Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Temptation

Howard Griffith †
Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary

“Living, nay rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading, or speculation.”[1]

“I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations took me.”[2]

These intriguing words are attributed to Martin Luther, and they were not offhand statements. For Luther, more than academic theology simpliciter was at stake in the matter of temptation. Temptation was an important part of the Christian’s life. In a certain sense it was the issue of the Christian life. Luther had struggled with despair, which he called Anfechtung, before his discovery of the gospel. Roland Bainton defines Anfechtung as “a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man. It is all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of a man.”[3] It has been suggested by some that Luther’s use of the word Anfechtung instead of the more common word for temptation, Versuchung, is striking and unusual.[4] It is a broader term, because, as we shall see below, not just the Devil, but God is involved in every temptation. Every Christian must learn to deal with it, both before and after coming to faith. To do so is to find salvation, and to continue to do so is to keep believing the gospel.

One writing of his own which Luther valued was his commentary on Galatians (last edition, 1535). On Galatians 1:4, “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father,” Luther wrote,

These things, as touching the words, we know well enough, and can talk of them. But in practice, and in the conflict, when the Devil goeth about to deface Christ, and to pluck the word of grace out of our hearts, we find that we do not yet know them well and as we should do. He that at such a time of trial could find Christ truly, and could magnify Him and behold Him as his most sweet Savior, and High Priest, and not as a strait judge, this man hath overcome all evils, and were already in the Kingdom of Heaven. But this to do in the conflict, is of all things the most hard. I speak this by experience.[5]

Sometime after 1530 Luther had written,

If I should live a while longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtung. Without it no man can rightly understand the Holy Scriptures or know what the fear and love of God is all about. In fact, without Anfechtung one does not really know what the spiritual life is.[6]

Luther scholar Heiko A. Oberman once wrote, “if I were to cut out the pages in the Weimar edition of Luther’s works in which he mentions the Devil more than twice, I would be left with perhaps two and a half volumes.”[7] Indeed the theme is so prevalent in Luther that the modern mind has tried to explain it in psychoanalytic terms or as a function of physical ailment.[8] But the issue is a biblical and theological one. Warren Hovland noted that even during Luther’s most distressed periods, his literary output was prodigious. This does not indicate a psychologically incapacitated person.[9]

The greatness of the Reformer and the importance of this subject in his theology call for a study of his doctrine of temptation. I shall begin the study in relation to the sovereignty of God and the nature of the Devil. Then consideration will be given to the nature of temptation itself, the means of resistance, with a brief final word about the fruits of the struggle for the Christian.

The Sovereignty of God

Satan and temptation are a part of God’s sovereignty, in the sense both of his control of all things, and of his right to exercise that control, according to Luther.

Luther taught that God was absolutely sovereign over the wills of men. That is, they are under his control. In his Bondage of the Will, Luther addressed the difficult problem of relating the providence of God and his sovereignty to sin in the world. Luther was bold to affirm that the Devil and fallen men are under divine power:

That remnant of nature, therefore, as we call it, in the ungodly man and Satan, as being the creature and work of God, is no less subject to divine omnipotence and activity than all other creatures and works of God. . . . It is just as if a carpenter were cutting badly with a chipped and jagged axe. Hence it comes about that the ungodly man cannot but continually err and sin, because he is caught up in the movement of divine power and not allowed to be idle, but wills, desires, and acts according to the kind of person he himself is.[10]

The creature serves the will of God, but does so most freely. God does not commit sin, but rules over the creature who sins, whether devil or man.[11] However, consistent with the words above, “not allowed to be idle, but wills, desires, and acts according to the kind of person he himself is,” the devil is not passive. Sinful creatures act on their own desires, and are responsible for them. Luther follows Augustine and the Scriptures in his thought: only fundamentally bad works can flow from a fundamentally sinful person.

The power of evil and of temptation has a great place in this present world. In fact, Luther can write in the same treatise:

For Christians know there are two kingdoms in the world, which are bitterly opposed to each other. In one of them Satan reigns, who therefore is called by Christ “the ruler of this world” and by Paul “the god of this world.” He holds captive to his will all who are not snatched away from him by the Spirit of Christ, as the same Paul testifies, nor does he allow them to be snatched away by any powers other than the Spirit of God, as Christ testifies in the parable of the strong man guarding his palace in peace. In the other Kingdom, Christ reigns, and his Kingdom ceaselessly resists and makes war on the kingdom of Satan. Into this Kingdom we are transferred, not by our own power, but by the grace of God, by which we are set free from the present evil age and delivered from the dominion of darkness.[12]

Describing Luther’s view of God’s rule a “contested omnipotence,” Oberman observes that “Luther is the one representative of the Western tradition who dares to be as dualistic as possible within the Christian confession of the omnipotence of God.”[13] The Christian finds himself in the middle of a mighty struggle. Sin, Satan, and temptation are very real, yet totally overruled by God, always.

Further, God rules over the temptation of the Christian in the sense that He has the right to test the believer. Hovland noticed that in Luther’s exegesis, God Himself is often represented as the Christian’s antagonist. “In all Anfechtung we are dealing directly with God.”[14] In His dealings with rebellious Adam, Cain, Jonah, and David, God appears as Judge. To Job He appears as an Enemy.[15] For Jacob, the issue of trial is whether or not he is predestined to salvation. Luther portrays God as the tempter of Eve, Abraham, Peter, and Paul. In trial and temptation, God reveals His hiddenness and his “arbitrariness.”

