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A CHOICE OF PASTORS: Martin Luther or N.T. Wright - Part 6

A CHOICE OF PASTORS: Martin Luther or N.T. Wright - Part 6

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
July 30, 2020


N.T. Wright is brashly dismissive of the soteriological theology of Martin Luther, whose thought, and particularly his doctrine of justification by faith, he does not appear to have pondered afresh, impartially and deeply for several decades, according to sources readily available. Yet NTW compares himself to Luther in the radical effect he has had upon contemporary Christian doctrine and claims equality with the Reformer at least in the identical circumstances that attend his cause i.e. one man correcting the convictions and piety of former generations of errant and misguided believers. Was Luther a welcome and necessary wake-up call to the Church? So, too, does NTW consider himself. Was Luther considered a "novelty" pitted against the traditional majority? Likewise, NTW regards himself as the heroic champion of truth in our time, standing alone as the titan of newly discovered orthodoxy, delivering us from a medieval mentality.

The milieu of each of these two Christian leaders is distinctly dissimilar from the other as to formative factors, and issues at stake, when carefully examined. That examination is not the purpose here nor is academic appraisal. Wright and Luther are being compared as pastors; those who actually nourish and edify the people of God for the wellbeing and safety of their souls.

All those who handle Holy Scripture are to do so pastorally with the ultimate aim of enabling believers to "grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

From parish pulpit, seminary podium, and conference platform the Bible is opened, principally, to point the Way to the Gate of Life - eternal fellowship with God. NTW's suspicion of Luther's pursuit "to find a gracious God" (considered obsessional) is indeed an odd thing for a New Testament specialist to query. It causes you to wonder what the constantly published professor's view of sin happens to be, serious or superficial - What is this blight? What is its remedy? Cannot angst be an element of genuine conviction of sin?

Perhaps he is so tied up with the culture of the first century AD, and so enamored of pagan philosophy that the apostolic gospel has not yet broken through to his comprehension. The propositions of Old Testament instruction, which condition the message of the New Testament, have been eclipsed by subsidiary and dubious theory emerging from the priority of guidance from secular society and custom without realizing, that like John, apostolic discourse can be adaptive and creative in integrating contemporaneous vocabulary without sacrificing basic Hebrew concepts that are the ground of divine declaration. Perhaps the apostle is not as culturally conditioned as is alleged, and the focus on the discourse and nomenclature of the Pauline era has for some folk corrupted the heavenly wisdom received and so wondrously dispensed by the man transformed from worldly student Saul to spiritual scholar Paul.

Language can be static and wooden in its usage in one sphere and significatory, flexible, and of celestial (spiritually inspired) import in another - "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age . . . No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory . . . but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit . . . no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God . . . This what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in wisdom taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truth in spiritual words" (1 Corinthians 2: 6 -13 cf14). The heart of Paul's message is Christ crucified, not explained "with words of human wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:17).

NTW's comments on the atonement in The Day The Revolution Began place a question mark over his interpretation of the heart of the gospel - the cross and its achievement (see John MacArthur's comments in sermon excerpt recorded on Youtube). No academic of whatever degree of fame or favor can fathom the meaning of Holy Writ by virtue of their own acumen or range of ancillary knowledge.

The humility of a scholar in dependence upon the Holy Spirit is essential for the probing of the divine word. It is also salutary to note that concerning the most necessary protection of the elect from the deception of false messengers of Christ, these agents of falsehood will be characterized by compelling plausibility and engaging charm. No apparent novelty in theological thought or teaching should be furtively smuggled into the church's body of divinity.

The extent to which the apostolic documents defer to the authority of the writings of the former covenant and assert their true fulfillment in the discourse and elaborations of the New Covenant is massive. The basics of the gospel of God appeared BC. The secrets and mysteries adumbrated by the prophets are resolved in the second more enlightening installment of salvific revelation delineated in gospels and epistles.

