13 November 2013

Book review — The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther, by Steven J. Lawson

by Dan Phillips

(Sanford: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013; 145 pages)

My dear wife picked this up at the Strange Fire conference by signing up (for something) with Ligonier, so I read it on my journey home. It isn't that I live in Australia, though the Denver layover was a bit long, it's that this book is that quick and lively of a read.

It is the latest in a series of books edited by Lawson collectively titled "The Long Line of Godly Men profiles." Previous volumes treat of CalvinEdwardsSpurgeon, and Knox. All but the last are by Lawson; Douglas Bond writes about Knox.

This book consists of six brisk, engaging chapters approaching the legacy of Luther as a preacher from various angles. Lawson writes as he speaks, with energy and urgency. The reader is fairly carried along by a delightful marriage of lively prose and thorough, scholarly documentation. Listening to Lawson in the past, I didn't appreciate the extent of his research into his subjects; I do now.

Even the preface is solid, undergirded by nineteen footnotes endnotes. It issues a "Call for a New Reformation," in which Lawson links the power of Luther's (and other Reformers') preaching to the causes of the great reformation of the sixteenth century. He says the Reformation was a revival of preaching (xvii), of biblical preaching (xviii), of controversial preaching (xix), and of preaching on the doctrines of grace (xx). It's a bracing lead-in to the body of the text, whose first chapter covers Luther's life and legacy. It is an overview Luther's life and ministry, traced from birth to death. The center to which Lawson keeps referring, though, is Luther as preacher — factors that played into the centrality of proclamation in Luther's ministry.

This chapter showcases one of the strengths of the volume. Lawson interlaces his narrative with constant quotations from Luther himself. Better still — and unlike the fun-to-read but exasperating Warren Wiersbe — every quotation is documented. One comes away not simply with Luther as seen by Lawson or even Luther scholars (though they're all there, in the footnotes endnotes), but with Luther in his own words.

Chapter two treats of Luther's deep conviction about the Word: "The pulpit is the throne for the Word of God" (26). Luther laments the neglect of the Word, writing in prose that is unpleasantly timely:
God's Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst abuse.... A host of unchristian fables and lies, in legends, hymns, and sermons were introduced that it is horrible to see.... A Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God's Word and prayer, no matter how briefly, as Psalm 102 says, "When the kings and the people assemble to serve the Lord, they shall declare the name and the praise of God." (27)
Lawson traces out five core commitments in Luther's attitude towards the Word: verbal inspiration, divine inerrancy, supreme authority, intrinsic clarity, and complete sufficiency. Citing Sproul, Lawson argues that the central issue of the Reformation was the issue of authority; it was a crisis about the Word (40-41).

Chapter three deals with Luther in his study, again detailing five ways "in which [Luther's] study for his preaching stood out" (45ff.). He stresses the reading of Scripture, and the importance of a mastery of the Bible's original languages. Chapter four deals with Luther's commitment to the text he is about to expound, illustrating how Luther used a brief introduction to dive right into the passage itself. Lawson notes that Luther "believed that the preacher must advance to his text as soon as possible and, once there, remain there" (67).

Chapter five focuses on Luther's passion in preaching, this time elucidating four feathers of his exposition (indomitable spirit, fervent intensity, accessible speech, and colorful expressions). As with every turn, Lawson illustrates from Luther's own sermons. One arresting example is Luther's vivid preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac (95). Chapter six's theme is Luther's fearless declaration of the truth. Here again five aspects come to the fore, including Luther's conviction that we mustn't keep back some Scriptural truths as being unfit for Christian ears (!; 102ff.).

Lawson concludes with a plea for more who show Luther's boldness and Biblical/Gospel/Christ-centered emphasis in preaching. And that is the purpose of the book, a positive intent to plead for more bold preaching. For that reason, I take it, Lawson doesn't deal with Luther's squirreliness about James, or his execrable and universally rejected words about the Jews.

I recommend the book to any pastor; it's a great read.

My only real complaint is that the publisher has served both Lawson and us very poorly by relegating all of Lawson's careful documentation to endnotes. As always, this is a gratuitous pity and an insult both to author and reader. The practice neither honors Lawson's diligent scholarship nor serves his readers' convenient profit. It is a baffling holdover. We are no longer in the day when footnoting drove up costs due to the issues of typesetting. Footnoting inconveniences no one (don't like 'em? don't read 'em), endnotes inconvenience anyone interested in documentation (two bookmarks, back and forth, back and forth).

I hope there will be future volumes in the series, and that the publisher will elect to serve Lawson and us better in terms of layout.

Aside to authors: Love your readers. For their sake, insist that your publisher use footnotes, not endnotes.

Dan Phillips's signature


Doug Hibbard said...

Regarding the content, I'm looking forward to reading this one. I've got Lawson's short form biography of "A Long Line of Godly Men."

On to the Crusade Against Endnotes: would that this battle would be won, and the vile endnote be banished. I heartily endorse all efforts to eliminate the endnote.

DJP said...

Thank you for your support.


Phil Siefkes said...

I just completed the e-book version last evening. I would concur with your recommendation of the book (and the issue of endnotes as well).

Tom Chantry said...

I really hope and pray that one day Phillips tell us what he thinks about endnotes.

Eric said...


He probably already has, but likely included it in an endnote somewhere and we missed it.

DJP said...

< facepalm >

Stephen said...

I think our dear overlords at Apple Inc. are helping in the fight by not including the ability to add endnotes in the newest, iOS-optimized version of their consumer-class editor Pages. If they basically single-handedly decided the floppy drive era was over, maybe they can kill off the endnote, too?

chris@foosis.com said...


Thanks for your review. You're right. We're going to fix the endnote issue in future editions of this series.


DJP said...

That's really terrific news, thank you.

The next two books I plan to review, from different publishers, also have endnotes. And I'll whack 'em both faithfully.

Before I die, I'd like to see: endnotes abolished; "LORD" replaced by "Yahweh" in standard EVs; and Peet's Coffee in every state of the union.

It's good to have goals.

Jacob Phillips said...

I honestly don't understand endnotes anymore. In academic settings (well, at least history and law) endnotes are a joke and are never used anymore (if they ever were). Everyone knows the reasons why footnotes are better; publishers need to get on board.

semijohn said...

To paraphrase DJP's review: Preachers, preach like Martin Luther. His preaching was like footnotes. Footnotes are bold, but endnotes are not. Make your preaching like footnotes, not like endnotes.

semijohn said...

To paraphrase DJP's review: Preach like Martin Luther. His preaching was like footnotes. Footnotes are bold, and they help the reader. Endnotes don't. Make your preaching like footnotes, not like endnotes. :)

Kurt said...

Did he give us the full unvarnished Luther? With his warts intact - like the Bible gives us its characters - Or is this a prettified version?

Pastor Andrew said...

Yeah, this was good and very accessible read. He provides insights from Luther that are immediately applicable.

I kept thinking that this was a biography on John MacArthur's preaching! Much of those things can be said of his ministry as well.