Most interesting in pursuing this theme is Luther’s dealing with the temptation of the Canaanite woman in the gospels. Between 1523 and 1544, Luther preached on this text thirteen times. “… Christ like a hunter exercises and chases faith in his followers in order that it may become strong and firm.”[16] In the gospel accounts, three times the Lord rebukes the woman. First, by silence He acts as though He will not be gracious to her. Then He rejects the prayers of others on her behalf. Third, he calls her a dog, which is to challenge her as not being predestined to life. “That is an eternally unanswerable reply, to which no one can give a satisfactory reply.”[17] Notice though, the use which Luther says should be made of this by the tempted Christian:

All this, however, is written for our comfort and instruction, that we may know how deeply God conceals his grace before our face, and that we may not estimate him according to our feelings and thinking, but strictly according to his Word. For here you see, though Christ appears to be even hardhearted, yet He gives no final decision by saying “No.” All His answers indeed sound like no, but they are not no. They remain undecided and pending. . . . Yet all those trials of her faith sounded more like no than yes; but there was more yea in them than nay; aye, there is only yes in them, but it is very deep and very concealed, while there appears to be nothing but no. . . .  Therefore it must turn from this feeling and lay hold of and retain the deep spiritual yes under and above the no with a firm faith in God’s Word, . . . and say God is right in his judgment which He visits upon us.[18]

The tempted Christian is to accuse himself as Christ did the woman, and as the woman did when she agreed with Christ’s statement about her, yet also to cling firmly to the good will of God, even though he hides it. Luther is asserting the need for a basic distrust of the Christian’s own consciousness. How different this is from later Protestant thought, such as that represented by Schleiermacher. Later orthodox Protestants seeking to help the tempted, have expounded the passage in the same direction.[19] To put it in a word, God has the right to try the Christian, and he uses it, but always for his children’s good.

Satan is God’s tool used for the Christian’s good. Oberman writes that Luther actually named the Devil Doctor Consolatorius, “Dr. Comforter.” As Luther said, “because we are so attacked by the Devil, we are in excellent shape before God.”[20] When the Devil tempts the believer, Luther says, “Remember, he is Dr. Comforter. The very reason he comes is that he smells in you something of faith and Jesus Christ. He does not go to sinners; he is not interested in them. In his very appearance he brings you the Gospel: you are of Christ.”[21] In all Satan’s malice, the sovereign God employs the Devil. He tries his people to build faith.

The Nature of the Devil

We turn next to the nature of Satan. Luther’s doctrine is not unique. There are fallen angels. In his Lectures on Genesis 1, which he continued to perfect until the end of his life, Luther simply brings together the testimony of Old and New Testaments. He cites John 8:44: “Ye are of [your] father the Devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” Luther continues:

[T]he New Testament too, deals in a rather limited way with this doctrine; it adds nothing beyond the fact that they have been condemned and are held in prison, as it were, until the Day of Judgment (Rev. 20.2,7). So it is sufficient for us to know that there are good and evil angels and that God created all of them alike, as good. From this it follows necessarily that the evil angels fell and did not stand in the truth. How this came about is unknown; nevertheless, it is likely that they fell as the result of pride, because they despised the Word or the Son of God and wanted to place themselves above Him. More than this I do not have.[22]

Luther does not speculate about Satan’s origins.

The Devil is a creature, powerful and full of craft, but he is not comparable to God. He is neither omnipotent nor omniscient He learns by trial and error, and with five thousand years’ practice (!) has become very competent. I could not find Luther addressing how Satan introduces thoughts into the mind. That he can do so is assumed.

What is more, he is all evil; he is the essence of all that is depraved: On 1 Peter 5.8 the Reformer writes,

Satan is by nature such a wicked and poisonous spirit that he cannot tolerate anything that is good. It pains him that even an apple, a cherry, and the like grow. It causes him pain and grief that a single healthy person should live upon, and if God would not restrain him, he would hurl everything together in ruin. But to nothing is he a more bitter enemy than the dear Word; because while he can conceal himself under all creatures, the Word is the only agency that can disclose him and reveal to everyone how black he is.[23]

He is subtle, and knows how to lead away from God by degrees. Writing about his trick with Eve, first insinuating, then lying to her outright, Luther says,

Therefore we see here what an awful thing it is when the Devil begins to tempt a man. One lapse involves another lapse, and an apparently slight wrong brings about a prodigious lapse. It was something serious to turn away from God and from His Word and to lend her ears to Satan. But what is something far more serious now happens: that Eve agrees with Satan when he charges God with lying and, as it were, strikes God in the face with his fists. . . . Let these events be a warning for us that we may learn what man is. For if this happened when nature was perfect, what do we think will happen to us now?[24]

Next we see Satan’s method and desire in temptation. Essentially, it is to challenge and overthrow the Word of God. This was his method before and after the fall of man. Luther comments extensively on the Devil’s desires in his lectures on Genesis 3.

