Martin Luther: On skepticism, scripture and Christ

20 12 2011

The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s exchange with Erasmus which has come to be known as “The Bondage of the Will”.  If you are lucky enough to have this volume in Martin Luther’s collected works you will find the following excerpt in vol. 33 pg starting on pg 23.  However, the translation below is not what you will find in Luther’s Works but comes from an online edition that you can findhere.  To set the scene Martin Luther wa a reasserter of classic Christian doctrine in the Augustininian tradition, which upheld (among many things, but relevant for this discussion) that the will of a human being was corrupted by sin and therefore sinful by nature.  For the sinful human it is unnatural to do anything in a “Godly” manner, therefore the human’s nature must be changed by “new birth” from above (1 Pet 1.3).  The reassertion of this fundamental truth of the scriptures and of Christian theology caused a massive stir (called the Reformation) in medieval Europe.  Enter Erasmus, who had Reformation sympathies but who also wished to maintain peace within the Roman Catholic Church.  In seeking middle road to stroke his Reformation sympathies while also seeking to appease the Roman Catholic Church he developed a squishy theology which Martin Luther was swift to address.  The excerpt below is remarkable for several reasons and the whole section is really worth a read.  Below Luther deals with the role of skepticism in the life of the believer, the clarity of scripture, and the purpose of scripture.  Enjoy mining these paragraphs.  You could do it for weeks.

In a word, these declarations of yours amount to this—that, with you, it matters not what is believed by any one, any where, if the peace of the world be but undisturbed; and if every one be but allowed, when his life, his reputation, or his interest is at stake, to do as he did, who said, “If they affirm, I affirm, if they deny, I deny:” and to look upon the Christian doctrines as nothing better than the opinions of philosophers and men: and that it is the greatest of folly to quarrel about, contend for, and assert them, as nothing can arise therefrom but contention, and the disturbance of the public peace: “that what is above us, does not concern us.” This, I say, is what your declarations amount to.—Thus, to put an end to our fightings, you come in as an intermediate peace-maker, that you may cause each side to suspend arms, and persuade us to cease from drawing swords about things so absurd and useless.

What I should cut at here, I believe, my friend Erasmus, you know very well. But, as I said before, I will not openly express myself. In the mean time, I excuse your very good intention of heart; but do you go no further; fear the Spirit of God, who searcheth the reins and the heart, and who is not deceived by artfully contrived expressions. I have, upon this occasion, expressed myself thus, that henceforth you may cease to accuse our cause of pertinacity or obstinacy. For, by so doing, you only evince that you hug in your heart a Lucian, or some other of the swinish tribe of the Epicureans; who, because he does not believe there is a God himself, secretly laughs at all those who do believe and confess it. Allow us to be assertors, and to study and delight in assertions: and do you favour your Sceptics and Academics until Christ shall have called you also. The Holy Spirit is not a Skeptic, nor are what he has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.

Sect. 3.—Now I come to the next head, which is connected with this; where you make a “distinction between the Christian doctrines,” and pretend that some are necessary, and some not necessary.” You say, that “some are abstruse, and some quite clear.” Thus you merely sport the sayings of others, or else exercise yourself, as it were, in a rhetorical figure. And you bring forward, in support of this opinion, that passage of Paul, Rom xi. 33, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and goodness of God!” And also that of Isaiah xl. 13, “Who hath holpen the Spirit of the Lord, or who hath been His counselor?”

You could easily say these things, seeing that, you either knew not that you were writing to Luther, but for the world at large, or did not think that you were writing against Luther: whom, however, I hope you allow to have some acquaintance with, and judgment in, the Sacred Writings. But, if you do not allow it, then, behold, I will also twist things thus. This is the distinction which I make; that I also may act a little the rhetorician and logician—God, and the Scripture of God, are two things; no less so than God, and the Creature of God. That there are in God many hidden things which we know not, no one doubts: as He himself saith concerning the last day: “Of that day knoweth no man but the Father.” (Matt. xxiv. 36.) And (Acts i. 7.) “It is not yours to know the times and seasons.” And again, “I know whom I have chosen,” (John xiii. 18.) And Paul, “The Lord knoweth them that are His,” (2 Tim. ii. 19.). And the like.

