Paradox lies at the heart Christian faith. Strength is found in weakness, the first will be last and losing life is how we find it. Most striking, we find the mighty God in a crib and on a cross. The majesty of the Creator is his humility.
Peter touches another paradox in his first letter. He states, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for what is evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). You are free, the gospel has done that for you. But people freed by the gospel are strange. They use their freedom to ensure their slavery.
The word servants (δοῦλοι) literally means “slaves.” The gospel liberates us for joyful service to others. Martin Luther’s book, The Freedom of the Christian builds on this paradox. His preface says it well.
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in I Cor. 9:19, “For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Rom. 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law” [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant” [Phil. 2:6–7].
Another great treatment on this theme is a book by Murray J. Harris called Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. We are freed for slavery.
I recently read a book titled Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. The book is deeply personal as Volf makes clear in his preface. He does a brilliant job of articulating a unique tension that exists for the Christian community: the passionate pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the embrace of the oppressor in the cross. This was a tension he dealt with on a very personal level. Here is the first two paragraphs of the book.
After I finished my lecture Professor Jiirgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: “But can you embrace a cetnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “cetnik” had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a cetnik-the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot-but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” In a sense this book is the product of the struggle between the truth of my argument and the force of Moltmann’ s objection.
It was a difficult book to write. My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty. How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators? I felt caught between two betrayals-the betrayal of the suffering, exploited, and excluded, and the betrayal of the very core of my faith. In a sense even more disturbingly, I felt that my very faith was at odds with itself, divided between the God who delivers the needy and the God who abandons the Crucified, between the demand to bring about justice for the victims and the call to embrace the perpetrator. I knew, of course, of easy ways to resolve this powerful tension. But I also knew that they were easy precisely because they were false.
The book wrestles with this tension throughout. I appreciate his honesty with the challenge of this paradox. Any thoughts on what he is touching on here?
The Heidelberg Disputation was a significant landmark in Luther’s theology. I personally love this disputation as it captures the heart of his thinking. The Book of Concord explains what the disputation was all about.
“Following Luther’s proposal for a disputation on the subject of indulgences, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, was generally supportive of his views. The head of the order in Germany, Johannes Staupitz, called for a formal disputation to be attended by the leadership of the order, in which Luther would be provided a chance to expand upon his concern. The disputation took place at the meeting of the Augustinian Order, in Heidelberg, in April 1518. Luther’s opponents had been hopeful that Luther would be silenced, but Staupitz wanted to give Luther a fair hearing, since he was generally sympathetic with Luther’s views. At the meeting, Luther put forward a ‘theology of the cross’ as opposed to a ‘theology of glory.’ The disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses, for they advanced Luther’s growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.”
What follows are the theses of the disputation. These points capture some of Luther’s key theological concerns and contributions to Christian thought. You can click the link on any of the theses and you will be taken to a site that has the fuller explanation and defense given by Luther in the disputation.
“Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, Do not rely on your own insight (Prov 3:5), we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter.”
- The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
- Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.
- Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
- Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.
- The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
- The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.
- The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.
- By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.
- To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.
- Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.
- Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.
- In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.
- Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
- Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.
- Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.
- The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.
- Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.
- It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
- That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
- he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
- A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
- That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
- The law brings the wrath of God (Rom. 4:15), kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.
- Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
- He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
- The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and everything is already done.
- Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.
- The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.
Isaiah tells us explicitly that God is in the business of hiding (Is 45:15). He conceals himself. This is a fact. Job is one book in Scripture that fleshes out this theme. In fact, we may even walk away from Job convinced that we know far less about God than we did when we began reading. I believe this is one intention of the author. Yes, as strange as it sounds, I am saying that this book was written that we might know less about God. It is paradox for God to reveal to us that he is hidden, but that is exactly what he is doing. In essence he is saying, “I want you to know that there is so much of me that you cannot know.”
This concealment is tied to his glory (Prov 25:2). God alone has an exhaustive knowledge of God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hold the exclusive rights and ability to fully comprehend one another (Lk 10:22, 1 Cor 2:10-11, Rom 8:27). There is splendor in his infinite and incomprehensible nature. There is majesty in a God who can never be totally understood. As creatures it is beyond our capacity to ever know the fullness of God. As creatures any knowledge we have of God is based on his free choice and nothing we do. God chooses the content and limits of his self-revelation. He chooses what to reveal and what to conceal. According to Isaiah and Job, he has left a lot hidden.