For Luther, in man’s unfallen state, as well as after the fall, the Word of God is the basis of his life. The Reformer is insistent that God’s Word speaks with consummate authority and that man’s first duty is to trust that revelation. Adam and Eve were to continue in the exercise of faith in that Word: “Where the Word is, there necessarily faith also is. Here is the Word that he should not eat of this tree; otherwise he would die. Therefore, Adam and Eve ought to have believed that this tree was detrimental to their welfare. Thus faith is included in this very commandment.”[25]

This is all man’s wisdom. It also accounts for the gravity of the first sin:

[O]ne should not listen to those who maintain that it is cruel for this nature to be so pitiably corrupted and plunged into death and the rest of the disasters simply on account of a bite of fruit. When the Epicureans hear this they laugh at it as a fairy tale. But to the careful reader it readily becomes clear that the bite of the apple is not the reason. The reason is sin, through which Eve sinned against both tables of the Law and against God Himself and His Word; moreover, she sins in this way that she casts aside the Word of God and offers her whole self to Satan as his pupil. . . . Thus we must pay attention to the Word. Moreover, this is God’s Word. And so, just as important as the Word is, so important also is the sin which is committed against the Word. To this sin our entire nature has succumbed. How could it overcome this sin, since its magnitude is inexhaustible? To overcome this sin, we need Him who brings with him inexhaustible righteousness, that is, the Son of God.[26]

Satan’s strategy was first, to cast doubt on God’s Word. Commenting on the serpent’s question to Eve in Genesis 3:1 “Yea, hath God said. Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Luther writes: “the serpent directs its attack at God’s good will and makes it its business to prove from the prohibition of the tree that God’s will toward man is not good. . . . Eve is simply urged on to all sins, since she is being urged on against the Word and the good will of God.”[27]

Because God spoke to our first parents, so did the Devil. “So he himself also preaches to Eve… from the corrupt Word of God, damnation results.”[28] The Word is God’s revelation; it is Adam’s link to God. Luther says that as the Word is man’s greatest need, so Satan’s effort is directed to bringing him to believe a lie.

Therefore Satan here attacks Adam and Eve in this way to deprive them of the Word and to make them believe his lie after they have lost the Word and their trust in God. Is it a wonder that when this happens, man later on becomes proud, that he is a scorner of God and of men, that he becomes an adulterer or a murderer? Truly, therefore, this temptation is the sum of all temptations; it brings with it the overthrow or the violation of the entire Decalogue. Unbelief is the source of all sins; when Satan brought about this unbelief by driving out or corrupting the Word, the rest was easy for him. . . . The chief temptation was to listen to another word and to depart from the one which God had previously spoken.[29]

Luther warns his readers not to enter into discussions with those who pervert the truth. Under devilish influence, this remains the method of heretics, he says. To cast doubt on God’s Word is still his method after the fall. Most important for the Christian is to be satisfied with God’s Word just as it came from Him:

[P]eople who are not wary allow themselves to be drawn away from the Word into dangerous discussions. Because they are not satisfied with the Word, they ask, ‘Why and wherefore do these things happen thus?” Just as Eve was lost when she heard the Devil casting doubt upon the command of God so when we doubt whether God wanted us who are hard pressed by death and sin to be saved though Christ, how easily we are deceived and allow a monk’s cowl to be put on us in order to receive the crown on account of our perfect works![30]

To understand Luther’s doctrine on the character of the devilish scheme to tempt fallen people, we must look briefly at his anthropology. Conscience still functions in man after the fall. In fact, it was the conscience that played a central role in Luther’s understanding of biblical interpretation, and in his understanding of the gospel. Roland Bainton quotes Luther’s most famous dictum from the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.[31]

In one way or another, the conscience remains the Devil’s quarry. His prime activity is to manipulate the conscience. For the unbeliever, the Devil uses his art to still the conscience altogether. In other words, he quiets the conscience in various ways:

Scripture represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to retain a single one of them in his kingdom, because God could not but at once pity and succor them in their acknowledged and crying wretchedness, seeing he is so highly extolled throughout Scripture as being near to the contrite in heart, as Christ too declares himself according to Isaiah 61. … Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told. But the work of Moses or a lawgiver is … to make man’s plight plain to him by means of the law.[32]

This was the source of Luther’s dissatisfaction with the penitential system of medieval Rome. Gordon Rupp writes, “His case against the penitential system … was not that it failed to solace, but that it succeeded too well. … Luther calls this … the greatest and final temptation. He is fond of quoting St. Bernard: ‘the greatest temptation is to have no temptation.’”[33] The exaltation of human ability in the production of works of the “merit of congruity” had silenced the demands of the moral law and dulled the conscience. Hence Luther’s stress on man’s natural depravity, and the use of the law to awaken a sense of need for the gospel.

It is when we come to Satan’s temptation of the Christian that we find Luther with most to say. Here again, Oberman tells us that Luther had a name for the Devil, Magister Conscientiae, “Lord of the Conscience.”[34] The Luther scholar contrasts “older” Luther research with Luther here, stating that in the former, “the conscience is that one remnant in us which has survived even the Fall to function as that internal faculty which is aware of God: like a needle in a compass, it always points us back to God. Luther, however, is convinced that the Devil is the master of the conscience.”[35] This seems to me an over simplification. Indeed Luther’s most frequent references to conscience refer to its perversion, but that does not imply that conscience has no positive function in his theology. It is rather that Luther sought to heal what Gordon Rupp called “the bruised conscience.”

