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Martin Luther on Prayer

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

1. Introduction

Martin Luther is a character larger-than-life. He is the "stuff" that legends are made of.[1] On account of his rhetorical style and flare for the dramatic over-statement, stories of things that Luther said or did have typically been amplified as they are passed down through time. An example of this is the following statement, attributed to Luther, though not found in his writings: "I have so much to do that if I didn't spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done."[2] Even if modern writers are sometimes given to exaggeration and this saying is not derived from Luther's own pen, there is indeed extensive evidence to suggest that Luther was a powerful man in prayer, with great convictions on how Christians should pray.

            Rather than focusing primarily on what others have concluded about Luther's theology of prayer, it seems appropriate to begin studying Luther's view of prayer as it is borne out in his own writings. More specifically (since his writings are seemingly inexhaustible), this paper will seek to examine Luther's theology of prayer from his letters.[3] This seems appropriate since one is able to see more clearly in his dealings with family and friends exactly how his beliefs fleshed themselves out in practice. While he is able to theoretically discuss prayer in many other literary contexts, it is in his everyday dealings with other Christians as recorded in his letters where his doctrine becomes duty.

            Luther's theology of prayer will be shown to be one which is bibliocentric, which views prayer as being of great importance, which is very human, and also practical. Each section will provide evidence of the characteristic as developed in his letters, and then as it is affirmed by other writers.


2. Luther's Theology of Prayer

A. Luther's theology of prayer is bibliocentric.

Prayer is so central to Luther's conception of the Christian life and ministry that it is naturally the first thing to come to his mind when writing his good friend Philip Melancthon in Wartburg, May 12, 1521.[4] Having pictured the German church of his day as the fulfilment of Psalm 89.47, Luther returns to prayer for the church and Melancthon's ministry, thus demonstrating that their only recourse when encountering spiritual enemies and spiritual hardship as pictured in the Word of God is prayer. After encouraging his friend with several exhortations alluding to pastoral charges from 1 and 2 Timothy, Luther moves seamlessly back into prayer, instructing Melancthon to "Return, therefore, this service so that we carry this burden together"[5] (ie. "Pray for me as well"), an allusion to Galatians 6.2. This is just one of innumerable examples of how Luther weaves from Scripture to prayer and then back again naturally, thus showing his prayers' dependence on Scripture.

            One continues to notice just how much Luther is familiar with and dependent on the biblical text in his prayers in subtle allusions. Another example is his request for his friend George Spalatin to pray for him, that his faith in the Lord will not fail; a verbal reference to Luke 22.32.[6] In another letter to the same friend, Luther prays for Wittenberg, saying, "May Christ complete that which he has begun" (ie. a work of grace), praying the faithful statement of Paul from Philippians 1.6.[7] Luther again refers to this verse in a letter of encouragement to the ministers in Lübeck, this time offering it as a prayer to the Father of mercies (a reference to 2 Cor 1.3), requesting that they be delivered from the evil one (cf. Mt 6.13).[8]

            In examining the ways in which prayer and the Bible are inextricably connected in Luther's thought, it is noteworthy that whereas this paper began with prayer and must connect it with Scripture, both Piper and McGrath begin with Luther's emphasis on Scripture and must connect it with prayer.[9] Piper shows how, for Luther, prayer was not something merely informed by Scripture, but rather, Scripture is often informed by prayer as well!

            That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory--not for yours or any other person's--He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: 'They shall be all taught of God' (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit.[10]

            In another place, Luther would say of listening in prayer, "the Holy Spirit preaches here.... Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation."[11] It is essential to note, however, that Luther is not setting prayer over against study of Scripture, but is rather arguing on the assumption that prayer will already be based on Scripture, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to give insight into his Word.[12]

            Luther's biblically-informed doctrine of prayer allowed him great faith in praying. He could pray with great confidence, knowing that God (in Psalm 62) is called one who listens to prayers.[13] Since the sovereign Lord of the universe--he is sure--hears him when he prays, he can pray with great faith. This scriptural understanding that God hears prayer also contributes to the great importance of prayer in Luther's life and thought.

