An Interview with Herman Selderhuis about his book—Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography

Thank you for your willingness to be interviewed about your well written book. I think you have achieved your goal to give the reader an objective portrait of the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

Here are some of my questions for you about your work:

Given the numerous biographies written on Luther, what is the unique contribution of your book to the study of Luther?

Unique is quite a big word, since I did not intend to make a difference or to come up with something new. After having read Luther since I was 14, I just wanted to know who this man was. How did he live with God? What was essential to him? How could he speak such precious words about the Lord and at the same time use language against his opponents and among his friends that I would never allow my children to use? But also I wanted to examine the latter part of his life, since many biographies hardly pay attention to that. Perhaps the unique aspect of my work is that I tried to describe Luther as a fellow believer, as a brother in Christ.

You indicated Luther’s tendency to tell inaccurate information or exaggerate things. For instance, he gave the impression that his early life was marked by extreme poverty when it was not (28). Also, according to him, he and his friend Hans Reinicke went to a school of the “Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life” in Magdeburg (33). But you said such a school never existed in that place. As a man with sensitive conscience, why do you think Luther would give his reader imprecise data?

Well for one thing, we all have memories of our youth that do not always fit reality, so that’s also quite natural for Luther. At the same time, he knew how to use rhetorical skills to convince the people of his message. And in this message he was not always complete in his information, so to say. His family did know times in which income was low, but also times of good wealth. Now, we all know that the majority of people and especially workmen and farmers rather identify with someone who is from their background, so someone also struggling to make a living. That’s why he preferred telling his readers about the times in which there was scarcity in his family. It was not a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either.

In the preface to his Latin writings, Luther mentioned how it was not until 1519 (two years after the posting of the “Ninety-Five Theses”) that he understood the doctrine of justification by faith (84). Was Luther implying then that he was not converted until 1519? Could you please comment more on his conversion experience?

I don’t think it is an issue of conversion as he was Godfearing and a believing Christian from his childhood days. These words refer to the time in which he discovered that the relationship between God and man was fundamentally different than he always thought and was taught. So it is not the conversion from unbeliever to believer, but a conversion to a biblical perspective on God, grace and justification. So not regeneration, but a renewal of theological insight.

On page 137 you wrote, “According to Luther, only three of the seven [sacraments] were found in Scripture: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and penance.” Elsewhere Luther seemed to approve two sacraments only. Could you please explain this seeming contradiction in his belief?

We must understand that Luther did not start with writing something like the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. He was a reformer who had to start rethinking all of theology and all of the articles of faith from the beginning. So at first he was not sure about the sacrament of penance as he did find in Scripture many calls to penance and repentance. Later on he had more clarity and reduced the number of sacraments to two. However, he did maintain the sacrament of penance in such a way that in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper he paid much attention to the life and inner attitude of penance. Being baptized in Christ means awareness of sin and guilt leading to a life in which the confession of one’s sin is permanently present, and the same counts for anyone partaking in the Lord’s Supper. This means that this third sacrament finds its place in the other two.

Some think Luther taught baptismal regeneration. Could you please clarify his view on baptism?

In a way here the same answer can be given. Luther was searching for the right understanding of baptism. He knew that the existing doctrine was wrong, namely, that baptism cleans from original sin and from the guilt one has built up and that after that baptism loses its function and the sacrament of penance is essential for forgiveness. But he did not know what the right view was. He did not want baptism to be a sacrament that works just by being administered, yet he also did not want a sacrament that was a mere symbol, nor a sacrament  in which the effectivity depends on the faith of the believer which means God’s gift in baptism depends on whether we want it or not. In my opinion Luther did not come to a neatly defined doctrine of baptism. Those that came after him like Bullinger and Calvin made use of all Luther had explored and came to a more complete and biblical view. But they would not have found it without Luther.

Do you think it was unwise for Luther to marry Katharina von Bora, an ex-nun whom he did not love? As Luther himself stated shortly before their wedding day, “I do not love my wife, but I do appreciate her” (195). Also, where did such a common belief originate that “the child of an ex-nun and ex-monk would be a monster” (215)? 

Oh, but he really did love her but not yet at the moment of marriage. The marriage itself was more out of necessity. Katharina needed a husband to have an orderly income and Luther needed a wife to prove that his protests against compulsory celibacy applied to him also. But once they got married their love for each grew. It is a great joy to read about their love-relationship and I’m convinced that many Christian marriages would go better if there was only part of the love and respect Luther and Katherina had for each other. And as to that monster-belief, I think it is not that difficult to understand its origin. If two people break their eternal vows to God and have intercourse, how else could God punish them than with a monster for it was so wrong what they had done.

