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Reading Luther’s Spirituality together

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Luther’s Spirituality
Christ
Lutheran Church in El Cerrito, CA for February 3rd 2008

Look at Luther’s poignant way of describing the experience that made him a theologian:

“Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but livingnay, dying and being damnedmake a theologian.”

That is a little more radical than saying:

Oratio, meditatio, tentio facit theologum,

that is, “Praying, meditating, and enduring attacks of temptation make a theologian.”

Timothy Wengert uses the above citation to describe Luther’s spiritual journey, saying, however, that prayer, meditation, and enduring the assault of temptation are all oriented by Luther toward the Word of God. Indeed, Luther was trying to interpret the scripture Romans 1:17 when he experienced justification by faith:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that God was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punished sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with God’s righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless I beat importunately upon Paul at this place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At Last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘One who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live, by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, the passive righteousness by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “One who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word, “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was truly the gate to paradise.[1]

This is the experience Luther had in his encounter with the Word of God and which we call justification by faith.

Thus faith is not just a belief of a doctrine, such as justification. Luther defines “faith as a busy, restless, active thing, abounding in good works for my neighbor.” Already saved by a free gift of God, we become free of self absorption. We can turn away from ourselves and turn toward the needs of our neighbors and save them. Luther says if our faith does not transform us and issue into these abounding good works, then it is a sterile and empty faith and it would be better not to have it. (I am paraphrasing Luther here.)

For Jane Strohl Luther’s path of faith goes from the terror of the conscience, to faith, to repentance, and assurance. For her trial and temptation are the initial means of spiritual formation. The Christian is stripped time and again of presumption and delusions of righteousness. One is thrust into an existential free-fall, she writes, with nothing to break the descent into darkness, nothing to hold onto but Jesus the Christ.

coincidentia oppositorum

Luther keeps putting opposites together: confident despair, Christ and the sinner, sinner and saint, at one and the same time righteous and sinful; fully sovereign and free in faith, completely enslaved as a servant to the other by love; over everyone because of faith and under everyone because of love. In logic this would simple be contradictory. But Luther is expressing the dynamics of experience, development, and change. It is the logic of life.

On the question of the devil: see url: http://www.elca.org/questions/Results.asp?recid=25

Another website is also interesting in this regard: Do you believe in the devil? The devil is against all belief and it would only be appropriate to believe against the devil, that un-person who wants to destroy all persons and thus cannot be believed in as we do God (according to Karl Barth).

See http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2006/07/do-you-believe-in-devil.html

My thoughts: Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it!” is an attempt to escape human and personal moral responsibility. Because God looks at the heart of a person (the heart can be defined as the center of the responsible self), we can never escape the moral choice between good and evil. But there are powers that far surpass those of an individual. These are the ones that were defined as under the control of the devil. But Flip Wilson’s remark concerns a choice that is obviously under his control and thus misinterprets what used to be understood as the devil.

Could the devil be a false god who condemns us and wants holy war, an oxymoron, of course, never wants us to have one happy moment but wants to destroy us and all God’s creation and bring it to nothing? The devil tries to persuade us that we could never be pleasing and acceptable to God. In a sense, then Luther’s struggle led him through the devil to God. This could explain why there is no dualism. Any false god or idol will bring us to nothingness. Now Luther says that it is also God bringing us to nothing. The devil stops there. God, however, makes us into nothing so that we can be created by God from nothing. Does this help in understanding the devil?

Luther’s Commentary on Psalm 82

God addresses the rulers of the world, the “gods” of the nations, Luther explains, and expects them to protect the weak and the orphans. Their power is limited by the Word of God, however. They are to submit to it because it has appointed them. They are to provide the order and peace that allows preachers to preach the word. It is also the preachers’ duty to rebuke a ruler who does injustice and the princes are to submit to them. For the preachers to keep silent is betrayal, not when they openly speak their criticism, which is their office. Luther does not give the people this right – although before the Peasants’ War of 1525, he had given the right and power to the Christian community/congregation to judge all teaching, call, appoint, and dismiss its teachers (the Leisnig Pamphlet of May, 1523).

The ruler, because of his or her great power, was a secular savior, who could bring mountains of good to their people or untold harm, in which case they are really beasts and devils. To make war, according to the Romans, said Luther, was to fish with a golden net. Nothing gained outweighed the cost of the war. It would be better to pay all that the war would cost to prevent it.

