Many years ago I came across a quote from Martin Luther about personal criticism from unfriendly critics. Luther’s point was that no matter how bad the personal criticisms—no matter how accurate, or inaccurate, the accusations—there is more sin in each of our hearts than a critic could ever discover.
Luther’s humbling reminder has been useful when I have been criticized and accused of things that were simply not accurate (although to avoid any misunderstanding, there have been plenty of critics that were right in their observations, too).
Far too often, my initial impulse has been to dismiss the criticism and defend myself, not realizing that this response is simply an evidence of pride.
Luther’s words directly confront my temptation to a prideful response, because he reminds me that, even if the criticisms are inaccurate or exaggerated, there remain in my heart many other sins that go unnoticed by my critics. And had my critics been aware of these other sins, they surely would have put them to use in their cause!
Luther’s reminder of the depth of personal sin has served me on numerous occasions over the years. And recently Luther’s words have served my friend Carl Trueman, too.
Carl is the Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. And he has taught a course on John Owen in the Pastors College. Carl is a gifted, insightful, and witty writer (despite writing with just two fingers). I am a friend and a fan of Carl Trueman.
In his most recent online article, “Thank God for Bandit Country,” Carl explains how Luther’s words have served him in handling personal criticism. Listen as the words of Luther and the words of Trueman merge:
I have learned much (as elsewhere) from the master theologian, churchman, public figure, and normal Christian believer, Martin Luther. It is well-known that in his writings [and] in table conversation Luther would often refer to visits from the Devil, how the Devil would come to him and whisper in his ear, accusing him of all manner of filthy sin: “Martin, you are a liar, greedy, lecherous, a blasphemer, a hypocrite. You cannot stand before God.” To which Luther would respond: “Well, yes, I am. And, indeed, Satan, you do not know the half of it. I have done much worse than that and if you care to give me your full list, I can no doubt add to it and help make it more complete. But you know what? My Saviour has died for all my sins—those you mention, those I could add and, indeed, those I have committed but am so wicked that I am unaware of having done so. It does not change the fact that Christ has died for all of them; his blood is sufficient; and on the Day of Judgment I shall be exonerated because he has taken all my sins on himself and clothed me in his own perfect righteousness.”
Luther knew what temptation looked like; he knew his own wickedness; but he also knew the all-surpassing perfection and grace of Christ. So, in closing, I want to thank my blog critics, the crass, the colourful, the profane, and the plain old crazy, for helping me to understand better my sin and my Saviour. You think I'm arrogant? You should talk to my wife: she could fill you in on just how arrogant I really am. You think I'm ruthless and cold? Believe me, you don't know where half of the bodies are buried. You think I'm a weak and spineless girlyman? Hey, you don't know nearly the extent of my cowardice. You think I'm an inveterate street fighter? Bring it on. If someone will hold my coat, why go out onto the street? We can finish this right here and right now. But you know what? My Saviour knows the full depth of all my sleaziness, my sin, and my moral insanity, and has covered by his blood all these crimes you allege against me. Indeed, he has covered many more and much worse; and your reminders of my sinfulness and my need of him are most gratefully received.
Carl’s words, with Luther’s voice in the background, provide us with a humbling and helpful pattern to follow when encountering personal criticism. When we face criticism, the gospel provides us with an ever-present reminder of the depth of remaining sin in our hearts, the scale of our need for our Savior’s blood, and our unceasing need for God’s abundant grace each day.
Related post: "How to Help Your Husband When He's Criticized"