your Greek and your grammars, pray, pray, pray.

I am so prone not to pray that I try to develop ways to remind myself to pray. If you were to walk into my study in my house, you would see my computer monitor and the words pasted on top of it: “Help, Lord.” I see it over and over again. My eyes fall on it, and I say, “Help, Lord. Don’t don’t let me make a mistake here. Don’t let me give this verse a wrong twist. Don’t let me justify myself in my exegesis. Don’t let my pride, my sin, my lust, my fears, my anxieties get in the way of a right understanding here. Oh, God, help me. There are people waiting. I want to be a faithful shepherd to feed them. Don’t let me give them poison.” Pray like that continually, as you’re writing or outlining. Every few lines, say, “Help, Lord. Help, Lord.” Pray.

Open My Eyes

Luther saw this in Psalm 119. Listen to these prayers. Here’s how you should pray over the Scriptures:

  • Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your law (Psalm 119:18).
  • Make me understand the way of your precepts (Psalm 119:27).
  • Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes (Psalm 119:33).
  • Give me understanding, that I may keep your law (Psalm 119:34).
  • Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it (Psalm 119:35).
  • Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain (Psalm 119:36).
  • Give me life in your ways (Psalm 119:37).

And that’s just a sampling of how the Psalmist prayed over his study. Luther said:

You should completely despair of your own sense of 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. I condemn and reject as nothing but error all the doctrines which exalt our free will as being directly opposed to this mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus.

Desperate Need and Abundant Grace

Here’s what I’m closing with. Luther’s doctrine of prayer and practice of prayer was rooted in his Reformation vision that the will is in bondage and its only hope is divine grace. It’s so in bondage that it can’t see the meaning of Scripture that is really there. It can’t savor the meaning of Scripture that is really there, and therefore, we must have grace and prayer as the echo of our bondage and God’s grace. That’s the way the human heart, when it is awakened by grace, responds. It says, “I am in bondage to my pride and my fears. I will distort every text I take in hand in self-justification, unless you help me.” And therefore, prayer is rooted in a theology of human nature and divine grace.

Luther said that his book, The Bondage of the Will, was the only book that he thought worthy of publication. So if you wonder what really made Luther tick, what was the root of his Reformation concern, he would say Erasmus got it — namely, the issue is the helplessness of the human will. Erasmus wrote on freedom; Luther wrote on bondage. You want to see Luther’s understanding of the real bottom issues? It wasn’t primarily indulgences, and it wasn’t first justification; it was whether a human being can do anything to get himself justified, or can do anything to get the favor of God. Luther believed we can’t. I’m reading from him now:

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 in 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.

It is the gospel that liberates, so he said:

It is true that the doctrine of the gospel takes all glory, wisdom, and righteousness from men and ascribes them to the Creator alone who makes everything out of nothing.

Prayer is probably the clearest act of the soul by which we reflect the truth of our own condition of bondage, the truth of divine grace, and the necessity of help in opening the Scriptures for our people. So brothers and sisters, as you beat upon a certain place in Scripture, say, “It must yield,” and despair that it will ever yield to your reason. Use it despairingly, and cry to God, “I am in bondage without you. Deliver me from anything that would stand between me and a right grasp of the Scriptures, and rightly being grasped by the Scriptures, Oh, God.” When you study like that and then preach like that, God will get the glory and you will get the grace.