Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila On the Lord’s Prayer

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it.

— Martin Luther

A German Protestant theologian and a Spanish Catholic mystic, at first glance, it seems that there is little commonality between Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila. Recent researches, however, show us that they may share more than we thought. For example, through comparing their theologies, Donald Christopher Nugent argues that “an evangelical theology can be mystical and that a mystical theology can be evangelical.”

In this paper, I am interested in the question whether Luther and Teresa, both as masters of prayer, have some common teachings about prayer. In light of the centrality of the Lord’s prayer in the Christian tradition, I will focus on their reflections on this prayer in Luther’s An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen together with Teresa’s The Way of Perfection. First, I will briefly introduce the historical backgrounds of their writings. Second, I will compare their insights from the Lord’s prayer sentence by sentence. Finally, I will conclude with considering what their insights may offer to us now. In my opinion, although approaching to the Lord’s prayer from different perspectives, both Luther and Teresa emphasize the importance of the knowledge of God and ourselves, genuine humility and obedience, and the love and fear of God in prayer.

Luther and Teresa in Context

Martin Luther, who was born in Germany in 1483, is well-known as “the father of Protestantism”. On his way of becoming a lawyer, a bolt of lighting frightened him into becoming a monk. He joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt and study theology there. In 1512, Luther became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. But he had problems of finding peace with God. He was taught to please God and earn His grace through his good work. But no matter how hard he worked, what he found was only exhaustion. Sometime in 1515, Luther found the answer to his problems. When studying Romans in a tower of the monastery, his eyes were opened and he realized the meaning of “the righteousness of God” which once caused his difficulty. It is not the righteousness by which God condemns us but the righteousness by which God justifies us by faith. In 1517, Luther was compelled to act in response to the abuse of indulgences by posting his Ninety-Five Theses for debate, which instead triggered the Protestant Reformation.

In 1519, Luther went to Leipzig to debate with John Eck, a leading theologian. In this debate, Luther appealed to Scripture as his final authority. Eck cleverly pushed Luther into admitting that a general council could err and into approving some of the teachings of Jan Hus. In 1520, Luther published three major treaties to clarify his theology. The same year, he was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the pope. In this religious context, Luther wrote his Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in 1519. As we will discuss later, his understanding of the Lord’s prayer rightly reflects his developing theology of “justification by faith” and “Scripture alone”.

When Luther made his famous attack on indulgences in 1517, Teresa was only two years old. Born in an old Spanish family, after her mother’s death, in 1531, Teresa was entrusted by her father to an Augustinian convent where she felt a call to the monastic life. In 1536, she ran away from home and joined the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. Like Luther, entering a religious order did not solve all Teresa’s spiritual problems. She had difficulties with her spiritual life, until 1554, she had a deeper experience of conversion. Since that, her life of prayer progressed rapidly. But her confessors doubted her unusual experiences came from the devil and asked her to write an account of her spiritual experiences, which she did in her Life. About the same time, she was also asked by her sisters to write some guidance for their prayer, which then became The Way of Perfection. In this book, Teresa comments the Lord’s prayer and defends the “mental prayer”. Her contemporary Spanish theologians were saying that ordinary people should confine themselves to vocal prayers. Against them, Teresa stresses the importance of praying with mind, but without despising vocal prayers.

Teresa was not merely a contemplative. She is also remembered as a reformer of her order. After facing much opposition, in 1562, she found St Joseph’s house in Avila where the strict Carmelite rules could be observed. Her Life and Way of Perfection were written during the period of 1562-1565. From 1567, she also found other similar houses throughout Spain and a new order known as the Discalced Carmelites came out.

Luther and Teresa on the Lord’s Prayer

Both Luther and Teresa reflect the Lord’s prayer on how to pray and what to ask in prayer. Luther believes that the Lord’s prayer gives us a patten to pray: “all other prayers that do not understand and express the content and meaning of this one are untrustworthy.” In a treatise to his barber A Simple Way to Pray, he suggests ways to mediate and expand on the Lord’s prayer. Teresa suggests that the Lord’s prayer is the most sublime and comprehensive of all short prayers, through which “the Lord has taught us the whole method of prayer of high contemplation, from the very beginnings of mental prayer, to Quiet, and Union.” Both of them believe that the Lord’s prayer provides us a model or a path to pray, thus it is worthy to compare their reflections in each sentence of the prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven.

