Anfechtung and Absolution Part 1
Judas, the worst merchant
Asked to Kiss the Lord.
And He, like an innocent lamb,
Did not reject the kiss of Judas.
For a number of coins
he delivered Christ to the Jews.
It would have been better for him,
had he never been born.
For a number of coins
he delivered Christ to the Jews.
Judas, mercator pessimus
Osculo petiit Dominum
Ille, ut agnus innocens
Non negavit Judae osculum.
Christum Judaeis tradidit.
Melius illi erat, si natus non fuisset
Christum Judaeis tradidit.
(Tomás Luis de Victoria: b. 1548, d. 1611)
St. Matthew writes, “Then one of the twelve named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?’ And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus” (Matthew 26: 14-16).
What was he thinking? Was he trying to force the hand of Jesus, so that the Lord would show His mighty power? Or, had Judas already lost faith and given up on Jesus as Messiah? Scripture does not tell us what he was thinking. But, Judas did betray the Master.
Matthew 26: 47-50: “While Jesus was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a large crowd and with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now he who was betraying him gave them a sign, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him.’ Immediately Judas went to Jesus and said, ‘Hail, Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. And Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you have come for.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him.”
St. Matthew continues: “Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that he (Jesus) had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to that yourself!’ And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27: 3-5).
What torment must have been in the mind and heart of Judas Iscariot. Luther explains:
From the beginning Satan was a liar. With lies he misled Adam and Eve and since then has never ceased to lie. With the lie he brought death, and soon after that he moved Cain to kill his brother. His kingdom continues to operate under these same principles of lying and deceiving. After Satan captures his victims, there is no festive celebration for them, but he troubles them with murder, unrest, and disobedience. Then, when he has brought people into murder and misfortune, he plagues them further about their sins, until finally they are without any hope. Take for an example Judas who betrayed Christ. First, he deceived himself with lies; then his soul was plagued because he was a traitor and a murderer of his own Lord Jesus. Finally, he despaired and hanged himself. Beware of Satan! He is a liar and murderer. Whoever serves and obeys him must eventually pay him as did Judas, his servant.
(Die Anfechtungen bei Martin Luther. Zurich: Zwingli Verlag, 1942, p. 7, Paul Buehler: English translation by David P. Scaer, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 47, Number 1: January, 1983, p 18.)
This Luther quote, translated by David P. Scaer, has been taken from an article that Scaer published in the Concordia Theological Quarterly, January, 1983, titled: The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought.
Scaer tells us that the concept of Anfechtung is of extreme importance for Luther. Unfortunately, Anfechtung is difficult to translate into English because it is so multifaceted. Anfechtung can be used to describe an attack of the devil, a temptation to do evil, or a twisting of lies in the mind. Anfechtung can refer to the trials of this world, the affliction of the flesh, or the tribulation of earthly distress and sorrow. Luther’s use of the German Anfechtung and its Latin counterpart Tentatio, is translated by Pieper as “temptation,” by Plass as “affliction,” and by the English edition of LW as “tribulation.”
Please take a moment and think of some of your own afflictions, temptations, and tribulations: your Anfechtungen (pl). Because the Christian understands that tribulation achieves the purpose of God, Anfechtung becomes more complex. (Romans 5:3: “…[w]e exalt in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”) When the believer goes through tribulations, to what extent was this the plan of God? God, whose eye sees all and whose hand is over all, is the One who is in control of all. Why did God do such a thing? What kind of a God does that to a person? But, now I am doubting God. Isn’t that a sin? Have I lost my faith and if I have, have I lost my salvation? Can I trust this God to still love me even when I don’t trust Him, or even hate Him? I had better stop questioning, stop doubting, stop being angry, and stop being faithless. But, can I stop, really?
Now, we are getting closer to what Luther meant by the word Anfechtung. This is very personal for Luther. We may find that these questions are personal for us too. There were times when Luther questioned God. In the O.T., God required His children to keep the commandments. Luther could not; he was a sinner. In the N.T., God made things even worse. Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and Luther learned that the righteousness of God required not only holy actions, but holy thoughts and holy words as well. This was impossible; Luther saw that he was utterly sinful. God had required holiness, adherence to Laws that could not be kept; and God knew it. Luther’s emotions went from frustration, to anger, to hatred. He hated this holy God who required righteousness. Luther’s sin of hatred compounded the condemnation that he already deserved for breaking the Law of God. What judgment would God render? Luther could not keep the commandments, and hated the God who required him to do what was impossible.
