Luther’s Search for Certainty

Today is Reformation Sunday where we observe Reformation Day on October 31st. Leading up to Reformation Day, there has been many gatherings—conventions, symposiums, etc.—focusing on Reformation themes with all sorts of German beer, bratwursts, and other good German food varieties. This Reformation Sunday probably follows more German beer and food! For the past year there has been a lot of talk and study on Martin Luther, his life, and his theology within the LCMS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod). As such, I have withheld writing anything about Martin Luther and his life and theology on The Lutheran Column on purpose, waiting until this week to share my viewpoint on his life. To do this, I will be using a book as a guide by Martin Marty, Martin Luther: A Life.

Marty’s purpose in his book is discussing Luther’s “positive contributions to the development of human liberty, the free expression of conscience, support of music, development of literary style, and his role in reshaping religious life” (Marty, xii). Marty’s goal in his book is to give a positive account of Luther’s influence on the world. He wants to leave the reader with “the accounts of [Luther’s] posthumous influences and its global consequences” and thus leave the reader with their own inference of Luther’s contribution to the world (xv). In each chapter, Marty describes Luther’s life through four unique motifs that lead the reader, whether Lutheran or not, to acknowledge his unequivocal global influence as it pertains to the Christian life in the world and the Church.

The Hunger for Certainty

With Marty’s goal in mind for the reader to come up with there own inference of Luther, the inference I will be covering here is what I believe to be the primary motif throughout Luther’s life, which was his search for certainty of salvation. For Lutherans, the heart of the Reformation—and the material principle of the Scriptures—is justification by faith. For Luther, and Lutherans worldwide, we have no greater certainty than justification by faith.

To understand Luther’s hunger and search for certainty, we have to start at a point prior to his monastic days. Before entering the Augustinian monastery, Luther obeyed his father’s wishes in studying to become a lawyer. During his studies, however, he came to find that “law represented nothing but uncertainty” (5). In his university studies, the professors taught Luther to be inquisitive of every author, even the most noble ones, rather than blindly accepting their claims. Since one must question even the noblest of philosophers, Luther thought, everything is uncertain.

So, Luther conjectured that perhaps he can find certainty in the Scriptures. It strikes me as odd that a man of pragmatism would search for certainty in the Scriptures. Today, lawyers and scientists and self-proclaimed philosophers are considered the most pragmatic people who do not often link rationality with religion. As a 21st century reader, it is surprising to us that Luther—a pragmatic law student—would turn to the Scriptures to search for the mystery of certainty. However, when we consider the historical context of the religious prevalence inherent in the culture at this time, it may not be so surprising after all.

Most well-learnt Protestants know the story of Luther’s sudden change in vocation. Bound between the constraints of law and theology, on his way back to his university, Luther was struck by lightning (or nearly struck), and he prayed, “Help me, St. Anne… I will become a monk” (7). Luther survived the incident, and assuming St. Anne to have come to his aid Luther became a monk in the Augustinian monastery.

But even in the monastery he ran headlong into uncertainty. With the monasteries’ focus on good works, Luther “became increasingly convinced that no one could ever do what he fervently aspired to do, that is, please God through monastic efforts” (10). Luther came to realise his unworthiness as a sinner. Even during his first Mass as a newly ordained priest he had these feelings of unworthiness. Recognising his sinfulness, he came to wonder how he could be worthy of receiving the Lord’s Supper, growing uncertain of his standing before God. What assurance can a person have? This uncertainty came from Scripture itself: “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed” (Romans 1:17). The way Luther understood this: How can the Gospel ever be Good News when the revelation of God’s righteousness forces human beings to see how unworthy they are before the Perfect, Divine God?

