Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Luther’s Grumpy Best

The Crucifixion
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:16-24).

Of all the confessional writings contained in the Book of Concord, The Smalcald Articles are my favorite. The Smalcald articles are one of three documents contained in the Book of Concord penned by Martin Luther himself (the other two being the Large and Small Catechisms). That fact alone, however, is not the reason for its appeal. In the Smalcald articles, as one theologian recently described, you get Dr. Luther at his “grumpy best”. The reason was simple: Luther thought that he was dying.

In December 1536 Luther was commissioned by elector John Frederick to write a statement of faith (McCain, Baker and Veith). This statement of faith was to contain all of the things in which the Evangelicals absolutely could not yield, and was to be used as a guide for the Lutheran theologians when they eventually met at the council called by the Pope. John Frederick ordered Luther to treat this document as his last will and testament, and he meant it:

It will nevertheless be very necessary for Doctor Martin to prepare his foundation and opinion from the Holy Scriptures, namely, the articles as hitherto taught, preached, and written by him, and which he is determined to adhere to and abide by at the council, as well as upon his departure from this world and before the judgment of Almighty God, and in which we cannot yield without becoming guilty of treason against God, even though property and life, peace or war, are at stake” (McCain, Baker and Veith).

Shortly thereafter Luther became deathly ill. Historians believe that he suffered a heart attack at that time (McCain, Baker and Veith). Luther did not have to pretend that The Smalcald Articles were his last will and testament. He believed that his own death was imminent, and he wrote in such a manner as to fit his circumstances. The language is urgent, to the point, and sometimes terse. He comes right to the point and does not concern himself with the feelings of his theological opponents. No flowery language, just Biblical theology. To me, this comes out most clearly in Luther’s writings about sin, the Law, and repentance.

He wastes no time telling us what sin is:

Here we must confess, as Paul says in Romans 5:12, that sin originated from one man, Adam. By his disobedience, all people were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil[1] (McCain, Baker and Veith).

And what the fruits of sin are:

The fruit of this sin are the evil deeds that are forbidden in the Ten Commandments. These include unbelief, false faith, idolatry, being without the fear of God, pride, despair, utter blindness, and, in short, not knowing or regarding God. Also lying, abusing God’s name, not praying, not calling on God, not regarding God’s Word, being disobedient to parents, murdering, being unchaste, stealing, deceiving, and such. This hereditary sin is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather, it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture (McCain, Baker and Veith).

He writes about how the Law shows us our sin:

But the chief office or force of the Law is to reveal original sin with all its fruit. It shows us how very low our nature has fallen, how we have become utterly corrupted[2] (McCain, Baker and Veith).

He writes about how God justifies us sinners, not by the Law, but through faith in Christ:

Allegory of the Old and New Testaments Hans Holbein the Younger
By the Law He strikes down both obvious sinners and false saints. He declares no one to be in the right, but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer. As Jeremiah says, “Is not My word like…a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” This is not active contrition or manufactured repentance. It is passive contrition, true sorrow of heart, suffering, and the sensation of death[3]…but to this office of the Law, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the Gospel. This must be believed[4]…Whenever the Law alone exercises its office, without the Gospel being added, there is nothing but death and hell, and one must despair, as Saul and Judas did. St. Paul says, through sin the Law kills. On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness. It does so not just in one way, but through the Word and the Sacraments and the like[5]… (McCain, Baker and Veith).

Good stuff, all of it. Then he gets grumpy. The subject of how sinful man is justified is the A-1 topic of the Reformation. In Article III, Section III of the Smalcald Articles Luther discusses what he called the false repentance of the Papists. He writes that his opponents teach incorrectly about repentance because they teach incorrectly about sin. Luther angrily points out that people were being taught that, if they confessed their sins and rendered satisfaction for them, they merited forgiveness. Luther writes:

So even in repentance, they taught people to put confidence in their own works…There was here no mention of Christ and faith. People hoped to overcome and blot out sins before God by their own works. With this intention, we became priests and monks, so we could protect ourselves against sin[6] (McCain, Baker and Veith).

