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Luther's Utmost Concerns

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
December 2, 2017

Martin Luther's legacy to the world is a message from another world. It is not of this earth but from above. It is not the invention of men in any wise, informationally or imaginatively. It is a Word from God. It is conveyed in the languages of men but its sense is only decipherable through the interpretation of the Spirit. It was Luther's divinely given assignment to spell out the alien aspects of the heavenly speech to those who had no capacity to comprehend it until enabled by the divine command, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matthew 11:15).

'In what Luther later came to see as the darkest days of his life, he gave us the best example of what the crucial term Anfechtung means and described his way of coping with it: "The Prince of Demons himself has taken up combat against me; so powerfully and adeptly does he handle the Scriptures that my scriptural knowledge does not suffice if I do not rely on the alien Word." The "alien Word"- this alienating concept goes to the root of the conflict. The "alien Word" is the gospel, which is not "my own", but which I must hear spoken "to me"' (Heiko A. Oberman, page 226, Luther, Man Between God And The Devil, Image, Doubleday, New York, 1992).

Luther's correct core conviction is that the Word of God comes to us from outside. It has no origin in human wisdom, and human acumen cannot open its saving secrets. Its Author must reveal them: 'At that time Jesus answered and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal him"' (Matthew 1125-27). Christ teaches us the Gospel himself.

The Word of God is Luther's first alien. At God's sovereign determination and by his power it breaks through our thick cladding of ignorance, blindness, illusion, pride, and stubborn false confidence in our assumptions and perception. Real and assured truth comes to us through divine ambush and invasion. We are wrested from our preferred lies and fancies. The force of the Word delivers us from falsehood.

Luther's second alien is the righteousness provided by God. Righteousness before heaven cannot be wrought-up by or in man by any intent or effort. All have sinned. We have no means whereby we can effect amends. We are by nature corrupt and nothing pure can emerge from us. There is no true love or desire for God within us. Our will is in bondage to evil. Our depraved and selfish affections, preferences, and motives see to that. Apart from the restraints of common grace we are driven by the devil and yield to his directions by our innate and fallen disposition to do his bidding for the gratification it gives our base appetites and swollen grandiosity.

The righteousness we need for acceptance and harmony with God must come from outside. It must be wrought by a pure and perfect Representative acting on our behalf and bestowed upon us by Him. The believer's righteousness is wholly a donation without our contribution. It is credited to us without merit or desert, "giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:12-14).

'The Christian can be justified in the sight of God only through trust in the extraneous righteousness of Christ and not through his own righteousness. Likewise, a Christian can only be promised absolution, the Word of forgiveness, "from outside." He cannot trust his own conscience, and the confusion will only increase in view of the fast-approaching end' (Oberman, page 226).

The trust through which righteousness is mediated is also alien. It cannot be generated by any power or motion of the human soul. Faith is a penitent and contrite turning to God. A heart at enmity with the Lord cannot incline toward him nor anticipate his sweet mercy with the warmth of a helpless and guilty supplicant confident in his compassion (Romans 8. 7-8). Sincere faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8).

'But faith must not be understood psychologically or subjectively. It arises not from man's work but from a gift of God. The rebirth of a believing man comes about by contact with the preached or expounded Gospel, the Word of God. The preaching of the Gospel, as Paul described it, is the power of God. When the Gospel is declared, or read, or otherwise made known and communicated, the power of God is kindled at once. A man can no more work this up by himself than he could have done the work of Christ. He is justified by faith alone apart from the works of the Law. No other formula has ever expressed the whole matter so succinctly. Faith is like the response of a plant to the sun; the sunshine creates the activity of the plant. At no point is natural man more likely to misunderstand Luther than in his emphasis on justification by faith in Christ only." (James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism, John Knox Press, Atlanta 1981, pages 83-4).

Man does not in any way conjure up faith within himself. Faith comes to him, comes upon him, is implanted within him, through the gift of divine grace. Faith is not the factor that justifies as if man produces it. Christ is man's justification, apprehended as such, and his righteousness applied to us by the sovereign application of God as our Redeemer. Captive (to Satan) is taken captive (through conquering love and influence of Jesus Christ), Ephesians 4:8 . The will of man - the horse formerly ridden by the devil is now mounted and controlled by Christ. Faith is not our doing in its inception, but once given it is our interior coaction with God, he sustaining it, strengthening it, and preserving it. This internal miracle wrought within man differs far from the superficial assent to propositions which satisfies so many who cling to a false assurance. It is the sinner's grasp of the saving Promise once seized by Abraham and it transforms and actuates the life of the believer.

So Luther advocates our invasion by and possession of several aliens, namely, the Word, the Righteousness of Christ, and the reality of saving faith. All of these add up to the notion and power of alien grace which settles upon whomsoever Christ wills. 'You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed that you should go and bear fruit' - faith, purity, righteous deeds, works of love, acts that glorify the Father (John 15:16).

Faith, more than mere assent or false assumption, is a God-wrought union with Christ and keen action in his cause. It is heart deep, heart felt, and heartily involved in the affairs of the kingdom. Justification by faith is profound theological truth to our Reformer; not a slick slogan without careful investigation and comprehension. Luther's aliens are to dwell with us and never fly away until they convey us safely to their original source - God's heaven.

It is of immense interest also that Luther regarded judgment as God's alien work, and salvation as his proper activity: hence our Collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

Lord God, you show your almighty power most of all in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant us such measure of your grace, that in obeying your holy commandments we may obtain your gracious promises, and share in your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

None should cease praying and seeking.

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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