BY MATT JOHNSON
HUMAN ECONOMY OR GOD'S ECONOMY?
Martin Luther knew something about economics. Well, God’s economics anyway. It goes something like this: you can’t pay your way into heaven, and it was wrong of the Pope and his cronies to say so. The Christian life is all of grace and nothing of personal sacrifice or performance. These are the big ideas that frame Luther’s 95 theses. But honestly, a long gripe against the Pope kind of makes for a dull read.
Death and resurrection is a pattern for all of life.
The real exciting Reformation stuff happened at Heidelberg in 1518, where Luther railed against the self-important theology of his day and placed the cross front and center where it belonged. Luther’s Disputation is a tough but important read. In light of 1 Corinthians 1, Luther maintained that reason, philosophy, and religion were the very antithesis to the word of the cross:
The cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with human wisdom and philosophy, but only with deep folly and offense. The cross is not inspiring but a scandal. Therefore the true theologian is not one who argues from visible and evident things, but rather the one who learns from the cross that the ways of God are hidden, even in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Cryptic stuff, no doubt. But the point is, God reveals himself most clearly (don’t miss the irony) in counterintuitive ways—namely as a man dying a criminal’s death for his enemies. In turn, God calls us to name our rebellion what it is—cosmic treason—to have our sin put to death so that we can be resurrected to new life. But we don’t like being implicated in the cross. Instead, we re-translate the meaning of the Christian life by highlighting our efforts, achievements and transformation instead of trusting in his finished work.
THE GLORY STORY = JESUS PLUS
The good news of the gospel is nonsensical until we tell the truth about the bad news of our sin. And especially about our efforts to add to God’s one-way love to us. People much prefer spiritual advice over the stark truth that spiritual aspirations meant to earn God’s favor ought to be put to death. God doesn’t massage our egos by giving us tips for sin management. He attacks sin and puts it to death, in Christ. Our refusal to face this death—and the personal disequilibrium that comes with it—is what Luther calls the glory story.
The Christian life is all of grace and nothing of personal sacrifice or performance.
So what might this glory story look like? Jesus-serving as a means to our ends, like a kind of cosmic butler. But Jesus himself, at the cross, is the end. There, he invites sinners to come tell it like it is, have their self-inflated hopes put to death, and to be raised to new life.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION: THE CIRCULAR CHRISTIAN LIFE
This pattern of death and resurrection isn’t just a Christian conversion event. Death and resurrection isn’t just physical death and a celestial hope. Instead, death and resurrection is a pattern for all of life. Sin is put to death and God raises us to new life. Repeat, repeat, repeat...
In this series we’ll go into more detail on the four sections of Luther’s 1518 Disputation:
1. The problem of our good religious behavior
2. The will
3. Humanity’s unquenchable desire for self-glory
4. God’s creative love for sinners despite the whole mess.
Next Week: Why Rules Alone Never Work
· Gerhard Forde: On Being a Theologian of the Cross
· Robert Kolb: Luther on the Theology of the Cross
· Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann: Luther's Works
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.