How important is love? (7) Luther and love

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The question behind this post, and this mini-series, is how important is love?

If it is essential and important, what are implications for discipleship? For preaching and teaching? For holding each other accountable for lives which show tangible evidence of transformation? For prioritising the fact that authentic Christian faith ‘works’ – it is seen in lives of love and good works?

For facing up to, and confronting, the heresy of lovelessness in our lives and in our churches?

In the first post of this mini-series on the importance of love we talked about how, in some strands of post-Reformational Protestantism, love and works have been relegated to secondary importance behind the issue of primary concern – justifying faith.

But, as Stephen Chester argues [‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’] this relegation of love and works does not originate with Luther (or Calvin). Indeed, Luther was at great pains NOT to separate faith and love.

Some quotes from Luther (drawn from Chester’s article).

Look out for how he connects faith with love and good works.

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts.”  Table Talk, 1533.

“Therefore he who hears the Word of God sincerely and clings to Him in faith is at once also clothed with the spirit of love, as Paul has said above, ‘Did you receive the spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith’ (Gaiatians 3:2)? For if you hear Christ sincerely, it is impossible for you not to love Him forthwith, since He has done and borne so much for you.”

“[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

True faith “arouses and motivates good works through love … He who wants to be a true Christian to belong to the kingdom of Christ must be truly a believer. But he does not truly believe if works of love do not follow his faith.”

“Paul is describing the whole of the Christian life in this passage [Gal. 5]: inwardly it is faith toward God, and outwardly it is love or works towards one neighbour. Thus a man is a Christian in a total sense: inwardly through faith in the sight of God, who does not need our works; outwardly in the sight of men, who do not derive any benefit from faith but do derive benefit from works or from our love.”

“As the sun shines by necessity, if it is a sun, and yet does not shine by demand, but by its nature and its unalterable will, so to speak, because it was created for the purpose that it should shine so a person created righteous performs new works by an unalterable necessity, not by legal compulsion. For to the righteous no law is given. Further, we are created, says Paul, unto good works … it is impossible to be a believer and not a doer.” Dialogue with Melanchthon, 1536.

“believers are new creatures, new trees; accordingly, the aforementioned demands of the law do not apply to them, e.g., faith must do good works, just as it is not proper to say: the sun must shine, a good tree must produce good fruit, 3 + 7 must equal 10. For the sun shines de facto, a good tree is fruitful de facto, 3 + 7 equal 10 de facto.”

So, for Luther, love and good works, while never an effective cause of justification, are a constituent part of justification. You cannot have justifying faith without the accompanying presence of love and good works. Faith will work in love de facto.

Luther is at great pains to develop a theology where love and works are integral to saving faith – not an additional optional ‘add on’.

Contrary to how works have been treated with suspicion or even hostility within some later post-Reformational Protestantism, Luther (and Calvin) take great care to integrate love and works within their doctrine of salvation.

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How Important is Love? (3) Just ‘the only thing that counts’

Gal 5 vs 6Galatians 5:6 is a crucial verse when it comes to the relationship between faith and love.

NIV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

ESV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’

NRSV  ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’

The Greek can be rendered more literally, ‘faith working love’ – the sense being that faith and love are integrally connected, almost like one tangible ‘thing’.

We may put it like this, for Paul, for someone to be a Christian (in Christ) is to be living a life of ‘faith working love’. Or, differently, the very purpose of being a Christian is ‘faith working love’. Without love that faith counts for nothing.

There is no such thing as Christian faith that does not work in love.

This takes us straight to 1 Corinthians 13 where the Apostle makes this point even more bluntly and with greater rhetorical effect – without love, whatever someone does for Jesus, however impressive, powerful or sacrificial, is completely and utterly worthless.

If so, how should this impact the priorities of church life? Of personal discipleship? Of training programmes, preaching and theological education generally?

Note how this is different to the ‘love alone’ theology of the previous post.

Christian love has a specific form – it is umbilically linked to faith. That faith in turn has a specific focus – Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a sharp contrast between Christian love and popular contemporary understandings of love.

In contrast to ‘love alone’ theology, Christian love:

  • Is interpreted and understood from within the narrative of the Bible
  • It has a specific content – the self-giving love of God in Christ
  • Nothing is easy or soft about Christian love – it involves spiritual transformation of desires through walking by the Spirit.
  • It is not concerned primarily about the self, it involves self-sacrifice for the good of others.
  • It is communal through and through – lived out in all the messiness of relationship with others within the community of the church and overflowing into the world.
  • Ethically, ‘love alone’ does not justify and legitimise what is moral and good. Christian love means obedience (‘If you love me you will obey my commands’).
  • Nor is Christian love itself divine, only God is. Love itself does not give our lives ultimate meaning – being children of the God who is love does.

Paul’s emphasis on love does not hang on a couple of extraordinary texts. Love pervades his theology and his letters – God’s love for us, our response of love for God, and – most of all – exhortations and commands for the people of God to love one another.

Nor is Paul out of sync with the rest of the New Testament. While John is the theologian of love par excellence, the priority of love is everywhere. We’ll have a look at some texts in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.