What Does Martin Luther Have to Say to Us Today?

Rolf Sons

The following text belongs to the most important instructions on faith. Luther wrote it for the Small Catechism, a textbook for instruction in the family. Some people may find this text familiar from their own confirmation classes.

“I believe that God created me with all other people, gave me a body and soul, eyes, ears and limbs, understanding and all my senses, and preserved them; also clothes and shoes, food and water, a house, wife and child, fields, animals and all my goods, with everything necessary for my body and life richly and daily. He keeps me in all dangers and above all protects me from all evil, and this out of divine kindness and compassion, without my deserving it. For all this I must thank Him and praise Him, and I owe it to Him to serve Him and obey Him. 

This is surely true.”

Whoever believes in the Lord sees things differently. Through faith in God the Creator, Luther saw himself and the whole world in a new light. Yet, creation is not an event that took place in prehistoric times. In creation God’s dealings are present and perceptible in our own lives.

Whoever sees himself as a person created by God knows that he was wanted and is no coincidence. At the beginning of a life, it is not my own decision to be or become something. We cannot decide over our existence, the color of our eyes, gender, height or the color of our skin. Man does not come from nature or from himself. He comes from God, and thus from love. Out of this gift of life grows ultimately the task of accepting ourselves.

Luther describes the life he received as clearly as possible. Nothing is too insignificant or too small that he cannot give thanks for it: eyes, ears, understanding, and all his senses. Further, the daily provision of clothes, shoes, food and drink. Finally, the social relationships within the family, as well as possessions and protection from danger. God gives us all this, not once but daily, not meagerly but in abundance.

Faith sees further, sees deeper and more exactly. For faith, nothing is to be taken for granted. In every detail, one is able to see the goodness of God. Seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and thinking; all these are gifts that God provides daily, and no one can guarantee the life he has received. Luther’s list can be continued. Have we already discovered what God has given us today?

It is ingenious how Luther continues, “And all this out of sheer fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without my deserving it or being worthy of it.” Luther considers the whole fullness of life, and knows that it has its origin in the fatherly love of God. Just as parents care for, tend and provide for their children from the beginning of their lives, God does the same. He gives freely and does not expect anything in return. At this point, Luther lets us see into the heart of his theology. Justification through faith alone is known and experienced within creation. In creation, man experiences God’s goodness. He only needs to open his eyes to it.

The question of self-esteem is one of the most central themes in counseling. Man is concerned about pleasing others. If he achieves this, he is in harmony with himself. If this self-esteem is lacking, he finds himself in a crisis. Yet he is dependent on others who also esteem him, take pleasure in him. A self-sufficient person, i.e. a person who is independent of his environment and its recognition, does not exist. If he is respected by others, his self-esteem increases. If he is denied this esteem, he cannot have a positive picture of himself. Self-esteem and self-confidence are always formed through others.

In counseling, self-esteem crops up in very different connections. Why does an employer find it so difficult to encourage his coworkers through praise? Why does a father show so little esteem to his children? Why does a pastor constantly have to compare himself with his colleagues? Why does a student strive to keep up a mask of perfection and blamelessness, and yet feel so helpless in his heart? Why does a betrayed wife seek comfort in the immoderate consumption of sweets? Why does a sad teenager become anorexic? As complex as the background of the questions may be, and as little as we can bring the causes to a common denominator, deep down it is about the question, “What am I worth?” The question of justification is not a side question, but a central question in Christian counseling.

Luther describes in his booklet, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” which he wrote in 1520, a “happy change” that takes place through the Gospel. He writes roughly that through faith, an exchange of goods takes place. What belongs to Christ now belongs to the Christian, and what man possesses now belongs to Christ. Christ takes the sin, weakness and past, which by nature belong to man, and He gives him what he cannot by nature call his own: forgiveness, love, righteousness and eternal life. “Is this not a happy exchange, that the rich, noble, devout Bridegroom Christ, takes the poor, despised, evil harlot in marriage, takes away all evil and bestows on her all His goods?”

With the words “despised” and “poor,” Luther hints at how man is by nature. In his self- perception he remains poor, in his self-evaluation low. In light of the Gospel, however, an upgrading takes place. The believer becomes the recipient. In the fellowship with Christ, man is by no means small and ugly, but rich and beautiful. The system of values is turned completely upside down. Counseling with this horizon means to show people their value in light of the Gospel. God loves us in Jesus Christ more than we love ourselves. The dark side of our nature is also loved by Him.

Justification means an upgrading of man. The man who sees himself as a loser is upgraded in his relationship with Christ.

Luther’s counseling was counseling of the conscience. A letter of Luther from the year 1543, to a woman who was the wife of a mayor, shows what we understand by this.

Luther spoke to her conscience after she had spoken an evil curse. She had said, “May the devil come for all those who voted for my husband to become mayor.” She had a guilty conscience on account of these words. She turned to Luther, and he answered her in a letter as follows:

“The grace of God and peace in the Lord! My dear Mrs. M., Your brother Johannes showed me how the evil spirit is burdening your heart that such evil words came from your mouth. ‘I wish the devil would come for all those who elected my husband as mayor.’ He is tormenting you with this and suggests you must remain his in eternity.

“Oh, my dear M., because you feel and confess that it is the evil spirit that made you speak such words and they were his initiative, that you should remain his in eternity, you should know that everything he inspires is a lie. He is a liar. It is surely not inspired by Jesus Christ that you should belong to the devil, because He died so that those who belong to the devil should be liberated. Do the following: spit at the devil and say to him, ‘Have I sinned? Yes, I have sinned and I am sorry. Christ took away the sins of the whole world if they confess them, so my sins are also taken away. Go away, devil! I am absolved; I owe it to Him to believe that.’”

Luther revealed to her again what had taken place. The wife of the mayor had expressed a curse. Her conscience was burdened on account of this. She feared she would belong to the devil forever. It is interesting how Luther sought to weaken these negative feelings. He first argued using circular reasoning. When the devil makes her have a guilty conscience, then it is guaranteed to be a lie, seeing the devil is known to be a liar. When she thinks she is being oppressed by the devil, therefore, she should not believe him.

For this reason, he advised the woman a second thing: do not stop at your guilty conscience, but look to Him who can give you a good conscience. Luther did not leave the woman to her moods and thoughts, but he set her feet on this rock: Christ took away the sins of the whole world, also her own. Luther did not try to appease the conscience of the oppressed woman, or try to talk her out of it. He knows how short-lived and weak our own self-comfort is. He portrayed greater things. He bound her to Christ.

How can I have a good conscience? By comparing my good and evil deeds? This usually ends in a deficiency. Instead, I should look to Him who carried away my guilt.

Luther’s great burden in counseling was to assure people of the forgiveness, faithfulness and love of God. The devil makes people stumble, but God stabilizes them. The devil shakes the foundations of people, but God puts them on a rock. Such assuring pastoral care comes not by pointing people to their own strength or feelings, their conscience or their works, but to that which is outside of himself; namely, the promise of God, which cannot fail.

Midnight Call - 10/2017

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