Christian morality is not ultimately instruction in how to make oneself a member of the Christian club. It is not a self-help program whose rules are adopted by a small set of people who wish to better themselves. Christian morals, rather, are simply moral teachings that agree with the natural design of the universe.
John Davenant, as Lady Margaret Professor of Theology at Cambridge, gave a lecture in the 1610’s defending the thesis that: “Thus, marrying in the Sacerdotal Order is lawful, and the decree for its prohibition in the Church of Rome is unlawful, anti-Christian, and plainly diabolical.” In this post, I want to highlight some of the more pertinent parts of Davenant’s lecture as they relate to the present problems facing the Roman Catholic Church.
Martin Luther sought above all to understand God’s self-revelation in the gospel, and how men and women are to grasp this revelation. In the gospel Luther discovered a God who comes to us. God condescends to us to meet us in our need as Savior and gives himself for us. Jesus Christ is God for us (Deus pro nobis) and our God (Deus noster). The character of the God revealed to us through the self-offering of Jesus Christ (Deus oblatus) consists in free and unbounded giving. God desires nothing from us in return for the gifts of creation and redemption. Our only appropriate response is thanksgiving; in our expression of thanks we acknowledge that God is the merciful giver of every temporal and spiritual gift.
In this perspective, Luther understood the Lord’s Supper above all as a gift to be received from a gracious God. For this reason, he resolutely opposed the idea of the Mass as sacrifice (sacrificium, bonum opus, meritum), according to which Christ instituted the Mass as a means of atonement for the actual sins (venial and mortal) both of the living and the dead. Luther did not see any basis for this idea in Scripture, which taught him that the suffering of Christ is an adequate sacrifice for all sins, original as well as actual. For Luther, the daily Masses in which the priests offer up the host amounted to an express denial of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, made once for all as a perfect atonement for sins (Heb. 9:12, 26).
How then did Luther conceive of this gift as one to be received in the Lord’s Supper? Luther insisted that to observe the Lord’s Supper properly and to understand what it offers, one must above all comprehend the meaning of the words by which Christ instituted it. In these words, the very sum and substance of the Lord’s Supper consists:
Take and eat, this is my body, which is given for you. Take and drink of it, all of you, this is the cup of the new and eternal testament in my blood, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
To explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper as divine gift, Luther singled out a term from these words of institution, and opposed it to the idea of sacrifice: God’s gift to us is testamentum; our gift to God is sacrificium. In Luther’s conception of the Lord’s Supper as divine gift the two are mutually exclusive. The concept of testamentum is central in Luther’s treatises on the Lord’s Supper, and therefore needs to be clarified.
A testament is a promise made by one about to die. In it the testator expresses how he wishes his property to be disposed after he dies and confirms these wishes by a seal. The property is the inheritance; those appointed by the testator to receive it after his death are the heirs.
Luther maintained that from the beginning of the world God has never dealt with men and women otherwise than through a promise. And all the promises God made from the beginning of the world foreshadow the testament of Christ and derive their value from it. The meaning and content of the promises made to Adam (Gen. 3:15), Noah (Gen. 9:12-17), Abraham (Gen. 22:18), Moses and the people of Israel (Deut. 18:18), and especially to David (II Sam, 7:12-16) are only disclosed in the most perfect promise of all, namely, that contained in the testament of Christ.
But a testament only goes into effect when the testator dies. The language of “promise” and “covenant” (testamentum) therefore implies that God would one day die. But it is impossible for God to die. The use of the idea and language of “testament” therefore comprehends both the incarnation and the death of Christ. In this testament forgiveness of sins and eternal life are freely promised; this is the inheritance bequeathed. The heirs appointed to it are all those who receive the promise in faith. This promise is confirmed by the very death of Christ; Christ gives his body and pours out his blood to certify it and leaves us both as signs under the elements of bread and wine.
For this reason, Luther insisted that stress must be given to the hearing of the words of institution in faith. The words in the strict sense are the testament of Christ; the bread and the wine are the sacrament. Between words and sacrament Luther insisted on a sharp distinction. The sacrament is oriented to the promise given in the testament. In this regard, the words of institution are not merely to be understood as words of consecration; they are at the same time words of promise addressed to the congregation, which is thereby enabled to receive the gift of the Lord’s Supper in faith. Put otherwise, they are the words of proclamation announcing—as summa et compendium evangelii—the entire saving event. This is why Luther and the Reformers demanded that the words of institution be pronounced clearly and distinctly so as to be comprehensible to the people. This stress on the word of proclamation gave impetus to the demand for the use of the vernacular in liturgical practice.