This is Anfechtung: temptation, tribulation, failure, and sin, compounded by self-examination, condemnation, struggle with faith, fear, attack by Satan, and the terror of deserved judgment. Dr. Richard Bucher writes of Luther’s Anfechtung, “It brought with it an overwhelming feeling of having been abandoned by God’s grace and of being lost forever.” (Rchard P. Bucher, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church: “Luther’s Anfechtungen: Setting for the Reformation.”)
Men and women across the ages have dealt with Anfechtungen. By what means have people dealt with these temptations and tribulations, alienation from God and fear of eternal judgment? How have people made the agony of the soul go away? I want to suggest several LIES that people have told themselves in order to lessen the severity of their Anfechtung:
I. PHARISEE-ISM: I DO NOT SIN
The first option is the choice of Pharisees of every age. Simply stated, they convince themselves that they CAN NOT and DO NOT SIN. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day knew the Law. They specialized in it. They went to extraordinary lengths to maintain the 613 laws of the Hebrew Scriptures. In their minds, they were absolutely acceptable to God. They were righteous because they kept the Law of God. Everyone around them was a sinner, but they were not sinners. They did not sin.
One way to combat the Anfechtung of self-doubt, and fear of judgment is to convince yourself that you have No Sin because you commit No sins. There are examples across history of persons who have so deluded themselves. Even now in the U.S., there are persons who declare that because they are Christians, they do not sin. Through a denial of reality, they claim that they do not get sick, do not have financial difficulties, do not suffer, and do not sin. One young fellow told me that if you have real faith, you will never sin. In fact, he claimed that he would not physically die. Why? He has real faith and so he can do everything that Jesus did and more, he claimed.
Keep your eyes open for church movements that no longer include Confession and Absolution, that no longer teach the Sacraments as means of grace, and that have discontinued the celebration of Holy Communion as a means of forgiveness. What would cause persons to no longer make confession or look for God’s forgiveness? Perhaps, they think that they do not need forgiveness. Perhaps, they believe that they do not sin!
Do you know people who believe that human nature and human free will are capable of choosing and doing good without divine help or inspiration? They might say that they have the potential, by their own good actions, to merit eternal life. If they work at it hard enough, they might even say that they are able to live without sin. Do you buy that? If not, why not?
What are the root causes of the lie of Pharisee-ism?
II. OPINIO LEGIS: I CAN EARN GOD’S GRACE
Most Christians are not as deceived as the Pharisees. Most Christians recognize that after conversion, they sin, continue to sin, know that God’s judgment is coming, and sin again. They have some genuine fear about judgment. How do they deal with their Anfechtung? They might say something like this: Now that I am a Christian, it is up to me to live like Jesus. God will judge me for the way that I live. I just have to do more GOOD works than the BAD ones. As long as I can keep the balance on the good side, I will get my way into heaven.
I want to put three theological terms before you. The first is Semi-Pelagianism. The church has long ago condemned this theology as heretical, but we still face some forms of it today. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that the beginning of faith is an act of free will. The Semi-Pelagiast says, “I can choose faith in God. It is my decision, an act of my own free will.” Maybe the increase or growth of faith is the work of God, says the Pelagiast. But, that first choice of faith, that is mine.
The Roman Catholic Church has offered a slightly different perspective, but one that is equally false. It says that the beginning of faith is a work of God. However, believers can merit for themselves the graces necessary for the increase of faith through their own works unto eternal life.
What is wrong with both Semi-Pelagianism and this Roman Catholic view? In each instance, the works necessary for salvation and eternal life are, in some measure, left to human beings. The first view credits humans with the power of free will, the ability to chose God. This is false, of course, because prior to having faith, we are dead in our sins. God comes to us and by His Word, He gives us faith. The Roman Catholic view offers the same falsehood from the other side. After God gives faith, the Roman Catholic is told that he or she must now increase the faith (that is, attain holiness and eternal life) through his or her own merits. The problem in each instance is a denial of the all sufficient work of Christ unto salvation. His work is complete and we can add nothing to it. If it were necessary for salvation that we add our works or merits to the passionate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then we would in effect be co-redeemers, saving ourselves. Christ’s atoning sacrifice simply would not have been enough to get the job done.
Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was completely sufficient for our salvation. This brings us to the second theological term, satisfactio vicaria. This means that the vicarious sacrifice of Christ provides for us complete satisfaction of the wrath and judgment of God. We cannot and must not attempt to add anything to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
But, there is in humanity a default position that stands against the truth of Christ’s all-sufficient satisfaction and our passive reception of forgiveness and faith. It is called opinio legis, the opinion or religion of the Law. It seems that humanity has a natural tendency to expect just payment for both good and evil acts. We do not like being passive recipients of grace. We expect that if we do good, we should and shall be rewarded for it. If we do evil, we should and shall be punished for it. In this way, we expect that God’s eternal judgment will be based upon how good or bad we have been. In short, my redemption is based upon my actions.
What is wrong with opinio legis? First, it assumes that it is possible for me to lead a life that is holy and righteous before God. This is false. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But, next we hope that we will do more Good than Bad and God will judge us for the better balance. This is false. If we were able to keep the entire Law but failed in one point, we would be guilty of all of it. The third problem is the worst of all. In this whole process, I have been attempting to justify or save myself. This place of Justifier belongs to only One. Christ alone is the Savior. He has Lordship over sin, death, and the devil. Opinio legis is my attempt to put myself in His place. How? I think that my actions will determine my salvation, not His actions. Either, I think that my works are righteous enough to earn my salvation, or I think that I will lose my salvation on account of my bad works. Opinio legis says that my actions are the ones that matter, not Christ’s. In either case, Christ is displaced and I have taken the place that belongs only to God.
What are the root causes of the lie of opinio legis?
III. IDOLATRY: I AM TOO SINFUL TO BE FORGIVEN
I recognize that I cannot keep God’s Law. I acknowledge that I am utterly sinful and am in bondage to sin. I recognize my sin as abhorrent to God and my life as awaiting His inevitable righteous judgment, the legitimate verdict of eternal punishment. So far, I sound pretty Lutheran.
However, this position places such emphasis and importance upon my own sinful life that there is no room for anyone or anything else in it. For those who take the position: “I AM TOO SINFUL TO BE FORGIVEN,” the center of life and faith are the self. Satan has succeeded in directing one’s gaze away from the Cross of Christ and the forgiveness that Christ has given. The sinful self is all that I see. Cut off from God’s mercy and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the indictment of my own sin screams its terrifying accusation: “You sick sinner. You know the right and keep doing the wrong. You do not love and serve God. You love and serve yourself.” The voice of the accuser (Satan or self) drowns out the declaration from the Cross. Christ speaks His Word, “Te absolvo: I forgive you…all of your sins.” But, the Word of the Lord cannot be heard. The vociferous accusation has drowned out the Word of God.
This kind of Self-Idolatry is practiced by many of us. Our sins become enormous. We imagine that they are far too big and heavy for God to forgive. They are overwhelming in importance and severity. So monumental and gigantic is my sin before me that all else pales in comparison. The little Word in the mouth of a tiny God spoken from His throne, the Cross, is lost on me.
Luther remarked about this kind of thinking. He likened it to a scale of eternal judgment: your sin is on one side (large as life and heavy as lead), Jesus sits in the scale on the other side. Luther writes: “We Christians must know that if God is not in the scale to give it weight, our side of the scale sinks to the ground. That is to say, if it cannot be said that God, not a mere man, died for us, we are lost. But if God’s death and a dying God are in the balance, His side goes down and ours comes up, as though it were light and empty.” (On the Councils and the Churches: The True Christology).
Paulson, in his work, Lutheran Theology, provides a humorous picture. He declares that we have a big, fat God sitting on the other scale and that our sin is as light as a feather. This is true. Compared to the enormous weight of His sacrifice and eternal, merciful forgiveness, our most grievous sin is comparatively infinitesimal.
What are the root causes of this lie of Idolatry, I am too sinful?