The ruler should not spread faith and religion, but rule by reason and the law. In another place Luther says, it is better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian.[1] He lists the benefits of a wise ruler and the untold benefits of pastors of the Gospel.

Luther is more in line with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) than John Locke (1632-1704), who was the basic influence on our constitution. Luther disparaged the people from overthrowing a ruler. Hobbes no longer believed in divine right of kings, but still really mistrusted the people. He would have agreed with Luther that you can’t put lions, lambs, tigers, bears and snakes together and say, “Now live in peace.” They will tear each other up. Hobbes said that in the state of nature, every man is enemy to every man and life become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” A thousand years of tyranny are not as bad as one year of anarchy. Hobbes would underscore that statement.

Locke believed that the ruler, the government ruled by the consent of the governed, who had God-given natural rights, (the right to life, health, liberty, and possessions), and if the ruler no longer served the people, then they had a right to choose another ruler. A thousand years of anarchy are not as bad as one year of tyranny. Locke would align himself with that statement. Both thinkers had different ideas about the social contract. Hobbes had the people give up their rights to the ruler, who thereby attained absolute power; Locke had the contract between the people and the government, and power remained with the people.

The church and the pastors should remain the conscience of the government, but according to Luther, but the government remained under reason and the law. Thus according to reason, it is divided into three branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, for checks and balances, and remains under a constitution, in which no one is above the law. Thus the church is not part of the government and does not govern the people like the state, a Catholic idea. But when the government, the rulers go astray, it is the duty of the pastors, i.e., the church to speak truth to power, to use a modern phrase which captures Luther’s words in his Mirror for Princes, his commentary for Psalm 82.

Although we can look back and find Luther very regressive, he was very progressive for his time. The fact remains that he took history one further step along the way, and with a faith wonderfully filled with empathy for the human condition, many of his statements are not dated because they still penetrate our contemporary situation.

In the days before the Reformation, civil authority was thought to be derived from ecclesiastical authority. Luther took the civil government into the sunshine by its own right and out of the shadow of the church.

Because the priests of the clergy estate were very much involved in the government, Luther’s teaching of the priesthood of all believers, was a very democratic principle for that day. We can put this parole into a private compartment that we relegate to the church and religion today, and consider the priesthood of all believers to be irrelevant to the political, economic, and social forces of our day. In Luther’s day, however, the priesthood of all believers was revolutionary.

That he placed the civil authority under reason and the law, while he placed the church under faith and the gospel still provides a solid foundation that provided for the further conversion of the government and church as the two wings of a new social butterfly (to quote Inge Lønning of Norway). Basing the state on law and reason leaves Luther’s teachings about civil authority free for later development by political thinkers, like Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu (for the separation of powers).

Thus the happy development of our government based on Enlightenment thinking, and its further development, is solidly supported by Luther’s theology. Luther refused to see Christ as a judge and did not want the church involved in the judicial government of the people, nor become a quasi-state alongside the secular one, nor hanker after a Christian state, like Calvin’s theocracy.

It is foreign to Lutheran sensibilities to see the church as a spiritual government. The term “government” in the Lutheran tradition is pretty much relegated to civil authority. The church has to transcend this age and become the source and purpose of all the government can accomplish in a this-worldly way infused with all the grace of that other world proclaimed by Christ.

Admonishment to Pastors to Preach against Usury: How One should Give, Lend, and Suffer: February 17th 2008

One can speak about a spirituality of detachment as opposed to a spirituality of return. The latter would better describe Luther’s kind of spirituality. In a spirituality of detachment, very little is said about high interest rates and how they could affect common folk; nor would much, if anything, be said about good government. Where the ideal of detachment is the virgin, the ideal of return to the center is marriage. I usually call the spirituality of detachment centrifugal and that of return, or of involvement and participation, a centripetal spirituality.

