From Agony to Ecstasy by way of Dikaiosune
As far as I know the Luther hymn we just sang isn't in any English language hymnal. Luther wrote it about 1524 as a description of how he went from agony of conscience to ecstasy of salvation by way of dikaiosune or righteousness. This journey revolved around the text I just read, Romans 1: 16-17, and like the hymn that text has gone pretty much unused. No Lutheran pericopal system appoints it to be read for Reformation. That's a shame because it's an integral part of Luther's journey from damnation to justification.
Luther started the journey as a Catholic priest. Being very gifted, he was made a doctor of the church and assigned to teach. In 1515, two years before nailing the 95 Theses on the church door, he taught Romans. He started with the Medieval premise that there is a spark of goodness in man. If only it were fanned, it would leap into flames of true love for God and neighbor. You should recognize this premise. Man naturally believes this and many churches today hold to it. Man is basically good. There is at least a germ of goodness in him. He isn't totally fallen. If he will just do his part, God will do his. If he will just help himself, than God will help him.
Hear Luther's dilemma in his own words. "I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in Romansbut a single word in Chapter 1, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed," stood in my way. For I hated that word righteousness of God.Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that God was placated by my merit. I did not love, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously.I was angry with God" (LW, 34, 336-7, Bainton, Here I Stand, 49).
Here's the struggle, the agony caused by God's dikaiosune that led to Luther singing, "My sin devoured me night and day." The more you focus on God's demand to be holy, to stop sinning, the more you sin. And the horrible truth is that you came into the world not with a spark of goodness but preprogrammed to sin. As Luther sang, "My sin devoured me night and day/ In which my mother bore me." God's demand that we be holy was to Luther like God demanding fish to fly or birds to swim.
Do you know the agony of trying your best to please God and knowing you constantly fail? Do you know the anguish of starting out each day not wanting to worry, to lust, to gossip, to rage and find yourself 10 times worse than yesterday? Do you know of a spiritual struggle that takes all pleasure out of life and makes you crazy? Luther did. He wrote, "My anguish ever grew more rife,/ I took no pleasure in my life/ And sin had made me crazy."
As he said, what stood in Luther's way was the word righteousness. What barred the path to ecstasy and kept him in agony was dikaiosune. He read in Romans that in the Gospel "the righteousness of God is revealed." Luther knew the Gospel was suppose to be good news, yet Paul said it revealed God's righteousness. "I took it to mean," Luther said, "the righteousness where God is righteous and deals rightly in punishing the unrighteous" (Ibid., 49). God demanded righteousness from him even though God knew he was conceived and born in sin and could only continue to sin. Moreover, God demanded he love Him, and Luther couldn't love a God who tormented him. Can you?
In agony Luther struggled to understood what Paul meant. The first pinch of yeast that began to ferment his thoughts was that the "spark of goodness" was imaginary. There really was nothing in him that could believe, love, or trust in God. The next pinch of yeast was the fact that God's righteousness revealed in the Gospel wasn't the righteousness with which God judges and damns sinners but something God gave to sinners to save them. In the Gospel God gave the righteousness He demanded of sinners in the Law.
Because of this new understanding Luther said, "This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven" (Ibid., 50). Is it for you? Do you enter that gate with Luther? The 2nd verse of the hymn will help. Luther began to see that God the Father was "troubled sore to see me ever languish." God was "Everlasting Pity." He didn't delight in the anguish of His children. He saw they were helpless. God knew what Luther finally realized. There was no way he could save himself, no spark in him to help with salvation. He was a "lost and condemned person."
In the Gospel, and only in the Gospel, did God do something in the words of Luther "to save me from my anguish." It's not that Luther turned to God; it's not that Luther started loving God. By his own admission, he hated God. The Gospel is God, in the words of the hymn, turning "His Father heart" to you. In turning His heart to you fallen, filthy, miserable sinners, crazy with sin, God "chose Himself a bitter part/ His dearest did it cost Him." With those succinct words Luther sums up His new view of God and His righteousness.
