The Reformation Insight

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I find myself reading once again Robert W. Jenson’s and Eric W. Gritsch’s excellent book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. The book is written from both a theological and an historical perspective. The third chapter, however, strikes so very well at the heart of the insight of the Reformation.

Jenson, who writes this chapter, begins by explaining “the single great dogma of the Reformation was ‘justification by faith alone, without works of the law'” (p 36). He laments, however, that this singular doctrine, “one fears, [is] not so well-known” any longer. In fact,

most of Protestantism worries about [justification] not at all, having long since returned to various — bowdlerized — versions of medieval religion, supposing these to be the latest thing… [When Protestants do worry about justification], a usual concept is that the church has a list of discrete opinion-items to be accepted, that ‘justification by faith’ is one such item, and that Protestantism has for some reason decreed it the most important…

When ‘justification by faith’ is this taken for one item on an ideological list, the doctrine itself is interpreted correspondingly. The idea is that there is a list of things which God really wishes we would do — be kind to animals, be generous to the poor, be against way and injustice, that on this list is  “believe in God”; and that, as a favor to Jesus, God has decided to let us off the rest of the list if we will do just this one (p 36)

And thus, “believe” or “have faith” is on this general list of things God wishes we would do.

But this is completely wrong, says Jenson: it is “the precise opposite of what the Reformation said. For the ‘believing’ that can be one of a list of desirable deeds or characteristics is just what the Reformers called a ‘work'” (p 36). And thus, the doctrine of justification by faith is turned into a work! “If you only believe”; “if you just raise your hand”; “if you just commit your life to God”. Jenson explains that this is the exact opposite of what justification by faith alone is meant to communicate. In fact, saying “‘God will be gracious…if only you believe’… proclaims a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of grace” (37).

OK then: what is this Reformation doctrine of justification by faith all about? Jenson aptly explains: “‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (37). The Reformers, in other words, understood justification by faith to mean: God has said “yes” to you in Christ. And this “yes” is given freely apart from any work you need to perform. “The Reformation insight and discovery [is that] the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of human fulfillment…made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (42).

Jenson proposes that justification by faith, rather than being one important thing among other things, be a “meta-linguistic” communication; an “identifying characteristic of the [church’s] language-activity” (pp 42-43). He explains:

[Justification by faith] says: Whatever you talk about, do so in such a way that the justification your words open to your hearers is the justification that faith apprehends rather than the justification that works apprehend. Unpacking the words “justification” and “faith”, the proposed dogma says: Make the subject of your discourse those points in your and your hearers’ life where its value is challenged, and interpret the challenge by the story of Christ, remembering that when this is rightly done your words will be an unconditional promise of value (p 43)

Interpret all of your challenges by the narrative of Christ, Jenson says. To put it another way: justification by faith means that our lives are unconditionally “yes” in Christ. Every bit of our struggles are redeemed in Christ. We are unconditionally received in Christ, unconditionally made new in Christ, gifted with all of God’s life through this single narrative of Christ.

Jenson goes on to contextualize the doctrine of justification by faith by paying special attention to the situation of the medieval church:

The gospel in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. Whenever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?

It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world…However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace”, and our “natural” religious and ethical energies. (p 39)

Put simply, Christ merited our salvation in principle “back there” in the past, but the fulfillment of that salvation depended on our fulfilling certain conditions of cooperation with the graces of the church now. The problem is that no matter the wording, “all practical difference [is] made by our present cooperating or not; and God [is] left without a role in actual life” (39).

Jenson explains that the medieval church saw all of this “cooperating” as electing grace:

Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid [these problems] by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace… [The] qualification [was], “of course, all this is by grace” (39)

But of course this “anti-Pelagian codicil” made no difference on the lay-level. It makes no difference if it’s all by grace; it is still a condition that I must meet. And thus, my justification is tantamount to my works. The result is, as Jenson says, that God himself becomes a threat; a fearful imposing Being who weighs my life. Will I cooperate with grace in the end? Will I justify my existence?

The Reformation insight is that any language about works, condition, cooperation, must be overthrown: we are unconditionally affirmed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this affirmation is not simply something that occurred in the past. As Jenson says: “if the gospel is allowed in the present tense, if it is allowed to invade the previous reserve of “coorperation”, it says: ‘The Crucified one lives for you'” (41). We are affirmed unconditionally right now, received unconditionally right now. And all our growth or goodness comes from Christ’s living for and in me right now. It is all promise, not law.

