Making a good confession

Daily Reading for February 18 • Martin Luther, Theologian, 1546

Erasmus of Rotterdam is famously quoted as asserting that he was not willing to burn for one of Luther’s paradoxes. For Luther, the life of the Christian on earth is necessarily characterized by the presence and regular manifestation of a series of contrasting realities. His spirituality is built around these polarities that cannot be resolved. Luther’s various opponents had, in his eyes, this in common: They tried one way or another to flatten out the paradoxes of life under the gospel and thus to rob discipleship of its relentless tension. In this respect Luther’s theology is rightly described as acutely eschatological at its core: to live in paradox is to live in a state of crisis that cries out for resolution, a resolution that for Luther only God can effect. The work of those living in the time before the end is to manage the polarities and pray fervently for the coming of the Lord. Luther’s own experience, in opposition first to Rome and then later to Zwingli and the radicals as well, caused him to defend these polarities ever more insistently, lest they be thrown out of balance by challengers from both sides. . . .

Luther’s relationship with God is a remarkably volatile one. He cowers before God’s wrath against sin; he takes sharply to heart God’s unrelenting demand for righteousness; he knows God’s love as both fierce and tender; and he make bold to call God to account. A promise is a promise, Luther insists, writing in his Genesis commentary that if God appeared in majesty and announced that, having had second thoughts about human worthiness, God had decided to retract the promise of salvation, he would not yield but fight tooth and nail against the Creator. The heights and depths of the soul’s life, the cunning and courage required for such discipleship, are not, in Luther’s view, the purview of the spiritual elite. Every Christian must develop the competence to make a good confession in the midst of temptation, fear, and obscurity. To do this one must be tireless in hearing the gospel.

From “Luther’s Spiritual Journey” by Jane E. Strohl, in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, edited by Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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