Looking to Luther - I Peter 4:12 —19

by Phil Johnson


Why do we look to Luther in this little paper? This may be a fruitful question.

The first answer that comes to me is that the format dictates that we look to Luther. We have chosen the name Pietisten for this paper without being experts on the original paper's history or contenL This choice has been an occasion for learning about it. Following its example channels our quest. The original Pietisten regularly included commentary from Luther on the text under consideration.

A second answer, related to the first, is that Carl Olaf Rosenius (1861 —186 8), the second editor of Pietisten from 1842-1868, was a Lutheran. (The paper was founded in 1842 by George Scott, an English Methodist evangelist to Sweden from 1830 to 1842. When he left for England later in 1842 he turned the paper over to Rosenius.)1

Third, Rosenius has the reputation of being a Luther scholar and of introducing the writings of Martin Luther to the people of Scandinavia. Though most of the people were raised Lutherans not many had read Luther. Reading Luther first hand was like a fresh breeze which fanned the revivals of the 19th century in Sweden.

Fourth, considering Luther draws us back to a larger stream, a movement which David lifts up for us in this issue with respect to an even older source of "...a river whose streams make glad the city of God". (Psalm 46, Pietisten Vol. I, Number I, p.l.)

A fifth reason is our own interest in Luther. A sixth is to stimulate readers like you to read Luther yourself and with us.

I have learned that there has been what scholars call a Renaissance of Luther studies which began in the 19th century and continues in the 20th to the present. Swedes like Soderbloom2, Nygren, Wingren, and others have been leaders in this Renaissance.

If you have grown up in International Falls, Minnesota as I have, if you have grown up in and become a member of the Covenant Church, and if you have graduated from North Park College, you were likely to be alert to signs of your people on some other larger historical scene than your own, even though such alertness may reveal a lack of faith and be a temptation to false pride. So, when I heard my Luther studies professor say recently that pietists like Carl Olaf Rosenius were the ones who began to introduce Luther's writings to the people of Scandinavia, I snapped to attention. He must have accomplished this at least in part through Pietisten.

Sweden was officially Lutheran from the late 16th century. The people were well informed through the church structures of symbolic hero Martin Luther, but they were not familiar with Luther's thought and preaching.

Discovery of the role of Pietisten in both the !9!h century revivals and the Luther Renaissance supports the value of looking to Luther in the revived Pietisten.

Why was Luther appealing to these people? Why were they thirsty for his witness? Was their thirst like mine? Did they find the same things satisfying that I do?

I think Luther continues to offer something for the person who thirsts for God and truth. I submit that a major reason for Luther's appeal is his realism. This is the subject of part I of this article. In part II, I cautiously suggest that what distinguishes my present viewpoint from Luther's viewpoint provides a clue to pietism and raises some interesting questions for further discussion.

I. Luther's Realism in Light of I Peter 4:12 ff.

Martin Luther (1483 —15 46) asked in 1521 "What is Luther?" and he answered "...poor stinking maggot fodder"3. His answer testifies to his steady realism.

In the 1520's Luther was a folk hero whose name was abroad in the land. Radicals called for a "Lutheran" revolution. Luther was against this use of his name, not because he was timid or self-effacing, but because his message was of Christ, not Luther, and because he would not forget that he was a creature of death whose future was to become "maggot fodder". This realism is a clue to the continued power of his witness for Christ.

The source of this power is in the realism of the Gospel as revealed in Scripture. Three elements of this realism are: A) The Gospel faces toward, not away from suffering, B) The Gospel faces toward, not away from death, and C) The Gospel understands the mystery and strangeness of humans.

A. The Gospel faces toward, not away from suffering.

Much has been said and written about this element. A word from the text and from Luther will be sufficient to clarify the point. The first words of our text are clear and matter of fact. "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which come upon you to prove you as if something strange were happening." (vs. 12)

It is not strange that we suffer. The Gospel or good news is not that suffering has come to an and and been eliminated. The Gospel is that we now know that there is purpose in suffering, that we have some idea of that purpose, and that we do participate in it.

