Luther’s “A Brief Instruction on what to Look for and Expect in the Gospels”

There is, besides, the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books that teach us what we are to do, and the works of Christ are pictured as nothing but examples to us.  Where these two erroneous notions remain in people’s hearts, neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner; they remain as pagan as ever. – Martin Luther

Luther Reading               The above quote serves as Luther’s closer to the opening paragraph of “A Brief Instruction on what to Look for and Expect in the Gospels,” which he wrote in 1522.  Luther was on the move to reforming the reading of the Scriptures.  After coming to no agreement with Rome over the indulgence controversy and finding himself excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521, it was now time for him to solidify the Reformation movement he had begun which involved teaching his followers (both laity and pastors) how to read the Bible and to proclaim the Gospel.  The proper reading and use of the Scriptures were paramount to freeing the Church from her “Babylonian Captivity.”  In this brief, yet instruction-packed unterricht, Luther explains how there is only one gospel, how we should see Christ coming to us in that gospel, and how all of the Scriptures are properly read and understood through the gospel!

Central to Christianity, central to the Reformation, is the message of salvation in Christ alone, that is the gospel, and as such, for Christians to know how to read and use the Scripture, Luther must first make it clear what the gospel is: “a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became a human being for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things.”  In other words, the gospel is a story of Christ and all of who he is and what he has done for us sinful men.  With this definition Luther is letting us know that when we refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as gospels, we are not saying that there are four gospels, for there is one and only one message of salvation.  Even though the four biography writers give different details of the life of the Messiah, and in fact none of them give all of his words and miracles for us to read, there is still just one gospel.  From this definition of the gospel Luther stresses that the evangelion is not bound within or wholly formed from a compilation of these four canonical biographies of Christ – the good news is found in the epistles too!

When we see this message of Christ and his saving work for us men, Luther says that we should not see this work of Jesus of Nazareth as an example by which we are to live – to emulate – to work our ourselves!  No, we should primarily see the work of Christ as being for us.  You should see Christ for you.   This means that whenever you see Christ going somewhere, anywhere, speaking, teaching, healing, walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, whatever miracle or work of Christ you might see from any Biblical text, you should see yourself in that text – see Christ coming to you, to heal you, to teach you, to save you from sin, death, and the devil, to be your all-sufficient savior.

Next, Luther points the Church to the whole counsel of God’s Word, id est to the woefully neglected Old Testament scriptures.  All of Scripture testifies to Christ, and since Christ’s person and work is the gospel, Luther explains that the gospel as found in the four gospel biographies and the epistles serves as the guide to reading and understanding the Old Testament.  Here too, the prophets, in particular “Moses the law-giver,” are not examples of how one should live.  Their words should not be taken as a handbook on how to live your life; their words primarily reveal the gospel – reveal Christ, though it is not so clearly realized in most cases, until Christ was incarnate and revealed himself personally by stepping into history, before then sending the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding of the Scriptures after his ascension.  This means we should not forsake the diligent reading of the Old Testament, which so often we do in our day as the Church also did in Luther’s.  To emphasize the consequence of this error, Luther ends his instruction with the following statement: “What punishment ought God to inflict upon such stupid and perverse people! Since we abandoned his Scriptures [referring to the Old Testament], it is not surprising that he has abandoned us to the teaching of the pope and to human lies.”

In summary, Luther taught that when we read Scripture, we should expect to see the gospel in our reading, we should see the gospel as Christ working for us in all that we need, and that we should expect to see this work of God for us in all of the Scriptures that we read.

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Andy Wrasman

I live in Lilburn, GA, with my wife and two young kids. I am a pastor at Oak Road Lutheran Church. I've written a book called, Contradict - They Can't All Be True. Be sure to visit my other website:

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