Reason and Faith in Luther

Once more on Luther’s House Postil sermon for the First Sunday in Advent before we move on.

Luther is often misunderstood, and almost as often caricatured (in an “oops I just stepped on a rake” sort of way), on the character and role of reason. This post won’t fix that (sorry; but, then again, no amount of protest is likely to fix it anyway), but it may be useful as one element of how to get this right.

In the sermon in question, “reason” and “faith” are associated with different senses: “reason” with the eyes and “faith” with the ears. (“Faith comes by hearing,” after all.) Thus, when “reason” sees Christ coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, it does not notice that the King of the Universe is present.

Reason looks only on this poor and humble form, that He rides upon an ass without saddle or spurs, like a beggar, and is offended at it; but does not see that He can deliver us from sin, destroy death, and give us everlasting holiness, righteousness, eternal salvation and eternal life. Therefore we must tell and proclaim it, that the people may hear and believe.

Matthew wants us, therefore, “to close the eyes and open the ears.” This principle–hearing and trusting the Word, and refusing to judge reality by frail and deceptive mortal sight–is exactly the principle that underlies how Luther speaks of the sacraments. It is this, rather than some arcane metaphysical speculation, that accounts for Luther’s sacramentology. Baptism saves, because the Word says it does. The Lord’s Supper is the body and blood of Christ, because the Word says it is.

In fact, Luther makes the connection clear in this very passage. He continues:

Whoever will not receive this with his ears and heart, but would see it with his eyes and feel it with his hands, deprives himself of this King; for it is very different from what we find it with other kings. What they do, they do with pomp, and everything has a grand, imposing appearance. In Christ we do not find this; His office and work is to help us from sin and death, and this He does in no other external manner but through His word and gospel, which He orders to be told and preached to us, and through the signs which He gives besides the promise, through which also He works and shows His power; as that He first plunges us into baptism, where our eyes see nothing but simple water, like other water. Likewise, He has comprehended it in the word we are preaching where our eyes see nothing but man’s breath. But we must beware and not follow our eyes here, but shut our eyes, open our hears and hear the word. This teaches us how our Lord Jesus shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins, that we might live. These gifts He would bestow upon us in holy baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, in the preaching and absolution; there we certainly find them. Now it is true, it seems a small matter that through the washing of water, through the word and sacrament, such great things should be accomplished; but do not let your eyes deceive you. There also it seemed a small matter that He who rode on a borrowed ass, and afterwards suffered Himself to be crucified, should take away sin, death and hell. No one could see it in His appearance; but the prophet says so. Therefore we must simply receive it with our ears, and believe it with our hearts; with our eyes we cannot see it.

Luther draws the link once more, in a lovely passage on the gospel, faith, and baptism.

[T]hrough the preaching of the gospel He announces to us that we shall certainly receive this gift or benefit [i.e., deliverance “from sin, death and the power of hell”–ed.] from Him, so that when we are in trouble on account of our sins, or in danger of death, we can comfort ourselves by faith and say: Now help is afforded me through my dear King, Jesus Christ, the Just One and Savior; to this end He cam, so lowly and poor, and suffered Himself to be nailed to the cross, that He might justify and sanctify me; in Himself He hath destroyed my sin and death, gives me His own righteousness and victory over death and hell, and gives me also His Holy Spirit, that I might have in my heart a sure seal and a witness of His help. See now, whoever believes this as he hears it, and as it is preached in the gospel, he also has it. For to this end holy baptism was instituted by our Savior that He might clothe you with His righteousness, and that His holiness and innocence should be yours. For we are all poor sinners, but in baptism, and afterwards in our whole life, if we turn unto Christ, He comforts us, and says: Give me your sins and take my righteousness and holiness; let your death be taken from you, and put on my life. This is, properly speaking, the Lord Jesus’ government. For all His office and work is this, that He daily takes away our sin and death, and clothes us with His righteousness and life.

In just the sense sketched above, the Christian must turn away from his reason, and by faith embrace what God has told him and gives to him.


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