I can’t lay my finger on the quote right now… but I remember reading something C.S. Lewis (a great person to name a child after) wrote about the importance of reading old books and not just new ones. He said that every age has a “characteristic spirit.” And reading old books, from a different time with a different “spirit,” is the only way to get outside of the spirit of the current age and therefore avoid some of its cultural baggage. With that in mind, I’ve been reading Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans this week. Here are some challenging words he has about faith that definitely run counter to our customary (current) usage of the term. (I have written some of this before, somewhere, so forgive me if you’ve read it before.)
Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith. Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error, and say, ‘Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.’ This is the reason that, when they hear the Gospel, they fall-to and make for themselves, by their own powers, an idea in their hearts, which says ‘I believe.’ This they hold for true faith. But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it.
Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace…
Leave a Comment
I believe that the C.S. Lewis quote that you’re looking for is in Lewis’ introduction to “Athanasius on the Incarnation.”
This quote from Martin Luther is interesting and well-written, but Luther’s ideas about faith seem to have more to do with his own background (e.g. to create a definition of faith that ensures that salvation happens without any kind of human effort) than with the context of the Scriptures. His view might be internally consistent, but it doesn’t make much sense when I compare it to the teachings of the Scriptures and my own experience. I don’t think that faith is nearly as mystical as Luther makes it out to be. It seems like he’s letting his theology define words, instead of letting words define his theology.
Luther would do better to study the cultural and literary context for the usage of faith in the Scriptures instead of allowing his own biases to define the word.
Thanks for the help on the Lewis quote! Now that you mention that, I can see it on the page.
Luther was certainly conditioned by his own culture, so your critique has some merit. However, before we say that he is “allowing his own biases” to define the word “faith,” it would be wise to spend some more time in exegesis of passages like Eph 2:8-10 and Romans 1:16-17, as well as reading more broadly in Luther’s own writing. Though Luther was certainly a child of his own time, he’s also a guy who spent a couple years locked in a castle translating the Bible from Greek into German. Because of that, his insight into Scripture tends to be profound, and he quotes the Bible copiously in his writing. Disagreement with such a noted expert should be done carefully and with clear citation of where one feels he is wrong, and why.
So: fire away, if you want. I would be interested in knowing exactly where you think he is off in his understanding of faith.
Ephesians 2:8-10. I have a question about this passage. What does the phrase “and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” modify? Grace? Salvation? Faith? Or something else?
I think that Luther’s use of faith in this quote goes beyond what the word itself means. Romans 1:16-17 tells us that the righteous live by faith. Paul unpacks this central statement throughout the rest of his letter. Paul unpacks his thesis describing God’s covenant faithfulness, made available through Jesus’s faithfulness to those who in turn are faithful. The righteous live by God’s faithfulness to them and by their faith in God.
Luther’s understanding of faith seems so tied up in mysticism (e.g., personifying it “it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing”). God calls us to believe and act, to be faithful. Luther’s very first sentence seems to betray an antagonism towards the book of James. (I have heard that Luther believe that James was not inspired. Do you know if that is true?) Everything that Luther writes sounds nice, but I don’t find him credible. Are there quotes to verses that have been omitted?