B. Luther's theology of prayer recognizes the great importance of prayer.

That Luther understood the importance of prayer is nowhere more obvious in his letters than in his stubborn consistency in requesting that others pray for him. Often, Luther simply requests that people pray for him without adding any specific details. It is worth noting as well, that even when these requests were general, Luther would include them in the closing of his letter so that the reader would be sure to remember.[14] Other times, however, he requests prayer specifically for overcoming sin in his life. To Luther, the prayers of his friends and brothers are essential in his battle against the flesh.[15]

            At still other times, Luther shows the extent of his own neediness of the preserving grace of God extended to him for his own persevering in grace. For example, to Melancthon he writes, "Only pray for me that my faith in the Lord does not fail."[16] Similarly, to Spalatin, he requests prayer that "Christ does not desert me in the end."[17] Still yet there are occasions when Luther feels the need to request prayer for simple obedience. This is why he could write to Nicholas Hausmann in 1538 and make this request of his brother: "Pray diligently to the Lord for me, therefore, that I might be able to do what is good in his eyes."[18] All these occasions of Luther writing to his Christian brothers to ask for prayer on his behalf show clearly that he recognizes the great importance of prayer.

            Plass records Luther's emphasis on the importance of prayer: "There is need every hour without ceasing to pray everywhere with tears of blood to God, who is so terribly angry with men. And it is true that it has never been more necessary to pray than at this time, and it will be more so from now on to the end of the world."[19] The importance of prayer is also developed in Luther through his insistence that it be carried out with great fervour even though it is hard work:

            There is no work like prayer. Mumbling with the mouth is easy... but with earnestness of heart to follow the words in deep devotion, that is, with desire and faith, so that one earnestly desires what the words say, and not to doubt that it will be heard: that is a great deed in God's eyes.[20]

            Dawn cites him again, this time commenting on Paul's words to be "instant in prayer:" The word 'instant' is a call to order and vigilance that everyone ... must hear and fear. For it means that praying must be a constant effort ... a labor that is harder than every other labor ... for it requires a subdued and broken mind and a high and triumphant spirit. ... Christians must practice prayer frequently and with diligence. For 'to be instant' does not only mean 'to be constantly engaged in something' but it means also 'to press on,' 'to quicken one's pace,' 'to demand earnestly.' So then, as there is nothing that Christians must do more frequently than praying, so there is also nothing that requires more labor and effort and, for this reason, is more effective and more fruitful.[21]

            These passages combined show clearly that Luther placed great emphasis on the importance of being intentional in prayer. Since there is such a great need for prayer, the Christian is to continue to work at it, even when it is hard.

            But is prayer hard for all people? Luther's acknowledgement that prayer can be (and most often is) quite difficult is perhaps not what the average reader would expect from someone as well-versed in the Bible and with such a high-priority-of-place for prayer and such a "spiritual giant" as Luther. This all contributes to the distinctive element of humanity and humility in Luther's teaching on prayer in his letters.

C. Luther's theology of prayer allows for the humanity of the pray-er.

While it would be easy to suspect a man of Luther's spiritual magnitude and theological fortitude to come off as condescending and idealistic when discussing prayer, nothing could in fact, be further from the truth. Luther, in his letters, repeatedly admitted to having struggles in prayer. In a fascinating letter to his friend Melancthon in 1521, Luther writes that he is upset at his friend for ascribing to much piety too him. In his words, his friend's estimation of his spiritual vitality "shames and tortures" him because he does not measure up.[22] Luther confesses at length:

            I sit here like a fool and hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, in laziness, leisure, and sleepiness. ... Already eight days have passed in which I have written nothing, in which I have not prayed or studied.[23]

            This picture of Martin Luther is not the one typically given of the bold, brazen-eyed, unstoppable reformer, but since it is a self-portrait one may easily assume its veracity. Thus it can clearly be seen that while Luther saw a profound need for Christians to always be constantly praying biblical prayers, he recognized the presence of profound weaknesses even in his own prayer life.

            A peculiar aspect of his "humanity" as it relates to his prayer-life is that of his thoughts with regard to music. Since music and theology both function to "chase the devil away," there is no reason why prayer should not be combined with music. To this end, he writes a letter to Louis Senfl, a leading composer of his day asking for music to be written for one of his favourite psalms, so that he might pray it better.[24] Whereas Luther has acknowledged that prayer is indeed difficult, he also attempts to introduce very practical ways to make it easier, while no less important or productive.

