I don’t always agree with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), but he always gets me thinking. For example, I recently read his essay For Self Examination, which has a section on Martin Luther, faith, and works. Although he doesn’t use the terms, Kierkegaard was talking about legalism and antinomianism. Here’s part of that essay:
There is always a secular mentality that no doubt wants to have the name of being Christian but wants to become Christian as cheaply as possible. This secular mentality became aware of Luther. It listened; for safety’s sake it listened once again lest it should have heard wrongly; thereupon it said,
“‘Excellent! This is something for us. Luther says: It depends on faith alone. He himself does not say that his life expresses works, and since he is now dead it is no longer an actuality. So we take his words, his doctrine – and we are free from all works – long live Luther! Wer nicht liebt Weiber, Wein, Gesang / Et wird ein Narr sein Leben lang (who loves not women, wine, and song / He is a fool his whole life long). This is the meaning of Luther’s life, this man of God who, in keeping with the times, reformed Christianity.'”
Even though not everyone took Luther in vain in such a downright secular way – in every human being there is an inclination either to want to be meritorious when it comes to works or, when faith and grace are to be emphasized, also want to be free from works as far as possible. Indeed, ‘man,’ this rational creation of God, certainly does not let himself be fooled; he is not a peasant coming to market, he has his eyes open. ‘No, it’s one or the other,’ says the man. ‘If it is to be works – fine, but then I must also ask for the legitimate yield I have coming from my works, so that they are meritorious. If it is to be grace – fine, but then I must also ask to be free from works – otherwise it surely is not grace. If it is to be works and nevertheless grace, that is indeed foolishness.’
Yes, that is indeed foolishness; that would also be true Lutheranism; that would indeed be Christianity. Christianity’s requirement is this: your life should express works as strenuously as possible; then one thing more is required – that you humble yourself and confess: But my being saved is nevertheless grace….
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