Ordained Servant Online



A Peaceful Conscience by Faith Alone

Dan Borvan

John (Johann) Krause, counselor of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and friend of Martin Luther, committed suicide in December 1527. Krause had been favorable to the Reformation when it had first reached Halle, Germany but later aided the Archbishop in suppressing it. Luther wrote that Krause had been “taken captive by the tricks of the devil” in his belief that Christ was standing in the presence of the Father and accusing him because he had denied the Savior.[1] The devil had deceived Krause by turning the gospel into law and by causing him to focus on the sin he had done and the good that he had left undone, rather than on what Christ had done for him.

Krause was one of many in Luther’s day driven to despair by the condemnation of the law. The law is a ministry of sin, said Luther, and a ministry of wrath and death. The law reveals sin, then “strikes the wrath of God into a man and threatens him with death.” The man’s conscience concludes that God is angry with him due to his sin and, therefore, he shall die. Luther concluded, “This is why many who cannot endure the wrath and judgment of God commit suicide by hanging or drowning.”[2]

Luther himself suffered spiritual distress from the law, which produced fear and dread. He stated:

I know how I sometimes struggle in the hours of darkness. I know how often I suddenly lose sight of the rays of the Gospel and of grace, which have been obscured for me by thick, dark clouds. In other words, I know how slippery the footing is even for those who are mature and seem to be firmly established in matters of faith.

When we lose our focus on the gospel, the law rushes in and “shakes our insides in such a way that it makes us forget justification, grace, Christ, and the Gospel.”[3]

Many Christians today suffer from troubled consciences and a lack of assurance, even members of Presbyterian and Reformed churches. These struggles are often the result of a lapse into a covenant of works mindset. We are hard-wired for law; it is written on our hearts (Rom. 2:14–15). It is our default setting. The gospel is external to us. It must be preached into us (Rom. 10:14). If we do not receive a regular reminder of the gospel, we easily can revert to thinking that keeping the law is the only path to God’s approval. Most do not slip so far as to lose sight of justification by faith alone, but many fall into the misguided understanding of God’s love and favor as directly commensurate to our obedience. The inevitable failure to maintain perfect obedience can produce anxiety and even a lack of assurance of salvation.

My purpose in this brief article is to address Martin Luther’s teaching that only the gospel, specifically justification by faith alone, can calm a troubled soul. A peaceful conscience and assurance of salvation are by faith alone, not by works.

Due to the immensity of Luther’s body of work (The German edition of Luther’s Works numbers 127 volumes), I restrict the focus to Luther’s lectures on Galatians and some selections from his Table Talk.[4] Luther’s lectures on Galatians are perhaps his clearest expression of the relationship between the law and the gospel. He first lectured on Galatians in 1519, when his Protestant theology was still in development. A more mature Luther delivered another set of lectures on Galatians in 1531, which were published in 1535. Around the time when he gave the lectures, Luther said, “The Epistle to the Galatians is my dear epistle. I have put my confidence in it. It is my Katy von Bora [Luther’s wife].”[5]

The Christian’s Troubled Conscience

The story of Luther anguishing over his sin during his time in the Augustinian monastery is well known. Relief for his tormented soul arrived in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Receiving and resting in the righteousness of Christ finally brought Luther peace. Luther’s spiritual struggles did not disappear after his conversion, however. He fought to mortify the innate inclination toward self-righteousness and to preserve his understanding of a gracious God. In his comments on Galatians 2:20, Luther said:

It is very hard for me, even in the great light of the Gospel and after my extensive experience and practice in this study, to define Christ as Paul does here. That is how much this teaching and noxious idea of Christ as the lawgiver has penetrated into my bones like oil.

This teaching shaped him from his boyhood, such that “even at the mention of the name of Christ I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that He was a judge.”[6] Luther informed his auditors that he had to make an effort to unlearn the idea of Christ as lawgiver and replace it with the understanding of Christ as justifier and Savior.

Luther experienced spiritual distresses throughout his life. In 1533 he disclosed to friends that he was suffering from melancholy (Latin: tristitia), which had produced headaches and stomach pains. He explained, “My temptation is this, that I think I don’t have a gracious God. This is [because I am still caught up in] the law. It is the greatest grief, and, as Paul says, it produces death.”[7] More than fifteen years after producing the Ninety-five Theses, Luther still struggled to trust in the graciousness of God.

