The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Stuart Olyott on Luther’s mistake

with 16 comments

Stuart Olyott has an excellent short article in the December 2009 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine (information and subscription here – warmly recommended), reflecting on Luther’s retrospective on the progress of the Reformation. Luther said:

I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.

Stuart is dealing with the error of ‘mediate regeneration’, an error which he perceives gripping a vast swathe of British evangelicalism. (Incidentally, my interest in this article was piqued because I was thinking of preaching on the Spirit’s illuminating work this Lord’s day – I may not, but I should like to soon.) Stuart describes this error in this way:

Mediate regeneration teaches that when the Holy Spirit transforms somebody into a new creature in Christ, he uses an instrument to bring this about. That instrument is the Word—the Holy Scriptures. The work of the Spirit is so intimately connected to his instrument, that we can say that the Word of God actually contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit. If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Holy Spirit loose.

To put it another way: the Spirit, or the principle of new life, is shut up in the Word, just as the life-giving germ is shut up in the dry seed. Just sow the seed and people will get converted! If they don’t, it will be because they have persistently resisted the appeals of God’s Spirit coming to them through that Word. His power is resident in the Word, but that power has been resisted. Where the gospel has little success, there is a human explanation.

So Luther should not have baldly said, “I left it to the Word” because the Word, apart from the Spirit (who is not bound to the word in the way wrongly suggested) accomplishes nothing.

Stuart’s point is that the Spirit works with the word (cum verbo) and not simply through the word (per verbo). While it is and always remains the true Word of the living God, yet without the operation of the Spirit on the heart of the man reading it, it remains as dry as a stick to him. Regeneration is an immediate operation of the Spirit of Christ on the heart of a man making him spiritually alive and aware, and therefore able to comprehend the truth. But the Spirit does not use the truth to accomplish that regeneration; the effect of regeneration is spiritual comprehension of the truth.

Isn’t this splitting hairs? No, says Mr Olyott:

A biblical mind-set ticks completely differently. It goes like this:

  • Although the Word can bring a new spiritual life to birth and visibility, it can never bring about the generation of that new life. God himself must do that, by a direct action of his Spirit within the human soul.
  • We can preach, teach, persuade and print until we are blue in the face, but nothing will get done unless the Lord himself accompanies the Word. All men and women are spiritually dead, and will remain so for ever, unless the Lord brings them to life.
  • It is not enough then to sow the Word, making its meaning plain while we do so. We must have dealings with God, pleading with him to do what only he can do, that is, to work by direct action within people’s souls.

What will be the effect of such a Biblical state of mind?

Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find preachers who ‘pray through’—men who strive and agonise and prevail in prayer, until the Lord accompanies their preaching in an obvious way.

  • Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find crowded prayer meetings filled with believers who storm the throne of grace, determined that by sheer importunity they will persuade God to accompany the word to be preached.
  • Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find gatherings of Christians beseeching the Lord to pour out his Spirit in awakening power. Of course you will! They understand all too well that no spiritual work will get done anywhere, however much sowing takes place, unless the Lord himself changes rebellious hearts and gives to them spiritual life and appetite.
  • But the biblical mind-set does not rule. Most British preachers study more than they pray. Countless believers do not go regularly to church prayer-meetings, or, if they do, fail to plead with God for his blessing upon the preaching. Prayer for revival has almost left us. The error of mediate regeneration is slowly but surely strangling us, and things will go from bad to worse unless we repent.

Stuart is not saying anything new. The 1689 Confession of Faith contains a chapter on the gospel and its gracious extent. The fourth paragraph, in its usual pithy and dense fashion, makes the same point as Stuart, which I give in a slightly modernised format:

The gospel is the only outward [external] means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and, as such, is fully sufficient for this purpose. However, in order that men who are dead in trespasses may be born again, quickened or regenerated, there is also necessary an effectual, insuperable [irresistible] work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul to produce in them a new spiritual life.8 Without this, no other means will accomplish their conversion unto God.9

8 Ps 110.3; 1Cor 2.14; Eph 1.19-20  9 Jn 6.44; 2Cor 4.4, 6

I feel the charge of spending more time bending over a commentary than bending my knees in prayer. I see all around me men and women who have heard and are hearing the truth as it is in Jesus without any spiritual comprehension of that truth, and I see the desperate necessity of a direct work of God’s Spirit upon their hearts if they are to believe. They are, many of them, competent, intelligent professionals, some eminent in their spheres, but they cannot see the truth. They never will, unless the Holy Spirit opens their blind eyes.

