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My Spiritual Debt to Martin Luther


My Spiritual Debt to Martin Luther



As a child, adolescent and university undergraduate student I had no exposure to Luther at all. Then in the course of preparing for ordained ministry within The United Church of Canada I immersed myself in the theology of John Calvin, where I heard Calvin described frequently as a “second generation Lutheran.” My work in Calvin found me reaching back to Luther to see where the Genevan was indebted to him and where he differed from him (e.g., on the manner of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.) Soon I found myself drawn to Luther not as background to Calvin but as a spiritual and theological giant himself. Always impressed by Luther’s grasp of the gospel, I was overwhelmed at the gospel’s grasp of Luther, at his heart, at the manifest “heart seizure” he had undergone at the hands of Jesus Christ.

Three words taken together describe Luther’s heart for me: truth, passion, compassion. Nothing ever eclipses the living Lord Jesus as truth and reality for Luther. To embrace Christ in faith is to love him, flooded by the love with which he first loved us, and in loving him find ourselves delighted and contented in him. And of course to embrace Christ in faith is to embrace as well all whom he embraces; which is to say, all of humankind in its sin, suffering, and self-contradiction. Luther’s heart broke as surely as his Lord’s at the sight of people whose wounds were undisguisable and undeniable.

Several years later I was appointed Professor of Historical Theology at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto. Here I teach a course in the theology of Luther every eighteen months. While I teach many courses in several different disciplines (e.g., philosophy), students tell me I’m at my best in Luther. I understand this, since Luther is the easiest Protestant thinker to love, and my love for him has admitted me to the deeper recesses of his heart. His influence upon me is inestimable, and my debt to him is unpayable.

Gospel definition

Luther’s definition of the gospel — “the promise of God fulfilled in our midst” — moves me as often as I reflect upon it. His way of putting the matter gathers particular associations around it and thereby creates a mood and an ethos that Lutheranism has always known and cherished. God has made promise after promise to his wayward creation; God gathers up his many promises in one grand, overarching promise to act for us and save us; God fulfills this grand promise amidst our earthliness and earthiness in such a way as to satisfy yet never satiate all who cling to the Son in faith. In other words to meet and know that Son whom God hasn’t withheld from us but has given up for us and now persists in giving to us; to meet and know this one is to want to look nowhere else. “At rest” in him, we are left plumbing riches we can never exhaust.

In the history of the Church few besides Luther have loved the living person of the Lord Jesus in such a child-like way. And for this reason few have unselfconsciously reflected the child’s wonder and excitement at Christmas. Like a child, Luther was awed that the Creator kept his promise of the gift, and is therefore a Father whom we can henceforth trust in dark days and difficult times. Before the Christmas gift (who, as the Incarnate One, is ultimately the giver himself) Luther stood speechless at the humility of the God who condescends to us as baby. Learning all of this through scripture alone, and knowing therefore that scripture is indispensable in the economy of salvation, Luther was yet aware that scripture and Incarnate One are categorically different. “Scripture is the manger,” he liked to say, “in which the child is laid.” Bible and baby ought never to be confused; yet they ought never to be separated, since it is only through the witness of prophets and apostles that we can apprehend the long-promised gift of God; better, only as we habitually revisit the manger do we find the Saviour apprehending us. Luther’s insight here — pithy, profound and memorable — would do much to spare the Church the family-quarrels over scripture that settle nothing yet scar everyone.

The babe in the manger thrived; he grew both in stature and in wisdom. As an adult the Son of God endured a humiliation in the cross that dwarfed the humility of the stable. Mesmerized by the cross, Luther gloried in the “exchange” (2nd Corinthians 5: 16-21) as the crucified took on our sin, guilt, degradation and death only to clothe us in his righteousness, acceptance, honour and life.


Christ defined

The “exchange” motif lies at the heart of Luther’s Christology. The “Christ” who is chiefly teacher (as if the root human problem were ignorance) or chiefly exemplar (as if it were the absence of a model we can mimic) or chiefly law-giver (as if edicts could eliminate our fatal self-contradiction) is useless in the wake of the Fall. In light of the Fall Luther always knew the difference between deprivation and depravity; he knew that our predicament arises not from deficits and deficiencies but rather from incomprehensible yet lethal perverseness. Only the heaven-sent Saviour can address our depravity. He does so not as he tries to “fix up” humankind but as he exchanges our heart of stone for his heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), our inconstancy for his faithfulness, the condemnation we deserve for the approval we can only receive. Every time he gazed upon the crucified Luther knew that a life-crushing burden had been exchanged for life-giving blessing. To be the beneficiary of this exchange was to be freed.

