Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (3)

Luther’s Reformation never settled during his lifetime; his vision was never realised. In the 1530s the movement faced questions and opposition on three sides, from the Anabaptists, the Catholics, and the Zwinglians. Of these, a rapprochement was possible only with the third, and this was the work of the princes in the formation of the Smalcald League, which sought to unify Protestants and Protestant territories. Indeed, as he aged, Luther remained or even grew more polemical, especially toward the papacy, but also toward Anabaptists and Jews. His hope that the true church would emerge and thrive at the preaching of the gospel was not to be. Even Wittenberg was “home to no more true Christians than any other place” (282).

For himself, however, Luther did not doubt. On the evening of his death he was asked by one of his associates whether he was ready to die trusting in Christ and standing by what he had taught. “A distinct ‘yes’ emerged from his mouth before Luther turned on his right side and went to sleep.” He died later that night without priest, confession of sins, or anointing with oil (284).

No doubt Luther never imagined some of the results which would spring from his activity. He gave the Germans a Bible in their own language, and many read it in their own way, some “enslaving themselves verse by verse to a paper pope” (228). His emphasis on Christian freedom was taken by some in antinomian directions, while others insisted on obedience to the law.

Separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation and simultaneously the reason why he was often misunderstood and rejected. It defied the age-old purpose of religion: to gain access to the divine and then to please the gods in order to obtain their blessing and reward. … Christianity had mostly fit that template and Luther’s attempt to alter it was bound to meet enormous resistance, even though he was able to sum up his view in one sentence: “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there” (233-234).

True religion is not and cannot be grounded in law and works: in accord with his vision of the gospel, it is faith that frees. True religion is not morality. Faith, and the life that issues from it, is all the work of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean, however, that Luther had no place for the law. Against his long-time associate and friend John Agricola who argued that the law should not be preached or taught lest people think that faith is insufficient for salvation, Luther said, “I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child” (257). Hendrix notes that being Luther’s friend could be a precarious relation. His rejections of Karlstadt and Agricola suggested that Luther tied collegial friendships to like-mindedness and deference.

Since 1521, Luther believed he was subject only to the Lord himself, who had shown him the genuine gospel and entrusted him with its propagation. Feeling the weight of that divine sanction, Luther would do almost anything to ensure that the reformation prospered, and that included adapting the evangelical message to a shifting audience. Agricola could not accept the adaptation, and Luther’s heartless behavior drove Agricola away. … For Luther, the “adversary” was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany (258, 264).

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). The true church is never the institution but the gathering of believers to hear, believe and keep the “pure” Word of God.

True Christendom, like true religion, consisted only of people who conveyed to one another the word of God, believed it, and kept it with all the freedom, charity, crosses, and shortfalls that it brought. Religious institutions served only as facilitators of that true religion (262).

In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible:

History is always a reconstruction of the past that reflects the bias and the unavoidable short-sightedness of those who write it. And when religion is the subject, there is no way to verify what was true or false. One person’s true religion was the other person’s heresy or fanaticism. Religious colloquies did not succeed in reconciling Catholics and Lutherans—not to mention other Protestants, Muslims, and Jews—because hidden beneath the differences about what was true and what was false were the stakes identified by Luther: mercy and life, or wrath and death. Tradition, customs, injustices, and ethnic loyalties also played their parts, as they still do in the choice and exercise of religion. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, religious conflicts were so bitter and conciliation so rare because, for most people involved, including Martin Luther, everything was at stake (269).

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (2)

In an initial post, I provided an overview of the first part of this book by Scott Hendrix.

The second part of the book is comprised of ten chapters covering the period from 1522-1546. Here the pace of the book slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. Luther steadfastly resisted rigorist developments which either enforced reform on unwilling participants or bound their conscience with all kinds of rules. Instead he sought to liberate consciences and counter “unthinking piety.”

