25 October 2017 (Cahaba Brewery)
Narration and quotations read in turn by Gil Kracke, Andrew Pearson, and Mark Gignilliat
I – Autobiographical fragments and references
II – Subject of theology
III – The role and nature of scripture
IV – Law and gospel
V – Life lived in freedom
VI – Towards our deaths
I: Autobiographical fragments and references
[Let’s start with Luther himself looking back on his life. In a preface to one of his writings in 1545, he reflected on what is called his “Tower Experience.” In the tower of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, a new understanding of the gospel apprehended Luther. From his “pounding upon Paul” and wrestling with Romans 1:17, Luther came to understand God’s justification of the ungodly.]
I hated the phrase “the righteousness of God”. … Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. … I did not love – nay, in fact, I hated this righteous God who punished sinners … Thus I drove myself mad, with a desperate and disturbed conscience, persistently pounding upon Paul in this passage, with a parched and burning desire to know what he could mean.
At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night, … there I began to understand the “righteousness of God” as that by which the righteous man lives by the gift of God, namely by faith. … At this I felt myself straightway born again, and to have entered through the open gates into paradise itself. From that moment the whole face of Scripture was changed. …
And now, where I had once hated the phrase “the righteousness of God”, so much I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of words, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise for me.
From the Preface to The Complete Edition of Latin Writings, 1545
[As the culmination of the chain of events begun with Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses on the door in Wittenberg, Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet at Worms in 1521. When he was given the choice to recant or face what was near-certain death, Luther returned the next morning with these words:]
Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture … [or] by manifest reasoning, I stand [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed; and [unless] my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I can not and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
[In the years that followed, Luther would at times reflect on what was happening with the movement to reform the church.]
I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I – poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am – come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold.
The Word created heaven and earth and all things; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners. … Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word, otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nicholas von] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. … I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.
From a sermon in March 1522 (first week of public return from the Wartburg; LW 51:77-78)
II: The proper subject of theology (God’s love of the ungodly)
[For Luther, every Christian is a theologian, as every Christian is beneath the word of God and its work. The subject of theology is the relationship the justifying God creates with the sinning human – an act of sheer grace that occurs in the word of scripture and in the word preached. The saving act of God’s justification of the ungodly is the central idea for Luther.]
The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner. … All Scripture points to this … A man should know himself – should know, feel, and experience that he is guilty of sin and subject to death; but he should also know the opposite, that God is the Justifier and Redeemer of a man who knows himself this way.
Commentary on Psalm 51, 153
God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace.
On the Seven Penitential Psalms, 1517
[Luther was showing his reforming hand in a letter he wrote to a fellow monk in 1516 – more than a year before the 95 Theses:]
Therefore, my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not.” Beware of your ceaseless striving after a righteousness so great that you no longer appear as a sinner … For Christ dwells only in sinners.
From a letter from Luther to Georg Spenlein, April 8, 1516
[Luther was constant in seeing the church as a place for sinners and sufferers, and not as a place for the self-righteous or self-sufficient.]
May God in His mercy save me from a Christian Church where there are none but saints. I want to be … in that Church where there are faint-hearted and weak people, the sick, and those who are aware of their sin, misery, and wretchedness, and feel it, and who cry to God without ceasing and sigh unto Him for comfort and help; and believe in the forgiveness of sins and suffer persecution for the Word’s sake.
Exposition of John 1 (date unknown)
III: The role and nature of scripture
[Luther was a man of the word of God. To say that he believed in the word having a living power does not describe it enough. Not only was the word powerful, but personal.]
Note well that the power of Scripture… will not be altered by the one who studies it. Instead, it transforms the one who loves it. It draws the individual in – into itself – and into its own powers.
First Lectures on the Psalms, 1513; on Psalm 68:14
It is not enough that God speaks. It is necessary that he speaks to you.
LW 2:271, on Gen. 12:4
And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works, but depend on that which is outside ourselves; that is, on the promise and truth of God.
Commentary on Galatians, 1535
The word “ears” is emphatic and forceful to an extraordinary degree. … God no longer requires the feet or the hands or any other member; He requires only the ears. … For if you ask a Christian what the work is by which he becomes worthy of the name “Christian”, he will be able to give absolutely no other answer than that it is hearing the Word of God, that is, faith. Therefore the ears alone are the organs of a Christian, for [one] is justified and declared to be a Christian, not because of the works of any member but because of faith.
Lecture on the Letter to the Hebrews, 1517
[Luther felt the rich depth of the Bible, with Christ being the content of all scripture. He never tired of repeating this theme throughout his life.]
There is no doubt that all the scripture points to Christ alone.
Take Christ out of the scriptures and what more will you find in them?
Bondage of the Will (WA 18:606)
Christ cannot be known except through his word.
I see nothing in the Scripture except Christ crucified.
The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.
In reality our knowing is passive rather than active; that is, we are known by God rather than that we know Him. We must let God work in us. He gives the Word.
Commentary on Galatians, 1535
Here [in the Scriptures] you find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simply and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.
Preface to the Old Testament, 1523/45
IV – Law and Gospel
[God speaks. The living God speaks a living word that does the thing which is spoken. One of Luther’s great themes is God’s speaking in two words: law and gospel. The two words are always distinct one from another, but each is the word of God with its own work, to be given at its own time, and for its own purpose.]
