Justifying God

Luther preaching Christ and him crucifiedI’ve now taken delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology (see previous post), and so far it’s proving as remarkable as I’d hoped. Quite mind-blowing at times, in fact.

One of Paulson’s themes (as we saw in my previous post) is the centrality of preaching. Paulson argues that Luther set out, not to reform the church, but to reform preaching. The gospel, for Luther, is a preached gospel, so that life can be divided into two periods: the period “before the preacher”, lived under the law, and the period “after the preacher”, when we have heard the promise of the gospel that frees us from the law.

This is vital to understanding “justification by faith”, as Paulson sets out in his second chapter. Luther’s understanding of justification hinged on Romans 1:17 (adapted here to mirror Paulson’s translation):

For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who by faith is righteous will live.’

Luther had hated the phrase “the righteousness of God,” because it had been presented to him as an abstract, philosophical standard towards which he was to strive. The turning point for Luther was his discovery that Paul used the phrase as a promise, a concrete promise in the declaration of which – the preaching of which – God gives his own self to sinners.

So we see that faith is not something introspective, not a turning within to ask what I “think” of the “idea” of Christ and the gospel. Rather, it is the result of hearing the external, concrete proclamation of Christ. Paulson emphasises this by turning to a second OT quotation in Romans, Paul’s quoting of Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4:

So that you may be justified in your words.

In other words, when the gospel promises are declared to us and we respond in faith, not only we justified by God, but God is justified by us: indeed, for Paulson, our justifying of God, our acknowledging him as righteous and trustworthy, is precisely the faith that justifies us. As Paulson writes:

Trusting a promise from God is the justification God seeks for himself, and he intends upon getting this justification come hell or high water so that stories of God’s arrival to sinners make the great tales of Scripture (Abraham, David, Mary) and our lives like Augustine’s Confessions. (p.55)

Thus Luther found “a gracious God”:

…hiding in the word of promise delivered by a preacher in the real word of penance: Te absolvo! I forgive you. That word is not a sign pointing somewhere else for its truth, but is the power of the Holy Spirit to create out of nothing. Luther had discovered what he called promissio, by which God creates a new person in a new world with faith that hears the promise for me – and trusts it. In doing so the believer justifies God in his words and has a gracious God. (p.58)

The problem, as Paulson goes on to observe, is that subsequent Protestants (including many Lutherans) have forgotten the importance of the preached word, the word in which God is justified. Instead, they have turned faith into “an act of self-reflection”; a psychological experience; an inner, existential act; a seeking of “the Christ within”; and so on. None of these things can give us the joy of knowing God as righteous and gracious, because God is justified only in his words.

Paulson concludes:

…for Luther at least, faith does not trust in its own power to believe. It takes leave of itself by hearing the promise from the preacher and justifying God for saying it. […] In Christ’s story faith and word are properly fit. Faith alone justifies; faith comes by hearing the promise of Christ: “I forgive you.” (p.60)

Lutheran spirituality: anguish and joy

Matthew Lynn Riegel

Continuing the theme of Lutheran spirituality, I read an interesting paper on this by the Rev Matthew Lynn Riegel, in which he adopts “the venerable tradition of providing a set of theses”: 32 theses in total.

The whole set of theses is worth reading, but I wanted to single a few out that particularly resonated with me. Starting with the first:

1. It is better to address the question of Lutheran Spirituality as an ideal (what should be) than as a reality (what is).

Never, I would have to say, a truer word…

Moving on, Mr Riegel sets out some theses usefully summarising the role of the means of grace in Lutheran spirituality:

9. The Holy Spirit is given to the human creature by God through the external Word.

10. The Sacraments are the visible Word.

11. Any spirituality which claims that the human can receive the Holy Spirit without benefit of the external Word is rejected.


26. The Gospel ministry which communicates the Holy Spirit is discharged through the taught/preached Word, Holy Baptism, The Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Absolution, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.

