Monday, August 30, 2010

Luther: Only Unbelief Causes Damnation

The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "On Sin":

Christ taught: “He that commits sin is of the devil: for the devil sinned from the beginning. For this purpose, the Son of God appeared that He might destroy the works of the devil.” - 1 John 3:8

Luther teaches: “A person that is baptized cannot, thou he would, lose his salvation by any sins however grievous, unless he refuses to believe. For no sins can damn him but unbelief alone” [The Babylonian Captivity. It’s worth mentioning on this point that Luther himself had early written “Pray for me I am falling into the abyss of Sin” – Enders, Vol. 3, Pg. 193].

Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ says those who commit any sin are children of the Devil (an obvious error is that the words attributed to Christ are actually from the apostle John in 1 John 3:8), while Luther says only unbelief is worthy of damnation. Hence, Luther espoused a weak view of sin: sin all you want to, but make sure you have faith.

Luther Exposing the Myth cites "The Babylonian Captivity. It’s worth mentioning on this point that Luther himself had early written 'Pray for me I am falling into the abyss of Sin' – Enders, Vol. 3, Pg. 193." This first part of this documentation probably was taken from this source. Note the similarities:

The quote is said to come from The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  While no edition or page number is provided, a primary source is not difficult to locate. This treatise was written in 1520. The Latin text can be found in WA 6:497-573.  The quote in question can be found at WA 6:529,

According to LW 36, there are four English translations of this treatise, with theirs being located at LW 36:11-126. The quote in question is located at LW 36:60.

Luther, Exposing the Myth also throws in a second quote and reference: "It’s worth mentioning on this point that Luther himself had early written 'Pray for me I am falling into the abyss of Sin' – Enders, Vol. 3, Pg. 193." "Enders" refers to a 19th century collection of Luther's letters. Page 193 can be found here. The text reads,

 Luther Exposing the Myth have have mined this quote from Peter Wiener's Luther Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor. Wiener states,
But if we look in detail at Luther's writings and his own life, we find once more a most contradictory picture; and on the whole we are forced to say that just the very opposite of what Luther was supposed to say, think and do on the subject is much more prevalent than what I should like to call the legendary interpretation.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Luther himself lacked any self-control, and suffered from neurotic sex-troubles. When he was calm and normal, he wrote the very things we know and love. But at other times, we can merely shudder.
“I am but a man prone to let himself be swept off his feet by society, drunkenness, the torments of the flesh”(W9, 215, 13), I have quoted already. There are many similar passages. “Instead of glowing in spirit, I glow in the flesh.” “I burn with all the desires of my unconquered flesh”(Enders 3, 189). “I rarely pray. . . . My unruly flesh doth burn me with devouring flame. In short, I who should be a prey to the spirit alone am eating my heart out through the flesh, through lust, laziness, idleness, and somnolence.”
Of course, our old friend the Devil was to blame for it. “I know it well how it is when the Devil comes and invites the flesh.” “It is a horrible struggle; I have known it well and you must know it too; oh, I know it well when the Devil excites and inflames the flesh” (W9, 215, 46). What a painful confession when he exclaims, “Pray for me for I am falling into the abyss of sin” (Enders, 3, 193).
Quite possibly Wiener got the quote from Hartmann Grisar's Luther Vol. 6. Grisar states,
Such fleshly temptations he bewailed even more loudly when at the Wartburg. There, as we may recall, he became the plaything of evil lust ("libido") and the "fire of his untamed flesh." " Instead of glowing in spirit, I glow in the flesh."Admitting that he himself  "prayed and groaned too little for the Church of God," he exclaims: "Pray for me, for in this solitude I am falling into the abyss of sin! [To Melanchthon, July 13, 1521 "Briefwechsel," 3, p. 193, "peccatis immergor in hac solitudine."
Contrary to the claim by Luther, Exposing the Myth, This quote was not written before The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), but after it's publication while Luther was in hiding in the Wartburg castle (1521-1522).  The sentence is from Luther's letter from July, 13 1521. It's a concluding comment to Melanchthon. This letter can also be found in WA BR 2: 356-361. The letter has been translated into English in LW 48: 262 and also in The Letters of Martin Luther.