Against Ulrich Zwingli and the radical Reformers, Luther later had to develop more explicitly the relationship between the content and effect of the words of institution. For Luther, the character of the Lord’s Supper as a gift really given and received depends on the affirmation that these words are not only the vehicle of the promise of the forgiveness of sins, but also that of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ. Luther’s insistence on a robust doctrine of real presence was of course epitomized at the Marburg Colloquy (1529). In his famous debate with Zwingli there, Luther wrote in chalk the words hoc est meum corpus (“This is my body”) on the table, which he pounded with his fist. Luther found the words of Christ so clearly and simply stated that he was incredulous that his adversary could interpret them otherwise. When Christ places before us the bread and says, “Take, eat, this is my body” and offers us the wine with the words, “Drink of it, all of you, this is my blood, which is poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” Christ is truly offering to us his body and blood.
It is open to debate, however, whether Luther’s rejection of Zwingli’s memorialism would have extended to the more nuanced position of John Calvin and of many early Reformed confessions, in which a sacramental realism is unequivocally affirmed. In any event, Luther found it necessary to defend his doctrine of real presence to safeguard what he believed the church must affirm about the gospel: Atonement has once for all been accomplished through the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary for the forgiveness of sins, but it is offered in public proclamation and distributed to the believer again and again in the reception of the sacrament.
Christopher Dorn holds an M.Div from Western Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University. He resides in Holland, Michigan. He currently serves as chair of Holland’s Reformation 500 committee, and preaches regularly at First Presbyterian Church in Ionia and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Holland.
 Vilmos Vajta, Luther on Worship (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 10.
 Cf. The Augsburg Confession (unaltered), 24.21.
 Cf. Luther’s Works, Volume 36, 311-328.
 Luther renders the words of institution generally after the manner of the Canon of the Mass, thus incorporating features from the several scriptural accounts: Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; and 1 Cor. 11:24-25. Cf. Luther’s Works, Volume 35, 82.
 Luther’s Works, Volume 36, 38-40
 Luther’s Works, Volume 36, 336; Cf. 37, 270
When exactly the levee is going to break is not easy to know, but when it does we all know. October 31, 1517 is the day the levee broke in the church of the West. It is not likely that Luther was aware he was laying his ax to the root. But that is what he was in fact doing. That “church split” continues, and with it our fascination with the reformer’s understanding of the meaning of the Evangelium.
Five hundred years on, we’re still asking: “What was Luther’s understanding of the gospel?” The answer is simple, but it should not be rendered simplistically. In this short essay we look at a few insights from before and after the time of the writing of the Ninety-five Theses. In a companion essay, ‘The Gospel Embodied,’ to be run in the next issue of this journal, Christopher Dorn examines how Luther applied his gospel understanding in relation to the Eucharist. The core truth of “divine gift” runs through both.
Key Gospel Distinctions Before and After 1517
Luther’s intellectual sparring partners changed over the years, but that same zeal to understand the Evangelium drove him, until, as he said, “I broke through.” Luther’s breakthrough happened gradually, though, and he did not always see Rome as Goliath and himself as its David. In a way it is odd that the Ninety-five Theses is taken to be the crucial moment. In that document, he says nothing about “justification by faith,” nor does he oppose the Pope’s authority or indulgences per se, addressing instead only how they were administered.
Moreover, the Ninety-five were not the first set of theses he had propounded. About two months before that notable Allerheiligentag, Luther had posted ninety-seven other theses for debate, in a document entitled Disputatio Contra Scholasticam Theologiam. This set of theses is even more confrontational than the ninety-five. In between his acerbic comments against specific persons, we see early rudiments of his anthropology. In thesis 5 he writes, “It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive…” and in 17, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God…” Then, in 29, “The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.”
As early as 1515 in his Romans Lectures he shows clear thinking about gratia and the donum. For Luther the grace of God is not a substance stored up and dispensed, but the disposition of God’s heart to fallen man. The donum is the gift of righteousness by faith which comes to us by gratia. In making this distinction he essentially distinguished his understanding of grace from the notion of “infused grace” common to Rome then as now.
