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By Roger Salter
December 9, 2017

Arduous years of anguish brought Martin Luther to an understanding of the Gospel. The clarity he gained came at the cost of enormous conflict of soul. Spiritually and psychologically he paved the way for anxious souls to find the freedom and joy of salvation. It is safe to say that whatever the Reformer's limitations and flaws happened to be no one else can so effectively release us from barred access to God and belief in the forgiveness of sins. His theology cultivates the spirit of freedom in the grace of the Lord. It is the very best "lifting up of the downcast" available to the doleful soul, and an effective deliverance from the struggle with doubt. In reading Martin Luther it is almost impossible to remain glued to the chair or refrain from an exclamation of joy. The virtue of Luther's theology is that it is pre-eminently pastoral and not an exercise in parading erudition.

Martin Luther's exalted aim was to share the benefits of Christ that he so richly enjoyed in seasons of great awareness of the free grace of God and respite from the inner tensions of the spiritual life of which he was fully cognizant and endured many. His dawn hours of mental illumination were long but when the darkness was dispelled and the light of truth finally broke through in all its saving splendor the spirit of the Saxon monk broke free and sprang to the heights of the jubilation of the justified sinner.

"Not because man was good and worthy, but, because he was a sinner and could never bridge the gap, God drew nearer. Luther described this experience in these words: 'When I had realized this, I felt myself absolutely born again. The gates of paradise had been flung open and I had entered. There and then the whole of Scripture took on another look to me.' . . . He was indeed reborn, and the gates of paradise were flung open, for he was no longer a prisoner in the aeon of Adam but a pilgrim in the aeon of Christ" (James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1968, page 77).

A major driving force of Luther's reforming effort was to free the prisoners of the stultifying amalgam of semi-Pelagianism, superstition, and legalism of the Western Church and create a happy band of pilgrims translated from a state of spiritual insecurity and fear to confident trust in Christ. His concern was not the reorganization of an institution but the recovery of the simplicity of the Gospel and to place it within the grasp of all people.

Sometimes where grace is professed it is scarcely possessed due to the oppressive atmosphere of legalism. The Lord seems to be parsimonious with his mercy requiring a long and exhausting process of stressful preparation which has developed into a form of "Genevan semi-Pelagianism" that Jean Calvin would never have endorsed. Calvin advised that our discernment of salvation was read in the face of Jesus Christ - concentration on him.

Individual and national temperament, and tribal tradition, may condition the presentation of the Gospel and contribute to a consequent relapse into an unidentified or undisputed doctrine of salvation by works, or approval of human qualification, that result in injurious introspection and disappointed aspiration. Human nature finds it hard to rest in the Promise of God and rely on the Person of Jesus Christ alone for justification. We cannot readily credit the generous kindness of God and we feel duty-bound to attain credit for ourselves by some means or other. We cannot believe the precious insight of Luther: the Gospel does not command "Do" but announces "Done!"

We analyze anxious consciences and search murky hearts for glimmers of grace but find only confusion and consternation and a pervasive weariness. We can never quite catch ourselves in frozen focus and examine ourselves objectively or accurately. Our consciousness races on through attitudes and events, and the evil one meddles in our self-appraisal and muddles our judgement. We are trapped in the caverns and courses of our dark interior that Jeremiah assures us we shall never explore toward satisfactory understanding. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (Ch 17 v 9).

Luther emerged by the grace of God, and the knowledge of Scripture, from the terrible trap of his era - the uncertainty of sufficient and authentic contrition. Worthy and perfect contrition was the condition of salvation and the receipt of divine grace. It was a devilish prescription for madness of mind and terrifying fear before a holy God. Souls were tortured by the exhortation to a complete contrition worthy of God's acceptance. In this hothouse of intense soul searching the church had virtually renounced the Biblical message of salvation and deprived its flock of the peace of Christ.

