Question: "Was Martin Luther anti-Semitic?"
Answer: Martin Luther was a 16th-century German monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. He is credited with being the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Luther rightly understood and taught that salvation is not earned by works but is received only as a free gift of God's grace through faith in Jesus as redeemer from sin (Ephesians 2:8-9). His challenge of the authority of the pope of the Roman Catholic Church as head of the church and the posting of his famous “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg church sealed his fate. In 1521, he was excommunicated by the pope and condemned as an outlaw by the emperor.
Luther’s many written contributions to the Christian faith and his stand for biblical authority are of monumental importance. He translated the Bible from Latin into German because he felt the common people should have the Word of God to read for themselves instead of relying on priests and popes to interpret it for them. However, as Luther aged, he seemed to develop an unaccountable antipathy against the Jewish people. As early as 1516, Luther wrote positively of the Jews, "…many people are proud with marvelous stupidity when they call the Jews dogs, evildoers, or whatever they like, while they too, and equally, do not realize who or what they are in the sight of God." In 1523, Luther advised kindness toward the Jews in That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, but only with the aim of converting them to Christianity. When his efforts at conversion failed, he grew increasingly bitter toward them. In 1543, his most egregiously anti-Semitic book was published, On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he makes outlandish statements regarding the Jews, calling them "a base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.”
It’s impossible to know what was in Luther’s heart as he penned these awful things. Was he truly a Jew-hater? Or was his passion for the truth of Scripture and for Jesus Christ—who was rejected by the Jews—so overwhelming that he felt compelled to condemn the Christ-rejecters to whoredom in the same vein as the prophet Hosea who compared the Jews who rejected their God to whores and prostitutes? Whatever his motivation, it is clear that Luther’s writings were used as Nazi propaganda. Largely ignored during the 18th and 19th centuries, On the Jews and Their Lies surfaced during the run-up to World War II, when it was displayed at the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. Of course, the long history of German hatred of the Jews played a much more significant role in bringing about the Holocaust than did Luther’s writings.
There is no doubt that Martin Luther has played an important role in the formation of Protestantism. Sadly, his great contributions are also hampered by his unwarranted and unbiblical hatred of the Jewish people. One thing to remember when wrestling with questions like Luther’s apparent anti-Semitism is the fact that believers in Christ are still natural-born sinners, and we retain the sin nature even after the new birth. Just because Martin Luther was in error on one subject does not deny that he was right on others. Conversely, just because he was able to teach God's absolute truth does not mean that everything he said was absolute truth.
In the ministry of Apostle Paul, we have an example of how we are to approach any teaching. During his second missionary journey, Paul established a church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Some of the Jews believed, along with many Gentiles, but Paul was driven out of the city by the unbelieving Jews, who refused to hear his message. In verse 11, Luke describes the Jews in the synagogue of Berea as "more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." To the Bereans, it didn't really matter who the messenger was; they wanted to find out if the things being said were true according to God's Word. For that, they are given the title of "noble." When we read Martin Luther's writings or sing his hymns, we ought to be "checking the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so." If they are true to the Word, then we rejoice and accept them. If not, we are to set them aside and cling to the truth.