Luther? Not Luther.

As I go along here with my research in to Luther, I get the opportunity to research whether or not Herr Luder actually said something or not. Quotes get attributed to him (and this does happen with other scholars, too, I’m sure) but they aren’t actually direct quotes from him. They might be damn good summaries of his concepts, but they aren’t direct quotes. So, this may be the only entry for this topic or there may be more…we’ll see as time drags on…
Here is the most recent attributed quote I had the privilege of researching:
“God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does”

Is this quote from Luther? No, it’s not from Luther.
Here’s what I found:
Turns out, Steve Paulson on page 182 of his Luther for Armchair Theologians, writes this exact sentence when he’s talking about Luther’s concept of the freedom of a Christian. “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”  Paulson does not quote anyone–meaning, there are no quotation marks or is there a footnote indicating the source. Now, I read Freedom of a Christian recently (when I was searching for this particular quote) and didn’t find those words, but the idea is there.

And then there’s this:
The quote is also found (in a slightly variant form) in Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation. The quote is found on page 10 in the section “The Kingdom of Heaven” in the chapter “Earth and Heaven.” The only difference in the quote being “our.” So, per Wingren: “God does not need OUR good works, but OUR neighbor does.” Wingren’s book dates earlier (1957) than Paulson’s (2004).

Interestingly, in the section where Wingren uses this quote with the “our”s, he is referring to a work of Luther’s entitled, “Kirchenpostille.” This work does not appear in the WA or the LW. And it seems obscure. It’s located in the: Sämmtliche Schriften in either vol 11 or 12. I did a search  for the german words for neighbor in vol. 11 (;id=mdp.39015074631709;view=1up;seq=36;start=1;sz=10;page=search;orient=0): Nachbar and Nachster (umlaut over the a). Nothing came up with “Nachbar,” but a few pages of references popped up for Nachster. From a cursory reading of the references, I did not find the quote above in question–as in, I did not find that specific set of words in that specific word order as a solid quote. However, again from a cursory my-German-is-merely-okay-because-I’m-out-of-practice-translating read it seems that in the selected references Luther is advocating for works for neighbors. Coupling this advocating of works for neighbor with his doctrine of justification (considering his adamant stance that we keep works and law out of the justification event (no works are required from our end to be justified and only are we justified by faith in Christ which is a gift from God Himself)) it would make sense to conclude: God does not need our works but our neighbor does.

So, in the end, Paulson may be playing off of Wingren who is summarizing Luther’s Kirchenpostille about our works toward our neighbor. Luther doesn’t put these words together in this succinct quote; can you get there from Luther? Seems so.


Another plausible option is this: sometimes what happens with a good summary quote from someone else about another scholar is that it can get reabsorbed back in to the scholar as an authentic quote because it fits well, and really, in our case, Wingren is speaking about Luther and Vocation and speaking well, so the quote gets attributed to Luther although, it’s Wingren. Another possibility could be, considering Paulson’s adaptation of it, is that it’s such a common LutherAN saying that the quotation reference isn’t even needed because it’s become a (LutherAN) colloquialism.When a piece of information or a quote becomes so commonly used, quotation marks or references to source will ceased to be used because it’s been adopted into common knowledge, and it is quite possible that this has happened with: God does not need our/your works, but our/your neighbor does.

The Free Gift

Every semester in seminary there would be this one moment in the middle of the semester where all of my classes would collide on one theological or biblical concept; different teachers teaching different classes, yet the trajectory of the lectures landed each professor and each class here at this specific point. Divine. I loved it when it happened, pure joy all the way down. While I’m no longer in seminary and moving along a sizeable course load, I still get that sense of joy when books I’m reading overlap, when the fiction book I’m reading provides the picture for the theological concept I’m reading about in my theology book. Today, such a wonderful event happened: reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment just a bit ago, I was given a wonderful little scene that put images to words that I had read in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians yesterday evening.


I am not speaking at such great length without reason. It seems to be exceedingly inadequate to say that the Holy Spirit is granted solely through hearing with faith and that nothing at all is demanded of us but that we refrain from all our works and just listen to the Gospel. The human heart neither understands nor believes that such a great prize as the Holy Spirit can be granted solely through hearing with faith; but it thinks this way: ‘The forgiveness of sins, deliverance from sin and death, the granting of the Holy Spirit, of righteousness and of eternal life–this is all something important. Therefore you must do something great to obtain these inestimable gifts.’ The devil approves of this opinion and magnifies it in the heart. Therefore when reason hears: ‘You cannot do anything to obtain the forgiveness of sins except only to listen to the Word of God, it immediately exclaims: ‘Oh no! You are making the forgiveness of sins too meager and contemptible!’ Thus the greatness of the gift is responsible for our not accepting it. Because such a great treasure is being offered freely, it is despised Luther Lectures on Galatians 3:2 (213)

And Dostoevsky:

‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’ Raskolnikov went on, suddenly frowning and looking down. ‘Setting aside the question of payment–forgive me for referring to it’ (he turned to Zossimov) ‘–I really don’t know what I have done to deserve such special attention from you! I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it. I tell you so candidly’ (Raskolnikov to Zossimov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (195))