Quote #1, "A person that is baptized cannot, thou he would, lose his salvation by any sins however grievous, unless he refuses to believe. For no sins can damn him but unbelief alone"

In context Luther is speaking on the subject of baptism. This subject is actually the focal point of the entire quote. The church age in which Luther lived taught that justification began in baptism (with the cleansing of original sin). When one sins after baptism, one doesn't get re-baptized, one was to do penance. For Luther, baptism was more than simply washing away original sin. It was justification. Confused? This article has some helpful information on Luther's view on baptism and justification. For Luther, for the sacrament of baptism to be effective, it must be linked with faith. Luther states,
Now, the first thing to be considered about baptism is the divine promise, which says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16]. This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders, and whatever else man has introduced, for on it all our salvation depends. But we must so consider it as to exercise our faith in it, and have no doubt whatever that, once we have been baptized, we are saved. For unless faith is present or is conferred in baptism, baptism will profit us nothing; indeed, it will become a hindrance to us, not only at the moment when it is received, but throughout the rest of our lives. That kind of unbelief accuses God’s promise of being a lie, and this is the greatest of all sins [LW 36:58].
Luther continues to expound upon the power of baptism (it is simply another form of the powerful Word of God).
It will therefore be no small gain to a penitent to remember above all his baptism, and, confidently calling to mind the divine promise which he has forsaken, acknowledge that promise before his Lord, rejoicing that he is still within the fortress of salvation because he has been baptized, and abhorring his wicked ingratitude in falling away from its faith and truth. His heart will find wonderful comfort and will be encouraged to hope for mercy when he considers that the promise which God made to him, which cannot possibly lie, is still unbroken and unchanged, and indeed, cannot be changed by sins, as Paul says (II Tim. 2[:13]): “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” [LW 36:59]
Then come the quote in question:
Thus you see how rich a Christian is, that is, one who has been baptized! Even if he would, he could not lose his salvation, however much he sinned, unless he refused to believe. For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone. All other sins, so long as the faith in God’s promise made in baptism returns or remains, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because he cannot deny himself if you confess him and faithfully cling to him in his promise. But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction, along with all those carefully devised exercises of men: if you rely on them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before. For whatever is clone without faith in God’s truth is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit [Eccles. 1:2, 14] [LW 36:60].

Quote #2, "Pray for me I am falling into the abyss of Sin"
The letter from which the quote comes from is lengthy. Those interested in the entire context can consult LW 48:256-263 or The Letters of Martin Luther, p. 79-81Luther's Works translates this hyperbolic comment as, "Farewell. Someone had promised to take along this letter which I had written some days ago, but he has not kept his word. I ask all of you to pray for me, since in this seclusion I am drowning in sins. From my wilderness,  July 13, 1521." Sarcasm and hyperbole abound throughout the letter.

The irony is that Luther Exposing the Myth would probably be quite pleased by some of Luther's comments on baptism. Their focus though is on Luther's seemingly passive view on sin committed after baptism. In the same treatise, Luther states:
Beware then, of putting your trust in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own remorse. God does not look on you with favor because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed his threats and promises, and which has effected such sorrow within you. Thus we owe whatever good there may be in our penance, not to our scrupulous enumeration of sins, but to the truth of God and to our faith. All other things are the works and fruits which follow of their own accord. They do not make a man good, but are done by the man who is already made good through faith in the truth of God. Even so, “smoke goes up in his wrath; because he is angry he shakes the mountains and sets them on fire,” as it is said in Ps. 18[:8, 7]). First comes the terror of this threatening, which sets the wicked on fire; then faith, accepting this, sends up smoke-clouds of contrition, etc.[LW 36:85].
Note Luther states, "All other things are the works and fruits which follow of their own accord. They do not make a man good, but are done by the man who is already made good through faith in the truth of God." Luther taught a life under the cross, which is a life of discipleship of following after Christ. Our crosses though, do not save. They serve the neighbor. We are called to be neighbor to those around us.The works we perform are done out of gratitude to what God has done in us. They aren't done to keep a person saved. Throughout his writings, Luther plainly teaches that saving faith is a living faith. Justification is by faith alone unto good works done for the good of one’s neighbor. Rather than denying the importance of works, Luther exhorted his hearers to perform good works. These works though don't restore one's justification, they are the evidence of God's complete work of justification in the life of a sinner.

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.

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