The ‘Genius’ of Luther’s Thinking

by Robert A. Kolb and Charles P. Arand

Who is God when you really get to know Him? Who are we as His human creatures?

Martin Luther spent agonizing hours over several years wrestling with these two questions. He never commented on his state of mind during the time he was struggling with the dilemma of God’s identity and his own. But two things are certain: He saw God as the angry judge depicted on many of the altars he had stood before in devotion and fear. He saw Christ as the One who comes on the clouds with a much bigger sword of judgment in His left hand than a lily of peace in His right. He also saw himself as a sinner who had to earn God’s favor through his own efforts. He had to become a self made man if he were to escape the fires of God’s eternal wrath.

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A Path to Salvation?

Like many others of his day, Luther thought that becoming a monk could provide a path that would lead to the solution of his problem. It only made things worse. His anxiety and uncertainty grew more and more unbearable. But becoming a monk inadvertently drove him to study Scripture. The God who revealed Himself in its pages confronted Luther with the message of Christ on the cross. Coming face to face with God on the cross overpowered Luther’s con ceptions of both God and himself. At the foot of the cross he discovered new answers to his questions about who God was and about who we are as human creatures.

To be sure, Martin Luther recognized that both God’s goodness and our humanity will always remain somewhat mysterious. Yet now for the first time, Luther began to see what God is really like and what it means to be His human creature. God takes the initiative and introduces Himself to us through the gift of Christ on the cross. Thus God cannot be known by us apart from His relationship with us in Christ. By the same token, human beings do not fully enjoy their humanity apart from fearing, loving, and trusting in the God who has come to converse with them as Jesus Christ.

His encounter with the God of the cross gave Luther some distinctive insights into our relationship with God. These insights might be called his genius. The ancient Romans called the spirit that guides and directs something and gives its distinctive character a “genius.” The Reformer’s defining view of God and human beings served as the “genius” for his way of thinking.

Two Important Insights

1008lutherstory2.jpgTwo insights in particular permeated Luther’s thinking about God and guided his reading of Scripture. One of the insights into what it meant for God to be God and what it meant to be a human creature came to be called the “two kinds of righteousness,” or two dimensions of being human. The other insight concerned how those two dimensions of a human being were established and guided. Here Luther contended that God engages His human creatures in conversation as He comes to talk with us through the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, and through His Word as it addresses us in oral, written, and sacramental forms.

The distinction between the two kinds of righteousness arose as Luther grappled with the question, “What does God think of me?” For a long time, he gravely doubted whether he could ever find haven in the identity of being God’s beloved child. Why? Most Christians in his day believed that our identity rests on how well we carry out God’s will in daily life. They knew that in some sense we are sinners, but they also believed that God gives grace (like spiritual steroids) so that we can lay aside our former sins and then live in such a way as to please Him with the good we do. God regards His people as His people because they behave like His people.

Luther’s instructors taught him that God gives grace only to those who do their best by their own effort (in other words, God helps those who help themselves). His focus on how well he performed placed a crushing burden on Luther. That burden destroyed his hope and his joy, his ability to love God, and his ability to serve other people for their sake. Instead, he was always calculating how his helping others might make him look good to God. He could not trust his own efforts at becoming right, or righteous, in God’s sight. His attempts at doing God’s will always fell short. That sent him into terror and panic.

God spoke to Luther from Scripture’s pages with a message in sharp contrast to what he had learned at the university. As a typical medieval monk, Luther had a lot of contact with the Bible. The monks daily recited the psalms and heard passages from other books read in worship and at mealtime. Light dawned for Luther, as on the first morning, when his reading of Scripture revealed that God creates and redeems His human creatures without condition or requirement, simply because He is gracious and loves them.

Luther interpreted that Gospel message in such a way that drove him to distinguish two dimensions of human life. In his relationship to the Creator, he could only receive the gift of identity as a beloved child from his heavenly Father. In his relationship to the rest of creation, he was called by God to act like a brother.

He called that gift of identity as God’s child passive righteousness, “the righteousness given by someone else.” God gives us a new identity as His children when He loves us in Christ Jesus and we trust in Him because of that love. Luther called the performance that God expects from His children active righteousness, “the righteousness that I do myself.” God guides our life within creation by giving us instructions about how we should deal with His creaturely gifts within the callings or places where He wants us to serve.

God has set both dimensions of our humanity in place through His Word. He first did so through His creative Word as it shaped human life. He then re-established our humanity through His re-creative Word that comes in Christ and is delivered to us through the Word. This Word takes shape in our proclamation and witness, in Scripture itself, in other writings which repeat and echo biblical teaching, and in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God is by nature a creating God, and He creates through speaking. Thus, His human creatures only know Him as He comes to converse with them. The Word Made Flesh (John 1:14) came to us as both “gift” and “example,” Luther taught.

A New Identity

1008lutherstory3.jpgThrough the cross and resurrection of Jesus, God bestows a new identity on us. When God’s Word calls us away from basing our lives on something He has made (the temporal things of life) rather than on our Creator Himself, Christ takes us with Himself into His tomb. This death to sinful ways happens decisively when the Gospel of Christ first claims us, whether that happens when we are listening to a friend’s witness or being baptized as a baby.

Through the Word, Luther taught, God lays our old, sinful identity in Christ’s tomb. Through the Word, God also gives us new birth (John 3:5) and unites us with Christ in His resurrection. That promise of a new life through Christ now determines our new existence. We are raised to walk in His footsteps (Rom. 6:4). For Luther believed that Jesus not only reveals God to us (John 1:18), He also reveals what it means to be human. That means following His example.

Therefore, Luther had two goals when he mounted the pulpit: He wished to teach and to admonish. By teaching, he sought the application of God’s Law (that demands our righteousness) and the application of God’s Gospel (that delivers us from sin and delivers God’s promise of new life in Christ to us). By admonition, he sought to move people to trust in Christ as their Savior and to live like children of God who had the assurance of His promise. Teaching brought God’s conversation about new life into his parishioners’ ears. Admonition translated God’s promise into the daily lives of God’s people as they lived out His love for others.

As he and his students proclaimed this message of Jesus Christ to their parishioners, the spirit, the “genius” of Luther’s twin insights into the nature of God and human nature, guided and supported their interpretation of God’s Word in Scripture. Luther discovered who he was as God’s child when he discovered who God was when God went to the cross and reclaimed His human life through His resurrection. In Christ, Luther came to the realization that he was God’s own child. Therefore, he was determined to live under Him and under His rule, and to serve Him in the everlasting peace and joy that comes from knowing he belonged to God through Christ Jesus.

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