Nor was Luther’s concern limited to spiritual matters. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. In Luther’s view, God’s word and grace had given Germany an opportunity which it dare not refuse lest it fall back into misery and darkness, as had happened to the Jews, the Greeks, and now Rome and the Latins. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents. Hendrix details formative ecclesiastical developments, especially the German mass, the new church order, and formal parish visitations for quality-control and oversight which together facilitated the establishing of a new form of (Evangelical) church. Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges,

If all of that resembles the ideal monastic life of common prayer and work—although stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection, and adapted for all “earnest Christians” outside the cloister—it is no coincidence. Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man (176).

Nonetheless, Luther’s refusal to limit the church to the “faithful,” faith-filled or fully-devoted is of a piece with his theology: we are ever sinners in need of grace. Thus Luther rejected the perfectionism of the monastery while retaining other aspects of its ideal of a life devoted to God. His Small Catechism sought to instil the fear and love of God as the manner of Christian life such that God’s people were free but did not “misuse” their freedom ((196-197).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (1)

Scott Hendrix, Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an articulate, detailed and highly readable story of the remarkable life of Martin Luther. Subtitled Visionary Reformer, we catch a glimpse of Hendrix’s purpose on page 115:

From this point on, freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free. The decisive turning point in his life was not the ninety-five theses or the Diet of Worms. It happened at the Wartburg, where he adopted a new identity and a new purpose that he believed to have come from God. It was based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was intent on pursuing.

Hendrix has divided his book into two parts. Part one, “Pathways to Reform,” covers the period 1483–1521, while part two, “Pursuit of a Vision” treats 1522–1546. The first part consists of eight chapters that introduce Luther and set him firmly in the context of late medieval Germany. Hendrix’s Luther is very much a normal (sixteenth-century) man, “neither a hero nor a villain, but a human being with both merits and faults” (xi). Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and extensively referencing German, Latin, and English-language sources, Hendrix rejects the “popular version” of the “cliché” or “myth of Luther the hero” (33, 39). Luther did join the monastery against his father’s wishes but whether solely as a result of the storm is doubtful. Although we know he posted his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, we cannot be quite as certain that he posted them on the doors of Castle Church. He was not a solitary or isolated figure, but embedded in communities and friendships which functioned as networks of support during the Reformation. Although he did struggle with his conscience, his psychological state must not be over-emphasised. His theological breakthrough was not simply the result of a monk’s desperate search for a gracious God, but also many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Hendrix details Luther’s demanding schedule in the years prior to 1517 as a cleric, professor and administrator. “When the ninety-five theses made their splash, their author was not an insignificant Augustinian monk. Rather, Brother Martin belonged to the senior management of the Reformed Congregation” (46). His initial aim was reform of the curriculum at Wittenberg University, along humanist rather than scholastic lines, emphasising the study of Scripture and the early teachers of the church, especially Augustine. But the indulgence controversy caused the reforming impulse to move beyond the university. Here a pastoral motive emerges alongside the theological; this was theology applied for the nature of the gospel and the salvation of the people was at stake. Thus theological, pastoral, hermeneutical—and financial and political—factors combined to spark the Reformation.

Although by 1517 Luther was “pushing reform on two fronts: academic theology and popular piety” (68), he was not yet the “visionary Reformer” he later became. His disputations at Heidelberg, and with Cajetan and Eck were apologetic attempts to commend his new theology. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). By now he had given up on the clergy taking up the call to reform the church, and so turned to the German nobility to reform the practice of religion in Christendom. The papal bull Exsurge Domine, the edict of ex-communication, and the summons to appear before the emperor at Worms issued in Luther’s determination to recognise the authority of scripture as greater than that of the papacy. Cast out of the church, released from his monastic vows, officially an outlaw, and in hiding for his life, Luther faced, to put it mildly, an uncertain future which neither he nor his friends nor his protector could fathom (112-113). It was in this liminal space, suggests Hendrix, holed up in the Wartburg, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, a “visionary Reformer.”

Sin Boldly!

luther-statueAfter his trial at Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther went into hiding for almost a year. During that time his associates at Wittenberg began implementing practical reforms in the church there. One of Luther’s closest associates, the young Philip Melanchthon, was reluctant to proceed on some matters in case the changes led to sin. Luther wrote to him on August 1, 1521 urging decisive action:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day (cited in Hendrix, Martin Luther, 121-122).

