By his own admission, Martin Luther was unkind to those who opposed his reforms. “I cannot deny that I am more vehement than I should be….” he wrote. “But they assail me and God’s Word so atrociously and criminally that … these monsters are carrying me beyond the bounds of moderation.”

Thus, Luther demanded that “We should take him—the pope, the cardinals, and whatever riffraff belongs to His Idolatrous and Papal Holiness—and (as blasphemers) tear out their tongues from the back, and nail them on the gallows.” On another occasion, he asked, “Why should we hesitate to use arms against these teachers of perdition, the cardinals, popes, and the whole Roman Sodom, which corrupts the Church of God without end, and wash our hands in their blood?”

Luther also admitted he could be rude. He considered foul language an appropriate weapon to combat evil. For example, he dismissed the Jewish rabbis’ interpretations of Scripture as “Jewish piss and sh—.”

By anyone’s standards, Luther was bull-headed, coarse-tongued, and intemperate, at times. In many ways, Luther behaved like other people of his time. But his speech and actions were always more intense. No matter how high or low the cause, he seemed to rise or sink to any occasion. How can we understand this person who has been called “a man of grand contradictions”?

Fighting Flesh, World, and Devil

Luther’s life can be read like an open book, for he spoke freely and unguardedly about himself and others.

Luther’s view of himself was shaped by his life as a monk, priest, and professor; by his environment and by historical events; and also by his physical problems. As a monk he developed digestive difficulties, probably from the ascetic lifestyle of the rigorous Augustinian Hermits. He suffered ...

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