Why did the doctrine of justification, articulated just as it was by Martin Luther, become absolutely essential in the Christian church? Behold unchildlike Reformation Eve… (first posted in Oct. of 2012)
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I [God] will not forget you.— Isaiah 49:15
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.– Psalm 131:2
…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.– Mark 10
“…in Mirror of a Christian Man[, on the ‘eve of the Reformation’,] a German priest named Dietrich Kolde lamented: ‘There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all. I do not know where I will go.’”*
It would appear that Kolde would identify strongly with the first three stanzas of Thomas of Celano’s haunting 13th Century hymn “Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning” (bold are mine for emphasis)
Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning.
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from Heav’n the Judge descendeth
On Whose sentence all dependeth!
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck and nature quaking;
All creation is awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.
Lo, the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded;
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge His seat attaineth
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
Law. Judgment. What we must do but have not.
Lutherans would contend that Martin Luther’s teachings simply emphasized the second half of this hymn, and cut through the popular theology of the day that was actually contradicting it. In short, Luther made it possible for many in the church to have confidence once again in God’s mercy – and not their own deeds, empowered by the substance of “infused grace”:
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding
When the just are mercy needing?
King of majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us.
Think, good Jesus, my salvation
Caused Thy wondrous incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation!
Faint and weary Thou hast sought me,
On the cross of suffering bought me;
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Righteous Judge, for sin’s pollution
Grant Thy gift of absolution
Ere that day of retribution!
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
All my shame with anguish owning:
Spare, O God, Thy suppliant groaning!
From that sinful woman shriven,
From the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope hast given.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing;
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying.
With Thy favored sheep, oh, place me!
Nor among the goats abase me,
But to Thy right hand upraise me.
While the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me, with Thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel with heart submission,
See, like ashes, my contrition;
Help me in my last condition!
Day of sorrow, day of weeping,
When, in dust no longer sleeping,
Man awakes in Thy dread keeping!
Gospel. Absolution. What God does for real sinners who know their sin.
The response to Luther?
Dominican inquisitor of Cologne, Jacob Hochstraten speaking in 1526, sums up the “traditional Catholic teaching” on salvation, taking aim at Luther’s concept of “the joyous exchange, in which the holy Christ unites himself to the sinful creature and thus eradicates our sin by making it his own and replacing it in us with his own righteousness”:
“What else do those who boast of such a base spectacle do than make the soul… a prostitute and an adulteress, who knowingly and wittingly connives to deceive her husband [Christ] and, daily committing fornication upon fornication and adultery upon adultery, makes the most chaste of men a pimp? As if Christ does not take the trouble… to choose…. a pure and honorable lover! As if Christ requires from her only belief and trust and has no interest in her righteousness and her other virtues! As if a certain mingling of righteousness with iniquity and of Christ with Belial were possible!”**
Meanwhile, Luther (laying aside Mr. Aristotle): “sinners are ‘attractive’ because they are loved; they are not loved because they are ‘attractive'” (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 [post 95 theses])
So this is not a righteousness that we achieve, but that we receive, for it is a reprieve.
Therefore, its not even that God makes us worthy of His love. Loving unworthy sinners by declaring us righteous upfront, He begins to make us worthy with His love.
Christians are saved for good works, not saved by good works.
The Christian makes the works – the works don’t make the Christian.
The Christian reflects, not effects, their salvation.
The Christian inherits, not merits, eternal life.
The good tree produces good fruit, not vice-versa. (Luke 6:43)
The Christians is good because He belongs to God, not in order to belong to God.
We indeed may indeed be, as the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards said, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. But the greater word for those who fear God is this: We are sinners in the hands of a nursing God.***
And all the children say: “Amen!”
*Denis Janz, Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: Mellen, 1982), 127, quoted in Kolb and Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, p. 35
**Kolb and Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, p. 47