In chapter 10 you talk about Luther’s strong anti-Semitism. Why was he hostile to Jewish people?

Hostility against Jews had been common all over Europe and for many centuries, so even if it is hardly allowed to say, most people were used to it and Luther was no exception. This is not an excuse though, as it is a shame for us and our Christian tradition. Yet, in the beginning Luther was quite positive, writing even a tract in which he stressed that Jesus was a Jew. But Luther expected that as a result of his rediscovery of the Gospel, the majority of Jews would also convert to Christ. When this did not happen, he became first disappointed and then very hostile. It is a black page in his biography and in our history, but we need to know about it to humble ourselves, to see that Luther was no hero and to learn from it for today.

In general, what were Luther’s greatest strengths that we should emulate?

What I see as his greatest strength is that he is a theologian in the real sense of the word. Luther speaks about God and he lets God be God. His preaching is not about what Christians experience, not about emotions, not about political and social issues, but it is about the God who justifies and man who needs justification. Our doing of theology and our preaching would become so much richer, so much more biblical if we would seriously take notice of Luther’s theology. Another strength is his fearless standing up for the truth of God’s Word. No pope, no emperor, no tradition scared him off from proclaiming the gospel of grace. And a third strength is his endless service. This man could have become a billionaire, he could have become mighty in politics and even in the church, but he remained keen on serving the Lord and serving the church. That’s how he lived and that’s how he died.

What projects are you currently working on?

For now I have two major projects: as president of the Theological University Apeldoorn (TUA), I try to expand and strengthen the TUA into one of the main centers for Reformed theology in Europe, and as president of Reformation Research Consortium (REFORC) I work on creating a global network for research on Early Modern Christianity. This keeps me quite busy so for the moment I have to postpone working on the books I would like to write.


Herman Selderhuis is President of the Theological University Apeldoorn (Netherlands) and professor of Church History. As ordained minister he preaches every Sunday in various reformed churches. Some of his other functions are: President of Reformation Research Consortium (REFORC), president of the Luther Heritage Foundation, and board member in various European research projects.

Interview Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s Influence on My Prayer Life

I was once interviewed about my co-edited book Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer (2011). The interviewer asked me this question: Which one of these godly men has influenced your prayers the most. Here’s my reply:takinghold-3d


Allow me to give you two: Martin Luther (one from the Reformers) and John Bunyan (one from the Puritans). These two men have profoundly shaped my spirituality, particularly my prayer life. For example, they taught me to maintain the priority of prayer. Luther once said, “I have so much scheduled for tomorrow I must pray for that I must arise an hour earlier to have an extra hour alone with God” (p. 224). Similarly, Bunyan wrote, “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed” (p. 231). How often we do the opposite and only set apart a little time to pray because we are too busy in our work. May we capture the prayer life of Luther who “Even in the busiest periods of the Reformation,” says Andrew W. Kosten, “averaged two hours of prayer daily” (p. 24). And how true that we accomplish little because we do not pray to God for help. This is basically the point of James: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). I am more and more convinced that behind the effectiveness of these men in the ministry was their powerful prayer life.

John Bunyan Martin Luther Prayer

Five Kinds of Hearers of God’s Word

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:22-25)

1. Mr. Blind. He is blind and thus unable to see the spots on his face in a mirror. Others see his flaws but he cannot see them because of his spiritual blindness. He is so blind that he calls evil good and good evil. He is living in sin and is not bothered by his sinful life.

2. Mr. Afraid. He knows that he has some spots on his face but is afraid to look at them in a mirror. He is like a person who knows that he has a health problem but is afraid to see a doctor for a checkup. Mr. Afraid cannot accept reality; he tries to avoid the truth. He does not want to be confronted by God’s Word.

3. Mr. Self-righteous. He looks at his face in a mirror and notices some spots but he does not do anything about his face. He is self-deceived. He deceives himself by thinking that he is good when in fact he is bad. He thinks that he is good enough to go to heaven. When corrected to change his wicked behavior, he reasons, “I don’t need to change. My neighbor does, but not me.”

4. Mr. Pessimistic. He looks at his face in a mirror and sees his blemishes and thinks that they are too great to be washed. Mr. Pessimistic knows that he is a sinner, but he thinks that his sins are too great to be forgiven. He dwells on his misery. He despairs, saying, “I am too sinful to be saved.” Mr. Pessimistic needs to learn from the German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546):

Because you say I am a sinner, I will be righteous and saved….I fly to Christ who has given himself for my sins. Therefore, Satan, you will not prevail against me when you try to terrify me by telling me how great my sins are….On the contrary, when you say I am a sinner, you give me armor and a weapon against yourself…for Christ died for sinners….You do not terrify me but comfort me immeasurably

The Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne reminds us, “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.”