Luther spent years in this turmoil searching for the answer—the answer that does not rely on human efforts and would console God-fearing people who desire to be free from sin and stop fearing death (19-20). As he researched and wrote about this certainty, Luther used a German word that does not translate well into English, Anfechtungen, which are essentially “the spiritual assaults that… kept people from finding certainty in a loving God” (23). This uncertainty, Luther said, was his pledge to rescue other miserable sinners from like himself. He wrote that these spiritual assaults were God’s devices to rob people “of all certainty, until they found no place to go except to the God of mercy and grace” (24). In other words, in order for one to totally rely on God’s grace, they must first recognise their utter despair in sin and the perennial uncertainty our own efforts bring, and turn to the only remedy for this condition who gives us absolute certainty: Jesus Christ.

I can relate a lot to Luther’s Anfechtungen. Years ago, I suffered from what Luther calls Anfechtungen that barred me from the certainty of the loving God. Due to particular sins I had committed, I could not fathom how God could forgive me no matter how many times I repented until it came to the point where I even doubted the power of God’s forgiveness. The Anfechtungen of self-loathing and deep shame kept me from the certainty of God’s grace (this was the Law at work in my heart). I felt this depravity inherent in my humanity and there was nothing I could do to alleviate myself from its burden until one particular day when I found enormous comfort—certainty—in God’s mercy, grace, and love through the Holy Spirit, particularly in the Spoken Word which proclaims the forgiveness of sins (particularly 1 John 1:8-9; Proverbs 28:13). Since that moment, I have had absolute certainty in the loving God.

Going with this, Marty likens Luther to the patriarch Jacob—one who wrestled with God (25). As Jacob wrestled with God, so Luther wrestled with Him as he viewed him as a cruel God whilst God was sending these Anfechtungen to lead him toward the comforting reality of God’s grace and mercy. Likewise, during my Anfechtungen I viewed God as distant until they eventually led me into His grace and I learnt He’s actually a God near to me, especially in the Sacraments. This experience is likely a common experience serious Christians endure. The serious Christian reading this biography of Luther will likely relate to his Anfechtungen and cause him or her to be empathetic toward his goals.

Through his study on Jacob, Luther finally discovered this certainty comes by faith, not mere human efforts. Using Jacob’s faith as an example, Luther wrote that God “is not conquered in such a way that He is subjected to us, but His judgment, or His wrath and fury and whatever opposes us, is conquered by us by praying, seeking, and knocking, so that from an angry judge, as He seemed to be previously, He becomes a most loving Father” (26-27). Faith conquers God’s judgement and wrath because it is only by faith in which He becomes our loving Father; human works always fall short of this.

Not too later, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church doors exposing the burden of indulgences on the consciences of the German people. Luther finally found his greatest comfort and certainty in what Lutherans calls his “Aha!” moment in the second half of Romans 1:17, “The one who is righteous shall live by faith” (38). Luther concluded, “It is the nature of faith that it presumes on the grace of God… Faith does not require information, knowledge, or certainty” (39). Yet, while faith does not require certainty, faith nevertheless produces certainty because that faith is upheld and sustained by God, not by meagre human efforts. This is only the beginning of Luther freeing the human conscience towards human liberty.

Defining the Life of Faith

The next motif of Luther’s life—and the context surrounding the Christian’s certainty—was defining the Christian life, that is, how a Christian should live. He wrote four major documents speaking on this issue. First, in his Address to the Christian Nobility, Luther defined the priesthood of all believers from 1 Peter 2:5, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Luther argued that this verse had nothing to do with the governing practice of the church but rather with baptism and prayer.

He argued all baptised Christians are “worthy equally to stand before God, forgiving and praying for others without priestly meditation” (59). Luther was not trying to eliminate the office of the priest. Instead, he was exegetically emphasising the Scripture’s application to all believers and that priests are to be representatives “for the whole body of believers as they carried on pastoral tasks,” not as a “superior class that held unique powers and sanctions” (59). In other words, as a baptised child of God, the Christian can stand in certainty before God because of what God has done in her baptism. Not only that, but also because of this stature before God, as a priestly nation all Christians can forgive and pray for others—to give and proclaim this certainty to others. This does not belittle the pastoral office; rather, the Church proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to the nations and praying for others is the result of the good and right use of the pastoral office (i.e. the pastor equips, motivates, and inspires his congregation to proclaim the Gospel).

