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Martin Luther’s Tabletalk

Martin Luther, the man whom God used to bring reformation to the church in the 16th century, was a remarkable man. I do not think that such a man existed prior to Luther, or that such a man will ever again be seen in the church of Christ. Though he was a highly educated man, equal if not superior to any of his contemporaries, and although he was of brilliant intellect, he could speak the course, sometimes brutal language of the uneducated peasantry, and bring the principles of God’s Word for which he stood to their level.

His knowledge was vast and his acquaintance with all the ancient church fathers and what they taught was deep and broad. His education left nothing to be desired. His teaching and preaching abilities were superior to any of his colleagues. His gift of writing made his books sweep through Europe like wildfire and shook the citadel of Roman Catholicism to its foundation.

He roared like a wild bull throughout Europe and caused princes and kings, bishops and popes to pay attention to what he said. And, almost all the time, though in his own way, he said the right things. He could tenderly rock his infant son in a cradle, and stand fearlessly alone before emperors and cardinals—as he did at Worms. He could speak in tender words of his love for Katie his wife, but make the highest prelates in Rome blanch at his thunderings. He could write endearing words to his family but fire mighty blasts that echoed throughout Europe.

To get to know Luther the man requires that we hear Luther talk to us. This is possible in a volume of his “Table Talk” in which he speaks on almost any subject under the sun, and speaks with eloquence, conviction and frequently in a way that makes one burst out laughing, or, perhaps, titter a bit nervously at his fierce invective or barnyard expressions.

Luther was a monk prior to the Reformation. He lived in the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg. When he married Katherine von Bora he did not move from the monastery to a private home, but lived in rooms in the monastery set apart for him. Because Luther rejected monasticism, the monastery was no longer used as monks’ quarters, but to house visitors from all parts of Europe, students who studied at the University of Wittenberg, nuns who escaped from their own convents, people who were deprived of their livelihood and others who for one reason or another needed housing. The result was that almost always Katie had others besides her own family at her dinner table. Those present would discuss many different subjects and Luther would comment on them. Some present at his table took down his words and preserved them. They are collected in a volume entitled Table Talk. They give us a rather intimate look into Luther’s private life, which will help us understand a bit better the remarkable man that he was.

Not all the quotes below were Luther’s words at his dinner table; some were spoken at other times when he was in conversation with friends. Some were answers to the hundreds or thousands of letters sent to Luther to seek his advice. And some are directed to his own family. But here is a smattering.

Luther’s conversion from Roman Catholic work righteousness to justification by faith alone, was described by him in these words.

The words “righteous” and “righteousness of God” struck my conscience like lightning. When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified. If God is righteous, he must punish. But when God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1:17) and “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 3:21), I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy. My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ. These words (which before terrified me) now became more pleasing to me. The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower.

Luther’s main contribution to the reformation of the church was his teachings in doctrine. His “table talks” frequently spoke of doctrinal matters, although our choice of passages gives only an inkling of what Luther’s talk and writings on doctrine were like.

After baptism original sin is like a wound which has begun to heal. It is really a wound, yet it is becoming better and it’s constantly in the process of healing, although it is still festering, is painful, etc. So original sin remains in the baptized until their death, although it is in the process of being rooted out. It is rendered harmless, and so it cannot accuse or damn us.

* * * * *

The epistle to the Galatians is my dear epistle. I have put my confidence in it. It is my Katy von Bora.

Luther was asked whether God is in each and every minute creature. He responded

It is so, for God is excluded from no place and is confined to none. He is everywhere and he is nowhere.

* * * * *

Under the papacy I was exposed to every error. The reason is that I had no faith. Faith is, as it were, the center of a circle. If anybody strays from the center, it is impossible for him to have the circle around him, and he must blunder. The center is Christ.

Luther had a great deal to say about preaching and preachers.

A preacher is like a carpenter. His tool is the Word of God. Because the materials on which he works vary, he ought not always pursue the same course when he teaches. For the sake of the variety of his auditors (listeners, HH) he should sometimes console, sometimes frighten, sometimes scold, sometimes soothe, etc.