5. Mr. Wise. He looks at his face and sees his spots in a mirror and cleanses his face. That is, upon noticing his sins through God’s Word, he comes to God for forgiveness. He prays with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” James says that this kind of person will be blessed (v. 25).

Which kind of hearer are you?

Note: This post is a slightly edited excerpt from the message, “Be Doers of God’s Word,” delivered on February 10, 2013 at Dutton URC.

Bible Martin Luther Robert Murray M’Cheyne

When you pray, do you always pray to the Father in the name of the Son?

While I normally offer my prayer to the Father, in the name of Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit, sometimes I address my prayer to the Spirit and sometimes to the Son. The German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said that when we pray to Jesus, we “need not worry that the Father and the Holy Spirit will be angry on this account. They know that no matter which Person [we] call upon, [we] call upon all three Persons and upon the One God at the same time. For [we] cannot call upon one Person without calling upon the others, because the one, undivided divine Essence exists in all and in each Person.” In his treatise Communion with God (1657), the Puritan theologian John Owen (1616-1683) encouraged us to fellowship with each person of the Trinity. Indeed, our prayer should be trinitarian. In our prayer, we can say with the Puritan pastor Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) “I don’t know which Person of the Trinity I love the most, but this I know, I love each of them, and I need them all.”    


To learn more how to pray, see these books:

Co-edited with Joel R. Beeke, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (Mountain Home: Ark.: BorderStone Press 2012)

John Owen Martin Luther Prayer Samuel Rutherford

Prayer—“the hardest work of all”

Studying the subject of prayer has made me more aware of two basic truths: first, because of my indwelling sin, my soul acts unfriendly toward prayer; and second, because of my indwelling sin, I absolutely need the Holy Spirit’s assistance in order for me to pray.

Prayer is such a difficult work that it requires strong discipline. Martin Luther (1483-1546) is not exaggerating when he declares that prayer is “the hardest work of all.” I am not embarrassed to admit that sometimes I find it more enjoyable to play basketball than to pray to God. Sometimes prayer becomes more of a burden than a joy to me. Writing in his treatise I Will Pray with the Spirit (1662), John Bunyan (1628-1688) understands what I mean here when he says:

May I but speak my own experience, and from that tell you the difficulty of praying to God as I ought; it is enough to make you poor, blind, carnal men, to entertain strange thoughts of me. For, as for my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so loath [unwilling] to go to God, and when it is with him, so loath [unwilling] to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers; first to beg of God that he would take mine heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there (Psalm 86:11). Nay, many times I know not what to pray for, I am so blind, nor how to pray, I am so ignorant; only (blessed be grace) the Spirit helps our infirmities [Rom. 8:26].    

Michael Haykin, commenting on this quote, notes, “From personal experience, Bunyan well knew the allergic reaction of the old nature to the presence of God. So were it not for the Spirit, none would be able to persevere in prayer.” Since my indwelling sin makes me unfriendly and even ignorant towards the necessity of prayer, I desperately need the help of the Spirit. Why? Because in the words of Bunyan, a “man without the help of the Spirit cannot so much as pray once; much less, continue…in a sweet praying frame.”

O my blessed Holy Spirit give me more grace to pray!




Holy Spirit John Bunyan Martin Luther Prayer

Martin Luther on Prayer and Reformation

Even in the busiest periods of the Reformation Luther averaged two hours of prayer daily.

—   Andrew W. Kosten

Not only was Martin Luther (1483–1546) the great Protestant Reformer, he was a great man of prayer as well. As he explains, prayer was foundational for his soul’s well-being: “Prayer includes every pursuit of the soul, in meditation, reading, listening, [and] praying.” Andrew Kosten suggests that “to know…Luther at his best, one must become acquainted with him as a man of devotion.” Thus, to some degree, to study Luther and his theology apart from his spirituality in general and his practice of prayer in particular is to miss the context of his whole personality both as a Reformer and theologian. After showing that prayer is an important key to understanding Luther as a Reformer and theologian, this chapter will address Luther’s basic theology of prayer, his trinitarian emphasis in prayer, and his personal prayer life.


Click here to read my entire article.

Martin Luther Piety Prayer Reformer Spirituality