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Luther's Six Great Paradoxes

1. Saint and Sinner (simul justus et peccator)

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner (Vol. 48, pp. 281-3)

[see also my posts “Simultaneously Saint & Sinner“, “Frail Identity” and “Frail Identity, Part II“]

2. Law and Gospel

It’s the supreme art of the devil tha the can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold on to the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. Even if I sinned I would say, ‘Should I deny the gospel on this account?’ It hasn’t come to that yet. Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, ‘The forgiveness of sins covers ti all,’ I have won. On the other hand, if the devil gets me involved in what I have done and left undone, he has won, unless God helps and says, ‘Indeed! Even if you had not done anything, you would still have to be saved by forgiveness, for you have been baptized, communicated, etc.

…The distinction between law and gospel will do it. The devil turns the Word upside down. If one sticks to the law, on is lost. A good conscience won’t set one free, but the distinction [between law and gospel] will. So you should say, ‘The Word is twofold, on the one hand terrifying and on the other hand comforting.’ Here Satan objects, ‘But God says you are damned because you don’t keep the law.’ I respond, ‘God also says that I shall live.’ His mercy is greater than sin, and life is stronger than death. Hence if I have left this or that undone, our Lord God will tread it under foot with his grace (Vol. 54, pp. 105-7)

3. Perfectly Just and Perfectly Merciful

Our Lord God is always in the wrong, no matter what he does. He condemned Adam for disobedience when he ate of the fruit of the tree. Reason considers only the object of obedience, and so God is said to have gone too far. On the other hand, God freely forgives all sins, even the crucifixion of his Son, provided men believe, and this is also regarded as going too far. Who can bring these two into harmony—the greatest severity and the greatest liberty and indulgence (as it seems to reason)? Therefore it is said, ‘Become like children’ (Vol. 54, p. 105)

4. Lord of All and Servant of All

A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully (Vol. 31, p. 344)

5. Already and Not Yet

Consequently, even if we are not perfectly holy, Christ will wash away our sins with his blood and, when we depart from this life, will make us altogether pure in the life to come. In the meantime we are content with that righteousness which exists in hope through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen (Vol. 54, p. 375)

6. Scripture Interprets Scripture and Read It As It Stands

Occam did not want the term to be univocal but equivocal, so that humanity is one thing in Peter, another thing in Christ. In philosophy man, according to his nature, does not signify a son of God or a divine person. This is the very thing which we say by the term “communication of properties.” A syllogism is not allowed with regard to the mysteries of the faith and of theology. philosophy constitutes an aberration in the realm of theology (Vol. 38, p. 272)

Christ gives himself to us in many ways: first, in preaching; second, in baptism; [third,] in brotherly consolation; fourth, in the sacrament, as often as the body of Christ is eaten, because he himself commands us to do so. If he should command me to eat dung, I would do it. The servant should not inquire about the will of his lord (Vol. 38, p. 19)

Spirituality of the Cross

martin_lutherAs far as simple accounts of Lutheran theology go, the spirituality of the cross has been a lasting strength and alternative to cultures centered upon success and glory. As Gene Veith puts it, “Lutheran spirituality begins by facing up to imperfection” (Spirituality of the Cross, 17). Thus, spirituality is not about our own activity but rather our passivity in allowing God to break into our life. Hence the obvious Lutheran commitment to salvation described in terms of what Christ does for us in contrast to later evangelicals that focused attention upon personal decisions and experiences.

Infant Baptism, in fact, is perhaps the best illustration of justification by faith… In justification, the human being is purely passive, purely receptive… A helpless child becomes our role model for conversion (44)

Furthermore, in the Lutheran tradition, the Christian is never encouraged to look inward but to look to the cross and God’s promises. This is because the self is characterized by sin rather than perfection. A big duh to be sure. But even the Christian, who surely should see some inward renewal, is left wondering about his/her own salvation. In other words, God is hidden even to those who claim to be Christ’s followers.

This is not permission to avoid being good though, quite the opposite. Even if justification has nothing to do with good deeds, the Christian’s relationship with others is put into action through love and kindness. Therefore, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation affirms that by fulfilling the demands of one’s earthly role is to do so for God and through God. Although there are serious limitations to the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” (i.e., doing one’s job does not always align with kingdom ends), it does a remarkable job owning up to the physical world and ordinary life. It provides a way to actively engage the world without utopian expectations that frustrate and cause schizophrenic lives. In other words, it’s a good alternative to all-or-nothing thinking.