The Full Brunt of God’s Wrath
In his formulation of theologia crucis Luther understood that God arrived at his proper work only by way of his strange and alien work. Luther formulated this work in the Genesis lectures in describing the experience of Abraham, asserting that only in faith was Abraham able to hear the “deep, secret yea beneath and above the nay.” For, “in the trial of God-forsakeness,” this “faith is no mere trifle”; “it is nothing less than a struggle with God against God.” As Walther von Loewenich wrote:
“It is God himself who attacks man through trials. Luther also labeled the devil as the originator of trial. In that case it is not difficult to overcome the trial, for the devil no longer has any power over the Christian. He has been defeated by Christ. But Luther can also trace the trial directly back to God. Only in this way it receives its severity because God himself is ‘assailing’ man.”
That is why, as Loewenich clarified, “Luther explicitly turns against the view of James 1:13. The hidden God is a reality, not a mere pretense. The devil is only God’s instrument, while God himself is the one at work.”
And thus it was that in expositing the experience of Abraham, “Luther feels the full brunt of God’s wrath over him.”
For Luther then, in the experience of wrath, damnation and death the only solution to the problem of God is that one must cling to the Word of God. The Word of God which is none other than Christ Jesus. For, “we are in trials when that Word has been torn out of our heart. The trial is overcome when Christ again speaks to us, when we again hear the Word.”
In the particularity of this expression Luther insisted that sinners appeal especially to Baptism. That is:
“One should hold fast to this comfort, that what God has once declared, this He does not change. You were baptized, and in Baptism the kingdom of God was promised you. You should know that this is His unchangeable Word, and you should not permit yourself to be drawn away from it. For although it can happen – as with those who were on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:28) – that He pretends to want to go farther and seems to be dealing with us as though He had forgotten his promises, faith in the Word must nevertheless be retained, and the promise must be stressed – namely, that it is true and dependable – even if the manner, time, occasion, place, and other particulars are unknown. For the fact that God cannot lie is sure and dependable.”
Sinners must fight against God himself. That is, faith, “presses through from the alien work to the proper work, from the hidden to the revealed God… For at the basis of the contrast of God’s Word and God himself there is no other contrast than the one between the revealed God and the hidden God. Thus the turning point in the trial has clearly arrived when faith recognizes the trial as an alien work.”
This is the final critical point is in his formulation of theologia crucis in Abraham’s testing by God. God is the one contending against Abraham. Just at that point, where the alien work of God confronts the sinner, wearing the mask of the devil does Luther press forward, asserting:
“God is not a tempter for evil; that is, he does not test in order that we may fear and hate Him like a tyrant but to the end that He may exercise and stir up faith and love in us. Satan, however, tempts for evil, in order to draw you away from God and to make you distrust and blaspheme God. God sports with the children he loves and, as it seems, to the flesh, shows Himself angry and dreadful… but these are merely instances of sporting. God will not deceive or cheat you. Just hold fast to his infallible and unchanging promise. Even though you should lose honor, riches, and life itself you should nevertheless not maintain that God is angry with you and therefore has cast you aside; but you should expect other far more excellent gifts, honor, and a better life from Him, as Job 13:15 states: ‘Even though he kills me, I will hope in Him.’”
In Abraham’s, and in all Christians’ experience of wrath, damnation and death the only solution to the problem of God is that one must cling to the Word of God. The Word which is none other than Christ Jesus Himself.
All references from Walther von Loewenich are taken from his book, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” p.136-37.
All Martin Luther references are taken from Luther’s Works (American Edition), vol. 4.