We must be careful to interpret Luther’s words correctly lest we suggest he intends us to go on sinning deliberately and flagrantly after conversion. Although it is true he is pessimistic about humanity’s ability to rise above sinful behaviours, even amongst the most devout Christians, his words to Melanchthon are about his reforming activities. If Melanchthon decided to do nothing, chances are he would sin; if he decided to act, chances are he would sin. Luther was encouraging proper action even when a perfect result could not be guaranteed.

Not only does this exhortation provide a useful principle in moral deliberation, it also reveals the depth of Luther’s trust in divine grace, his realistic rather than optimistic view of the human condition, and his understanding of Christian spirituality.

To be a Christian is to be a sinner. If we pretend we are not sinners we cannot be saved because Christ gives his grace to sinners. A Christian is someone who acknowledges their sin, owning rather than hiding or denying it. When his protector, Elector John, died in August 1532 Luther refused to deliver a eulogy: “I will not now praise the Elector for his great virtues but let him remain a sinner like the rest of us” (in Hendrix, 236).

Luther said as much to his friend Spalatin, who brooded over his sins and errors:

Now join with us prodigious and hardened sinners lest you diminish Christ for us. He is not a savior of fictitious or petty sinners but of genuine ones, not only the lowly but also the big and powerful ones; indeed he is the savior of all sinners. My Staupitz consoled me this way when I was downhearted. You can be a bogus sinner and have Christ for a fictitious savior. Instead, get used to the fact that Christ is a genuine savior and that you are a real sinner (in Hendrix, 281).

I find something realistic and comforting in Luther’s approach. He did not go out looking for opportunities to sin: he did not need to. And neither do I. But nor did he shrink away from the reality of his own brokenness, but trusted more heartily in Christ—and found him truly a saviour.

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

MelanchthonIn her The Roots of the Reformation Gillian Evans devoted many pages detailing the recovery of the biblical languages by the Renaissance and Christian humanists which played a decisive role in the Reformation. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) claimed that Hebraei bibunt fontem, Graeci rivos, Latini paludes—“the Hebrews drank from the spring, the Greeks from a river, the Latins from a swamp” (Evans, Roots, 264).

For a thousand years Western Christianity had relied on the Latin Vulgate and the numerous commentaries and glosses that had arisen around that translation. Copyist errors, traditional and philosophical interpretations, and certain translational decisions by Jerome in the fourth century all muddied the waters of biblical interpretation. Hence the humanist and Reformation cry, Ad fontes!—“Back to the sources!”

One of the Reformers, Philipp Melanchthon insisted that learning the biblical languages was essential:

Led by the Holy Spirit, but accompanied by humanist studies, one should proceed to theology . . . but since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek—as Latinists we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be “silent persons” (Evans, 264).

john1118greekwordle

Likewise Martin Luther, according to biographer Scott Hendrix:

Erasmus need not have worried that Protestant reformers would destroy good scholarship. All the leading reformers were trained in the classics and most had earned advanced degrees. They had no intention of abolishing the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, since the knowledge of those languages helped to make the reformation possible. Writing to a familiar supporter in 1523 Luther emphasized that point:

“Do not worry that we Germans are becoming more barbarous than ever before or that our theology causes a decline in learning. Certain people are often afraid when there is nothing to fear. I am convinced that without humanist studies untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proven true. When humanist studies declined and lay prostrate, theology was also neglected and lay in ruin. There has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as if these were the forerunners of theology as John the Baptist was for Christ” (Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 169).

Luther’s final sentence is well worth considering. I have often repeated to my students a comment my former Greek professor made to me: “If you can learn to read the Scriptures in the original languages you will gain 20-25% additional insight into the text.”

“That Pretentious Business”

Luther by Lucas CranachScott Hendrix notes Martin Luther’s comments on holiness from a sermon by Luther given on June 24, 1525.

