Friday, February 18, 2011

Letters from Luther

In memoriam of this day, February 18th - the day our Lord called His servant, Martin Luther, to his seat at the marriage supper of the Lamb - I am reminded of one of my favorite letters Luther wrote to George Spenlein on the 8th of April in the year of our Lord, 1516.  For he was a man of many masks - husband, reformer, writer, professor, monk, musician, exegete, scholar just to name a few - but the one thing that summarizes them all is pastor.  That much is apparent in the extended quotation below.  Much has been written about Luther today and that is proper, fitting for one who labored so vigorously in the vineyard.  And since I can hardly add anything worth saying that hasn't been said or written already in such profound acumen, it seems fitting, then, to let the genius and God given wisdom of the Swan of Wittenberg to speak for himself.

"To the godly and sincere Friar George Spenlein, Augustinian Eremite1 in the monastery at Memmingen, my dear friend in the Lord Jesus Christ

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ

My dearest Friar George:

…Now I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ. For in our age the temptation to presumption besets many, especially those who try with all their might to be just and good without knowing the righteousness of God, which is most bountifully and freely given us in Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible. While you were here, you were one who held this opinion, or rather, error. So was I, and I am still fighting against the error without having conquered it as yet.

Therefore, my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not.” Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation. For why was it necessary for him to die if we can obtain a good conscience by our works and afflictions? Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours.
If you firmly believe this as you ought (and he is damned who does not believe it), receive your untaught and hitherto erring brothers, patiently help them, make their sins yours, and, if you have any goodness, let it be theirs. Thus the Apostle teaches, “Receive one another as Christ also received you to the glory of God.” And again, “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, [did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped], but emptied himself,” etc. Even so, if you seem to yourself to be better than they are, do not count it as booty, as if it were yours alone, but humble yourself, forget what you are and be as one of them in order that you may help them.

Cursed is the righteousness of the man who is unwilling to assist others on the ground that they are worse than he is, and who thinks of fleeing from and forsaking those whom he ought now to be helping with patience, prayer, and example. This would be burying the Lord’s talent and not paying what is due. If you are a lily and a rose of Christ, therefore, know that you will live among thorns. Only see to it that you will not become a thorn as a result of impatience, rash judgment, or secret pride. The rule of Christ is in the midst of his enemies, as the Psalm puts it. Why, then, do you imagine that you are among friends? Pray, therefore, for whatever you lack, kneeling before the face of the Lord Jesus. He will teach you all things. Only keep your eyes fixed on what he has done for you and for all men in order that you may learn what you should do for others. If he had desired to live only among good people and to die only for his friends, for whom, I ask you, would he have died or with whom would he ever have lived? Act accordingly, my dear Friar, and pray for me. The Lord be with you.

Farewell in the Lord.

From Wittenberg, April 8, 1516"

- American Edition, Luther's Works, vol. 48:11-14

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