Maybe you've heard someone say, "Martin Luther got one thing right, and everything else wrong." It's usually said tongue-in-cheek, of course, because it's an overstatement by any standard. But it's a shorthand, attention-getting way of reminding us that many Protestants who love Luther's teaching about justification by faith alone (the "one thing he got right") do not agree with many other things he believed.
When I read his comments on Galatians 3:10-14, my experience reminded me of that saying, because I really liked what he had to say about justification, but I didn't like most of the other things he had to say, because they were about a particular point of doctrine on which I disagree with him. Before we get to that one point, however, let's see what both the apostle Paul and the great Reformer "get right" when they tell us how we can "get right" with God...
Paul says in Galatians 3:10, "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.'” And Luther comments:
Whoever seeks righteousness by works denies God and makes himself God. He is an Antichrist because he ascribes to his own works the omnipotent capability of conquering sin, death, devil, hell, and the wrath of God. An Antichrist lays claim to the honor of Christ. He is an idolater of himself. The law-righteous person is the worst kind of infidel. Those who intend to obtain righteousness by their own efforts do not say in so many words: "I am God; I am Christ." But it amounts to that. They usurp the divinity and office of Christ. The effect is the same as if they said, "I am Christ; I am a Savior. I save myself and others...." I cannot tell you in words how criminal it is to seek righteousness before God without faith in Christ, by the works of the Law. It is the abomination standing in the holy place. It deposes the Creator and deifies the creature.
Then Paul goes on to say, "That no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, 'The righteous man shall live by faith.' However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'He who practices them shall live by them'” (vv. 11-12). And Luther comments:
Paul undertakes to explain the difference between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of faith. The righteousness of the Law is the fulfillment of the Law according to the passage: "The man that doeth them shall live in them." The righteousness of faith is to believe the Gospel according to the passage: "The just shall live by faith." The Law is a statement of debit, the Gospel a statement of credit. By this distinction Paul explains why charity which is the commandment of the Law cannot justify, because the Law contributes nothing to our justification. Indeed, works do follow after faith, but faith is not therefore a meritorious work. Faith is a gift. The character and limitations of the Law must be rigidly maintained. When we believe in Christ we live by faith. When we believe in the Law we may be active enough but we have no life. The function of the Law is not to give life; the function of the Law is to kill. True, the Law says: "The man that doeth them shall live in them." But where is the person who can do "them," i.e., love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, and his neighbor as himself?
Paul's words climax at the cross, when he says in verses 13-14, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." And Luther captures the apostle's meaning well:
Paul does not say that Christ was made a curse for Himself. The accent is on the two words "for us." Christ is personally innocent. Personally, He did not deserve to be hanged for any crime of His own doing. But because Christ took the place of others who were sinners, He was hanged like any other transgressor. The Law of Moses leaves no loopholes. It says that a transgressor should be hanged. Who are the other sinners? We are. The sentence of death and everlasting damnation had long been pronounced over us. But Christ took all our sins and died for them on the Cross. "He was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12.)
Those are true and tremendous words from both the apostle and Reformer! But after that, Luther unfortunately veers away from Paul's intended meaning when he launches into a long discussion of the idea that Jesus actually became a sinner on the cross. In fact, he goes so far as to say it is good to refer to Christ as "a cursed sinner" because of what happened at Calvary. "Although this and similar passages may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a sacrifice for the curse and for sin," Luther writes, "yet in my judgment it is better to leave these passages stand as they read: Christ was made sin itself; Christ was made the curse itself."
In Luther's defense, it seems that he is over-reacting to the "moral influence" theory of the atonement, which was prevalent in his day (and is trending in ours also). He says at one point, "In separating Christ from us sinners and holding Him up as a holy exemplar, errorists rob us of our best comfort." I do believe that Luther's teaching here is an over-reaction to that error, however, and it is also an example of his tendency to sometimes over-literalize the text, as he did when forming and defending his confusing "consubstantiation" view of the Lord's Supper. (He was known to shout "This is my body!" as if raising his voice and pounding the table somehow made Christ's meaning more literal.)
Luther's own comments in defense of his view reveal some of the problems with it. He quotes Isaiah saying "the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all," but fails to note that this terminology in the Old Testament meant that sin was legally imputed to the sacrifice, which was then treated as if it was guilty. The animal on the altar did not somehow become evil in itself, nor did Christ as the anti-type. He was regarded and treated as we deserved to be (bearing the punishment for our sins) so we could then be regarded and treated as he deserves to be (declared righteous before God). And just as we are legally declared righteous without actually being righteous in ourselves, so our Savior was forsaken and punished by God without actually becoming sinful in himself.
When Luther says, "By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the sinlessness of Christ," he surely does not think that our sinlessness is ontological (meaning practically in our character and experience). Therefore it is inconsistent (with his doctrine of justification, in fact) for Luther to believe that Christ's sinfulness was ontological. In this regard I could also mention another passage that is often construed to teach the wrong idea, 2 Corinthians 5:21: "He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." No Protestant theologian (including Luther) believes that we literally or ontologically become the righteousness of God; rather Paul means that his righteousness has been legally imputed or "reckoned" to us. Likewise, therefore, "he made him to be sin for us" should be understood in a similar way.
Consider for a moment a common illustration of what Christ did for us on the cross, which is a combination of the parable of the forgiving King in Matthew 18 and the fact that terms like redemption and ransom include the idea of a price being paid. In a court stands a man who through his own foolishness owes a huge amount of money he could never repay, and the Judge, moved only by love and compassion, pays the entire debt from his own considerable wealth. Notice in that illustration the Judge doesn't actually become evil, nor does the criminal actually become good (though gratitude will probably cause him to improve afterwards). But a legal and covenantal transaction has taken place in which the Judge has sacrificed so that the criminal can have a clean record. That's what the Scripture means when it says "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," "having become a curse for us," and "he made him to be sin for us." Those are figurative expressions describing a profound spiritual reality (much like "This is my body").
How does this deep theological discussion apply to our lives practically? (After all, these are my "personal devotions" that I'm blogging about...I'd better be getting something edifying out of them!:) Well, as much as I love to read Luther, and as right as he is about many things, it's helpful to be reminded that he can be wrong about other things, and that he (like anyone) should be read with discernment. Also, knowing that such a great man can be wrong gives me more patience with others who say things I don't agree with, and makes me realize that I can also be wrong (more than I'd like to admit).