The greatest holiness one could imagine drew us into the cloister. . . . We fasted and prayed repeatedly, wore hair shirts under woolen cowls, led a strict and austere life. In short, we took on a monkish holiness. We were so deeply involved in that pretentious business that we considered ourselves holy from head to toe.

Luther had lived as a monk for 16 years by the time he was excommunicated in 1521. Nevertheless, he came to see that monastic holiness was an unattainable goal. Luther ultimately sought a less demanding and more merciful Christianity, says Hendrix, which would liberate people from anxiety about reaching heaven and redirect their concern toward others in place of themselves (in Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer,  27, 13).

In an earlier letter, written to George Spenlein, another monk, Luther said, “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners” (April 8, 1516, cited in Hendrix, 47).

Remembering Martin Luther

Luther by Lucas CranachToday was the 499th anniversary of Luther’s act of posting his 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church. It is generally thought that Luther’s ‘breakthrough’ took place about two years before this event. Looking back in 1545, Luther described his conversion:

Meanwhile, I had already during that year returned to interpret the Psalter anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skilful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in Chapter 1, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

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 he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes 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 his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.

Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that 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, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He 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 for me truly the gate to paradise.

See Oswald Bayer, Living By Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Lutheran Quarterly Books (2003), 81-82; cf.  Luther’s Works Volume 34, Career of the Reformer IV (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1960), p. 336-337.

Some More Books

BooksThe last few weeks have been very full, with the result that my blogging has fallen in a hole. I hope to get back on the job in the coming days! In the meanwhile, here is a picture of some new books received in the last month or so… I think I have done a year’s worth of purchasing since June…

Like the collection I picked up at the Conferences I attended, this is a somewhat eclectic collection, with a focus on Barth and books related to my work. I am particularly glad to get Being Shaped by Freedom: I was privileged to be a final year co-supervisor for Brett Muhlhan as he finished his work on Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian. This is an excellent study on Luther’s tractate and deservedly published. Renowned Luther scholar Robert Kolb commends the work:

With clarity, precision, and insightful sensitivity, Muhlhan . . . examines how Luther’s understanding of justification and freedom produces the faithful life of the believer. This refreshing analysis contributes significantly to our understanding of the holistic view of Christian righteousness fashioned by Luther’s distinctions of law and gospel and of two kinds of human righteousness. This book shows how Luther’s insights actually functioned in his proclamation aimed at shaping Christian consciousness and performance of God’s will.

Luther’s Pastoral Theology (Part 2)

luther-statueOnce more I find remarkable, the depth of theological reflection and pastoral wisdom Luther can pack into a short sermon. Multiple themes bristle in this short piece. Luther appeals seamlessly to penal and Christus Victor metaphors of the atonement. We see the very prominent focus on the conscience and so also on the individual before God. Of course, justification and faith are present in his discussion, as is his prominent focus on the pro me, pro nobis—for me, for us: “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (166).

This is obviously a message for Christians rather than non-believers, though non-believers also might benefit from it. We learn that we are sinners having come to Christ. It is from the cross that we learn that we are sinners, and from the cross and resurrection that we learn we are forgiven and loved. And learning that we are thus loved and forgiven is the basis—the only basis—for Christian life and sanctification.

I find of particular interest and comfort, Luther’s insistence that the first movement of this ‘correct’ meditation on the passion is not a religious work or something accomplished through our own (somewhat morbid) self-effort. There is no moral self-flagellation here:

Unless God inspires our heart, it is impossible for us of ourselves to meditate thoroughly on Christ’s passion. … You must first seek God’s grace and ask that it be accomplished by his grace and not by your own power. That is why the people we referred to above fail to view Christ’s passion aright. They do not seek God’s help for this, but look to their own ability to devise their own means of accomplishing this. They deal with the matter in a completely human but also unfruitful way (169).

This is good and necessary pastoral wisdom from Luther, which also went unheeded by some in the Puritan and Pietist traditions—and still today. Those who seek to uncover their own sinfulness, to convince themselves of their own moral filthiness, and dredge over sins and errors time and again, have “to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but [such activities] are of no value against fleshly self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:23—my comment, not Luther’s). Luther obviously understands true meditation on Christ’s passion to be a theological activity, interpreting his sufferings through the lenses of such Scripture passages as “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). We look only to Christ and not to ourselves. In him we see both our sin and its remedy, and in him the pattern and the source of strength for truly Christian life.