For all their undoubted worth the good and godly company of Puritans seemed in some sense to lapse into the mire of exaggerated and persistent introspection. How genuine are our repentance and faith, they would ask? Keeping up this constant self-inquisition tirelessly seemed to be a constant theme of their otherwise commendable religion. Even Charles Spurgeon noted that the Puritans concentrated more than they ought upon themselves rather than in gazing outwardly to the cross of Christ in which our redemption is found and assured (the comment is found somewhere in his writings, perhaps Lectures to My Students or An All-Round Ministry). Some Puritans were almost "bi-polar" in their spirituality, ecstatic in the Lord one day, cast down by doubt and insecurity the next, as the noted historian of 17th century England Christopher Hill happens to observe. Puritans were wise and wonderful Christians with a beautiful covenant theology (Westminster Confession and the like), but there was a tendency to plunge into the negative exercise of excessive interior probing (There were many wholesome Puritan counselors such as the truthful, gentle Andrew Gray, the magnanimous Richard Baxter, the penetrating John Trapp, the gracious James Ussher, and the well-balanced Joseph Hall (the last three being Anglican and Baxter the refuser of a bishopric).

It is from this almost unending soul gazing that Luther rescues us, for "there is no health in us". If salvation is entirely of the Lord we can only look to him from start to finish. Our inner writhing and wondering can never be trusted, never achieve anything, never satisfy our concern, settle our perplexity, soothe our worry. All that lay within us cannot allay our fears. We have to renounce ourselves in reliance on Christ. One human link in the chain of salvation would cause it to snap. Salvation is the work of Christ. Nothing in my hand I bring. I cannot summon repentance or faith from within myself. Christ must grant them to me in his coming to my soul. I cannot trigger my salvation. I can only turn to Jesus imploringly and that is in itself repentance (change of direction) and faith (lodgement of confidence) combined, and as I later discover, a gift and enabling from him. To weigh and measure what may be assessed in oneself is to intrude upon and usurp the office and work of the Savior.

Repentance is not payment for faith and salvation. It is the fruit of salvation and conjoined to faith. Without faith repentance would not be possible. We wouldn't dare attempt it for fear and dread. Faith is filled with repentance. The two graces flow together. Neither precedes the other. They proceed from the soul in concert by enabling grace and they partake of the same substance and content as do two sides of a coin - sorrow for sin and supplication for mercy. Neither are human in origin but each is human in possession and action once donated.

Repentance regarded from a legalistic point of view is a sticking point for many troubled Christians who are plagued with self doubt and disgust at what their sinful nature still reveals. The false message of perfectionism claims its many casualties. We are to look to the cross; not contemplate our condition for any consolation. Self-deceit is always possible. Christ's virtue vindicates us. The Reformers, not with absolute accuracy, contended that assurance of salvation was built into a steady gaze at the cross through the lenses of Word and sacrament. This not necessarily the case due to the complexity of the human mental constitution and spiritual difficulties that can be encountered, but it is ultimately through the wounds of Christ that we find our healing just as Israel once obtained cure from viperous poisoning through beholding the serpent of brass (Numbers 21: 6-9).

Thomas Guthrie, Scotland's great Presbyterian preacher and carer of the poor, opined, that even reckoning with the alarming warnings and threats of Scripture to the wicked and impenitent, the grace of God is its paramount message. "But over against these stern declarations, and between the pit and you, a high cross is standing. Mercy descends from heaven, lights upon its summit, and preaches hope to despair, pardon to guilt, salvation to the lost. Free as the winds that fan her cheek, free as the sunbeams that shine on her golden tresses, she invites all to come, opens her arms to embrace the world, and in a voice that rings like a silver trumpet, cries, 'O, Earth, Earth, Earth, hear the word of the Lord.' A beautiful vision. . . . Dove of heaven! hovering over us, staying, lingering, refusing to be driven away, thou also sayest, as I warn, plead, entreat, implore, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked'" (The Gospel in Ezekiel page 248). The high cross saves through the One lifted up upon it (John 3:14-16). We are saved by the precious blood-shedding.

Martin Luther delivers us from overwrought subjective scrutiny that stifles assurance. He exults in and commends "God's work in Christ offering free unmerited salvation. When a man saw (and sees) the reality, even the enormity, of his own sin, and the work of God in meeting that sin in Christ, the response is one of obedience and surrender to a God gracious and merciful. A kind of buoyancy is born in the human soul, a trust and confidence in all God's promises. Faith is in no sense a human achievement or effort, a putting of something human into God's bargain, such as good works or efforts, as Judaism (and scholasticism) sometimes taught. It is the opening of the eyes. It is the birth of a new hope, a sober trust in God, and a joyful, hopeful expectancy of what the outcome will be. People sometimes speak of Luther's being in 'jocular' vein, but all his wit and humor and high spirits were symptoms of a glad, trusting, believing confident heart. 'A Christian man is always in good heart,' he said. He once commented on his dog Tolpel cheerfully wagging his tail though not knowing where his next meal would come from, and marvelled at his pure trust in his environment, as he rubbed his ears and stroked his head. This was a parable of Luther's faith" James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism, page 83).

