Set free … that is why we are good enough

Set free … that is why we are good enough

  1. Grace alone!

In 1545, a year before his death, a Latin version of Luther’s works was published in Wittenberg. Luther was given the opportunity to write a preface for one of the volumes. He used it to reflect on his life and theology.

In retrospect, he said that he used to hate the phrase “the justice of God”. He had set his whole life apart for the Lord, but was nevertheless often overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. “Although I lived blamelessly as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God.” It was then – only by a gracious God – that he discovered, or rediscovered, the core of the good news. He realised that “justice” was not something he could earn; it wasn’t something that he could achieve by what he did or did not do. This justice was rather a passive justice; it was a gift from God, and it pointed to God’s justice. It was He, and only He who justified him!

  1. Grace becomes a new pair of glasses

In these words, Luther discovered a new hermeneutics (a key to unlock). “From that moment the whole face of scripture appeared to me in a different light.” What he rediscovered was a hermeneutics of grace. And this became his foundation, his basis, that on which he built his understanding of theology!

He received, as it were, a new pair of glasses – grace-glasses – through which he could see himself.

Thus, he received a new identity! Because through these grace-glasses, he now saw who he really was! And this was who he was: someone pardoned! That is apparently why Luder changed the spelling of his name to Luther, which is derived from eleutheria, which means “freedom” or “the free one”, the “one set free”, the “liberated one”.

Of this pardoned Luther, is told that, in times of despair, of worry and anxiety, he would scratch out the words baptizatus sum, “I am baptised”, on his desk. In times like these, he could be reminded of his identity – not only of who he was, but also to whom he belonged! Through Him – as he now knew by the grace in which he shared – he was good enough!

But he didn’t realise that of himself alone.

  1. At the same time justified and sinner

This hermeneutics, the grace-glasses, changed his whole life and theology! For him it was like looking through three-dimensional glasses and seeing everything anew. Grace became the golden thread that ran through his whole theological endeavour. This becomes clear in the well-known phrase simul iustus et peccator. At the same time justified and sinner! For Luther, this was true of himself – he was justified and sinner at the same time.

But that is also true for all others who were pardoned!

He – and we too – are righteous! We too were justified by the Lord who gave himself to us and died on the cross for us.

But to understand this, we need to know why justification is necessary, and therefore, what sin means. Because, of all people, we who are sinners, are justified. For Luther, sin is a condition; it is to be encapsulated, entangled in such a way (like in a labyrinth, a web) that we cannot free ourselves. One of the ways in which Luther talks about this, is to say that sin is being retired into oneself. It is precisely from this confinement that we need to be set free. And that is precisely the point! The Lord did not justify those of us who were sinners, but those of us who are sinners still. It is exactly the sinners, those of us who are encapsulated, entangled, retired into ourselves, that the Lord has set free, declared righteous.

But then, we are not only sinners who are righteous now! For Luther, we are in fact the righteous ones who are sinners! For him we are righteous, yet sinful. Today, especially, this insight is of great value, as it warns that humanity – we – are capable of nothing. Nothing! We are not good enough! It is only through the grace of Jesus Christ that we become good enough!

That is why Luther said, “the more holy, the more sinful”. It is so different to what we would think: “the more holy, the less sinful”, or perhaps “the less holy, the more sinful”. But Luther indeed said the holier we are, the more sinful we are, the closer we are to the Lord, the closer we move to his light, the better we see our own brokenness, our dependence, our fragility.

  1. The cross alone is our theology

In his Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther says that we should rather be “theologians of the cross” than “theologians of glory”. For him all Christians – those who think and talk about God – are in fact theologians. But, he said, we should not be theologians of glory. That is a theologian for whom the bad is good and the good bad, for whom the law is good and the suffering and the cross bad. These are the optimistic theologians of our time, those who think that they – through their works of law, that which they succeed in – can be justified! These theologians are optimistic about themselves, about that which they are capable of. They look past the cross, as if the cross were just a step on the way to that which they think they could at any rate have done on their own. In short, theologians who think they are good enough!

For Luther, there is only one way to do away with this pursuit of glory: “The thirst for glory is not ended by satisfying it but rather by extinguishing it”. That is why we need to be theologians of the cross. Crux sola est nostra theologia, the cross alone is our theology. Theologians of the cross see all things through the suffering and cross of Jesus Christ. They see themselves in the suffering and cross of Jesus Christ! The identity of the crucified Jesus Christ also becomes their identity! These theologians question that which is often seen as the best in religion! “It constantly seeks to uncover and expose the ways in which sinners hide their perfidy behind pious facades” (Gerhard Forde). These theologians see themselves as they really are, for who they really are. They know that – on their own – they are not good enough!

  1. Grace – is enough for you!

This reminds of the words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12).

And that is Luther’s point – perhaps also for today: That we are not good enough, that we – only by the grace of God – are made good enough. That is why we are good enough!


Henco van der Westhuizen

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