God chose to send His holy, righteous Son into the world to play the part of man under the Law of God. And Jesus gave a command performance. He kept every one of God's commandments the very ones that press so heavy on your conscience. Even Pilate's wife saw this. She told her husband Jesus was "a righteous man." Even the Centurion who crucified Jesus had to admit it. He said, "Surely this man was righteous." But even though Jesus was a perfectly just, righteous Man, God sent Him to the cross, to damnation, to death, in place of all us unrighteous people. As Luther hymned, "His dearest it did cost Him."
Luther knew the agony of deserving to be punished. He all but wore his confessor out in the monastery constantly coming to him with his sins. Yet for all his confessing he had no relief. Peace with God wasn't found in anything he did whether trying to keep the law, constantly confessing his sins, or even always believing. Peace with God had to be given by God, and God gave it in His Son. All that Luther knew he deserved to suffer for his sins, God the Son suffered in his place. All that his conscience rightly told him he deserved to suffer had already been suffered for him, and for you to, by Jesus.
Now push that Gospel all the way home to heart, to head, to conscience to life. The Gospel is revealed righteousness says Paul. The righteousness of God and of His Law is written in every heart. Even though it's cloudy and hard to read there, the righteousness that God demands in the Law and by which He punished sinners doesn't need to be revealed. So that can't be what Paul's talking about. "The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith."
The Old Testament faith was that God would send the Seed of the woman to be His perfect Servant and He would bear all griefs and carry all sorrows. God would establish righteousness for sinners by who Jesus was and by what He did. God revealed this faith in the Old Testament for believing. It was from faith for faith. That person is righteous who believes he has Jesus' righteousness. You're not righteous by doing your best, doing your part, or by being in a anguish of conscience over your sins; you're righteous by faith. God wants you to believe that Jesus has kept the Law in your place, so you don't have to see it hanging over your head condemning you; God wants you to believe that everything the Devil says you deserve to suffer for you sins, everything your conscience is afraid you will suffer for your sins, and everything someone else says your must suffer, has already been suffered by Jesus in your place.
In Luther's hymn the Gospel is the call of the Son "Hold thou to Me," and the promise, "From now on wilt thou make it." You're going to make it sinner. You're going to live forever. Your sins aren't going to damn you. You are going to heaven. Again in Luther's words, since the Son "gave His very life for thee," you can count on the fact that "for thee He will stake it." It's not the agony of you, your sins, and the righteous judgment of God. It's the ecstasy of you, your Savior, and His righteousness covering all your sins.
For Luther the Gospel is certain, an unconditional promise especially against the Devil. He has Jesus saying, "I am thine and thou are mine,/ And where I am our lives entwine,/ The Old Fiend cannot shake it." Here's where we come to a gem of Lutheran theology if we're willing to go farther. Luther said that He went from agony to ecstasy by way of dikaiosune in the toilet. He said, "'The Holy Spirit gave me this realization in the cloaca.'"
People have tried to dignify this by saying that Luther didn't mean the toilet but the study in the tower above the toilet (Oberman, Luther Man Between God and the Devil, 155). Luther was troubled all his life by intestinal problems. Some think they came from his harsh diet as a monk in the early years, but in any event he had digestive illnesses, and as a result was in the bathroom a great deal. Perhaps while in the bathroom the Holy Spirit did show him what righteousness in our text meant, but people still today express that they're depressed, blue, or even troubled by saying the equivalent of they are in the toilet. The Holy Spirit gave Luther the Gospel in the depths where no man could or would even dare reach.
Just where human wisdom, reason, or common sense would say your are farthest from God, the Gospel says you are closest. Just where you feel the weakest in faith, in fervor, in strength, the Gospel says you are the strongest. Just when you feel the filthiest, the sinfulness, the most lost, the Gospel of Jesus Christ finds you, washes you, forgives you and feeds you with the very Body and Blood Jesus gave and shed on the cross. The grand Gospel the Holy Spirit gave Luther in Romans 1 and wants to give to you today is that Jesus promises, "Where I am our lives entwine" even, or perhaps especially, in the restrooms of life. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20091025); Romans 1: 16,17