Rethinking Luther, Rethinking Myself

I Was Sure of my Self-Righteousness, and Grace Sounded Too Easy

Guest Contributor / 4.28.21

This post comes to us from Joey Goodall:

In college, I liked to trash-talk Lutherans when I was drinking. I didn’t do this all the time, but it certainly wasn’t an isolated incident. 

“The guy who wrote On the Jews and Their Lies is the guy you want to rally behind?” I would ask with a self-satisfied smirk on my face. Reader, I don’t blame you for wanting to get in a time machine and punch 22-year-old me square in the jaw.

I was sure of my self-righteousness. I thought sola gratia and sola fide sounded too easy. I wanted to work for my sanctification. I wish I could say that I didn’t actually have such a reactionary stance towards grace, but I did. I was drunk on a cocktail of works righteousness.

Around the same time, I remember tearing into another self-identified Christian acquaintance of mine when she said that she thought homeless people in America were only homeless because they weren’t trying hard enough. Ironically, I tried to explain people’s bound wills, which I didn’t have the language or the disposition for. I didn’t have the self-awareness to realize that my rejection of unearned grace came from the same impulse.

I was 33, with a divorce and a number of other dashed hopes under my belt, before I was able to really hear the Gospel — thanks in large part to many of Luther’s insights (the distinction between Law and Gospel, bondage of the will, etc.).

This week, I finished re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces for the Mockingbird book club. I first read it when I was 18 or 19. Before now, I hadn’t remembered much about it except that I liked it. I wonder what I got out of the book back then. I wonder if I related to Orual’s being so sure that what she was doing was good and right and best for everyone. I was certainly unwilling to put myself in her shoes when she learned that many of her well-intentioned actions — or selfish actions that she convinced herself were well-intentioned — actually caused harm to those she loved. I wonder if I thought, “Well, that obviously doesn’t apply to me.” I wonder if I took the end of this beautiful book as a chance to judge and condemn Orual for the very same sins I’ve always been guilty of, rather than seeing my own sinful nature in her revealed, and in being revealed, mercifully forgiven.

I still think that Martin Luther probably wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with, and he certainly wasn’t right about everything (who is?), but where I used to find judgment toward him for those things, I now find love. I’m also not always the easiest guy to get along with, and am wrong almost all of the time, but God can still use me, and Jesus’ sacrifice is still for me despite all of that. Sanctification is a process, but not one that I play any part in. Nor is it a process without speed bumps and sand traps and deep dark canyons. But it is happening all the same. As Luther says in his Defense and Explanation of all the Articles:

This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.

If you had told me at 22 that no theological thinker would be more important to me at 35 than Martin Luther, I would’ve scoffed. Back then, I wanted to be judged and found righteous on my own. I wanted to believe that I could pass any test God gave me as long as God was being fair. I was like Orual, who, after accusing the gods, and waiting for them to judge her in return, asks her former mentor, “Are the gods not just?” She is still hoping to be found righteous on her own terms, until her mentor wisely replies, “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?” At 35, I need a daily shot of the Law followed by a chaser of Gospel to keep me from alternately slipping into self-righteousness or despair. My former self counted Martin Luther as an adversary, but the Gospel has a way of turning enemies into friends.