We are all, to the end of our lives, students of the word of God, and there is always much to be learned by each of us (open to the humble). But the essence of the gospel (its heart) is not a puzzle to be solved exclusively by elite minds and seasoned experts and specialists. It is a clear message addressed to all and understandable to a child, and a sincere, prayerful seeker after truth will gain the sense of Scripture and experience the joy of its message quite apart from the doctors of divinity. That is why the teaching of Luther is so thrilling and authentic. He is never pretentious. His teaching chimes in with the widespread yearnings for a gracious God, the desire for forgiveness and a cleansed conscience, and the following of a new path in companionship with him. The state and influence of the conscience, Luther's legitimate concern, is prominent throughout the Bible e.g. Psalms, Hebrews, Peter. Doctor Martin is the expert physician of the wounded conscience.

Luther is a pastor par excellence because he endured torrid ordeals of mind and soul, (which took their toll psychologically and physically in attitude and action in later life). But also, and obviously, he registered profound and heartfelt relief through the consolatory redemptive work and effective ministry exercised upon him and within him by the Lord Jesus Christ present in the heart personally by his word and Spirit. Here is the seal of truth - the witness of the Spirit and the believer's entwining with the Saviour. The message of Luther emits the precious grace of God. He doesn't lecture in abstruse terms; he converses. He comes alongside, uplifting and supporting the Lord's little ones without a shadow of condescension. [A daily walk with the saint of Saxony may be enjoyed through a variety of volumes containing well selected excerpts from his writings and addresses, but an excellent publication happens to be the following: Faith Alone, A Daily Devotional, updated edition, James G. Galvin, General Editor, Zondervan. Herein, the warmth and vitality of Luther's pastoral wisdom and concern is sweetly encountered].

Luther was especially shaped as a theologian through the providence and by the hand of God. His task was immense (beyond our common realization) and its accompanying dangers and trials severe and exhausting (beyond our common experience). He was by no means a comfortably placed, nor pampered, university don, whose life was eased by modern conveniences and smoothed by flattering public deference. His theological sagacity, profoundly hammered out by hardship and the rigors of divine discipline, was suited alternately to bold exhortation and encouragement, or to the administration of reassuring solace. Luther was a man of spiritual strength and versatility, yet not of himself, solely of the Lord. It was the impress of grace upon his life and person that accredited his ministry. Justification by faith alone is his main and enduring legacy to the people of God until the end of time. The freeing effects of the gospel that he articulated must be preserved at all costs. Those harmed by recent revisionism need to be restored by the tonic of faithful, reverent teaching.


No one is more stimulating than Martin Luther. Other theologians may equal him in value or even excel him in depth and worth. But none are more soul-stirring and enlivening in the truths of the gospel. Luther is a real theologian who orchestrates mind and heart in warm and eager assent to the gospel of free grace. It is salutary to notice Luther's own definition of a theologian: "It is living, dying, and even being condemned which makes a theologian - not reading, speculating and understanding." This is rhetoric that cites the appropriate mood and mien of the person who engages in theology - stripped of egotism and self-confidence in discerning the truth of God.

Alister McGrath comments, "When I first read these words of Luther, I found them baffling. Surely theology was about reading Scripture, and trying to make sense of it? What was Luther complaining about? Now I know, and I am convinced that Luther is right. To be a real theologian is to wrestle with none other than the living God - not with ideas about God, but with God himself. And how can a sinner ever hope to deal adequately with his God?

"If you want to be a real theologian, Luther insists, you must have experienced a sense of condemnation. You must have had a moment of insight, in which you realize just how sinful you really are, and how much you merit the condemnation of God . . . Luther suggested that he (Melanchthon) ask the so-called prophets who were then confusing the faithful at Wittenberg the following question; 'Have they ever experienced spiritual distress and the divine birth, death and hell?' . . . It is very easy to read the New Testament as if it were nothing more than any other piece of literature. And Luther reminds us that it is only being aware of our sin, and all its implications that we can fully appreciate the wonder of the electrifying declaration that God has forgiven our sins through Jesus Christ." (The Renewal of Anglicanism, SPCK, 1993, pp 87/8.

