Luther on the Christian Life
Posted: 03 Aug 2015 01:50 PM PDT
Carl R. Trueman. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom.
Theologians of the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015. 224pp. $14.99/£11.99
It is not immediately obvious to many Christians that Martin Luther has much that is interesting or helpful to say about the Christian life. Indeed, the Luther of popular lore comes across as a man so positively intoxicated by the doctrine of justification, that he couldn’t quite muster any enthusiasm for holiness and discipleship. Within contemporary theological discussion, Luther serves all too often (whether positively or negatively) as the rallying banner for a mode of Christianity within which the doctrines of grace deliberately exclude any and all practical consideration for how Christians should actually live. A book on the Christian life with this version of Luther as its protagonist would necessarily be brief and uninspiring.
Carl Trueman’s recent book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom casts a very different picture. To be sure, Trueman’s Luther remains a theologian intoxicated by the doctrines of grace and deeply suspicious of the subtle tendency for talk of holiness to lapse into self-righteousness. And yet, Luther remains for Trueman a source of uniquely concrete and lively spiritual counsel. “As a theologian who was also a pastor,” the author writes, “[Luther] was continually wrestling with how his theological insights connected to the lives and experiences of the people under his care” (p.25). What is more, Luther writes as one who knows rather acutely what it is like down in the trenches of daily discipleship. Luther has something to offer us, because “he wrote theology from the position of being immersed in the mucky reality of everyday life” (p.26).
In order to present Luther’s vision of the Christian life within its proper context, Trueman arranges the progression of chapters so that the reader gains an understanding of broad themes in Luther’s theology before turning to the particular topics traditionally associated with sanctified living. The first chapter sets Luther’s thought in context with a cursory survey of the reformer’s life and theological development. With this general outline in place, chapter 2 assembles what Trueman takes to be the seminal insights and presuppositions that fund Luther’s theological vision. Three central concepts are drawn into the foreground: 1) the theology of the cross; 2) the doctrine of justification by faith (and Luther’s consequent understanding of the simul); and 3) the priesthood of all believers. Although Trueman expounds each of these concepts in considerable depth, it is the theology of the cross, above all, which he portrays as most decisive and programmatic.
The theology of the cross refers to Luther’s fundamental intuition that God works in and through humble forms. Those assured of their own righteousness can only be scandalized by the thought of a God who becomes human and endures suffering and crucifixion. For the desperate and the contrite (i.e. the theologian of the cross), however, the cross is the very wisdom of God. The epistemological and the moral thus intertwine in Luther’s theology of the cross, for only a person who holds to a radical doctrine of sin can rightly perceive God and seek him from an appropriate posture of humility. Luther accordingly rejects the late medieval conception of congruent merit, which holds that a person can “obtain grace by doing what is in him” (p.60, quoting from the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518). Divine favor is not to be found in the excitation of human effort, but in the radical condescension of a God who seeks desperate sinners.
This emphasis upon a divine work of mercy, which encounters human beings precisely in their lack of spiritual resources is reflected in Luther’s understanding of God’s Word, which is treated in chapter 3. For Luther, God is efficaciously present in His church above all through the Word. It is the lens in and through which the Christian must therefore interpret his or her experience and simultaneously the durable means that God utilizes for expelling self-sufficiency (law) and extending life-giving grace (gospel) (pp.91-4). The church and its worship, explored in chapter four, is thus a “school of faith”, within which Christians are encountered–indeed confronted–by the efficacious Word of God in a variety of forms. An objective center of gravity therefore unites Luther’s treatment of liturgy, the sacraments, preaching and catechesis on Trueman’s account. Practically speaking, this means that the ministry of the church does not consist in the attempt to render Christian values practical to various, particular contexts. It exists rather to draw all human beings into the fundamental reality, which the Word efficaciously instantiates (p.113).
Chapters 5 through 8 explore the practical entailments for Christian living, which Luther attaches to the theological architecture expounded in previous chapters. In chapter 5, Trueman characterizes Luther’s understanding of the Christian life in general terms. Unsurprisingly, it is a Word-centered piety, practiced through prayer, meditation and trial. This last notion of trial (or tentatio) features prominently in Trueman’s account. The life of a Christian is a winnowing process, where the Word of God, the circumstances of life and even the attacks of the devil gradually strip away lingering vestiges of self-sufficiency and pretense. Turned ever more radically Godward in focus, the Christian is progressively liberated from the grip of narcissism and redirected into a life of cruciform, kenotic service to neighbor. The same fundamental pattern appears in chapter 6, which focuses upon Luther’s understanding of the sacraments. Luther’s views on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper further reinforce the stress that he places upon the sovereign efficacy of divine agency, which is conveyed through concrete, tangible means. It may also be added that the two-fold movement embedded within Baptism (mortification and vivification) nicely expresses the parabolic shape of the Christian life explored previously in chapter 5.
Chapter 7 turns more directly still to Luther’s constructive vision of Christian sanctification. Holiness, on Trueman’s reading of Luther, is “the natural outgrowth of the cognitive realization of the significance of being justified by the alien righteousness we receive in Christ.” More specifically: “Love is both the motive for works and that which shapes them” (p.163). Trueman notes that Luther’s early writings focus almost entirely upon the first half of the second statement (i.e. the motive for good works). What many overlook, however, is the extent to which Luther reflects upon the second half of the statement (what love actually looks like) during the final decades of his life. Luther’s catechisms, for instance, expend considerable time and space outlining concrete instructions for Christian living as directed by the Decalogue–and indeed, Luther regards the law as “providing the content of what love in action…looks like” (p.171). Finally, Chapter 8 explores the concrete shape that such love adopts in the real world by furnishing a profile of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, his theology of vocation and his understanding of marriage. In these various domains, Trueman makes good on his initial claim that Luther stands out as a theologian who connects Christian life to the “real world” (p.192).
Christians interested in an accessible and substantive introduction to Luther’s theology and piety will find Trueman’s work to be exceedingly helpful and instructive. Those familiar with the spectrum of options within Luther scholarship will inevitably wonder at various points in the book why Trueman makes some of the interpretive choices that he does. It may strike some as strange, for instance, that Luther’s treatment of gratia and donum (e.g. Luther’s response to Latomus in 1521) does not feature prominently in chapter 7 of the book. The care and expertise with which Trueman sets forth his argument should make it obvious to any sympathetic reader that he could well have defended these various choices had limitations of space and considerations of genre not been a factor. In any case, the introduction forthrightly disclaims extensive interaction with secondary literature (p.26). Those interested in Trueman’s take on the contested questions of Luther scholarship must venture elsewhere in his scholarly work.
Luther on the Christian Life will hold special interest for evangelical Christians. Trueman goes to great lengths in the book to challenge what he takes to be an “evangelical mythology” (p.23), which has tended to domesticate Luther’s distinctive voice by re-creating the reformer in evangelicalism’s own image. Trueman thus calls particular attention to sites at which he perceives there to be a critical tension between Luther and contemporary trends within evangelical Christianity. The resulting exchange is fruitful and interesting, though non-evangelical readers may worry that Trueman has inadvertently narrowed the scope of what Luther can contribute to modern Christians by centralizing so determinate a conversation partner. His focal point seems justified, however, given the fact that the series within which the book appears aspires to place evangelical Christians in constructive conversation with voices from the theological tradition. In this and in many other respects, Luther on the Christian Life makes a welcome contribution.
David Luy is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ (Fortress Press, 2014)