In the dedication of his translation of Psalm 118, Luther wrote, “This is my own beloved Psalm.” Here he found in Scripture the struggle to keep faith, in spite of the Devil. Luther can write very warmly of a well-functioning conscience, or better, a believing conscience:

What could be more precious and nobler than an enlightened heart, a heart that knows God and all things, a heart that can judge rightly and speak truly in all things before God? Where could there be a higher or greater joy than in a happy, secure, and fearless conscience, a conscience that trusts in God and fears neither the world nor the Devil? On the other hand, where is there greater melancholy and a heavier heart than in an evil, despairing, and guilty conscience? What is more wretched and miserable than an erring and uncertain heart which can judge nothing properly?[36]

It is in the last phrase that we find Luther’s view of Satan’s dealings with the conscience: an “uncertain heart which can judge nothing properly.” In other words, Satan attacks the Christian by accusing him of sin, thus using his conscience against him. This is a conscience that has been misled. The gospel does not inform it. Luther writes:

When he is tormented in “Anfechtung” it seems to him that he is alone: God is angry only with him: then he alone is a sinner and all the others are in the right, and they work against him at God’s orders. There is nothing left for him but this unspeakable sighing through which, without knowing it, he us supported by the Spirit, and cries, “Why does God pick on me alone?”

Then remorse comes, and terrifies the conscience. Then all’s well with the world and he alone is a sinner. God is gracious to all the world save him alone. Nobody has to meet the Wrath of God save he alone, and he feels there is no wrath anywhere than that which he feels and he finds himself the most miserable of men.[37]

Luther considered this the beginning of the experience of the damned in hell.[38]

We shall see below that Luther has many sharp words for the temptations of Satan in the guilty conscience. But this might be misread. The spirit of our time is such that one might suppose Luther is against the moral law as a rule of life for the believer. This would be an utter mistake. What we noted above about the need for conscience to be awakened shows this. Luther’s comments on the law in the Galatians Commentary indicate the same:

We have said before that the law in a Christian ought not to pass its bounds, but ought to have dominion only over the flesh, which is in subjection to it, and remaineth under it. But if it should presume to creep into the conscience, and there seek to reign, see thou play the cunning logician and make the true division. Say thou: “O law, thou wouldest climb up into the kingdom of my conscience and there reprove it of sin, and take from me the joy of my heart, which I have by faith in Christ, and drive me to desperation that I may be without hope and utterly perish. Keep within thy bounds, and exercise thy power upon the flesh,” for I am baptized and by the gospel am palled to the partaking of righteousness and everlasting life.[39]


From the nature of the Devil and his basic strategy, we turn to temptation more generally considered. Satan, though the most formidable of the Christian’s enemies, is not the only one. There are also the flesh and the world.

In his sermons on the Catechism in 1528, Luther took up the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation.” Still for the Christian, “sins cling to us.”[40] That being so, the believer must be wary of the flesh. As he refers to “Master Devil,” Luther calls it “Master Flesh,” reminding us of Paul’s personification of sin in Romans 6: “the flesh, which says, ‘go ahead and have illicit intercourse another’s wife, daughter, or maid!… or he says, I’m going to sell the grain, beer, or goods as dearly as I can.’” Next is the world which tempts with envy, hatred, pride, and anger, “feeling an inclination to spite and lechery and dislike for your neighbor.”[41] The flesh and the world lead primarily to sins against the neighbor.

The third in the trio is the Devil. Here Luther treats his work more popularly, but the basic motif remains:

He tempts you by causing you to disregard God’s Word: Oh, I have to look after the beer and malt, I can’t go to hear a sermon; or if you do come to church to hear the sermon, you go to sleep, you don’t take it in, you have no delight, no love, no reverence for the Word. … Then too, it is Satan’s temptation when you are assailed by unbelief, diffidence, by fanatics, superstition, witchcraft, and the like. When you feel such temptations, go running to the Lord’s Prayer![42]

Temptation is endlessly varied to the circumstances of providence and to the weakness of the individual Christian. There are temptations which arise from physical suffering or hardship. Luther calls these “temptations from the left side”: sickness, poverty, dishonor, “especially when our will, plan, opinions, counsel, words, and deeds are rejected and ridiculed.”[43] This can lead to laziness, or to anger, hatred, or impatience. The temptation “from the right side” is trial from prosperity. “It is especially strong when people let us have our way, praise our words, our counsel, … when they esteem us.”[44] This test leads to unchastity, lust, pride, greed, and “vainglory, all that appeals to our human nature.”[45] On Galatians 5.19, he writes,

Satan modifies his attack according to the particular character he finds in a person. No man therefore shall be without lusts and desires so long as he liveth in the flesh, and therefore no man shall be free from temptations. Notwithstanding some are tempted one way and some another, according to the difference of the persons. One man is assailed with more vehement and grievous motions, as with bitterness and anguish of spirit, blasphemy, distrust, and desperation; another with more gross temptations, as with fleshly lusts, wrath, envy, hatred and such-like. But in this case Paul requireth us that we walk in the Spirit, and resist the flesh. But whoso obeyeth the flesh, and continued without fear or remorse in accomplishing the desires of and lusts thereof, let him know that he pertaineth not unto Christ; and although he brag of the name of a Christian never so much, yet doth he but deceive himself For they which are of Christ, do crucify their flesh with the affections and lusts thereof.[46]

What is more, temptation is so subtle that it can assail the Christian both as to his bad works and as to his good works, writes Luther. Satan will do all he can, by accusation of guilt, to drive the Christian from reliance on God’s grace.