But, that there are in the Scriptures some things abstruse, and that all things are not quite plain, is a report spread abroad by the impious Sophists by whose mouth you speak here, Erasmus. But they never have produced, nor ever can produce, one article whereby to prove this their madness. And it is with such scare-crows that Satan has frightened away men from reading the Sacred Writings, and has rendered the Holy Scripture contemptible, that he might cause his poisons of philosophy to prevail in the church. This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the thing, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures. For what thing of more importance can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light, Christ made man: that God is Trinity and Unity: that Christ suffered for us, and will reign to all eternity? Are not these things known and proclaimed even in our streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find remaining in them?

All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures; are made manifest, although someplaces, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure. But to know that allthings in the Scriptures are set in the clearest light, and then, because a few words are obscure, to report that the things are obscure, is absurd and impious. And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another. But, however, the same thing,which has been most openly declared to the whole world, is both spoken of in the Scriptures in plain words, and also still lies hidden in obscure words. Now, therefore, it matters not if the thing be in the light, whether any certain representations of it be in obscurity or not, if, in the mean while, many other representations of the same thing be in the light. For who would say that the public fountain is not in the light, because those who are in some dark narrow lane do not see it, when all those who are in the Open market place can see it plainly?





Martin Luther: Christ’s Duel with Sin

20 12 2011

What a wonderful excerpt from Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians.  Below Luther outlines a duel between Christ’s eternal righteousness and sin’s most powerful destructive force.  It is edifying and fascinating to see how he works it out.  Enjoy!

This is the most joyous of all doctrines and the one that contains the most comfort. It teaches that we have the indescribable and inestimable mercy and love of God. When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through teh Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: “Be Peter the denier, Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who at the apple in Paradise; the thief on teh cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them.” Now the Law comes and says: “I find HIm a sinner, who takes upon Himself the sins of all men. I do not see any other sins than those in Him. Therefore let Him die on the cross!” And so it attacks Him and kills Him. By this deed the whole world is purged and expiated from all sins, and thus it is set free from death and from every evil. But when sin and death have been abolished by this one man, God does not want to see anything else in the whole world, especially if it were to believe, except the sheer cleansing and righteousness. And if any remnants of sin were to remain, still for the sake of Christ, the shining Sun, God would not notice them.

This is how we must magnify the doctrine of Christian righteousness in opposition to the righteousness of teh Law and of works, even though there is no voice or eloquence that can properly understand, much less express its greatness. Therefore the argument that Paul presents here is the most powerful and the highest of all against all righteousness of the flesh; for it contains the invinncible and irrefutable antithesis: If the sins of teh entire world are on that one man, Jesus Christ, then they are not on the world. But if they are not on Him, then they are still on the world. Again, if Christ Himself is made guilty of all the sins that we have all committed, then we are absolved from all sins, not through ourselves or through our own works or merits but through Him. But if He is innocent and does not carry our sins, then we carry them and shall die and be damned in them. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.” (1 Cor 15.57)

Now let us see how two such etremely contrary things come together in this Person. Not only my sins and yours, but the sins of the entire world, past, present, and future attack Him, try to damn Him, and do in fact damn Him. But because in the same Person, who is the highest, the greatest, and the only sinner, there is also eternal and invincible righteousness, therefore these two converge: the highest, the greatest, and the only sin; and the highest, the greatest, and the only righteousness. Here oneof them must yield and be conquered, since they come together and collide with such a powerful impact. Thus the sin of the entire world attacks righteousness with the greatest possible impact and fury. What happens? Righteousness is eternal, immortal, and invincible. Sin, too, is a very powerful and cruel tyrant, dominating and ruling over the whole world, capturing and enslaving all men. In short, sin is a great and powerful god who devours the whole human race, all the learned, holy, powerful, wise, and the unlearned as well. He, I say, attacks Christ and wants to devour Him as he has devoured all the rest. But he does not see that He is a Person of invincible and eternal righteousness. In this duel, therefore, it is necessary for sin to be conquered and killed, and for righeousness to prevail and live. Thus in Christ all sin is conquered, killed, and buried; and righteousness remains the victor and the ruler eternally.

Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians 1535, American Edition, pg 280-281





Martin Luther: Galatians 5.1-13

19 12 2011

Our conscience is free and quiet because it no longer has to fear the wrath of God. This is real liberty, compared with which every other kind of liberty is not worth mentioning. Who can adequately express the boon that comes to a person when he has the heart-assurance that God will nevermore be angry with him, but will forever be merciful to him for Christ’s sake? This is indeed a marvelous liberty, to have the sovereign God for our Friend and Father who will defend, maintain, and save us in this life and in the life to come.

As an outgrowth of this liberty, we are at the same time free from the Law, sin, death, the power of the devil, hell, etc. Since the wrath of God has been assuaged by Christ no Law, sin, or death may now accuse and condemn us. These foes of ours will continue to frighten us, but not too much. The worth of our Christian liberty cannot be exaggerated.

Our conscience must he trained to fall back on the freedom purchased for us by Christ. Though the fears of the Law, the terrors of sin, the horror of death assail us occasionally, we know that these feelings shall not endure, because the prophet quotes God as saying: “In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment: but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee.” (Isa. 54:8.)

We shall appreciate this liberty all the more when we bear in mind that it was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who purchased it with His own blood. Hence, Christ’s liberty is given us not by the Law, or for our own righteousness, but freely for Christ’s sake. In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus declares: “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” He only stands between us and the evils which trouble and afflict us and which He has overcome for us.

Reason cannot properly evaluate this gift. Who can fully appreciate the blessing of the forgiveness of sins and of everlasting life? Our opponents claim that they also possess this liberty. But they do not. When they are put to the test all their self-confidence slips from them. What else can they expect when they trust in works and not in the Word of God?

Our liberty is founded on Christ Himself, who sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Therefore our liberty is sure and valid as long as we believe in Christ. As long as we cling to Him with a steadfast faith we possess His priceless gifts. But if we are careless and indifferent we shall lose them. It is not without good reason that Paul urges us to watch and to stand fast. He knew that the devil delights in taking this liberty away from us.

Read it all here





Martin Luther: Through His Suffering, All of Creation is Radically Altered

19 12 2011

By virtue of the person, this suffering is extremely, indescribably great. For one drop of Christ’s blood is incomparably greater than heaven and earth. There is a great difference between the killing of a king and the killing of a peasant. The greatness of the person makes the wrong committed against him all the greater. But we shall skip this now, and only state that his suffering must be highly esteemed because of its fruit and benefit, namely that through this suffering all creation is radically altered and all things made new, heaven too. This is what the words spoken on the cross make plain, words which every Christian should know by heart.

The first word Jesus spoke on the cross was his prayer for his crucifiers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” These words are indeed brief but very comforting. The Lord may have spoken other words, but only these are recorded and they are written for our consolation.

Now as our dear Lord Jesus Christ is lifted into the air to hang on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth, with nothing any longer on earth to call his own, he is exercising his true, real, priestly office, accomplishing the work he came on earth to do, not only with his suffering, by offering up himself, but also by his intercessions. For both constitute a priest’s work, to sacrifice and to intercede.

The purpose of his suffering and priestly offering is, as he himself states in the Gospel (John 17.19): “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified through the truth.” And John 10: 15: “I lay down my life for my sheep.” There is it stated that his suffering is a suffering for us, not for himself personally. Plainly he affirms in those words that he is a faithful shepherd, priest, and bishop of our souls, who accomplishes his priestly work so that the entire world may become new.

