Theses 27-28: Love for the Unlovable
27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an actively functioning work and our work is a completed work, and thus a completed work which is pleasing to God by the grace of Christ’s active work.
Since Christ lives in us on account of faith, so He moves us through the living faith in His work to do good works. For the works which He completes are the fulfillment of the commandments which God has given us through faith, and when we look at them we are moved to imitate them. This is what the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Therefore merciful works are brought about by those ones which saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every one of Christ’s actions is instruction for us, in fact it is a driving force.” If His action is in us then it lives by faith, for it vigorously drives us closer to Him. “Draw me after you, let us make haste” toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils,” that is, your works.
28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is lovable. The love of man is made up of those things which it loves.
The second clause is well known and held in common by all philosophers and theologians because the object is the cause of love. Likewise, Aristotle proposes that all the soul’s power is passive and material and active only by receiving something. Thus Aristotle's philosophy reveals itself to be contrary to theology because in all things it desires to indulge its nature and receives rather than imparts goodness. The first clause is clear because the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, wicked people, fools, and cowards with the result that it makes them righteous, good, wise, and brave. Rather than seeking its own goodness, the love of God pours out and bestows goodness. Therefore sinners are lovable because they are loved; they are not loved because they are actually lovable by nature. For this reason the love of man runs away from sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This is the love of the cross, and that which is produced by the cross, which turns towards the direction where it cannot find the goodness in which it delights, but where it may transfer goodness onto the wicked and the destitute. The Apostle Paul states, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” Hence Psalms 41:1 declares, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect by nature cannot understand an object which does not actually exist, that is the poor and needy, but only an object which does exist, that is the truth and goodness. Therefore it judges according to appearance, takes hold of human character, and judges according to things which are obvious, etc.
The tax collector entered the temple a sinner in the eyes of all but went home justified (Luke 18:14). Zacchaeus the outcast was called to climb down from a tree and host the most Holy God in his ill-gotten home (Luke 19:5). Demons were cast out of Mary Magdalene who later became one of the first to proclaim the resurrection (Luke 8:2). Saul was knocked off his high horse as a persecutor of the church as part of his commissioning to take its message throughout the known world (Acts 9:1-19). Peter was told, “Get behind me Satan,” so he could witness Jesus’ path to the cross and then herald all that it means for the lost and broken (Matt. 16:23). The Gerasene demoniac, his tormentors cast into swine, became the only sane man in town (Mark 5:15). Mary, chosen from obscurity, sang of the God who exalts the humble and humbles those who exalt themselves—as Jesus put it later, that the first will be last and the last first (Luke 1:46-55; Matt. 20:16).
Luther wrote, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is lovable. The love of man is made up of those things which it loves.” These are perhaps some of the most beautiful words ever written. They cut to the heart of the Scriptures. They turn theology, philosophy, and human experience on their head. They run counter to natural love—that love that comes naturally to us after the fall. Humans are capable of amazing love, but even our best falls well short of what Luther describes here. We are bound to reciprocal, quid pro quo, self-interested love of varying degrees. We love because we have a connection with, get something from, like something about, or have an appreciation for something about another person or a cause into which they somehow fit.
This is not to downplay the great feats of love recorded in our personal histories and throughout human history which humans are still capable of after the fall. It is, however, to be honest, to call a thing a thing, and to state matter-of-factly the case in a fallen world. People are capable of various kinds of love (familial affection, friendship, and romantic love, for instance), but people love people because they find something lovable in them, have some real or perceived obligation toward them, or some personal benefit from doing so, even if that personal benefit is the ability to feel good about helping someone else. Luther here describes something else entirely: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is lovable. The love of man is made up of those things which it loves.”