For example, (on page 18 of Luther’s Spirituality), in his piece “About Fleeing Solitude” his emphasis is clear. They say, “To remain pure in heart, stay alone. Do not relate with other people.” Luther champions our socializing with others, because “isolation militates against marriage, the household, and statecraft.” “Christ did not always stay alone,” he continues. “His life was filled with what most resembles a riot, for people were always crowding around him.”[1]

So true to his spirituality, Luther here is speaking about usury, i.e., high interest. In his day some creditors charged 40% interest. Today some credit cards have over 30% interest, which is usury. Luther condemns this practice as wholesale theft and a murderous practice against the poor. For a summary of Luther’s social ethics, the editors’ introduction on pages 34-35 is excellent. When the primary vocation is the care for our neighbor, especially the poor, then “there should be no beggars amongst us.” Begging was a form of showing one’s piety in those days. The mendicant (begging) monks went from door to door begging alms and food. It was begging for self-humiliation and also asking for alms for the poor. But Luther considered that works-righteousness. God did not need our good works, while our needy neighbors did. Thus when the new church and state unfolded like two wings of a holy butterfly, the root causes of poverty would be overcome at the outset. Luther had a common chest instituted in a number of cities, from which children of the poor could receive money for education and dowries for their poor daughters.

When Luther writes this piece it is filled with irony. He says things precisely opposite to his meaning at times. Then he has parallel scenarios about how there are not many righteous Christian peasants and if all gathered up, they would make up a very small village; and not many of such citizens (burghers). They would compose a very small city. There are not many righteous Christian nobles and gathered together, they would need but a small fortress or castle.

Luther assails the rulers who persecute pastors and falsely charge that the pastors want to rule, while they really have almost become beggars. And one need not look for suffering. Just cross a ruler or noble and they would inflict suffering enough. Look at page 39 (in our book) and you will see how Luther has the pessimistic attitude similar to that of the later Thomas Hobbes. Only God’s word holds the world together so that people do not hate, whack, hack, abuse and injure one another.

He then takes up the arguments of usurers one by one and refutes them. Then he invites people to enjoy a holy usury using language of address, which is in the second person: if you are kind to the poor you lend to the Lord, who will reward you with a hundred percent on one gulden and a thousand on a hundred, and you cannot lose that reward; it will remain in heaven eternally for you.

At the end Luther says he does not mean to disparage an honest mortgage, but realizes that we have to be careful because “one greatly misuses all business transactions quite wondrously and falsely now” (page 45). That is quite relevant for our sub-prime mortgage debacle, the bond insurance companies, hedge funds, and some of the treacherous financial arrangements made by banks and large pension funds that default and go to 20% interest that in turn brings disaster to many.

Karl Marx called Luther “Germany’s first national economist” and H.J. Prien, in a German book about Luther’s Economic Ethics, said that Luther’s teachings are very important to the Third World debtor nations that can never get out of huge debts they owe the rich nations causing untold hardship among them, and to a permanent debtor class growing in our country now, I might add, as well.

Two pieces on Revelations by Luther follow. In the first one Luther disparages the book because it does not preach Christ and conceals more than it reveals. In the second preface to Revelations written much later, he attempts a historical interpretation of the book. Does it work?



[1] I’m searching for the source of this Luther quotation. It might be apocryphal. (Much like the quotation about planting an apple tree. I wonder if anyone has searched in Melanchthon for Luther quotations?) Luther did say, although I do not yet have the source: “I would rather be operated on by a Turkish surgeon than a Christian butcher.” The quotation about being ruled by a Turk fits with his attitude of relegating the state to reason and the church to faith and religion.


[1]Walter von Loewenich, Martin Luther: the Man and his Work, Translated by Lawrence W. Denef, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), Page 85.

[1] Luther’s Spirituality, page 18.

February 24, 2008

Luther’s two Prefaces to Revelations

The First is Dated 1522

Luther does not have much good to say about Revelations in this preface, which he wrote for the September-testament of 1522, when he had just translated Erasmus’ Greek New Testament while hidden away in the Wartburg Castle.

My spirit cannot abide this book and for me it is reason enough not to hold it in high regard that Christ is neither taught not recognized in it.

Luther has a surprisingly free attitude to the Scriptures here, demonstrating a disagreement he has with the whole book, much like that he had to James, which he called the “Epistle of Straw.”

In medieval apocalyptic, Jesus is depicted as a wrathful judge, condemning those on the left to hell, vindicating those on the right for entry into heaven. Luther in his experience of justification by faith comes to know Christ as a savior and he later says in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church to call Christ a judge is blasphemy.

