I am reading the sermons of Martin Luther for Advent and Christmas, and finding him more fascinating and compelling than I thought he would be. And also surprising.
The two main “knocks” I hear in the back of my head regarding Luther’s theology are:
1) That his soteriology amounts to no more than a “legal fiction”–that is, God has done X, Y, and Z, in Jesus, and salvation is simply believing that this is so; a movement of the mind that has no impact on the depths of our being.
2) That he is dismissive of works. Believing in the gospel is the only thing.
A sermon he delivered for Christmas Day refutes both charges in the most surprising and helpful way.
Commenting on the sinless birth of Jesus (in contrast to our own ‘birth in sin’ cf. Ps. 51:5), Luther remarks, “The right and gracious faith which God demands is that you firmly believe that Christ is born for you, and that this birth took place for your welfare.“
So far so good. But what do you mean by this, Luther? He continues, with a line of logic that is reminiscent of the church fathers and their deeply participationist soteriology. What does it mean that Christ’s birth is FOR US, that it took place FOR OUR WELFARE?
“Christ has a pure, innocent, and holy birth. Man has an unclean, sinful, and condemned birth…Nothing can help this unholy birth except the pure birth of Christ…For this purpose Christ willed to be born, that through him we might be born again…“
And then the shocker:
“We see here (he is commenting on the angel’s visitation to Mary in Luke 1 and the announcement that the one to be born to her would be called “the Son of God”) how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ.”
That one stopped me cold. Luther’s account of the virgin birth has Christ doing what indeed his whole life will be – namely, an appropriating of our corrupted life into his incorruptible life so that his life may become ours. We, in other words, are TAKEN INTO CHRIST and RECONSTITUTED by his divine, sinless life. This may as well have been Irenaeus, Cyril, or the Cappadocians talking. He thunders away at the point, and drives it home with rhetorical flourish:
“Whoever does not believe this, or doubts, is no Christian…if a man believes this, he can boast of the treasure that Mary is his rightful mother, Christ is brother, and God his Father. For these things actually occurred and are true, but we must believe. This is the principle thing and the principle treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it.“
We’ll get to the “good works” part of it in a second, by my goodness. Yes, it is true that Luther places heavy weight on the “believing” of the gospel – a movement of the mind. But the charge that this is a movement of the mind that has no impact on the depths of our being is spurious. What faith “believes” is, to the contrary, that Christ has ALREADY done something that has the profoundest impact on the depths of our being, and so believing, the benefits of Christ’s work become our own. We are taken up into his birth – born again.
But what of the second charge, that Luther is dismissive of good works? That it doesn’t matter how we live, as long as we believe the right things?
Once again, Luther’s own words refute the charge. After he says that “This is the principle thing and the principle treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it,” he remarks that “Christ must above all things become our own and we become his, before we can do good works.”
Good works, for Luther, are expected and necessary parts of the redeemed life. He was critical of the Catholic Church of his time, not because it emphasized good works, but because it misunderstood the source and motive for good works, and so emptied them of spiritual and practical value. Listen to this:
“If Christ has now thus become your own, and you have by such faith been cleansed through him and have received your inheritance without any personal merit, but alone through the love of God who gives to you as your own the treasure and work of his Son, it follows that you will do good works by doing to your neighbor as Christ has done for you.“
Works, for Luther, are crucial. The first ‘work’ is Christ’s – a work that is whole, sufficient, and complete; and ‘completely’ for our benefit. By it we are delivered from the reign of the evil one and reconciled to God. Christ has accomplished our salvation.
But there is a second ‘work’, and it is ours. Incorporated into Christ, we also, like him, direct our works to the good of our neighbor, for their benefit:
“Therefore, since you have received enough and become rich, you have no other commandment to serve Christ and render obedience to him, than so to direct your works that they may be of benefit to your neighbor, just as the works of Christ are of benefit and use to you.“
Here’s the key point: Luther’s understanding of the ‘work’ of Christ was that Christ was not trying earn God’s favor. Because Christ already had it (cf. the baptism in the Jordan, the transfiguration), the ‘work’ of Christ could be and was completely for the benefit of others. That is – freed from any trace of self-absorption, it was utterly directed to us.
IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY, because of what Jesus has done for us, there is no need for us to do good works as a means of anxiously securing our place in God. That place is utterly secure. Rather, FREED from anxiety about our place in God, our works therefore can – like Christ’s, with Christ – be totally and completely directed to the benefit of our neighbors.
In other words – a right understanding of the gospel BREAKS any trace of a ‘dual motive’ for us. We’re not secretly serving others for ourselves. We’re serving them for their sakes, like Jesus did and does, as a praise to God.
And THIS, for Luther, was at the heart of the faulty understanding of good works he saw in the Catholic Church of his day, as he saw it. For him they sprung from anxiety and so became spiritually worthless for us and practically worthless for others. In the sentences that follow, he hammers away saying, “Of what benefit… of what benefit… of what benefit…” are all of the lighting of candles and ringing of bells and building of churches and chanting of psalms – “religious works”, in other words? Who is helped by this, he wonders? Not the one doing them – for in Christ, we are already helped; nothing can add to it. And not those in need – for religious works bring them no practical benefit.
No, for Luther, this one thing is fundamental: Christ has given all for us, and, becoming recipients of all his benefit, fully incorporated into his utterly others-directed life, we also, as he did and does, can fling ourselves wildly into the love of God and neighbor, building up the world in the name of the One whose life from Bethlehem to Easter Sunday is the gift that makes all things new.