Eschatology One must understand Luther’s spirituality within the context of this urgent eschatological expectation. The church of Luther’s day held out the possibility of justification at the bar of divine judgment. Through grace one might bring forth the love and good works needed to be deemed righteous. Although the prospect for steady progress from grace to grace to ultimate justification was presented as hopeful, Luther was not unique in his fear of the jungsten Tag, the day of final reckoning when Christ would return to judge the world. It seemed all too possible that one’s best efforts in cooperation with grace would prove inadequate. In his darkest moments Luther felt the cause was inevitably a lost one. No one could love God as required when one knew that God stood ready to condemn and destroy at the last, making grace a cruel mockery of the miserable sinner.
Wrestling with this fear of judgment, Luther came to an understanding of the righteousness of God that made justification not just a future possibility for the believer but a present reality. Salvation is given not to a complex of faith cooperating with grace, formed by love and manifested in good works, but is lodged wholly in Christ and appropriated by trust in the divine promises that join the sinful body to its merciful Head. The believer has in essence already received God’s favorable verdict. Now, as at the future judgment, he or she stands clothed only in the righteousness of Christ and for his sake is assured of life. Thus, the fear of condemnation disappeared for Luther, and, instead of holding out the return of Christ as an object of terror, he could exhort his parishioners to pray for the speedy arrival of the lieben jungsten Tag, the dear last day, when the riches of divine grace, invisible to the eye and accessible only to faith in this world, would be revealed in the kingdom of God.
Luther identified the gospel as the dynamic of all history. Nations and epochs, like individuals, are judged by their response to it. For Luther, the word always remains its own master, emerging when and where God wills but never abandoning its hiddenness to become the property of the church. Thus, the growing magnificence and power of the Church of Rome over the centuries was not necessarily evidence of God’s blessing. Indeed, experience confirmed Luther’s suspicion that by the criterion of the gospel, the church that had formed him stood condemned for unbelief. Luther’s assertion that only the advent of Christ could right the wrongs of the age resulted not just from a dire assessment of contemporary social conditions. The article of justification dictated it. At the last, as at the beginning, redemption is the work of Christ alone. Luther’s confidence in the lovingkindness of the returning Lord coexisted over the years of public strife with bitter frustration at the world’s unwillingness to hear and repent.
Luther was a wounded man. He felt that the church had abused him by its failure to proclaim the gospel faithfully and by its insistence on good works, which created a false confidence in believers. The eschatological horizon of Luther’s spirituality is evident again in his focus on the hour of death. Here was the ultimate test of the truthfulness of the church’s proclamation and practice. Had it prepared its children to face confidently their final hour? They could take nothing with them, and a fine résumé of good works in obedience to the church would never deflect the whisperings and mockery of the devil. As Luther liked to point out, the thief on the cross who turned to Jesus, beseeching his mercy, had no opportunity to perform good works. Yet the Lord promised that he would dwell that day in paradise. At the end it was faith alone that mattered.
One could describe Luther’s career as the mounting of a lifelong pastoral malpractice suit against the church’s authority at every level of the hierarchy. He was determined to preserve the gospel at any cost, so that no member of Christ’s flock would perish in despair. Earthly life was like boot camp. With the regular exercise of faith, absolute reliance on Christ was to become second nature. One was strengthened through bitter trials and temptations (what Luther called Anfechtungen) as one learned how to fight them and how to recover in the wake of defeat. Through prayer and repentance the believer would endure until the end came.
Luther’s Spirituality edited and translated by PHILIP D. W. KREY AND PETER D. S. KREY preface by TIMOTHY J. WENGERT