With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next week, I thought it appropriate to feature a post on forgiveness and Martin Luther, written by one who knows a lot about the reformer, Michael Parsons. He also was my editor for The Living Cross, and was one of my three readers for my MA dissertation on Calvin. He’s a gentle and insightful teacher, as you’ll see here.
In a year that commemorates the beginnings of the European Reformation, it seems appropriate to say something about Martin Luther. Those who know anything about Luther will know that he never minimizes the seriousness of sin; nor, however, does he minimize the grace of forgiveness. Indeed, he exalts in it. And the biblical story of Jonah gives him ample opportunity.
Luther spots at least two sins in Jonah’s behaviour. First, Jonah should have accepted the will of God (Jonah 1) and should have been ‘most happy to carry it out’. Instead, he runs away. Second, he sins, in being angry to the point of wanting to die (Jonah 4). What impresses me, however, is how positive the reformer is about all this. Luther moves from a negative situation (the sin of Jonah) to extremely positive application. In that, he might be an example to us today.
- Luther rejoices to see that Old Testament saints sinned! Notice how he puts this: ‘even the greatest and best saints sin grievously’. Read that again. They sin, but they remain ‘the greatest and best saints’! Jonah chapter 4 gives the clue. Luther notices that the prophet continues to converse with God, ‘He chats so uninhibitedly with God as though he were not in the least afraid of him … he confides in him as in a father.’ Luther insists that the bottom line is not the prophet’s sin, but that Jonah ‘is God’s dear child’.
- Look at Luther’s amazing application: ‘[W]e learn that God permits his children to blunder and err greatly and grossly. … [W]e observe how very kindly, paternally, and amiably God deals with those who place their trust in him in times of need. … It is the daily sin of a child that the heavenly Father willingly bears in his mercy.’ Again, re-read that last comment. The Lord mercifully forgives us daily – that’s grace!
- Luther applies it again in a very personal way: ‘I remain in the kingdom of grace when I do not despair of God’s mercy, no matter how great my sin may be, but resolutely pin mind and conscience to the belief that there is still grace and forgiveness for me.’ Notice the italicized words, ‘no matter how great my sin may be’. He concludes that divine ‘mercy asserts itself and proves stronger than all wrath’. And again, ‘All sins which let grace triumph and reign are forgivable.’
So, Luther moves from a negative situation to extremely positive application. He wants us to see outside the confines of the human dilemma to the wider context of the love of God. Luther’s main intention is to encourage us, and particularly those of us who preach, to trust in the grace and goodness of God. Therefore, he stresses God’s grace in forgiveness and in an openness to receive sinners who return to him.
One of Luther’s repeated comments (though I don’t remember it in his lectures on Jonah) is that in Jesus Christ we already have everything. It is this truth that underlines his application. We are loved, we are forgiven daily, because the Father loves us in Christ.
Michael Parsons is currently commissioning editor for The Bible Reading Fellowship. He is the author of several books on the Reformation and an Associate Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College.