Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Killer Lutherans (Part One)

“There have been at least two mass murderers over the last 36 years who have been pretended to be devout Lutherans. John Emil List from New Jersey was a devout Lutheran who murdered his Mother, Wife and his 3 Children in 1971 and was not apprehended until 1989. Dennis L. Rader of Kansas was also a devout Lutheran who is one of the worst mass murderers in Kansas history and who was apprehended last year.”

This CNN moment was posted over on the CARM discussion boards. I was in a very similar discussion (specific to BTK) with a Roman Catholic back in 2005, found here. Here is a selection of the dialog:

GW: I have been trying to learn about Luther's view of sin as it relates to BTK Killer Dennis Rader (a leader of a Lutheran Church).

Interesting. Hopefully you've uncovered that Luther would have been very intolerant of BTK.

GW: From a recent CNN article, the mass murderer stated, "People will say that I'm not a Christian, but I believe I am." About his long-term plans, he said, "I expect to heal and have light and then, hopefully, someday, God will accept me." (CNN: "BTK Sentenced to 10 Life Terms" - August 18, 2005

In either Lutheran or Reformed terms (in other words, Protestant terms), these are not the words of a Christian who is saved by faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. God accepts sinners because their sin is imputed to Christ. One does not need to first "heal and have light" (whatever that means). Christ's active and passive work makes a sinner acceptable to God.

GW: Rader is a Lutheran

Simply because one belongs to a visible church does not mean that same person belongs to the invisible church. This distinction was taught by Luther, as well as Calvin, as well as Augustine.

GW: and I couldn't help but think of some of Luther's head-turning statements about grave sin and justification

Before looking at these statements, understanding Luther on sin and justification is not really so hard to do. Countless books have been written on Luther's theology. If you really want an in-depth answer, go get a copy of Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther. Also helpful is the anthology, What Luther Says by Ewald Plass. You can look up countless topics, and read Luther word for word. If Dennis Radar provoked you to think about certain statements from Luther, hopefully these recommendations will provoke you to do some further research. The truth about what Luther actually held is not difficult to track down.

GW: "Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. ...No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day." ('Let Your Sins Be Strong, from 'The Wittenberg Project;' 'The Wartburg Segment', translated by Erika Flores, from Dr. Martin Luther's Saemmtliche Schriften, Letter No. 99, 1 Aug. 1521.)

First, Luther was prone to strong hyperbole. It's his style. He doesn't write analytical Puritan theology. He writes profound verbose sentiment driving one to think deeply. In the quote you've selected, the underlying point is no sin can separate a Christian from Christ and his atonement (Biblical examples- recall David: conspirator to murder; Peter: denied Christ with cursing). The Catholic scholar Jared Wicks has correctly pointed out, “One needs to be on the lookout for Luther's rhetorical flights, and to be judicious in discriminating between the substance of his message and the linguistic extremes with which he sometimes made his points” [Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy, (Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1983), 29.

Secondly, it's important to remember context. Whom is this quote written to? It's written to Melanchthon, Luther's close friend, someone quite familiar with Luther's theology. Melanchthon understood Luther's sharp division between law and gospel. By the way, do you know what Luther means by law and gospel? It is a fundamental presupposition needed to understand his theology. I dare say if someone doesn't understand what Luther means by law and Gospel, one does not understand Luther...at all.

Thirdly, Luther is exhorting Melanchthon: the amount or kind of sin one does is not relevant to salvation. Salvation is totally by grace. Whether you've sinned a little or lot, the work of Christ covers those sins, making one acceptable to the Father.

Luther's point is not to sin boldly, but rather to believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. Christians have a real savior. No amount of sin is too much to be atoned for. Secondarily, Luther says that one's sins should not burden them to the point in which they think they have not the work of Christ, for no sin will seperate a Christian from the infinite work of Christ.

