by Daniel Harrell
Here we are in October—for Protestants the long anticipated, 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the corruptions of institutional religion. A millennial of his day, young Martin leveraged the latest in medieval technology to launch his theological revolution. Able for the first time to print copies of words, Luther’s ideas went viral. At one point in the sixteenth century, 25% of all books in print were his. Reformation reverberations continue still. Minnesota being Luther-land, we are blessed on subsequent Sundays this month by a wealth of Reformation scholarship, the hope being that what we learn in regard to Scripture and Christ and faith and the priesthood of all believers—each a Reformation pillar—will inform our own faithful reforming as a church.
Lutherans comprise almost 35% of Minnesota’s population, with Lutheran influence stretching way beyond that. An unavoidable authority on Lutheran life, Garrison Keillor, reminds us how, “Here in the Midwest, we all have long memories of suffering and pain…” Cold winters of “…neglect, suspicion, darkness, anger, Bologna sandwiches, stupidity, and butterscotch pudding… Sunlight makes us gloomy. We are not Mediterranean people. We are Lutheran people. Even the Catholics up here are Lutheran.” “We were not brought up to experience pleasure.”
If indeed this is a pained portrait of Lutherans, it’s a portrait of Luther too. Revered for his courageous confrontation of medieval church power, his standing up to accusations of heresy, his establishing the authority of Scripture and then making it accessible by translating it into German, his writing some of the church’s best loved hymns—adaptations, likely, of the secular music of his day—his igniting a reformation that still burns brightly; Luther did all of this despite being a man tormented by depression, debilitating self-doubt and an almost paranoid fear of God.
It started early. Trained as a lawyer and excelling as a philosopher, Luther gave it all up at age 21. One night, making his way home through a tremendous thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near his path. He screamed, “Help me, St. Anne, I will become a monk!” And he did. Possessing what one biographer described as “a high pressure fire hose” personality of shattering intensity, Luther plunged headlong into monastic life—praying, fasting, going without sleep, enduring winter without blankets, flagellating himself and perhaps eating mounds of butterscotch pudding: “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk,” he wrote, “It was I.”
And yet, far from feeling any assurance of salvation, he remained paralyzed by the dire prospect of God’s judgment. He hated opening his Bible, having to read about righteousness and realizing over and over again how he could never measure up. Ironically assigned to teach Bible at Wittenberg University, Luther gradually found a way through his dilemma, a way that had always been there: “At last, meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God meant the righteous [are made righteous] by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”
In regard to this morning’s passage from Romans, Luther went on: “All are sinners in the sight of God. … and therefore can only be justified through faith in Christ, who has merited this for us by his blood and has become for us a mercy seat in the presence of God who forgives us all our previous sins. In so doing, God proves that it is his justice alone, which he gives freely through faith, that helps us; the justice which was at the appointed time revealed through the Gospel and, previous to that, was witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets. Therefore the law is set up by faith, but the works of the law, along with any glory taken in them, are [broken apart] by faith.”
You might regard the pottery shards strewn about the communion table as Luther’s “works of law” broken apart. For Luther, law and gospel are both words of God, both good and life-giving. The distinction is between law and works of law. Law is the revealed purposes of God for creation, works of law our presumption that we can achieve God’s purposes without God; or worse, that our purposes are preferable, that we know better than God, that we are the potter and God is the clay (instead of the other way around), and that we’re in control with power to do as we will.
Potter and clay is the Biblical analogy we’ve played for a month—from the prophet Isaiah and making a pot, to Jesus’ own being poured out like a pot, to Paul’s finally being broken as a pot—an absolute necessity for faith to happen. We are clay in God’s hands, lovingly formed and reformed, for both beauty and purpose. As Pope Francis, of all people, puts it, “The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing.” In teaching grace by faith alone, Luther “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.”
Justified before God by faith in grace alone, we do not dispense with law. It remains the righteousness of God. What we dispense with is any pride we might take in obeying it. Pride may begin as proper satisfaction for achievement, but it so easily twists into self-congratulation and entitlement, as well as justification for bad choices. No amount of good behavior or good intentions suffices to make us good before God. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” The playing field is made level. No one is better than anyone else. All have sinned and can thereby can only be justified by grace as the free gift of redemption that is in Christ Jesus, made ours by repentance and faith. Only sinners get grace.
The first of Luther’s 95 Theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Far from remorseful despair, repentance is a pathway to joy. “We carry in our bodies the death of Jesus,” the apostle Paul wrote for last Sunday, “so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies.” Broken like Jesus by Jesus, dying with Christ before we die; we live out resurrection now. As broken pots we are reformed and filled up, filled up and poured out and filled up again and again—set free to live an eternal life that has already started, all for love’s sake.
We do not repent because we’re scared of God. We repent because we love God and thus see our sin as bad enough to hate. But seeing our sin as bad enough to hate is hard. As proud people, hubristic humans, we wondrously combine our arrogance with ignorance, often in error, but never in doubt.