He can tolerate neither the Word of God nor those who keep and teach it. He besets them in life and in death. While the faithful are alive, he uses great attacks on their faith, hope, and love toward God. He beleaguers and storms a heart with fear, doubt, and despair until it shies away from God, hates and blasphemes Him, and the wretched conscience believes that God, the Devil, death, sin, hell, and all creatures are one and have united as its eternal and relentless enemy. Neither the Turk nor the emperor can ever storm a city with such power as the Devil uses in attacking a conscience.[47]

The accusation of conscience as to bad works is clear, but what about the good? One might say that the Devil has no conscience!

What is worse, the Devil takes your best works and drives and plunges them into your conscience as worthless and condemned, so that all your sins do not frighten you as much as your best works, which are really quite good, and you wish you had done nothing but great sins instead of these works. He wants you to disown them as not having been done by God, and thus to blaspheme God as well. Then death and hell are not far away. But who can list all the tricks by which the Devil invokes sin, death, and hell? This is his trade. He has been at it for more than five thousand years, and he is a past master at it. That long he has been the prince of death. He has experimented and practiced thoroughly how to give a poor conscience the foretaste of death. The prophets, especially our dear brother David, have felt and tasted his power. For they certainly complain, teach, and talk about it as if they had often been there, speaking now of the gates of death, now of hell, now of the wrath of God.[48]

Notice here that Luther speaks of the believer’s works this way: they are “really quite good.” This is similar to the judgment of the Westminster Confession of Faith in its chapter on good works (16.6), “the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that He, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.” Luther saw clearly the importance of not overstating the sinfulness of redeemed man, or obscuring God’s grace, and that it is the Devil who seeks to do so. All his effort is toward warping the judgment of God’s Word and works.

Perhaps no subject is more important in the study of the nature of temptation in Luther’s theology than the centrality of God. Sin is departure from God. Temptation is directed to this alone. So, Luther is very clear in distinguishing between the sins against the “first Table of the Law,” and the ‘second Table.” Without ignoring sins against the neighbor, or the sins of the flesh, Luther is eager to show that sins directly against God are the most serious. This is not to say that sins of the flesh are trivial. Clearly they are not, for Luther. But the First Table describes duties owed to God directly. “Luther went to confession, he said, ‘not about women, but about the really knotty problems,’ … the ‘desire of the flesh’ is more easily overcome than spiritual temptations.”[49]

On Genesis 3:7, “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons,” Luther comments

I said above that the pattern of all the temptations of Satan is the same, namely, that he first puts faith to trial and draws away from the Word. Then follow the sins against the Second Table. From our own experience we perceive that this is his procedure.[50]

In a passage from the Galatians Commentary, Luther analyses the Christian’s condition, while he advises him to respond properly to the accusations of Satan in the time of death:

[I]n fact there is nothing in me but sins, and real and serious sins at that… These are not counterfeit or trivial sins; they are sins against the First Table, namely infidelity, doubt, despair, contempt for God, hatred, ignorance, blasphemy, ingratitude, the abuse of the name of God, neglect, loathing, and contempt for the Word of God, and the like. In addition, there are sins of the flesh against the Second Table: failure to honor my parents, disobedience to rulers, coveting another man’s property, wife, etc., although these vices are less grave than those against the First Table.[51]

The sins of the heart are the most serious, or at least the most basic. Satan knows this and thus manages his snares in this direction. When the heart has been weakened, then all manner of outward sin follows:

And this also reveals Satan’s cunning. He does not immediately try to allure Eve by means of the loveliness of the fruit. He first attacks man’s greatest strength, faith in the Word. Therefore the root and source of sin is unbelief and turning away from God, just as, on the other hand, the source and root of righteousness is faith. Satan first draws away from faith to unbelief. When he achieved this – that Eve did not believe the command which God had given – it was easy to bring this about also, that she rushed to the tree, plucked the fruit, and ate it. The outward act of disobedience follows sin, which through unbelief has fully developed in the Heart. Thus the nature of sin must be considered in accordance with its true immensity, in which we have all perished.[52]

Satan’s chief target is the heart, because the heart is the crucial spring of man’s acts. How sad that this great theologian did not regard James 1.14,15 more highly!

[H]e is a master at puffing up sin and pointing to God’s wrath. He is a strange and powerful creature who out of one sin can foment such fear and conjure up such a hell. It is true that no human being ever sees his real sins, namely, unbelief, contempt of God’s Word, the failure to fear, love, and trust God as he should and similar sins of the heart, which are the chief transgressions. Nor would it be good for him to see them, for I do not know if there is a faith on earth that could endure it without falling and despairing.  For this reason, God lets the Devil operate with our sins of commission. He easily creates hell and damnation for you because you take one drink too many or sleep too long, and soon you become sick with conscience scruples and despondency and practically die of grief.[53]

We notice also the grace of God in restraining the Devil in his wicked work. God prevents a full knowledge of sins of omission, since failures are the most serious sins.

Gordon Rupp has written that Anfechtung is the key to Luther’s doctrine of faith and justification, “for nobody who has taken seriously these passages can possibly suppose that Luther regarded faith merely as intellectual assent, or an emotion of confidence.”[54] It is the Law of God, as used by the conscience, that drives the sinner to a sense of need. The gospel of justification by faith is God’s answer to that need. But the temptations of the Devil continue to address the same issues. It is here, perhaps, that Luther writes with most passion: temptation assaults the Christian’s faith in God’s promise of grace. This is especially true in the midst of suffering. Here Satan appears to bring up the same old issues, but with the tremendous force of painful circumstances.

In this connection Luther wrote of Abraham’s temptations arising from God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Again, we notice that God was the tempter, and the question was the consistency of His promise with His command.