Jesus suffered, we suffer. "There arc times," writes Luther, "when, for the sake of God's word, we must endure the hardship, anguish and persecution the holy cross brings upon us."4 Suffering strengthens us.

Perhaps most suffering is not suffering for the cause of Christ. Although one can not always tell for certain when suffering is not suffering of the cross, regular human life, cross or no cross, is full of suffering. It is Gospel that Jesus suffered and suffers human suffering with us. If that were not true, we would not have a realistic Gospel. Real suffering includes our own personal tragedies as well as pain, hunger, and murder in the world around us and many other things of which we are aware. This brings us to the second element, a fate we all suffer.

B. The Gospel faces toward, not away from death.

In his comments on verse 12 made in 1523 Luther writes:

"The Holy Gospel is a powerful word, therefore it cannot enter upon its work without opposition, and no one can be sure it possesses such power, but he who has experienced it. Where suffering and the cross are, there its power may be shown and exercised. It is a living word, and therefore it must exercise all its energy in time of death. But if there is no such thing as death and corruption, there is nothing for the living word to do, and no one can be certain that it possesses such virtue, and that it is stronger than sin and death."5

Several matters in these comments are striking. First, Luther does not allow any consideration of the possibility of no death. Second, death is not spoken of as evil, Third, since death is a fact, there must be Gospel in and for death or there is no Gospel. Fourth, the reason Luther gives for the existence of death is to show the "virtue" and power of the Gospel, to show that the living word is "stronger than sin and death". This is a good example of how Luther sees the word as elevated above and more important than any other matter. His words on this bear further contemplation.

C. The Gospel understands the mystery and strangeness of humans.

This element is revealed in verse 13 in which we are instructed to rejoice in suffering. The thought that we can rejoice in suffering is mysterious and strange. It cannot be explained by practical, rational motivation. Verse 13 says," ...in so much as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings, Rejoyce." Luther writes, "Peter docs not say we should experience the sufferings of Christ..." (p.179). It is not an obligation and it is not necessary for salvation, but we can expect it and expect to find joy in it.

I take these words in I Peter as a reminder of and a comment upon Jesus' words in the Sermon of the Mount. Compare Matthew 5:12, "Rejoice and be glad...when you are reviled," (vs. 11) and especially note Luke 6:23, "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy..." when "men hate... exclude... and revile you." (vs. 12)

Jesus, Peter, and Luther have each made it clear that this rejoicing is not a matter of the will. If and when we are given the blessing of such suffering for "righteousness sake",6 we can recognize the blessing by a joy within us — a joy which may cause us to leap.

Luther does not go quite so far as to turn his focus on the source of this joy for us in Jesus' own experience.7 Let us boldly push on to do so, remembering that we are examining the mystery and strangeness of humans of whom Jesus is the true human.

Think of Jesus leaping for joy. Let yourself picture him leaping. Jesus knew the blessings in his own life of which he spoke to his hearers on the mountain. Of these human experiences only this one, that men "reviled" him, "excluded" him and "cast out his name as evil", caused him to leap with joy. Why? Because it confirmed his life and call. He leaped for joy knowing he was among the prophets who were called by God.

This leap of joy comes by grace. It cannot be sought directly. It cannot be controlled by anyone, even Jesus. The blessing of being "called the children of God", for example, is obtained by actively working through grace at making peace. Luther cites the example of Augustine's mother, Monica.8 But this blessing of having one's name cast out comes leaping within us. It cannot be reduced to the commonplace. Walker Percy asks, "Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?"9

Percy's asking points to the strangeness and mystery of humans which Jesus knew, and Luther knew, and we know when we experience malaise in our desired lives of abundant choices and joy in danger, catastrophe or opposition. When Luther read a copy of Exurge Dominus (1521) from the pope threatening to ban him if he did not recant, he wrote to his friend and spiritual advisor Spalatin, "I rejoice with my whole heart that for this best of causes I suffer evil, who am not worthy of being so tried." (Gritsch p. 38)

The suffering and the joy which the Gospel declares and Luther expounds come from real life and they meet a person who needs and wants what is real with a word of truth and good news.

