More on Martin Luther, Individualism, Forgiveness and Christian Growth

While I really like the idea in Martin Luther about our ‘selves’ being called into being by the engagement w have with our environment (be it with God in Chris or other realities) I have been exercised in my brains by some things in our Luther studies.


Here is the first one. I think that he is too individualistic. Reading the material that we have in Ebling’s book, I get the impression that Luther sees ‘a person’ before God and then sees that individual ‘before the face of’ God, or ‘before the face’ of other human beings.


But this, to me, does not take the incarnation seriously enough. Since God became as we are, in Jesus, now other people are Christ for us. Thee can be no putting asunder of God and humanity, because they have been reconciled. Being ‘before the face’ of God means being before the face of others.


This makes me think about what it means to be in the Church. Reading about the Church in Luther makes me feel as though he sees the Church just as that collection of individuals who have been individually turned to God in Christ, but who don’t have much to do with another. But I cannot help thinking that a single individual without social support can really maintain their orientation before God.


I remember a black Christian from South Africa telling us that when he was jailed, that he even forgot the Lord’s prayer. Our basic connection to one another means that we cannot avoid being ‘socialised’ by one another.  


This is where I think that membership of the Church and of small groups within the Church is so important. The basic ‘unit’ that is before the face of God is not each individual Christian, but the Body of Christ, the Church. This means that we can be Christ’s to one another, and we have deep responsibility of belonging to one another that mediates what it means to be ‘before the face of God’. This does not mean that there is no evil in the Church, and that other members of the Church may not be ‘Christ’ for us. But it does mean that Christ has died for ‘his bride’, the Church as a first thing as well as for each of us, who need to appropriate this reality for ourselves.


The other problem that occurs to me about Luther has to do with the idea of the meaning of Christian growth. Here is what I mean. Luther says that the proper subject matter of theology is the status of humankind before God. Nothing else. Here is what Ebling says ‘The object of theology, according to Luther, is man who is guilty and lost and God who justifies and saves. What cannot be fitted into the discipline of this single theme is an error and a poison in theology’.(Ebling ‘Luther’ ,William Collins 1970 p.210 ).


So here is my problem. I remember hearing about a group of members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each time they would say ‘My name is X and I’m an alcoholic.’ This declaration is just what Luther would want. A person has been ‘before the face of’ the daemon drink, and repents, turns toward the face of God, repents and is sober. Even beginning the meeting with ‘My name is X and I’m an alcoholic’ captures Luther’s sense that we are always, and at the same time, justified and sinners. But there was one group of AA which had welcomed no new members for a while, and who had all been sober for a while. The structure of their lives was centred around confession of sin, repentance and forgiveness, and when they had all been sober for a while, this structure served no purpose. So, in order to maintain the structure of their lives, they all went on a bender, fell of the wagon, and life could go on in the same framework, because they could all come back and say ‘My name is X and I’m an alcoholic.’


This structure of the need to repeat the sin in order to have the forgiveness a problem because it leaves no room for growth and genuine transformation so that although there are always areas of life that have not been brought under the loving reign of living ‘before the face’ of God, the structure of ‘confession, repentance and forgiveness’ is maybe not the most helpful.


St. Paul invites us ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds’. The symbol is resurrection is not just a symbol taken from the law courts where a persons self is left alone, but ‘just as they are’ they are declared justified, but also, the symbol of the resurrection is a symbol of ‘new life’. It is a symbol of renewal.


So my question to Luther is ‘How is it that we are transformed? If the mechanism of ‘confession, repentance and forgiveness’ is the one that brings us back to living ‘before the face of God’ what happens to transform us? Can we ever be said to have grown in wisdom and discernment? Although, in relation to God, everyone is unholy and a sinner, but is it not so that over time, some people actually get wiser and more Christlike? Is there not benefit in attending to this process?


I think that the idea of the work of the Holy Spirit, in sanctifying us: helping us to grow, in providing means whereby, in company with other Christians, we can be transformed is a part of the proper work of theology. To use exclusively in Christian life takes the focus away from images of transformation too much I think.  In the beginning of the book on Luther, we saw how he fought against the idea that a person’s righteousness could become a ‘habit’ by long practice. This was the Church’s idea then. He said ‘No!’ There is nothing that we can say before God about what we possess as a quality that can make any difference to our status before God. Faith or ‘grace’ is never our possession. This is ok, as far as it goes. But I think that having established this point, to make our total sinfulness before God and the total freedom of God’s grace the only thing to be said leaves the process of gradual transformation too much in the background for my liking.


The existence of Gospel Reflection Groups, where we can meet together to hear how God’s Word is impinging on our life, both for blessing and encouragement and challenge is also worthwhile, and part of the proper work of becoming more Christlike which is not always of the order of ‘My name is X and I’m a sinner’. I think that after 500 years of post Reformation history, we could allow a little softening toward the wisdom what the Church had before Luther regarding the processes of growth and transformation and about the collective nature of Church life.




About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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