In this publication, Luther sought to redefine the role of a priest (i.e. pastor). Additionally, in addressing an earlier question from his life on how one is worthy to stand before God, he stresses that one’s worthiness is not dependent on one’s works but on God who effects our baptism and invites us to prayer. In other words, one is worthy not because they earn worthiness, but because God deems them worthy out of His grace. This means that as a Christian, I can look back to my baptism and see that in it, God makes me worthy before Him not because of anything I have done, but because of all He has done for me. Thus, the Christian has certainty as she lives her daily life because God’s act in baptism is efficacious.

Second, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther addressed mainly the sacraments, affirming only two of the seven Catholic sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He found corruption in the remaining five. These corruptions led Christians into a “captivity” with a reliance on works. “Without the forgiveness of sin assured in the Mass, sinners were in danger of suffering eternal hellfire” (60). Luther sought to explain how the Christian is to live in the gracious relationship with God as it pertains to the Church. The Catholic corruptions became burdens on the Christian conscience when the right use of sacraments is to console the conscience since they promise God’s grace and elicit faith. Luther sought to alleviate those burdens by connecting the appropriate sacraments to God’s grace, which was missing in each of the Catholic sacraments. As a Christian, this means I can approach God’s instituted sacraments every Sunday with the certainty of receiving His grace in the forgiveness of all my sins.

Third, as a lover of paradoxes, Luther wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (63). To explain this with a metaphor, Luther likens a believer’s relationship with Christ to marriage (which is appropriate since the Church is Jesus’ bride). What the wife has becomes the husband’s, and what the husband has becomes the wife’s. In the same way, “What Christ has is the property of the believing soul, what the soul has becomes the property of Christ” (65). In other words, our wickedness is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us—Christ’s righteousness becomes ours, and our sins become Christ’s. Jesus took hold of our wickedness and on Him was placed God’s wrath as punishment for this wickedness—the punishment we deserve—and by faith we receive His righteousness. So, because of this union we have with Christ, “the Christian is a ‘perfectly free lord of all, subject to none'” (64).

As a seeming contradiction, Luther also states that, on the other hand, the Christian is also a “servant of all, subject to all.” What Luther highlighted was that “faith was to be active in love” (65). In this publication, Luther wrote how the Christian is free from sin because of Christ—and, therefore, the burdens of Catholic penance—and how the Christian is to live in relationship with his neighbour. Solidifying the freedom of the Christian conscience even more, Luther discussed in detail the Christian’s freedom not just from sin and the Devil, but also his freedom to graciously serve his neighbour. Furthermore, justification by faith is not freedom to sin (Romans 6), but freedom from sin. And by faith we are also free to love our neighbour, not free from loving our neighbour.

Lastly, in The Judgement on Monastic Vows, Luther wrote that such vows were “against faith” and “that the only vow which mattered came not from humans but from God: God makes a vow to us… to believers, in baptism” (76). Luther wrote on the futility of good works as a method to please God because He does not need our good works. Drawing from Isaiah (likely 64:6), Luther wrote that if humans perform good works in order to earn God’s favour, then they are no longer good works but evil and sin (77). What matters is what God has done for us, not what we could possibly do for Him. In response to His goodness, we perform good works for the benefit of our neighbour, not as some imagined way to salvation, but simply for the basis of Christ’s love. This theology further frees the Christian’s conscience from the burden of good works for salvation.

