Martin Luther on the Christian Life

[1] She knocks a little tentatively on my office door; and at my invitation she comes in and sits down. I’ve not seen Sarah (not her real name) for some time, and I’m delighted she has come to talk. One of the most capable students I’ve ever taught, she is just back from a semester in India; and with her usual smile she launches excitedly into all the wonderful things she has experienced. It’s typical of Sarah to always put the best face on everything; and this occasion is no exception. It has been an awesome semester! A culture radically different — new foods to try, new ideas — Sarah speaks quickly in her light, slightly breathy way, eager to impress upon me how grateful she is to have had this opportunity. Still, it does not take long before her eager and earnest enthusiasm takes a turn. Sarah’s growing anxiety is palpable as her eyes dart around the room.

Martin Luther on the Christian Life by Mary Gaebler
Martin Luther burning the Papal bull of excommunication, H. Schile, c1874.

[2] Sarah is a young woman firmly identified with the Christian faith. In a college full of young people questioning many of the church’s teachings, she calls herself a “traditional Lutheran” — a Christian who takes Scripture and Lutheran teaching seriously. With an intensity deepened by her formidable talent, Sarah’s faith has weathered the doubts encountered by the study of the historical critical method. She has grappled with the Enlightenment challenges to theology; but now she is struggling. Her semester in India has focused in part on the study of Buddhism, including visits to Buddhist temples and conversations with practicing Buddhist monks.

[3] Once she dares to frame it, Sarah’s question is, “What if I’d been born in India? Would I still be a Christian?” Perhaps Sarah’s confusion and anxiety emerge from her face to face meeting with believers as intensely committed to their religious convictions as she is to hers. Certainly she knew about Buddhism before she left; but her extended immersion in this culture has had a profound impact. It is what we hope for when we encourage our students to consider study abroad. But Sarah’s question is not trivial, nor is her anxiety surprising; for her experience has effectively separated Sarah from her prior assumptions. Insofar as these two religious constructions of reality cannot be coherently combined into a larger synthesis, Sarah will be forced to choose between them. It is a situation reminiscent of the quandary faced by Adam and Eve as they attempted to respond to new information. On what basis do we commit ourselves to one authoritative voice over another? The serpent’s challenge to Eve threw into doubt an embrace of reality that she had previously accepted without question. From such an epistemological distance there is no going back; nor is there an easy way forward.

[4] Two possible responses are immediately obvious and have been well documented. On the one hand there is the move toward open boundaries, often justified by a deep conviction that respect for others is an inviolate obligation for all human beings. It entails a loosening of any claim on a fixed religious ground that would, by its very nature, entail boundaries that exclude (at least some) other religious views. Every religion, Sarah may decide, is a cultural construction and therefore equally valid. The downside to such inclusivity is that it tends to undermine those very convictions out of which Sarah’s commitments flow — her belief, for example, that human beings possess a dignity that obligates her to respect the views of others. The weakening of such self-identifying convictions tends as well to sabotage effective, committed agency. On the other hand, Sarah may move in the opposite direction. Perhaps cognizant of the dangers related to the first strategy, she might instead opt to protect the self-identifying assumptions that are already in place. In a bid to shore up her lost naiveté and the self identity associated with it, Sarah may turn away from every experience that threatens her faith with a reactionary zeal — a strategy some have characterized as the “fortress” approach.

[5] Yet there are other conceptual options, which, I think, might serve Sarah better. One of these begins with Luther’s theological claim that human identity is ultimately a function of God’s work rather than ours. Luther’s insistence on God’s “justification” is one very practical gift of Luther’s theology, especially in our present historical context. It is precisely his emphasis on the monergistic work of God in the authorization of our being and doing that makes possible this “third way.”1 Understanding one’s ultimate identity as a result of God’s intention and action allows a person to embrace a world in which all things are open to inquiry and exploration without fear of losing oneself in the process. The self that I am is not understood by Luther as a creation of my own making; God does not need my intellectual adherence to a particular set of theological propositions in addition to God’s own choice for me. That would make faith into a work, and salvation into a cooperative effort. The promise that we learn about from Luther, which he discovers in the letters of Paul, comes to us from beyond ourselves, requiring nothing from us but passive reception.

