2 Cor. 5:14-15
We are in our final look on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg disputation in which he describes two competing theologies, the Theology of Glory and the Theology of the Cross. In my last post, we learned that the theologian of the cross is alone worthy to be called a theologian for it is only he who rightly understands the relationship between law, works and gospel.
Theologians of Glory love law and human works because these allow them to prescribe actions and deeds as a way of getting close to God. The law says “do this” or “don’t do this”. This is the essence of all religious expression. The problem is that attempts at “doing” result in either despair or pride; despair, when one fails to do it, or pride in having successfully done it. Such pride leads to spiritual snobbery.
Some time ago, we had a family come to our church and volunteer with us in an outreach mission who believed that they were called to observe all the Old Testament laws. They had joined themselves to a group called the Torah Community, believers who aspired to live like Hebrews. This man was highly educated, a medical doctor and his wife was a lawyer. They worshipped on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, they observed all the Old Testament festivals and rituals, they denounced the celebration of Christmas and Easter, because these were not mandated in the scripture. They said that their chief motivation in all this was to show God how much they loved Him by obeying “all” of His commands.
What this couple missed was the clear distinction between the old covenant and the new. Although they professed faith in Jesus, they also insisted on observing the Old Testament law as much as they could. They had a strange way of reading Romans, Galatians and Hebrews, and just could seem to understandthat as Romans 6:6 clearly states:
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit.
Jesus, in his life and ministry, had completely fulfilled the law by being the only Torah keeping Jew who had fully observed the spirit and intent of the law. In doing so He brought to completion. He fulfilled it. “It is finished”.
But this does not in any way negate the “validity” or “goodness” of the law. The law has a definite function in the Christian community. Otherwise, we would have to write off the entire Old Testament. But it is the principle and God’s heart behind the law that is important and transferable. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took the law and elevated it to a heart attitude.
So the primary function of the law is to reveal sin. It was given to increase the trespass. The law is that “awful mirror” that shows us our sinner-ship. It was designed to lead us to the Cross.
Luther says that: (Thesis 23)
The law works the wrath of God, kills, curses, accuses, judges and damns everything that is not in Christ.
The analogy of addiction is helpful here. The drug addict or alcoholic knows that he must quit. The law says “Thou shalt quit”. The problem is, that he can’t quit. Every time he gets drunk, he feels a sense of despair and the full impact of his slavery. If he manages to stay sober for a few days, he starts to feel good about himself and then deceives himself into thinking that he can just have one drink. And so he falls again. The law “Thou shall quit.” accuses, curses and kills, because it in no way provides a way of fulfillment.
What is needed is an intervention. The addict must finally despair of himself and declare himself an addict. Only then is there hope. The Alcoholic anonymous, twelve step program is based on the need for external intervention, appeal to a higher power, and the community of addicts to break the cycle that will finally give the addict hope.
So too the cross of Christ finally gives the sinner the intervention he needs to surrender and throw Himself on mercy of Christ who has fulfilled the law and who alone can change his heart.
It is not that the law is bad, nor is the law to be evaded, but that the Theologian of Glory misuses the law in the worst way.
The law was never intended to be a means of earning righteousness. Even in the Old Testament, righteousness was always a matter of faith and relationship.
The preamble to the Ten Commandments makes this clear. In most published lists of the ten commandments, the preamble is left out. But the preamble is in reality the most important part because it defines the relationship.
“I am the YWHW, your God who brought your out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”… therefore… You shall have no other Gods before me… etc.
Israel was to cling to YHWH in faith. The law was designed to show them how a people, holy to the Lord, should live. It was the embodiment of a love and faith relationship between God and their neighbor. WHYH also knew that they could not keep the law, so that he gave them a way to deal with their sin through the animal sacrifices. The righteous Hebrew trusted that God would forgive his trespasses as he faithfully executed the prescribed way of dealing with sin.
At the cross God shows us the final solution to dealing with sin. It is based on faith in the finished work of Christ. And so a righteousness apart from law is bestowed by faith.
Luther writes: He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work believes much in Christ.
This thesis marks the final turn in the Heidelburg disputation to the sole agency of the grace of God in the life of the theologian of the cross.
