Thursday, December 06, 2007
Thoughts From Martin Luther
Recently I dusted off the old collection I gathered in a graduate seminar on Martin Luther, the Augustinian Monk, Doctor of the Church and Ordained Priest of the 15-16th Century who recovered the Doctrines of Grace from the cesspool of semi-palagian theology of the medieval Church. To Be Evangelical is to be Lutheran in this sense.
What does that paragraph actually mean?
To break this evangelical discovery down further into common language, I looked at Luther's work, the Freedom of a Christian and measured myself and my age against it.
Luther the Man
Luther was a thoroughgoing religious man of passion and zeal, well educated and respectable. Like Nicodemus, in John 3, he felt something was missing. Through his studies of Church doctrines, he practices all the means of salvation, from attending the mass, to fasting, to prayers, to good deeds. He went on pilgrimage to Rome and in his words, "excelled in monkery". All of that, was a system of bringing man to God, through cooperative efforts with the Divine Spirit.
The Righteousness of God Which is According to Faith
Luther came to realize that this view, that man could contribute anything whatsoever, was impossible. No matter how hard he strived to measure up to the righteousness of God, he found himself falling short. Eventually he came to hate the righteousness of God, as an enemy. Like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus in desperation, he asked every authority, "what thing do I still lack?". And hearing a response he tried to do it.
As a professor of sacred Scripture at Wittenburg, he made the stupendous discovery for himself, that the righteousness of God spoken of in Romans, was not the righteous standard of God we must strive for, but rather a righteousness granted to sinful man, by the imputation, or crediting of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, for our righteousness, by a gift of God received by faith.
This faith he understood was foolishness to the religious world, "as the things of the Spirit are spiritually discerned" and thus "foolishness to the natural man". And so there was no possibility for cooperation in grace. Only by the "new birth" which Jesus offered Nicodemus, could he, Luther, a modern Nicodemus be granted the nature that embraces the alien righteousness of Christ which Luther describes in his 1519 book, The Freedom of a Christian as a liberating righteousness. for "his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell". Joined to Christ, the Christian Church, as the bride of Christ has that victory in its own experience, becoming one flesh with Chris0t, so the Christian can cry, "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Co. 15:57).
Luther Diagnoses Our Heresies
In our day, now basically free from the once iron clad grip of Roman authority, and now for the most part even out of the grip of fellowship in a Christian church, our struggle toward salvation appears very different, but is it really?
It is obvious that we all excel in our own monkery, whether in pursuit of our careers or recreation, trying to achieve personally the salvation of heaven on earth, to reach that point where we can say as the beer slogan said, "It doesn't get any better than this".
Those in the church have forgotten what the struggle of the reformation really said, that man cannot cooperate in the work of grace, and thus my church attendance, my baptism, my moral religiosity, or even my profession of faith cannot be the foundation of my salvation. Only the Righteousness of Christ, which is mine by the gift of God's grace in faith can be the foundation.
While this Spirit of Faith makes the Christian "a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none" it also makes him or her, "a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all". The spirit of faith "with joyful zeal attempts to put the body under control and hold it in check: because, "the needs of his body drive him" to "do many good works to reduce it to subjection". These works do nothing to justify one before God, Luther warns, but the Christian does them, "out of spontaneous love and obedience to God".
This is the element of our own shift toward semi pelagianism in evangelicalism today. We rely on our profession of faith (our way of cooperating with God) and neglect to be obedient, out of faith. By faith Abraham obeyed God (Heb 11:8), and God in turn recognized his faithful submission as salvation.
A Jewish worldview, the worldview of the time of the bible, would not allow a mere acceptance of certain facts or a certain profession of certain facts to mean anything salvific. "Even the demons believe (certain facts) and tremble" (Jms 2:17 --although i recognize the irony of this quote when considering Luther's position). Rather faith means submission. Faith means committing oneself the Lord Jesus, and as Luther concludes: "Our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works".