For Luther, the address “Father” is so friendly, sweet, intimate, and warmhearted, which reminds us our identity as the children of God. Teresa also believes that the first words show God’s great love for us. This address also reminds us how we should treat and honour the One whom we submit our petitions, and how we should put ourselves in His presence. Both of them insist the importance of humility and sincere prayer from the heart. Luther believes that the essence and nature of prayer is “lifting up our heart to the Lord.” Teresa notes that we do not need to feel strange in God’ presence, but we must take to Him very humbly as we talk with our father.

Luther points out that “who art in heaven” leads to a knowledge of self—what a miserable life we live on earth, which gives us a fervent yearning and moves us to pray.

For Teresa, however, this phrase emphasizes the importance of knowing where the Father must be sought. “Remember how important it is for you to have understood this truth—that the Lord is within us and that we should be there with Him.” God is within us and the place we can be alone and look upon Him is our soul. Thus, she explains the nature and importance of the prayer of recollection. “It is called recollection because the soul collects together all the faculties and enters within itself to be with its God.” For wandering minds, it is of great important not only to believe but to learn by experience.

Interestingly, both Luther and Teresa have comments on the value of vocal prayers. Although Luther urges us not to pray only with the lips because the heart says more, he also believes that “no one should depend on his heart and presume to pray without uttering words unless he is well trained in the Spirit and has experience in warding off stray thoughts.” For him, vocal prayer is a great gift of God, and it is so for Teresa. She insists that one must be attentive to the Father who dwells in him when reciting vocal prayers and this active recollection will help to prepare for contemplation.

Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come

In the petition “hallowed be thy name”, Luther considers how we misuse the name of God and what the children of God are like. “We profane God’s name when we do not live as his children.” Thus, he insists that God’s name must be hallowed in our whole life, not only with our lips but also our soul and all the members of our body. Again he reminds us that the petition is a lesson and indicator of our miserable life on earth, because no one is able to hallow God’s name perfectly, otherwise he would not longer need to pray the Lord’s prayer. Thus, this petition contends against our pride and arrogance and humbles us. “God becomes everything and man becomes nothing.”

In the petition “thy kingdom come”, he discusses two kingdoms: kingdom of the devil and kingdom of God. He suggests that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of truth and righteousness, where we are free from sins and have been subjected to God. In this kingdom, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” In Luther’s opinion, Christ has brought us with His very self and the kingdom is now within us. He urges us to give our inmost self to God and seek for kingdom of God itself rather than the fruit of the kingdom.

Teresa treats these petitions in a different way. She considers what we ask and when we ask for this kingdom: “of the many joys to be found in the kingdom of Heaven, the chief is that we shall have no more to do with the things of earth; …when we see that all are hallowing and praising the Lord, and are blessing His name, and that none is offending Him. For all love Him there…” She insists that God would not tell us to ask for impossible things because He would like to give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom now. She explains the prayer of quiet in which God begins to give His kingdom here and now. In her description, this prayer is a “supernatural” state in which one enters into the peace that God gives through His presence. The soul “sees that it is in the kingdom, or at least is near to the King who will give it the kingdom.” We cannot reach the state for ourselves, no matter how hard we try. It is purely God’s grace. Although with different languages, both Luther and Teresa mention the relationship between union with Christ and the foretaste of the coming kingdom.

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven

Luther believes this petition especially brings about genuine humility and obedience. In his opinion ,God’s will being done means that His commandments are kept, because God reveals His will through these commandments. Thus, in order to know and understand God’s will, we need to learn to distinguish the old self in ourselves. He notes that God often breaks our will and let us learn to know a will superior to our own will, so that His will be done. It is of great importance to discern the ways in which our will is evil. He insists that we should have a God-fearing will. “A good will is found only where there is no will. Where there is no will, God’s will, which is the very best, will be present.” He also reflects the the connections of the first three petitions: no one can honour God’s name unless he is righteous and lives in the kingdom of God; no one is in the kingdom unless he is free of sin; only those whose own will is uprooted and replaced by God’s will can be free of sin.

Teresa reflects on what the Lord desires us to give the Father in this petition. Like Luther, Teresa urges us to surrender our wills completely to God: “Unless we make a total surrender of our will to the Lord, and put ourselves in His hands so that He may do in all things what is best for us in accordance with His will, He will never allow us to drink of it. This is the perfect contemplation of which you asked me to write to you.” She views Jesus as the one in whom God’s will was done completely. Like Luther notes that a total surrender of our will may be painful, Teresa believes that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, since the Lord gives us in proportion to our love for Him. She indicates that for such an offering, the reward the Lord gives us is great: “He begins to make such a friend of the soul that not only does He restore its will to it but He gives it His own also.”