The big question though, did Luther exhort people to sin? Is Luther an antinomian? Absolutely not! Luther continually exhorted and expected people to perform good works. ‘Faith,’ wrote Luther, ‘is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith’. Luther scholar Paul Althaus notes: “{Luther} also agrees with James that if no works follow it is certain that true faith in Christ does not live in the heart but a dead, imagined, and self-fabricated faith." Here is a great quote from Luther:

"We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith, but also as an example of love toward our neighbor, whom we are to serve as Christ serves us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you with all his possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love, and out of these grows hope and patience.You ask, perhaps, what are the good works you are to do to your neighbor? Answer: They have no name. As the good works Christ does to you have no name, so your good works are to have no name."

I commend this entire sermon to your reading from which this quote was taken.

GW: "AND ALSO..."I know I have committed many sins, and I continue to sin daily. But that does not bother me. You have got to shout louder, Mr. Law. I am deaf, you know. Talk as much as you like, I am dead to you. If you want to talk to me about my sins, go and talk to my flesh. Belabor that, but don’t talk to my conscience. My conscience is a lady and a queen, and has nothing to do with the likes of you, because my conscience lives to Christ under another law, a new and better law, the law of grace." -- Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Chapter 2, Verse 19

An excellent quote. Luther at his best! Luther believed that Satan continually threw one's sins in one's face to get one to doubt the work of Christ. To combat this, Luther often mocked Satan by saying, "Oh that sin? well here's some you've forgotten." By mocking Satan, Luther defeated Satan. Now, the law also points out one's sins. the law invokes a demand with a burden that can crush us. But the good news is that God says He is our Father, that He is our God, protector-provider, Lord and Savior. It is His gift to us of being His child. In the above quote, Luther brings sharp attention to the paradox of law/Gospel: "my conscience lives to Christ under another law, a new and better law, the law of grace." In other words, the law can no longer condemn the Christian- it has been fulfilled in Christ, a perfect savior.

GW: On the face of it, it appears that the BTK Killer might actually be within the bounds of Luther's ideas on justification.

An Inflammatory statement. By the quote from BTK you provided, it is obvious he knows nothing of the gospel, nor did he live his life to serve his neighbor. His life did not show the fruit of sanctification. Luther would have recognized this easily. Luther would have probably had him banished, or given to the authorities for execution.

GW: "Certainly, BTK did not commit 100 murders, much less 1000 in a single day as Luther said. And, BTK claims to be a Christian who hopes to be accepted by God

If you take statements of hyperbole analytically, you are misinterpreting and misunderstanding Luther. Luther was exhorting a Christian who daily struggled with sin to trust in the work of Christ. Luther was not giving mass murderers license to kill.

GW: Is it me, or is BTK a good Lutheran, theologically speaking?

It's you. You don't understand Luther.

GW: "BTK appears to have "faith alone" as Luther taught, and he also seems to suffer within his "flesh."

I haven't seen anything from BTK that suggests this.

GW: "But Luther dicotomized these so that one's grave sins didn't matter so long as one professed Christ in word, as BTK clearly does.

No, Luther didn't do this. Luther’s doctrine of justification implied works as a fruit of justification, and Luther was no libertine seeking excuses for low morality.

GW: Help me understand if Luther really believed that stuff he said about sinning boldly and committing 1000 murders a day and still being firmly in Christ

I must say sorry if i've come across harshly. Luther has been a very important theologian in my life. To have his proclamation of the gospel linked to BTK gets me a bit.


L P Cruz said...


Hitler was known to be a Roman Cath, so what does this mean?

Calvin was a party to the burning of a heretic, so do we conclude that Calvinists are also like this?

I am a Lutheran though I am not offended at the fact reported, I am wondering at what the poster was trying to imply - we are evil people and our theology is wrong based on the lives of these professors?

L P Cruz said...

I also like to add that the Lutheran Confessions say that faith and mortal sin can not co-exist together. I wonder what is the RCC opinion on faith and mortal sin co-existing together.