An Ocean of Love Unspeakable: Martin Luther’s Rediscovery of Christ’s Centrality (Reformission Monday)

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It is Martin Luther week here at Reformissio! Last week I had the privilege (and fulfillment of a long-time desire) to visit Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther and the birthplace of the Reformation. Living in Europe has its perks, one of which is the possibility of visiting many significant historical sites. As an avid student of Reformation history, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store as I walked the streets of Wittenberg and envisioned the earth-shaking events that took place there five hundred years ago. I will have more to say about my visit later this week, but the purpose of this post (and those that will follow) is not to provide a travelogue but to examine some of the aspects of Luther’s reforming work that continue to challenge and inspire.

Since this is “Reformission Monday”, it seems opportune to pinpoint what was perhaps the driving force behind Luther’s efforts. We will remember that “reformission” is a shorthand way of referring to “mission as reformation”. Reformission is the form that obedience to the Great Commission takes in contexts where the name of Jesus Christ has once held prominence but has since lapsed into obscurity. In places where the church of Jesus Christ has either ceased to exist or continues to exist only as an empty shell, the need for reformission arises. As I wrote in a previous post on Martin Luther, it is when the church no longer bows its knee in humble submission and confesses with its tongue that Jesus is Lord that reformissionaries are needed to call it back to its first love. This is what Luther, for all his faults and failures, sought to do.

Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh helps us to understand Luther’s work in these terms when he writes:

It is not too much to say that with the Reformation, and especially with Luther, there came into the world a deeper understanding of the person of Christ than had prevailed since the apostolic age…. This was due to religious interest being now simply concentrated on Christ, and no longer dispersed vainly over a multitude of mediators and spiritual exercises. What emerges in consequence is a distinctive type of Christian piety. The Gospel is in the historic Saviour, and it is all there. Theology and Christology are no longer independent aspects of doctrine; they coincide. The Reformers, writes Dr. Lindsay, “knew no other God than the God who had manifested Himself in the historical Christ, and made us see in the miracle of faith that He is our salvation.”

Luther’s system of belief, if system it may be called, rests on and revolves round the person of Jesus Christ. To him faith in God and faith in Christ are one and the same thing. “I have no God,” he exclaims, “whether in heaven or in earth, and I know of none, outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary. For elsewhere God is utterly incomprehensible, but comprehensible in the flesh of Christ alone.” And again: ” Wilt thou go surely and meet and grasp God rightly, so finding grace and help in Him, be not persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ. Let thine art and study begin with Christ, and there let it stay and cling.” Hence the problems of the Trinity and the two natures ceased to be mere enigmas of speculative dialectic, providing the theologia gloriae, as Luther called it, with a field for keen intellectual play; at every point they remained in living touch with religion. Christ is for sinners the one mark on which saving trust must fix; elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.

It was among the rare excellences of Luther’s Christology that he fastened an indissoluble bond, as St. Paul had done, between the person of the Redeemer and His redeeming work. Any view of Christ, therefore, which may be developed in abstraction from what He actually did for men, in His life, death, and resurrection, is but a formal and delusive play of words. To start not from metaphysical presuppositions as to what Godhead and manhood are, and the possibility of uniting them, but from Jesus’ cross and victory and the working of His Spirit in the heart—this is the only true way. These two, the person and the office, are an organic unity, neither being intelligible apart from the other. Both are asserted when faith says “our Lord.” As the work is eternal, so must the person be. On the other hand, none but such a person could have accomplished a work so great. Therefore even in contemplating the passion we ought “mostly to consider the person, and study well quis, qualis, et quantus Christ is….”

Luther is quite conscious of a difference in accent separating him here from the scholastics and even from many of the Fathers; it is indeed his complaint against the Roman Church, that she never dreamt we ought to learn to recognise God in Christ. Too often the Fathers fled from the manhood of Christ to the Godhead, pleading that the flesh profiteth nothing. Whereas the fact is that except as man Christ could never have redeemed us by His cross and triumph. Sinners are guilty; hence none but the proper and true God could “purge sin, destroy death, remove the curse,” and only in flesh could even God Himself do it. Thus it is impossible to draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human. The mere juxtaposition of Godhead and manhood, as Luther never tires of repeating, is of no avail; we must have the Son of God fused and inwoven with humanity, and one person therewith. If Christ were not God, there were no God at all, but in Him God has entered into a bond with sinners closer even than a brother….