            In a particularly touching letter to Justus Jonas, Luther recounts another time of his "weakness" or "humanity" in prayer. Shortly after the death of his young daughter, Magdalen, Luther tells his friend that he knows he should be able to thank God for the fact that she has gone and the manner in which she has gone to be with her real, eternal Father. Yet even though he is aware that he should be able to pray thus, still he and his wife cannot do so without crying and grieving. As a result, he adjures his friend, "You, therefore, please give thanks to God in our stead!"[25]

            Since Luther was so well acquainted not only with the biblical ideal of prayer, but also with his own weaknesses due to sin and basic humanity, he was most qualified to humbly teach "commoners" and "laity" about prayer. As R. Kent Hughes' citation of Luther shows, he insisted that people earnestly seeking to please God in their prayers should seek to be sincere, not overly pious: "Look to it that you do not try to do all of it, do not try to do too much, lest your spirit grow weary. Besides, a good prayer mustn't be too long. Do not draw it out. Prayer ought to be frequent and fervent."[26]

            Likewise, Russell notes that "the famous professor does not presume upon his own status or 'talk down' to Peter" (his barber, who had written him, requesting instruction on how to pray). Rather, "Luther shows a sense of mutuality and respect for the questioner and, by extension, all Christians who would pray."[27] In other words, Luther is quick to associate himself with the "laity" who are struggling, not the elite who have everything to teach and nothing to learn. "The reformer writes as a fellow believer, offering a method of prayer that he has found helpful and instructive--realizing that others may certainly be better at it than he is."[28]

            With this idea of his own humility and humanity in mind, Luther seeks to establish a model of prayer which is ultimately practical. Prayer, for Luther, is for the purpose of accomplishing something, not merely for mumbling words. He tries to make this true in his own life, as well as teaching it to others.

D. Luther's theology of prayer is intensely practical.

Luther's theology of prayer is shown to be practical first in the nature of the requests for prayer that he makes. While many would be too shy or afraid to make such a request, Luther is vehement in his admonitions to his brothers to pray for his constipation. The situation is first described in a letter to Melancthon, but then is repeated several times in various letters to Melancthon (again), Spalatin (repeatedly), and Nicholas von Amsdorf with requests for prayer.[29] While this may seem like a superfluous thing to mention, this chronic ailment was extremely severe at times and caused Luther no great difficulty. His continual requests for prayer make plain his unshakeable belief that prayer is an ultimately practical tool for any and every problem and hindrance in the Christian's life.

            Luther's confidence in the practicality of prayer also shines through in his brief request to Nicholas Hausmann in 1538.[30] At this time Luther is facing many vexations and at a loss to know how to deal with them, so he asks for prayer: "Pray diligently to the Lord for me, therefore, that I might be able to do what is good in his eyes."[31] And Luther is quite confident of what will result from those prayers: "As I have asked you, do pray for me, for I am confident that your prayers accomplish much with God."[32] In other places Luther felt free to ask for prayers for other practical things such as continual headaches.[33] It was because of this perspective of prayer that he could write, "Pray confidently, for all is under control, and God will help us."[34]

            Luther's theology of prayer is not only shown to be practical by what he requests prayer for, but also in the way that he instructs others to pray. A classic example comes from Plass who recites an event wherein Luther is relating to some friends how he sometimes warms himself into the fervour of prayer when his heart is otherwise cold:

            He told them that he would dwell in his mind upon the ingratitude and godlessness of the enemies of the Gospel. These considerations, he assured his auditors, would so thoroughly arouse and incense him that he would burst forth into an ardent prayer to the Lord, beseeching Him to hallow His name, establish His kingdom, etc.[35]

            Where this method may seem somewhat unorthodox, it remains intensely practical; it is something that his students may do in order to help "warm their hearts" to prayer, and that was the goal of Luther's teaching.

            It is from this same goal (to be of practical help to the Church of God) that Luther wrote A Simple Way to Pray which is thoroughly basic. He walks the believer through all the initial steps of how he should pray, beginning with the reading of Scripture. Then, "when your heart has been warmed by such recitation to yourself and is intent upon the matter, kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think as briefly as you can."[36] In this manner Luther goes on to describe in great detail just how the believer can have a more effective and God-honouring prayer life. This is in no way intended in a legalistic manner, but simply to educate believers on how to pray biblically in very practical ways.