Atkinson adds, "It was his awareness of the work of Christ kindling faith in the heart that made Luther more and more aware of sin in the sense of what the scholastics (and he himself) called an accusation of self. This awareness of one's own sin (an awareness created by the Spirit not by self) Luther describes as 'humility' . . . the passive waiting on the Lord, the jettisoning of every kind of self-righteousness and the apprehension in poverty of the overflowing mercy and righteousness of God" (page 102).

Even the best and most pious of Christian minds cannot grasp, but only gape at, the extravagant generosity of God toward we sinful rebels who have risen against his glorious majesty. There are many ways in which we helplessly reduce its magnitude in thought, confidence, and prayer. It is our habit to trade and transact through life - striking deals - that prevents us from taking freely from the divine bounty. To us even grace has strict limits or requirements at some point. We cannot begin to conceive of the lavish love of the crucified.

Luther found himself nurtured in a church which had to strike bargains with God. He knew it was as spiritual beggars destitute of moral coinage and credit that we had to, and were meant to, approach the Almighty. We come to him naked, not even in rags, for dress. George Yule points out that the message of Rome in its official guise was "virtually salvation, sola contrition, by contrition alone . . . This was the atmosphere in which Luther's spiritual life was molded. How does one prepare to face death and judgement with assurance? This was Luther's and the Western Churches' basic problem, and it was virtually impossible to resolve in the terms it was posed in Western theology" (Luther: Theologians for Catholics and Protestants, George Yule, opening essay in volume of the same title edited by Yule, T. & T. Clark, 59 George Street, Edinburgh, 1988, page 4).

Conceding the disconcerting effects of sola contrition George Yule goes on to examine the fact "that the way of salvation was presented in an extremely legalistic and Pelagian way. All realized man sinned; all realized that grace was necessary to remedy this. But in this legalistic, impersonal and forensic schema the view became dominant that God's forgiveness is conditional on our true repentance of which our contrition is an essential ingredient. It was fully realized that grace was necessary and the relationship of grace to man's repentance was expressed in a variety of ways but almost always there was left a residue of human effort so that contrition itself became 'our work' and the nagging doubt remained - and this as we shall see was Luther's problem -'was I contrite enough'. This was an attitude characterized later by Calvin as 'legal repentance' (The Institutes, III-iii-1 to 4). The descriptive 'ifs' of the New Testament had become legal prescriptive 'ifs' so that it was thought that God's forgiveness was dependent upon our repentance. But the grace of God is unconditional, and because of this it calls forth unconditional obligations of gratitude. These, however, are never conditions for the grace of God. God's forgiveness is always prior to man's repentance and indeed makes it possible, as Augustine so well knew. Making conditions for repentance, especially when coupled with a legalistic view of sin and an impersonal view of grace, make Pelagianism almost inevitable" (page 6).

What Yule posits is the Augustinian view that in man's breach with God we are at the level of absolute zero and the Lord provides the means (as sheer gift) for re-attachment to himself. Sincere repentance and true faith are wrought in us through his grace.

"Many Protestants assume that when Luther said justification by faith alone he meant that we are saved not by our works but by our existential decision of faith. But this, as Cranmer remarked makes faith into a work, and it would have been for Luther just another type of Pelagianism (Homily on Justification, Miscellaneous Writings, Parker Society). 'Faith', he wrote, 'is something done to us rather than by us for it changes our hearts and minds. The essential point of Christian faith is its object Jesus Christ. Without its object all that remains of faith is 'merely froth and uncertain opinion or dreams . . . Even if I am feeble in faith I still have the same treasure and the same Christ as others'. The function of faith was to point away from one's self and one's works to Christ only, and hence Luther's preference for fiducia rather than assensus, for it was a word implying allegiance (Yule, page 15).

Luther's primary role was to set captives to falsehood and fear gloriously free. He wished to join the hearts, minds, and lives of as many as possible to the outreaching compassion of Christ. None excel Luther in this crucial ministry of mercy.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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