Between God and the Devil: Martin Luther on Waging Spiritual War in the Ministry of the Gospel

In a post entitled “Reformation as War” in which I discussed spiritual warfare as a somewhat neglected aspect of Reformation history, I included a brief reference taken from another source to Heiko Oberman and his portrayal of Luther as spiritual warrior in his book Luther: Man between God and the Devil. After writing that post I was hungry for more from Oberman, so I acquired my own copy of his book in eager anticipation of reading further about Luther’s spiritual battles. Oberman did not disappoint, and what I read was so interesting that I thought it would make for an excellent follow-up to my previous post. Here is what Oberman recounts:

In all modern classroom and textbook treatments of Luther, the Devil is reduced to an abstraction: be he a figment of mind or time. Thus the Evil One, as a medieval remnant, can be exorcised from the core of Luther’s experience, life, and thought…

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ is retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one dsc00808can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge—neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape…

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ—and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time. Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid Himself open to the Devil’s fury…. To Luther Christmas was the central feast: “God for us.” But that directly implies “the Devil against us.”

This new belief in the Devil is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man, and the world…

The following chronicle of his own encounter with the Devil as a poltergeist has a clearly medieval ring:

It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.

The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: “But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.” It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God—that is satanical.

When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins—not fabricated and invented ones—for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess…

Many of these stories come from Luther’s Table Talk, the collection of his conversations with dinner guests…Luther’s recollections do not have the function of self-glorification, nor do they look back to the “good old days” of a man who is getting on in years. As a rule they have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generations for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of the Gospel.[1]

The tendency that Oberman identifies — the tendency to minimize or overlook this particular aspect of Luther’s life and work as a Reformer — is one that is not limited to purely secular circles. As Christians, we are also susceptible to cultural, scientific, and philosophical influences that would lead us to pay little attention to the reality of the spiritual war in which we, just like Luther, are engaged. This does not mean that we deny the existence of the enemy, it is just that we can tend to underestimate the ferocity with which he labors to undermine any effort to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. While they may sound a bit strange to modern ears, Luther’s own testimonials of his scuffles with the devil are a stark reminder of this reality. As Paul stated in Ephesians 6:11-13:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

These spiritual forces of evil are real, and the fiery darts that they continually shoot do perhaps more damage than we are aware. This is not to give them too much credit, but rather to wake us up to the reality of the battle in which we are always engaged, whether we want to be or not. This is why Paul continued by exhorting the Ephesians (6:18-19) to

keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.

In light of our warfare, we must pray, pray, pray, and then pray some more! If Paul needed prayer “with all perseverance” in order to open his mouth boldly to proclaim the gospel, how could we think that could get by with anything less? Our adversary prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to destroy and devour any effort to proclaim the gospel, to blind people to the light which threatens to dispel this present darkness. So brothers and sisters, let us pray indeed with all perseverance that through the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth the kingdom might come and the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. And let us be constantly prepared, dressed in the full armor of God, to do battle with the spiritual forces of evil, because “where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away”.[2] Yet let us also take heart, for as Luther quipped: “When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”[3]

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[1] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp.104-6.

[2] Ibid., p.106

[3] Ibid.

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