The Conflict Between God and Satan
Luther’s understanding of the world we inhabit was one of conflict. Humanity is in the midst of a truth war between God and Satan. Luther took seriously the teaching of the Apostle Paul that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). He understood the Devil to be a nearly physical presence who is constantly assaulting the believer. In a manner foreign to the modern mind, he saw the Christian life as “mortal combat with an external Enemy who has unusual access to the enemy that always lurks within” (Trueman 120). This war with the devil was an “eschatological battle between life-giving truth and deadly deception was ultimately—as is all reality—personal: the clash between God, whose essence is love and mercy, and Satan, who is hell-bent on deceiving and murdering God’s human creatures” (Kolb 26).
God’s Alien Work in Permitting Satan’s Attacks
To properly battle Satan’s temptations in the midst of Anfechtungen, Luther taught that we must believe that God has permitted the devil’s assault upon us. Luther knew that our nature is so mired in sin that we turn the richest gifts of God into selfish pursuits and use God himself to achieve our own vainglory (Luther 291). Luther knew that the heart of man is curved in on itself, and thus we are particularly vulnerable to the Devil’s wiles in turning us in upon ourselves. He recognized our great need to be turned out toward God. It is precisely because of this natural bent to glorify self that God’s alien work of Anfechtungen is brought about in the life of the believer. God is bringing us to the end of trust in ourselves. Luther argued that suffering comes, “through which a man is made patient and tested; it comes and takes away everything he has and leaves him naked and alone, allowing him no help or safety in either his physical or spiritual merits, for it makes a man despair of all created things, to turn away from them and from himself, to seek help outside of himself and all other things, in God alone” (Luther 292).
Becoming Theologians of the Cross
Our fallen nature drives us to refuse to allow God to be God most expressly in our own inability to accept God as the giver of righteousness, in order that we might claim ultimate responsibility for ourselves (Kolb and Arand 52). This desire to claim ultimate responsibility betrays that we are theologians of glory. Luther’s pastoral concern is to direct us away from being theologians of glory to being theologians of the cross, which redirects our gaze “from probing the darkness further and directs those who hurt and ache to cling to Christ, whose love is certain and whose faithfulness is beyond all doubt.” Thus, Luther taught his parishioners to embrace Anfechtungen as God’s alien work in permitting Satan to tempt them for the good purpose of causing them to become theologians of the cross who look outside of themselves to Christ. Carl Trueman expresses this helpfully,
While certain strands of Christian thinking see despair as an evil, a dead end, the result of a failed quest to find signs of salvation when looking within, Luther sees it as a good thing because it drives Christians to look outside themselves, to the Word and the sacrament, in order to be assured. Such a view of despair will inevitably shape the pastoral response. The first thing that must be done is to diagnose the depth of despair and its cause. If it is the result of an introspective examination of one’s soul for signs of election, Luther’s answer is going to be that one needs to look outward to Christ for such assurance. If the despair is because the individual is overwhelmed by the magnitude and number of his sins, Luther is going to point him outward to Christ and emphasize the full sufficiency and power of Christ in the utter destruction of sin in his body on the cross. Either way, the answer to introspective despair is to look out to God as he offers himself to us in the flesh of Christ, now found in Word and sacrament. Despair and Anfechtungen have no value in themselves other than as they push us to Christ. This is the logic of the theologian of the cross: God brings to heaven by casting to hell. (Trueman 133)
We must understand Luther’s advice to Jerome that “one must always do the opposite of that which Satan prohibits” (Tappert 86), in the context of this battle with Satan, wherein he works to turn us to look inward for righteousness. When Satan prohibited “drinking wine, talking freely, and eating more often,” or when Satan tempted Luther to be “scrupulous about trifles,” Luther believed it was to “torment and vex” him (Tappert 86). Thus, Luther would be well served to do the opposite in an effort to mock the devil’s attempt to turn him into a theologian of glory. Luther believed he ought to even “commit some token sin simply for the sake of mocking the devil, so that he might understand that I acknowledge no sin and am conscious of no sin” (Tappert 86). He does not mean that he has never committed sin and does not deserve Hell. Rather, he admitted Satan was right about him, but that he must look beyond his accusation and to Christ.
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’ (Tappert 86)
Further, Luther’s pastoral advice cannot be understood apart from his sense of humor. The humor attending his advice often exhibited “the freedom of living in eschatological time when nothing is absolutely sure and true except the Word of God in Christ” (Gritsch 93). Eric Gritsch argued that for Luther, “humor, like music, also casts out Satan – the ‘sour Spirit’ that wants to be master of the human heart – and makes true Christians laugh in anticipation of a time without sin, death, and the devil” (Gritsch 93). Luther addressed this approach to battling Satan in the early part of his letter to Jerome Weller. Luther advised Weller to avoid entering a dispute with the devil (Tappert 85). Rather than argue with the devil, Jerome should be instructed that contempt and mocking are the best way to conquer the devil (Tappert 85). Luther believed Jerome would fight Satan better if he avoided being alone with his thoughts in his struggle against Satan, and would rather find good company, joke and play games (Tappert 85).
Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), Kindle.
Robert Kolb, Luther and the Stories of God, Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).
Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
Timothy J Wengert, “Introducing the Pastoral Luther,” in The Pastoral Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009).
Theodore G. Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2003).
Eric W. Gritsch, “Luther on Humor,” in The Pastoral Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009).