[6] But is that not an oxymoron? Can reception be passive in this way? Beyond simply showing up at that point in time and space designated for the sacramental encounter, I think that Luther does consider “justification,” from the individual perspective, as a matter of simply being there, with one important addition. One must show up in the midst of the gathered faith community and as the object of their blessing. Whether as an infant, carried to the font in someone’s arms, or as an adult, invited and drawn to the water through the preaching and friendship of other Christians, one’s new identity is recreated through the faith community that actively receives and transmits God’s promise on one’s behalf. The sacrament consists not only in the created substance of water and word, but it is also constituted by the actors who speak the words and prepare the water and do the washing. They complete this triadic medium through which God’s agency works. The identity one receives is the monergistic work of God, working through God’s created order that includes the liturgical work of the people of God — moved to do the speaking and washing by way of a communal faith that is active in love. What is not required is the faith of the recipient, who, as the object of the community’s liturgy, receives passively this new identity in Christ, which is given as pure gift.

[7] Speaking as one who came to the font as an adult, but in the privacy of my pastor’s office rather than in the company of the whole congregation, I have learned to understand the corporate, liturgical nature of this sacrament only of late.2 In my pastor’s defense, I have to say that this solitary setting was the result of my needs rather than his preference. Though I was eager to participate in the Eucharist, I was unwilling to go “public” for a whole host of reasons, some of which the pastor must have considered important enough to honor. Being well versed in Lutheran ethics, he apparently opted for a “least/worst” approach. I expect that, in the doing of the sacrament, this pastor quite consciously understood himself to be the agent of the whole gathered community. After all, the entire mystical body of Christ is always made manifest at the font by some particular expression of it. In my case it was an expression of the whole that was quantitatively (but certainly not qualitatively) reduced.

[8] The point in all this, however, is the monergistic creation of one’s given identity in Christ. For me, this provided (among other things) the critical conceptual framework by which I could assume a secure ground from which to be and to do, without fear of losing myself in the engagement (and even adoption) of new and interesting ideas. Given this conceptual framework, nothing that is temporal can endanger my ultimate authorization. This confidence reiterates Paul’s great words in Romans 8. “If God is for us, who is against us?… It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?… For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[9] In Sarah’s case, as in my own, this application of Luther’s theology came as a relief. Out of herself, Sarah has no ground by which to authorize one religious construct of reality over another; for to do so she would need to trust in the authority of the very self that her choice is attempting to validate. But reassured by her baptism, that her ultimate validation comes from a choice that God alone has made for her, Sarah is free to doubt, to explore, to try on various finite identities — even religious ones — secure in the assurance that her justification depends on nothing that she must supply to make it valid. God’s promise, concretized in the liturgical washing and speaking of Sarah’s baptism, stands firm, a promise beyond Sarah’s power to deconstruct; and since Sarah is theonomously grounded in the living faith of the one mystical body of Christ, it is their gathered act of faith, expressed within the lived liturgy of the church, that binds her to the promise that recreated (and continues to recreate) her. She may choose to leave the liturgical work behind, even as she retains the paradoxical assurance that the lived promise will never vanish when her back is turned. Indeed, it is precisely that assurance that allows Sarah to cast her gaze in new directions without fear of losing herself. Sarah’s embrace of difference is no threat to her identity; for her identity is ultimately justified by an author beyond herself, even as it is temporally renewed, again and again, by the living liturgy of the church.

[10] We live in a world that requires a capacity to retain those convictions that sustain self-identity, even as we invite and explore convictions that challenge our own. While family identity often functions in this way, it may well fail us in the face of epistemic challenges such as the one that confronted Sarah. Luther’s theology of justification offers a way forward. Not only compassion for the individual, but a concern for the common good, calls us to the task of making this theological approach comprehensible; for Luther’s third way fills a need that is deeply felt. Of additional importance is the possibility that such a theological grounding of the self might serve to defuse some of the self-protective violence that results when identity is threatened.

[11] Doctrine, of course, entails truth claims; and so it is often rejected in the context of a society that confuses disagreement with disrespect, making the task more difficult than it might otherwise be. Nevertheless, in a world where the encounter with difference regularly challenges self identity, Luther’s theology of justification, as it applies to baptismal recreation of the self, deserves our renewed attention.

1. Darrell Jodock. “The ELCA College and the Church: Strengthening the Partnership” (Keynote address at “Here We Stand,” August 19, 2002, Minneapolis, MN) (accessed June 14, 2010).

2. I am indebted to pastor Brian Johnson (Gustavus Adolphus College Chaplaincy) for his insights on the liturgical dimensions of sacramental efficacy.

Mary Gaebler

Dr. Mary Gaebler is Associate Professor in Religion; Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter MN.