The gospel is only grasped and cherished by those who penitently and humbly crave its message from the heart, those who are awaiting its power. Any other approach is simply indulgence in historical/grammatical games and theological conundrums that appeal to those who deem themselves as super smart, and this greatly weakens the Christian testimony and evades its saving intent. To blur, muddle or erase the concept of justification by faith alone is to perpetrate an act of criminal theft and deprivation against the family of Jesus Christ our actual and compassionate Justifier who is due infinite gratitude for putting us right with God through an atonement (even disparaged by NTW. See The Day the Revolution Began). The efficacious understanding of the divine method of justification by the human mind is of supernatural origin. Otherwise it cannot be perceived by the intellect of any individual no matter how great that intellect boasts itself to be. Godly teaching is reserved for those who truly fear the Lord and lean on him.

A book conveniently near to hand at the present moment summarizes the true interpretation of the teaching of the apostle Paul on the topic of justification, the doctrine that Alister McGrath regards as the great salvation theme of New Testament (citation seen but not yet retrieved), and which Luther himself considers to be the essential mark that differentiates the true Church of Christ from the false church enmeshed in error.

"Christ's death on the cross, then, was a fulfillment of the law's sentence against sin: a maintenance of its inviolability, and homage done to it in the place of the sentence due to us. Christ suffered on our behalf in order that we might be forgiven and blessed while yet the law was not broken. It is no doubt the law of the old covenant as given to Israel that Paul has directly in view; but he cannot mean to say that only Jews needed to be redeemed, or were redeemed, by Christ. The law of Israel represents for him the divine law in general, and there is no way for anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, being free from its curse but through him who was made a curse for us . . .

In the Epistle to the Romans Paul gives substantially the same explanation, only in more general terms, with reference not merely to God's law, which might be conceived as a specially Jewish and positive institution, but to his justice, which is an essential attribute of his being, and his moral government of all men alike. He shows how all have incurred God's wrath by sin: the Jews by not having kept the law in which they have boasted, and the Gentiles by transgressing the law of nature written in their hearts; how neither can be justified by works of the law, but how both alike may be justified freely by God's grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God has set forth as making atonement in his blood, for a demonstration for his righteousness on account of the passing over of the sins of the past in forbearance, with a view to the demonstration of his righteousness in the present, that he might be just and the justifier of him who is of faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26) . . .

Another remarkable saying of Paul is that in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "Him who knew no sin, he made sin on our behalf, that we may be the righteousness of God in him." Here it cannot be a moral change in Christ that is meant, but it points to our Saviour having been made the representative of sin on our behalf, just as in the Levitical law the special sacrifices for sin and guilt were called by the names "sin" and "guilt" themselves. The purpose stated, "that we may be made the righteousness of God in him," points to our being accepted as righteous because by faith we are in him, the Righteous One." (The Christian Salvation, James S. Candlish, D.D. T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1899). A truly admirable echo of the soul-saving cry of Martin Luther.

The gist of this worthy exposition is that in his achievements of atonement and justification the Lord Jesus Christ was dealing decisively with the sin of the human heart (the broken moral law) and not with the ceremonial law that distinguished Jewish ethnicity from that of the pagan peoples i.e. "the divine law in general" and the reality of sin for we evildoers universally. NTW misfires repeatedly on ministering to the heart. He cannot rouse it to a buoyancy of spirit with the thrill and emotion of the news of salvation. He clutters his work with technicalities cultural, philosophical and off-centered theology. He opposes the notion that justification and assurance of salvation must await the Day of Judgment and only the law abiding will win the reward of life. From whence comes this law abiding disposition and capacity?

Given his message with the paucity of grace it implies and the life-long uncertainty of personal qualification for full justification Wright's recommendation for Christian life and divine approval must mask an incipient semi-Pelagianism absent of spiritual relief. Is our righteousness before God, and necessary for fellowship with him, equally wrought partly by ourselves with a percentage of divine aid? O, sorry ally of Gabriel Biel. What medieval uncertainty embodied in Biel and his comrades was countered by Luther!

The Lord himself supplies our righteousness. "I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Humanly speaking none were more righteous than the Pharisees. The teachers of the law could quote reams of Holy Scripture and their invented legal regulations. A more lofty righteousness was necessary than any human attainment or virtue. Here, the Lord treats of the human heart and its ineradicable inclination to wickedness. He bestows our qualification for inclusion, we who can never cease "giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12). How? Through redemption and justification! (Colossians 1:13). "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." Jesus justifies us. Justification is through the merits of Christ. Justification includes forgiveness and acceptance.


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