That sentiment may also play a role in his throwing the canon law into the flames on December 10th 1520 and saying that the church should not be running the archdeaconal and episcopal courts, like a legislative arm of government controlling the people. The civil law was the law of the land and it did not receive its authority from the clergy.

Luther’s judgment of the book is harsh. It is full of images and visions, that conceal more than they reveal, he says in another place. Revelations threatens all who disobey what it says and all who keep what it has written will be blessed, “but no one knows what that is, let alone how to keep it” (page 47). He does not feel that Christ comes through clearly and purely in Revelations.

“Eschatology” is the study of last things. The creation story and the Garden of Eden in Genesis are first things and the New Jerusalem, the city of God, in Revelations is last things. “Apocalypse” is the imminent disaster and total and universal destruction. Here the moon changes into blood, the sun refuses to shine, and the stars fall down like rain from the sky. An apocalypse provides an end-of-the-world scenario. Often Revelations is called the Apocalypse of John.

The Preface is Dated 1530 and revised in 1546

In his second preface Luther changes his mind about Revelations somewhat. He interprets its prophesies through past and current events in church history. By 1530 Luther thought that apocalyptic writings could now help to interpret God’s actions in history by identifying the forces of opposition (page 47).

Luther, although he is still somewhat skeptical, holds up the images of Revelations and tries to match them with forces of opposition and events that took place against the church.

He writes that angels represent bishops and teachers, some good, many more bad, as depicted in the book (page 50). Harps represent preaching and incense represents prayer. Then he proceeds to interpret the four horsemen of the apocalypse (pages 50-51). The white horse stands for persecutions, the red one for bloodshed, the black one for inflation and hunger, and the pale horse for boils, pestilence, and death.

Spiritual tribulation begins with a variety of heresies. There are good angels, then the evil ones (page 51). The woes come with Arius, for example (page 52), and he makes the sixth angel Mohammad. He declares the papacy to be the seventh angel: it circumscribes the temple with its laws, shuts out the holiest of holies, and establishes a counterfeit church (page 52). The pope wants spiritual and temporal power establishing the fallen Roman Empire (page 53). Perhaps Thomas Hobbes read Luther because in the Leviathan he writes, “The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” (Before having read Luther or Hobbes, having just come out of an ecumenical meeting in Brooklyn, New York, I came to this realization myself, only that I included the Orthodox Church as the religious shape of the old Eastern Greek Empire. Thus Hobbes may also have come to this insight himself.)

Now in this ecumenical era, to declare the papacy the anti-Christ is no longer valid. It is better to say that when a church and faith are used to fight for the power and wealth of an earthly kingdom, then it becomes counterfeit.

In his day, Luther continues, the imperial papacy commits injuries by means of the scroll, that is, the canon law. Again in his interpretation of the scroll, we have more evidence for the thesis of my dissertation.

Tongue in cheek, Luther claims that Fabor, Eck, and Emser, his opponents, are the three frogs that croak against the gospel.

Luther mentions the 1527 sack of Rome by the forces of Charles V, ironically, the protector of the papacy (page 54). Satan is bound for a thousand years and after those 1,000 years he gets loose, brings Gog and Magog, whom Luther interprets as the Turks and Red Jews (probably some form of his anti-Semitism here) and they join Satan in the lake of fire.

Magog comes up in Genesis 10:2, where he is a son of Japheth, but included in a table of nations. Thus Magog could mean the land of Gog. Ezekiel has judgments and prophesies against Gog in chapter 38. “I am against you, O Gog, chief of Meshech and Tubal, etc.” (38:3).

Interestingly enough, in the Russian Religious Renaissance (Solovyov, Beryaev, Bulgakov, and the others, who turned away from communism and reverted to Chrsitianity), they felt that communism was a secular version of Islam. The first version was spread by Mohammad, while the second one was spread by communism. Many Moslem states, like Turkey, are well established in the secular moorings of reason and law. But in Islamization, the state spreads the religion and the religion spreads the state, which is a very difficult fusion of power to deal with. (Luther did not refer to communism by his term “Red Jews”, but it brings to mind how Anti-Semites have blamed the Jews for communism and capitalism. How can the Jews win?)