Luther himself made a distinction between law and gospel. This distinction, for him, was what made a theologian essentially Christian. Jenson explains this distinction:

Law communication imposes an “if… then…” structure on life… [It] is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally

[Whereas] a promise grants the pattern “because… therefore…”. “Because I love you”, I say to my daughter, “I will further your ambitions”. (44)

Because Christ has died and risen, you are freed from sin, Satan, and death. Because Christ has risen, we no longer are enslaved to the powers of the age. Because Christ became sin, I am no longer condemned. Because Christ is raised, I will therefore be raised. This is the promise of the gospel. It is the Reformational insight.

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Luther on Prayer

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In his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Oswald Bayers argues that prayer is “constitutive…for Luther’s theology” (p 346). Bayer lays out Luther’s theology of prayer from his sermon May 13, 1520, Rogate Sunday:

As nowhere else, this text documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer; it shows very clearly not only how Luther explained the Trinity is such a way that its theological character of as promise was central, but also how his understanding of prayer itself had a trinitarian character. Whenever Luther preached in subsequent years on Rogate Sunday, he came back to the basic structure of what he articulated in this sermon (346)

Bayers quotes this sermon, which follows 5 steps that, as he says, are centered around God’s promise and his triunity. Luther says:

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]; otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

The first is the promise of God, which is the foundation on which the entire prayer relies: if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favorable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

The second is that one states the specifics…so that the scattered thoughts can be focused on the godly promise, because I hope to acquire help; this is what one calls gathering one’s thoughts. Based on this, [self]-selected little prayers… are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution

Third: faith is necessary, by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises, that I can expect that what I pray for is possible without having doubt. To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promise that he will give it…

Fourth, [the prayer] is uttered with earnestness, not with a vacillating spirit and not as if one does not urgently desire the thing for which one prays… This would be a mockery to God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised… (347)

Before we move to the fifth mark, which transitions to the trinitarian structure: notice here that all of prayer is dependent not on the one who prays, but on the God who promises. God is the one who gives the riches of himself in his Son, and promises to hear and answer because of his benevolence, not because of our worthiness or lack thereof. This is why Luther says in step two not repeat selected little prayers. He has in mind not liturgical prayers (Jesus gave us a prayer to memorize!!), but rather mindless praying. Prayer must be thoughtful, filled with the content of God’s benevolence. Prayer this is not a passive enterprise; it is one that remembers and claims God’s covenant promises in Christ.  

Next, Luther ventures into the trinitarian structure of prayer in his fifth mark:

Fifth, such prayer takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things. Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument. And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: what could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name. Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange. And both come to purity together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life (347-8)

Notice here that prayer is located in the Son before the Father. This is what Bayer means that Luther’s theology of prayer is trinitarian. In prayer, sinners are unequally yoked to Christ, and being in him, they come worthily before the Father. And thus it is because of that union with Christ that their prayers are heard. We may speak to the Father because Christ has latched himself to us and us to himself, and thus we are one mystical person in conversation with the Father.

Bayer expounds on this principle:

The final section [of Luther’s sermon, number 5,] answers the decisive question: How can I have any right to address the one who has power over all things, and furthermore, how can I be confident I will be heard?

Freedom from such uncertainty and from our sins comes to us only in connection with that event in which God himself comes to us and brings us to himself: in the way God comes as the triune one. For only in the differentiation and yet mutual connection between Father, Son and Spirit can we be certain concerning the speech in action of God, as those who believe and as those who pray… (348)

Bayer means to say that our prayer is heard because in salvation, we come to inhabit the “mutual connection between the Father, Son and Spirit”. We become one person with the Son in the power of the Spirit, and thus the Father hears us because we are in his Son. Put more simply, we come to the Father not in and of ourselves, but in the Son. We are, to put it sacramentally, in vital union with Christ through baptism: we die and rise with him, and ascend with and in him to the Father. We are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).

Just as an aside as we end, it is worthy noting here that Luther did not have a merely extrinsic understanding of salvation, as many accuse. Christ is not “out there” representing us to the Father. Christ is in us, we are in him, and thus we are taken up with him to the Father. Luther famously says that “in faith itself Christ is present”. By this he means that to have faith means principally to be vitally united to Christ.

What all of this means is that prayer is effective because God donates the very person of his Son to us, and we become one person with him. We come in Christ by the Spirit to the Father. And thus our prayer is heard!