Martin Luther’s Advice

March 21, 2004

Many years ago I took a course on Advanced Apologetics taught by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. One day he talked to us about Martin Luther’s theology, which Dr. Montgomery summed up as law and grace. All the details of that discussion have long been forgotten–all save one. I remember this point because our teacher brought it home with great, repeated force: Preach law to the proud; preach grace to the humble.

The command is simple and clear–and deserves some explanation. Lost people generally fall into one of two groups–either they are lost and they don’t care, or they are lost and that fact bothers them greatly. Not that the lost know they are lost. The word “lost” is not a word a lost person would use to describe himself. But many lost people feel just fine about the way they are living, and they don’t feel the need of any help from God or from any of his earthly representatives. They believe they are doing just fine, they aren’t worried about whether or not God loves them or whether or not they are going to heaven.

How do you reach a person like that? Dear old Martin Luther has the answer: Preach the law of God to them. Show them how their pride keeps them from God. Explain the Ten Commandments and show them how their sin has separated them from God. The point is, proud sinners must not be coddled, or made to feel “accepted” or “loved” or “welcomed.” Until they see their wickedness in rejecting God’s truth, they will never see their need of Jesus. I remember a scene from the movie “The Sting,” where Robert Redford is helping Paul Newman pull a scam on a big-time crook.

At one point, the crook pulls a gun and threatens to kill Redford. Shaken, Redford reports this to Newman who shrugs and says, “Don’t worry about it, kid. If they don’t threaten to kill you, you’re not getting to them.” The same principle holds true in our evangelism. If proud sinners never get angry at us, we’re not telling them what they need to hear. Before the truth can set us free, it must hurt us deeply. Or to say it another way, before the gospel can be Good News, it must first become Bad News. The second part of Luther’s advice then comes into play: “Preach grace to the humble.” Once a sinner admits his need, point him to Jesus.

Preaching law to a sorrowing soul crushes him and destroys his hope. Take him by the hand and lead him to the cross where his sins can be forgiven. Here’s the bottom line: The gospel is both Bad News and Good News. In our evangelism, let’s follow Martin Luther’s advice. Tell the Bad News to the proud and then tell the Good News to the humble.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?