However, before that he was not so clear. For example in 1509 “…we find Luther facing in two directions in his marginal comments” to Lombard’s Sentences. In that work, and elsewhere around this time, Luther shows an inner battle between his Augustinianism and a semi-pelagian strain common to his Occamist beginnings. We have a few of his sermons from the period of 1510-12. In one of these on John 3:16 Luther said that man’s free will could “ by itself suffice for salvation.” Luther realized later he failed to see a “…difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection.”
In these early days, Luther was still grappling with certain key distinctions which are now common fare in Lutheran theology. A few of these distinctions would sustain his influence into streams of Reformed tradition. The most prominent distinction in Lutheran theology is the “Law and Gospel” distinction. Another key distinction Luther develops is theologia crucis (the Christian’s attitude of humility and willingness to suffer) contrasted with theologia gloriae (the practice of using religion for personal enhancement,) which appears for the first time in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. The simul justus et peccator distinction which only appears once in Luther’s writings has nonetheless remained an important Lutheran concept. In the “just and sinner” distinction Luther confirms that though throughout our lives, we still confront sin (and grow away from it); we are at the same time assured of God’s full justifying grace.
Alien Righteousness in Luther’s Gospel Teaching
What is perhaps the central gospel distinction in Luther’s thought, however, can be seen most clearly in his 1518 sermon “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” Here, he speaks of iustitia aliena, righteousness outside us. This righteousness or judicial standing is that donum mentioned earlier. This he called righteousness coram Deo: in the presence of God. The second kind Luther called righteousness coram mundo, our good works in the world and for the world, which are not meritorious for saving grace.
The righteousness coram Deo becomes our righteousness by divine gift. It is not infused into us, nor does it inhere within us at some point. Luther says that it is a perfect righteousness acquired entirely from God in Christ, and given to us by the Spirit. It is this alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, by which we are made right with God, and it is received by faith.
In his early days Luther struggled to rid himself of his Anfechtugen, roiling angst about his guilt before a holy God. What little John Staupitz was able to do to console Luther’s troubled conscience was enough to turn his sights toward true North. Staupitz, Luther’s confessor, who remained a Benedictine monk to the end of his days, pointed him to a new understanding of Christ and his gifts. This life journey from before Wittenberg to Luther’s final days in Erfurt give rich meaning to his thesis 37: “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon” – participationem omnium bonorum, shares in all the blessings.
Luther called Christ’s righteous work for us the fröhlicher Wechsel, the “joyous exchange.” In Luther’s Large Catechism we feel his sense of victory: “Before this I had no lord or king but was captive under the power of the devil…Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ.” Erik Herrmann of Concordia Seminary has quipped that at that time Luther’s understanding of the gospel was indeed “a new perspective on Paul.” And so Luther found himself able to say, in the context of a vigorous defense of his view of the Eucharist, “…if Christ remains mine, everything remains mine; of this I am sure.”
Mark Oliviero is an elder at Trinity Bible Church in Greer, South Carolina, where he teaches and leads various Bible study groups. He holds an M.Div. from Bob Jones University. He, his wife Kristina, and their two children live two miles from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and he frequents their library.
 All Hallows’ Eve
 Though Luther identified scholasticism as his opposition, he was in reality opposing the Nominalist corruption of scholasticism and his own Occamist beginnings, exemplified in Gabriel Biel. For the value of philosophy in relation to theology see Ad Fontes, ‘Natural Theology and Reformed Orthodoxy’ by David Haines, May 2017 and Ad Fontes, whole issue, September, 2017, 2.1. Also, see Michael Allen, ‘Disputation for Scholastic Theology,’ inaugural lecture, Sept 6, 2017.
 Martin Luther. Lectures on Romans (WA 56:318; LW 25:305–306)
 Denis R. Janz. Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology. p. 10.
 Ibid., 12.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 54, 442.
 Martin Luther, “Lecture on Galatians,” 1535
 Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, 120.
 This affirmation about the centrality of Christ Luther made in the context of a vigorous argument for his view on the meaning of Hoc Est Corpus Meum in the Eucharist. Luther’s Works, volume 37, 103.