Furthermore, Luther defined the life of faith this way: “Christ offered and was the promise, the gift of God, the grace that brought the believers into the scope of divine favor” (78). In other words, it is not by good works in which we earn God’s favour; it is merely because of Christ in which we gain God’s favour. This was contrary to Medieval Catholic thinking, which taught that good works combined with God’s grace brought God’s favour (which is still taught by the Roman Catholic Church today). Here, however, Luther postulated it is only the receiving of Christ as God’s gift that gives one God’s favour, and this is not something that’s earned; it is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Luther also wrote that Christians are simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner) (77), meaning although God declares a Christian as a saint for the sake of Christ, they still struggle with the temporal effects of sin. Thus, Luther wrote, “Christ came into this world to make us most certain” (78). This was a significant realisation and is still important for us this Reformation Sunday because works always fail us and make us uncertain because the Law, which calls us to do works, reveals to us our sins and deficiencies and thus leaves the Christian destitute of grace.

In these four major documents, we see how Luther freed the human conscience from the burden of works and to rely on one’s Baptism for the stance of worthiness before God, which is effected by God. He also began to reshape religious life by redefining the role of a pastor to his congregants and the grace the two sacraments bring. He further solidified Christian liberty by writing about the Christian’s freedom from sin and the Devil and how, in response, he is to freely live in service to his neighbour. And he freed the Christian’s conscience even more by stressing the futility of good works in regard to earning God’s favour and its vitality in benefiting our neighbour.

Living the Faith

This third motif within certainty is derivative of the second: how the Christian is to live in the secular world and the Church. It is really a further solidification of defining the life of faith. Perhaps the most noteworthy theology coming out of this next period of Luther’s life is the term “vocation,” or “calling” (from the Latin vocatio), to replace monasticism (104). Any Christian who fulfills their unique duty is pleasing God whether it is the mother feeding her child, the farmer growing his crops, or the married couple engaging in coitus (104). These are three simple examples of what Luther means by “vocation.”

In my own life, I have vocations of son, brother, student, employee, and others. As a student, then, I am pleasing God by fulfilling my duty as student when I put my greatest efforts into my studies and when I do not procrastinate. God-pleasing vocations also apply to professional jobs. One serves God in this way, Luther argued, whether they are a believer or an unbeliever whom God is using for His purposes. Luther calls such people “masks of God, since God [is] hidden within every person’s vocation” (105). For example, a doctor pleases God when he or she aids a fellow human’s health whether or not they are Christians, since doctors are one instrument through which God cares for His creation, namely people. Fulfilling our duties as pleasing God is not a means of good works to earn God’s favour. Vocations are the means in which God takes care of His creation through His human agents. This means we are pleasing God when you and I are a good student, friend, employee, sibling, or significant other to someone.

Moving into matters of religious life, Luther viewed sermons not as “describing God” but rather the method in which God is brought to those who hear (113). For Luther, worship was another important aspect of the Christian life, whether it was in one’s home or during ecclesiastical worship (114). The tradition of the church in Luther’s time was the music coming from the monks and clerics who chanted. Now, Luther altered the tradition where the majority of the singing came from the congregants. So, when you go to church today and sing worship lyrics from the projector screen or hymnal, you can thank Luther.

In relation to this, Luther also changed the role of the pastoral office. With his “priesthood of all believers” emphasised in his Address to the Christian Nobility, many began to administer the Lord’s Supper in their own homes and even churches, which bothered Luther. He still defended the doctrine that all Christians are priests and as such can administer the sacraments (namely in emergency situations), but he extended his theology by saying not all Christians are pastors. The role of the pastor is to administer the Word and sacraments; it is not the role in which ordinary Christians fulfil (117). This is important for us today because it prohibits ordinary Christians from improperly or abusively administering the sacraments. Also, the Christian can always walk into church on a Sunday morning with the certainty of knowing they will receive God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins that day.

The Heart Grown Cold, The Faith More Certain

Here, we enter the last and most intriguing—and perhaps troubling—period of Luther’s life. This last motif of his life is the final solidification of the certainty he first began to seek. What makes this period of Luther’s life intriguing and troubling is his heart growing cold as he attacked the pope, calling him “the spirit of the antichrist”; the Turks/Muslims, calling them “the flesh of the antichrist”; and the Jews, whom he judged to be evil since they refused to believe in Christ (168-169).