I think there’s an assumption that if something is done for someone else freely, in charity, that that free gift will not only be taken advantage of (along with the giver) but that it naturally perpetuates a taking-for-granted cycle. While maybe sometimes the case, I’m not sold that it’s always the case. There’s no part of Raskolnikov (here) where he’s taking the posture of taking for granted medical care that has come to him in a great time of need and freely at that. He’s done absolutely nothing to deserve or to earn such treatment. So Zossimov’s treatment given as a true gift, freely, breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason; it just doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make sense it weighs upon him. “‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’… I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it” isn’t the language of someone who is taking something for granted even though it was something freely given.

A gift freely given is a confusing thing. And the larger the free gift the harder it is to understand.

As the free medical care from Zossimov breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason, causing him to be both confused and weighed down, so it is with us and the free gift that is given to us by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are given deliverance from sin, justification, righteousness, life of very life, and God himself. All of this is given to us all by faith in Christ alone and none of it by anything we have to offer or what we bring to the table, and beyond any we attempt we could make to earn it, and this breaks from reason and weighs heavy upon us. To refer to Luther’s words, we want to despise the free gift; it’s offensive to us on so many levels.

But here is one of those moments where the Law and Gospel, death and life, collide at one point: the free gift (the very beautiful free gift) reveals that something is wrong, that we are not well, and that in fact we are near death (or dead in our trespasses). It’s a light in the darkness that exposes the situation for what it is: dire. But then it’s also the free gift that’s freely given that makes well, heals, and brings into existence a new life, a new creation; as it exposes it is given. And as we are exposed by the free gift we also receive this inestimable gift of God himself through faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore if I am little and the thing that is being given to me is great—in fact, the greatest there is—I must think that the One who is giving it to me is also great and that he alone is great. If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness, No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing and faith. (Luther, Lecture on Galatians 3:2 (214))

And what miraculously flows forth from our hearts is gratitude, which eclipses the reality that our flesh so despises this free gift because it doesn’t make sense. In not knowing how to thank Zossimov and expressing his confusion about the free gift, Raskolnikov articulates a deep and abiding gratitude that is beyond words that trumps the confusion. Gratitude is the furthest point from “taking for granted.” It is gratitude that  is produced by seeing that God so wills it that you have this inestimable gift. It is gratitude that produces the love and worship of this man Christ Jesus who is God who gave himself freely for you. And it is gratitude that drives us towards our neighbor in love to freely give to them as we have freely received. 


A Nail in the Wall

There are things I read as I research for my dissertation that will stick with me, even if it is unrelated to the topic I’m researching. And it’s not the type of sticking that’s “oh, hey, that’s really fascinating; let me mentally ruminate on that some more…” It’s the type of sticking that is more reminiscent of a good kick to the gut, the type that steals the very breath from you, leaving you curled up on the floor. It’s the type of sticking that’s akin to someone throwing cold-water on your face, and you find yourself all too alert to your current situation; really alert, like, “holy crap…this is really my life” and the reeling sets in because the stark reality is burdening your balance.

This punishment, too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed up her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and that concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties. (LW, Lectures on Genesis, 202-3)

Luther is articulating the consequences for the woman as it is laid out in the curses articulated to Adam and Eve by God in Genesis 3. He’s specifically expounding here on the “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b-c) portion. I don’t typically lie awake at night thinking about and spend very little emotional energy on Genesis 3. I spend way more of my time thinking about the reality of the event of justification in my everyday life than I do the curses proclaimed to Eve on that miserable day in the Garden. Like any other human being, I prefer good news to bad news.

But, on Monday, when my eyes crossed over Luther’s words, “The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall”–on the heels of falling to my knees, after an atrocious potty-training experience with my toddler, feeling generally poured out from an already long day, and uttering the words, “This, this is my life; this is all I’ll ever do…change diapers and make lunches…”–I felt that gut-punch, I felt that cold-water drench me. I was feeling stuck and frustrated and Luther’s nail imagery described what I was feeling: the effects of the remnants of the curse spoken long ago, a curse with lengthy tentacles reaching all the way into 2016. I was a nail hammered so deep into a wall that the only hope to recover the nail would be to tear down the wall; the only other recourse would be to just admit the nail was lost for ever.

But over the past couple of days, I’ve come to realize that Luther’s imagery, while very apt to my situation as a stay-at-home-mom/wife and specifically articulated about womanhood in light of the curse, was actually an image that could be broadened to all of humanity. Whether you are male or female, feeling stuck, feeling like a nail in a wall is a reality. It could be anything: being so financially strained that you can’t leave a dead-end job; existing in a marriage that has ceased to function like a marriage; strained relationships with your children; suffering under the weight of loss, grief, anxiety and fear; the general malaise of the day-in and day-out because nothing ever changes; that unrelenting thorn in your side that you can do nothing about and just bear and tolerate, and the list could go on. Feeling stuck, really feeling like a nail in the wall is not only a curse that affects womankind, it affects all of humankind; it’s a human problem, none escape it.

