August 31, 2021

Martin Luther: Master of Paradoxes

Can understanding sin help us better understand salvation?

Trevor O’Reggio

Martin Luther is considered one of the most original and provocative theological thinkers who ever lived.1 One of the major qualities that characterized his writings was his use of paradoxical statements to express his most significant theological ideas.2 “More than any other Protestant reformer, Luther was given to thinking in terms of paradoxical propositions and binary dialectical oppositions that depended on each other for meaning, despite their apparent contradictions, such as faith and works, law and gospel, flesh and spirit.”3

Selected Examples

Examples of Luther’s most quoted paradoxical statements would include the following. Speaking of the Christian’s freedom, he says: “The Christian is perfectly free, lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”4 Elsewhere he states that “a Christian is simultaneously a saint and a sinner.”5 Comparing human perspectives on God’s works, he writes the following: “Although the works of humans always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.”6 As to destiny of salvation, he declares that “we cannot go to heaven, unless we first go to hell.” The most shocking of his paradoxes would have to be that “God cannot be God unless he first becomes a devil.”7

Jesus’ Paradoxes

Merriam-Webster defines a paradox as a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.8 Such speech, and, specifically, such theological speech is not original to Luther. In the Gospels Jesus expressed many of His most powerful truths in paradoxes. Examples of these are: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25).9 Jesus also stated that “the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16).

Some have argued in favor of paradox being one of the major literary techniques of the New Testament, especially for Jesus and Paul.

The apostle Paul also expressed some of his most profound theological ideas in paradoxes: exaltation through humiliation (Phil. 2:8, 9); strength through weakness (2 Cor. 12:10); freedom through servitude (Rom. 6:18). Indeed, some have argued in favor of paradox being one of the major literary techniques of the New Testament, especially for Jesus and Paul.10

Thus, in speaking in paradoxes, the great German Protestant reformer reasonably sees himself as following sound and familiar biblical tradition. As surely as with his biblical predecessors, Luther’s paradoxical quality about his theological ideas evades easy explanation or simplistic interpretation. Some consider that his theological genius enabled him to view both sides of an issue.11 Others stumble over his paradoxical and apparently conflicting statements. This article is not intended as a validation of Luther’s theology or of his social ideas. All it offers is an exploration of a few of the reformers paradoxes, specifically three: calling God the devil; a pertinent example from his early writing; and finally, the issue that is the hinge of all Luther’s theological understanding, the cross.

Calling God the Devil

In explaining the statement in which he calls God the devil, Luther clarifies through his exposition of two kinds of works of God: God’s alien work (Opus Alienum Dei) and God’s proper work (Opus Proprium Dei). The former involves killing, taking away hope, even leading to desperation. The latter speaks of forgiveness, love, and encouragement. In Luther’s abrasive words, God makes bad results, which we do not understand, and even uses Satan in order to bring us to repentance. Luther proclaims that we must first understand our lost condition before we can be saved, and thus “we cannot go to heaven, unless we first go to hell”; hence, to us, “God cannot be God unless he first becomes a devil.”12

Heidelberg Disputations

One of the earliest examples of Luther’s use of paradoxes was the Heidelberg Disputation at the chapter meeting of the Augustinian order in April 1518, where Luther was asked to explain some of his new ideas that seemed to be at variance with traditional Catholic views. At the behest of Johannes Van Staupitz, Luther, for this occasion, wrote a series of theological and philosophical theses that outlined many of the theological ideas that he would later develop. These ideas were often expressed in paradoxes. Theses 1-12 deal with the problem of good works, while theses 13-18 deal with the will.13 True to his paradoxical style, right from the onset of the disputation Luther asserted that the “good works” that appear beautiful and attractive are nothing less than “mortal sins”! By contrast, Luther continued, God’s works, which to many appear ugly and evil, are really beautiful, for they are the sole source of salvation.14

In order for us to see God at work through our sufferings, we need a revelation of the Holy Spirit.

In order to understand this particular paradox, we must understand the major crux of Luther’s theology, which was focused on the impossibility of humans to earn salvation through their good works and deeds. A passage Luther frequently quoted was: “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). Other passages in Galatians also complement this idea: “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse” (Gal. 3:10). Any attempt toward righteousness by works is for Luther a delusion that leads straight to hell. All human attempts to achieve righteousness through the keeping of the law take away from the merits and grace of Christ, and, as such, constitute the worst of all mortal sins. Humans’ “good works” are hence, for Luther, mortal sins, since they give us the illusion of being saved while leading us to hell. Righteousness and salvation come only from Christ; He alone is our righteousness. He alone can give us righteousness.15

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In the second part of this paradoxical statement, Luther asserts that the works of God seem unattractive and evil, although they are really eternal merits. Luther argues that God’s works to many appear evil, lowly, unimpressive, and even repulsive. God often chooses weak, sinful humans to speak His word of forgiveness, grace, and judgment. God’s greatest work happened on a despised and lowly wooden cross where His Son hanged as a condemned criminal. Yet, through Christ’s death, the solemn work of atonement is made for humanity. God transformed an instrument of capital punishment into a symbol of grace and salvation. God has indeed chosen “foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27).16 It is in the apparent ugliness and evil of the cross that God’s greatest act of grace is accomplished.