The story is told of how William Wilberforce once took William Pitt, Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, a man of intellectual penetration and brilliance, to hear Richard Cecil, an evangelical minister of the gospel with a reputation for sweetness and clarity. As the brilliant Pitt came out of the church, having heard the gospel plainly and powerfully declared, he blinked in the sunlight. “You know, Wilberforce,” he said, “I have not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.” What was missing? The blessing of spiritual enlightenment for which Wilberforce had been praying, a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit enabling even the most humanly brilliant of men to grasp the simple truth of the good news in Jesus Christ. Truly, the kingdom advances “’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zec 4.6).

Let us not, then, fall into the sterilising error of mediate regeneration, but pray for the Spirit powerfully and savingly to accompany the Word preached.

16 Responses

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  1. This was a brilliant article. Crystal clear. Particularly helpful on the bit about how spiritual perception of the truth is the effect of regeneration etc – the clearest i’ve ever seen anyway.


    Friday 27 November 2009 at 15:27

  2. Except a man receives “a love of The Truth”, not the dead letter, he can not be saved…….

    So it is that those who would be counted amongst The Brethren of The Messiah must desire the “strong meat” of discernment exercised as one receives of The Spirit that is Truth, thus being enabled to rightly divide that which is Good from that which is evil…….

    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world……. francis


    Saturday 28 November 2009 at 00:19

  3. Do you know if Dr. Olyott’s article is available on line.
    Am teaching on repentance, one of the subheadings I hope to address is ‘Obstacles To Repentance’ and a false profession is just such an obstacle.

    Also, give your bro. a kick he flatly refuses to send me Garibaldi biscuits, even though he knows it ould be the decent, even ‘English’ thing to do.


    Tuesday 1 December 2009 at 23:52

    • Hello there, chief –

      No sign of the whole thing online anywhere, but I will see what I can do to help.

      The Walker leg is of insufficient length to kick my brother from this distance, even if the biscuit deprivation justified it (debatable, even for a Garibaldi). I will see what I can do there as well!

      Jeremy Walker

      Wednesday 2 December 2009 at 09:27

  4. Dear Friend,

    Could you kindly give me the source of Stuart’s Luther quote? I would appreciate this very much. I have been hunting through my Luther indices for several hours but not found it.

    Much obliged,


    George M. Ella

    Saturday 16 January 2010 at 18:46

    • As far as I can tell, it comes from the second of the eight sermons he preached at Wittenberg during Lent in1522 after his return from the Wartburg, the so-called Invocavit Sermons. The first dealt with the mass, the second turned to the issue of images. The quote comes from that second sermon preached on the Monday after Invocavit Sunday.

      Jeremy Walker

      Saturday 16 January 2010 at 21:03

      • Thank you Jeremy,
        I had already considered the sermon you mentioned in my German collection but it was so very, very different from the version Stuart gave. It would have been helpful if he had provided the exact source as his accusations are so grave. Stuart says that Luther was ‘looking back’, so I started searching later works but, of course, the invocavit sermons were written during one week after Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1521, so they were relatively early works. So, too, Stuart speaks of a Philip of Amsdorf. He must have confused Philip Melanchthon with Niklaus von Amsdorf here. I have several German collections but there is no reference to such a person as Stuart mentions. So, too, Luther’s message is quite different to the one Stuart portrays. It does seem as though Stuart has not consulted the original text and has jumped to most faulty conclusions. Indeed, all the elements Stuart requires for his ministry are supplioed by Luther in the very sermons he criticises. If Stuart is really referring to the Invocavit sermon, he has found a most unreliable paraphrase. As there is no reference to the subject matter, contents and purpose of Luther’s sermon, it is difficult to imagine that Stuart was familiar with it. I would suggest that Stuart does his homework better next time he deals with Luther.

        Yours in Grace,


        George Ella

        Monday 25 January 2010 at 17:22

        • In fairness to Stuart Olyott, and in defence of the main point that he made in the article (with which I am in substantial agreement), the quote that he employs is – as far as I can tell – a (if not the) most commonly accepted translation of Luther’s German. As such, I think he is entitled to go with it, wherever he found it.

          Further, as others have suggested in various ways, yes, the title is (probably deliberately) provocative, and almost certainly does not constitute or communicate a sweeping disregard for Martin Luther. Yes, Luther was in many respects a model for the kind of ministry that Stuart is commending (although the great Reformer was himself given to quite sweeping statements which – though pithy and pungent – do not always bear up under extreme and pointed pressure). Yes, there is a risk of overstating the case. Yes, Stuart did not (and was not, I think, trying to) address the other side of the coin, which is that the Word of God is and always remains the Word of God (I don’t think he is going all Barthian on us).

