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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

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We’ve been reading through the letter of James in staff devotions at iServe Africa and a particular cluster of questions has arisen in our minds a number of times – How does this relate to the Reformation? Didn’t Luther hate James? Isn’t the great rallying call of the Reformation – ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ – against what James is talking about? Did the Reformation neglect the big New Testament emphasis on good works?

Three fairly brief thoughts on this and then a more extended quote:

  1. This was precisely the accusation at the time – by those from within the Roman church – that the Reformers were against good works. And it was answered numerous times by the Reformers, just as Paul had needed to answer the accusations against him that claimed that he was against the Law and good works (Romans 6-7). To give one example, in the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran theologians begin Article 20 (On Good Works), “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works” and close the article, “Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine [faith] is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise… call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing.”
  2. Luther did indeed dislike the letter of James. But a large part of the reason for that was that he thought it flatly contradicted Paul on justification. He could see no way that ‘faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ could be harmonised (Table Talk, 1532). Behind this seems to be an overly simplistic logical-grammatical-literal view of language. While Luther’s straightforward approach to the words of the Bible was brilliant for dismantling the linguistic gymnastics, subversions and allegories with which the scholastic Roman church had been torturing Scripture (see particularly Luther’s devastating On The Bondage of the Will), the same approach sometimes made him somewhat insensitive to the subtlety and variety of human language took him to some strange positions (e.g. his refusal to accept that ‘This is my body” could mean anything other than that the bread was Jesus’ body). In the case of James and Paul, Luther seems to assume that ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ have identical meanings across all Scripture rather than exploring whether James and Paul might mean rather different things by both ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ (cf. the use of ‘flesh’ by John and Paul).
  3. In fact Luther had a strong place for good works in his understanding of the life of faith. In one place, which I can’t locate, he speaks of the gospel taking the Law from being a stick to beat us to being a staff in our hand to help us walk along the way. In his commentaries and lectures Luther tracks the New Testament pattern of looking first to Christ as our substitute and then as our example; first gospel doctrine as the foundation, then good works built on top as the beautiful superstructure. Read for example his commentary on Galatians 5 or his Preface to Romans. In the latter, speaking of Romans 6, he says: “it is a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom is, therefore, a spiritual freedom which does not suspend the law but which supplies what the law demands, namely eagerness and love.” And on Romans 12: “These are the works that a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not idle.” Sounds quite a lot like James.

Some Luther historians have noted a shift in Luther’s emphasis from an early tight focus on faith alone and sovereign grace to a later concern to address the antinomianism tangent of some of his followers and to assert more strongly the need for holiness. Perhaps that is true, but it should be noted that even his early works often had a strong (and beautiful) doctrine of good works. Here is a passage from a very helpful article in the Grace Theological Journal by church historian James McGoldrick:

“In his treatise The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther stated, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At first glance the above propositions may appear to be irreconcilable, but Luther found them fully harmonious-correlative truths. He explained by citing the dictum of St. Paul, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor 9: 19 NIV). Luther held that genuine Christian faith always produces love, for faith must be active in love. Faith ascends to God, and Christian love descends to one’s neighbor and renders service to him as a fulfillment of the believer’s calling. The Christian does not need to work for his salvation, as the Romanists contended, so he is free to invest his life in the service of his fellow men. In the ultimate sense, one can do nothing for God, for he is utterly self-sufficient. Man, however, who has been created in the image of God, is constantly in need of spiritual and material assistance.

Luther stated it beautifully, “Faith is truly active through love. That is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with’ which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fulness and wealth of his faith.” Good works performed in faith do not bring benefit to God or to one’s self. They bring benefits to one’s neighbor. Although believers and unbelievers may perform exactly the same outward deeds, the works of the latter are not truly good.

In Luther’s understanding of the Christian life the believer’s self image as a servant is a fundamental motif. In the reformer’s words, “a Christian lives not in himself but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian). To those who claimed to possess saving faith but failed to demonstrate an active concern for their neighbors’ needs Luther issued a warning about the “illusion of faith.” He insisted that emotional responses to the gospel are not necessarily evidences of genuine faith. Active love, expressing itself in good works, is the only reliable external index of faith. Such love, Luther held, would extend to sharing one’s earthly goods with a neighbor in need. Just as Christ emptied himself when he left heaven to become man (Phil 2:5), believers should sacrifice their possessions for the benefit of those in need. When illness strikes Christians should aid the sick, even at the risk of contagion to themselves. Luther did so himself by remaining in Wittenberg to minister to the sick and dying during an epidemic of bubonic plague.” (McGoldrick, Luther on Life Without Dichotomy)