Freed from what? In his unforgettable tract, The Freedom of the Christian (1521), Luther insisted we are freed from the law, from sin, and from death; that is, we are freed from having to justify ourselves (or thinking that we can), from disobedience as the determinative truth of our life before God, and from expulsion from God’s presence. We are freed for love to Jesus Christ and service to the neighbour. Freed (paradoxically) by our bondage to Christ, we no longer live in ourselves, out of ourselves, for ourselves; instead we live “away” from ourselves by living in the “other.” Specifically we live in two others: we live in Christ through faith, and we live in the neighbour through love. Taken out of ourselves, we are liberated from that anxiety which always marks the self-preoccupied. Aware that our frantic efforts at reducing anxiety merely feed it, Luther knew that the profoundest cure for anxiety is self-forgetful self-abandonment to those in whom we now live.


Living in the neighbour

Since the arms of the crucified embrace the neighbour, genuinely to live in Christ is always to live in the neighbour as well. Never shallow, Luther insisted we live in the neighbour by sharing her need. This isn’t especially difficult, since we are meeting her scarcity with our abundance. In the second place we live in our neighbour by sharing her suffering. This is considerably more difficult, since proximity to another person’s pain is itself painful for us. At the same time, we may feel rather good about sharing our neighbour’s suffering in that we may feel somewhat heroic, virtuous; we shall likely feel even better if we are recognized and commended for this. In the third place we live in our neighbour by sharing her disgrace. So far from being commended now we find ourselves despised. We are told that we have compromised our standards. We are reminded that that you can always tell a person by the company she keeps. Our only comfort here, says Luther, is to continue clinging to him who was himself numbered among the transgressors. He, after all, knew no sin yet was made to be sin in order that we whose sin can never be excused may yet know it forgiven and know ourselves rendered the righteousness of God.


Theology of the cross vs theology of glory

Everything noted so far is generated by Luther’s Theologia Crucis or “theology of the cross.” By “theology of the cross” Luther understood first that the God who remains hidden to human gaze (both physical and philosophical) reveals himself where the world never thinks of looking for him. Faith alone knows this God. For this reason Luther liked to say, “The gospel is aural”; it can only be “heard.” (In other words, the Spirit-sensitized heart recognizes the gospel as it is proclaimed.) The gospel can never be “seen.” Luther knew that what we can all see every day everywhere in the world — crime, war, starvation, betrayal, natural disaster — never persuades anyone of the Father’s love. We apprehend God’s love for us and thereupon entrust him with our lives only as we “shut our eyes and open our ears.” For only the faith-quickening Word that we hear can get beyond the resistance to God aroused by the doubt-quickening sights that we see.

Luther contrasted the “theology of the cross” with a “theology of glory.” The latter has four principal features. First, it confuses the living God of self-willed suffering with the “God” that philosophy infers: power, aloofness, impassivity; in short, everything but the God who empties himself of every divine prerogative yet doesn’t empty himself of sin-absorbing love.

Secondly, a theology of glory relishes the triumphalism of the church’s institutional life. It glories in social privilege, economic power, the capacity to coerce, all the while disdaining self-renouncing service.

Thirdly, a theology of glory ignores the consistent testimony of scripture, “This is my beloved Son; hear him“, and prefers to read God off the face of nature. Overlooked, of course, is the fact that nature is at best impersonal and at worst “red in tooth and claw.”

Fourthly, the same theology attempts to read God off the face of history. Luther knew that one nation’s military subjugation of another acquaints us with nothing concerning God. Luther’s “theology of the cross” was his relentless conviction that God does his most characteristic work (love) and his mightiest work (the redemption of the world) precisely when he appears, from a human point of view, to be utterly helpless and useless.

In the light of his “theology of the cross” Luther maintained that life’s “trials” (Anfechtungen), unavoidable in any case, can be understood as the occasion of God’s refining the faith of his people, purifying it, strengthening it, ever rendering it more attractive and more useful. Since the world hates the gospel and those identified with it, Christians can escape the world’s hostility only by renouncing faith — and this they will not do. For indeed, said Luther, faith’s worst trial is to have no trial, since trial keeps faith alive and vibrant.

Luther himself never lacked trials. For twenty-five years, from the Diet of Worms in 1521 until his death in 1546, he lived with a price on his head. Heartbroken at the death of Magdalena, his fourteen-year-old daughter, the death of Elisabeth at eighteen months devastated him. Nevertheless, when he was dying in Eisleben and he learned that his beloved Katarina was fretting in Wittenberg, he sent to her a word that will ever be my comfort: “I have a caretaker who lies in the cradle and rests on a virgin’s bosom, and yet, nevertheless, sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. Therefore be at peace. Amen.”

Victor Shepherd
Tyndale Seminary, Toronto