Martin Luther’s doctrine of love, suffering, faith and true ministers of God’s Word
“Now it it not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.”
(Martin Luther, Luther’s Works XXXI, 52; Heidelberg Disputation, par 20)
“That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as if it were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. . . . He deserves to be called a theologian however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
(Luther’s Works, XXXI, 52; Heidelberg Disputation pars 19, 20)
THEOLOGIES OF GLORY VERSUS THE TRUE THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS
In April 1518 Martin Luther traveled to Heidelberg in order to attack what he identified as a wrong kind of thinking about God and a wrong kind of thinking about the Christian’s relation and faith in God. This wrong kind of thinking Luther called a “theology of glory.”
This event when Luther attacked this wrong kind of thinking about Christian life and faith, is called the Heidelberg Disputation. Luther delivered this lecture about six months after he nailed his Ninety-five Thesis on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, thus igniting the Protestant Reformation. During this lecture, Luther contrasted “theologies of glory” with the true “theology of the cross,” which underlies his entire outlook on the Christian life, and how he understood God’s involvement in the Christian’s life.
THE WRONGNESS OF ALL THEOLOGIES OF GLORY
According to Luther, “theologies of glory” encourage Christians to seek “God in heaven,” but not in and through the “sufferings” of this present world.
Christians who embrace nothing but a “theology of glory” are according to Luther, like Moses who said to God, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33:18-23). These kinds of theologies only seek to know God in his majesty, as He is in heaven.
Christians who are entrapped by this false “theology of glory” imagine that the best of God’s works, or even more so, God’s works altogether are thus always beautiful, fine, attractive. But Luther taught that the in fact, God’s works are directly the opposite. For God in fact will make us “nothing” and even “stupid” if that is what it take to reveal His true love to us (LW, XXXI, 33, HDT, par 4).
But these Christians who can only embrace a “theology of glory” are those who have forgotten God’s reply to Moses, telling him he is to rather see His “backside.” That reply according to Luther, is what he calls, the “theology of the cross.” Christians are to therefore rather focus in this present life, on finding God in the things that are lowly, despised, weak, foolish, and rejected.
Hence, Luther wrote, “Now it not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works XXXI, 52; Heidelberg Disputation, par 20)
THE ROOT OF THEOLOGIES OF GLORY IS NOT GOD’S LOVE BUT HUMAN LOVE
Luther taught that the root of this false “theology of glory” is not God’s kind of live but “human love.” In contrast to God’s love, human love is essentially selfish and seeks only one’s own best interests but not the interest of others.
According to Luther, this perverted kind of love makes people incapable of receiving God’s grace (LW, XXXI, 57, HDT, par 28). Moreover, Luther believed that this “human love” causes people to love only that which they can immediately enjoy.
Much of Luther’s lecture at Heidelberg consisted of this contrast between God’s love and human love. Luther’s main point was that, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” (LW, XXXI, 57).
Luther thus pointed out that the flaw of human love is that it is basically passive rather than active. It constantly seeks to receive rather than give out.
Human love therefore results in covetousness. People who are thus preoccupied with receiving, are basically receivers and not givers. Yet God is a giver, and his entire aim towards us in Christ is to transform us into givers.
Amongst Christians, all works that are prompted by this “human love” are “deadly sins” (LW, XXXI, 43, 45 HDT, par 28). And amongst Christians, a main symptom of these sins is perverted love, which is caused by not having a fear in God (LW, XXXI, 47, HDT, par 8.)
THE TRUE THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS
In contrast to this wrong “theology of glory,” Luther called Christians to embrace the true theology, which is the “theology of the cross.” Comprehending the “theology of the cross,” begins by asking God to remove from us that root of “human love,” and replace it with God’s kind of love; namely, “God’s love.”
“God’s love,” said Luther, seeks not one’s own interest but the interests of others. It is love “born of the cross.” It is therefore a “love of the cross.” It “turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy but where it may confer good upon the bad and the needy person.” (LW, XXXI, 57, HDT, par 28.)
Luther went on to say that without the true eye of faith, it is impossible for Christians to perceive and discern the true works of God. Without the eye of faith, Christians perceive God’s works as “unattractive” and “evil.” (LW, XXX, HDT, par 3)
Luther went on to teach alongside this “theology of the cross,” the “theology of paradoxes.” By the “theology of paradoxes,” Luther meant that sometimes God works in us by forgiving us and encouraging us, but sometimes He works in us by putting us down, by taking away our hope, and by leading us into desperation (LW, XIV, 95).