Give us this day our daily bread

Both Luther and Teresa believe that this petition teaches us where we may seek consolation and nourishment. But what does the “bread” mean? Although Luther and Teresa both agree that we are not asking for earthly food, but for heavenly and spiritual bread, the food for the soul, this petition may be the place where Luther and Teresa have the biggest different understanding. For Luther, the “bread” is one name of the Word of God—Jesus Himself. It comes to us directly or through a person. “Christians ought to be richly and abundantly supplied with this bread.” Thus, we need to pray for our spiritual leaders, through whom God gives us the Word. He insists that the Word should be given through words and sacraments together. “It is a bad situation that in our time so much stress is laid on saying and having masses said, while unfortunately neglecting the most important part, the one for which the masses were instituted, namely, the proclamation.” For Teresa, however, the “bread” means the Holy Sacrament and she condemns Lutherans’ “irreverence” of the Holy Sacrament by saying that they go to church meaning to offend Him rather than to worship Him. Their understandings reflects the conflicts between Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Luther notes there are two modes of forgiveness: one is bitter and hard, for those who have strong faith and the other is easier, for beginners. He reminds us that those who are blind to their own sins and those who judge the sins of others can not pray this petition.

Teresa links this petition with the previous petitions of “give us daily bread” and “God’s will be done”. She notes that this petition is “as we forgive” not “as we will forgive” because one who surrendered his will to God must have done this already. She notes that people who have been drawn to closer to God through contemplation in the prayer of union will be willing to forgive others. Although she realizes people are in various degrees in surrendering their will to God and forgiving others, she urges us to do what we can and to be assured that God accepts everything.

And lead us not into temptation or trials

Both Luther and Teresa note that God’s concern of our mindfulness of temptations and trails is to teach us the knowledge of ourselves and God, to perfect us in humility. “The person who is truly humble is always doubtful about his own virtues; very often they seem more genuine and of greater worth when he sees them in his neighbours.” Teresa also gives counsels concerning different kinds of temptations and discerning true and false humilities. She says that true humility comes with peace and delight, and expands the soul’s capacity to serve God. She stresses that the way we can be free from temptations is to use the love and fear given by God. She urges us to always walk in the love and fear of God.

But deliver us from evil. Amen

Luther notes that the request of release from evils should be done in a proper manner and at the very last. He insists that we need to first examine our faith before prayer. “Amen” expresses the faith we should have in praying every petition and the faithful promise of God. Luther concludes, “A prayer is not good and right because of its length, devoutness, sweetness, or its plea for temporal or eternal goods. Only that prayer is acceptable which breathes a firm confidence and trust that it will be heard because of the reliable pledge and promise of God. Not your zeal but God’s Word and promise render your prayer good. This faith, based on God’s words, is also the true worship; without it all other worship is sheer deception and error.” I think that his emphasis on the importance of faith and God’s word in prayer reflects his developing theology during this period.

Teresa concludes her commentary by stressing some key insights: we should be aware of whom we are addressing, who we are and what we are asking for; the Lord’s prayer includes the spiritual journey from beginning through the prayer of recollection, to the prayer of quiet and the prayer of union; praying the Lord’s prayer is a source of great consolation. “As we repeat the Paternoster [the Lord’s prayer] so many times daily, then, as I have said, let us delight in it and strive to learn from so excellent a Master the humility with which He prays, and all the other things that have been described.”


Luther believes that the Lord’s prayer gives us a patten to pray and he suggests us to mediate the meaning of each petition and expand the Lord’s prayer with our own language. He stresses the role of faith and Scripture in prayer. Luther’s teaching concerns more about the nature and implications of the prayer. Teresa, however, aims to lead her readers to mystical prayer. She believes that the Lord’s prayer includes a spiritual journey of different stages of prayers. Her reflections are more related to the individual persons and their growth in prayer and personal relationship with God. Even though they held different theological views on some topics, both of their teachings and reflections stress the importance of the knowledge of God and ourselves, genuine humility and obedience, and the love and fear of God in prayer. Luther’s simple way of prayer and Teresa’s mystical prayer both encourage us to continue to discover in the Lord’s prayer different paths of drawing closer to God.