II. Differences and Questions

With caution I wish to examine another issue which is raised by looking to Luther on this text. I think it is an issue of a pietist10 perspective either differing with or moving beyond Luther, In the introduction to his 1523 comments on I Peter, Luther writes:

"Thus one Apostle has written precisely what is found in the Epistles of other Apostles; but those who have advocated the most frequently and the most intensively how faith in Christ alone justifies, they are the best Evangelists. Therefore the Epistles of St. Paul are more a Gospel than Matthew, Mark and Luke. For these latter set forth more the history of the works and miracles of Christ; but the grace we have through Christ none paints forth so valiantly and so fully as St. Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans. And now since far more depends upon the words of Christ than upon his works and deeds, if we must be deprived of one, it were better for us to be deprived of his works and history than of his words and doctrines; and those books are justly praised the highest which treat most of the doctrines and words of our Lord Jesus Christ. For if the miracles of Christ had never been performed,a nd we had no knowledge of them, we would still have sufficient in his word, without which we could not have life." (p. 34) (emphasis mine)

Clearly, Luther is not wishing that we be deprived of the Gospels with their accounts of Jesus' life and works. He is a preacher of both doctrine and life and a lover of the whole Gospel. Yet, if I were to choose which was more important, I would choose the other. I think most pietists do. Pietists claim a freedom to identify closely with the human person Jesus and to draw life from the friendship with God that Jesus invites us to. I am more interested in understanding what Jesus felt or thought and what he went through in the stories we have than I am in doctrine or teaching as wonderful as doctrine and teaching are. I find a leaping for joy inside me when I come to an understanding of what a Biblical person, especially Jesus experienced. I think this is a pietist's center. Luther knows God as a person and regards the creed as necessary to keep one's life and thinking straight. The pietist is concerned that creeds, though valuable, may cover the person of God as God lives and is revealed in scripture and is concerned that creeds may be the cause of unnecessary division among Christians. Perhaps this helps us to understand why the Covenant Church decided not to subscribe to a creed and, perhaps, sheds further light on the comments from David Nyvall which Peter Sandstrom lifted up in our last issue. (vol. I no. 1 pp. 6,7)

This brings us to an area which needs sorting out and clarification. Terms are passed about and evaluations are made more quickly than I am able to follow. Compare and reIIcct on the following comments and you will see what I mean.

Lennart Pinomaa in his excellent introduction to Luther's theology writes:

"The fanatics and the Anabaptists accepted the Reformation because the Catholic church had not done full justice to faith; but they wanted to reform the reformation because it had not permitted works to come to their own. In Pietism this new reformation broke out. But it was forgotten that Luther saw a more effective realization of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit than all the emphasis on works.

The difference between Luther and Pietism is greater than usually thought. Luther's "new" man is not the same as Pietism's converted man..."11 (Emphasis throughout these quotations are mine. They are intended to call to attention different uses of the terms.)

Paul Peter Waldenström (1838 —19 19) who followed Rosenius as editor of Pietisten in 1868 wrote in an article "The Biblical Teaching on Sin", published in 1915;

"...one should finally point out the inaccuracy of the common expression about "slaying the ego", "the slaying of the self will", or "breaking the neck of that beast, the reason" (Luther). All such speech is entirely foreign to the Holy Writ. It is in essence Buddhism, paganism and falls under the judgement of Paul in Colossians 2:23. The ego is not to be slain but to be transformed into harmony with the will of God, so that I express my own will when I do God's will and do God's will when I express my own; reason is not to be put to death but enlightened and sanctified."12