The verb “to tempt” must be particularly noted, for it is not put here needlessly. Nor should it be treated coldly as James does (1.13), when he declares that nobody is tempted by God. For here Scripture states plainly that Abraham was actually tempted by God Himself, not concerning a woman, gold, silver, death, or life but concerning a contradiction of Holy Scripture. Here God is clearly contradicting Himself; for how do these statements agree: “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named” (Gen. 21.12) and “Take your son, and sacrifice him”? . . . [H]e himself is commanded to do the slaying, evidently in order that he may have no doubt that Isaac has actually been killed.

In this situation, would he not murmur against God and think; “This is not a command of God; it is a trick of Satan. Why then does God command that he should be killed? Undoubtedly God is repenting of His promise. Otherwise He would not contradict Himself. Or have I committed some extraordinary sin, with which I have deeply offended God, so that He is withdrawing the promise?[55]

Human nature is susceptible to suffering. The imperfectly sanctified mind begins to doubt the goodness of God. Satan is there to blow the spark into flame.

By nature we are all in the habit of doing this. When some physical affliction besets us, our conscience is soon at hand, and the Devil torments it by assembling all the circumstances. Therefore a troubled heart looks about and considers how it may have offended God most. This leads to murmuring against God and to the greatest trial, hatred of God. . . .

This trial cannot be overcome and is far too great to be understood by us. For there is a contradiction with which God contradicts Himself. It is impossible for the flesh to understand this; for it inevitably concludes either, that God is lying – and this is blasphemy – or that God hates me – and this leads to despair. Accordingly, this passage cannot be explained in a manner commensurate with the importance of the subject matter. . . . We are frequently tempted to thoughts of despair, for what human being is there who could be without this thought: “What if God did not want you to be saved?”[56]

Here the temptation is its most acute. Again, Luther offers the promise of God as the consolation:

But in this situation, there is need of fervent prayer that God may give us His Spirit, in order that the promise may not be wrested from us. I am unable to resolve this contradiction. Our only consolation is that in affliction we take refuge in the promise; for it alone is our staff and rod, and if Satan strikes it of our hands, we have no place left to stand. But we must hold fast to the promise and maintain that, just as the text states about Abraham, we are tempted by God, not because He really wants this, but because He wants to find out whether we love Him above all things and are able to bear Him when He is angry as we gladly bear Him when He is beneficent and makes promises.[57]

Luther repeats his exposition of temptation to unbelief in the midst of suffering at a number of places. When preaching from Luke 2, he supposes that Mary was tempted to ask, “What have I done that God would have me lose His son?”[58] Likewise he writes on Psalm 118:18. “The LORD hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death,”

It is a much greater art to be able to sing this verse when the Devil, as he did to Job and many other saints, becomes so hostile that death appears. He can give the heart a most forceful picture of death. He does not simply say, as men would: “You shall be burned or drowned.” He magnifies what a horrible, abominable, eternal thing death is, and raps out the wrath of God. With overwhelming thoughts he drives and presses into the heart until it becomes unbearable and unendurable. Here a good interpreter is needed, one who can outshout the Devil and overcome him by saying: “This is still not death, nor is it God’s wrath. It is gracious chastisement and fatherly punishment. I still know that you will not turn me over to death. I will not believe it is wrath, even though all hell were to affirm it in chorus. Were an angel from heaven to say this, let him be accursed (Gal 1:8). Were God Himself to say it. I would still believe that He was trying me as He tried Abraham, merely feigning wrath, and not in earnest. For He does not take back His promise. Here is the truth: He chastises me, but He will not kill me. I insist on this and will not let anyone take it from me or explain, interpret, or expound it differently.[59]

Death is the final temptation. Luther writes much about the temptation Satan brings to the Christian at death. We quote a representative selection:

Therefore you must make thorough preparations not only for the time of temptation but also for the time and struggle of death. Then your conscience will be terrified by the recollection of your past sins. The Devil will attack you vigorously and will try to swamp you with piles, floods, and whole oceans of sins, in order to frighten you, drive you away from Christ, and plunge you into despair. Then you must be able to say with confident assurance: “Christ, the Son of God, was given, not for righteousness and for saints but for unrighteousness and for sinners. If I were righteous and without sin, I would have no need of Christ as my Propitiator. Satan, you cantankerous saint, why do you try to make me feel holy and look for righteousness in myself when in fact there is nothing in me but sins, and real and serious sins at that?”[60]

Resisting Temptation

What weapons is the Christian to use, according to Luther, to resist temptation?[61] They are faith in the written Word, prayer, baptism, and the communion of the saints.