Also worth reading are theses 28 to 32 on the central role of the psalms, the Small Catechism and hymnody in Lutheran spirituality.

But the thesis that particularly struck me was one that introduced what was, for me, a new concept:

19. Until the eschaton, the sanctified are properly said to be simul raptus et gemitus.

Are properly said to be what? In brief, simul gemitus et raptus (as it’s usually put) can be translated “simultaneously anguished [gemitus] and joyful [raptus].” As Riegel puts it in his “exposition” of this theses:

Although simul justus et peccator is a well-known phrase among Lutherans, the corollary which describes the paradoxical quality of life for the homo spiritualis is almost unknown. Since the homo spiritualis clings to the promises of God in Christ with a sure confidence, he/she knows great joy. This joy is rendered as “rapture” or “transporting bliss.” On the other hand, the homo spiritualis also knows that perfection is eschatological – that until that Last Day, Sin, Death, and the Devil will wage war against God’s elect. This knowledge, which is more than intellectual – indeed the homo spiritualis feels in both body and soul the slings and arrows of the enemy – is rendered as (gemitus) “anguish,” “groaning,” or even hyperbolically as “damnation.”

The homo spiritualis suffers real pain. There is no need for spiritual exercises which vicariously engage the human in the Passion of Christ in an attempt to elicit Love. Rather, the homo spiritualis groans in travail with the whole creation, expectantly awaiting the Last Day when the pain will end. This anguished groaning is held in paradox with the joyful hope of rescue. What is more, this anguished groaning is a mark of experience which is called the school of faith, for through trial and tribulation and in the midst of our groaning the Holy Spirit instructs us in true faith.

What I find helpful here is the sane pastoral balance which this enables. It avoids both the “fixed-grin, now-I’m-happy-all-the-day” stereotype of “victorious Christian living”, but also avoids the opposite error in which only misery and heartache can be regarded as truly “authentic”. It’s OK to feel anguish and unhappiness as a Christian, despite the joy which the gospel announces to us; equally, it’s OK to feel joyful as a Christian, despite the suffering in the world around us, despite our own continuing sinfulness. To feel both these sets of emotion at once is the normal Christian experience, not an aberration.

The Christian life in a nutshell: our status is simul justus et peccator; our experience is simul gemitus et raptus.

Steven Paulson: Doing Lutheranism

Lutheran Theology, by Steven PaulsonI’m currently awaiting delivery of Steven Paulson’s book Lutheran Theology, from T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. In the meantime, this review from Themelios by Orrey McFarland has been whetting my appetite.

First, the structure of Paulson’s book. This follows the example of Philip Melanchthon and others in using Romans as a template, reflecting Paulson’s understanding of Lutheran theology as “unfinished business [of] commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.” McFarland says that:

The arrangement is straightforward, but gives a certain vibrancy to the flow of Paulson’s argument as he attempts to present Lutheran theology and navigate Paul’s letter in a coherent manner as the same task.

But for McFarland, what makes Paulson’s book special isn’t its structure, but “his single-minded insistence on a number of themes important in the Lutheran tradition,” three of which McFarland summarises as follows.

1. Justification by faith alone and the right distinction between law and gospel

For Paulson, “The key to any theology, especially done the Lutheran way, is to ask what role the law plays in its system.” Paulson emphasises two “uses” of the law: its “alien use” to “preserve and sustain life in the old Aeon until the preacher arrives,” and its “proper use” in which law “magnifies sin and exterminates any possibility for salvation other than Christ”:

Paulson seeks throughout the book to point out the error of believers when they allow law and works to play any role in salvation by smuggling a “Legal Scheme” into the gospel. While avoiding and arguing against antinomianism, Paulson’s mission is to expound the “Lutheran passion on earth” (p. 5)—distinguishing between law and gospel.

I’ll be interested to see, though, how Paulson addresses the “third use” of the law.