But it’s not the final word; it’s not the final nail in the coffin.

There’s hope for us nails in walls, and His name is Jesus Christ. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (18-25)

Because Jesus Christ–fully God and fully man–climbed upon the hardwood of the cross and bore nails in his hands and feet, we who are stuck and suffering pain and frustration in this life have hope. By faith in Jesus Christ and by being united to Him through faith in Him, we–you and I–have hope, we have abundant hope. This life, this body is not all there is; there is more, abundantly more for those who are in Christ Jesus. Even in the midst of our very present and difficult realities, our faces are turned upward and bronzed by the glorious hope we have in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit because we know that our God is not only the one who promises but also fulfills His promises, and He has told us: it will not always be so.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:1-4)

And we have hope, even now…hope.

Luther’s Warning to Leaders

I’m not one to cast stones at our church leaders. The job is frightfully hard and full of judgment and rife with people’s disappointment in you. I have a number of friends who are ordained and in full time ministry; I also have a lot of friends who are ordained and in teaching (read: leadership) positions. And, I am training to be a leader/teacher in the church. So, I’m sensitive to casting judgments and dolling out critique and criticism. Leaders are human, prone to error, suffer like the rest of us, and need as much grace as the sheep do. Our leaders are not Christ incarnate (even if they’ve fallen for that lie, time to time); they are merely the ones gifted to be the mouthpieces through which Christ calls His sheep to himself through the proclamation of His gospel.

But then: Luther.

Luther has the unique ability to calm my nervous mind and kick me in the gut.  Today, I’m sharing the kick in the gut.

I’m currently reading the second volume of his First Lecture on the Psalms (Psalms 76-126). I’m merely a scant 133 pages in and have become overwhelmed with his admonitions to leaders. You know the type of overwhelmedness I’m talking about: the type that makes it a little bit harder to swallow, the type that quickens your heart rate, makes you grab for your inhaler to help you breath, the type that might make you use appropriate profanities as sweat beads up on your brow and you question why the H-E-double hockey sticks you’re in this racket to begin with.

Luther’s main concern in all of these passages I’ve come across is: Christ’s flock, the sheep. Here is Luther commenting on the names listed in Psalm 83:11, specifically on the name: Zeeb (I’ll be quoting him at length):

Zeeb (that is, ‘wolf’) is an evil prince and shepherd who devours the sheep with his destructive teaching. He is the same as Oreb [mentioned briefly in the paragraph above Zeeb]. For every such person…is dry and does not have the moisture of grace and the true doctrine with which to feed the sheep. Therefore it follows that he is the wolf and not the shepherd, devouring and not feeding. Concerning them, Ps. 5:9 says: ‘Their throat is an open sepulcher.’ Why? Because they dealt deceitfully with their tongues, a that is, they taught falsely. Therefore they devoured the sheep with open throat and entombed beyond recall the dead and wretched souls in the word of their falsehood, that is, in their throat. Then follows: ‘Will they not know, all they who devour My people as they eat bread?’ (Ps. 14:4). Therefore they are rightly called Zeeb and wolves. And the same psalm makes clear why they are called Oreb, for ‘destruction and unhappiness are in their ways.’ This is the dryness and aridity of souls which afflicts them with thirst or rather kills them. And note the individual words:

‘Sepulcher,’ because they bury dead people, not just hide away those who are sleeping.

‘Open,’ because they lead many astray.

‘Throat,’ because they penetrate and prevail upon them; they do not simply tear the unhappy souls with their teeth or lick them with the tongue, but they incorporate them into their own body.

Leaders are called to feed the sheep, not feed on them or scatter them. The sheep are fed by the Word, Christ Himself, the Gospel, which is the doctrine of the justification of sinners. This message is the message that brings the sheep in to the fold and brings them together; the message that draws them close/er to Christ; the message that brings comfort, hope, healing, safety, and peace; the message that brings them true and unending life. When anything else is controlling the words from the leaders’ mouth, the end result for the sheep, according to Luther, will be: scattering, devouring, destruction, strife, and, ultimately, death.

This is no small warning to all of us who are leaders of Christ’s flock. But there is also good news within the warning. Note that Luther, in this passage, is less concerned with the morality of the life of the leader (though, do not be mislead here, he would certainly want his leaders to resemble the description offered by Paul in the pastorals) and the ability of the leader to coerce the sheep to do x, y, and z,  but rather, with the leader’s theology, her message, and her care of the sheep. A good leader is a leader who forever proclaims the gospel to his flock and all who have ears to hear the gospel. This proclamation is the yoke that we bear as “good” leaders and teachers of the flock. While it is a yoke, it is an “easy and light” yoke because it is beautifully and wonderfully neither about us leaders being perfect nor getting the sheep to do what we think they should be doing, but, simply proclaiming Christ crucified and stepping back and letting the Spirit–the Lord, the giver of life–convict and sanctify the sheep.