Martin Luther on Education Reformation

In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I am reposting this article. Here Luther speaks on the importance of Christian education. Though he advocated public schools, Luther intended that they be Christian. Elsewhere I have recommended resources on Luther and the Protestant Reformation


Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a leader in the Protestant Reformation, a man used by God to call the church back to His Word. Luther defended the Bible as the highest authority in all matters, and it is because of this that he believed in Christian education. Luther is a fascinating character gifted in his use of words, and we therefore do well to spend time reading his works. 

Reforming the Universities

One of Luther’s famous treatises is his 1520 work, An Appeal to the Ruling Class of German Nationality as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom—also known by the title, To the Christian Nobility. In this work, Luther called upon the ruling class to bring reform in Germany. One of the things Luther addressed as needing reform was the university, which could be corrupt in ways similar to our modern universities:

The universities need a sound and thorough reformation . . . Loose living is practised there; little is taught of the Holy Scripture or the Christian faith; the blind pagan teacher, Aristotle, is of more consequence than Christ.

How much greater is the immorality of the universities of our day, not to mention their neglect of Scripture. Most of our institutions of "higher learning" have no regard for Christ but give far greater honor to the secular academy. 

Luther argued that the universities needed reform because he knew the impact they have on future generations. Universities shape and mold future leaders, including Christian leaders:

For Christian youth, and those of our upper classes, with whom abides the future of Christianity, will be taught and trained in the universities. In my view, no work more worthy of the pope and the emperor could be carried out than a true reformation of the universities. On the other hand, nothing could be more wicked, or serve the devil better, than unreformed universities.

If Luther is right (and I believe he is), the church should put significant effort into establishing Christian universities. I realize many of our historic Christian institutions have abandoned the faith—this just means we have to start new ones. 

The Bible and Education

Luther did not limit his comments to the university, as he believed the Bible ought to be central to all education. Luther knew the obligation Christian parents have to train their children in the faith, and this begins in the lower levels of education:

Above all, the most important and most usual teaching, in both the universities and the lower schools, ought to be concerned with the Holy Scriptures . . . Oh! how unwisely we deal with our poor young folk, whom we are commanded to train and instruct [Prov. 22:6]! But we shall have to give a serious account of our stewardship, and explain why we have not set the Word of God before them . . . We fail to notice the present pitiful distress of the young people. Though they live in the midst of a Christian world, they faint and perish in misery because they lack the gospel in which we should be training and exercising them all the time.

If young people were perishing in misery in the midst of the "Christian world" of Luther's day, how much more do they need the Word of God in our post-Christian culture? Young people need the gospel, and they need to be trained by it from their youth.

Toward the end of Luther's essay, we read his classic line on education, and his advice would be well heeded by parents today:

But I would not advise anyone to send his son to a place where the Holy Scriptures do not come first. Every institution, where the Word of God is not taught regularly, must fail. That is why we observe the kind of people who are now and will continue to be in the universities . . . I greatly fear that the universities are but wide-open gates leading to hell, as they are not diligent in training and impressing the Holy Scripture on the young students.

We are witnessing exactly what Luther warned against—failed institutions. The majority of our schools and universities have failed to train students in the wisdom of Christ, and they have instead trained students in a progressive and anti-Christian worldview. It is no stretch to say that our schools and universities are responsible for much of the moral chaos of our day. They have opened the gates to hell, and only the grace of God can overcome them. 

Oh that God would give us schools and universities that honor His Word! Oh that we would heed Luther’s call to give our children a Christian education! We will suffer for such neglect, but we will reap great reward for faithfulness in this task. May the Lord grant us such obedience. 

Martin Luther, “An Appeal to the Ruling Class of German Nationality as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962),  pp. 470, 471, 475, 476.