2. The role of the preacher and the Word 

McFarland quotes Paulson as saying that “Luther’s great discovery [was] that preaching has always and only been the thing that makes faith, and so justifies.” McFarland continues:

preachers announce the two-fold Word of God, which, in distinction to human words that merely signify, actually kills and recreates sinners. Preaching reveals Christ and makes a hidden God no longer hidden. [...] “Faith is created by a promise that comes externally, as an alien word” (p. 119)—externally through a preacher by the will of God.

For me, this aspect of Lutheranism – its sacramental view of the Word in which the Word is a means by which God “actually kills and recreates sinners” through human preaching (rather than preachers merely giving us information about how to be killed and recreated) – is critical; the “engine-room” of Lutheran spirituality, as I’ve written before.

3. Luther and the history of Lutheranism 

Paulson doesn’t seek to define Lutheranism over-against Catholic or Reformed theology. Instead, he turns most of his criticisms on the Lutheran tradition itself, which he sees as an attempt to “tame Luther” by taming “the wild animal of the end of the law”:

Paulson breaks up the history of Lutheran thought into four “episodes” (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical), with Luther representing the “literal” stage and the other three trying to figure out what to do with him; but the main solution is to readmit the law into God’s salvific act in Christ. Consequently, past Luther, no thinker is safe from Paulson’s critique.

Again, as anyone who’s ever noticed my occasionally, slightly sour references to “Actually Existing Lutheranism” will be unsurprised to hear, this may be music to my ears: certainly the gulf between what Lutheranism could (and should) be, and what it often ends up as (especially in its worship) has been a constant frustration to me over the years. It’s still possible, though, that I may end up, like McFarland, wondering whether Paulson has gone a little too far: “the reader is left wondering which Lutherans, if any, can be trusted beyond Luther and Paulson.” Ouch.


McFarland concludes with further praise for Paulson’s book:

Paulson sets about the task of explaining Lutheran theology not by rigidly moving from historical point A to theological point B, but by engaging with Paul and Luther and seeking to show the deeper logic behind why Lutherans believe what they do. And given Paulson’s high view of preaching, it is no surprise that this book reads as proclamation—very dense proclamation, of course. The result is engaging writing that will benefit the student, lay person, and scholar. Readers of any category could not ask for much more.

Except, in my case, a slightly more rapid delivery of my copy…

Psalm 46: a “Lutheran” chant

One of my favourite Anglican psalm chants is the one for Psalm 46, based on Luther’s Ein Feste Burg:

Last year, it occurred to me that this could be adapted for the short chants used in modern Lutheran liturgies such as the Lutheran Service Book. I’ve now finally got round to doing this, and the result is here:

Psalm 46 short chant

Feel free to use it yourself. It’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

It can be used either as a double chant or (if your congregation is anything like ours…) as a safety-first single chant.

The heart of Lutheran spirituality: oratio, meditatio, tentatio

King David in a medieval book of hoursAs I mentioned in my previous post, Gaylin Schmeling in his essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) describes Luther’s phrase “oratio, meditatio, tentatio” (prayer, meditation and affliction) as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality.”

While Luther emphasised this especially for pastors, it applies equally to laypeople: “It is the method of spiritual formation for each individual who daily dies and rises in Baptism.” Luther identifies it as being taught by Psalm 119:

This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.

Really, though, the principle of Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio permeates the entire psalter, as a brief glance at (to pick a couple from recent days) Psalm 90 or Psalm 86 will confirm.

Turning back to Psalm 119, though, Prof Schmeling quotes vv.26-27, 58 as an example of how it teaches oratio (prayer):

  Teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works. […]
I implore your favour with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Luther’s Small Catechism (unusually for such a document) includes forms of prayer for morning and evening that are simple yet rich in meaning, encompassing recollection of baptism, confession of our Trinitarian faith, and the prayer that Christ himself taught us “and through which our prayer is united with His continual intercession.”

