Posted by: Billy Marsh | June 6, 2009

Christ as Gift and Example: Luther’s Answer to the Moralization of the Gospel

I just finished both reading and writing a review of Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Although it may seem an odd choice, there are few books that I’ve read that I’ve had as much fun reading as this one. There are many reasons for this which I won’t get into, but it mainly had to do with Bayer’s faithfulness to channel Luther himself in his attempt to systematize Luther’s theology in a way that did not convert Luther into a systematic theologian. If you’ve ever read Luther, you know how colorful his style is, and Bayer did an outstanding job of including selections and quotes wherever he could directly from Luther as well as contributing his own rich and eloquent words throughout his explanation. As one reviewer noted, “. . . this book read[s] like a good novel (Back Cover).”

I could create a ton of posts from various parts of this book that impacted me, but for the time being I’ll just do this one. Near the beginning of the work, Bayer seeks to find a different angle to explain Luther’s concept of law and gospel. He finds an interpretive answer in Luther’s teaching on Christ as Gift and Christ as Example. I found this discussion to be extremely valuable, and I’d like to share it with you. (*All of the quotes from Luther are taken from Bayer’s selections in his book found on p. 64.)

If the gospel is understood in terms of law and gospel, how does one avoid falling into a Kantian ethic, where the law becomes nothing more than a categorical imperative and the gospel is simply the faith one exercises on his own in order to fulfill what the law says he or she “ought” to do? If this is the case, the gospel is moralized, and faith, which is supposed to be something received from God, becomes an attribute that originates within a person’s own will, therefore, summoning the power from inside himself to meet the demands of the law. Luther says that filtering his concept of law and gospel through Christology answers this critique.

Currently, a lot of Christian literature is being put out that is interested in seeing Jesus as the example par excellence not only for holiness, but also for ethics or good works in general. You will see this discussion brought up often in more liberal Christian settings where being a “follower of Jesus” is more about cultivating ideal morals and character qualities in relation to others and the world at large than working towards godliness and the unashamed proclamation of the gospel to an unrepentant world. There are even cases where this overemphasis leads to a de-spiritualization of the atonement which views Jesus’ sacrifice as nothing more than just that, a human sacrifice; an example for all of us to follow. The ultimate visible demonstration of one’s self-less love for others. However, for Luther, this position is no gospel at all.

In his Brief Instruction of What to Look For and to Expect in the Gospels, Luther responds to this incorrect exposition of law and gospel. He says that one should view “Christ’s Word, work, and suffering in two ways.” The first is Christ as Example. Jesus’ earthly life is the perfect example of what God expects from all people. This relates to every aspect of life from praying, fasting, and holiness to brotherly love, compassion, and suffering. Yet Luther warns that Christ’s example alone is “not enough to be called gospel.” For a person to attempt to emulate the example of Christ by observing his life makes a hypocrite, not a saint, according to Luther. In this case, Christ as Example is law, not gospel. No matter one’s good intentions and best efforts, he or she will always fail to be just like Jesus. Ultimately, a person is kidding himself is he thinks that such a feat is even possible. Christ as Example shines divine light on our sinfulness and natural inability to keep God’s commands perfectly.

Thus follows the second way we must view the life of Jesus Christ. Luther writes, “The main point and the foundation of the gospel is that you first encounter and recognize Christ as a gift and present, which is given you by God and is now your own possession, long before you can think of him as an example.” In other words, the good news that constitutes “the gospel” is not that Christ has left us an example, but rather that in Christ we possess his God-satisfying righteousness. Commenting on this passage, Bayer posits, “Christ as gift creates the faith; Christ as example demonstrates works of love (63).” At this point, the dualism flips. It must become gospel and law. Or we could diagram how Christ’s works appear to us this way:

law → gospel → example (law becomes example after encountering the gospel)

Before one can hope to truly imitate Jesus’ life in any way that is pleasing to God, he or she must receive Christ as the gift of God in salvation. Then, one can look upon Christ’s “works of love” with comfort knowing that God has justified him based upon his possession of Christ’s perfect righteousness, rather than his own fallen attempts at obedience.

So in answer to the opening question, Luther agrees that the law is what we “ought to do,” but the reality is that we can’t do it. As Bayer notes, “Faith has nothing of its own, but is only Christ’s work and life (63).” Faith is not something that we conjure up from inside us in response to the gospel. It is an external gift that can only be given by God through Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. We must be clear in what a Christian is in our day. The truth is constantly being blurred by false gospels. A person who attempts to be like Christ is not necessarily a Christian. Doing the works of Christ do not make you a Christian. Instead, “they proceed from you, you who have already been made to be a Christian (63).” Christ as Gift makes you a Christian; “Christ as example gives your works a workout (63).” Long before a person should ever desire to be Christ-like, he or she must receive the gift of Christ from God. This flow can easily be seen in the classic gospel passage found in Ephesians 2:8-10. First comes salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone as the gift of God. Then, comes the performance of good works now possible having been made new in Christ Jesus.

Although it is very basic and extremely familiar, we must be precise and clear when it comes to calling people to the gospel. If someone tells a person that if he wants to be a Christian, then he should go out and starting imitating Jesus’ life, the messenger has doomed that person and given them no hope. When calling people to salvation, remember that they must first possess Christ before they can be like Christ. If they do not have Jesus, then it is all morals, and no real, “good works”.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

~ Ephesians 2:8-10 ~

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