First of all is God’s written Word. There must be a consciousness of it and dependence on what God says in it:

Sober you should be, and vigilant, but to the end that the body be kept in a proper frame. Yet with all this, the Devil is not routed; this only suffices to afford the body less occasion to sin. The true sword is that you be strong and firm in the faith. If you in heart lay hold on the Word of God and maintain your grasp by faith, then the Devil cannot gain the advantage, but will be compelled to flee. If you can say: This has my God said, on this I will stand, then shall you see that he will quickly depart, and ill-humor, evil lusts, wrath, avarice, melancholy, and doubt will all vanish. But the Devil is artful and does not readily permit you to understand this, and so he assaults you in order to take the word out of your hand. If he can make you lazy, so that your body is unguarded and inclined to wantonness, then will he quickly wrench the sword from your grasp. . . . If he comes and would drive you into despondency because of sin, only seize hold of the Word of God, that speaks of the forgiveness of sin, and exercise yourself in that. Then he will be compelled quickly to let you alone.”[62]

The reason Scripture instructs the Christian to resist, “strong in your faith,” is that faith looks away from self to God and to His provision. The “alien righteousness” of the gospel is exactly what the Christian needs to contemplate and grasp in the midst of Satan’s temptation. Luther expounds this in his lectures on Psalm 118:17 (“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord”):

Well, no matter when or how it happens, we learn here that the saints must wrestle with the devil and fight with death, whether by persecution or pestilence, or other sickness and mortal danger. In that conflict nothing is better and more vital for victory than learning to sing this little song of the saints, that is, to look away from self and to cling to the hand of God. Thus the devil is defrauded and made to miss the boat. It works like this: I am nothing. The Lord is all my strength, as stated above. I am stripped of everything, of myself and all that is mine. I can say: ‘Devil what are you fighting? If you try to denounce my good works and my holiness before God, why, I have none. My strength is not my own; the Lord is my Strength. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip! If you try to prosecute my sins, I have none of those either. Here is God’s strength – prosecute it until you have had enough. I know absolutely nothing about sins or holiness in me. I know nothing whatever except God’s power in me. . . .

What can the devil do when he finds a soul so naked that it can respond neither to sin nor to holiness? He must give up all his skill, both to puff up sin and to decry good works. He is referred to the right hand of God, and he must by all means let it alone. But if you forget this prescription and he seizes you in your sins and good works, and you begin to argue with him, to observe and hear him, then he will shape you to suit himself; and you will forget and forfeit God, His right hand, and everything.

As we have heard, it is an art to forget self. We must keep learning this lesson as long as we live.[63]

When he deals with the wrestling of Jacob, Luther writes that again the solution is to hold to the promise of the Word. In this case Jacob must, of course, prevail over God. Luther says he prayed thus to God: “Now Lord, you have promised us grace and mercy and that you will help us and make us holy. Help us now. Lord, it is high time!” This was to find “the soft spot where God may be grasped.”[64]

The Word becomes the substance of prayer. Roland Bainton notes how Luther expounded the book of Jonah as a tempted and sinning saint’s restoration. Even the simplest prayer is strength against temptation, though it proves the hardest thing in the world to do. “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord” (Jonah 2:2). Luther comments:

This shows that we must always pray to God. If you can just cry your agony is over. Hell is not hell any more if you can cry to God. But no one can believe how hard this is. We can understand wailing, trembling, sighing, doubting, but to cry out, this is what we cannot do. Conscience, sin, and the wrath of God are about our necks. Nature cannot cry out. When Jonah reached the point that he could cry, he had won. Cry unto the Lord in your anguish, and it will be milder… He does not ask you about your merit. Reason does not understand this, and always wants to bring in something to placate God. But there is just nothing to bring… all that is needed to placate God’s anger is a cry.[65]

The next means of meeting temptation was the appeal to baptism. Luther often appealed to his own baptism as a sign of God’s grace to him. Because of his appeal to baptism, some have thought Luther believed in baptismal regeneration. I have not been able to look into this extensively. Nevertheless, William Cunningham argues, that the Reformers generally discussed baptism as they did the professions of believers: that baptism should be taken to indicate what it signifies in the case of the believer to whom it properly belongs.[66] There is nothing I have been able to find in Luther which indicates that he took baptism to be more than a sign of God’s gospel promise. Of course, that is something important in temptation! Luther says:

[F]aith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it. Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as in Him who has given and planted His Word into this ordinance, and proposes to us this external thing wherein we may apprehend such a treasure?[67]

Further, Luther had much practical counsel as to how temptation was to be faced. One must recognize his place in life. “Boys are tempted by beautiful girls. But when they are thirty years old they are tempted by gold, and when they are forty years old, they are tempted by the quest for honor and glory.”[68] He warned the despairing Jerome Weller that the Devil will actually conquer the saint using his fear of sin. “This Devil is conquered by mocking and despising him, not by resisting and arguing with him.”[69]

Normal life was a great help as well. The despondent must get out of himself and make use of God’s good gifts: in the fellowship and friendship of the saints and the family. He needs to realize that he is not alone, but that all God’s saints are tempted also “He must not imagine that he is the only one assailed about his salvation.”[70] To the overscrupulous, he counsels, “We shall be overcome if we worry too much about falling into sin.[71] He gives solace to the tempted in that they know that Christ has been tempted.

Temptation and Its Benefits

What are the benefits of these trials for the Christian? His faith is made active. God, Anfechtung, and Satan together drive the Christian to learn to pray.”[72] He learns to know himself and God.

But why does God let man be thus assailed by sin? … So that man can learn to know himself and God; to know himself is to learn that all he is capable of is sinning and doing evil; to know God is to learn that God’s grace is stronger than all creatures.[73]

Most important, the character of the believer is made like Christ’s.