To the Roman theological system, which relied totally on observing church law, confession to priests, performance of penance, taking the sacraments and attending the mass, this was a cannon shot into the heart of the religious ship.
Luther goes on to say: (Thesis 26) The law says “do this” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this” and everything is already done.
This seems so incomprehensible to the theologian of glory. Human wisdom tells him that we learn by doing. We learn how to build by building. We learn how to farm by farming, We learn how to play musical instruments by playing. And so, surely we must learn how to be righteous by righteous doing. The whole Roman church system was based on works. What he did not understand is that human reason, which works wonderfully in the creaturely order cannot apprehend the mysteries of God.
Unfortunately, this theology of glory tends to creep into every expression of church. Church leaders make “rules” for their congregation, with good intentions but which feed the Theology of Glory.
Faith, on the other hand, is the gift of pure grace. It is the Divine “I love you and have saved you.” that internally empowers what the law requires. Through faith, Christ is in us and at one with us.
We who are recreated in Christ do what the law of love requires because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is written on our hearts. Of us the scripture is true “God is at work in you to will and to work for His good pleasure”. (Phil 2:12) Good works are now the fruit of a transformed life. They are done as a love response to the God who has saved us, and empowers us. They must never be done apart from faith and a holy fear of God.
“Understand this, wherever the Holy Scriptures command good works to be done, understand that it forbids you to do any good work by yourself …..because you cannot until you become dead and buried and permit God to work in you. Unto this you will never attain, except by faith, hope and love; that is the total mortification of yourself and all your own works.”
Luther goes on to say that the work of Christ is then the operative power in the believer and the subsequent good deeds called the operation, so that our operation (what we do) is pleasing to God by the grace of his operative power. (Thesis 27)
What he is saying is that the believer is “aroused” through living faith in Christ’s work to imitate God and do the things that Christ did. Deeds of mercy are aroused by an apprehension of Christ’s work through which he has saved us.
We are to imitate Him and be conformed to His image, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
In 2 Cor. 3: 18 the Apostle writes “Beholding His Glory, we are transformed degree by degree into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord which is the Spirit.”
The glory that we are transformed into is not our glory but His.
Such love is expressed in us through Christ, who operates in us to do His good pleasure. The good works that we do are the fruit of his working in us. They are really His works done through us. That means that in everything we do, we must acknowledge that it is really Christ working in us. I must continually confess that I am a sinner saved by grace and whatever I do that is worthy or commendable is done by Christ through me. He gets all the glory. And His glory becomes my joy. (1 Peter 1:9)
Luther now moves to his final thesis and paves the way for the creative love of God.
Thesis 28: “The love of God does not first discover but creates what is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through attraction to what pleases it.”
We now come to the end of the great arch that Luther has built in his disputation from the law of God to the creative love of God.
It is the love of God, which creates out of nothing, out of that which is not, that which pleases God. Out of the death of the sinner, God creates a saint. The love of the saint, in turn is empowered by God to propel the gospel forward, allowing God’s alien work of first putting to death and then and bringing to life that which is pleasing to God.
This is the wave upon which the church is founded. It is the creative work of God operating in each believer that moves forward to those it touches, bringing others to faith.
It bestows good on the poor and needy, on the broken and destitute. It creates in its wake that which pleases God.
Human love on the other hand cannot do this for it is attracted to only to what pleases it. The churches of theologians of glory are rich with what is attractive to people: health wealth and prosperity, your best self now. The churches of theologians of the cross are out there in the world empowered by God to transform that which is ugly and despised into what is beautiful and pleasing to God.
The problem is that, for the theologian of glory, the bad, the poor and the lowly are invisible. They do not count in the scale of values and are counted as nothing. Only the best that humanity has to offer has any value, hence the prosperity gospel.
But the psalmist says otherwise “Blessed is he who considers the poor”. Christ’s heart is for the poor and downtrodden.
Only the theologian of the cross understands this and lives it out, empowered fully by God. In that way God brings life out of death, resurrection out of crucifixion.
It is the lifeblood of the one in Christ.
Crux sola est nostra theologia. The cross alone is our theology.
P.S. I am indebted to the book “On Becoming a Theologian of the Cross – Reflections of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation”by Gerald O. Forde (1997, Erdmans, UK) in which Forde systematically maps out Luther’s theology.