But when he offers himself thus for us, what garment or priestly gard does this priest, Jesus Christ, wear and what is his altar? His adornment is not a gold or silk cloak, decked with pearls or jewels, like the pope’s bishops adorn themselves, nor like the Old Testament high priest who had his special priestly resplendent robes. Instead he hangs on the cross bare and naked, covered with wounds, and has, so to speak, not a thread on his body. Instead of a purple robe he is red with blood, his body covered with wounds and welts, badly swollen. Instead of a priestly headdress he wears a bloodied crown of thorns.

Martin Luther, Fourth Sermon of Holy Week, preached at the parish church on Good Friday, April 2, 1534 taken from Luther’s Church Postil, vol V pg 420.





Rob Sturdy: Martin Luther’s Personal Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper

19 12 2011

The essay below is about how Martin Luther conceives of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Luther’s particular contribution is a Christological contribution, articulating the nature of the “personal” union between Christ’s divine and human natures.

How, if at all, is Christ present in the Eucharist?  The question itself was one of the most hotly contested of the Protestant Reformation.  Though the question is formally a matter of sacramental theology, the answer to the question for the Reformers often rested upon their own Christological presuppositions.  After all, how one understands the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, as well as what limits (if any!) one believes should be placed upon the physical body of Jesus, will influence how one understands the possibility of the presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine.  One could say that Christology sets the ground rules for sacramental theology.

For many of the Reformed, the Christology that sets the ground rules for their sacramental theology has come to be known as the extra-Calvinisticum. Oberman defines the extra-Calvinisticum as the theological conviction “that the immutable God became man without diminution or loss as regards any of his attributes” joined with the conviction that the “existence of the second person of the Trinity et extra cernem.” [1]To put it more simply, the extra holds to the ubiquity of the divine Word and the local presence of the physical body of Jesus contained in heaven, while emphasizing the unity of the two in the person of Christ.[2] The doctrine lends itself to a real, albeit spiritual, presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to memorialism.  Because of Christ’s physical presence in heaven, the doctrine prohibits a carnal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to transubstantiation.  It is typically supposed that because the doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum prohibits a true, carnal presence it must then also oppose Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation.  This paper will argue that this is not necessarily so.  Using Luther’s writings from 1520 up until the eve of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, I will argue that the highly nuanced Christology underpinning Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation is thoroughly consistent with the extra-Calvinisticum.  It will be shown that Luther believes that the humanity of Christ is locally present at the right hand of God and that the divinity of Christ maintains a ubiquitous or extra presence in the world.  Furthermore it will be shown that by virtue of the union between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, Christ can really and truly be said to be present in the Lord’s Supper.  This will serve to benefit a larger project of historical theology, tracing the development and significance of the extra-Calvinisticum in Christian thought and practice Read the rest of this entry »





What did it look like when Christ took on the shame of my sin?

19 12 2011

The following is  Luther’s Commentary on Galatians ch. 3 vs. 13:  “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.”

Paul does not say that Christ was made a curse for Himself. The accent is on the two words “for us.” Christ is personally innocent. Personally, He did not deserve to be hanged for any crime of His own doing. But because Christ took the place of others who were sinners, He was hanged like any other transgressor. The Law of Moses leaves no loopholes. It says that a transgressor should be hanged. Who are the other sinners? We are. The sentence of death and everlasting damnation had long been pronounced over us. But Christ took all our sins and died for them on the Cross. “He was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12.)All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men, that He should pay for them with His own blood. The curse struck Him. The Law found Him among sinners. He was not only in the company of sinners. He had gone so far as to invest Himself with the flesh and blood of sinners. So the Law judged and hanged Him for a sinner.

In separating Christ from us sinners and holding Him up as a holy exemplar, errorists rob us of our best comfort. They misrepresent Him as a threatening tyrant who is ready to slaughter us at the slightest provocation.

