Learning Luther: The 1518 Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, 2 of 2, By Paul R. Hinlicky

In November we continue our exploration of Luther’s “Explanations” of the Ninety Five Theses, focusing on Theses #58 and #62, found in LW 31:212–228 and 230–231.

The argument executed in these two theses stands at the center of Luther’s emerging reformation theology. The chief idea is that indulgences are not free pardons if they are paid for by the application of the surplus merits of the saints. In that case, what transpires is rather a “certain transfer of works” so that nothing is actually pardoned, as the term “indulgence” would indicate, but is instead paid for. That is the heart of the argument. But it doesn’t mean, as we shall see, that the idea of payment (biblically, “ransom”) is abolished by Luther; rather, it is Christ alone who can and does provide it.

Ancillary to this logically, but not theologically, is the argument that there is no such thing as surplus merit of the saints available to satisfy the debts of others, for “no saint is without sin in this life.” Interestingly, Luther in passing anticipates today’s Catholic reinterpretation of the merits of the saints when he writes that the saints are indeed a treasury for us “not because they are a surplus merit but because the church is a communion of saints in which each one works for another, as members of one another.” On the point about the persistence of sin in the life of the redeemed, and so the lack of merit even among the saints, however, Luther, drawing on his “blessed Augustine,” is adamant; he says that he is even “prepared to endure death by fire” rather than recant this crucial truth of Scripture and experience.

Saints can and do intercede for us in our need, he affirms, just as they have pleaded for themselves—on the grounds of the merits of Christ, not their own. Another argument, ancillary to the main one against purchasing salvation by way of indulgences but no less important theologically for Luther, is that “remission of punishment is the cheapest gift” that “deserves to be presented to the most worthless people”—as we heard last month. If the true purpose of purgatory is purification of desire, then true Christians desire the purifying flame, as gold desires the refining furnace. Short-circuiting purgatory is for nominal Christians.

The heart of the matter is that Luther sets the idea of surplus merit of the saints that is available through the purchase of indulgences to satisfy the sinner’s own well-merited punishment against the “merit of Christ.” For “Christ is the Ransom and Redeemer of the world, thereby most truly and solely the only treasury of the church.” It is crucial to note here that Luther does not argue against “satisfaction” as such. He rather argues that the “transfer of the works of some to others” constitutes “a true and legitimate satisfaction since what we do [in this case], we do through another.” But this transfer—Luther’s joyful exchange of our sin for Christ’s obedience—is valid because “the merits of Christ are far better than our own good works, indeed they alone are good.” Therefore, “unhappy is he who does not put aside good works and seek the works of Christ alone.”

There is a lot of opposition today to the idea that Christ’s obedience satisfies the righteousness of God and “pays for” the sinner’s justification, though, as we see in this reading, the problem Luther sees is instead that behind the sale of indulgences stands the “blasphemous” idea that we prefer our own works as satisfaction to Christ’s work for us—let alone the cheapened version of this idea that we can buy the surplus human works of the saints to compensate for our own deficits before God.

Thus Luther affirms that the Lamb of God blots out our transgressions and so that accordingly it is possible to speak of the “merits of Christ” as “a treasury, not of the church, but of God the Father, for through his efficacious intercession before God Christ obtained for us remission of guilt.” There “the blood of Christ cries out for compassion and pleads for us.” Here below, however, on the earth among Christian pilgrims, the “merits” of Christ accomplish an “alien work,” not remitting punishments as indulgences falsely claim, but working mortification of the flesh until “we be conformed to the image of the Son of God” by taking up our own crosses to follow Him.

What “good” news! No wonder Luther explains that “the gospel of God” is “not very well known to a large part of the church” even though “Christ has left nothing to the world except the gospel.” The reason is that the gospel is not for just anyone but only for “an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away. And we ourselves cannot take it away.” For this troubled conscience, it is Christ the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. This is “a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy…”

Nietzsche with his characteristic acuteness described the forgiveness of sins as an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem. That is to say, according to his philosophy, that conscience is an imaginary phenomenon. Nietzsche’s notion it is often echoed in the churches by those who say that justification is passé, a question that no one today asks any longer. Perhaps it is true that no asks the question of justification who has not already been troubled by those prophets of Israel who prosecute God’s controversy with the world ruined by sin. In any case, so much the worse for humanity if the question of justification before God, that is, if the question of conscience, is passé!

But seen from another angle, the trouble seems to be the idea of a God Who would require the bloody brutal death of the Son in order to “pay for” our forgiveness. It may help here to reflect precisely on how Luther differs in his teaching on the atoning work of Christ from Anselm of Canterbury, who at the beginning of scholastic theology had established the idea of Christ’s atoning work as a satisfaction of God’s justice. For it is really Anselm’s version of satisfaction to which many contemporary dissents are directed.

Anselm argues that God’s honor, infinitely offended by sin that dishonors God, is satisfied by the infinite merit of Christ’s voluntary death on the cross. This is not because God is a feudal lord on an ego trip, but, as Ted Peters argues cogently in his God: The World’s Future, it is because God in covenantal loyalty to the creation cannot tolerate the sin which ruins the creation. The violated relation to God and damage to the creation is repaired, says Anselm, by the free and unmerited sacrifice of infinite value. This sacrifice was accomplished by the active obedience of the God-man, who didn’t deserve punishment but out of love submitted to it to provide for those unable to repay for the damage done. By this unmerited sacrifice of the sinless for the sinner, he has acquired an infinite treasure of merit, which he now makes available to his people through the sacraments of the church so that they can “satisfy” their own debts to God’s justice by drawing upon his credits.

In Anselm’s theology of satisfaction we can see the original theory which, however corrupted into the cheap grace sale of indulgences in Luther’s time, had the merit of vindicating God’s righteous wrath against the ruin of the creation by human sin and underscoring that grace, while free to us, is costly to God. Without some such idea of satisfaction, we end up preaching, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously caricatured it, “a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Still, Luther differs significantly in that, for him, Christ is not primarily, as for Anselm, a punishment-bearer but rather a sin-bearer. His meritorious obedience is not only the action of love but also the passion of love, a “passive obedience” by which Christ permitted himself to be crucified between transgressors and accounted there as forsaken by all. His merit is that out of love he made our sins his own. He took responsibility for us before God. Thus the risen and victorious Christ can truthfully say, Give me your sins! They are mine! I have made them my own so that they died with me on Golgotha and are left forever buried in the tomb. Now take my righteousness, my passion of love for you the sinner, as your very own, not in the sense that you did this righteousness, but in the sense that this gift of me-for-you now becomes your very own possession as “I-in-Christ.”

Such is faith, such is the satisfaction of divine justice by faith in Christ, such is justification by faith alone in Christ alone. So Christ with his merits is the true treasure of the church, the good news of the grace and glory of God!

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

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