Luther Visualized 15 – Treasures of the Reformation

The Law and the Gospel

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Allegory of Law and Grace, oil on panel, after 1529; housed in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

I am posting this out of order; it was originally intended to be the last post in this series. However, it is fitting to post it on this day commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.

There are any number of treasures or hallmarks of the Reformation that could be highlighted on this day—the three solas, as just one example. But in 1549, three years after Luther’s death, when a young Martin Chemnitz accompanied his relative Georg Sabinus on a trip to Wittenberg and “in a letter written in Greek” asked Philipp Melanchthon “to show [him] a method of properly instituting and shaping the study of theology,” Melanchthon gave a response that bespoke Luther’s lasting influence on him. He “replied that the chief light and best method in theological study was to observe the distinction between the Law and the Gospel.”

If a person could only be given one piece of advice before opening and reading the Bible on his own, this would indeed be the best. There are two main teachings in the Bible, the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin and how we should live. It shows us that we can never measure up to God on our own, and therefore it threatens, terrifies, and condemns us and thereby prepares us for the Gospel. The Gospel shows us our Savior Jesus and how he has lived and died for us. It showcases God’s gracious promises to us, and so it comforts, assures, and saves us. This distinction is the single greatest aid for reading and understanding the Bible. As the apostle John wrote, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And if there is one piece of artwork that correctly and beautifully captures that distinction, yes, encapsulates all of the Reformation’s and confessional Lutheranism’s theology, this painting by Cranach is it.

The left half of the painting depicts the Law. The defenseless sinner is driven by death and the devil towards eternal destruction in hell, having been judged guilty by Jesus, enthroned in heaven above as Judge of the world. The man was unable to keep God’s law and earn God’s favor because of original sin, inherited as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, portrayed in the background. In the foreground on the right, the chief prophet Moses, holding the two tables of God’s law, explains to the other Old Testament prophets that the Law can only condemn and hope must be sought elsewhere. The tree on the right is bare, representing how the Tree of Life is not accessible to fallen mankind by his own powers, or how fallen mankind is spiritually dead and can produce no good fruits (works pleasing to God).

The right half of the painting depicts the Gospel. Jesus is portrayed not as Judge of the world, but as the Savior of the world. John the Baptist points the defenseless sinner to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) through the atoning sacrifice of his life on behalf of sinners. Through this good news, the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, instills faith in the sinner’s heart, and thus the sinner receives the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice; the sinfulness of his heart is covered by Jesus’ blood. The rest of the panel depicts, for the most part, scenes from Jesus’ life. In the background, instead of judging from heaven, he comes down from heaven to share in our humanity and suffer our condemnation in our place (the incarnation in the womb of the virgin Mary). In the foreground, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is portrayed as the ultimate proof of his victory over death, the skeleton under his left foot, and the devil, the dragon under his right foot. In the upper right hand corner, Jesus ascends into heaven, the nail-marks in his feet still showing. The counterpart to the serpent’s tempting and mankind’s fall into sin in the left half is the prefiguring or foreshadowing of Jesus’ redeeming work through the bronze serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:4-9) in the right half. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14,15). The tree in this panel is leafy, representing how the Tree of Life is accessible to fallen mankind through faith in Jesus, or how the one who believes in Jesus has spiritual life and produces good fruits.

What God does in his law demand
And none to him can render
Brings wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the law requires,
And lost is our condition.

Yet as the law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and has God’s anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He has for us the law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.

Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Your death is now my life indeed,
For you have paid my ransom. – Paul Speratus, 1523

Today is an anniversary celebration like none other. Happy Reformation Day, dear readers!

Sources
August L. Graebner, “An Autobiography of Martin Kemnitz” in Theological Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, October 1899), p. 480

Cranach Digital Archive here and here

Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993), #390

Quote of the Week – Commands and Promises

Similar Paintings

Hans Holbein the Younger, Allegory of Law and Grace, oil on oak panel, early 1530s; housed in the Scottish National Gallery

Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) was a renowned artist and contemporary and sympathizer of Luther. This painting, clearly influenced by Cranach’s above, is usually titled An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments or even The Old and the New Law, but the painting itself clearly identifies its contrast between the law (lex) and grace (gratia). (The painting correctly shows that both the Old and the New Testaments proclaim grace in Christ.) On the left the two tables of the law are given from heaven to Moses. The law makes us conscious of our sin (peccatum; Romans 3:20; 7:7-13), inherited from Adam as a result of the fall into sin (Romans 5:12-19). The wages of sin is death (mors; Romans 6:23). Nevertheless our justification was foreshadowed (mysterium justificationis) through the bronze serpent erected on the pole (Numbers 21:4-9), and Isaiah the prophet (Esayas propheta) foretold of salvation through the coming Christ (“Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son [Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium]” – Isaiah 7:14).

