Martin Luther

How many fingers…?

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.
— Martin Luther

There aren’t many movies from my childhood that hold up. I’ve tried watching several late 80s/early 90s films with my kids, only to have them quickly lose interest… or to be totally ashamed of what I once thought was cool. 

(Ahem… Space Jam.)

But I was pleasantly surprised when the family gathered round recently to watch The Mighty Ducks. Yes, it’s campy, complete with feel-good roller blade sequences and token representatives of minority communities. But it was genuinely fun, and it did my soul some good to watch my kids leap up and cheer when Charlie scored the winning goal in the final scene. 

In one scene, a player is hit in the head with a hockey puck. While lying on the ice, Coach Gordon Bombay rushes over and asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” (To which Goldberg the goalie replies, “He wouldn’t know that anyway.”)

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

Grace Alone and Seeing Straight

When it comes to the truth about God and ourselves, it seems like our culture has been hit in the head with a hockey puck. We’re dazed, bewildered, unable to see straight. We’re trying to figure out who God is, who we are, what the truth is, but we can’t quite make it out. It may be true that we “wouldn’t know that anyway,” but it’d be a lot easier if the picture weren’t moving around. 

In the teaching of the Reformation, grace alone goes hand in hand with faith alone. In order to understand faith alone, we have to understand that we cannot earn God’s favor by our works. In order to understand grace alone, we have to see ourselves clearly. We have to focus in on what Scripture teaches about our sinfulness and our need before a holy God. 

In order to understand grace alone, we have to see ourselves clearly.

Who better than our friend Martin Luther to play Emilio Estevez and ask, “how many fingers am I holding up?” 

Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther as Emilio Estevez?

Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther as Emilio Estevez?

Beating the Gospel into Our Heads

Luther was a firm believer in our inability to please God. Our sinfulness makes us wholly incapable of earning His love. 

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Law is about doing. Grace is about receiving the righteousness of Christ for us. We can’t do what the law requires. 

No man can make any advance towards righteousness by his works.

This last quote is from his landmark book, The Bondage of the Will, in which he argued against one of the leading thinkers of the day, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who said we could please God by doing what lies within us. To this, Luther gave a resounding, “No!” Using the example of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he wrote, 

But look at the endeavor whereby he found grace! Not only did he not seek grace, but he received it through his own mad fury against it!

Later he writes,

[G]race is given freely to the undeserving and utterly unworthy, and is not attained by any of the efforts, endeavors, or works, small or great, of even the best and most upright men who seek and follow after righteousness with flaming zeal.

We can’t see straight because we're broken by sin. Grace alone can set us right and heal us. And to set our vision right, we need God to hit us over the head with His grace: 

Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.

Faith Makes Love

A Christian… lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.
— Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Faith alone has always been a controversial claim. Martin Luther was accused throughout his life of antinomianism: of claiming that the Christian does not need to obey the law or do any good works. If we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, then we contribute nothing to our salvation. And if we contribute nothing, then where’s the incentive for obedience? If the gospel is all carrot and no stick, his critics argued, the church will descend into chaos. 

Luther directly denied this. He clung to the freedom that faith brings, but he held that true faith leads to good work. Faith makes love

Faith Makes Love

After understanding the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone, a student of Luther’s said, “If this is true, then I can do whatever I want.” To this, Luther replied, “Exactly. Now what do you want to do?” 

According to Luther in The Freedom of a Christian, love is not left behind by faith. Rather, faith is the source of love.

Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praises or blame, of gain or loss.

Faith transforms the heart and motives of the Christian. It makes us want to love our neighbors in worship and gratitude to God.

Since by faith the soul is cleansed and made to love God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be purified so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. 

So also our works should be done, not that we may be justified by them, since being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others.

No Faith, No Love

In fact, he would claim that there is no such thing as good works without faith. True love—unselfish, disinterested, sacrificial love for my neighbors—can’t exist without faith. Any work that appears good but that doesn’t have faith behind it is an attempt to steal God’s glory, and is thus inherently sinful. Rather, "Love is true and genuine where there is true and genuine faith.” 

Love without faith steals God's glory.

Love without faith steals God's glory.

So let him who wishes to do good works begin not with the doing of works, but with believing, which makes the person good, for nothing makes a man good except faith, or evil except unbelief.

Faith sets us free to live NOT for ourselves, but for God and neighbor. The Christian is called to “live only for others.” 

[A] Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love. 

All You Need Is (Faith That Produces) Love

If I have faith, my soul’s life is in Christ. And if my soul’s life is in Christ, my bodily life in this world will be conformed to Him. If Christ’s life on this earth was lived, “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45), then my life on this earth, in the body, will be lived always and only for others.

All you need is (faith that produces) love.

All you need is (faith that produces) love.

Faith is a state of the soul; love is the corresponding state of the body. A failure to love in my temporal existence can be traced back to a failure of faith in the deepest part of my being. It may be true that all you need is love. But if I want love, I need a faith that produces it in my life. The first step to a life of love is a wholehearted faith.