To illustrate the principle of meditatio, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119:97-99:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.

To read and meditate on the Scriptures is to encounter Christ himself and all his blessings. As Luther put it:

When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.

Johann Gerhard says that “the Christian will ruminate on the Word or roll it over in his mind as a cow chews on its cud.” And our greatest example of such ruminative meditation is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “kept all those things and pondered them in her heart.”

The most distinctive element of Luther’s triad is tentatio (which he substituted, significantly, for the traditional principle of contemplatio). Again, Schmeling quotes Psalm 119 (vv.71-72):

It is good for me that I was humbled,
so that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

The word Luther used to translate tentatio is Anfechtung. The word can refer specifically to the suffering a Christian experiences because of their faith, but it can also be used in the wider sense of all the afflictions we endure in this life:

In affliction our sinful flesh is crucified with Christ, a part of our daily return to Baptism. The afflictions that the Lord allows to come upon the Christian are not a punishment for their sins, rather they are a chastisement from our loving Father to strengthen our faith, draw us closer to Him, and guide us in life. Here we are refined like gold and silver.

We tend to feel that it’s a sign of God’s favour when things are going well in life. However, for Luther, God is even closer to us in our suffering, and it is in suffering that we learn most fully what God is like:

The cross alone is our theology (Crux sola ist nostra theologia). Tentatio makes beggars out of theologians and theologians out of beggars. Concerning Anfechtung, Luther writes, “This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”

And as Schmeling adds a little later in his essay, once again this drives us back to the psalms. Meditation on the psalms reveals how central Anfechtung is to our life as God’s children:

The Psalms inform our minds, warm our hearts, and direct our wills toward the knowledge of God. As one reads the Psalter he must conclude that Anfechtung has always been the common experience of the believer. This is not something extraordinary that is only happening to him as St. Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Lord has sent this trial or conflict for His good purpose (Psalm 119:71–72). The believer finds his comfort as he meditates on the Psalms perceiving that God has provided endurance and deliverance for His Israel in every age through the means of grace. He prays the Psalms, assured of the redemption of the Lord.

The “mystical union” in Lutheran spirituality

Medieval depiction of the Church as the Bride of ChristGoogling for articles on “Lutheran spirituality” (as you do), I came across the essay Lutheran Spirituality and the Pastor (PDF) by Gaylin R. Schmeling.

Two themes highlighted in this essay leapt out at me:

  • “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio” (prayer, meditation, affliction), which Prof Schmeling describes as “the heart of Lutheran spirituality”.
  • “The mystical union” between God and the justified sinner (or as Prof Schmeling puts it, “Union and Communion with God through the life-giving Word and the blessed Sacraments”).

In this post, we’ll looking at the second of these themes, the mystical union. In my next post we’ll look at what Prof Schemeling says about the theme of oratio, meditatio, tentatio.

The “mystical union” is not, I have to admit, a phrase I have heard often in my decade as a Lutheran. “Mystical” is not a very “Lutheran”-sounding word, and apparently some have suggested that the concept is a product of Pietism, rather part of “orthodox” Lutheranism. However, Schmeling argues that the mystical union has been feature of Lutheran theology right from the start, finding references to it (if not the phrase itself) in the Lutheran Confessions.

But what is the mystical union? Schmeling quotes Johann Quenstedt (1617-1688):

The mystical union is the real and most intimate conjunction of the substance of the Holy Trinity and the God-man Christ with the substance of believers, effected by God Himself through the Gospel, the Sacraments, and faith, by which, through a special approximation of His essence, and by a gracious operation, He is in them, just as also believers are in Him; that, by a mutual and reciprocal immanence they may partake of His vivifying power and all His mercies, become assured of the grace of God and eternal salvation, and preserve unity in the faith and love with the other members of His mystical body.

