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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

As Reformation Day approaches: Luther's question

It has become a sort of cliché to say that the question that Luther asked, "How can I, a sinner, be saved in the face of an angry, righteous God?" is not the question of today - that the Reformation is hopelessly time bound. Luther's question, folks say, is a question for a Christian culture, not a reverted pagan culture. So, the theory goes, to reach out to today's culture, our message should be changed/nuanced/finessed. Instead of justification, we should speak of (you pick) healing, victory, God-loves-you-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life, etc.

This is, once again, a basically Arminian analysis of the Reformation. The idea is that the Reformation doctrine of sin, grace, and justification just can't speak to people today. We need to speak the language of our day to get people to convert. The underlying assumption here is that people are on neutral ground and must be convinced to convert - that the sort of people who might convert change over time.

But I don't believe that there is a people of God today that is in any qualitative way different from the people of God of 1520 or 520 or 587 BC. The people of God are always the people of God. They are always fearful of God's just wrath against sin because the fear of the Lord is the beginning wisdom. They are always comforted only by the thought of salvation by grace alone and all that that entails, i.e., The Bondage of the Will.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not one of those Lutherans who hang on Luther's every word and revere him as a Hero with a Capital H. Rather, I accept the author's own opinion of his life's work:

Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it because, roused by a Saturnian hunger, I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bound Will and the Catechism. [LW 50:172-73]

That's spot on. Luther is the "foremost teacher of the Augsburg Confession" because he got this central, vital, timeless truth right: justification by grace alone through faith alone and the doctrines that necessarily follow from this: the bound will and unconditional election. His question, and his importance, will never fade, will never be out of style or irrelevant to God's elect. As he himself knew, there was plenty of dross among his wheat. But for the great worth of that wheat he is rightly honored among us as a Doctor of the Church.

I don't know why so many Lutherans are afraid of this sort of statement. We regularly recognize these facts when it comes to men like Gregory, Augustine, Irenaeus, etc. Luther himself recognized it especially about Bernard and Aquinas. There is no shame in pointing out that Augustine was wrong in his valuation of monasticism or that Gregory was wrong about purgatory. Nor should there be any fear among us to say that Luther dropped the ball with Philip of Hesse's bigamy, or his meddling in government affairs (e.g., recommendations to burn synagogues to the ground), or his high-handed approach to the canon of the New Testament, or his monomaniacal tirades against the congregation in Wittenberg (see LW vol 58). Nor do I have any interest in rereading the various excuses offered for Luther's opinions and actions in these and other equally egregious cases; so they will be kindly ignored in the comments.

All the Doctors of the Church are sinners redeemed by grace. They also all had the humility to say something along the lines of what Luther said about his own work as quoted above. That is not false humility. It is just true. We honor these saints of God best when we acknowledge that truth and speak forthrightly of it.


Pr. H. R.8 Comments