Posted by: Billy Marsh | January 16, 2011

Luther and the World to Come

Since my blog has always been geared towards a “sojourner” approach to the Christian life, the doctrine of heaven has played a pivotal role in under girding this kind of spirituality. The promise of a better country helps sustain the one who lives by faith in the old country that is fading away. Interest in heaven has not been as promoted since the Enlightenment as it was at the time of and prior to the Reformation. Now it is picking back up with works such as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Heaven is a Place on Earth by Michael Witmer. Seeing the promise of eternity and restoration as a means for hope and consolation on this earth has also gained popularity through the influence of the literary theologians, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers weave this theme heavily into their stories and other writings, and with respect to their fiction, stand in a similar stream as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As I have done in the past, I try to feature selections I stumble over in Christian thought that contribute to this perception of Christian spirituality. Among others, the Reformers of the Sixteenth Century were extremely heavenly-minded folks.

In particular, Martin Luther had a unique approach to the matter. In his very accessible introduction to Luther’s theology, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel, Gerhard Forde lays out the major points of Luther’s cross-centered worldview by setting Luther’s stance in juxtaposition to the tendencies of Christians to develop what he calls a “ladder theology”. Forde describes “ladder theology” in his first chapter, “Up the Down Staircase,” as our attempt to ascend to God in heaven rather than focusing upon Jesus who descended from above as God in the flesh so that we could be Christians on the earth (8). When we try to “get to God” by our own works and efforts (no matter how pious), we are trying to climb a ladder that was meant to go only in one direction: down. The whole point of the good news of the Incarnation is that God came down to us because we could not get to him. Isn’t that exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying in Romans 10:6-8 with reference to Deuteronomy 30:12-14? We don’t have to ask who is going to ascend into heaven or who’s going across the sea to fetch the word of God. The word is near us because of Jesus Christ, as the Word made flesh. The gospel is about how God sent his only Son down to man because fallen humanity was infinitely incapable of saving itself. Therefore, Forde makes the case that Luther’s notion of the gospel has a very “down-to-earth” characteristic. To see how Forde plays this out throughout Luther’s thought, in a very pastoral manner, check out Where God Meets Man, but keep in mind that Forde is a Lutheran writing to Lutherans (e.g. as a Baptist, I can’t agree with many of Forde’s conclusions in his chapter on the sacraments, despite the fact that there are several insights he draws out of Luther that will aid any believer for the enrichment of his theology of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism).

In chapter 6, “The World and the Next,” Forde highlights a careful distinction in Luther’s theology concerning the primary “sustenance for his faith and hope” (89). According to Forde, Luther preferred to speak of the world to “come” instead of the heaven “above” (90). In “ladder theology” the heaven “above” is the reward awaiting the climber at the top rung of his stairway to heaven. The problem with this notion is that you can’t climb this ladder. This mindset causes a spurning of this world beyond the scope of despising the curse that has fallen on God’s good creation. There tends to be an unnecessary distaste for the natural order, and this perception has caused others (e.g. monks) in the past to hide away in seclusion from the very world that needs to hear the believers’ message of God’s promise to us in Christ.

Please note that the heaven “above” and what theologians call the “intermediate” heaven are not the same. The heaven “above” is a worldview whereas the “intermediate” heaven is a real place (as taught in the Bible) where the souls of the redeemed go and dwell with God until Jesus Christ returns to earth to bring consummation to this age. With this distinction noted, I believe Luther’s preference remains the same precisely because of his emphasis on God’s promises in relation to the heart of the gospel. Forde says that Luther looks to the future, not “above” because he believes that God’s promises to us will all finally be fulfilled when Christ the Lord returns and makes all things new. Of Luther, Forde observes, “The other world in which he placed his hope was the world to come, the new heaven and earth (not heaven without earth!), the new age, God’s new creation” (90-91; italics original). This outlook is not meant to diminish the anticipation and joy of the hope of heaven when the saints die prior to the Second Coming of Jesus, however, as Forde notes concerning Luther, “The ultimate reason for Luther’s insistence on this other world is of course that only this new age, this world ‘to come’ is gospel, really good news” (95).

I preached a sermon at my church the Sunday after Christmas called “Born That Man No More May Die” based on 1 Peter 1:3-7. In this passage, Peter declares to his readers the “living hope” that is theirs through the resurrection of Christ Jesus. But this “living hope” for which they “hope” during this life, is kept in heaven for them until a certain time. It is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading that will not be given to the children of God in full until the revelation of Jesus Christ in the last time. Once you read the rest of Peter’s epistle, you will see why he begins his letter on this note. Peter promises with absolute certainty that Christians will experience suffering, ridicule, and physical persecution. In fact, he tells his readers, and us, that as followers of Christ, suffering is a central part of our calling (1 Pet 2:21). So then how does one endure a life such as this? With hope. With hope for the world to come where God makes good on every one of his precious promises to us in Christ. With hope for the world to come when all evil, sin, death, hell, and Satan are eternally cast away and the entire cosmos is the dwelling place of God with his people. Because even though the saints indwell heaven at this time, the prince of this world is still at work leading souls into destruction. However, in the world to come, he will be forever vanquished from the earth, and his reign will be no more.

So to complement Forde’s objection to “ladder theology” where people become more concerned with trying to get to heaven rather than living as faithful, hopeful Christians on the earth, hear the words of Peter again in 2 Peter 3:11-13: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God . . . . But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

  • Click here to see another great resource on this topic based on Jonathan Edward’s sermons on how to live on earth as citizens of heaven. It is by Stephen Nichols, and is called, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edward’s Vision of Living in Between.
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