Luther: “From virtue to virtue…from cleansing to cleansing. After being sanctified we are still being sanctified.”

Engraving of Jan Hus, c. 1587.

Engraving of Jan Hus, c. 1587.

Here’s some choice bits of Luther for those lovers of that one quote from Gerhard Forde that yet another cohort thinks is actually a quote by Rod Rosenbladt— and, no, it’s not “actually Luther”; it is a gormless twisting of something Luther writes in his 1515 Lectures on Romans ([16:27], AE 25:186ff) where he makes an analogy between the Exodus and the article of justification. Forde, as is his wont, casually equates “justification” with “the Christian life” whilst treating this passage of Luther in his contribution to the 1984 Braaten/Jenson Christian Dogmatics (see here). And then you people made memes of it. Indeed, the Forde/Rosenbladt decontextualization of Luther’s words has emblem-status as perhaps the Gospel reductionist meme par excellence.

But don’t kid yourself, carissimae Lutheranae. Pace Forde, Luther did not see the Christian life as “an exodus from virtue to the grace of Christ”— “you must not imagine that the Christian’s life is a standing still and a state of rest. No, it is a passing over and a progress from vices to virtue, from clarity to clarity, from virtue to virtue”— Luther saw justification as “an exodus from virtue to the grace of Christ.” That’s not that the same thing at all!

Luther most certainly believed that bringing human virtue into the article of justification was damnable and wicked— that was the whole shootin’ match! Yet with equal force and clarity, Luther believed that “the Christian life” was actually all about virtue (or “the virtues”— he speaks both ways), rightly understood as the fruit of faith which was to be cultivated and exercised for the sake of the neighbor in and through various God-ordained vocations. Just take a look at his scholia on “the fruit of the Spirit” in the Great Galatians Commentary of 1535 (AE 27:93ff). [UPDATE: Or just read his Trinity 5 epistle sermon from the same year (text: 1 Peter 3:8-15).]

So, no, contrary to what meme-land may have told you, Lutheran theology does not consider vocation and virtue as mutually exclusive; quite the opposite— they are mutually necessitating, two sides of the very same coin. The following selections from various of Luther’s works establish this well.

But those are truly gifts of the Holy Spirit which make drunk with the richest knowledge of the Son of God, just as when John Hus was led to martyrdom, he prayed with great and unbroken courage: “Jesus, Son of God, Thou who hast suffered for us, have mercy on me.” This is not said without the Holy Spirit. No one else would have spoken this way unless he had been made drunk by that wine. He was one of the colts bound to the excellent vine.

But we are not only made drunk by the Spirit and know what “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might” spoken of in Is. 11:2 is, but we are also washed every day. For sin still clings to our flesh, and spirit and flesh are opposed to each other. But the promise of the Holy Spirit is operative in us and washes its garment, namely, us, during the whole time of our life. For it is always purging away the sin that is left; and we are washed and purified, not with water but with wine and the blood of grapes, with red wine, that is, with the most abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit.

For sin is not destroyed, as the sophists dream, by our acts of contrition, preparation, and satisfaction. Recently the asses at Louvain have falsely concluded that after Baptism and absolution no sin is left. For if that foolish and frivolous theology stands, namely that after Baptism no sin is left, what will be the use of the washing? Does not Christ say (John 15:1–2): “My Father is the Vinedresser, and every branch of Mine that does bear fruit He prunes it”? The branch is pure; yet it is purified, as is written in Rev. 22:11: “He who is righteous, let him still be accounted righteous.” We are not in a state of perfection. No, we are in a state of becoming and transition, or in a state of movement from virtue to virtue from day to day, from cleansing to cleansing. After being sanctified we are still being sanctified. (Lectures on Genesis [49:11-12], AE 8:266ff)

One draws near to God by acquiring knowledge of Him. This happens by faith, not by works, not by hands or feet but by zealous practice and daily exercise. This is what Paul calls “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17), from virtue to virtue, “from one degree of glory of the Lord to another” (2 Cor. 3:18), until we come out as perfected people, as we have it in Ephesians (cf. Eph. 4:13). (Lectures on Zephaniah [3:3], AE 18:350ff)

[Y]ou must not imagine that the Christian’s life is a standing still and a state of rest. No, it is a passing over and a progress from vices to virtue, from clarity to clarity, from virtue to virtue. And those who have not been en route you should not consider Christians either. On the contrary, you must regard them as a people of inactivity and peace, upon whom the prophet calls down their enemies. Therefore do not believe those deceitful theologians who say to you: “If you have only one, even the first, level of love, you have enough for salvation”—as with their stupid fancies they invent a love that is idle in the heart like wine in a barrel. Love is not idle, but it continually crucifies the flesh and is unable to rest content at its own level; it expands itself to purge a man throughout his being. But in the time of temptation and of death these people, with their single level, will have neither the first nor the second level. (1519 Lectures on Galatians [4:5], AE 27:290)

For the Law and the Prophets bore witness to the righteousness of God in Christ, according to Rom. 3:21. From this, you, O man, should most diligently preserve for yourself this noteworthy fact, that wherever it may be, you never understand a passage of Scripture to the end, and you do not comprehend all the truth it conceals; though you may perhaps understand some things, perhaps many things there, know that it is always there for you as a testimony of truth still to be revealed to you or at least of truth that can be revealed. Therefore it is called a “testimony,” because it testifies and prophesies concerning future things. But every Scripture passage is of infinite understanding. Therefore, no matter how much you understand, do not be proud, do not fight against another, do not withstand, because they are testimonies, and perhaps he will see what you do not see, and what is to him statute or utterance is still testimony to you. Therefore it is always a matter of making progress in the understanding of Scripture. And always the first step is like the spirit, the later step, until it is revealed, like the closed letter, which the former did not see. Hence also the apostle says: “But we all, beholding the glow of the Lord with open face, are transformed from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). So it happens also in the active life: It is always a progressing from act to act, from virtue to virtue, as here it is from understanding to understanding, from faith to faith, from glory to glory, from knowledge to knowledge. This is the true contemplative life. (Lectures on the Psalms [119:24], AE 11:434)

From this one can easily see that Christ does not here teach us to become pious and just through our works, but admonishes those who were already pious and just, that they be merciful like their Father in heaven, so that the heathen may thereby become better, and that thus unbelievers may be kindly enticed to become converted and edified, not only by preaching, but also by the merciful and blameless lives and good conduct of the good and just… [O]ur dear Lord would here kindly and lovingly invite us to do good works and lead a Christian life also among our enemies. But when we fail to do this he threatens us, that he would not regard us as Christians. For such works are as a sign or confession that we are true Christians. In addition to this, other people will be made better by such works, and so will we ourselves who do them, as St. Peter says, we make our calling and election sure thereby, and become richer in faith. (Gospel Sermon, Trinity 4 [June 20, 1535])