No one knows where the phrase, “The best of men are but men at best,” originated. It was first recorded in 1680 in reference to the character of General John Lambert, who had helped Oliver Cromwell overturn Charles I and the royalists during the English Civil War.
It has been used many times since of famous men who have fallen publicly, or who have been beset privately by their foibles. It has often been used in a religious sense. J.C. Ryle—famous for his exposition of Scripture and his devotional works—wrote in 1856:
“The best of men are only men at their very best. Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles—martyrs, fathers, reformers, Puritans—all are sinners, who need a Savior: holy, useful, honorable in their place—but sinners after all.”
Martin Luther spent years trying to convince his peers of the gospel of justification by faith. Initially, this rotund Augustinian monk had no desire to shatter the Roman church. But when Rome would not listen, he mustered the courage to say, “Farewell, hopeless, helpless, blasphemous Rome.”
He was the hero of the German people. Luther defied Rome and lived. He built a new church. He wrote enduring hymns. He gave the German people Die Gute Nachtricht—the Bible in their vernacular.
But Luther, too, was all too human. In 1543 he wrote a work which led biographer Roland Bainton famously to wish Luther had died a decade before so it wouldn’t have been published. The work is called On the Jews and Their Lies.
The circumstances surrounding its composition are vague, but presumably, the Jews—who Luther hoped would accept the gospel by faith—spurned his teaching. Others suggest he was merely a product of the anti-Semitism which had reached a fevered pitch at the close of the Middle Ages.
Whatever prompted its composition, the contents of the work are shocking. In it, Luther provided eight suggestions for dealing with the Jews.
The first of those was the burning of their synagogues with sulfur, pitch, and “hellfire.” Next, he suggested their houses be razed, their books be confiscated, and they be forbidden from teaching “upon pain of loss of life and limb.” He also wanted safe-conduct for Jews abolished on the roads, their treasury set aside for “safekeeping,” and, lastly, to force “strong Jews and Jewesses” out of usury and into hard labor.
He believed the Jews would be shown “a sharp mercy” if his plan was followed.
Luther’s recommendations for dealing with the Jews fell mostly on deaf ears, though in Newmark and Electoral Saxony safe passage for the Jews was abolished. Philip of Hesse also prohibited the Jews from lending and required them to attend Christian services.
While I do not blame him for the Holocaust, for he was long-since dead, Luther was praised by the Nazis. Hitler mandated the celebration of an annual Luther Day in Germany and—almost as if he was reading Luther’s work—implemented a plan to rip the Jews from German society.
For example, on November 9-10, 1939, 119 synagogues were destroyed by fire in different parts of Germany. The Nazis called it “Kristalnacht,” for the sound of breaking glass.
Money lending was forbidden for Jews. In 1933, Germans were told not to buy from Jews. The large bonfires, reflecting light off thousands of swastika flags in the midst of Nazi rallies, were lit with Jewish books. The Nazis absconded with Jewish wealth and deposited it in Swiss banks, and even—as U.S. soldiers discovered in 1945—harvested gold teeth from the bodies of Jews exterminated in the death camps and work camps constructed as “the Final Solution” to the Jewish question.
Why do I mention this unpleasant episode in the life of one of the church’s greatest saints? Because Luther, like us, was far too human. He himself admitted that he was at the same time justified and a sinner. And late in his life, he realized this more than ever. “They are trying to make me a fixed star, but I am only an irregular planet,” he told his family.
In other words, he was a human being, a sinful man saved by grace, who had been elevated in status beyond what he deserved. He knew he was not someone after whom Christians should model themselves if he strayed from the love of Christ.
I hope we will also realize that, like Luther, no matter what we do for Christ, if we act outside of his will and love in ministry, the results may be catastrophic—perhaps even 400 years in the future, should the Lord tarry that long. Our speech, our actions, and our ideas can cast very long shadows and appear in consequences we never intended.
Remember, the best of men are but men at best. So “watch your life in ministry and your doctrine closely.” I Timothy 4:16