* * * * *

The pope is…offended because I teach Christian liberty, but what do I care? In fact, I preach against him so that it may be known that the doctrine of the papists is corrupt, but what I say and do is according to God.

Someone asked Luther why he preached and wrote with such vehemence. He said

Our Lord God must precede a heavy shower with thunder and then let it rain in a very gentle fashion so that the ground becomes soaked through. To put it differently, I can cut through a willow brand with a breadknife, but to cut through tough oak requires an axe and wedge, and even with these one can hardly split it.

* * * * *

One should preach about things that are suited to a given place and given person. A preacher once preached that it’s wicked for a woman to have a wet nurse for her child, and he devoted his whole sermon to a treatment of this matter although he had nothing but poor spinning women in his parish to whom such an admonition didn’t apply. Similar was the preacher who gave an exhortation in praise of marriage when he preached to some aged women in an infirmary.

* * * * *

When I die I want to be a ghost and pester the bishops, and godless monks so that they have more trouble with a dead Luther than they could have had before with a thousand living ones.

* * * * *

In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, “That’s what the sermon was about.” When Christ preached he proceeded quickly to a parable and spoke about sheep, shepherds, wolves, vineyards, fig trees, seeds, fields, plowing. The poor lay people were able to comprehend these things.

* * * * *

Every high priest should have his private sacrifices. Accordingly, Pomeranus (a friend of Luther, HH) sacrifices his hearers with his long sermons, for we are his victims. And today he sacrificed us in a singular manner.

Throughout his ministry Luther was intent on teaching his vast audience the principles of the Christian life. This was necessary, for Rome had neglected such attention to the walk of believers.

A lie is like a snowball. The longer it is rolled on the ground the larger it becomes.

At a time of severe illness, when his colleagues were concerned lest his death should make the papists happy, he said:

I am not going to die now. I know this of a certainty. For God will not strengthen the papistic superstition through my death so shortly after the death of Zwingle and Oecolampadius (two Swiss reformers, HH). God will not give the papists such an occasion for rejoicing. To be sure, Satan would gladly kill me if he could. Every moment he is pressing me, is treading on my heels. Yet what he wishes will not be done, but what God wills.

* * * * *

Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When the argument that the Christ is without the law and above the law doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away (by breaking wind). The rogue wants to dispute about righteousness although he is himself a knave, for he kicked God out of heaven and crucified his Son. No man should be alone when he opposes Satan. The church and the ministry of the Word were instituted for this purpose, that hands may be joined together and one may help another.

* * * * *

We want to set things straight and make everything right. To this God says, “Well, then, go ahead! Be clever and do a good job! Be a preacher and make the people godly! Be a lord and mind the people’s ways! Get to it at once!” What a retrogression would occur (if God would do this, HH)! And the conclusion would be: “Vanity of vanities” and “Let wisdom be attributed to God alone” (Eccl. 1:2, 2:26). We are fools and wretched bunglers in all we do and attempt.

* * * * *

If God were to withhold our necessities from us for a year, what a cry there would be throughout the world! But now that he lavishes them upon us we’re all ungrateful, and there is no one who gives thanks.

* * * * *

Satan often said to me, “What if your teaching by which you’ve overthrown the pope, the mass, and the monks should be false?” He often assailed me in such a way as to make me break out in sweat. Finally I answered, “Go and speak with my God, who commanded us to listen to his Christ.” Christ must do everything. Accordingly we wish to be Christian and leave it to Christ to answer for this.

* * * * *

Young fellows are tempted by girls, men who are thirty years old are tempted by gold, when they are forty years old they are tempted by honor and glory, and those who are sixty years say to themselves, “What a pious man I have become.”

* * * * *

For some years now I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.

When asked to join a prince on a hunt, Luther said,

I have indeed been sent here for this purpose, but I’m not a hunter of wild game. I give chase to the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the canons, and the monks.

When near death Luther said

I’m subject to the will of God. I’ve given myself up to him altogether. He’ll take care of everything. I’m sure that he won’t die because he is himself life and resurrection. Whoever lives and believes in him shall not die; though he die, yet shall be live (John 11:25). Therefore I submit to his will.