IV. ANTINOMIANISM: THE LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO ME
We have been talking about Anfechtungen: temptations, afflictions, failures and sins, compounded by self-examination, condemnation, struggle with faith, attack by Satan, and the terror of deserved eternal punishment. Humanity has devised at least one more way to lessen the sting of our sinful alienation from God and the inevitability of His judgement? A fourth possibility is called Antinomianism, religion without the Law.
John Agricola, a student of Luther’s, argued that once a person is a Christian, he or she had no more use for the Law of God. Agricola based his argument in large measure on Romans 7:6:
“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”
Agricola argues that we are released from the Law, and are now dead to the Law (Romans 7). Now, the Law of God is no longer written on tablets of stone but hearts of flesh (Jeremiah 31). Agricola continues, the Gospel calls us to love; the Law does not cause us to do that. Only the Gospel can cause us to love. Therefore, Agricola requires that the Law of God no longer be preached. Unexpectedly, Agricola’s position finds itself producing another Law, the Law of love.
In our day, there are other Lutherans advocating a complete cessation of the preaching of the Law. In so doing, they too have made “love” the Law, and find themselves defending any behavior or action that is done in love as if it were the will and way of God.
But, the Lutheran Confessions declare that the redeemed still need the Law. In the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration, Article VI) we read:
If believers and the elect children of God were perfectly renewed in this life through the indwelling Spirit in such a way that in their nature and all its powers they would be totally free from sins, they would require no law, no driver. Of themselves and altogether spontaneously, without any instruction, admonition, exhortation, or driving by the law they would do what they are obligated to do according to the will of God…
But in this life Christians are not renewed perfectly and completely. For although their sins are covered up through the perfect obedience of Christ, so that they are not reckoned to believers for damnation, and although the Holy Spirit has begun the mortification of the Old Adam and their renewal in the spirit of their minds, nevertheless the Old Adam still clings to their nature and to all its internal and external powers.
(Article VI: Third Use of Law: 6-9)
In other words, because the sinful nature and the old flesh still cling to us who believe, we still require the daily teaching, warning, and even punishment of the Law. In the Church, right preaching must include both the Law and the Gospel. Especially is the Law necessary to fight against the falsehood of Antinomianism. As Luther writes:
According to the spirit the believer is righteous, without any sin, has need of no law whatever; according to his flesh he still has sin… There all manner of filth still clings to him and evil concupiscence, worry about his daily bread, fear of death, avarice, anger, hatred; the filth always remains beside his faith, for him to contend with it and sweep it out…
A Christian is in two realms at once. So far as he is flesh, he is under the Law; so far as he is spirit, he is under grace.”
(Quoted in F. Pieper, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, p. 238-239.)
What are the root causes of the lie of antinomianism?
It is now some 45 years since I first sang, “Judas, mercator pessimus,
Osculo petiit Dominum” (Judas, the worst merchant, Asked to Kiss the Lord). Regardless of my age: a youth or young man or an old, bald one, I too know the sin of Judas. I, too, have betrayed Christ while receiving His kiss. My sin is ever before me. I am ashamed of my sin, my failure, my fear, and my lack of faith.
In the face of such Anfechtungen, I have created lies that have prevented me from hearing the Word of Christ’s forgiveness.
1. Pharisee-ism: Though I have not thought of myself as a Pharisee who was without sin, I confess that I have thought of myself as better than others. I have lived the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and my arrogance is my shame.
2. Opinio legis: As a Lutheran Theologian, I have been trained to know that Christ’s sacrifice is all-sufficient and that I can add nothing to it. And yet, I am sometimes so overwhelmed by my selfish sin and the frequency of its reoccurrence that I fear that God will judge me not for the sake of my Savior, but for the sake of myself.
3. Idolatry: I confess that I have thought of myself as too sinful, all the while knowing that I am minimizing the infinite mercy of God and the absolute trustworthiness of the Word of God.
4. Antinomianism: I cannot say that I have ever believed that God’s Law did not exist for me. What I can say is that I have sometimes ignored it, and lived as though it did not apply to me.
In each of these cases, repeated throughout my life, I have been Judas, mercator pessimus, foolishly trying to justify myself. Each time I do, I miss the one word that does justify me. Today, we have spoken of Anfechtung and what prevents us from hearing the Word of Christ’s forgiveness. Tomorrow, we will hear the “Te absolvo” of Christ, the Word of Our Lord’s forgiveness.