3. Conclusion

Prayer, for Luther, is rooted in the Bible and of utmost importance. But this does not necessitate legalistic enforcement of a set of standards. Rather, Luther recognizes that prayer is hard work and he is not nearly as successful at it as he would like to be. With this in mind, the godly reformer seeks to instruct those around him in a gentle, humble, constructively practical manner so that prayer will really begin to change the lives of God's people--just like it is supposed to.

            It goes without saying that a study of this length has not even begun to scratch the surface of Luther's full theology of prayer. Nevertheless, what has been shown here is sufficient to function as a hearty rebuke to most modern Christians (this author included!). Prayer seems to be the one area of the Christian life in which every single believer struggles. Perhaps that is because many Christians are biblically illiterate. Perhaps it is because many Christians do not really value prayer as a discipline of great importance. It might be because Christians are easily discouraged at their failures or because they simply do not know how to pray, practically speaking. Whatever the case, the modern Christian has much to learn from this great forefather of the faith when it comes to understanding and practicing prayer.


Works Referenced

Dawn, Marva J. Morning by Morning: Daily Meditations from the Writings of Marva J. Dawn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Hughes, R. Kent. Disciplines of a Godly Man, rev.ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.

McGrath, Alister E. Christianity: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

Pelikan, Jaroslav and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. Luther's Works: American Edition. 55 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1975.

Piper, John. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God's Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Wheaton: Crossway, 2000.

Plass, Ewald M. This is Luther. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1948.

Rice, John R. Prayer: Asking & Receiving. Murfreesboro: Sword of the Lord, 1942.

Russell, William R. Praying for Reform: Luther, Prayer and the Christian Life. Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2005.


[1] For example, John R. Rice tells this story of the reformer at prayer: "Once as he prayed, Satan became so real to him, taunting, tempting, interfering, that Martin Luther threw the ink bottle at him! And the splash on the wall has long been shown to visitors to remind us of how real was prayer to Martin Luther." From Prayer: Asking and Receiving (Murfreesboro: Sword of the Lord, 1942), 280.

[2] As cited in Marva J. Dawn, Morning by Morning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 242. A variant appears on page 280 of John R. Rice's Prayer: "Martin Luther said that he had so much work to do for God that he could never get it done unless he prayed three hours a day!" Neither author cites a source for this saying.

[3] As found especially in volumes 48-50 of Luther's Works: American Edition, 55 vols., Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1975).

[4] Works, 48:215ff.

[5] Ibid., 216.

[6] Ibid., 289.

[7] Ibid., 308.

[8] Works, 49:262. Luther uses some of these references as refrains in his prayers included in letters; cf. his use of 2 Cor 1.3 again in later letter to Justus Jonas (Works, 50:238).

[9] John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), esp. 106ff; Alister E. McGrath, Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997), 53f.

[10] As cited in Piper, Legacy, 106-107.

[11] As cited in William R. Russell, Praying for Reform (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 75.

[12] All this is to say nothing of the fact that Luther's Personal Prayer Book, Booklet for Laity and Children, and A Simple Way to Pray are specifically centred around the concept that one should be praying sections of the Bible. Luther begins the latter work, addressed to his barber, in this manner: "First, when I feel that I have become cold and disinterested in prayer because of various tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little Book of Psalms....I say quietly to myself the Ten Commandments... some words of Christ or Paul, or some Psalms, just as children do" (as cited in Russell, Praying for Reform, 71-72, emphasis my own). Unfortunately, this cannot be dealt with at length here, however, since the present focus is Luther's doctrine of prayer as it is developed in his letters.

[13] Works, 49:355.

[14] For just a few examples, see Works, 48:228, 256, 268, 273, 276, 312, 315, etc.

[15] For example, ibid., 357.

[16] Ibid., 289.

[17] Ibid., 324.

[18] Works, 50:176.

[19] Ewald M. Plass, This Is Luther (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1948), 187.

[20] Ibid., 186.

[21] Dawn, Morning by Morning, 242.

[22] Works, 48:257.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Works, 49:426.

[25] Works, 50:238.

[26] R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, rev.ed.), 104.

[27] Russell, Praying for Reform, 19.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Cf. Works, 48:217, 219, 255, 257, 268, 276, 291, 316.

[30] Works, 50:174ff.

[31] Ibid., 175-176.

[32] Ibid., 176.

[33] Works, 49:400 n.7.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Plass, Luther, 186.

[36] Russell, Praying for Reform, 73.