Whoever knows well how to distinguish the gospel from the law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.
Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535)
The law humbles [us], not to [our] destruction, but to [our] salvation. For God wounds that he may heal again: He kills that He may quicken again.
Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535)
The law is for the proud, and the gospel is for the broken-hearted.
[As sin remains even in a Christian, the law as the word of God still has a work to do. Luther could speak of that part of us which is “Christian”. To that part of us, the law has no jurisdiction – that part of us is under the gospel. But to the part in each of us that still stands in opposition to God, the law is the needed word. Once the law has done its work, the word of the gospel begins its own work.]
Therefore the Christian is divided this way into two times. To the extent that he is flesh, he is under the law; to the extent that he is spirit, he is under the gospel.
Lectures on Galatians (LW 26:342)
This is the true and best use of the law, when it drives men to Christ.
Commentary on Galatians (1535)
The law, when in its true office, does nothing else but reveal sin, accuse and terrify men so that it brings them to the very brink of desperation. This is the use of the law and here it has an end. Contrariwise, the gospel is a light that lightens, quickens, comforts, and raises up fearful consciences. For it shows that God, for Christ’s sake, is merciful to sinners, and to such as are most unworthy, if they believe that by His death they are delivered from the curse, that is to say, from sin and everlasting death. … Thus, making a distinction between the law and the gospel, we ascribe to each its own proper function. Unless the gospel is clearly distinguished from the law, true Christian doctrine cannot be kept sound and uncorrupt. … [For] without Christ, everything leads to death.
Commentary on Galatians (1535)
What is the purpose of this humbling, bruising and beating down? It serves to bring us to grace. So the law is a minister that prepares the way for grace. God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, and the desperate who have been brought to nothing. His nature is to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to give sight to the blind, to comfort the miserable, afflicted, bruised and brokenhearted, to justify sinners, to bring the dead to life, and to save the very desperate and the damned.
Commentary on Galatians (1535)
V: Life lived in freedom
[As the justifying God engages the sinning human with the saving act of grace – given as a gift through his living word – the result is a living and active faith. As the sinning human hears the gospel, faith is given as a gracious gift of God.]
Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. … Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. … Hence, a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light [from] fires.
From the Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1522)
[The freedom we enjoy in this faith led Luther to become a formidable man of prayer.]
Pray, and let God worry.
The fewer the words, the better the prayer.
I have so much to do; I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.
Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of his willingness.
[The gracious gift of faith also freed Luther to enjoy colorful and deep relationships. The correspondence Luther had with his friends are gems illustrating the freedom enjoyed by Christians.]
[This is from a letter Luther wrote to his Wittenberg colleague Phillip Melanchthon in 1521, while Luther was in exile at the Wartburg.]
Do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. … It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.
From a letter from Luther to Melanchthon, August 1, 1521; from the Wartburg
[From a letter Luther wrote to Georg Spalatin in 1544, who had fallen into a deep depression over his sin. Luther – in a playful, ironic way – encourages his friend.]
It must surely be that heretofore you have been only a trifling sinner, conscious only of paltry and insignificant faults and frailties. … Therefore, my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners! You must by no means make Christ to seem petty and trivial to us – as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No! That would not be good for us. Christ must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous and damnable transgressions and iniquities – … in brief, from all sins added together in a grand total. … Aha! You want to be a painted sinner and, accordingly, expect to have in Christ a painted Savior. You will have to get used to the belief that Christ is a real Savior and you a real sinner.
From a letter from Luther to his friend Georg Spalatin, 1544
VI: Towards our deaths
[Lastly, Luther was a man who dealt with death. From his living, daring confidence in God’s grace, Luther reckoned forcefully with the death of death itself, brokered in the death of Christ. He gives us the gift of facing the last enemy which confronts us all, in the certain and sure knowledge that death is not our master.]
When Christ has the trumpet blown at the Last Day, everyone will pop up and be resurrected like flies who lie dead in the winter.
Behold, you are saddened, you are afflicted, you have been led into hell by the law and by your black cholera that torments you. Do not despair, there is a rhubarb that is by far the best, namely, Christ; lay hold of him and you will live.
Once [Christ] is received by faith, a very great battle is begun. The strongest giants, who even devour the entire world, namely, the two deaths, death itself and Christ’s death, are engaged in battle with each other. Yet Christ cries out right away: I am the death of death, the hell of hell, the devil of the devil. Do not fear, my son, I have won. … Be of good cheer … you will not die.
From the Second Disputation Against the Antinomians, 1538
In Christ, God offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. … [At the end of your life], you will have to let God be God, and grant that he knows more about you than you do yourself.
From “A Sermon on Preparing to Die” (1519)
Even if I die, so what? I will still sing, for Christ is risen and he is the first fruits. I have him, I believe in him, and I am baptized in him – and he has promised that he will take me to himself.
WA 36:543 (Sermon given in 1532)
[As his own death approached, Luther faced it typically, waiting to receive from his heavenly Father. Luther knew our entire lives are given as acts of grace from God, through the certainty of the gospel. Thus, the last written words we have from Luther, written two days before his death in February, 1546, were a witness to his testimony of a receptive life:]
We are beggars: this is true.