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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A letter on Luther

            I’ve been part of several interdenomination Christian ministries—Campus Crusade, Navigators, Promise Keepers.  In every case you meet those of other church traditions and I’ve studied many of them.  It seems every one of us struggles with the issue of whether we are true to our faith and we’re curious about the mechanism of just how one comes to faith.  I think the final answer is that this is God’s mystery, how He enters our life, but He also leave hints about the way it happens all over scripture.  Jesus in John 8, “If you continue in my word, then you are truly my disciples and you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Or in John 3: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Well then we all argue about what born again and truth consists of. 

            Yet, I submit that Luther’s vantage point on what God tries to tell us is closer to the reality than any other version of Christianity. For that reason alone, it’s worth keeping Lutheranism around and it is what keeps me Lutheran after all those years of other fellowships.  First Luther was brilliant.  I don’t know about you but I’m amazed that he could find 95 reasons not to buy indulgences.  I couldn’t find 95 reasons to do or not to do just about anything.  His students thought the 95 were so cute they translated them from Latin to German and handed them to a printer who printed thousands of copies and it became all the talk of Germany.  Luther attended Latin school at age 4.  He translated the New Testament from Greek in 6 months.  He got a bachelor’s degree in 1 year.  Smart guy (170 IQ?) meets scripture and just turns it every which way but loose.  Secondly he was as sincere in wanting his faith to grow as just about anybody.  He had 2 best friends in school who died suddenly of bubonic plague and he may had survivor’s guilt.  He vowed to become a monk after almost getting lightning struck.  He tried all the monastic rituals of self-deprivation in hope of getting assurance of his faith. He memorized nearly the entire bible. 

            And then in what is called the Tower Experience (autumn 1513 or 1514), he found a profound answer.  How we come to faith is still a mystery and we know that it is entirely a gift of God and comes by trust, i.e. faith.  And given that church councils and popes have often disagreed and squabbled, plus what scripture says about itself: “In the beginning was the Word”, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God abides forever.”, God’s Word alone is the absolute authority.  Hence Luther’s motto, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, Sola Scriptura. God gives us not only salvation as a free gift but the ability to believe it. “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Eph. 2:8,9. A friend and pastor who is a Greek scholar told me that the key word is “that”.  The Greek version of “that” is a form that connotes that all the things previously mentioned are the “that”, in other words, the saving and the faith.  Some translations therefore insert “even that” as a better translation.  And, of course what grace means is that it had nothing to do with ourselves. 

            But we humans don’t talk that way enough. We talk in first person. We talk about accepting, making a decision for Christ, experiencing Jesus, saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving, etc.  So Luther says talk all you want, just make sure you realize God gets all the credit.  He puts the faith inside you to not only acknowledge the Gospel’s promise, but believe it as true, and swear allegiance making Jesus your Lord.  And so I’ve heard Lutheran pastors tell parishioners who were making an evangelism call and worried about how to ask a person if they would like to receive faith, to go ahead and frame it any way comfortable, just give God all the glory. Technically, Luther would say that the moment you say you came to faith, God was already in your heart moving you to say the words.  So you should just ask the person you are witnessing to if they want to thank God for the wonderful free gift.   But that, of course, is not good worldly salesman talk.

            Well then, how does one know that one has faith?  Since we don’t create it, we just look for it and rejoice.  Say a prayer and feel close to God? Sing a song that puts your heart closer? Money turns up to pay the bills and you attribute it to God’s providence? Rejoice at God giving new life to a baby?  That’s the Holy Spirit working inside you!  So with us Lutherans, our assurance of faith is not some contractual affair about having a religious experience or some choice (though that might seem to happen)  How does Luther figure that?  First we are entirely bankrupt spiritually.  The entire world is guilty as Romans 3 says. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Eph. 2:1.  So Luther writes, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.” Dead; can’t make it unless God infuses “His breath” (Literal Old Testament Hebrew for “Holy Spirit”) in us to bring us to faith—which it says in vs. 5. And since we are naturally dead spiritually, we have only the ability to refuse the Gospel.  We can say NO.  But God moves us to say YES.  That’s different than Calvinists who insist that you get to choose (which leads to a quandary about God electing some people to hell.  Wait! Didn’t He say, “God would have all to be saved and come into the knowledge of the truth.”) Or you have Arminians who are waiting for a big experience that “moves their heart” from the monumental choice of faith by a free will. Luther says that it is God who sets our will free. Of our own, our will is in bondage to sin.

            Finally there’s the matter of the Christian who really doesn’t follow.  Romans 6-8 has good things to say about the person who yields their life to God and gets an abundant life despite the conflict of our two natures. This leads Luther to the conclusion that we are not motivated by drudgerous seeking of works, but through gratitude and the Holy Spirit using our conscience to nudge us to a better life. People who have no thanks or desire to know God sometimes claim forgiveness, but it is doubtful that they have it— Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it ‘cheap grace’.  “Faith without works is dead.” But realize when we quote that, the ultimate ‘good work’ is when God works faith in us.   

            This is bombshell stuff, but let’s not give up on our brothers in Christ from another background.  God imparts faith in a lot of different people and situations.  Maybe that’s why he multiplied denominations in the Reformation.  Hope you enjoy this.  We’ll talk later.