It is indeed the fact that acceptance of the deity of Christ had ceased, for Luther, to be a doctrinal preliminary of saving faith; but this is so because Christ, so far from counting for less in personal religion, now counts for infinitely more, and stands in the very centre of the religious experience itself. Belief in His Godhead, in other words, is no mere theoretic approach or avenue to faith; it was a living constituent in faith, to be afterwards analysed out and made explicit by the theologian. Here in Christ, Luther cries, I have the Father’s heart and will, coming forth in love for my salvation; and the heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus. We must not make “a Christ apart by Himself and a God apart by Himself,” but reckon the two all one.[1]

In contrast with medieval scholasticism’s “theology of glory” which sought to gain access to God through the power of human reason, Martin Luther was adamant, like the apostle Paul, that no one can ascend into heaven to reach God, save the only One who has descended from heaven to us in human flesh as the Word of God come near, Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:6-8). It is the “righteousness of the law”, i.e. the theology of glory, by which human beings presume to be able to discover and know God through their own innate capacities. However, only the “righteousness of faith”, i.e. the theology of the cross, is that by which such knowledge of God is truly possible inasmuch as it is the way in which God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. To seek God anywhere else, “whether in matthiasgrunewald_thecrucifixion-detail3heaven or in earth … outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary”, is a rebellious affront to God and a black abyss that will only end in despair and death. Only the God revealed in Jesus Christ (excluding, in Luther’s day and in ours, a God revealed through other mediators, ecclesial or otherwise) is God as he actually is and as he actually relates to us in infinte grace and love. As Mackintosh beautifully put it, “elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.”

Ultimately, the only hope for a lost and dying world, or for a feeble and failing church, is Jesus Christ alone. As Luther would have argued, not even the best efforts of someone like himself would suffice for remedying the sinner’s plight. Only the God scandalously clad in human flesh and crucified on a Roman cross has the power to reconcile and redeem. Despite its folly in the estimation of the world (and of the church that has lost its center), the good news of the gospel is precisely this: we need not, nor can we, go behind the back of Jesus Christ to find another God or Savior or Lord. As irreverent as it may sound, we cannot “draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human.” Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us”, the one who has descended in order to lift us by his Spirit to his Father. Not by looking to anyone or anything else will we find all that we need. Christ alone. Solus Christus.

This is why for Luther, as for us today, the “heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus”. This is far more common that we may think. How often do we tend to think of God in abstraction from Jesus Christ, perhaps as the sum total of a series of attributes derived simply by intensifying or negating the qualities that we ourselves possess? Certainly a God conceived in such a manner cannot be the God who stoops down in grace to reveal himself and reconcile us, for such a God is ultimately a magnification of who we ourselves are. Is there any salvation in such a humanly-devised God? By no means. This is why Luther struggled so mightily, even at great personal cost, to bring reformation to the church that had lost sight of the God revealed in Christ crucified for the God construed along the lines of human aspirations. Insofar as this continues to happen today, reformissionaries such as Luther are still desperately needed in the church.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Who will go? Will you?

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.230-232, 235.

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2 thoughts on “An Ocean of Love Unspeakable: Martin Luther’s Rediscovery of Christ’s Centrality (Reformission Monday)

  1. Food for the Soul 27 April 2017 / 09:27

    Beautiful and heartwarming blog. Loved the sentence:

    “Any view of Christ, therefore, which may be developed in abstraction from what He actually did for men, in His life, death, and resurrection, is but a formal and delusive play of words.”

    The concept of Reformission is so illuminating because the Reformation was a mission, a work of the Holy Spirit in rekindling the Great Commission.

    The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster has a website with Reformation resources that may be of interest to you:

    http://www.justbyfaithalone.net/

    Will follow your blogs with interest. God Bless. Peter McIntyre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 27 April 2017 / 10:06

      Thanks Peter! I appreciate your very kind words. Thanks as well for the link, I’ll be sure to check it out!

      Liked by 1 person

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