When I was looking at translations of the Dies Irae is was struck by the verse that said -“You Who did Mary’s guilt unbind, and mercy for the robber find, have filled with hope my anxious mind.” I knew I had seen something like it before and I found it – a portion of Matthew Harrison’s translation of Herman Sasse’s essay on Luther. Written for the 400th anniversary of his death it is a marvelous exposition on Luther’s fundamental understanding of the human condition before God. Matt has included it in “The Lonely Way”, published by CPH. Here is the portion from Sasse that stuck in my mind.
There is only one of the great teachers of the church who possessed the knowledge of human misery, the impotence of man in all spiritual matters, who can be compared to Luther. That is Augustin, the greatest of the church fathers of the old Latin church. He so emphasized the sola gratia, “by grace alone” in a time of the migration of nations to the Christianity of the west, that it could never completely forget it. Still today his mighty praise of the redeeming divine grace rings in the Roman Catholic liturgy when in one of the prayers, which is read by the priest in every mass, God is called upon as the “One who does not regard merit, but sends forgiveness.” Or when in the burial office is sung in the dies irae, “King of fearful majesty, you who deliver freely [umsonst] those who shall be delivered” and implores the Lord Christ:
“You who once absolved Mary
and pardoned the thief,
have granted hope also to me.”
This sola gratia, as it rings yet even in the Roman Church – if only as one note among others – must not be undervalued. As Evangelical [Lutheran] Christians we can only rejoice. This is for us today what it once was for the Reformer, Martin Luther: A promising sign that the church of God is also still present in Roman Christianity. Otherwise how could the Reformation have commenced from a cell in a monastery?
But Luther’s understanding goes deeper. He knew that the sola gratiamust be enlarged by the sola fide, that to the “by grace alone” must be added “through faith alone.” For the depth of divine grace is understood only when one knows “Even in the best of lives, our deeds are naught.” Also in a life led in the peace of the forgiveness of God and in the power of His Holy Spirit, we are never righteous by what we are and do, rather always only through that which Christ is and what He as done for us. When the Apostle, with the deep experience of the effect of the Holy Spirit, describes a life of sanctification in Galatians 2:20, with the words: “I live, and yet not I, rather Christ lives in me,” he then continues with, “The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Our righteousness before God is never a righteousness which we possess, rather it is, in the proper sense of the word, the righteousness of Christ. What the old Reformation hymn says, which the young Zinzendorf revitalized in his own way, is literally true:
Jesus Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress
With it before God shall I stand,
When I heaven shall enter in.
Here the sola fide is so clearly and simply expressed that a child can understand it. If a Francis of Assisi, a Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, or whoever else one might name as an example of a sanctified life, were saved, then it was not because of their life or work, rather only for this reason: Because the Lord Christ also died for these poor sinners. “By faith alone”, that is “I am nothing, I have nothing, I am capable of nothing; but I have a Savior who is all, has all, and can do all.” God has made Him for us “Wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (I Cor. 1:31). And what Luther wrote in 1516 to his brother in the order, Goerg Spenlein, cries out through his words, “We are beggars: This is true”, his last written note, to all of Christianity, as his legacy to every Christian: “Father, my dear brother, learn of Christ, even Christ the Crucified! Learn to sing His praise and despairing of yourself, say to Him: You Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am your sin. You have taken what was in me, and have given to me what I was not.” And then comes this bold assertion: “Be careful never to endeavor to obtain such purity, that you no longer find yourself a sinner, much less desire to be one. Christ dwells only among sinners. This is why he descended from heaven, when He dwelt among the righteous, so also to make His dwelling among sinners. Take note of this His love time and again and you will experience the sweetest consolation… And so only in Him, through having despaired of yourself and your works, will you find peace. Here you will learn from Christ Himself, that He, as He has received you unto Himself, has made your sins His own, and His righteousness your righteousness.”
Talk about the proper distinction between Law and Gospel!