Luther believed that a struggle rages within every Christian between “the hearing of faith and the works of the law, because the conscience is always murmuring and thinking that when righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal salvation are promised solely on the basis of hearing with faith, this is too easy a way.”[8] The law unites with reason, the enemy of faith, to drag us toward self-righteousness and away from the righteousness of Christ. Our flesh, seeking to be autonomous, cannot accept the free gift of God.

Although Luther taught that the law is the cause of the Christian’s troubled conscience, he certainly did not promote antinomianism, despite the accusations of his critics. He affirmed, “We say that the Law is good and useful, but in its proper use.”[9] The law restrains sin in the civil realm and reveals sin and the need for a Savior in the spiritual realm. Luther did not expressly state the law’s third use, but he certainly taught that Christians must respond to faith with good works. He said, “When Christ has thus been grasped by faith and I am dead to the Law, justified from sin, and delivered from death, the devil, and hell through Christ—then I do good works, love God, give thanks, and practice love toward my neighbor.”[10] The problem is not the law; the problem is losing sight of the gospel and feeling the condemnation of the law, even after we have been redeemed. Christians must not forget, even temporarily, that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Luther famously taught that the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner and is divided in this way. He said, “To the extent that he is flesh, he is under the Law; to the extent that he is spirit, he is under the Gospel.”[11] Because sin is always present Christians should maintain a fear of God. But fear without faith is the servile and despairing fear of Cain, Saul, and Judas. This faithless fear remains transfixed on the law. Faith in God’s Word of grace focuses on Christ, and “fear becomes sweet and is mixed with nectar, so that [the Christian] begins not only to fear God but also to love him.”[12]

Despite the internal battle between flesh and spirit, Christians can know that they are in a state of grace. Luther said:

It is extremely profitable to the pious to know that they have the Holy Spirit. I am saying this in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophist and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for a certainty whether he is in a state of grace, even if he does good works according to his ability and lives a blameless life.

This corrupt teaching “utterly ruined the doctrine of faith, overthrew faith, disturbed consciences,” and much more.[13]

The Gospel Calms A Troubled Conscience

1. Look to Christ

Christians who face spiritual distress or a troubled conscience can find hope in Christ. He is the object (and source) of our initial faith, through which we are justified, and he is the sustainer of our faith thereafter. The same Savior who justified us now sanctifies us. We look to him, not the law, to calm our distress and ease our conscience. Christians need not feel condemned by the law. When despair sets in, we must turn away from the law and its accusations. Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf and liberated us from the law’s curse (Gal. 3:13). Luther said:

Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. … Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law.[14]

Christians must trust God’s promise to conform them into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) and maintain confidence that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Luther was convinced of Christ’s transforming work, particularly with regard to his fears and anxieties. He wrote, “Christ is eternal Peace, Comfort, Righteousness, and Life, to which the terror of the Law, sadness of mind, sin, hell, and death have to yield. Abiding and living in me, Christ removes and absorbs all the evils that torment and afflict me.”[15]

Luther advised his auditors to narrow their focus on Christ to specific doctrines as a means of calming their anxious souls. In contrast to those who claim that an emphasis on doctrine inevitably leads to cold, dead orthodoxy, Luther taught that the doctrine of imputation “brings firm consolation to troubled consciences amid genuine terrors.”[16] It comes as no surprise that Luther also stressed the doctrine of justification for dealing with the struggles of the flesh. He wrote, “Therefore let every faithful person work and strive with all his might to learn this doctrine and keep it, and for this purpose let him employ humble prayer to God with continual study and meditation on the Word.”[17] Focus on justification and the righteousness of Christ frees us from the temptation to attempt to pull ourselves out of despair by means of our own righteousness. Luther concluded, “A Christian says, ‘I wish to do as much as I can, but Christ is the bishop of souls. To him will I cling, even if I sin.’ It is thus that one has assurance.”[18]

2. Devour the Word

When the conscience is assaulted by the flesh, Christians must turn to Scripture for refuge. The flesh “cannot believe for sure that the promises of God are true.”[19]

Therefore, we attack the flesh with the unbreakable truth of the Word. Luther said, As God creates faith, so He preserves us in it. And just as He initially gives us faith through the Word, so later on He exercises, increases, strengthens, and perfects it in us by that Word. Therefore the supreme worship of God that a man can offer, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is to practice true godliness, to hear and read the Word.[20]