Luther laid the groundwork with the thesis before this. He explained, “Actually one should call the work of Christ an actively functioning work and our work is a completed work, and thus a completed work which is pleasing to God by the grace of Christ’s active work.” Luther and the Lutheran Confessions distinguish between two kinds of righteousness, civic and divine. The first is active, what people do (all people), the second is passive, what we receive from God through faith as Christians. Similarly, we can speak about good works in two ways. We can speak of good citizenship and we can speak of the obedience of faith. Regarding good citizenship, a person is good in his neighbor’s eyes because he does good things. Regarding the obedience of faith, a person does good works because he has been declared good, righteous, in God’s sight, this for the sake of Christ who was crucified for sinners. The first sort of works spring from all sorts of natural, human motivations; the second sort are baptismal. They are a product of our daily dying and rising, the work of Christ for us, in us, and through us, by His Spirit, given to us in the sacrament. Read Romans 6 and consider Luther’s explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism. These are works, not of that old, begrudging obedience of fear, the religiosity of the old Adam, but of newness of life, of our adoption as God’s children.
Soon after Luther’s death, a debate broke out about whether good works are necessary for salvation. Things got heated, quickly. Thankfully, the biblical teaching held the day. The consensus formed that good works are necessary, but not necessary for salvation. Good works are necessary because God commands them. Good works are necessary because good trees bear good fruit. Good works are necessary because faith, the gift of God, is a living and active thing. But these good works aren’t done under compulsion. They’re done freely. They aren’t done so that God will love us. They’re done because He loves us. They aren’t performed in order for us to be saved (in fact, they aren’t a performance at all!). Rather, they flow from our salvation, orchestrated, not for show, but by God and for our neighbor. They are the product, not the cause, of our salvation, an accomplished fact, as certain as the crucifix.
Here, in our works, Christ, who claimed us in Baptism, now wears us as His masks, uses us as His hands and feet, makes us channels of His love for those around us. We often don’t even realize it. In fact, these works often seem unimportant and unimpressive, even as Christ’s seemed so to many in His day. As we ponder Christ’s love for us, though, freely given, totally undeserved, we are moved by Christ to love our neighbor. He accomplishes His works through us. And so we love our neighbor with works done with confidence in God’s promise, not for fear of punishment or out of anxiety that God who so freely gave will quickly take away what Christ died to make our own.
Even as we are surely saints through faith, because we are still sinners this side of heaven, our works, even the best, are still stained and imperfect. As with our person, so with our works: God receives them as perfect in His sight through Jesus, our Jesus (He who saves, continually so). In short, these are works that flow from a realization of our dependence upon Christ and not from some hope of needing Him less. They are the result of being drawn deeper into His grace, not some sort of progress toward needing it less--that would be a move away from, not toward our God. Our works are motivated by God, not meant to motivate God. Otherwise, they would be what Jesus condemned in the self-righteous, not what the Vine has promised He produces through His branches. The works of faith are a demonstration of Christ’s love for us and for our neighbor worked through us, not a measuring stick by which we gauge His love for us. We need no other gauge than the cross.
“The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is lovable. The love of man is made up of those things which it loves.” When I teach freshmen theology, I ask my students, right out of the gates, why God loves them. I put the same question on the first few tests. There’s a specific answer I want to drill into them. It’s a pretty simple one: “Because He does.” We like to think there’s something in us, something we have or do or think or inherit that sets us apart, that contributes in some way to God’s love for us. God’s love, however, is perfect love, undeserved love, true charity, and we dare not want it any other way. Otherwise, it becomes fickle, uncertain, a bargain and not a promise—human love, the kind God became man to transcend, not to imitate. God loves us because He does, and thank God for that! We are lovable because God loves us, and what better reason could there be
Jesus came, not to call the righteous, but sinners (Luke 5:32). And that’s precisely what He’s done, again and again and again—the tax collector in the temple, Zacchaeus in the tree, Mary Magdalene, the demoniac, Saul, Peter, you, and me. The righteousness that avails before God, that counts in His sight, that saves, is gift and all gift, from faith to faith, of faith from first to last (Rom. 1:17). This realization changed the course of Luther’s life. This beautiful truth forms the bookends of his powerful Heidelberg theses, and, in Christ, our lives. You are loved by God, because He loves you. You are loved by God and He will use you as He sees fit, once again, because He loves you, and because He loves your neighbor. This is life in a world given back to us, not as a treadmill, but as a penultimate and impermanent home returned to us, not to idolize, but to enjoy, a place to love, serve, explore, create and appreciate creation, all with the righteousness of Christ, confident of His love, through the freedom of the Gospel.