He goes on to describe the attitude of the people toward sin and repentance during his time, If we are honest, we will admit that little has changed in the intervening centuries. People will gladly repent of the sins they consider to be “bad”. The problem arises when we consider the sin “good”. Luther uses the examples of illicit love and vengeful anger. These two particular issues have not changed from the Fall to the time of St. Paul, to the time of Luther, to the present day. 

He who could not have contrition at least ought to have “attrition.” I call that half a contrition, or the beginning of contrition. The fact is, they themselves [Luther’s opponents] do not understand either of these terms, anymore than I do. But such attrition was counted as contrition when a person went to Confession. If anyone said that he could not have contrition or lament his sins (as might be the case with illicit love or the desire for revenge, etc.), they asked whether he wished or desired to have contrition. When one would reply “yes” – for who, save the devil himself, would say “no”? – they accepted this as contrition. They forgave him his sins on account of this good work of his. Here they cited the example of St. Bernard and others[7] (McCain, Baker and Veith).

People were being taught – and were willing to believe – that they could live as they wished, doing as they pleased and, as long as they made the proper penance, they would be justified. How often have the faults of the spouse and the feelings of “love” toward the lover been cited in an effort to justify the dissolution of a marriage? How many times have we justified our ill-treatment or hatred of our enemies based on logical reasons (not to mention emotions that felt so good)? Sure, we recognize that it is sinful to commit adultery, but our case is special. Surely God understands the intricate nuances of our individual situation, and won’t count this particular case of adultery against us. After all, we’re in love.

We understand that Holy Scripture teaches us that to hate our brother is to murder him[8], and we even agree! It’s just that, in the case of our particular enemy, things are different because they are particularly evil. Surely God doesn’t hold us to this standard in our particular case, seeing as he is just, and knows how bad the other person is, and just how terrible the thing is that they have done to anger us.

Luther described how the people would exhibit contrition by basically wishing that they felt bad for the “just” sin that they were committing, but didn’t because they had a good reason for committing it. We are no different today. They, like us and men of all ages, tried to earn their salvation and forgiveness by keeping the law. They realized, however, that they couldn’t, so they set up their own law to keep, much like the Pharisees. The depravity of man is so complete, however, that men cannot even keep their own contrived rules. We are dead in our trespasses. We are utterly lost and cannot reconcile ourselves to God. Worse yet, we don’t want to be reconciled to God. In our unregenerate state we want God to accept us on our own terms. We act as though we have a bargaining position in this situation.

In our baptism we were united with Christ, who died to set us free from sin and the way of the Law (Engelbrecht). Now we should act like it. Eternal life has been promised to the justified. Those who live according to the flesh, as evidenced by their unrepentant continuation of the “works of the flesh” St. Paul describes, retain neither faith nor righteousness[9]. Having been united with Christ in our baptism, we have, as St. Paul says elsewhere, been united with Christ in his death, and we will also be united with him in his resurrection[10].

The Christian freedom which St. Paul describes earlier in his letter to the Galatians means conducting oneself by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit (Engelbrecht). So, each day we attempt to walk according to the Spirit as new creatures in Christ. When we inevitably stumble and sin, doing not the good we want to do but the evil we do not want, we come to the cross in penitent faith and receive the forgiveness that Christ won for us there with his holy precious blood and by his innocent suffering and death. This gift is just that – a gift we cannot earn. Any attempt to do so, however small or logical the human requirement may seem, demeans Christ and his sacrifice. There is not room for our penance on Christ’s cross. All Christians should become a little grumpy with whoever attempts to tell us that there is.

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

McCain, Paul Timothy, et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Trans. William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

End Notes

[1] SA III I 1

[2] SA III II 4 

[3] SA III III 2

[4] SA III III 3

[5] SA III III 7-8

[6] SA III III 12, 14

[7] SA III III 16-17

[8] 1 John 3:15

[9] Ap V 227 

[10] Romans 6:5