The Word is the antidote for the accusations of Satan and our doubts about God’s favor toward us. “We have nothing to strengthen and sustain us against these great and unbearable cries except the bare Word,” said Luther, “which sets Christ forth as the Victor over sin, death, and every evil.”[21] We cling to Scripture in the midst of trial and distress because it reveals Christ. “Christ does not become visible to any of our senses. We do not see Him, and in the trial our heart does not feel His presence and help.”[22] We are anchored in Scripture, not in our experiences, emotions, or our own reason. As Peter said of his own experience, “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19). Rejecting the Word is a surefire path to despair. Luther said, “Nothing is more dangerous than to become tired of the Word. Therefore anyone who is so cold that he think he knows enough and gradually begins to loathe the Word has lost Christ and the Gospel.”[23]

3. Mortify Human Reason

In addition to the positive actions of looking to Christ and devouring the Word as means of calming the troubled conscience, Christians must put to death human reason. Luther charged that reason regards Scripture “as heresy and as the word of the devil; for it seems so absurd.” Reason, therefore, “is the greatest and most invincible enemy of God.”[24] Our confidence in God’s Word and the finished work of Christ is attacked by reason. The Christian must respond with faith, for faith “slaughters reason and kills the beast that the whole world and all the creatures cannot kill.”[25]

The mortification of reason is one of the Christian’s two daily sacrifices. According to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, every Christian is a priest. As part of their priestly duties, all Christians must offer the daily sacrifices of the New Testament. Luther wrote, “The evening sacrifice is to kill reason, and the morning sacrifice is to glorify God.”[26] The great comfort for the troubled Christian is a world outside of reason, in which

the issue is not what we ought to do or by what sort of works we may merit grace and forgiveness of sins. No, here we are in a divine theology, where we hear the Gospel that Christ died for us and that when we believe this we are reckoned as righteous, even though sins, and great ones at that, still remain in us.[27]

The Gospel Carries Us Through Death

A primary cause of spiritual distress and anxiety for many Christians is the inevitability of death. Luther’s confidence in the gospel enabled him to approach death without fear. Thinking he was on the brink of death in 1538 due to kidney stones, Luther said, “I’m subject to the will of God. I’ve given myself up to him altogether. He’ll take care of everything. I’m sure that he won’t die because he is himself life and resurrection.”[28] When he finally faced death in 1546, he spoke his last recorded words: “We are beggars. That is true.”[29]

Conclusion

Spiritual distress and a troubled conscience can affect every Christian, from the most immature to one of the heroes of the faith. The source of our anxiety and worry often is God’s law and our lack of conformity to it. When our flesh reminds us of our failure to keep the law perfectly in thought, word, and deed, we must flee to the gospel for relief. By looking to Christ, devouring God’s Word, and mortifying human reason, we can find rest for our weary souls. Martin Luther suffered from an uneasy conscience throughout his life. A steady diet of the gospel, though, sustained him through every spiritual consternation, even to the point of death.

Endnotes

[1] J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–86), 26:195.

[2] Luther’s Works, 26:150.

[3] Luther’s Works, 26:150.

[4] I quote Luther as often as possible in order to capture his incomparable style.

[5] Luther’s Works, 54:20.

[6] Luther’s Works, 26:178.

[7] Luther’s Works, 54:75.

[8] Luther’s Works, 26:215.

[9] Luther’s Works, 26:312–13.

[10] Luther’s Works, 26:161.

[11] Luther’s Works, 26:342.

[12] Luther’s Works, 26:343.

[13] Luther’s Works, 26:377.

[14] Luther’s Works, 26:113.

[15] Luther’s Works, 26:167.

[16] Luther’s Works, 26:134

[17] Luther’s Works, 26:65.

[18] Luther’s Works, 54:87.

[19] Luther’s Works, 26:64.

[20] Luther’s Works, 26:64.

[21] Luther’s Works, 26:380.

[22] Luther’s Works, 26:381.

[23] Luther’s Works, 26:64.

[24] Luther’s Works, 26:228–29.

[25] Luther’s Works, 26:228.

[26] Luther’s Works, 26:233.

[27] Luther’s Works, 26:234.

[28] Luther’s Works, 54:294.

[29] Luther’s Works, 54:476.

Dan Borvan is a pastoral intern at Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church (OPC) in North Andover, Massachusetts, and a licentiate of the Presbytery of New York and New England. Ordained Servant Online, October 2017.

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