Shortly before Martin Luther died, a piece of paper containing his handwriting was found in his pocket. Among other words on the paper were these: “This is true. We are all beggars.” No other words express as clearly the heart of Luther’s spirituality and its expression in his theology. As we come to another Reformation Sunday, we who carry on the tradition of the theology have the opportunity to connect again with that spirituality.
I hope that people will walk away from worship on Sunday with a deeper experience of God’s grace in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and a deeper understanding of how that grace works out in our life together as followers of Jesus. With that in mind, I’d like to review the high points of Luther’s theology from perspectives that might be a bit unfamiliar to some.
Second Reading – Romans 3:19-28
“Paul’s epistle to the house churches in Rome, written around 60 CE, is intended to prepare for his visit in person and to garner financial support for his mission to Spain. The situation he is addressing is one of division between the Jewish and Gentile believers, possibly exacerbated by the relatively recent return of the Jews from expulsion during the reign of Claudius. It appears that Paul is well-known for his law-free Gospel to the Gentiles, so he must address this fractured community with care, lest he only widen the fault line and weaken the local churches. The question is: Can he respond to their situation in a way that is truly effective for reconciliation?” (Jane Patterson, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4605).
Martin Luther relies heavily Romans for his theological insights. I will try to connect some of the dots in that regard.
Luther’s theology is deeply rooted in and launched from the First Commandment. “God is God, and I am not,” a seminary professor told me. That would be a trivial statement except for the professor’s conclusion: “And that is the Good News.” The essence of sin for Luther is not pride (as it is for Augustine, for example) but rather idolatry. Instead of receiving the gift of participation in God’s life and mission, we seek to displace God and pursue our own interests. This is true of every human being, Gentile or Jew, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23).
The opposite of idolatry is faith. Faith is not merely the affirmation of God’s existence. After all, as we can read in James 2:19, even Satan believes that God exists. Faith is trust in God’s goodness in life and in death. Luther explains this in his commentary on the First Commandment in his Large Catechism.
“What does it mean to have a god?…A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to true and believe in him from the whole heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol…That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” (Large Catechism, page 15).
If we trust in anything other than God in life and in death, then we are guilty of idolatry. As sinners we are wired to do precisely that, and in addition, we choose to misplace our trust each and every day. That is especially the case in our relationship with God. We choose to believe that we have something that God needs (that’s what Luther means by “works.”). If we believe God needs what we have, then our relationship with God becomes transactional. God has created us, however, for a relationship that is transformational.
We can and should ask at this point, “What kind of God do we worship?” For Luther, the god-question is not one of mere existence. Is God good? More to the point, is God good for me? Is God faithful? This is the question that drives Paul’s argument in the first section of Romans. If God’s chosen people have become as much a part of the “problem” as everyone else, how will God carry out God’s plan for the world’s healing and life?
If God is not good, then God’s existence is not comforting. If God is not good, then God’s sheer existence is terrifying. Luther’s own spiritual experience, especially his vow to become a monk illustrates this. In fear for his life and of eternal judgment, Luther made a vow to become a monk in order to appease God’s righteous wrath. He continued his efforts as he tried to be a perfect monk. Of course, he failed in that effort. He experienced what Paul says in Romans 3:20 – “For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
In his preface to the Latin edition of his works, Luther put it this way. “I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans,” he wrote, “but to that moment one phrase in chapter 1 stood in my way. I hated the idea, ‘in it the righteousness of God is revealed.’ … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners …” So Luther needed a different kind of God.
The cross of Christ reveals who God is. Any other god is an idol. In his Large Catechism, Luther writes, “we could never come to recognize the Father’s favor and grace were it not for the LORD Christ, who is a mirror of the Father’s heart. Apart from him,” Luther declares, “we see nothing but an angry and terrible judge.” Prior to his intensive study of the righteousness of God in Scripture, Luther was sure that God was “nothing but an angry and terrible judge.” His theological discovery was that the reality of God is hidden behind that mask of wrath. The “wrath” of God is what we experience when we try to see God apart from the cross of Jesus Christ.
Luther describes this process in his 1545 Preface to the Latin edition of his works. Every Lutheran theologian should know this passage well. Luther wrote,
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans and nothing stood in my way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God,’ because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous My situation was that, although I was a perfect monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my goodness would satisfy God. Therefore, I did not love a righteous God, but rather hated and complained against God. Yet I hung on to dear Paul and had a great longing to know what he meant.”
