Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Misunderstanding Luther on Faith and Works

I stopped over at Catholic Answers and found the following comment left about my paper, Did Luther say, “Be a sinner and sin boldly”? A Look at Justification By Faith Alone and Good Works in Luther’s Theology:

I think James Swan errs in thinking Luther's thought processes were always consistent and therefore if he said works are necessary in one place, we must assume he always has this in mind in another. In this article, he essentially says when Luther said "sin boldly" it was "hyperbole" correct? However, I am off-hand familiar with at least one other exhortation of Luther's that supports the interpretation that Luther really had no problem with someone "sinning boldly." That quotation is:

"And here Paul speaketh not of the ceremonial law; for he sacrificed in the Temple, circumcised Timothy, shaved his head at Cenchrea. These things had he not done, if he had been dead to the ceremonial law, but he speaketh of the whole law. Therefore the whole law, whether it be ceremonial or moral, to a Christian is utterly abrogate, for he is dead unto it. Not that the law is utterly taken away nay, it remaineth, liveth, and reigneth still in the wicked." (Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 1535) [source]

I'm not infallible, so it is possible I made an error. I don't think I have though in my article. I went through Luther's letter to Melanchthon and advice to "sin boldly" thoroughly. While it's true Luther wasn't always consistent (he himself admits this), you'll find he's very consistent on what he means by faith and works throughout his Reformation career.

As to hyperbole, Luther was prone to strong hyperbole. It's his style, and his statement to Melanchthon is a perfect example. Luther doesn't write analytical theology. He writes profound verbose sentiment driving one to think deeply.The strong hyperbolic comparison Luther makes between “sinning boldly” and believing and rejoicing in Christ “even more boldly” isn't so difficult to grasp. When assaulted by the fear and doubt of Christ’s love because of previous sins or the remnants of sin in one’s life, one is thrust back into the arms of Christ “on whose shoulders, and not on mine, lie all my sins…”. Rather than promoting a license to sin by saying “sin boldly,” Luther’s point is to simply compare the sinner to the perfect savior. Left in our sins we will face nothing but death and damnation. By Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the world, we stand clothed in His righteousness, the recipients of His grace, no matter what we have done.

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.” The "sin boldly" statement is a perfect example. The point Luther is making is not to go out and murder or fornicate as much as possible, but rather to point out the infinite sacrifice of Christ’s atonement. There is no sin that Christ cannot cover. His atonement was of an infinite value. That this statement was not to be considered literally is apparent by Luther’s use of argumentum ad absurdum: do people really commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day? No. Not even the most heinous God-hating sinner is able to carry out such a daily lifestyle.

The response:

Please understand, James. I did read over your article. I was not convinced of your conclusions that he was consistent on this matter, however. True you can find citations of Luther praising works. But there is the existence of a number of other citations in context (like the one I mentioned from Galatians earlier... in which he belittles works. Or how he believed conscience was the devil trying to drive the soul to despair... I don't think Luther was always consistent (including on this matter) and I don't see reason to dismiss occasions in which he spoke rather clearly in my opinion to the detriment of works done in grace. [source]

The quote in question from Luther's Commentary on Galatians (cited above) in the same context states:

By this we may plainly see, that there is nothing here for us to do only it belongeth unto us, to hear that these things have been wrought and done in this sort, and by sure and confident faith to apprehend the same. And this is the true formed [and furnished] faith indeed. Now, when I have thus apprehended Christ by faith, and through him am dead to the law, justified from sin, delivered from death, the devil and hell, then I do good works, I love God, I give thanks to him, I exercise charity towards my neighbor.But this charity or works following, do neither form nor adorn my faith, but my faith formeth and adorneth charity. This is our divinity; which seemeth strange and marvellous, or rather foolish, to carnal reason: to wit, that I am not only blind and deaf to the law, yea delivered and freed from the law, but also wholly dead unto the same.

This statement is in perfect harmony with the outline of Luther's theology in my paper. It appears to me Luther isn't being understood when he speaks of works, law, and faith. If he was being understood, Luther's Galatians Commentary would not have been cited incorrectly. Sometimes one needs to read beyond that which one intends to quote, or actually understand what an author is saying before quoting. When it comes to a person standing righteous before God, for Luther, the Law is powerless to achieve this. Only Christ was able to do this, and by faith, his work of keeping the law becomes mine. If I think my keeping the law can justify me, I'm doomed to failure. As Paul says, "a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16).

The response:

I'm not the only student of religious studies who reads his Galatians commentary that way, so there is no need to personally attack my capacity to read. Yeah, Luther thought works are a nice bonus to thank God for being so nice. We understand that.But the question begged is: how does the statement about the moral law being "utterly abrogate" to the Christian fit in with the outline of your paper? [source]

I wasn't trying to insult you, but I don't think you understand what Luther is saying. It's one thing to disagree with what he is saying, it's quite another to say he wasn't consistent in his Galatians commentary on faith, works, and law. You said my paper on Luther is in error because of your quote from the Galatians Commentary. I've demonstrated it isn't.