As long as sin only attacks but does not gain dominion over the saints, it is compelled to serve them (Rom. 8.28 … 1 Cor. 10.13). Thus luxurious living makes the soul more chaste when it attacks, pride makes the soul humbler, laziness makes it more active, avarice makes it more generous, anger more mild, gluttony more abstemious. For in all these instances, the hatred of the spiritual man increases more and more against the thing which is attacking him. Thus temptation is a most useful thing. Thus also it has dominion over the mortal body when a man yields to it. But temptation becomes a servant when we resist it.[74]

We have found Luther to be a rich source of biblical, theological, and experiential understanding of the nature of temptation. Luther found the theology of medieval Christendom of no value in facing his trials before God.[75] His rediscovery of the gospel of free grace and the means necessary to hold to it, remain a legacy to the Church. Two generations later, the Westminster Assembly took up many of Luther’s themes in its Confession and Catechisms.[76] It has been observed, rightly, I think, that the Lutheran view of sanctification is more adjusting one’s consciousness to his justification, rather than growing in union with Christ.[77] This appears to be borne out in Luther’s view of temptation. Further study ought to be given to this question in Luther. However that may be, well might B. B. Warfield characterize Luther’s summary of the Pauline gospel as, “Grace! grace! grace! – in spite of the Devil.”[78]

[1] Quoted by Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies, London, 1953, p. 102n2.

[2] Ibid., p. 102.

[3] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon, 1950), p. 42.

[4] Martin H. Bertram suggests this in his introduction to “Comfort When Facing Grave Temptations,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 42 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 181.

[5] Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Erasmus Middleton. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994, p. 13.

[6] Quoted by Warren Hovland in “Anfechtung in Luther’s Biblical Exegesis” in Reformation Studies: Essays in Honor of Roland H. Bainton, ed. by Franklin H Littell. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 46.

[7] “Luther and the Devil,” Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin 69 (Winter 1989), p. 9.

[8] Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychology and History (New York: Norton, 1958).

[9] Hovland, “Anfechtung,” p. 48.

[10] Luther’s Works (hereafter LW), vol. 33, Philip S. Watson, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 176.

[11] “This is the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith (3.1).

[12] LW, vol. 33, p. 287.

[13] Oberman, “Luther and the Devil,” p. 8.

[14] Hovland, “Anfechtung,” p. 48.

[15] Ibid., p. 53-54.

[16] Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2, John Nicholas Lenker, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), p. 149 (on Matt 15:21-28).

[17] Ibid., p. 152.

[18] Ibid., p. 152-53.

[19] See Samuel Rutherford, The Trial and Triumph of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001) [originally published: London: John Field, 1645].

[20] Oberman, “Luther and the Devil,”, p. 9.

[21] Ibid.

[22] LW,  vol. 1, p. 23.

[23] Martin Luther, A Commentary on Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), p. 219.

[24] LW, vol. 1, p. 156.

[25] Ibid., p. 153-54.

[26] Ibid., p. 162.

[27] Ibid., p. 146.

[28] Ibid., p. 147.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 148.

[31] Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 185.

[32] LW, vol. 33, p. 130.

[33] Rupp, Righteousness of God, p. 115.

[34] Oberman, “Luther and the Devil,” p. 9.

[35] Ibid.

[36] LW, vol. 14, p. 100-101.

[37] Quoted in Rupp, Righteousness of God, pp. 107-8.

[38] Ibid, p. 110.

[39] Martin Luther, A Commentary on Galatians, ed. By Erasmus Middleton (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1979), p. xvii.

[40] Martin Luther, Selections From His Writings, ed. By John Dillenberger. (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961), p. 225-26.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] LW, vol. 42, p. 72.

[44] Ibid., p. 73.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Luther, Selections from His Writings, pp. 157-58.

[47] LW, vol. 14, pp. 83-84.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Rupp, Righteousness of God, p. 107.

[50] LW, vol. 1, p. 163.

[51] LW, vol. 26, p. 36.

[52] LW, vol. 1, p. 162.

[53] LW, vol. 14, pp. 83-84.

[54] Rupp, Righteousness of God, p. 114.

[55] LW, vol. 4, p. 92.

[56] Ibid., p. 93.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, 2:19.

[59] LW, vol. 14, pp. 89-90.

[60] LW, vol. 26, p. 36.

[61] I was disappointed not to be able to find Luther’s sermon, “The Christian’s Armor and Weapons,” preached in 1533 on Eph 6:10-20.

[62] Luther, A Commentary on Peter and Jude, p. 220 (commenting on 1 Pet 5:9).

[63] LW, vol. 14, p. 85.

[64] Hovland, “Anfechtung,” p. 56.

[65] Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 357.

[66] William Cunningham, Historical Theology: , Review of the Principle Discussions in the Christian Church Since the Apostolic Age, 2 vol. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960). 2:133–42.

[67] “The Large Catechism by Dr. Martin Luther,” trans. by F. Bence and W. H. T. Dau, in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), p. Louis, 1921, pp. 101-2 (on baptism). The use of baptism as a help in temptation is a subject taken up by the Westminster Assembly in the Larger Catechism, Q&A 167.

[68]Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. By Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), p. 19.

[69] Ibid.

[70] LW, vol. 42, p. 183.

[71] Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 86.

[72] David P. Scaer, “Luther on Prayer” Concordia Theological Quarterly 47 (1983): 305-315.

[73] Luther, Large Catechism, p. 74 (on the Lord’s Prayer).

[74] LW, vol. 25. p. 319.

[75]John von Rohr, “Medieval Consolation and the Young Luther’s Despair,” in Reformation Studies, pp. 61-62.

[76] WCF 20:1, “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience,” is a breviary of Luther’s Freedom of a Christian Man.

[77] Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality, ed. By Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).

[78] Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Theology of the Reformation,” in Studies in Theology (New York: Oxford, 1932), p. 479.