The mystical union is, to use an image employed by David Jay Webber, a “bridge” between justification and sanctification: the sinner is justified by grace through faith, is united to God in the mystical union, and begins to live a new life of holiness and love. The three can be distinguished conceptually, but are simultaneous in practice, with each flowing through to produce the next.

The mystical union is not a dissolution or absorption of the human into the divine:

Rather the Lutheran theologians explicate the mystical union using the analogy of the personal union in Christ. As the human and the divine in Christ are united into one person and yet the natures remain distinct, so in the mystical union the Trinity makes its dwelling in man but God and man remain distinct.

Lutheran devotion has commonly used the image of marriage to describe this union as in Gerhardt’s hymn ending: “And there, in garments richly wrought / as Thine own bride, I shall be brought / to stand in joy beside Thee.” In marriage, man and woman are united as one flesh, but without losing their own identities or existence. (Hence the image used for this post, of the Church as the Bride of Christ.)

Nor is this a direct union which bypasses the word and sacraments, or the life of the church. Rather, “this gracious union with God is conveyed and preserved through the means of grace.”

Finally, it’s important to note the direction in which this union operates. It is not a ladder up which we ascend to God through our own efforts or contemplation:

in the mysticism of the Lutheran fathers man does not climb to God through contemplation, but God Himself descends to us in the manger and the cross. Christ unites us with Himself in the Word, He clothes us with Himself in Baptism, and He feeds us with Himself in the Holy Supper so that we have union and communion with the divine.

The concept of the mystical union is important in Lutheran spirituality because, as noted above, it is the bridge that connects our status as forgiven sinners (justification) with our life as Christians, growing in holiness and love (sanctification). It also shows how the Lutheran understanding of our union with God is richer than I had previously appreciated.

The difference between men and fish


Canon Leslie Virgo (src)

I’ve recently picked up a book edited by the Revd Canon Leslie Virgo, the late rector of St Martin of Tours, Chelsfield (a parish not far from my house). In addition to his long parish ministry, Canon Virgo had a wider role as Advisor on Pastoral Care and Counselling for the diocese of Rochester, and the book he edited, First Aid in Pastoral Care, was on this topic.

My main reason for buying this book was to attempt to reconstruct a talk I heard Canon Virgo give a couple of times in the early 2000s, my notes of which I have since lost; this may end up as a blog post in itself if things work out. But for now I wanted to quoted a fascinating passage from Virgo’s opening essay on “The Biblical Basis” for pastoral care, which he sees in terms of the practical outworking of God’s blessing.

Virgo argues that the key difference between humanity and the animals lies in the subtly different blessings that God gave to each, as described poetically in Genesis 1. Virgo quotes Nehama Leibowitz as follows:

Man, as soon as he was created, received a special divine blessing. However, he was not the first creature to be blessed by God, but had been preceded by the fishes. The content of both blessings is similar but a very significant difference can be detected. Compare the blessing accorded the fishes:

And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful and multiply

with the blessing received by man —

And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply.

The fish do not qualify for a special address to them by God. They are merely granted the power to be fruitful and multiply. This is their blessing. Man, however, besides being given the power to be fruitful and multiply, is especially told by God to be fruitful and multiply, and is conscious of his power to do so. What is merely an impersonal fact with regard to the rest of the animal creation is a conscious fact with regard to man. (pp.14f.)

As Canon Virgo observes:

The blessing of the fishes carries the substance that it is God’s presence in life and growth. The blessing of man involves him in a privilege of care in response to the grace of God. Through this response we become most fully human. (p.15)

In other words, the difference between humanity and the animals is that he has not only spoken a blessing for us, but spoken it “unto” us, in a way that both demands a response and creates the capacity for that response. And the nature of that response is found in our conscious involvement in care for other people and for creation, “with and in the God who blesses” (p.16). As Virgo concludes:

All who enter into this perspective of blessing will see themselves as pastoral carers in the broadest possible sense. (p.15)