For Luther, the New Jerusalem proclaims consolation and assurance that the church and the gospel will prevail, even if the enemy of the church should be called the church and the faithful are called heretics. “The article still stands, ‘I believe in the holy Christian Church’” (page 55).

“Here we see clearly before our times what gruesome offenses and shortcomings there were when Christendom was supposed to be at its best” (page 56). The church is an article of faith, “that is why reason cannot recognize it even with spectacles on!” (page 56). The last paragraphs are filled with Luther’s consolation, where he is at his best.

Also if you are really good, you cannot know it: “as an individual Christian, one is also hidden from oneself in that one cannot see one’s own holiness and virtue but only one’s vice and unholiness” (page 56). Our holiness is in heaven where Christ is, he continues, as long as the word of the Gospel remains pure among us and we love and value it!

Scholia on Psalm 5: On Hope March 2, 2008

(The 32nd Anniversary of my ordination by Bishop Kurt Scharf in the Evangelical Church of Berlin Brandenburg in behalf of the Ohio Synod, LCA)

Scholia from the Greek scholion are critical, explanatory comments, a commentary put into the margins of a text as a gloss. A gloss is a word that comes from the Greek Glossa, meaning tongue or language. Glosses are notes written in the margins or between the lines of a book explaining the text. In Philip’s first Editor’s Introduction on page 57, he has Luther’s spirituality in a nutshell: the Word of God renews us internally and externally through the gift of the Holy Spirit and sacramentally through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is a word that frees us through justifying grace and it is lived out in the world with a Christian freedom that expresses itself in a spirituality that serves the neighbor. The Christian is sovereign and slave, saint and sinner, but hears from the word of Christ law and gospel, commands and promises, ascending in the rapture of faith and descending in suffering love. A new spiritual life is lived in faith in God’s justifying grace in Christ under the cross. (These words capture Lutheran spirituality succinctly.)

Luther has the concentration and intensity of thought to recapitulate the whole gospel in single words, like testament, faith, the first commandment, etc. He calls them “rich words that encompass everything and focus on one thing” (page 57).

In the Hebrew, flesh and spirit refer to two different orientations: the flesh is our whole persons turned in upon ourselves, away from God and neighbor. The spirit is the whole person turned upward toward God and oriented toward the needs of the neighbor. In the flesh one is self-absorbed. In the spirit one comes out of oneself. (“Ecstasy” means standing outside oneself, like “extra nos,” as well, being outside of ourselves, but never outside of God and the love of God.)

This section features hope, perhaps for Obama, even if Hillary is once again mentioned. Joking aside, this piece is not easy to understand, because it is quite theologically dense. Luther invites us to remain on a journey seeking God’s mercy and grace. When we have hope in God we rejoice. When our center, when our reliance is placed in good fortune, the good life, and honor, in order to escape impatience, sadness, and confusion, then we are like a lumberjack balancing on a log in a river (page 61). In that self-reliance in life, we fall right into the drink. When our hearts and our hope rest in God, then our feet are planted on firm ground, and then we start “growing beyond ourselves” (page 64). In the same way, we also cannot stand on our own works, be they the kind that leave a lot to be desired (on the left) or righteous and filled with good merit (on the right) so that we become pretentious about them: again we find ourselves perched on that slippery log floating down the river, falling off on one side or the other. We are called into the quietness and confidence and strength beyond ourselves in God.

If we make some rules and follow them and declare ourselves righteous because of it, we fall very short of growing in the grace and mercy of God. Separated from God we are all in sin. We move from the law to sin to mercy to hope and to salvation (page 61-62). We think that we get closer to God when we are righteous and holy. Really, especially when we are very spiritual, we can be farther from God than when we are in sin, because when we face adversity and suffering, we suddenly realize that it is only God’s mercy and grace that we can rely on. Our trust in our own spirituality must be torn away, so that we trust alone in the sheer mercy of God, so that we know that hope is nothing but a power poured into us (bottom of page 62).

Luther’s concepts of the left, where we are leading a sinful life, in which we dare not despair; and that concept on the right, where we are righteous and feel that we have merit, and become pretentious; fall short of seeking the good life only in God. Luther might be understood to say that we can never rest on our laurels, but in seeking, striving, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, God does more and more through us, but we can never bank on anything we have done.