Luther knew, as we have noted, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” If we stop there, we know nothing but God the angry and terrible judge. But in the cross of Christ we see something else. Humans “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” The crucified Jesus is God’s “mercy seat” (the literal meaning of “sacrifice of atonement”) where God comes to meet us with grace, mercy, and love. The Holy Spirit creates in us the capacity to trust that gracious gift if we want it.
God’s righteousness is not about keeping rules perfectly. God’s righteousness is about making things right, keeping God’s promises, remaining faithful. God saves sinners. Paul says God does this to demonstrate God’s faithfulness. God offers to us and to all the path to a life of trusting obedience by the faithfulness of Jesus in death and in life.
So, the cross of Christ reveals who God is. We cannot see God as God is through glory, power, certainty, security, wealth, position, or any other human good or work. Trusting in our own resources is idolatry and leads to death. Luther calls true theology “the theology of the cross.” He calls all other theology “the theology of glory.” The theology of the cross knows God in the death and resurrection of Christ and trusts in that God. The theology of glory results in human boasting and divine wrath.
We have nothing God needs. God has everything we need. In our human boasting, we are tempted to believe that we have what God needs. That cannot be the case. A god who needs what we have must be an idol.
God’s essence is love, so God desires to give us what we need in order to be the fully human creatures God has created us to be. “That is what it means to be God,” Luther writes in his First Lectures on the Psalms, “not to receive but to give good.” When we trust God in life and in death, we trust God who is the Loving Giver. Faith as trust means we treat God as God truly is.
In our bondage to sin, what we need most is to be transformed from the inside out. As we confess, we cannot free ourselves. On our own we plunge deeper and deeper into that bondage day by day. We think we are seeking life when in fact we are descending deeper into death. The idolator in each of us and all us must die in order that we may truly live.
Just as God creates the cosmos out of nothing purely as an act of gracious love, so God creates the saint out of the “nothingness” of the sinner purely as an act of gracious love. Tuomo Mannermaa puts it this way:
God gives Godself self in Christ, that is, God applies God’s form and goods to human beings, who lack form, who are deficient, ugly, and sinful. At the same time, Christ takes upon himself their needs, sin, and death, to bear as his own their deficiencies, needs, sins, and death. [Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Location 396-397). Kindle Edition.]
God’s love comes “down.” Human love goes “up”. Downward bending love is the theology of the cross. Upward reaching love is the theology of glory. The simplest description of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God comes down. God “did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed…” (Romans 3:25).
When Luther discovered this reality in his reading of Romans, it was a “born again” experience. In his Preface to the Latin edition, he puts it this way.
“Night and day, I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’ Then I understood that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God makes us righteous through faith. At that moment I felt myself reborn and having gone through the open doors into heaven. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”
This is what the gospel should do to us when we hear it. Not only did Luther hear a “not guilty” verdict. In fact, he felt like a whole new person. In a profound sense, that’s exactly how the gospel works.
Therefore, in Christ, the Holy Spirit brings about the “Wonderful Exchange.” In that exchange we receive the gift of justifying faith by God’s grace and mercy. Luther describes this in the meaning of the Third Article in his Small Catechism. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength,” Luther writes, “I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…” (Small Catechism, page 31).
As I noted earlier, Luther writes in his Large Catechism that Christ is the mirror of the Father’s heart. In the cross we see beyond wrath and judgment. “But neither could we know anything of Christ,” Luther continues, “had it not been revealed by the Holy Spirit” (see Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechisms, page 43). God comes down to us in Christ by the power of the Spirit. We cannot and do not climb the ladder of human knowledge to deliver our love to God.
We see this gift bestowed in baptism and renewed daily in the life of the church and the believer. This justification is both “forensic” and “effective.” We are declared righteous purely on the basis of Christ’s faithfulness in the cross and resurrection. We are made righteous day by day as we live out our baptismal covenant in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Faith, then, is our response to God’s grace in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We trust in God’s promise that declares us righteous now and forever. We live that righteousness as the Spirit shapes and forms us more and more in the image and likeness in which God has created us and renews in us by the presence of Christ in our hearts. That effective righteousness equips us to live out our vocation in the world for the sake of the neighbor.
Our vocation is to trust God and love our neighbor. Luther proposes a particular version of the Golden Rule: Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you. At another place he suggests that God does not need our good works, but our neighbor surely does. God’s love comes down to us in Christ and is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are to be channels of that love as it flows through us to the neighbor. In the Wonderful Exchange we are filled with Christ by the power of the Spirit. Therefore, we can be “Christ” to our neighbor. We have the fullness of God in us. Luther asserts that good works will then flow out of us from this abundance of gracious love.
