What Luther’s Views On Grace And Law Can Teach Us Today

An interview with Carl Trueman on “Luther on the Christian Life.”

When Luther advised, “Sin boldly,” what did he mean? Luther saw that many who take Christian life seriously might tend to despair, because as Christians we become more acutely aware of how we rebel against the Lord on a regular basis. Luther says if you’ve sinned boldly, repent even more boldly. The blood of Christ is greater than any sin you may have committed. You’re not to worry and despair over your sins: Look toward the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ in faith and repentance as the one who saves.

 

The special section on the Protestant Reformation we’re planning for our Oct. 28 issue will include reviews of books about the world-shaking changes that began on Oct. 31, 1517. The best new book on Luther I’ve found is Luther on the Christian Life, by Westminster Theological Seminary professor Carl Trueman—so I interviewed Trueman in front of students at Patrick Henry College. Here are edited excerpts.

We’re close to the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther famously contrasted a “theologian of glory” with a “theologian of the cross.” What’s the difference?Theologians of glory make God in their own image and assume God thinks and operates in a way closely analogous to the way we operate as human beings. Simple example: If I want you to like me, I will do nice things for you. We assume that God is that way: We do good works for God, and God will reward us for them.

And theologians of the cross?They humbly understand God to be the way He has revealed Himself to be in the broken flesh of Jesus Christ hanging upon the cross. That contradicts human expectations.

Today’s prosperity gospel: preached by theologians of glory?Luther would say: What do you mean when you say, “God blesses you”? Luther would say: Look at the cross. No man more blessed than the Lord Jesus Christ ever walked upon the earth, and the pathway of blessing took Him to death on the cross. Christian blessing is spiritual, not material. Prosperity gospelers understand blessings in crudely material terms: classic example of a theologian of glory’s thinking.

Luther said sunny stories of our basic goodness are attractive in their cheeriness, but they are actually terrible, enslaving lies. In some churches these days, do we more often hear cheery stories about how good we are, than about who we really are?Many churches do parrot back to people a particular view of themselves that they want to hear: how great they are. But Luther saw that the first thing human beings need to understand about themselves is that they’re dead in their trespasses and their sins: Their rebellion has cut them off from God, and if you don’t understand that, you will never understand the importance and the need of the Savior.

Was Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking) also a theologian of glory, within Luther’s understanding?Luther would say, “What is positive thinking? Positive thinking is ultimately deceptive!” Because, for Luther, the way to heaven is paradoxically through hell. The way to life is through death. That’s what baptism speaks of, for example, for Luther. Baptism is about dying and rising. You can only be resurrected if you first die. Well, how can one think positively about death? How can one think positively about hell? One cannot!

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