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“Through the law,” he says, “comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). He shows here how much and how far the law helps. In other words, he shows that ‘free will’ by itself is so blind that it is not even aware of sin, but has need of the law to teach it. But what effort to get rid of sin will anyone make who is ignorant of sin? Obviously, he will regard what is sin as no sin, and what is no sin as sin. Experience shows this plainly enough by the way in which the world, through those it regards as the best and most devoted to righteousness and godliness, hates and persecutes the righteousness of God proclaimed by the gospel, calling it heresy, error, and other abusive names, while advertising its own works and ways, which in truth are sin and error, as righteousness and wisdom. With this text, therefore, Paul stops the mouth of ‘free will’ when he teaches that through the law sin is revealed to it as to one ignorant of his sin. That is how far he is from conceding to it any power of striving after the good. [Luther, The Bondage of the Will]

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Martin Luther loved the Lord’s Prayer. He told his barber in “A Simple Way to Pray”:

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.

What Luther meant by this was not that he prayed the words of the Lord’s Prayer over and over as he had in his monastic days. No, he meant something quite different:

  • “I want your heart to be stirred and guided” by the Lord’s Prayer
  • “I do not bind myself to such words or syllables, but say my prayers in
    one fashion today, in another tomorrow, depending upon my mood and feeling. I stay however, as nearly as I can, with the same general thoughts and ideas [i.e. the 7 petitions of the Lord’s Prayer]. It may happen occasionally that I may get lost among so many ideas in one petition that I forego the other six. If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts”
  • “Prepare your heart for prayer” – which suggests that Luther had a similar pattern to George Mueller – Bible and then Prayer – read the Word and get your heart happy in Jesus first and then move into prayer.
  • “In a good prayer one fully remembers every word and thought from the beginning to the end of the prayer. So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, “He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.” How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!” (In practice this probably means praying out-loud or writing.)
  • And in another treatise (“An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer” 1519) he talks of praying the Lord’s prayer “against ourselves.” Speaking about ‘Thy will be done’ he says:

“We judge and accuse ourselves with our own words, declaring that we are disobedient to God and do not do his will. For if we really did his will, this petition would not be necessary…

God bids us to pray against ourselves… In that way he teaches us that we have no greater enemy than ourself. You see, our will is the most formidable element in us, and against it we must pray, “O Father, do not let me get to the point where my will is done. Break my will; resist it. No matter what happens let my life be governed not by my will, but by yours. As no one’s own will prevails in heaven so may it also be here on earth.” Such a petition or its fulfilment is indeed very painful to our human nature, for our own will is the greatest and most deep rooted evil in us, and nothing is dearer to us than our own will. Therefore, we are asking for nothing else in this petition than the cross, torment, adversity, and sufferings of every kind, since these serve the destruction of our will.”

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Luther resources

He wasn’t a perfect man or a perfect theologian but then that was his big point – Christianity is about twisted sinners looking to the perfect man and his perfect sacrifice and receiving him as food for beggars. If you haven’t read any Luther recently then you must. It’s totally gripping, explosive, pungent language that picks you up and gives you a shake and turns you to Christ alone. Here are some links:

 

 

 

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9781844744954-reeves-on-giants-shouldersREVIEW: Michael Reeves, On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing great theologians from Luther to Barth, IVP: 2011.

He’s done it again. Following on from The Breeze of the Centuries, Mike Reeves goes on to look at Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Schleiermacher and Barth, and once again incredibly manages to condense their life and writings into 20 or 30 pages each. It’s worth clarifying that he doesn’t affirm everything they affirm – Schleiermacher in particular is the father of modern liberal theology – but he is presenting us with ‘giants’ of theology who we need to reckon with and engage with.

This is a brilliant introduction – an absolute must read – my copy is covered in underlinings and scribbles. A few things that particularly struck me:

  1. Luther’s great insight that justification (and the sacraments) are about a Word and a righteousness coming to us from outside – they are external, alien to us.
  2. The discussion of Calvin’s life and particularly his family, sorrows, terrible health, role in mission and in the execution of the heretic Servetus, and his emphasis on knowledge of God touching the feelings is very helpful in clearing away some of the caricatures of the man.
  3. The concern of all the theologians discussed (with the exception of Schleiermacher) to understand not just an abstract, philosophical ‘God’ but the LORD of Scripture, the distinctively Trinitarian God revealed only through Christ. “And those who in their worship or [prayer] attempt an approach to the divine nature as absolutely considered, without respect to… the distinct persons of the holy Trinity, do reject the mystery of the Gospel, and all benefit of it. So it is with many” (Owen, quoted on p. 77).
  4. All of these theologians (again with the exception of Schleiermacher) see Christ present throughout the OT, speaking, appearing, saving as well as in all sort of types and patterns. Luther goes so far as to call OT believers, “Christians” and Edwards says, “When we read in the [OT] what God did from time to time towards his church and people, and what he said to them, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read after this of God’s appearing time after time in some visible form or outward symbol of his presence, we are ordinarily if not universally to understand it of the second person of the Trinity.” (quoted on p. 114)
  5. Feelings and affections are key to all of these theologians. But with Schleiermacher experience and feelings become everything. With Owen and Edwards revelation/Scripture gives rise to affections. With Schleiermacher the order is reversed and experience/feelings give rise to scripture/doctrine. History becomes irrelevant and faith becomes a personal, internal, subjective thing rather than (as Luther saw it) focussed on an external Word. The Cross is just inspirational and forgiveness is about not feeling guilty.
  6. While the first 1000 years of the church saw a gradual slide away from the Word as foundational and an increasing confidence in human reason and philosophy, with the Reformation (and with Barth) you see a return to the Word of God as the fountain of all our knowledge of God and ourselves and creation. In particular Barth’s brilliant move was to recover the 1 Cor. 1-2 doctrine of the unknowability of God through human reason and wisdom. “He wanted to reject all Pelagianism in our knowledge of God (i.e. actually contributing to it ourselves) to show that our knowledge of God is a divine gift… Thus Barth rejected all ‘natural theology'” (p. 154).

I’m worried that these theologians are not at all well known in our context here. Luther and Calvin everyone has heard of but few have read. In fact many of the sermons and statements of Luther, for example, if you were to preach them in a pulpit in Kenya would be thought of as a heretical new teaching. The others – John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth – have rarely even been heard of. Our ignorance of these guys (and I include myself in that ignorance) is dangerous – because we fail to learn both from their greatest insights and greatest mistakes.

Once again, Mike Reeves wants us more than anything to get back into the sources themselves – “That at least has been the aim of this utterly unoriginal book” – and fortunately a lot of this stuff is online:

And a final word from Owen:

Do any of us find decays of grace prevailing in us; deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Do we find an unreadiness unto the exercise of grace in its proper season and the vigorous acting of it in duties of communion with God? And would we have our souls recovered from these dangerous diseases?

Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea no other way but this alone, namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory putting forth its transforming power unto revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.

(Owen quoted on p. 85)

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In previous posts (e.g. here) we’ve found that looking at the Psalms as Songs of Jesus is revolutionary in allowing us to capture their full grandeur and grace. But what then do we do with the Psalms which talk about the Psalmist’s many sins?

One way is to say, Jesus isn’t saying those bits – that was David speaking for himself and showing he was not the perfect Christ. But then that easily takes us back to the skim and pick selective strategy. Because the surprising thing is that it’s in some of the most clearly Messianic Psalms that the writer is also very clear about his sin.

Two examples: Psalm 40 and Psalm 69. Psalm 40:6-8 is cited by the author of Hebrews as speaking uniquely of Jesus (incarnation and crucifixion). Various verses of Psalm 69 are quoted by John, Romans and Acts and there are multiple NT allusions, particularly in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. So both seem to be clearly Psalms of Jesus. Furthermore there is no obvious change in the speaker through the Psalm – it is the Christ speaking throughout in the first person.

What if (hold on, don’t stone me yet) we say that Jesus is saying these things? Is talking about ‘his sins’ in some sense. What! How can Jesus be talking about ‘his sins’? Well I affirm the purity and faultless obedience of Christ as much as anyone but look at these Scriptures:

My beloved is mine and I am his (Song of Songs 2:14)

The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all… and [he] was numbered with the transgressors (Isaiah 53:6, 12)

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (John 3:14)

For our sake he made him to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21)

Christ… becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13)

So yes, Jesus did no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isa. 53:9) and yet he was counted as a transgressor (Isa. 53:12); he ‘knew no sin’ (2 Cor. 5:21) yet he was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21); he was made a curse, made the snake on the pole; in our marriage union with him, as we have become his, our sins have become his. Or as Luther puts it with breath-taking force:

For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin. . . . He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.”  No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God.  (Martin Luther, Works, 22:166-67 (ht Dane Ortlund))

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