Luther places opposites into tension once more so that we grow in faith and maturity. In self-psychology one speaks of a tension arc between the poles of idealization and mirroring that help a person become a healthy self. Luther has a tension arc between the poles of being sinners and saints, slaves and free, in despair and confidence, so that in the grace and mercy of God, we grow beyond ourselves into neighbors, nobility of the spirit, a priesthood, into Christs to one another as we are raptured in the ecstasy of our ascent into God, for the strength to descend in the suffering love through the same stages to be of help to the very least of these. As such a pilgrim, one must deny oneself, and continue on, riding solely on God’s mercy and grace, for one’s hope must rest in God [alone] and, moreover, [beyond oneself] [so] that one continues to long for hope (page 67), because all who hope in God rejoice (page 67).

Increasing in faith and growing in maturity is like going from one star-magnitude to another. (St. Paul uses the term, “glory”: “A star differs from star in glory”) (1 Corinthians 15:41). A sixth degree magnitude star can barely be seen by the naked eye. The big dipper has first and second degree stars in magnitude. How do we grow from one level of faith and maturity to another as persons as neighbors, royalty, priests, Christs, and enter into God where our hearts are no longer restless, but rest in Thee?

Kierkegaarde uses Hegel’s dialectic to explain how a person grows from one stage of existence to another of a higher quality. Opposites again clash and another level is reached by the grace of God. In the aesthetic phase, one seeks pleasure and avoids boredom at all cost. One is a party animal, until it all becomes hallow and bankrupt for the person. Then by grace, one enters the ethical stage of existence. One becomes completely responsible: works at a job, marries a spouse, has a family, becomes a householder; in short, takes many responsibilities. Then suddenly it all becomes empty and hollow. What is it all for? What does it all mean? In the courageous anguish at oneself, by sheer grace, one finally takes the leap of faith into the religious phase of life, where one becomes a knight of faith and shows humanity the way of life. Luther invites us to embark on this pilgrimage of grace from one quality of loving existence to the next.
N.B. Page numbers refer to our book, Luther’s Spirituality.

Notes upon Another Reading of the “Freedom of a Christian.” (March 25, 2009) Dr. Peter Krey

Luther organizes his pamphlet into three parts:

Part One: Points 1-19: the inner person or the soul

Part Two: Points 19-24: the outer person or the body

Part Three: Points 25-30: the relation of outward persons.

Right in the introduction or dedication, Luther’s language is filled with conflict and tension (Page 70).[1]

“Christ should be a sign and stumbling block, resisted and contradicted, against whom many take offence, who need to fall and be resurrected again” (70).

The two contradictory statements present the tension between freedom and responsibility:

A Christian person is a free sovereign,

above all things, subject to no one [by faith].

A Christian person is a dutiful servant

in all things and subject to everyone [by love].

The next opposition comes between the inner person or soul and the other person or body of the Christian.

The soul is spiritual, new and inward

The body is physical, old, and outward. This may be an oversimplification, because Luther speaks of the spiritual not in an object itself, but in how the object is used.

Point 3 seems to be absolute. I wonder if it is.

Point 4 argues that external acts are irrelevant to the righteousness [or integrity] of the soul.

Point 5  The Word of God, the Gospel preached by Christ makes the soul of a Christian alive, righteous, and free (p. 71). The soul is moved by the Word of God (72). It is written that the Word of God helped them. Christ was sent only to preach the Word of God.

Point 6 the gospel has to be preached in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you! So that you can come out of yourself, have your coming out party! When you are addressed by the Word, you surrender to the Word and trust the Word boldly.

Point 7 Forming the Word and Christ in us is the only work and exercise of a Christian (73), which is the dynamic of faith. The only work you need is to believe in the one God sent, that is in Jesus Christ. Obeying the first commandment of the ten is the one out of which the obedience to all the others flows. It represents the treasure of faith, because it requires trust in God and trust in God’s Word.

Isaiah 10:22. “Freedom of a Christian” itself is like the brief summation, the brief nutshell, and gospel lives can overflow from it and like a primal flood cover the earth. In other words, those filled by the Word of faith, filled by trust in God are a remnant out of whom the overflowing promises of God can come and cover the earth.

It is “the faith in which every commandment stands fulfilled” (73).