The question isn't begged. If for Luther, Christ fulfills the law perfectly, and his righteousness is taken hold of by faith, then the law, as a means to eventually justification, is done away with. It's a useless endeavor as a means to be justified. It's a complete waste of time in regard to the "chief doctrine" of justification.

"When we have taught faith in Christ this way, then we also teach about good works. Because you have taken hold of Christ by faith, through whom you are righteous, you should now go and love God and your neighbor. Call upon God, give thanks to Him, preach Him, praise Him, confess Him. Do good to your neighbor, and serve him; do your duty. These are truly good works, which flow from this faith and joy conceived in the heart because we have the forgiveness of sins freely through Christ." [LW 26:132 (Commentary on Galatians)]

"We concede that good works and love must also be taught; but this must be in its proper time and place, that is, when the question has to do with works, apart from this chief doctrine. But here the point at issue is how we are justified and attain eternal life. To this we answer with Paul: We are pronounced righteous solely by faith in Christ, not by the works of the Law or by love. This is not because we reject works or love, as our adversaries accuse us of doing, but because we refuse to let ourselves be distracted from the principal point at issue here, as Satan is trying to do. So since we are now dealing with the topic of justification, we reject and condemn works; for this topic will not allow of any discussion of good works. On this issue, therefore, we simply cut off all laws and all works of the Law." [LW 26:136 (Commentary on Galatians)]

"Thus we must learn to distinguish all laws, even those of God, and all works from faith and from Christ, if we are to define Christ accurately. Christ is not the Law, and therefore He is not a taskmaster for the Law and for works; but He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This is grasped by faith alone, not by love, which nevertheless must follow faith as a kind of gratitude. Therefore victory over sin and death, salvation, and eternal life do not come by the Law or by the deeds of the Law or by our will but by Jesus Christ alone. Hence faith alone justifies when it takes hold of this, as becomes evident from a sufficient division and induction: Victory over sin and death does not come by the works of the Law or by our will; therefore it comes by Jesus Christ alone. Here we are perfectly willing to have ourselves called “solafideists” by our opponents, who do not understand anything of Paul’s argument." [LW 26:137 (Commentary on Galatians)]

Disagree with Luther all you want, but at least treat him fairly. Read him carefully, like you would one of your own favorite theologians. Disagree with an actual point of theology at least properly interpreted.


Andrew said...

I would just love to be able to go back and pick Luther's brain. Thanks again for the work you do.

Anonymous said...


with this written: "The strong hyperbolic comparison Luther makes between “sinning boldly” and believing and rejoicing in Christ “even more boldly” isn't so difficult to grasp.", the sense I come away with is his intent is to bring us to understand our "sinful" unchanging human fallen nature and with that sinful being as the toe hold, we too with all the Holy Christian Church, come boldly into the Throne of God's Grace and receive abundantly from His Heart all the Grace needed to be broken to pieces daily so as to find our life shrouded in His mercies in Him entering therefore into the good works prepared ahead of time instead of our own willful good works which are counted as filthy and unrighteous no matter how blameless they are or we are according to the Law of Righteousness. The end game here is the Church building itself up in His Love through holy communion, life together in this willful fallen world.

Luk 20:18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him."

Either way, our death precedes His Life or His damnation! One way or the other we will experience a self death, by being broken to pieces or by being crushed! There is simply no escape from this.

Also and without entering into argumentum ad absurdum: The point Luther is making is not to go out and murder or fornicate as much as possible, but rather to point out the infinite sacrifice of Christ’s atonement. There is no sin that Christ cannot cover. His atonement was of an infinite value.

To take this to the end and the most Holy and Logical conclusion then, one sees that there is "one" sin that is closely aligned too, and in fact, is, the one He has not atoned for.

Which sin is that I suppose you are now thinking?

It can find a framework in one's mind here, to start with:

Mat 25:41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Why does any fallen angel or human find them self cursed in the eternal damnation prepared for them, this eternal fire Jesus speaks to here?

Simply put, because God is eternal and all of His creation was created with the same relationship with Him.

He is God.

There shall not be any other gods before Him. All "other gods" are creations of a creature and that, according to God, is forbidden and unforgivable for the devil and his angels and those who's name is not written in the Book of Life.

For a reason I cannot now understand, only believe, those creatures of God that He created in a right relationship with Him have turned aside from a total dependency upon Him and now do not depend upon Him for every bit of Life from Him but permanently have rejected the Most Holy Relationship they were created to have! They have discarded it and cursed God because of it.

It is indeed a mystery!

How a creature, whether angel or human can believe they can be self-existent is troubling to me seeing I too can shamefully admit I was dead in trespasses and sins having followed the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in the sons of disobedience!

I can only say God chased me down, overtaking me and is continually removing me out of this present evil age, daily, to now totally surrender to Him. Now I am waking up daily to begin again in Him, with Him again and again and again:::>

Lam 3:19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
Lam 3:20 My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
Lam 3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
Lam 3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
Lam 3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Lam 3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."