This is a fascinating read for anyone who has a serious interest in understanding the gospel and the significance of the Reformation. While I could hope everyone who loves Christ carefully read this book, it isn't for everyone.
A Luther scholar for serious students of the reformer and the reformation wrote this book. The author seems to be having way too much enjoyment sifting through Luther's lectures on Psalms and other Bible books to discern the timing and nature of the reformer's conversion. While this may seem a bit tedious, McGrath makes it quite fascinating. I have read through it twice and each time I can't stop and put it down.
The book is divided into two sections; The Background: Luther as a Late Medieval Theologian 1509-14, and The Breakthrough: Luther in Transition 1514-19.
In the first section, McGrath very methodically takes the reader through the specifics of the medieval gospel that Luther was schooled-in and taught. I found this to be the hardest part of the book because McGrath deals with some very specific medieval theology. If this is unfamilar to you it may prove to be slow going for you as well. But this is absolutely necessary in order for the reader to fully graps what Luther rejects and embraces. The effort is worth the reward.
In the second section, with great detail the author lays bare the development of Luther's thought through changes in vocabulary found in his biblical lectures and teaching. McGrath takes his readers right up through the Luther's defense of the new evangelical gospel at the Heidelberg Disputation of April 26, 1518. This disputation is Luther's most concise presentation of gospel doctrines. It is a document that itself is worth of serious study.
As Luther parts ways with the medieval doctrines of merit for a gospel of sovereign grace he develops what he calls the "Theology of the Cross." This is central to everything in Luther. To understand the "Theology of the Cross" and how it is distinct from what he calls the "Theology of Glory" is to know the reformer and his gospel. But reader beware! Luther's discoveries may very well radically change your understanding of the gospel and how you view modern evangelicalism. You may conclude that the modern protestant church has more in common with medieval Rome than it does with the reformers.
The one great limitation of this book for the average layman is its vast amounts of un-translated Latin on almost every page. While this makes reading the book more difficult it is not an insurmountable problem. First, 80% of the un-translated Latin can be figured out by English derivatives and the context. Second, for the most part this is theological Latin - key phrases and technical terms. If the reader will keep close by a copy of Richard Muller's "Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms" you will be able to glean most of McGrath's points. You will find Muller's work to be a rich gold mine of understanding the Latin phrases in McGrath's book and other serious theological writers. Muller not only defines the Latin, he cross-references it to other related phrases and gives concise but meaningful background of the theology behind each Latin phrase. The Latin phrases promote richly nuanced theological distinctions that make canyon sized differences.
It would also be useful to the reader to have on-hand a copy of both Luther's disputations "Against Scholastics" and "Heidelberg Disputation" with proofs. These can be found for free on the internet or purchased in book form. The lack of these as an appendix in McGrath's book is the one major weakness of the book.
This book would make a great study for the motivated theological student. It could also be used in a small group setting where each participant contributes to working through the ideas and the Latin. It would also be a great work for church leadership to work through together and then take their Sunday school teachers, youth workers and adults through as a weekend retreat.
Don't be turned off by the price of the book. For the price it should be hardbound - but Blackwell publishers are notorious for high prices. However, this is a book that would be worth carefully working through at twice the price.
I think this is a great gift for every pastor and church leader.
Sola Fide! Sola Gratia!