In our Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Class this past Wednesday night, we drew the distinction between true self and false self, a contrast used in both psychology and spiritual direction. The false self is a mask you wear, the self-image you pretend and project for others to see, the brand you control to sell yourself, meet expectations and make people like you. The true self is who you’d be if you didn’t have to do all that and could just be yourself. Except that your true self is not the same as your best self. Repentance would fix that, but pride prefers to pretend, which Luther says only mocks God since God knows who you are. We may need to be broken.
For years I faked my faith—which is easy to do as a minister because everybody presumes you preach what you practice. My wife at the time left me for another man who wasn’t a minister, in part because she couldn’t stand the circus anymore. Broken and afraid and deeply ashamed, I was forced to see my sin and confess it—to my spiritual directors and close friends, to my family and my church, few if any of whom had been duped by my charade. I remember admitting with great sadness to one Christian brother, “I’m not who you thought I was.”
“No,” he replied, “you’re exactly who I thought you were. But I liked you anyway.” A crumbled mess of a man, my closest friends praised the Lord for it. They said maybe now I could finally be a real minister. Maybe.
For all his fervency regarding God’s grace, Luther remained burdened by his own unworthiness of it. Despite all the assurance about which he wrote and preached, he struggled to ever feel any assurance himself. How could he? He firmly believed that grace justified the sinner, but he also believed it did nothing to change one’s sinful nature. Back and forth it went. Martin Marty described it as God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, God of wrath and God of love, God as weak and God almighty, God as real and illusion, hidden and revealed. Luther was often paralyzed by what he called Anfechtungen, an untranslatable word often defined as those spiritual assaults that prevent people from finding any comfort in the love of Christ—attacks of doubt and near-despair possibly sent from the devil, but also, quite possibly, from God.
As a lifelong Congregationalist, John Calvin was my reformer of choice. I didn’t read much about Luther until I got to seminary and was assigned to do it. Being the sinner I am, I chose a Luther biography not on the recommended reading list. It was a fascinating retelling of Luther’s life by a contemporary author who wrote with the most exuberant of prose. Everything was there: justification by grace through faith; the “joyful exchange” of identities with Christ; the forgiveness of sins; the authority of the Word; the human as “sinner and at the same time justified.” But then, at the end, it all came crashing down with the chapter on Luther’s later years and his vehement anti-Judaism.
“I write against the Jews,” Luther said, “for a Jew or a Jewish heart is a wooden, stone devil heart that can be moved by nothing.” That was Luther being nice. Most of his language is unspeakable in polite company. In fact, the last sermon Luther preached, three days before he died in 1546, was another polemical anti-Jewish screed.
Granted, Luther was an equal-opportunity denouncer of Jews, papists, Turks, Calvinists, Anabaptists and even other Lutherans; his anti-Judaism was not racial as much as it was religious; he gladly welcomed Jewish converts to Christianity. But he also believed with the world ending soon and with so many denying Christ, Jews were basically doomed. Luther’s venom reflected his times to be sure; but it was lethal enough to poison Germany for centuries.
As for this biographer, Luther’s hatefulness nullified every virtue of Luther. The author went on to totally reject Christianity as a whole on account of Luther’s viciousness. As a young seminarian, I was dumbstruck by how this biographer could so clearly and beautifully articulate the gospel, only to then summarily dismiss it entirely due to the words and acts of one person—and a sixteenth century person at that. If Martin Luther could cause such a vehement rejection of Jesus and loss of faith, how many people were going to lose their faith because of me? I descended into my own bout of Anfechtungen which led me to a weeklong personal retreat (at a Catholic monastery no less) where I dutifully read a biography of Luther that was on the approved reading list.
So many years since, I’ve thankfully come to realize the real question is how anyone could have expected Luther to be other than the sinful man he was. This goes for us all. And it goes for Jesus too; inasmuch as he bore our sins on the cross. Luther argued that to truly know Christ is not to know him in the sublime, dreamed-up idealized ways we so often conceive of Him, (and wrongly imagine ourselves as able to emulate); but rather in the humbled, weak and emptied ways Jesus reveals himself on the cross, where he takes on our humanity in all of its sin and brokenness. In this Christ, on the cross, we see ourselves.
Through the cross, Luther claimed according to another scholar, God calls humans by their real names and not by images of their attractive appearance. God does not name us as we would wish, but as we are accepted by Christ’s boundless suffering love. This has far-reaching consequences: religious desire for [personal] praise and power and self-affirmation are blind to suffering—our own and that of others—because we are in love with achievement and success. Our love is love for the lovable, which is to render the one who loves lovable too. But in the cross, faith experiences a different kind of love. God loves what is sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful, and by doing so, makes it beautiful and good and wise and righteous. Sinners are beautiful because they are loved by God; they are not loved because they are beautiful.
In 1934, a minister named Rev. Michael King traveled to Germany from Georgia. Amidst the gathering doom of those pre-Nazi years, this pastor nevertheless rediscovered afresh this core truth of the gospel: “sinners are beautiful because they are loved by God; they are not loved because they are beautiful.” Determined to never forget this, and more importantly, to live his life by it, Michael King changed his name and also name of his son. He told his son, “We are both Martin Luther King now.” Martin Luther King Jr. grew to sound like his namesake. “Take the first step in faith,” King preached. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”