Luther, Imputation, and Sin: Surprisingly Irrational

This was supposed to be a post about Abraham’s faith and righteousness, but instead I started reading Luther, and was unexpectedly carried away with other observations.

Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, 1565 (WikiPaintings).

Now, I freely acknowledge that I may be missing something. Am I somehow misunderstanding Protestant theology? Please, someone correct me if I am. Because today, in seeking to understand, I’ve been reading Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, and, forgive me for saying so, but it comes across as the ravings of a lunatic. I say this not because I’m predisposed to oppose Luther; I read him because I’m seeking to understand his theology, not to condemn him as a person.

But what I read is a man obsessed with his own sin, going out of his mind to find a way how he could be acceptable to God and still be sinful; interposing every other paragraph with wild aspersions against “meritmongers” and “popist sophisters,” charging that they, “seek righteousness by their own works,” that in this they “think to appease the wrath of God: that is, they do not judge him to be merciful, true, and keeping promise, etc., but to be an angry judge, which must be pacified by their works.” Luther is the one so consumed by the thought of a wrathful God! I struggle to understand how someone so well educated in Catholic theology could so wholly and thoroughly misunderstand it — unless he either be intentionally misrepresenting it, or be genuinely mentally deranged. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue, repeatedly, that “faith killeth reason, and slayeth that beast which the whole world and all creatures cannot kill”; that reason is “the most bitter enemy of God,” a “pestilent beast,” “the fountain and headspring of all mischiefs” — to argue intentionally and consistently that faith and reason are wholly opposed, that his own theology and all true faith defies all reason, and that reason instead is the sole purview of “popish sophisters and schoolmen,” who “kill not reason … but quicken it.” I didn’t set out to write this — but really, I am shocked. I never expected Luther to be so irrational.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

So if I understand correctly, Luther argues that “God accounteth this imperfect faith for perfect righteousness” — that he even having a “weak faith,” God imputes to him the “perfect righteousness” of Christ, that he is then “covered under the shadow of Christ’s wings,” that he can then “dwell without all fear under that most ample and large heaven of the forgiveness of sins, which is spread over me, God [covering] and [pardoning] the remnant of sin in me,” and from then on God “counteth [his] sin for no sin,” indeed He “winketh at the remnants of sin yet sticking in our flesh, and so covereth them, as if they were no sin.” I knew that this was the upshot of what Protestants believed; I never knew that Luther stated it so boldfacedly! God looks on sin and accepts it instead as righteousness. And what’s more, that this a one-time, once-and-for-all, irrevocable occurrence.

I was a Protestant not so very long ago. I accepted this! Now, perhaps it’s my Lent-addled state, but I can no longer understand where Luther could rationally have derived such a doctrine, let alone how he could square it with the rest of Scripture. I suppose, by reckoning that he could be simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner, he can dismiss scriptural warnings against sin and judgment upon it as not applying to him, whether he actually be a wanton sinner or not, he being “righteous” by imputation: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9). But on the other hand, Paul writes, to members of the Church, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21), without regard to their having been once-justified or not.

Even more surprising than all this, though, is the tone with which Luther argues. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I could ramble on about this for some time, so I will bring this to a close. If you have any criticism, please give it. I would like to make sense of this.