          However, and taking into account the concerns arising from those texts of Scripture that suggest a more nuanced understanding of the issue, I do believe that Stuart has put his finger on an issue which, in practice, is damaging. I know that there are particular circles in which it has taken particular root and is particularly damaging, but I also find its foul seeds in my own heart, and Stuart’s article was a helpful reminder and necessary corrective: I must preach the Word of God as the Word of God with confidence and anticipation, but I must pray that that same divine Word will come on the wings of the Holy Spirit who alone can open blind eyes, that the gospel might come not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance. Without God’s Word, we are blind men in an empty room. God by his Word stocks the room with rich treasures that are by definition glorious and divine, but we also need him to open our eyes to apprehend them.

          If Stuart’s aim was to get our attention, and make us consider the issue, then he has succeeded. I hope that, rather than misreading the main point or running down rabbit trails (which I believe that several of those who have addressed this matter have done) we should – whatever issues we may have with the form of his argument – at least focus on the central thrust, which I do think is necessary and helpful.

          Jeremy Walker

          Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 09:02

  5. Dear Jeremy#
    Please accept some further thought’s on Stuart Olyott’s misleading article:

    Where Luther Puts Olyott Right

    In the December 2009 issue of the BOT magazine, Stuart Olyott argues in his article Where Luther Got it Wrong – and Why We Need to Know About It that Luther believed in a mere ‘Word ministry’ which Olyott identifies as relying wholly on the Word of God for the conversion of sinners and neglecting other pastoral duties, in particular prayer and a trust in God’s immediate and direct action in conversion. He thus denies what he calls ‘mediate regeneration’ whereby God uses means, in this case the Scriptures, to awaken and regenerate sinners. As his title states, Olyott blames Luther for being the original force behind a Word Only ministry. Olyott gave a gabled rendering of Luther’s preaching without declaring his sources. It appears, however, that Olyott’s interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of Luther’s Wittenberg Invocavit preaching in early 1522 where Luther points to the value of the Word of God in combating the superstition of the papacy. Olyott, however, gives no indication of Luther’s true aims in his Wittenberg preaching. In the week of daily sermons apparently in question, Luther’s theme is that one cannot change a Roman Catholic by dragging him out of the Mass by the hairs of his head. Nor can one convert him by means of law. A Christian lives by faith and love; faith in his Saviour and love for his neighbours, not by Law. One cannot thus convert a papist by throwing Bible verses at him as if it were a new law, condemning his behaviour. We must exercise the Word in faith and love through prayer, witness, preaching and writing but not by force. It is clear from Luther’s message and the Scriptures he quotes that when he speaks of ministering the Word, he is talking about gospel witness in general and the Work of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost revealed in the Word in particular. This he puts forward as a better way than the Mass, Imagery and Law. It is this that has brought Rome to its knees. Should we not rather thank God for Luther’s evangelical insight rather than condemn him? Olyott’s view that the Word of God is only there when the Spirit picks up part of it and uses it, which would still indicate mediation, and that God works in and by the Scriptures but not through them or my means of them, is refuted by the very Scriptures he uses, especially in 1 Peter 1:23 which clearly states that it is through the Word that God regenerates. Has Barthianism triumphed in the BOT?

    George M. Ella

    Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 08:47

    • Thank you for your further comments. I was writing my rely to your earlier comment when you posted this, and so did not see these thoughts and hence have not responded, except incidentally, to particulars.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 09:06

    • PS Stuart has himself given a thoughtful and reasoned response to comments and critiques in the most recent Banner of Truth magazine. He does take issue with Luther over this matter (suggesting that there is something of Lutheranism in the mediate regeneration view), so maybe Luther’s preaching was more balanced and Scriptural than his theology at this point? That’s not to start another argument, by the way, as I do not know enough about it either way. Anyway, for Stuart’s own words, see the magazine.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 09:37

  6. Dear Jeremy,

    Thank you for your understanding of the problems raised in Stuart’s article and for conceding so much. However,the problems caused by the article still remain. Firstly, Stuart has not demonstrated that his narrow view of a ‘Word ministry’is typically Lutheran.Secondly, he has not demonstrated that ‘mediate regeneration’ is wrong, indeed his words support this ratrher than deny it. Thirdly,we still would like to know why Stuart chose Luther as his Aunt Sally whereas Superman’s Lex Luthor would have done just as well. The one has to do with Stuart’s accusations as much as the other.Fourthly, we are still faced with the problem of wy Stuart denies what he calls pro verbum when the Scriptures afirm this. Fifthly,why does he separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the Word? I must say that I have graduated in theology at Lutheran universities but never come across the idea that Lutheranism is behind the kind of teaching Stuart condemns. Luther, as conceded, certainly was not. Nor, happily, does Lutheranism appear to have influenced the kind of teaching that Stuart holds to. It certainly cannot be traced to any of our great Reformers.Indeed, Stuart is against mediate regeneration whereas Calvin, who wrote on mediation in the same issue, is for it. Though I am strictly Reformed in my theology, I would have loved to have sat under Luther’s allround witness, though I would not think much of the jumbled, self-contradictory half-truths Stuart has shocked us with. There have been some most solid and constructive criticisms of Stuart’s mix-up on the web, particularly from Baptist and Reformed sources, so I trust they will be taken notice of.

