BY MATT JOHNSON
“Being born is a passive event. But death, now that’s something you can actively help in achieving for yourself.” —paraphrase of Martin Luther, 1518 Heidelberg Disputation
In our democratic society we love to talk about freedom. But anybody out there ever tried to be perfect? Ah, shucks. Turns out we’re not as free as we thought.
Freedom of the will is a thorny issue—but only theoretically speaking. The problem of the un-free will is not a philosophical problem. The crux is that we are called to perfection, and we can't achieve it, so none of us is truly free.
“Free will, after the fall, has the power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity,” –Thesis 14, Heidelberg Disputation
Here’s a non-Yoda translation: after sin came into the world, the human will was so corrupted, even our best efforts are tainted before God. People have the capacity to do good but only when God comes onto the scene and makes us alive again.
NAKED AND FILTHY OR CLOTHED AND RIGHTEOUS
People stand naked in sin or clothed in the identity of Christ. There's no middle ground in between. We can do good before God but only in a passive capacity. Consider this analogy:
“[As water] can be heated but cannot heat itself, the will is driven by Satan or by God, as it acts in the vertical sphere of life. Instead of trusting the Word of the Lord, we turn to the lie of the Deceptor, and doubt binds our wills as it deafens our ears. Freedom comes only through the new identity given through Christ’s death, that becomes our death to captivity and deception.” – Robert Kolb, Luther on the Theology of the Cross
DO YOUR BEST AND GOD DOES THE REST?
Claiming we somehow add just a little bit of good to our standing with God through our efforts is what Gerhard Forde coined as human “affrontery.” As if we could simply do our best and have God do the rest.
“The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” –Thesis 16, Heidelberg Disputation
Still we strive for just a teeny-weenie bit of good deeds to gain God’s favor. This proclivity masks itself as piety, but it’s an affront to God’s perfect work of Christ, on the cross, for our sins. Christ’s death and resurrection is complete (it is finished), not a supplement to our shortcomings.
DEATH TO VALIANT EFFORTS
Humans are not autonomous beings. We are to image our creator and receive our identity in him. But still we twist this beautiful truth towards our means and make rules for ourselves—rules that highlight our valiant spiritual efforts—in spiritual disciplines, idol-hunting skill, or even belief in our own belief. None of this will do.
“Striving for the standards people set for themselves can convince them that they are not able to reach their goals, but apart from the perspective at the foot of the cross they will not understand that the solution lies not in trying harder but in dying to their sinful identity. At the foot of the cross sinners finally lose the presumption that they simply must stretch a bit higher. They fall to the earth to die to their sinful identity.” –Kolb
The beauty of all this is that we are born anew. Death always comes before a resurrection.
Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until recently, Matt spent 7 years as an associate volunteer pastor in counseling and recovery ministry. Many moons ago Matt forwent a proper education and traveled the country playing drums in 90 Pound Wuss, Roadside Monument and other bands you've never heard of. He likes long walks on the beach, puppies, and has questionable taste in music.