Point 8 Faith alone without works is a superabundant treasure. Scripture is filled with commands, which are old testament and by promises which are new testament. Here OT and NT are understood as the last will and testament of Christ, who died for us making us the heirs of all God’s promises. The whole gospel can be inside of this word, “testament.” These words can also mean the parts of the bible.

Point 8 to 9 goes from the law to the gospel (74).

“Believe it and you have it, don’t and you won’t.”

Heraklitus of old: everything changes but change itself. Parmenades: everything stays the same. Nothing changes. Luther’s theology places opposites in tension, just like Heraklitus and that brings change, growth, and development.

When gold was money, Heraklitus said: “All things can compensate for fire and fire can compensate for all thins, like goods for gold and like gold for goods.” Not all things, but people believe that everything can be changed into money and money can be changed back into everything. Friendship and love and trust are some things that money cannot buy. Everything in the life-world can be changed into language and words are a kind of currency in this sense. “Words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.”[2] Luther argues that faith and trust are also like that. “For I have placed all things in a compact form inside of faith, so that whoever has faith has all things and is saved and whoever does not have faith has nothing” (74). Trust is an all inclusive currency out of which all righteousness comes and returns.

Gold: all things go in and come out.

Money: all things go in and come out.

Words: all things go in and come out.

Trust/ faith: all things go in and come out.

The promises of God provide what the commandments require.

Point 10 The Word and the soul are like an iron put into a fire, making the iron become red-hot. “The one who hears the Word becomes like the Word, pure, good, and just.”

Luther is saying that the work of the soul has to be done in the self and a focus on the self is necessary before considering an action agenda, to use other words for “works” (74-75).

Point 11 By believing God Luther means that we look upon God as addressing us in good faith. A lawyer noted that their code words for, “I am going to sue you!” are “you are no longer operating with me in good faith.” Not to believe God is to hold that God is not relating to us in good faith (75).

Point 12 Luther used the picture of an iron in the fire for the soul in the Word. Now he uses the picture of a marriage between Christ the bridegroom and the soul as the bride. “Christ and the soul become one body” (75). This is called the marvelous exchange and the struggle is the deadly duel which is involved for the joyful marriage to take place.

The exchange: old birth for the new birth

Our birth for the birth of Christ

Poverty for riches

Hatred for love

Sin for righteousness

Death for life

Curse for a blessing

Whore for a happy housemother and wife

That is harsh, but probably accurate. We receive all the attributes of God, while Christ takes our birth, sin and mortality and in the almighty power of God overcomes them and provides forgiveness.

Point 13 You can be filled with good works from head to toe and yet this marriage has not transpired.

Luther is uncovering the source of all good works, which is the faith of the heart. Trust and faith are the head and the whole essence of righteousness (77).

Point 14 Luther says, “What other good things do we find in Christ” as if he were opening a sack filled with presents, as if opening a treasure chest. Christ is like Santa Clause with a sack full of presents. It is here where what I call the existential rapture becomes obvious, but the tension of opposites right from the start generate this growing and maturing in Christ (77). “The Christian person is lifted up so high over all things!” (78) (Carl Gustav Jung calls this the transcendent function.)

In Christ we receive the first born son status, whether we are sons or daughters, no matter our birth order. The real Son of promise is Jesus Christ. The first born is the heir and becomes the king/queen and priest. We are not heirs to earthly possessions but of spiritual goods, “although temporal goods are not thereby excluded.” “Christ teaches us inwardly in our hearts.” We could also use the word sovereignty instead of rapture: a person is lifted up so high over all things. We receive a truly almighty sovereignty over a spiritual kingdom: such is the authority and freedom of a Christian. Even evil and death have to serve the Christian (78).

Point 16 Who can even imagine how high the honor and status of a Christian is?

The person in Christ and Christ in the heart of the person:

First born son and heir the ascent of faith Nobility of the spirit king or queen priest interceding before God Christ into God.

The descent in love goes all the way down humbly serving “the least of these.” This rapture takes place by faith and not by works. To want it by works is like Aesop’s dog with a bone in his mouth, sees his reflection in a stream and tries to snatch the bone out of that dog’s mouth and loses both his bone and the reflection. Works will not provide these benefits.

