I must admit that when I first became a Christian, Luther was a hero to me. He was my “go-to”, and I chose to read his works over really any other. Luther is one of those types of writers who is “in your face”, not afraid to call the Pope antichrist, etc. The youthful rebel in me loved that about him!
I still enjoy Luther, but as of late, he has fallen on hard times. In fact, he has seemed to come under fire by everyone: theologians, historians, etc. The critiques generally tend to view Luther’s theology of justification and salvation as too individualistic, nominalist, too legalistic in its emphasis. Historians especially have tended to place Luther’s view of salvation in the context of his overbearing father. They say Luther had “daddy issues”, and that he viewed God through that lens: God is this sort of overbearing, mean Father who demands perfect holiness. But, Jesus obeyed perfectly in our place, and by faith we get his record placed over our bad record, and thus we’re “saved”. Put another way, Dad is mad, but brother Jesus comes and gives Dad the obedience required, and he isn’t mad anymore. Because of this view of Luther, many theologians have critiqued his view of salvation as being simply too nominalist, “on paper only”, not realistic enough. Can God accept someone “on paper only”? And is God really that mad?
Certainly this picture is problematic. But is this really what Luther thought of salvation? Not really. In fact, there has been revived study of Luther which has tried to read him honestly. Lutheran Jordan Cooper explains this new reading:
In the mid-1970s a group of Finnish scholars, led by Tuomo Mannermaa, began to reevaluate Luther’s understanding of justification in the midst of an ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church. Seeking to find common ground among the two theological traditions, the doctrine of theosis became a central point of discussion, especially in relation to the theology of Luther. Maannerma’s influential work, Christ Present in Faith,80 argues that Luther’s view of justification was not one of mere imputation; this was an innovation of Luther’s disciple Melanchthon. For Luther, justification includes an indwelling of the person of Christ. Christ is not outside of the believer in a law court, placing his works before the Father to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Christ, as the righteous God-man, imputes his righteousness through divine indwelling. The Righteousness of One: An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on Paul (p. 41).
What Cooper is meaning to communicate here is that for Luther, salvation is not simply this exchange of records: I’m bad, but Jesus is good and gives me his good report card. No, actually, for Luther, salvation in essence consists of union with Christ which entails death to sin and participation in his resurrection life.
In fact, when one examines Luther’s works, especially his Freedom of the Christian and his famous Galatians commentary, there is simply no talk about extrinsic record-giving. Jesus doesnt appease the angry God by offering his perfect report card. When read carefully, Luther is found to say repeatedly that salvation is by faith alone because faith grasps the whole Christ, with everything that is his.
Cooper illustrates from one of Luther’s early sermons called “Two Kinds of Righteousness”:
[In this sermon Luther] uses the imagery of a bride and her groom: “Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is the bride’s and she all that is his- for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh . . . so Christ and the church are one spirit.” Luther is drawing upon the common theme of his mystical heritage that the believer’s soul is united to and participates in the being of God…
Through faith, the believer is not only given Christ’s benefits, but also Christ himself: “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all the he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.”… Luther does not connect Christ’s righteousness to his active obedience to the law. Throughout this sermon, legal metaphors of salvation are far from dominant. He expresses his thoughts primarily with participationist language. Rather than righteousness being imputed over the believer’s own sin, Luther describes this righteousness as that which is “an infinite righteousness, one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ; [the Christian] is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.” The believer is not condemned because he participates in Christ’s person. As one who is divine, Christ does not and cannot sin. Thus, through the Christian’s participation in divinity, sin is not imputed to him. Luther sees Christ’s righteousness not merely as a legal covering, but as that which effects sanctification: “Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.” The believer is gradually perfected in his union with Christ until his Adamic nature is no longer present. Luther sees justification as a progressive act of participation in divinity, not merely an instantaneous forensic reality. (44-46)
So then, legal categories are “far from dominant”; in fact, union with Christ is paramount in Luther’s theology. It is not Jesus giving us some detached record of righteousness. Rather, by our union with Christ, we are joined to the one who has “infinite righteousness”. Imputation is there, but not out of the context of union with Christ. Union is rather “the ontological grounding for imputation and forgiveness” (62). In fact, Cooper goes so far as to say, “imputation and renewal are so connected that Luther is comfortable at times using progressive language in reference to justification. One’s sanctification is, in a sense, bringing about the reality of the past event of justification” (52-53).
Taking all of this into account, Cooper goes on to argue that Luther is really in line with patristic thought and much of the medieval mysticism of his day. We cannot forget that Luther was in fact a medieval theologian, unlike Calvin and the other Reformers. Cooper goes on to explain that Luther’s thought, rather than being nominalist and legalistic in its emphasis, is right in line with medieval theologians like Athanasius: “along with Athanasius, Luther can speak of salvation in participationist terms (i.e. sharing in divinity through union with Christ) as well as in forensic language (i.e. Athanasius’ language of paying the “debt of death” all men owe to God because of Adam’s transgression) (64).
I could go on here, but when one really examines Luther’s early thought, his language is much more participationist, and ontological than is really credited to him.