Luther in 1517

Welcome to All Saints Eve, 2017—now reduced to the weirdly twisted event of Halloween.

Halloween aside, many of us know this day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany. I’d love to be in Germany but having missed my chance let me at least offer a reflection in honor of the day.

What Luther gave us, and what has touched my life deeply, is a vision of union and communion with Christ. It makes much better sense of Christian faith than many other versions of faith provide.

Here’s my own story of Luther’s impact. I was aware of Luther from general studies of church history but I only read his works directly after I started chasing Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). It was soon evident that Sibbes knew Luther’s works and the Augustinian sources Luther used. They, in fact, did much to guide Sibbes as he wrestled with the shifting theology of English Puritanism in his own day.

Sibbes aligned himself with Luther’s basis for salvation and began to resist more philosophically shaped views offered by prominent English theologians. The latter held that life change comes through human initiative; and the key to this initiative is God’s grace—treated as a new disposition given by God—that enables sinners to achieve faith and works.

Sibbes, on the other hand, held that God’s grace is his self-giving. He comes to dwell in the soul by the Spirit who unites himself inwardly with the believer’s spirit—as in a Spirit-to-spirit marital bond. So the human spirit begins to change as communion with the indwelling Spirit grows.

The broader story is told in my book, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness. And I’ve traced the alternative versions of grace in earlier entries posted on this site.

So let’s talk about Luther. In my view his strongest contribution is summed up in Tuomo Mannermaa’s softly iconoclastic book, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification. This Finnish theologian was alert to the views of neighboring Orthodox theologians who believe theosis—sometimes called deification—explains salvation. In a nutshell, theosis holds that Christians are called to participate in God’s life.

Lutherans, on the other hand, are more reserved. They speak of salvation coming through imputation—with souls being declared righteous by God through faith. And Mannermaa is a Lutheran. But, still, he saw an alignment of Luther’s views with one feature of Orthodox faith: that God works his transformation in believers through their union with Christ. So the life of faith works from the “inside-out” by the Spirit’s ministry in the heart.

There are still big differences between what Luther believed and the Orthodox Church but that’s a separate conversation. The key is that the Spirit’s indwelling work is a shared conviction.

What struck me most in reading Luther is his certainty of change. The Spirit is critical to Luther’s ontological understanding. He lives in the believer’s soul and makes a real difference. “We are filled with God, and He pours unto us all His gifts and grace and fills us with His Spirit, who makes us courageous. He enlightens us with His light, His life lives in us, His beatitude makes us blessed, and His love causes love to arise in us” (Mannermaa, 22, citing Luther).

Now let’s turn to another recent study that celebrates and unfolds Luther’s ministry in order to touch on one of the huge and very practical implications of the Spirit’s indwelling work in believers.

Matt Jenson offers a book with an intriguing subtitle. I’ll offer the full title here – The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se. The Latin phrase speaks of sin as our being “curved in on oneself.” A simple paraphrase might be, “Our tendency to be self-absorbed because of sin.”

Jenson’s complex discussion of this portrayal of sin invites a full reading. But for now let me take one application of Luther’s view. God’s inward work in a soul transforms a sinfully Narcissistic soul into an other-oriented soul. Here is Jenson’s summary: “This God-self relation … draws [the believer] out of himself ecstatically, as he finds his life in Christ and then in his neighbour. Thus [the Spiritual person] lives centrifugally and eccentrically” [Jenson, 66].

Luther’s view of salvation, then, speaks of a change of the soul’s energy and direction. The sinful soul once swirled inward with self-concerns and ambitions—only touching others with the outer bands of selfish energy. But with the coming of the Spirit the converted soul now spins outward with Christ’s love giving it freedom to be selfless.

Of course there’s much, much more to be said about all this. For now it’s enough to say this: let this anniversary stir a response. Find a good book or two about Luther, and another book or two by Luther, and celebrate what God offers us through Luther’s courageous activities of 1517.

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2 Comments

  1. Judy

    Thank you for your insights into Luther’s courageous faith. I am going to have a good Luther book to read. And again, Happy Reformation Day!

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