What might Luther think about our glut of Christian books?

. . . [Luther] sees the Christian life as one fueled by the reading and hearing of this Word, primarily in a corporate context. This is a great antidote to a number of perennial problems for Christians. First, there is the “need” for something more than the Bible. The success of books that offer something spectacular–whether accounts of dying and coming back to the land of the living or low-key claims to special, extra words from God–shows that the Christian world loves something out of the ordinary.

Luther would respond that such things are absolutely unnecessary, for what we need is the Word of God in the humble, mundane form that he has given it to us. Why read a book on a child who claims to have died and come back when one can read the Gospels and find there God, clothed in frail human flesh, dying and rising again? Why desire further, special words from God when the great Word of God, Christ himself, is offered to every individual as the Bible is read, preached, and sometimes applied individually through the confessional? Luther would see the market for such books as a function of our striving to be theologians of glory, unsatisfied with how God has chosen to reveal himself to be toward us, and always craving to make God conform to our expectations of what we need.

– Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life, 113-114.

Reformation 500: Luther’s ‘discovery’

In his Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George recounts, through Luther’s own words, the seminal discovery that changed church history and the world as we know it:

Near the end of his life, Luther remembered how as a monk the phrase “justice of God” in Rom 1:17 had struck terror in his soul. All of his attempts to satisfy God–his prayers, fastings, vigils, good works–left him with a wholly disquieted conscience. His mood swung from despair over his own failures to a simmering rage at God: “I did not love, indeed I hated, that God who punished sinners; and with a monstrous, silent, if not blasphemous, murmuring I fumed against God.” Still, he “knocked persistently upon Paul,” meditating day and night in his study in the tower, until

I began to understand that the “justice of God” meant that justice by which the just man lives through God’s gift, namely by faith. This is what it means: the justice of God is revealed by the gospel, a passive justice with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “He who through faith is just shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.

Reflecting on the incarnation (5)

…this is the most profound incognito and the most impenetrable of recognition that can be…

Christ indeed could not divest himself of godhead, but he kept it concealed for a time, that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.

-John Calvin (1509-1564)

…this is the most profound incognito and the most impenetrable of recognition that can be; for the contrast between God and an isolated individual human being is the greatest possible contrast; it is infinitely qualitative. This, however, is His will, His free will, and therefore it is an incognito maintained by omnipotence.

-Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Sometimes we are ‘hunted into the Bible’

…no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes. {Psalm 119:71, NAS}

In this entry from Table Talk Martin Luther speaks of the contribution sufferings make to the study of Scripture (and prayer). Christian, your suffering is not in vain:

I, said Luther, did not learn my divinity at one only time, but I was constrained to search deeper and deeper, to which my temptations brought me; for no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul had a devil that beat him with fists, and with temptations drove him diligently to study the Holy Scripture. I, said Luther, had cleaving and hanging on my neck the Pope, the Universities, all the deep-learned, and with them the devil himself; these hunted me into the Bible, where I diligently read, and thereby, God be praised, at length I attained to the true understanding of the same. Without such a devil, we are but only speculators of divinity, and according to our vain reasoning, we dream that so-and-so it must be, as the Monks and Friars in monasteries do.

The Holy Scripture of itself is certain and true enough; but God grant me the grace that I may catch hold on the right use thereof; for when Satan disputeth with me in this sort, namely, whether God be gracious unto me or no? then I must not meet him with this text: “Whoso loveth God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength, the same shall inherit the kingdom of God;” for then the devil presently objecteth, and hitteth me in the teeth, and saith, “Thou hast not loved God, with all thy heart,” etc., which, indeed, is true, and my own conscience therein, witnesseth against me; but at such a time I must arm myself and encounter him with this text, namely: “That Jesus Christ died for me, and through him I have a gracious God and Father; Christ hath made an atonement for me,” as St. Paul saith, “He is of God given unto us for wisdom, for righteousness, for holiness, and for redemption.”

Tyrants, sectaries, seducers, and heretics do nothing else but drive us into the Bible, to make us read more diligently therein, and with more fervency to sharpen our prayers.

‘I will give myself as a Christ to my neighbor’

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that it is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.

-Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

The man behind Reformation Day

Earlier this year I picked up a used copy of Martin Marty’s Martin Luther: A Life for $4 at the public library and read most of it on a weekend getaway with my wife (who says romance is dead?). The book turned out to be a steal. It’s well-written, an easy read and, I think, a good book for those who would otherwise be scared away by biography & church history.

So as we commemorate October 31 as Reformation Day (ahem), here are just a few excerpts from the biography that I found arresting, encouraging, or just plain weird [Marty’s text has been italicized]:

1) Luther believed that God was at work spiritual conflict that he called “Anfechtungen”–spiritual assaults that prevented one from finding certainty in God: He wrote that he found that God provoked Anfechtungen as if in an embrace and called Anfechtungen “delicious despair.” Such despair offered sinners opportunities to grow in faith. The assaults robbed them of all certainty, until they found no place to go except to the God of mercy and grace. (p24)

2) Luther encountered doubt throughout his Christian life but discovered Christ was greater than his doubts: …when God made one just, he observed, the sinner became certain. This did not mean that anyone, and especially not Luther, would henceforth be free from all doubt or from mental trauma. No one going through the sea of life, he thought, could totally evade uncertainty any more than could those on long voyages at sea. Like Jacob, he would keep on wrestling. But the doubt, he contended, was itself a stirring up by the Christ who drove a person to make an appeal to him. So in Luther’s writing, Christ says, “I am more certain to you than your own heart and conscience.” And, he added, “Christ came into this world to make us most certain.” (p77-78)

3) Luther credited all of “his” success to Scripture: “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” (p86)

4) Luther broke with much religious tradition even as he observed lesser cultural traditions: John Bugehagen officiated [Luther’s wedding to Katherine von Bora], with five witnesses present, among them artist Lucas Cranach and his wife, Barbara. Friend Justus Jonas next drew duty upstairs to observe the copulation, a formal term for the sealing of the betrothal bond…Couples in the Saxon culture of the day were to be witnessed thrashing around on the marital bed demonstrating that they had achieved consummation. (p106)

5) Luther understood that faith precedes good works: “If one has a gracious God, then everything is good. Furthermore, we also say that if good works do not follow, then faith is false and not true.”

Happy Reformation Day.