At the center of the painting is man (homo). “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body subject to death [Miser ego homo, quis me eripiet ex hoc corpore morti obnoxio]?” – Romans 7:24.

On the right, John the Baptist (Ioannes Baptista) points sinful man to Jesus, the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), who takes away the sin of the world (Ecce agnus ille Dei, qui tollit peccatum mundi – John 1:29). His coming down from heaven to take on human flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary is the token of God’s grace. An angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the valley below. Jesus as the living bread who came down from heaven (John 6:51) on the right side is the antitype to the bread that was rained down from heaven on the Israelite camp in the wilderness, depicted on the left side (Psalm 78:23-25). As an adult, Jesus is explaining to his disciples that he came to seek and to save what was lost and that he must suffer, die, and rise again in order to do so (Mark 8:31; Luke 19:10). His crucifixion is pictured as our justification or acquittal from sin (justificatio nostra) and his resurrection from the dead as our victory (victoria nostra) over death and the devil (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger, Middle Panel of the Epitaph Altar for John Frederick the Magnanimous in the Parish Church of St. Peter and Paul in Weimar, oil on lindenwood panel, begun in 1552, completed in 1555

Duke John Frederick I of Saxony commissioned the work to the left a couple years before his death. Lucas Cranach himself died the following year, so the project was taken up and completed by his son. 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 4:16; and John 3:14,15 are printed on the pages of Martin Luther’s open Bible. John the Baptist points to Christ with his finger; Luther points to him with his gaze. Cranach the Elder painted himself in between the two, with Christ’s blood spilling onto his head. (He has made himself the counterpart to “the defenseless sinner” of his earlier painting.) His gaze is directed at the viewer, inviting him or her to worship Christ as Savior with him. The other unique detail is the angel flying in midair in the background over the shepherds, which has a double allusion. The first allusion is to the angel who announced the birth of Christ. This second allusion, indicated by the scroll he holds, is to Revelation 14:6,7. Johannes Bugenhagen, the pastor of the parish church in Wittenberg, preached on those verses for Luther’s funeral and identified Luther as the angel or messenger mentioned there. (Subsequent Lutheran preachers have also not shied away from that identification, though they also apply it to any Christian who faithfully proclaims the gospel.) The words printed on the victory banner borne by the lamb beneath the cross are those of John 1:29. The other details correspond exactly to Cranach’s earlier painting above.

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Quote of the Week – Worthily, Not Worthy

The following is taken from A Sermon on the New Testament, that is, on the Holy Mass (1520) by Martin Luther. The work as a whole does not yet represent Luther’s mature thought on the Lord’s Supper, but it does “replace the traditional notion of the mass as a sacrifice with the scriptural teaching of the Lord’s Supper as a testament” (LW 35:77). The very first paragraph is also a masterpiece on the purpose and limitations of the law, and may appear in a subsequent Quote of the Week. In the quote that follows, from paragraph or section 15, Luther helps us to distinguish between taking the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27) and taking it as intrinsically worthy people (which we neither can nor do).

Now if one of these two thoughts should assail you (since even [when we believe Christ’s testament in the Lord’s Supper] these thoughts do not leave)—the first, that you are way too unworthy of such a rich testament, and second, even if you were worthy, what it gives is still so great that human nature shudders when confronted by the greatness of the gifts (for what can be missing when there is forgiveness of all sins and eternal life?)—then, like I said, you must pay more attention to the words of Christ than to such thoughts. He will not lie to you; your thoughts will deceive you.1 If a thousand gulden [or $300,000] were bequeathed to a poor beggar or even to a buffoon, he would not claim it out of his own merit or worthiness, nor would he relinquish it on account of how great the gift was. And if anyone would throw his unworthiness and the greatness of the gift in his face, he would certainly not let any of this scare him away and would say, “How is this your business? I know very well that I am unworthy of the testament. I do not claim it on the basis of my merit, as if anyone owed it to me, but on the basis of the favor and grace of the testator. If he did not think it was too much to bequeath to me, why should I despise myself so, and not claim and take it?”