* * * * *

Christ fights with the devil in a curious way — the devil with great numbers, cleverness, and steadfastness, and Christ with few people, with weakness, simplicity, and contempt — and yet Christ wins. So he wished us to be sheep and our adversaries to be wolves. But what an unequal contest to fight with ten or a hundred wolves! He sent twelve disciples into the world, twelve among so many wolves. I think it’s a remarkable war and a strange fight in which the sheep are killed and the wolves stay alive. But they’ll all go to ruin as a result, because God alone performs miracles. He’ll preserve his sheep in the midst of the wolves and he’ll crush the jaws of the wolves for ever.

* * * * *

I am free from avarice, my age and bodily weakness protect me from sensual desire, and I am not afflicted with hate or envy toward anybody. Up to now only anger remains in me, and for the most part this is necessary and just. But I have other sins that are greater.

Luther was a family man and sometimes wrote movingly of family life. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in addition to reforming doctrine and life, Luther also reformed the home.

I wouldn’t give up my Katy for France or for Venice — first, because God gave her to me and gave me to her; second, because I have often observed that other women have more shortcomings than my Katy (although she, too, has some shortcomings, they are outweighed by many great virtues); and third; because she keeps faith in marriage, that is, fidelity and respect.

* * * * *

There is no sweeter union than that in a good marriage. Nor is there any death more bitter than that which separates a married couple. Only the death of children comes close to this; how much this hurts I have myself experienced.

* * * * *

I’m rich. My God has given me a nun and has added three children. I don’t worry about my debts, for when my Katy has paid them there will be more.

Luther liked to tease his wife, as is clear from the following exchange between Luther and Katy.

Luther: The time will come when a man will take more than one wife.

Katy: Let the devil believe that!

Luther: The reason, Katy is that a woman can bear a child only once a year while her husband can beget many.

Katy: Paul said that each man should have his own wife.

Luther: Yes, “his own wife” and not “only one wife,” for the latter isn’t what Paul wrote.

Katy: Before I put up with this, I’d rather go back to the convent and leave you and all our children. (Spring, 1532)

Man has strange thoughts the first year of marriage. When sitting at table he thinks, “Before I was alone; now there are two.” Or in bed, when he wakes up, he sees a pair of pigtails lying beside him which he hadn’t seen there before.

Luther gave this advice (jokingly) to a bridegroom on his wedding day:

You should be content with the general custom and be lord in your house whenever your wife is not at home.

The following conversation took place between Luther and his daughter Magdalene shortly before she died.

Luther (in prayer at her bedside): I love her very much, but if it is thy will to take her, dear God, I shall be glad to know that she is with thee.

Luther (speaking to Magdalene): Dear Magdalene, my little daughter, you would be glad to stay here with me, your father. Are you also glad to go to your Father in heaven?

Magdalene: Yes, dear Father, as God wills.

Luther: You dear little girl!

Luther (turning away): The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I love her very much. If this flesh is so strong, what must the spirit be? In the last thousand years God has given to no bishop such great gifts as he has given to me (for one should boast of God’s gifts). I’m angry with myself that I’m unable to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God, though I do at times sing a little song and thank God. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s—in the genetive singular and not in the nominative plural. (Luther meant that we belong to only one Lord; and we are thankful that we are not ourselves lords.)

Some of Luther’s words while she yet lived and after she died.

I’d like to keep my dear daughter because I love her very much, if only our Lord God would let me. However, his will be done! Truly nothing better can happen to her, nothing better.

* * * * *

(After she died): You dear little Lena! How well it has turned out for you. Ah, dear child, to think that you must be raised up and will shine like the stars, yes, like the sun! I am joyful in spirit but I am sad according to the flesh. The flesh doesn’t take kindly to this. The separation troubles me above measure. It’s strange to know that she is surely at peace and that she is well off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much!

Katy was in the background, unable to be near the bed because of her grief. Melanchthon, Luther’s co-worker said: “The feelings of parents are a likeness of divinity impressed upon the human character. If the love of God for the human race is as great as the love of parents for their children, then it is truly great and ardent.”

 

(All quotations are taken from: Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, “Table Talk” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).