For this reason, Luther wrote, “You [God] exalt us when you humble us. You make us righteous when you make us sinners. . . . You grant us victory when you cause us to be defended. You give us life when you permit us to be killed” (LW, XIV, 95). Luther went so far as to say that sometimes God allows His works to create bad results (LW, XXXI, 45, HDT, pars 5, 6).
Luther therefore encouraged Christians to look for God’s work in and through whatever suffering might fall upon them. Luther therefore wrote, “He, however, who has emptied himself through suffering no longer does work but knows that God works and does all things in him. For this reason, whether God does works or not, it is all the same to him. He neither boast if he does good works, nor is he disturbed if God does not do good works through him. He knows that is sufficient of he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more.” (LW, XXXI, 55).
Faith in God thus involves faith in God when the natural circumstances contradict God’s love towards us. So Luther wrote concerning the promises of God, “Faith is holding fast to the deep and hidden ‘yes’ under and above the ‘no’ by firmly trusting God’s Word.” (LW, XVII, 203; German/Latin translation).
Luther continues to teach that to see God at work through our sufferings requires a revelation birthed by the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can grant us “faith” in God’s hidden work through suffering. So Luther wrote, “No one can correctly understand God or His Word, unless he has received such understanding from the Holy Spirit. But no one can receive it from the Holy Sprit without experiencing, proving, and feeling it” (LW, XXI, 299).
A TRUE THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS REVEALS GOD’S LOVE
Because Luther preached that God only works in us through this theology of the cross, Luther characterized the church as a hospital for the incurably sick. As Chrstians, our life in the hospital is that as “ministers” to one another. We therefore cannot live for ourselves but rather, in Christ, “Every man is created and born for others” (LW, XVI, 346; German/Latin translation).
Therefore Luther said that if we do not use everything we have to serve our neighbour, we rob him of what we owe him according to God’s will (LW, XXXII, 224). But, “Since Christ lives in us through faith . . . He arouses us to do good works which He does as the fulfillment of the commands of God given us through faith” (LW, XXXI, 56, HDT, par 27).
GOD’S LOVE IS EVIDENCED NOT BY RECEIVING BUT BY GIVING
According to Luther, to know that Christ lives in us, ought to lead us to primarily lead us to only one practical implication: that He is in us that we might be a “Christ” to others.
This is precisely Luther’s comment and reading of Galatians 2:19-20, where Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
If our focus is correctly on allowing God to replace our “human love” with His love, then we are simply not preoccupied with receiving things from God to use for our own pleasure.
Rather, recognizing we are “ministers” in God’s “hospital, our concern is on becoming a “Christ” to others. This is Luther’s understanding of what it means to live in union with Christ; to be indwelt by the Spirit of Christ.
For this reason, Luther wrote, “Surely we are named after Christ not because he is absent from us, but because he dwells in us; that is, because we believe in him are ‘Christs’ to one another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us.” (LW, XXXI, 368).
I gathered these extracts from Luther’s writings from an Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s article, “Theology of the Cross: A Stumbling Block to Pentecostal/Charismatic Spirituality?”
Kärkkäinen offers some closing reflections:
1. God’s love seek out the weak things to make them new.
“For Luther, God’s love means . . . loving something . . . that exists in weakness and shame, in order to make it something new. That is what it means to be God: to create something out of nothing.
Evangelical theology in general and Pentecostal/charismatic in particular has not paid much attention to the category of love, but rather has focused on the grace of God. Luther’s theology of love, combined with the biblical . . . view of God’s passionate love, could help evangelical to say something [more] worthwhile about agape.
2. Faith is proved when our hands are empty but our hearts are full.
Luther’s theology of the cross takes suffering and death seriously, so seriously that it also takes hope seriously: it is constitutive of God to make new life out of death, out of nihil.
The concept of ‘faith’ also has to be critically scrutinized by Pentecostals/charismatics. . . . there is reservation in talking about faith as an ‘empty hand’ (George Muller) that reaches to God and his mercy. Faith is not so much needed when one sees God’s miracles; faith is needed when we are facing the dark side of life . . .
3. The church is not a showplace for the successful but a hospital for the suffering and needy.
And finally . . . another lesson to learn from Luther: the church is not a showplace for the successful but a hospital for the suffering and needy!”
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Theology of the Cross: A Stumbling Block to Pentecostal/Charismatic Spirituality?” The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honour of Russell P. Spittler, eds. Wonsuk Ma and Robert P. Menzies (New York, NY; London, UK: T & T International, 2004).