The Paradox of the Cross

Luther’s use of paradox to express his understanding of the gospel should come as no surprise, since for him the cross is the hinge on which all theology swings. The doctrine of the cross is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.17 For Luther, the cross of Christ is the great paradox of the Bible. Where humans perceive weakness, shame, humiliation, and suffering is precisely where God is to be found, hidden beneath it all, where only the eye of faith can perceive His power, glory, and love. Exactly where God seems absent is where God is revealed most fully.18

Luther carries the paradox of the cross further by saying that Christians must follow Christ in taking up their cross. Only through our personal cross can we experience God’s glory.19 This is also a paradox. Luther wrote, “You, God, exalt us when you humble us. You make us righteous when you make us sinners, you grant victory when you cause us to be defeated, you give us life when you permit us to be killed.”20 Luther believed that it is only through the denial of self that we can truly receive life. This profoundly paradoxical yet historically fundamental Christian doctrine greatly shaped Luther’s theological thinking. Richard Hughes argues that “Luther prized the theme of paradox, not because the notion of paradox was philosophically intriguing, but rather because he found the notion of paradox at the very heart of the Christian gospel. Because his ‘theology of the cross’ stands at the very center of Luther’s thought, so does the notion of paradox.”21 God is found not only in the suffering, but also in the midst of doubt, fear, tribulation, temptation, and finally despair. This is what Luther calls God’s alien work, God’s work of wrath. Beneath is to be found God’s work of mercy. And only when human beings abandon themselves can they begin to trust in God’s mercy alone. Luther never tired of saying, “Only experience makes a theologian. Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living—nay, dying and being damned—make a theologian.”22

For the great reformer Luther, only the experience of the cross can bring anyone to true theology. In order for us to see God at work through our sufferings, we need a revelation of the Holy Spirit: “No one can correctly understand God or his word, unless he receives such understanding from the Holy Spirit. But no one can receive it from the Holy Spirit without experiencing, proving, and feeling it.”23

In the end, the paradox of salvation is no mere theoretical construct: it is life lived in the flesh, the humanity of humans endowed with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

  1. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2013), pp. 53, 54; Heiko Oberman and Eileen W. Schwarzabart, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006). For more on Luther’s originality, see Robert Kolb, Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
  2. Markus Wriedt, “Luther’s Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 2003), pp. 86-88, 103, 104.
  3. Carlos Eire, A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 129.
  4. Martin Luther,“The Freedom of the Christian,” in Luther’s Works (LW), 31:343.
  5.  Luther, “Commentary on Galatians,” in LW, 26:232.
  6.  Luther, “The Heidelberg Disputation,” thesis 3, in LW, 31:39.
  7.  Luther, “The Exposition of the 117th Psalm” (1530), in LW, 14:31.
  9.  Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this work are from the King James Version.
  10. See Stephen D. Cox, The New Testament and Literature: A Guide to Literary Patterns (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), pp. 21-30, 74-91, 113-126, 140-144.
  11. Luther, “The Exposition of the 117th Psalm” [1530], in LW ,14:31.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Luther, “The Heidelberg Disputation” (May 1518), inLW, 31:39-70.
  14. Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” thesis 3, in LW, 31:43.
  15. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp. 118-130.
  16. On this, see Christine Helmer, The Global Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 230.
  17. See Alistair E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 149, 150.
  18. On detailed analysis of Luther’s view of hidden/revealed God, see Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 198-213; see also Luther, “Lectures on Jonah” (1526), in LW, 19:72ff.
  19. Luther, “Commentary on Psalm 118,” in LW, 14:95.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Richard Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 88.
  22. George, p. 61. Luther repeated this idea several times. See Luther, “Table Talk 46” (1531), in LW, 54:7 See also Luther, in Weimarer Ausgabe Tischreder (WA TR), 1:146, and Weimarer Ausgabe(WA), 5:163.
  23. Luther, “Exposition on the Magnificat,” in LW, 21:299.

Trevor O’Reggio is professor of church history and chair, Department of Church History, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.