Luther’s animosity and antichrist mentality toward the pope is understandable when we examine the historical context surrounding Luther’s life. With the threat of the Turks and other forces and the pope’s supremacy, it indeed seemed like the end times (Christians likewise understandably thought the same during World War II as well). But the amateur historian can adequately deduce that the pope was not the antichrist but certainly a type of antichrist. But perhaps the most troubling part was Luther’s anti-Semitism, which was a result of “disappointments that turned to anger” (169).

How do we respond to Luther’s anti-Semitism, especially as Lutherans? It is important to remember that Luther, as great of a man he was, was also a sinner. After all, Luther was soberly aware of this fact. Unfortunately, as a sinner, Luther let his anger get the better of him and led him toward saying some really dark things about the Jews. Because it is true that Jews will not see the kingdom of God since Christ is the only way to salvation (John 14:6), Luther’s conclusion that they are not God’s true people is sound, but the anger in which he responded was certainly sinful and did not help at all to lead Jews toward Christian conversion. Another possible explanation is Luther’s decline into senility and manic-depression as a result of his failing health (Edwards, 129). We can reasonably deduce, then, that it would not be intellectually honest to take Luther seriously when he wrote his anti-Semitic works during his theoretically senile years whilst in a fit of rage for their rejection of Christ.

Moving on to the further solidification of certainty, Luther wrote the Smalcald Articles, which are often referred to his last will and testament. He wrote that everything “came down to the reality that Christ gave up his own certainty to the point of death and, in perfect obedience, did what sinners could not do on their own, namely offer himself to God to give them forgiveness and assurance” (Marty, 176). Christ gave up “his own certainty” so that we may have certainty (“assurance”) in Him for salvation.

This adequately summarises Luther’s long search for certainty. In an autographed Bible, Luther signed with Isaiah 40:8 to encapsulate the motif of certainty in his life, “The Word of our God will stand forever” (178). Unlike our human frailty, God’s Word remains forever. The frailty of our human efforts cannot achieve anything, but the grace of God and His Word are eternal, whose eternity we can rest in absolute certainty. Before Luther died, it is reported that he prayed, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace. Yet I know as a certainty that I shall live with you eternally and that no one shall be able to pluck me out of your hands” (186). Praying from John 10:28-29Martin Luther died with the certainty rested in Christ alone.

Conclusion

It is without unequivocal certainty that Martin Luther both reshaped and redefined Christian identity. Where it once relied on a theology of good works for certainty, Luther exposed its substantial failure to satisfy the Christian conscience for salvation. He addressed the numerous ways in which the Christian is free from good works and the burdens of penance. He also reshaped religious worship in changing how the pastor properly serves his congregation, letting the congregants engage in worship, and even highly supported music and education. Luther’s wife, Katerina von Bora, wrote in a lamenting letter after his death that “he did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world” (188).

It is thanks to Luther that Christians today know they are free from performing good works to earn God’s favour because he revealed to us the Scriptures’ doctrine on receiving God’s favour as merely a gift in faith and Baptism. His theology satisfies the consciences of today’s Christians in that we never have to earn salvation, for it is freely given to us. Martin Marty covered a lot more in his book than what I wrote here. If you don’t know much about Luther’s life, I certainly recommend this biography whether you are Lutheran or not. For Lutherans, you gain additional insight into Luther’s life than what we normally learn without being bogged down with all the overwhelming historical happenings. For non-Lutherans, this book gives you a good understanding of the circumstances of Luther’s life that led him to see and speak against the captivity of the Medieval Catholic Church.

Martin Luther’s life is an example to all of us that even during Anfechtungen, we always have stable certainty in the grace and mercy of God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bibliography

Edwards Jr., Mark U. “Luther’s Last Battles.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 48, no. 2 & 3 (April-July 1983): 125-140. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/edwardslutherslastbattles.pdf

Marty, Martin. Martin Luther: A Life. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.

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