I am told that it is preposterous and wicked to call the Son of God a cursed sinner. I answer: If you deny that He is a condemned sinner, you are forced to deny that Christ died. It is not less preposterous to say, the Son of God died, than to say, the Son of God was a sinner.

John the Baptist called Him “the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Being the unspotted Lamb of God, Christ was personally innocent. But because He took the sins of the world His sinlessness was defiled with the sinfulness of the world. Whatever sins I, you, all of us have committed or shall commit, they are Christ’s sins as if He had committed them Himself. Our sins have to be Christ’s sins or we shall perish forever.

Isaiah declares of Christ: “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We have no right to minimize the force of this declaration. God does not amuse Himself with words. What a relief for a Christian to know that Christ is covered all over with my sins, your sins, and the sins of the whole world.

The papists invented their own doctrine of faith. They say charity creates and adorns their faith. By stripping Christ of our sins, by making Him sinless, they cast our sins back at us, and make Christ absolutely worthless to us. What sort of charity is this? If that is a sample of their vaunted charity we want none of it.

Our merciful Father in heaven saw how the Law oppressed us and how impossible it was for us to get out from under the curse of the Law. He therefore sent His only Son into the world and said to Him: “You are now Peter, the liar; Paul, the persecutor; David, the adulterer; Adam, the disobedient; the thief on the cross. You, My Son, must pay the world’s iniquity.” The Law growls: “All right. If Your Son is taking the sin of the world, I see no sins anywhere else but in Him. He shall die on the Cross.” And the Law kills Christ. But we go free.

The argument of the Apostle against the righteousness of the Law is impregnable. If Christ bears our sins, we do not bear them. But if Christ is innocent of our sins and does not bear them, we must bear them, and we shall die in our sins. “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let us see how Christ was able to gain the victory over our enemies. The sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves upon Christ and condemned Him. But because Christ is God He had an everlasting and unconquerable righteousness. These two, the sin of the world and the righteousness of God, met in a death struggle. Furiously the sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God. Righteousness is immortal and invincible. On the other hand, sin is a mighty tyrant who subdues all men. This tyrant pounces on Christ. But Christ’s righteousness is unconquerable. The result is inevitable. Sin is defeated and righteousness triumphs and reigns forever.

In the same manner was death defeated. Death is emperor of the world. He strikes down kings, princes, all men. He has an idea to destroy all life. But Christ has immortal life, and life immortal gained the victory over death. Through Christ death has lost her sting. Christ is the Death of death.

The curse of God waged a similar battle with the eternal mercy of God in Christ. The curse meant to condemn God’s mercy. But it could not do it because the mercy of God is everlasting. The curse had to give way. If the mercy of God in Christ had lost out, God Himself would have lost out, which, of course, is impossible.

“Christ,” says Paul, “spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” (Col. 2:15.) They cannot harm those who hide in Christ. Sin, death, the wrath of God, hell, the devil are mortified in Christ. Where Christ is near the powers of evil must keep their distance. St. John says: “And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” (I John 5:4.)

You may now perceive why it is imperative to believe and confess the divinity of Christ. To overcome the sin of a whole world, and death, and the wrath of God was no work for any creature. The power of sin and death could be broken only by a greater power. God alone could abolish sin, destroy death, and take away the curse of the Law. God alone could bring righteousness, life, and mercy to light. In attributing these achievements to Christ the Scriptures pronounce Christ to be God forever. The article of justification is indeed fundamental. If we remain sound in this one article, we remain sound in all the other articles of the Christian faith. When we teach justification by faith in Christ we confess at the same time that Christ is God.

I cannot get over the blindness of the Pope’s theologians. To imagine that the mighty forces of sin, death, and the curse can be vanquished by the righteousness of man’s paltry works, by fasting, pilgrimages, masses, vows, and such gewgaws. These blind leaders of the blind turn the poor people over to the mercy of sin, death, and the devil. What chance has a defenseless human creature against these powers of darkness? They train sinners who are ten times worse than any thief, whore, murderer. The divine power of God alone can destroy sin and death, and create righteousness and life.