The result of justification is life in the Holy Spirit. “The pastoral theology which comes from reflecting on the work of the Spirit,” N. T. Wright notes in Justification, “is the glorious paradox that the more the Spirit is at work the more the human will is stirred up to think things through, to take free decisions, to develop chosen and hard-won habits of life, and to put to death the sinful, and often apparently not freely chosen, habits of death” (page 189).
Wright notes that this is the “logic of love” (page 188). When you love someone, do you wish to do good things for the beloved? Is that a way to “earn” love, or is it a loving response? Does loving make you less or more free in your relationship with the beloved? Your actions may be constrained by love, but no one experiences love as making one less free.
“Humans become genuinely human, genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them, so that they choose to act…in ways which reflect God’s image, which give [God] pleasure, which bring glory to [God’s] name, which do what the law had in mind all along.” (Wright, Justification, page 193). This brings us to the Gospel reading for Reformation Sunday.
Gospel Text – John 8:31-36
Robert Farrar Capon offers this devastating critique of the institutional church.
“If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. [The church] has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that [the church] has made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch. [The church] has been so afraid we will lose sight of the laws of our nature that [the church] made us care more about how we look than about who we are; made us act more like the subjects of a police state than fellow citizens with the saints.”
Let me specify a couple of boundaries here. This text has been used to hammer the Jews for supposed “ignorance” and/or “hardness of heart.” That’s out of bounds. Jesus was a Jew. This text has also been used to ridicule Roman Catholics as the so-called “slaves” in the text, in bondage to empty rituals and regulations. Again, that’s out of bounds because that’s a cruel caricature of our Roman sisters and brothers. This text is directed to any instance of institutionalized religion that sees itself as an end in itself. Therefore, it’s most useful to see this text as applied to us in our churches, more focused on dominance than devotion, on survival more than service.
Here are four marks of such self-absorbed, self-serving institutional religion.
- Such religion is more interested in making members than in making disciples.
- Such religion is more interested being right than in doing right.
- Such religion is more interested in head knowledge than in heartfelt faith.
- Such religion is more interested in traditionalism than in tradition. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Traditionalism is maintaining a tradition for its own sake.
How do our churches measure up to this list? It’s important to tell the truth about ourselves. ““Not everything that is faced can be changed,” wrote James Baldwin, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
In verse 34, Jesus makes it clear that sin pretends to offer freedom while plunging us deeper into bondage. Here is a deep connection to the second reading and the results of justification. “True freedom is the gift of the Spirit, the result of grace,” Wright declares, “but, precisely because it is freedom for as well as freedom from, it isn’t simply a matter of being forced now to do good, against our wills and without our cooperation…but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility…” (Justification, page189).
What tolerance does your congregation have for mistakes? What enthusiasm does your congregation have for experiments? How you answer these questions will measure how much freedom there is in your congregation.
First Reading – Jeremiah 31:31-34
The kingdom of Judah was relatively prosperous and modestly powerful. The kingdom has alliances and treaties to balance the threats of the great empires of Egypt and Babylon. The temple was busy, and business was good. There were a few trouble spots – a lot of poverty and a decline in public morality – but all in all, one couldn’t complain.
In the midst of this relative stability, God injects Jeremiah with words of judgment against Judah. Jeremiah isn’t excited about his prophetic vocation, but he can’t seem to escape it. It’s not only that the powerful are sucking the lifeblood out of the powerless. The real problem is that they firmly believe they have the Lord’s stamp of approval on their behavior. They don’t worship the Lord in their hearts or actions. They are quite happy, however, to use the Lord to underwrite their infidelity and injustice.
But God will not be used (we find ourselves back at the First Commandment!). The result of the infidelity and injustice is exile. Jeremiah continues to serve in the first part of the exile period. In the midst of that work, Jeremiah announces – good news! What nerve! To talk about a new covenant when Judah has gone to hell in a handbasket – who would have guessed.
But Jeremiah knows that this is where the Lord does the best work – creating something out of nothing. Reformation rebuilding and reorientation usually are found among the ruins of what came before. Reformation is about being used by the Lord rather than using the Lord.
Final thoughts, illustrations, and resources
Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009.
Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, The Large Catechism, The Small Catechism
Wengert, Timothy. Martin Luther’s Catechisms, Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.