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Martin Luther: A Spirituality of Paradox

As a young monk, Martin Luther received a thorough formation in the spirituality of his community at the hands of his directors. He was introduced to ascetical and mystical theologies. He chanted the liturgy of the hours in choir. He spent long hours in private prayer and spiritual reading. He went to confession, celebrated mass, participated in Eucharistic devotions, went on pilgrimages, and prayed the rosary. He did everything that a good monk was supposed to do. Yet still he was anxious about where he stood with God, whose holiness was at once too far removed, and too threateningly near. Still he was unhappy, still something missing. He read more deeply in mysticism, but the mystical union he sought remained elusive.

And then, opening the pages of the Psalms and Paul’s epistles, he discovered the gospel. He came to see that the experience of salvation is not about us striving to attain to God, but is about the Son of God having humbled himself to reach us. The first he called a theology of glory—the second, a theology of the cross.

Luther coined these terms at the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, in a series of theses on the nature of revelation:

Thesis #19: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.”

Thesis #20: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”1

We are sinners, born in captivity. This innate sinfulness, this condition of being born turned in on our selves (incurvatus in se) affects all aspects of our being–our thoughts, our desires, our abilities. Contrary to the philosophical traditions of the middle ages, and the Franciscan mystical tradition, speculation on the basis of what is visible will not lead one to a knowledge or experience of God. Revelation is necessary. Yet what God reveals of himself is, at the same time, concealed. God shows only his “back side”  This revelation of the posteriora Dei takes place in suffering and the cross. And it demands faith–for only faith recognizes that the One on the cross is, in fact, God.2

Luther’s emphasis on the cross as the primary locus of God’s self-disclosure is not unique to him, but goes back at least as far as the renewal of devotion to the humanity of Christ at the time of Francis (about which Ewert Cousins has written much3). What is unique to Luther is his sharp distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory  as mutually exclusive.4 As he says in Bondage of the Will (1525):

Faith has to do with things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it.5

God cannot be found by either philosophical speculation or a mystical ascent; “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”6 And the converse is also true: where there is not pain and the cross, but pride, wealth, and ostentatious display, or unusual experiences that would set the mystic apart from the ordinary Christian, one must doubt whether God is, in fact, present.

Luther’s theology of the cross was the basis for his critique of the triumphalism of the medieval Church and the papacy.7 He “was convinced,” says Eric Gritsch, “that the church may have to suffer the loss of its status in order to become a better instrument of the Gospel.”8 Luther called the Church to embrace Christ’s humility–he called it to the cross. There the Church sees its true vocation to be that of suffering servant.9 It is to be called by the world “Afflicted one, as well as storm-tossed, and not comforted, ‘Miss Hopeless.'”10 Luther’s theology of the cross demanded that the Church, like its Lord, be hidden under suffering. By this he did not mean the self-chosen discomfort of pious deprivation, but that genuine suffering which inevitably follows the faithful proclamation of the Word of God.11

Justification by faith alone, then, is not just the experience of the individual believer—it is true of the entire church. And, Luther argues, one can be reduced to such a faithful clinging to Christ only through humiliation. It is through a direct, intense encounter with the wrath of God, experienced as suffering and Anfechtungen, that the sinner comes to know “that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone.”12 This point receives its greatest elaboration in Bondage of the Will (1525), just cited, and Luther’s 1521 Commentary on the Magnificat. Humility is said in the latter to be a necessity for justification–not in the sense of a “work,” but in the sense of an utter repudiation of trust in works. Thus Luther distinguishes between “true” and “artificial humility.” The latter he regards as an affectation which seeks reward through outward appearance. True humility seeks no reward. It is “nothing else than a disregarded, despised, and lowly estate, such as that of men who are poor, sick, hungry, thirsty, in prison, suffering, and dying.”13 Those in such a state know they have nothing. Therefore they cling in faith to the promise of the Crucified One.

Lutheran spirituality is a thus a spirituality of paradox. We live in tension between Law and Gospel–ever condemned by the Law, but ever comforted by the promise of the Gospel, which assures us that we are justified by faith alone when we believe God’s liberating word. Doubts may arise, anxieties cause us to fear, we may feel frustrated by all our attempts to live a life of piety and devotion, but we cling ever to the Word.

This clinging to the Word is not merely a matter of believing the Bible when we read it, but believing the promise of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus Christ, especially as we hear this promise in the preached word, in the word of encouragement spoken by a  fellow believer. It is the promise that was spoken to us when we were baptized, and that is renewed to us each time we receive bread and wine, “for you,” “for the forgiveness of sins.”

It’s critical that we understand Luther’s view of the sacraments if we want to understand his view of the gospel, and of the Christian life. Of Baptism, for example, he says in the Small Catechism:

Baptism is not merely water, but it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s Word. . . . It effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare. . . . [Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily and raise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God’s presence.

And in the Large Catechism:

Our know-it-alls, the new spirits [the Reformed and Anabaptists] assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. We answer: It is true, nothing that is in us does it but faith, … [but] faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life . . . . To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, ‘But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’

Having believed the gospel, the Christian is set free, as Luther discusses in his tract, “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520). He no longer worries about doing good works to please God—he now does them to serve his neighbor. Thus, freed from the Law’s condemnation, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” But we are set free in Christ to love our neighbor; thus a Christian is, at the same time, “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, and subject to all.”14

Finally, Luther transformed the Church’s worship, so that it was no longer a sacrifice offered by fearful priests to a holy God, but became at once the place in which God’s liberating promise is repeated to us in word and sacrament, and the place in which we lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving. This is the locus for Luther’s hymns, of which he was a prolific author. He reworked traditional favorites, put psalms to metrical paraphrases, and wrote entirely new compositions to express the good news of the Gospel, now shining brightly. In Lutheranism, hymns were no longer something the choir sang in Latin; they were expressions of congregational faith and hope, and also became a devotional book in the home, for family devotion and individual meditation.

Bill Cork is pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist churches in Texas, and is a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard. 


1Luther’s Works, American edition [hereafter, LW] (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-.), 31:40.

2Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 149-50.

3Hermann Sasse, We Confess Jesus Christ, trans. Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia, 1984), p. 45. See also Ewert Cousins, “Francis of Assisi: Christian Mysticism at the Crossroads,” in Mysticism and the Religious Traditions, ed. Steven T. Katz (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 163-90; Cousins, “The Humanity and the Passion of Christ,” in Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation, ed. Jill Raitt (New York: Crossroad, 1987), pp. 375-91.

4Sasse, We Confess Jesus Christ, pp. 46-47; Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. 26.

5LW 33:62.

6LW 31:53.

7McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, p. 181.

8Eric W. Gritsch, Martin–God’s Court Jester: Luther in Retrospect (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 185.

9Ibid., p. 184.

10LW 17:242.

11Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, trans. Herbert J. A. Bouman (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), pp. 118-19, 126-27; Gritsch, Martin–God’s Court Jester, p. 184; LW 41:164-65.

12LW 33:723; McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, p. 154.

13LW 21:313-15.

14LW 31:344.

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