When we hear that Christ was made a curse for us, let us believe it with joy and assurance. By faith Christ changes places with us. He gets our sins, we get His holiness.

By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the sinlessness of Christ. The more fully we believe this, the fuller will be our joy. If you believe that sin, death, and the curse are void, why, they are null, zero. Whenever sin and death make you nervous write it down as an illusion of the devil. There is no sin now, no curse, no death, no devil because Christ has done away with them. This fact is sure. There is nothing wrong with the fact. The defect lies in our lack of faith.

In the Apostolic Creed we confess: “I believe in the holy Christian Church.” That means, I believe that there is no sin, no curse, no evil in the Church of God. Faith says: “I believe that.” But if you want to believe your eyes you will find many shortcomings and offenses in the members of the holy Church. You see them succumb to temptation, you see them weak in faith, you see them giving way to anger, envy, and other evil dispositions. “How can the Church be holy?” you ask. It is with the Christian Church as it is with the individual Christian. If I examine myself I find enough unholiness to shock me. But when I look at Christ in me I find that I am altogether holy. And so it is with the Church.

Holy Writ does not say that Christ was under the curse. It says directly that Christ was made a curse. In II Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes: “For he (God) hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Although this and similar passages may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a sacrifice for the curse and for sin, yet in my judgment it is better to leave these passages stand as they read: Christ was made sin itself; Christ was made the curse itself. When a sinner gets wise to himself he does not only feel miserable, he feels like misery personified; he does not only feel like a sinner, he feels like sin itself.

To finish with this verse: All evils would have overwhelmed us, as they shall overwhelm the unbelievers forever, if Christ had not become the great transgressor and guilty bearer of all our sins. The sins of the world got Him down for a moment. They came around Him like water. Of Christ, the Old Testament Prophet complained: “Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.” (Psalm 88 16.) By Christ’s salvation we have been delivered from the terrors of God to a life of eternal felicity.

check out Luther’s entire commentary on line here





Dante, Sin, Repentance, and Desire

19 12 2011

One of the things I’ve learned through my reading of Scripture and my experience of the Christian life, is that spiritual growth is not so much about restraining old (sinful) desires but about gaining new, godly desires.  But in order for this to happen, our desires must be changed and this is the root of the Christian concept of repentance.  Repentance is not merely a conscious turning away from the world towards God, but on a deeper level it is exchanging old desires for new ones.  The new desires are not sinful but Godly, and they are to be enjoyed.  So the Christian life is not so much about restraining desire, as it is about indulging desire (the right desires!).  But how do we understand this?  And more importantly, how do we go about doing it?

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno contains a treasure of Augustinian theology wrapped in stunning verse after stunning verse. It also has much to say on the nature of sin, deisre, and repentance.   So we will turn to his most famous work,  The Divine Comedy, but particularly to the inferno to help us understand the complex interplay of sin, repentance and desire.

In the passage below we find our travelers in the eighth circle of hell (also in the eighth bolgia) with the “evil counselors”. The evil counselor we are here concerned with is Count Guido Da Montefeltro.[1] He was a “man of arms” who laid down the sword to become a Franciscan monk.Unfortunately, Pope Boniface VIII, who Dante describes as the new “Prince of Pharisees” persuades the new monk to use his old skills as a warrior to help him persecute a Christian land that he was hoping to acquire.  He does so with these words:

“Your soul need fear no wound; I absolve your guilt beforehand; and now teach me how to smash Penestrino to the ground.”[2]

With the assurance that the power to forgive sins rests with the Pope, our monk goes on to counsel him how to defeat his fellow Christians to acquire land and wealth for himself.  Thus, the monk becomes a “false counselor.”

