Martin Luther’s Reckless Grasp of Grace

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 26, 1983, pp. 962-965. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Luther took a high risk in identifying Paul’s message as an emphatic naysaying to everything in humanity that strives for favor and grace. The loss which came with that risk is evident in the debris of Lutheran cultures today.

On October 2, 1940, The Christian Century published a W. H. Auden sonnet called "Luther." Its last four lines focused on the central problem which haunts celebrators of Martin Luther on his 500th birthday:

"All Works and all Societies are bad;

The Just shall live by Faith," he cried in dread.

And men and women of the world were glad

Who never trembled in their useful lives.

When I joined the Century staff in 1956 as perhaps its first Lutheran, though not necessarily its first Lutherite, I recall occasions when Managing Editor Ted Gill and I savored those lines. Gill thought they served well to portray the gap between Luther and Lutherans. At the same time, didn’t they also show Auden’s sense for finding just the right word? "How could he have done better than to think of ‘useful’ lives?" asked Gill.

Such lives belonged to German burghers gaping up at their empulpited hero, sure of his charisma, awed by his power, perhaps stunned by their inability to know just what was driving him -- and eager not to let go of those little useful securities on which we all rely. Closing the pigsty gate. Patting the new child on the head. Haggling over the price of wurst. Wondering how the spouse will treat you tomorrow.

Luther’s countrymen were not only interested in keeping the Turk at bay or cutting off revenues from indulgences for the pope. Few of them could have said that Luther’s attraction was his stimulus to German nationalism, though the Reformer and company likely would not have "made it" without that impulse so noted by later historians. Today people look back on Luther as the all-time master of listening to colloquial speech and feeding it back as part of a new literary German, thus honoring both vernacular and high literature. Although his art moved the burghers in the midst of their useful lives, rhetoric and style were not the only attractions.

If they were moved, they were moved only so far. Before his death in 1546 Luther had given up on his fellow Wittenbergers. In world-weary lines he complained of their overindulgence in the beer he also enjoyed, the lascivious costumes they wore at the dances he had encouraged, their swinish gluttony and their neglect of the things of God. Records from the times show that spiritual carelessness lived on in the towns where Lutheran leaders held visitations, and that they had to fall back on legalisms when their gospel did not produce its effects. Useful lives. No trembling.

When Auden later published his Collected Poems he tampered with the lines of his sonnet. Now they read:

"All works, Great Men, Societies are bad.

The Just shall live by Faith . . ." he cried in dread.

And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.

We lost something when we lost that "useful." Yet there are some compensations. "Great Men" are included now, to be seen as corrupt. Auden knew that Luther turned the mirror on himself, for the Reformer had become one of the "Great Men" and had remained "bad." Yet he cared. To his hearers his gospel was saving, but what could it mean to them if they did not deeply care, or tremble first?

Wilhelm Dilthey recognized a hundred years ago how hard it was to share Luther’s solution if one did not have Luther’s problem. Speaking perhaps too confidently, he went so far as to claim that people of modern times no doubt could not have Luther’s caring and trembling, could not probe with him beyond the dulling scope of useful lives. At best, they would have to seek analogous experiences.

Not that guilt is gone. Yet after Freud, moderns learned to locate that guilt over against father, mother, anyone/thing but God. What good did God’s gracious turn do if God was illusion or, worse, incapable of inducing care or trembling? Guilt may remain in some intellectuals, existentialists and secularized Methodists, thought Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There are enough of them to provide a cohort of potentially God-intoxicated hearers for Luther’s word. Guilt may also come now and then to anyone; even God-focused guilt can attack, but since churchly transactions easily and quickly remove it, it gets translated back to the numbing godless guilt of useful living.

When one turns to the great-great-great-grand-nieces and nephews of the Protestant Reformers on television, the words of guilt and grace are loud and clear, set to Muzak. The surroundings, however, are so plush and promissory that people with useful lives feel no reason to care or tremble. Why pick on them?

First, those who did not care or tremble could take the way of slackness, turning Luther’s gospel into Bonhoeffer’s "cheap grace." The phrase "cheap grace" is so familiar it could fit as a bumper-sticker slogan, but the point remains. Swedish Lutheran Bishop Einar Billing knew that, as he looked out at sluggish Scandinavian cheap-grace peddlers and consumers. There is, he wrote, nothing in Christianity (except perhaps in Orthodoxy) which is more slack than slack Lutheranism. Auden also gave a classic form to this problem when he had King Herod speak up for "standards" in For the Time Being: "Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: ‘I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.’ Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes, God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.’ "

Lutheran churches often got things wrong by turning the cry "The Just shall live by Faith" into the doctrine "Justification by Faith." This doctrine soon became a badge and a weapon. Wearers of the badge were justified because their church taught justification by faith; nonwearers were half-breed Christians at best. The people who had never cared or trembled did not need to care or tremble: somewhere in their fold were custodians of textbooks and commissions on orthodoxy. These assured the believers that God could not get at them, since the formulation was correct.

Still a third way to evade Luther has been to lapse into legalisms. Luther was a great man of law, of Law. The lower-case term got him into trouble because a pathological horror of chaos caused him to lead his followers into maintaining order at the expense of peasants and reformers, as they have done ever since. The upper-case term has been obscured by antinomian Lutherans who fear that by making too much of divine Law they will obscure gospel. Not at all. Luther devoted hundreds of pages to expounding the Decalogue in commentaries, and gave due proportion to God’s law in his Large Catechism, still the best place to get Luther’s accents systematized.

