Book Review: “Martin Luther, A Life” by James A. Nestingen

I recently read this biography of Martin Luther for my World History class and had to do a book review as an assignment. I thought perhaps you would enjoy it and it might spark your interest to read the book yourself. 



          When an author writes a book, they write it with the intention of someone reading it.  Therefore they package it in a way that will be appealing to their projected audience.  But how do you write a biography about a controversial person in history, yet somehow make it appealing and marketable to a varying audience of fans and critics alike?  Well James A. Nestingen has managed to do just that in Martin Luther, A Life.  Written from an intentional neutral perspective, he is careful to pen angles of Luther’s life that are predominant in arguments both for and against this radical zealot of his time.

           Nestingen brings out Luther’s reputation among supporters as “an object of extreme admiration,” ‘a brilliant interpreter,” “a German hero,” “the Wittenberg nightingale and voice of freedom,” “a tender hearted Pastor,” “a theologian capable of bringing new life into the church” as well as “a brilliant poet, hymn writer and musician who almost single-handedly founded the literary tradition of the German language.”  However, he is also careful to share the not so flattering opinions of Luther such as “scathingly critical and rude,” “a wild boar ravaging his vineyard,” “the son of a whore,” “a foul-mouthed drunkard,” “a virulent anti-Semite who set the foundation for the Holocaust,” “a haunted manic-depressive,” “bent on enclosing all of life into a cast-iron authoritarian system,” as well as “a self-centered loudmouth.”  From the opening pages of this biography, Nestingen leaves the reader, fan or foe, eager to read on, certain they will learn more tidbits of Luther’s life to support their position.

          Whether intentional or not, Nestingen also paints a very prophetic picture of Luther’s future through the retelling of his past.  From his study and mastery of the Latin language since age seven, to his early training in the philosophy of nominalism, to studying the Psalms as part of his curriculum, he allows us to see God’s sovereign hand preparing the way for Luther’s destiny to unfold many years later.

          Nestingen also does an excellent job of portraying the culture and atmosphere of the time. From the inclusion of color photographs in the center of the book (stills taken from the movie Luther), to describing landscapes, clothing and traditions of the time, the reader is able to “exist” alongside Luther and the other characters of his life.

          In setting up for the peak of Luther’s revelation of grace, Nestingen makes it clear over and over again that Luther’s biggest issue was that he believed he wasn’t worthy.  Nestingen points out that despite his continual promotion in life and in the monastery, his own unworthiness haunted him and prevented him from enjoying his journey of life.  This doubt and unbelief is conveyed in such a way that many who read it will no doubt be able to relate. “Could God really choose a sinner like him?” “What in the world was a man like him doing preaching and running a monastery?” These are a few of the questions that Nestingen poses as likely to have been in the mind of Luther himself, and these are questions that often are in the mind of many Christians today who also struggle to understand God’s grace.

          But ideally, Nestingen gives insight as to perhaps why Luther carried such a burden of legalism and a deep sense of unworthiness.  Rather than just dismiss it as random thoughts, he underscores the relationship between Luther and his father and it’s affect on his adulthood.  Luther, as any young boy would, desired the approval of his father. But where it mattered most, he didn’t get it. In fact after his ordination with his father in attendance, rather than getting an approval and support of the “call” on his life, he instead received the harshest rejection of all when his father said, “I hope it was God, and not the devil.”  Nestingen sets up the rest of Luther’s testimony very strongly through this struggle that every one of us face: When we come to know God the Father, we relate to him only as we know how, which is the way we relate to our earthly father. Not until we learn who God the Father truly is do we find that no matter now good any earthly father could ever be, none could ever come close to the love, acceptance, grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father. Breaking thorough this earthly view of God the Father will be at the core of Luther’s revelation of grace.

          Nestingen also points out how Luther was drawn to the Apostle Paul and the irony of how Paul himself was known for reshaping and reforming the church, as well as being quite troublesome. Again, the prophetic sense of his being drawn to someone whose destiny was similar to the way his own would one day unfold, adds a level of awe for the reader, as most are already aware of Luther’s future.

          Nestingen points out that Luther’s revelation of grace became a personal struggle, given the legalistic and corrupt practices around him. But while his struggle was personal, his vocation was public, and his loyalty to his oath to faithfully serve the church prevented him from keeping quiet. Nestingen portrays Luther’s life of dedication, obedience, boldness and confrontation in a way that challenges the reader to want to make a difference in this world. Despite his persecution, Nestingen lets us see Luther’s determination, humanness, persistence and faithfulness to stand up for what he believed.  Even Luther’s critics would have to admire those qualities that Nestingen so brilliantly highlights in the text, almost above the message of grace that Luther carried.

          Finally, by giving a detailed account of Luther’s death, Nestingen again (whether knowingly or unknowingly) speaks of the sovereignty of God over life, and death. With the many enemies Luther made and the number of people who wanted him dead, God himself saw to it that Luther accomplished the tasks that he was born for. And when those tasks were complete, the Lord took him home to Himself.  And he points out that while many still regard him today as “the archetype of broken church unity,” “intolerant,” and “doctrinaire prejudiced,” more often he is regarded as “a symbol of freedom: the awakening of a critical spirit willing to test established powers in light of deep conviction and a divine word.”  In reading this book, both friends and foes of Luther alike will no doubt be moved by his deep levels of personal sacrifice for a cause he believed in with his entire being.

About Mary L'Esperance Held

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