Martin Luther on “Grace”
published by Oxford University Press
by Hans Wiersma, Augsburg College
Grace is an essential element of Christian theological reflection. Primarily, the divine attribute or trait labeled “grace” refers to God’s disposition and activity in regard to the Creation in general and toward human beings in particular. From the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, Scripture bears witness to the fact that God creates things “good” and gives good things.
God’s grace is especially manifest in the divine promises and other gifts described in the Bible and realized over time. At the same time, the Scriptures show that human beings—made in the image of God—have a history of devaluing, forgetting, and even abusing those things that God has graciously given. Part of Christianity’s doctrinal development, therefore, consists of attempts to describe the scope and sequence of God’s gracious regard and activity on behalf of a humanity prone to sin and rebellion.
In light of such creaturely “original sin” and ongoing rebellion, Scripture testifies that the Creator remains gracious—that God yet desires to be in relationship with human beings despite their sin. Theological considerations of grace share a basic assumption that although God is not obligated to think, feel, and act for the benefit of sinful humans, God does so nevertheless. While God’s wrath results in severe consequences for sin, God’s grace results in gifts that overcome sin and its consequences.
The full extent of God’s gracious giving is in the giving of the divine self in Jesus Christ, the divine Logos made flesh, who is “full of grace and truth” and from whose “fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
Martin Luther’s theology can be fundamentally construed as the development of his thought regarding the nature of grace, the nature of God’s favor and blessing bestowed upon undeserving human beings.
The many dimensions of Luther’s biblical teaching and theological reflection have, in the background a desire to understand God’s grace most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Luther’s concepts of the righteousness of God, justification by faith, the bound will, the distinction of law and gospel, the new obedience, the “happy exchange,” and many related concepts are, at heart, attempts to describe what it is to have a God of grace.
Most interpreters have rightly understood that in Luther’s view, to have a gracious God means to have a God who does not require human beings to fulfill a set of prerequisites in order to receive God’s gift in Christ or to reciprocate God’s giving in order to continue receiving Christ and his benefits.
For Luther, to have a God of grace means to believe and trust that through Jesus Christ, God has already met all prerequisites and fulfilled all reciprocations.
On this point, Luther found himself breaking new ground (or recovering lost ground) in the understanding of divine grace.
Luther “broke” with those theological forebears who taught that divine grace was, in one way or another, partly dependent on human willing and doing. For Luther, God graciously wills and works “all in all.” Nevertheless, when Luther’s many descriptions of what it is to “have a gracious God” are analyzed, a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the One giving the gift and the ones receiving it begins to reveal itself.
For Luther, faith—that gracious means through which God graciously bestows the righteousness of Christ—creates a dynamic rather than static experience of possessing and being possessed of a God of grace.
Indeed, scrutinizing Luther’s writings for descriptions of the experientia of sola gratia continues to be a promising direction for future Luther research.
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1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”