For caring, trembling, nonuseful Luther, needing a gracious God, the Law was no help at all. For a time timid Lutherans censored out of Luther’s Galatians commentary the too strong theme that the Law of God was as much an enemy of the guilty soul as sin, death and the devil. The Law only made things worse. It accused and killed. Yet, let’s make this point deftly and import some Latin: what killed in loco justificationis was actually a positive power of God extra locum justificationis. (I have guilt for having imported a technical point, but forgiveness will be cheap if I justify myself by explaining?)

When one is dealing with or speaking of the theme of justification, or when one is situated before God in the act of being justified, the Law is the negative accuser. Apart from that, however, it is the power of God, as is the gospel; but whereas the gospel is that power "unto salvation," the Law is the power of God unto the care of the neighbor. On those terms Luther showed considerable openness to the secular. He had trouble believing that his favorite secular humanist Cicero might not be found in paradise. "I do hope God will help Cicero and such men as he to the remission of sins -- and if he must remain out of grace, then he will at least be some levels higher than our cardinals, and the bishop of Mainz." I am told, but never given the citation, that Luther once said, "Better be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian" -- a sign that he believed that the structures of divine ordering moved beyond the circle of grace.

Luther and the earliest Lutherans wavered in their reliance on the gospel and began to rule the church by Law and law. Thus they set a rueful precedent for later Lutherans, who became virtuosos at doing so. Adolescent rejecters of Lutheranism usually remember their ministers and elders as grudging legalists. It astounds them to hear that Luther meant the gospel -- that gospel which he, of course, did not always live up to.

I ask that question as I observe, listen to and participate in the events of this 500th year. Why are there so few young people at the Luther sites, even in West Germany? There they could gawk and gape and revere, as high schoolers are enabled and goaded to do during spring vacation trips to sacred sites in Washington, D.C. Are the young people in American churches grasping, or able to grasp, this hero? Or are they historyless, unable to possess the traditions which still possess them, however vaguely? In an age of probing media, are they and their elders so suspicious of heroes and. saints that they could ignore St. Francis last year, and Luther this year, and Wesley next year? Have we no need or capacity to make templates and exemplars of the stormy souls who lived life on scales which threaten our useful careers?

Before those questions begin to find answers, I push them aside for a second range of reminders. This is a celebration of a person, of highly flawed and unadorable Martin Luther. It is not the anniversary of the Reformation or Lutheranism or Lutheran churches. In 1967 we recalled 450 years of Reformation, dating that event from the posting by nail or by mail of the 95 Theses. The Lutheran churches tried again in 1980, remembering their charter documents of 1530 and 1580. Observers found that these occasions did not grab most of the laity or lead to much reform on the part of clergy. Will a focus on Luther the person now help facilitate the celebrating?

The awesome number of local church services, showings of Luther films, pilgrimages and ecumenical programs; the array of displays in Europe and America; the lectureships and conferences -- these all suggest some promise. They demonstrate the range of talent among historians, theologians and artists. At the same time one must point out that we are not in the midst of a Luther renaissance. That occurred during the midcentury years when a neo-Lutheranism matched neo-orthodoxy in theological circles. Today the Luther scholars concentrate impressively on social history. This year the questions focus on Luther and the East German socialist state, Luther and the Jews (there’s no justifying word for that relation), the peasants, women (he loved Katie but, it is being rumored, was not a modern feminist) and the like. These are urgent issues, and I find myself spending most time on them.

Would Luther recognize himself in these concerns? He gets only one vote on how this celebration is to be brought off, but it should be heard. I once listened to Mahalia Jackson singing and then being interpreted by two semantic philosophers. After each song we would be told what she really meant. She then clomped a shod foot on the floor, exclaiming "Oh, no, that’s not it at all!" What then was it? She would ask the pianist to play it again, and she sang it again. That was "it."

Who dares speak for Luther? Yet he gave us some clues. As far as he was concerned, "The Word did it all. Had I wished I might have started a conflagration at Worms. But while I sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow." Church priorities? Spirituality? Striving for God? "Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences." Or brags about belonging to a movement which teaches justification by faith.

Luther played it again and sang it again whenever he posed for himself and others the notion that they were best, or only, free for trust in God (faith-trust) when they did not rely on trust in themselves. Yet if all this meant that Luther had only a low view of human worth and character, one must also listen for his simul: at the same time, he cried -- now in happy dread before the Holy -- when God looks at the trusting one God sees not the "bad" or "useful" life but the new person. This new person is to be not as Christ but a Christ to the neighbor.

Like Paul, who did not live up to his own Galatians 3:28 projection of a situation in which there "is" neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, Luther did not live up to the gospel he heard. He fell back on his prejudices, his hatreds, his pettinesses. Like Thomas Jefferson, who did not live up to the Declaration of Independence’s lines about equality -- Jefferson did not mean women, did not intend to and did not free slaves -- but who did provide a charter for equality, Luther was often a person of contradictions whose mixed legacy left some things worse.

Yet wherever the presence of God is felt and sensitive souls are open to experiences analogous to Luther’s, on no matter how minute a scale in their useful lives, there is room for a reckless grasp of grace. The old radical of Wittenberg somehow transcended his own bondage to the present and chartered

a strange language and a new grammar. . . . For [God’s] will is, because we are to be new [persons], that we should also have other and new thoughts, minds and understandings, and not regard anything in the light of reason, as it is for the world, but as it is before his eyes, and take our cue from the future, invisible, new nature for which we have to hope and which is to come.