Last week, we considered Luther's sermon: "Two Kinds of Righteousness" and what it means to be justified, to be one with Christ, to have our spiritual bank accounts merge, so that before God our debts become Christ's, and His merit-- the infinite merit of God the Son-- becomes ours.
This week, I want us to sit alongside Luther as he makes some practical application on this theme. "Christ," he says, "was not like the Pharisee who said, "I thank you, God, that I am not like other people." The Pharisee was delighted to find others beneath him on the merit ladder. It made him feel safe, self-sufficient, acceptable. But Jesus, although He existed in the form of God, and possessed all the limitless merit that entailed, humbled himself to become our Savior."
Luther continues: "Christ did not think this way (like the Pharisee), but...emptied himself, unwilling to use his status against us, unwilling to be different from us. Rather, for our sakes he became as one of us, and took the form of a servant..." and was found in the likeness of sinful flesh. Luther continues: "Although he was free, he made himself the servant of all, acting in no other way than as if all the evils which were ours were his own. Accordingly, he took upon himself our sins and our punishments, and although it was for us that he was conquering those things, he acted as though he were conquering them for himself. Although he with respect to us could be our God and Lord, he did not want it so, but rather wanted to become our servant, as it is written, "We ought not to please ourselves, as Christ did not please himself." (Rom 15:1, 3).
Luther drives this point home, asking, should we not have the same attitude towards other Christians? Should we not regard ourselves as united to them, members of the one body, the Church united to Christ?
So let's say, for example, that God in Christ has worked in us to produce a preeminent level of Christian maturity. By His grace, we are a cut above the average church member (I speak as one insane, but bear with me!). How should we treat those who stand on rungs below us on the ladder of sanctification?
We remember that any growth we have is by God's gift. "What do we have that we did not receive?" Without his gifts, we would be wretched, empty beyond our ability to imagine. Second, we remember that we are united to the weaker members of the flock and therefore, as Luther says, "we should act (like Christ) as if the neighbor's weakness, sin, and foolishness was our very own." In so thinking, we will not boast of ourselves against them, treat them as inferior, or delight in pointing out their faults. Rather, like Christ, we will delight in covering their faults (before the eyes of others, unless the strictest Christian duty require otherwise), and we should serve our brother/sister by helping rescue them from their faults (Galatians 6:1ff).
What, though, if our brother sins against us? What if their sin is particularly aggravating? What should we do then? If someone from within the church attacks us, or defrauds us, for example, are we not permitted to go after them, to get justice. Does this not glorify God? Luther offers three words of counsel to us when we find ourselves in such a bind:
First, there are "those who seek vengeance and judgment from the representatives of God, and there are quite a few of those nowadays. Paul tolerates that, but does not approve of it in 1 Cor 6:12, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful." Rather, he says in the same chapter, "To have lawsuits at all with one another is a defeat for you." (1 Cor 6:7).
Paul, Luther says, permits such lawsuits because they prevent petty, personal, vendettas of tit for tat spite. But they are not ideal. In fact Luther goes on to say, "Nevertheless, such persons will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless they have changed for the better by forsaking things that are merely lawful and pursuing those that are helpful."
"The Second kind are those who do not desire vengeance...who in accordance with the Gospel, to those who would take their coats, they are prepared to give their capes as well, and they do not resist any evil." "These" Luther says, "are the children of God." Such people, Luther says, "feel more pain over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense themselves. And they do this that they may recall those offenders from their sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered. Therefore, they put off the form of their own righteousness and put on the form of those others, praying for their persecutors, blessing those who curse, doing good to evildoers, prepared to pay the penalty and make satisfaction for their very enemies that they might be saved. This is the gospel and the example of Christ (Luke 23:34)."
The Third kind is those who are like the second in their attitudes, but are different in their actions. "They are the Christians who demand back their own property, or seek vengeance to be meted out, not because they seek their own advantage, but through this vengeance and restoration of their own things, they seek the betterment of the one who has been stealing from or offending them. They discern that the offender cannot be i improved without punishment."
But, knowing that we would all fancy the third option as a "noble" opportunity for revenge, Luther cautions "No one ought to attempt this response unless one is perfect and highly experienced in the second manner just mentioned; otherwise they could mistake wrath for zeal and be convicted of doing from anger and impatience what they assume is done from love of justice."
This is sharp thinking from the little friar. I don't know about you. I see a lot of myself in the first response, though I often like to pride myself that I am pursuing option 3 -- "It's important to make this point," I kid myself, "Because what I really want is help my brother/sister see how wrong they are, repent, and enjoy their best life now." Such thinking, of course, is but thinly veiled pride. What I am really thinking is, "They are annoying me, they have hurt me, I want to make them stop, (Priority#1) and, if I am really honest, I also want some payback (Priority#2).
I don't know about you, but I think I need a lot more "Turn the other cheek" in my home towards my wife and my children. How are things going in your household?