Luther, Metaxas, and Millennials


Eric Metaxas’s latest work, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, is presently a best seller. This year we mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and a fresh examination of the life and significance of Martin Luther is appropriate.

Philip Jeffery reviewed Metaxas’s account of Luther for First Things. Jeffery was not impressed, and I think there are lessons we can learn from his critiques.

Jeffery, a member of the Millennial generation, charges Metaxas with appropriating Luther rather than describing him as he was, using the Great Reformer’s life as a point of inspiration for a new generation rather than as an example of a sturdy anchor planted in the church’s past. According to Jeffery, Metaxas’s Luther is plagued by the same kind of doubts as Millennials today (a claim Jeffery rejects), and Luther’s doubts, particularly with regard to the availability of grace, led him to despair, an emotional burden that was terribly crushing. Metaxas portrays Luther as having no consolation in the church, and Luther does not find freedom until he discovers how an alteration in belief solidifies for him an emotional experience of God’s salvation, a felt assurance that Christ died for him.

Jeffery draws parallels between this account of Luther and the experience of Millennials in campus ministries. Like Metaxas’s Luther, young evangelicals are also surrounded by doubts, particularly within the university context, and these doubts often give way to despair.

Seeking a way out from their despair, many evangelicals seek consolation in their own beliefs, which are grounded in the self and in one’s own experiences, and which give way to an emotional experience of salvation in the self. Jeffery cites Process Theology and the Prosperity Gospel as sources his Millennial friends chose as a way to attain “mental possession of the means of salvation.” Jeffery suggests that conviction is important and beliefs do matter, but the means of grace should not be reduced to the container of the self. Rather, the church, particularly in the Eucharist, extends grace to the Christian, a fact Millennials would do well to recognize.

Jeffery believes Metaxas, in attempting to show us Luther, has only shown us a mirror. Jeffery writes, “In Martin Luther, Metaxas intends to show us a saint, but all he really shows us is ourselves. Young protestants need to be directed toward Christ—which may or may not be the same as being directed toward Luther.”

This, I believe, is the most important critique of all. Millennials are in need of examples in the Christian faith. There are ways to inspire young Christians and to help them see there are people of strong action and firm conviction within the history of the church who can help us navigate the challenges we face today. But we must not cast those saints in our own image and must fight against the temptation to appropriate their stories for our own ends.

That’s challenging. I’ve heard several different ministers cite John Wesley as someone to follow, and all of them have done so in different ways. They wanted to stress personal piety, or the importance of small groups, or the need for social holiness, and these are all definitely good things. But those same ministers would neglect Wesley’s call for personal conversion, or his calls for evangelism among the laity, or his preaching on the costliness of Christian discipleship. Wesley was good for some causes, but not others. As hearers, we were on the receiving end of a partial telling of history. Granted, that is sometimes all you have time for in a sermon.

But this is where Jeffery is again helpful. He writes that younger Christians need to be pointed to Christ, which may or may not be the same thing as being directed to notable, historic Christian leaders. In pointing to Christ first, we can then examine how Christ was again reflected in the lives of Christians down through the ages. Therefore, we are not following the founders of our denomination or movement, but instead we are following Christ along with our founding leaders to the degree in which they truly followed him.

The question for Millennials and for those who minister to them then becomes, “How do we follow Christ today, and together?” That question can be mutually discerned. Our time differs from that of Martin Luther. It also differs from the first century at the time of Jesus. But all of history belongs to Christ, and the Holy Spirit is with us today. He is leading, among Millennials, and all generations. Our founding leaders and sources of historical inspiration might be great, but following Christ comes first.