The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.
So wrote Martin Luther, in the last one of the 28 theses that he composed for the disputation on April 26, 1518. Those theses and their proofs became known as “The Heidelberg Disputation,” which is part of The Book of Concord, in which the confessional statements of Lutherans are collected. As I jogged this morning, I listened to an episode from Stephen Nichols’ “5 minutes in church history,” in which he talked about Luther’s 28th thesis. That prompted some thinking which I found quite profitable to my soul, so I’m sharing those thoughts.
In these theses, Luther sets out to demonstrate that we can achieve no righteousness by our own works; only God can constitute us righteous. Nichols reports that his friend and fellow church historian, Carl Trueman, considers the first sentence of this statement the most beautiful that Luther ever wrote, and Nichols tends to agree with him. Having read only a small proportion of Luther’s many sentences, I am in no position to agree or disagree with that assessment, but I concur that this concise declaration is profoundly beautiful.
As I contemplated Luther’s statement, I was first made a bit nervous, lest it give the impression that sinful humans have no intrinsic worth as God’s creatures. Theological discussions of original sin and its effects can sometimes leave us with that impression. But, even though we are fallen, we remain creatures in God’s image, and the worth and dignity which comes with that identity particularly needs protection in our materialistic society, with its terrible disregard for the value of human life. Amazingly, God loved us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8), and his love for us rebellious, wayward creatures is not deserved, but it is also not wasted on creatures who ought not to be loved.
In Luther’s second sentence, however, he spells out a contrast between our love and God’s. We love those things and people who please us. Our pleasure is warped by sin, so that we often love things which are not worthy of our devotion, but we have also become selfish, so that we tend to love instrumentally. We love things because of what they can do for us, and we can easily do the same with people, so that our love for them lasts only as long as we deem them “useful.”
By contrast, as Luther points out, God did not love us and give his Son to die for us because he found us useful. In our sinful condition, far from being of any use to God we lived intentionally in rebellion against God. We were “children of our father the devil,” as Jesus said of some who opposed him (Jn 8:44), serving not God but his chief adversary. As such, God could justly have wiped us all out, leaving us to the death which he had warned Adam and Eve would be the consequence of disobedience to the one prohibition God gave them. As rebels and enemies of God, nothing about our action gave God pleasure. But in his amazing grace, God chose to make us lovely through the redeeming, transforming work of his beloved Son. He chose to turn us into people in whom he could take pleasure.
Of his eternal Son, who always did what was pleasing to the Father (Jn 8:29), the Father said that Jesus was his beloved Son with whom he was “well pleased” (Mt 3:17). In Jesus’ case, God found what was pleasing to him. But, as Luther says, such was not the case with any of us. God loved us when nothing we did gave him pleasure, and he sent his Son and his Spirit to cleanse us from sin, to redeem us from our bondage to sin, and to transform us through his sanctifying work.
In mind boggling grace, God chose to call us his children (1 Jn 3:1). We can only dimly comprehend what this entails, but it makes us “joint heirs” with Jesus the Christ (Rom 8:17). We can not now comprehend all that this means, but we know that when Christ is revealed “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Then, when we are transformed into the image of Christ, a process which is now under way, though frustratingly slowly and sometimes painfully (Rom 8:28-29), God will take pleasure in us as he did in Jesus. We will have become what he is now making us into, pleasing to him not because we transformed ourselves from perverse rebels, but because he delivered us from the destruction we were foolishly choosing for ourselves.
Luther was right to combat any delusion that we could make ourselves pleasing to God by works of our own doing, independent of him. We can only praise God for all that he has done for us and is doing in us.
The shocking thing about sin is that it distorts our vision and twists our thinking so greatly that we do not naturally find God lovable. We came into the world as God’s enemies, who saw God as a threat to the realization of our own happiness and well being (Eph 2:1-10). Even as God’s children, we too easily wander in that direction. But when God opens our eyes to see things rightly and reveals to us the truth, we find God immeasurably lovely. Then we are filled with love for him. But this comes about only because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19) in our willful unlovableness. Having been transformed by God into people who give God pleasure, we now find pleasure in him, and so our love for him grows as our likeness to him increases.
When God makes us lovely, we find him lovely.