In 'The Convergence of Covenantalism and Interiority", Paul E. Larsen writes: "A strong emphasis on the fact that law succeeds as well as precedes the Gospel is Reformed rather than Lutheran. Thus sanctification, or what is sometimes called Christian perfection, so weak in orthodox Lutheranism, becomes strong in Lutheran Pietism."13

Karl Olsson writes: "For Rosenius, nurtured in the Herrnhutian piety of Norrland and steeped in his studies of Luther, the converted man remained simul justus et peccator (at once justified and sinner [Luther]) to the end of his days." (By One Spirit, p. 48)

What are these differences and who am I in the midst of them? Who are we who write in and read the new Pietisten? What does it mean that George Scott, an Englishman, chose the name which Dr. Olsson says, following Gunner Westin, author of George Scott och hans verksamhet i Sverige, 1929, was "...both inaccurate and unfortunate. It was inaccurate because it suggested that the periodical was related to the old Pietistic movement, which it was not." Olsson goes on to say, "It was unfortunate because it was disapproved by many of Scott's friends in the church of Sweden who considered the name separatistic." (By One Spirit, note 10 p. 660)

It is not our intention to be separatistic. We are committed to connections. This all needs further thought and study. Your help is needed.

One last word from Luther on our text to draw things back together. "His suffering I must experience inwardly, then I possess the true treasure. Let Peter's bones be holy, yet how does that help you? You and your bones should be holy too, which can take place only when you suffer for Christ's sake." (p.182)

1. Karl A. Olsson, Into One Body... by the Cross, Vol. I, Covenant Press, 1985, p. 7 ff and By One Spirit, Covenant Press, 1962, p. 47 ff.

2. See Olsson, Into One Body, p. 228 where he reports on David Nyvall's visit to Sweden in 1920-1921 and records Nyvall's account of his meeting with Archbishop Soderbloom on an evening in 1921.

3. Eric W. Gritsch, Martin — God's Court Jester, Luther in Retrospect, Fortress Press, 1983, p. 48. Gritsch quotes from L.W. 45:70-71.

4. Luther's Works, "Sayings in Which Luther Found Comfort" L.W. 43:171.

5. Martin Luther, The Epistles of Sr. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained, trans. John Lanker, D.D., Lutherans in All Lands Co., Minneapolis, Minn. 1904, p. 179.

6. In hi s sermon "Blessed Are..." on Matthew 5:2-12 Luther refers to verse 15 of our text,"Let none of you suffer as a murderer and a wrongdoer," and says "Therefore bragging and yelling about great suffering is worthless without this condition..." See The place of Trust, Martin Luther on the Sermon on the Mount; edited by Martin Marty, Harper and Row, p. 83 or Luther's Works, Vol. 21.

7. I base this conclusion on the fact that Luther makes no comment about Jesus' personal experience of joy in his sermon on Matthew 5:2-12 or in his comments here on I Peter. I have not read comments by him on Luke 6:22,23. The sermon "Blessed Are..." is excellent for the Christian who would like to prepare for the Gospel lesson for this All Saints Sunday. Especially note Luther's explanation of what it means to see God, pp. 70-71.

8. "Blessed Are..." pp. 76, 77.

9. Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, 'The Delta Factor," Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1954, p. 4.

10. Further reading in By One Spirit and reflection suggest that "mission friend" might be a more accurate historical term: "mission friend" as the historical product of the confluence of Herrnhutian piety, the older pietism, Methodist evangelism, and the experience of people under their influences in America. Nevertheless, we still lay claim to the term pietist and seek to understand what it means for us now.

11. Leonard Pinomaa, Faith Victorious, An Introduction to Luther's Theology, translated from Finnish by Walter Kukkonen, Fortress Press, 1963, p. 72.

12. P. P. Waldenström, "The Biblical Teaching on Sin", translated by Herbert E. Palmquist as found in Covenant Roots, edited by Glenn P. Anderson, Covenant Press, 1980, p. 153.

13. Paul E. Larsen, Covenant Quarterly, February, 1986, p. 17.