For the purposes of the discussion we wish to have, “sin, repentance and desire” what happens next is far more interesting.  St. Francis, hearing that one of his monks is in Hell, goes to Hell to rescue him.  However, Francis is turned away at the gate.  We read of the account starting at vs. 109:

“Later, when I was dead, St. Francis came to claim my soul, but one of the Black Angels said: ‘Leave him.  Do not wrong me.  This one’s name went into my book the moment he resolved to give false counsel.  Since then he has been mine, for who does not repent cannot be absolved, nor can we admit the possibility of repenting a thing at the same time it is willed, for the two acts are contradictory.”[3]

What is important to notice about Dante’s theology of repentance is how closely it is tied to his theology of desire.  First let us notice what repentance is not.

1.  Repentance is not a turning to God to gain forgiveness

2.  Repentance is not a turning to God to avoid punishment

The essence of repentance for Dante is that the human will is turned towards God and away from all things that  are not God, or “no God” as Barth would say.  The repentance described above is a turning away from sin to gain forgiveness, or to avoid punishment, but it is not a turning towards God for God’s sake.  It is a turning towards God for something else.  The point being, at the end of the day, our monk still does not desire or will after God.  If fear of punishment were removed, he would still sin because that is his desire.  This excludes any possibility of repentance.

Genuine repentance (and genuine Christian discipleship) is not about restraining sinful behavior, it is about changing desires.  Hundreds of years later, it is Martin Luther who helpfully draws the distinction between restraint and a new creation.  He writes:

Every law was given to hinder sins.  Does this mean when the Law restrains sins, it justifies?  Not at all.  When I refrain from killing or from committing adultery or from stealing, or when I abstain from other sins, I do not do this voluntarily or from the love of virtue but because I am afraid of the sword and of the executioner.  This prevents me, as the ropes or the chains prevent a lion or a bear from ravaging something that comes along.  Therefore restraining from sin is not a sin of righteousness, but rather an indication of unrighteousness…This restraint makes it abundantly clear that those who have need of it- as does everyone outside of Christ- are not righteous but unrighteous and insane, whom it is necessary to tame with the rope and with prison to keep from sinning[4].

– Luther, Commentary on Galatians 1535  vs. 3.19

The problem for Luther is that restraint, like Dante’s false repentance, is not done voluntarily but under coercion.  The heart is not changed, it is corralled.  What then is the remedy?  For Dante, as for Luther, the remedy is a new heart, with new desires, and a new will.  One that can voluntarily turn to God.  How then is this accomplished?  We catch a glimpse from the source of both men’s thoughts, that is in Augustine who commenting on John 6..44 “No man comes to me unless the Father draws him”, writes:

Do not think that thou are drawn against thy will.  The mind is drawn also by love… “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart” (Psalm37.4).  There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet.  Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” –not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight, -how much more boldly ought we to say that man is drawn to Christ?…Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say.  Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such and he knows what I say[5].

– Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel

The important thing to highlight about Augustine, especially in terms of repentance, is that God replaces our desire for worldly things by luring us away from them by showing us Himself, which is infinitely more lovely, infinitely more valuable, and infinitely sweeter than all our other lusts and desires.  This is the Christian’s experience of Rom 2.4, “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”  When God shows us his kindness, it is an irresistible beauty that compels us to repentance.  For Luther especially, this kindness is demonstrated most clearly on the cross, and nowhere is it more beautiful, or more alluring, than the savior who suffers for the ungodly.

When God draws men and women to himself, by showing himself to them, they begin to desire him.  So they repent.  Their repentance is both voluntary and genuine.  Rather than sinning freely and repenting grudgingly, they not repent freely and sin grudgingly.  So it can be said that their will has changed, their desire has changed, and their heart has changed. May God draw you and I daily by the beauty of the crucified Savior, away from the things of this world that we might desire him, and have our desire!


[1] Canto XXVII

[2] Canto XXVII.97

[3] Canton XXVII.109

[4] LW. Vol 26 pg 308

[5] Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel Tractate XXVI.4 NPNF vol. 7 pg 169