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe 6:361,362

Endnote
1 Luther has this, intentionally or not, in the form of a memorable rhyme: Er wirt dir nit liegen, deyn gedanckenn werden dich triegen.

Quote of the Week – Grace Means Unearned

The following is taken from Philipp Melanchthon’s Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV (Justification), verses 40 and 41:

Since then no one is able to keep God’s law by his own powers, and all are under sin and deserve to be condemned to eternal wrath and death, we are therefore unable to be freed from sin or to become upright in God’s sight through the law. Instead, forgiveness of sins and righteousness is promised through Christ, who has been given for us to pay for the sins of the world and who is the only Mediator and Redeemer. And this promise does not say that you have grace, salvation, etc. through Christ if you earn it. No, he offers forgiveness of sins purely out of grace, as Paul says, “If [forgiveness of sins] is by works, then it is not grace” [Romans 11:6]. And in another place: “This righteousness that avails before God is revealed apart from law” [Romans 3:21], that is, forgiveness of sins is offered for free.

Source
Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), p. 167,168

Quote of the Week – Entirely God’s Gift

Augustine of Hippo wrote the following circa 428 AD in Chapter 3 of his anti-Pelagian treatise The Predestination of the Saints. It is also cited somewhat periphrastically and in abridged form in the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II:27.

It was chiefly by this testimony [namely, 1 Corinthians 4:7] that I myself was also convicted when I held to a similar error, thinking that the faith by which we believe in God was not the gift of God, but that it was in us from ourselves, and that through that faith [from ourselves] we obtained God’s gifts that enable us to live temperately and uprightly and piously in this world. For I did not think that faith was preceded by God’s grace, in order that the profitable things we might ask for might then be given to us through that faith. I did know that we were unable to believe if the proclamation of the truth did not come first, but agreeing with the gospel when it is preached to us—I thought that was our own doing and was ours from ourselves. This error I had is on sufficient display in several small works of mine written before I became a bishop.

Source
Patrologia Latina 44:964

Martin Luther’s Table Prayers

Translator’s Preface

Every so often I like to translate something familiar that has already been translated. Re-translating it makes me think about the words and appreciate the content all the more.

This time I decided to return to Luther’s Small Catechism, to Luther’s Table Prayers in particular. I consulted the critical edition: Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (The Confessional Writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church), 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), p. 522-523.

This choice was inspired in part by the fact that my wife and I have been looking for some variety in our table prayers. Although I knew that these prayers existed in Luther’s Small Catechism, they were not something I was taught by my family or in Catechism instruction. (We were simply taught the “common table prayers” – “Come, Lord Jesus,” etc.) The translations in the Catechism used by our synod (Kuske ed.) are somewhat abridged and include none of Luther’s rubrics. The strength of Luther’s prayers lies especially in the Prayer of Thanks, which he uses as an opportunity to teach the children Psalm passages that highlight more general and more important scriptural truths than simply the fact that God is the one who has given them their food.

May God grant that this fresh translation, even if only in a small way, aid the Christian reader in his or her prayer life, for Jesus’ sake.

How the Father, as the Head of the Family, Should Teach His Household to Ask God’s Blessing and to Give Thanks

The Table Blessing1

The children and servants should present themselves before the table with folded hands and good manners and say:

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and gratify everything that lives with satisfaction.2 3

Then they should say the Lord’s Prayer and the following prayer:

Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these gifts you have given us, which we enjoy from your bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The Prayer of Thanks4

So too after the meal they should likewise fold their hands and politely say:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is kind and his goodness endures forever. He gives food to all flesh. He gives the cattle their fodder, and feeds the young ravens who call on him. He does not take delight in the strength of the steed or take pleasure in anyone’s legs. The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him and who wait upon his goodness.5

Then they should say the Lord’s Prayer and the following prayer:

We thank you, Lord God our Father, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, for all the favor you show us, you who live and reign forever. Amen.

Endnotes

1 Borrowed by Luther from the breviary

2 Scholia: Satisfaction means that all animals get enough to eat so that they are glad and in good spirits about it, for worry and greed hinder such satisfaction.

3 Psalm 145:15-16

4 Composed by Luther, leaning on the breviary

5 Psalm 106:1; 136:25; 147:9-11