Point 17 We are the priesthood of believers: what of pastors? They are merely performing a different function; they are not different in status.

The power and privilege usurped by the clergy estate, where they used their sword of the spirit and sword of iron, for their material benefit, obscuring the whole gospel. They took Christ away (79). Christ has to be preached (80). This Word of God has to be preached. It makes us rejoice in the core of our being. Christ becomes our sweet heart of love.

Part Two: Point 19 Luther moves from being a sovereign to being a servant; from the ascent in faith to the descent in love, from faith to love, from the soul to the body (80-81). It is in the external that we achieve the first fruits.

Point 20 The spirit has to harness and discipline the body. The inner self is united with God, the flesh has a recalcitrant will and desires pleasure. We are to pummel the body so it conforms to our spirit. Note: “The spirit is strong but the flesh is weak.”

Works have to be done freely out of love and be done for nothing, just to please God. to do that we have to subdue the obstinate willfulness of the body. But righteousness remains by faith and not by doing more and more good works (82). Point 22 The examples: Adam and Eve, the bishop, the tree and the fruit, and the carpenter. Adam and Eve were created righteous and tilling the soil and gardening was their joyful response. A person going around consecrating churches and ordaining pastors is an impostor and will never that way become a bishop (83). Neither do we become good person by doing good works.

Point 23 A good and righteous person does good and righteous works and not vice versa. A tree bears the fruit and not vice versa. The self has to grow and mature and the action agenda depends on that. The action agenda of a psychotic person does not make them whole, but the therapy, the talking cure, which heals the disturbed and distorted self can. In the empathy and trust of the relationship, the self becomes whole, not through doing good. When a person has faith and receives grace, then the person seeks to please God by works.

Point 24 Righteousness or evil does not follow from works but from faith. The beginning of sin is to depart from God and trust in God (84). It is a falling out of relationship.

We have to start with the person, not the works. In the eyes of people coram hominibus good works = good person. Luther is writing about the person before God, i.e., coram Deo. But to make external works determinative makes for the blind leading the blind. One must look inside the person. Luther looks at our soul with in-depth psychology or theology. We do not believe in salvation by works but by faith.

Law (commands) and Gospel (promises): the Word of God in the form of commands frightens us into contrition, while in the form of promises of grace we are comforted by faith (85).

Part Three Point 26 Outward bodies in relation with others:

Here good works are required for which our faith has to get to work with pleasure and love (86). All works are done for the good of the neighbor and not in order to go to heaven or do penance. Because we have received all things over abundantly by faith in Christ, all our works and our whole lives are left over to be able to serve our neighbor freely with love. We empty ourselves (Phil 2:5) and becoming human we take the role of servants: the kenosis theme (86-87).

Point 29 Here Luther takes the ascent of faith into Christ: To my neighbor I will become a Christ just like Christ died for me and I freely serve my neighbor for nothing. Mary humbles herself and goes under the law in solidarity with common folk (88). Paul circumcises Timothy but not Titus. Christ has Peter pay the head tax, even though children of the king pay no taxes. We are to submit to civil authorities. Works done in penance are for our selfish salvation and they are not done for others (89). Luther now describes the joyful economy of abundance. We inherit the whole testament. Thus God’s possessions must flow from one person into another and be [held] in common. Each person should accept the neighbor as if the neighbor were him or herself. Christ is the currency and Christ is the clearing house of all our gifts received from on high. Even our faith and our righteousness is not for ourselves but are for others.

Point 30 This great paragraph (90) is lost in the Latin version of this pamphlet. It shows how the existential rapture ends as well as begins Luther’s summary of the Christian faith and life.

A Christian is in ecstasy, outside him or herself, extra nos. A Christian’s ecstasy is in Christ and in the neighbor: in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. In faith one ascends above oneself into God and from God one descends below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love. The heavens open and the angels of God ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. This is another look at the existential rapture. The Son of Man can refer to Christ or to anyone in Christ or who has Christ in his or her heart. Christian freedom is higher than any earthly freedom as the heavens are above the earth (90).


[1] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007). The numbers in parentheses are the pages in this our book.

[2] From a song by the Bee Gees (1968), but also by Elvis Presley (1970), called “Words.”

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Written by peterkrey

February 4, 2008 at 7:29 am

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