Although today we might shift some of the language and imagery, this is a fine example of preaching that is at once deeply theological and pastorally wise.

Luther’s Pastoral Theology (Part 1)

luther-statueIn 1519 Martin Luther wrote a short “Meditation on the Passion of Christ” for Holy Week. His Good Friday sermon begins with three wrong ways by which to meditate on Christ’s passion. Some do it to vent their anger at the Jews or at Judas. Others do it superstitiously or blindly, carrying pictures, booklets, letters or even crosses on their person as a kind of talisman to ward off evil and misfortune. “Christ’s suffering is thus used to effect in them a lack of suffering contrary to his being and nature” (Luther, “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion” in Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 165). Others feel pity for Christ, lamenting and bewailing his innocence.

The correct way to meditate on the passion is to see his wounds as our sins, and so let our conscience be terrified and weighed down by the reality of human sin and divine wrath.

They contemplate Christ’s passion aright who view it with a terror-stricken heart and a despairing conscience. This terror must be felt as you witness the stern wrath and the unchanging earnestness with which God looks upon sin and sinners, so much so that he was unwilling to release sinners even for his only and dearest Son without his payment of the severest penalty for them. … You must get this thought through your head and not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ thus, for your sins have surely wrought this (166-167).

We must give ourselves wholly to this matter, for the main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he be terrified and crushed by this. Unless we seek that knowledge, we do not derive much benefit from Christ’s passion. The real and true work of Christ’s passion is to make man conformable to Christ, so that man’s conscience is tormented by his sins in like measure as Christ was pitiably tormented in body and soul by our sins. This does not call for many words but for profound reflection and a great awe of sins (108).

But there is more. Having been fully awakened to our own sin, we must now also turn fully to Christ:

After man has thus become aware of his sin and is terrified in his heart, he must watch that sin does not remain in his conscience, for this would lead to sheer despair. Just as [our knowledge of] sin flowed from Christ and was acknowledged by us, so we must pour this sin back on him and free our conscience of it. … You cast your sins from yourself and onto Christ when you firmly believe that his wounds and suffering are your sins, to be borne and paid for by him. [Luther cites Isaiah 53:6, 1 Peter 2:24, and 2 Corinthians 5:21] … You must stake everything on these and similar verses. The more your conscience torments you, the more tenaciously must you cling to them. If you do not do that, but presume to still your conscience with your contrition and penance, you will never obtain peace of mind, but will have to despair in the end (170).

We see in the resurrection of Christ his triumph over the wounds and sins by which he suffered. We see also his love, and that of the Father, in his bearing of sins on our behalf. True meditation on the passion of Christ must progress from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

If we allow sin to remain in our conscience and try to deal with it there, or if we look at sin in our heart, it will be much too strong for us and will live on forever. But if we behold it resting on Christ and [see it] overcome by his resurrection, then boldly believe this, even it is dead and nullified. Sin cannot remain on Christ, since it is swallowed up by his resurrection. Now you see no wounds, no pain in him, and no sign of sin. Thus Paul declares that “Christ died for our sin and rose for our justification” (Romans 4:25). That is to say, in his suffering Christ makes our sin known and thus destroys it, but through his resurrection he justifies us and delivers us from all sin, if we believe this (170-171).

The third and final movement in fruitful meditation on Christ’s passion then follows:

After your heart has thus become firm in Christ, and love, not fear of pain, has made you a foe of sin, then Christ’s passion must from that day on become a pattern for your entire life. Henceforth you will have to see his passion differently. Until now we regarded it as a sacrament which is active in us while we are passive, but now we find that we too must be active, namely, in the following… (171)

Luther goes on to discuss the nature of a cruciform life, using the image of Christ’s suffering to resist temptation and the despair or sloth that may issue from adversity.

*****

Follow this link for a copy of the sermon and a historical introduction.
(Continued tomorrow)