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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Counted Righteous; Martin Luther’s continued relevance to 21st century

[Jason Bradshaw is a friend and fellow pastor at our church. He's the best music pastor I know, but is just a medicre fantasy football owner. He also designed the banner for this series, sparing you my Eye of Sauron graphics.]

Counted Righteous; Martin Luther’s continued relevance to 21st century
by Jason Bradshaw

Thursday night, I spent the time between 9:00 pm and 2:00 am gorging myself on the last few episodes of the second season of Lost. My wife and I purchased the season on a Monday evening and finished watching it that Thursday; 24 episodes in less than 3 full days. I hate to admit that I’m officially addicted.

The thing that gets me the most fired up about the show is the complexity of its characters. If you’ve ever seen the show, you’ll recognize that many of the characters are driven by guilt; pushed along by the complexities of their past even though they are seemingly left in a different world. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find guilt driven characters in even our classic pieces of media; Lady Macbeth, Willie Lowman, Raskolnikov, even Charlie Brown found themselves motivated by their wrongdoing.

Guilt is universal. It is part of our very nature; passed on like a trait in our own DNA. We are sons of Adam, as Lewis would say, and as such, bear the marks of his trespass.

This guilt was alive and well during the reformation and few people knew it as well as Martin Luther. Looking back on his life as a monk he wrote:
I hated that word [at Rom. 1:17], ‘the righteousness of God,’ which according to the custom and the use of all teachers, I had been taught to understand in the philosophical sense with respect to the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner… though I lived as a monk without reproach I felt, with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God. I did not love, indeed I hated the righteousness of God who punishes sinners and secretly (if not blasphemously and certainly with great grumbling) I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if indeed it is not enough that miserable sinners, certainly lost through eternal sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Ten Commandments, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel’s threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!
Obviously, the gospel was something different to the early Luther; a gospel of penance and payment for sin to take years off our punishment in purgatory. Kittelson describes 16th century Christianity;
The religion practiced by people of the 16th century was much like the world in which they lived. They struggled to gain spiritual security, just as in their daily lives they struggled to achieve material security. Salvation was something to be earned, and so theirs was a religion of work.

People were exhorted to travel in groups to this or that shrine in order to work off the penalties for the sins they had committed. Frequently enough, they temporarily took up the life of apostolic poverty and begged for their sustenance as they traveled.

The faithful were taught that praying to the saints or venerating their relics would atone for individual sins of both omission and commission. To assist them in this work, the major churches and shrines collected pieces of bone and hair that were alleged to have come from the body of one saint or another. Some boasted drops of milk from the virgin’s breast or splinters from the cross of Christ.”
Thus, we now understand why Luther could “hate” God’s righteousness. It was, after all, God’s righteousness that provided the barrier between God and man. And it was God’s righteousness that, for Luther, provided the reason for human anguish and suffering; trying to constantly appease an angry God.

The god worshipped in the 16th century bears little resemblance to the god we know in the 21st. I would submit that these two concepts of god were at odds more so than any other two periods in history. The “god” of the 16th century was tight-fisted and stern while we worship a “god” that is the king of liberality (and liberality only--choking out the concept of God’s sovereignty); the means to attain all of our innermost delights. The “god” of the 16th century called no human righteous, while we are perfectly content to call everyone God’s children.

So then, is modern Christianity a mere outworking of Luther’s thought? Did Luther set the cogs in motion to produce such a fickle state in the church? No, rather somewhere along the way, we’ve abandoned the thoughts of the reformers and replaced them with half-truths.

Luther’s concept of the righteousness of God carried two parts, Kittleson describes;
[Luther] had told [his students] that the righteousness of God had two different meaning, but he had only been taught the second one: God’s righteousness was God’s possession and the quality by which he found sinners wanting. But Luther’s first and longer explanation was powerfully opposed to this traditional teaching. There he spoke of God’s righteousness as a quality God gave to believers and by which he made them acceptable in his presence.
Luther would later say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Obviously, this was central to his theology.

He coined the phrase simul iustus et peccator (“at once saint and sinner”). Rome called this a “legal fiction” since God could not call anything righteous that, in fact, was not. Thus, the fault lines developed and the central question of Christianity became this; who needs to placate the righteousness of God?

The bottom line is this; we need God’s righteousness to eradicate our guilt. Not simply our felt guilt but our actual guilt before a righteous God. Sin put a tab on our account that we could not pay, and so, Christ paid it for us, for those who place their faith in Him.

Yet, somewhere in 500 years of history, this was lost. The need for atonement is no longer central to our gospel presentations. Sin is barely mentioned. If there is no mention of guilt, there is no need for atonement. Yet, our world is constantly telling us of their guilt. They wear it on their faces and the loving thing would seem to be to abandon politically correctness and share who they have offended and how to be forgiven.

How do we pay for sin? Who pays for it? Does sin affect all of humanity? As relevant as those questions are, they are generally ignored and replaced with concepts of purpose and fulfillment. Perhaps the church needs to return to the monastery with Luther and feel the weight of sin along with him. Perhaps we need to remember that sin is not just a description of action, but a description of our nature. Perhaps we need to be brought back to the foot of the cross and remind ourselves of the consequence paid for our shortcomings. It’s time for the church to wholeheartedly embrace their identity as sinful man and fall hard upon the grace of a loving, righteous God.


  • At 4:56 AM, Blogger ~d said…

    it took me awhile to sit down and read this, but i like it. after seeing the movie version "Luther", this filled in some gaps for me and extended my thinking. good post, jason.


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