A couple days ago I posted a quote about Lutheran Theology from Stephen Paulson. Here’s the quote in full:
“Lutheran theology starts where all others end. Virtue is not the goal of life, virtue is our problem. Religion is not given for morality; it is there to end it. The picture of progress upward to happiness is toppled, and in its stead is the apocalyptic end of righteousness in this world so that only Christ remains, who alone is righteous in the eyes of God.”
At first I hesitated to post this because it is slightly vague, confusing and without a background in Lutheran theology it might be misunderstood. This said, I posted it because I thought it perfectly described what I have observed to be the end result of most Lutheran theology: only Jesus remains.
Soon after posting the quote, a good friend on Facebook came back some rather poignant questions. My friend, who because of his affinity for the show “the Office” we shall call Dwight, asked the following:
“I understand that virtue does not give us salvation, but how do you apply 1 Peter 1-2 along with many other admonitions in scripture that deal with our choices and behavior to this thinking? How does religion end morality and virtue. God is by nature moral isn’t he? I am assuming by religion you mean a system of beliefs and not just rules and rituals.”
The reason I love this question and want to respond to it in blog form is because it gets to the razor thin distinction between how the Christian faith differs from other worldviews and religions view morality, ethics, virtue, etc. More than this, it also helps to highlight and show where I believe Lutheran theology really shines and offers much to the church universal. So, the way I want to tackle the questions is as follows. I want to tackle the final two questions first and then grapple with the initial one. Here we go…
How does religion end morality and virtue? God is by nature moral isn’t he? I am assuming by religion you mean a system of beliefs and not just rules and rituals.
Dwight, first off, by religion (I thought it was a bad choice of words) Paulson was speaking of confessional Christianity in general and Lutheranism in particular. So another way another way of saying what he said would be, “the religion of the Christian faith is not a given for morality; it is there to end it, etc…”
With this clarified let me get to your questions. The way Christianity ends morality and virtue starts at the cross. The cross is in its first instance God’s attack on human sin. For Luther, and I would argue the Bible, the real seat of our sin is not so much in the little naughty things we do, but rather our spiritual aspirations. It was Satan in the garden who said, “Genesis 3:5 you will be like God…” Or think of Jesus’ prophecy in the gospel of John, “John 16:2 the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. ”
Whatever the case, the cross attacks and destroys whatever we put our pride in (idolatry) and in most cases this lands in the religious/ethical sphere. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1:19, 21-23 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart… 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”
Because of this the cross has a dangerous habit of exposing and uncovering the fig leaves, to use Genesis imagery again, we hide behind. This includes the best of what we have to offer as well as the worst. I love the way Luther phrases this in his Heidelberg Disputation:
“Yet wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded [this answers the second half of your question “God is by nature moral isn’t he?]; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.”
Because of this reality, and who can deny that we do this, God works through his law and gospel to bring an end to sinners. By end I mean death. Full stop. Jesus & Paul write:
Matthew 16:25 “For whoever would save his life will lose it”
Galatians 2:19 “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ.”
Romans 6:6 “our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin”
The good news is that the end of our story, with all of its virtue; sin; and pain, is the beginning of Jesus’ resurrection story in our lives.
Matthew 16:25 “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Galatians 2:20 “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Romans 6:8 “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
This is where we get to your first question on Christian virtue:
I understand that virtue does not give us salvation, but how do you apply 1 Peter 1-2 along with many other admonitions in scripture that deal with our choices and behavior to this thinking?
I want to begin answering this question by first saying that I believe Luther’s statement, “man misuses the best in the worst manner,” is something we continue to do as Christians. Therefore we need the work of the cross in our lives as Christians to expose where we’re using virtue and morality as fig leaves. Whether it’s the Catholic hiding behind her prayers and Masses, the evangelical reveling in his worship goose bumps, the radical boasting in his social justice, the Pentecostal resting on his “second baptism,” or the Lutheran’s pride behind her theology; we all need the cross to expose us day in and day out. As Luther was fond of saying, “to progress is to begin again.” In other words, because we never leave off sinning, we can never leave off the cross. It constantly has to put an end to us.
Now how does all this apply to 1 Peter 1-2 and all the other admonitions in Scripture that deal with our choices and behavior? Let’s take some highlights from 1 Peter as a case study. Peter begins his epistle by praising God for who, “1 Peter 1:3 caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” Think about it, doesn’t being born again mean we were dead… Any way, Peter and most of the other epistles always root ethics in what God has already accomplished through Jesus Christ. The imperatives always flow from the indicatives. So Peter roots Christians in the indicative and then gives imperatives like:
“1 Peter 1:13 13 Therefore [referring to the indicative], preparing [the imperative] your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace [we’re back to the indicative again] that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Simply put, without coming to Christ again and again in the midst of our using the best in the worst manner we will never exhibit Spirit birthed fruits.
As far as the other admonitions concerning behavior, context is always king. Moreover it must always be read through the lens of the cross which to use Luther’s words shows that, “The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Roman. 4:15]…” so that “man must despair his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” The words of Luther here, do not fall far from Paul and Peter’s trees.
So Dwight, I hoped this helped to answer your questions. You may not agree with it, but I hope it has at least made it clearer. I want to close by quoting Luther’s 26th Thesis and Explanation found in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. I think it perfectly sums up what I’ve wrote:
“The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done… It has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all men under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies, “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.”
Oswald Bayer “Martin Luther’s Theology”
Timothy Lull “Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings”
Martin Luther’s “Heidelberg Disputation”
Steve Paulson “Lutheran Theology”