    Yours in Christ,


    George M. Ella

    Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 13:17

    • I am not aware that I have conceded as much as perhaps you believe I have! I should point out that I am neither commissioned nor qualified to speak for Stuart, and he might have different opinions or nuances to the ones I have set forth.

      Like you, I think I would have loved to hear Luther preach, although doubtless it would not always have been an immediately enjoyable experience. Again, perhaps like you, there would doubtless be points at which we might have thought that there was more or less to be said than Luther was saying (or, in fact, that he was plainly wrong at points). At the same time, and as I have tried to make plain, I do not believe that Stuart – for whose clarity of thought and communication, together with his commitment to Scripture and insight into the evangelical scene, I have a high regard – has simply given confused half-truths.

      This is what Stuart wrote in the last issue of the magazine (the one after the appearance of his original article) in which he acknowledges the critiques you mention and answers some of your questions, albeit without the detailed reasoning which you would doubtless request:

      “I am truly grateful for both the public and private feedback on my article on mediate and immediate regeneration (Dec. issue), and for the helpful and measured way in which it is has been expressed. Historic Lutheranism has always been committed to the doctrine of mediate regeneration, and it is not unfair to describe the resurgence of this doctrine as a revival of Lutheranism. We should remember, however, that the exegetical and theological rigour of Reformed preachers and theologians has consistently caused them to reject the Lutheran stance on this issue. My article focussed on one particular paragraph from Luther because, in discussing this subject with those who disagree with me, this extract has frequently been quoted to me as if it were the last word on the subject. In addition to the ruinous practical consequences mentioned in the article, it is worth pointing out that those who believe in mediate regeneration cannot hold out any hope of salvation for those who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word, such as elect children dying in infancy and elect people who are seriously impaired mentally. Finally, whatever may be our particular view on this question, I trust that all readers of the Banner magazine will agree with John Owen when he wrote, ‘Without the Holy Spirit we may as well burn our Bibles.’”

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 13:34

  7. Thank you for your comments, Jeremy. Being snowed up in far away Germany, I have only just received the January issue of the BOT magazine and noticed that others have though as I do. It was most fair of the Banner to print these letters and shows their obvious concern at what Stuart has written. It will be probably a week or two before the Feb. issue arrives so I am grateful for the preview. As I am a firm believer in mediate regeneration myself on strong Scriptural grounds, I can agree with Luther and many a Lutheran I know that the salvation of children dying in infancy and those of low mental ability is in the merciful hands of an electing God who always acts according to His Word.

    I once knew a Jesemy Walker many years ago and had some of the sweetest fellowship possible with him. Are you the one, or if you are young, your father?

    God bless you and your web-site.


    George M. Ella

    Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 15:06

    • Being the only Jeremy Walker I know, and young, I cannot speak for whom it might have been; I only know that that particular pleasure was not mine.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 19:58

  8. The February Banner issue has just arrived. A brief comment on Stuart’s contribution:

    Stuart Olyott uses BOT issue 557 to pour oil over troubled waters but skips over the main fact that he has misquoted Luther and blamed Luther for using the Word wrongly and fostering an automatic idea of mediate regeneration. He claims that he has not been unfair because Lutheranism is committed to mediate regeneration. I trained for the ministry at a Lutheran university and never as much as heard of Olyott’s automatic, magical nonsense. He must still give evidence that he is correct in the sense he misuses the term. Olyott blames others for giving him the faulty version he used. Should he not blame himself for being too lazy to look up the alleged text in its context? Olyott adds that those whom he is attacking cannot hold out hope for ‘elect children dying in infancy and elect people who are seriously impaired mentally’. This is non sequitor as we cannot stop preaching to all who can hear, understand and respond because we imagine a minority do not have this gift. What about Luke 1:40 ff. where we read when the good news comes and salvation is nigh even babies in the womb leap for joy! Furthermore, in salvation there is no ‘age of accountability’ and Lutherans agree with Bullinger, Calvin and the English Reformers that 2 Cor. 5:19 covers all the elect. This is preaching according to the Word of God which is what a Word ministry really means.

    George M. Ella

    Saturday 30 January 2010 at 15:14

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