On Doing God a Favor

October 10th, 2010

Martin Luther (On John 15:16):

Now let the monks and the whole world go ahead and boast of their merits, and let them choose as long as they please. You hear Christ say: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” He refuses to grant that He was chosen by you. All Scripture reproves and condemns any choosing on our part before and without God’s commandment. That is what the Jews did when they instituted their service of God, which they themselves chose and set apart from those ordained and established by God. They captioned it as follows: “This is the chosen service of God. Here we want to find God, reconcile Him, and obtain mercy.” That is how they treated God in everything; they always wanted to take the initiative and to decide upon what should please God. They instituted the use of incense and sacrifice in every vale and on the mountaintops, where there was a green forest or some other attractive spot; and then they boasted that there they had found the true God, who would now have to be gracious to them. Oh, how the prophets wearied themselves rebuking the people because of this abominable vice! Thus we hear Isaiah lament in chapter 66, verse 3: “These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations”; and in chapter 1, verse 29, we read: “For you shall be ashamed of the oaks in which you delighted, and you shall blush for the gardens which you have chosen”; and in chapter 66, verse 3, Isaiah says that he who engages in such self-chosen sacrifices and service of God reminds him of one “who offers swine’s blood; who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog’s neck.” Before God such self-chosen holiness is nothing but sheer murder or blasphemy or a denial of God; for in no circumstances will God consent to it if we presume to prescribe and choose what should please Him. We monks used to choose the things that should procure God’s mercy for us. I thought: “Oh, if I enter a cloister and serve God in cowl and tonsure, He will reward and welcome me!”
Thus the entire papacy is nothing but disobedience to and enmity against God. For they are so mad and so stupid that they simply refuse to let God take the first step of seeking and electing them through His word and offering them all His mercy and His friendship through His Son’s suffering and death. All this they disdain and reject. They want to have the glory and the prerogative that God should exist by our grace and do according to our choosing.
Well, this has been the bone of contention in the world ever since the beginning, and I suppose it will remain that until the end. Cain also wanted God to conform to his pattern; he wanted God to have regard for his own work and offering and not for his brother’s. And the world has consistently followed in his footsteps up to the present hour. This is inevitable, for it cannot refrain from reversing the words of our text and saying in fact: “I do not want to be chosen by God, but I want to anticipate Him and choose Him.” But God can and will never tolerate this; He reverses the order and declares: “You cannot and shall not choose Me, but I must choose you. Things will not go as you plan, but as I will. I will be your Lord and Master; I refuse to be taught by you.”
Throughout Scripture, therefore, God condemned and rejected all such choosing without and contrary to His commandment. St. Paul, too, is a bitter enemy of this vice. In Col. 2:18 he says: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement”; also verse 23: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement.” Thus he described the monasticism that was to come; it would introduce nothing but the self-chosen service of God, which it would embellish and adorn by saying: “I mean well, and I am doing this out of love for God and in His honor. Therefore this will please Him, and He will be gracious to me.” Of course, God is twice as hostile to such men as He is to the others; for He Himself tells us how He wants to be served, just as He Himself called the people of Israel out of Egypt and gave them the Ten Commandments, which told them what to do and what not to do, lest they themselves devise and specify how they should serve Him.
Therefore Christ says here: “Just forget about all your boasting that you chose Me. Follow Me, and let Me choose you first. Listen to what I say to you, in order that I, not you, may have the glory of having merited this for you by My blood and death.” Thus He told them to be humble, as Christians must be, because they enjoy the high honor and the great glory of being called Christ’s and God’s friends. God wants them to know and never to forget what made them friends. They must always confess that they have not merited or earned this friendship, but that it has been given to them out of the Lord Christ’s pure grace. A friend who takes and demands nothing of us but only gives and presents everything to us deserves to be loved, cherished, and honored. In other instances, the world accepts favors gladly, but is reluctant to do them. Why, then, is this favor not welcomed? Here on earth we are ready to accept favors from everyone; here no one can do too much for us. But because God wants to give us everything good from heaven, we decline to accept it. Here we want to reverse the order and to do the poor Man, our Lord God, a favor the One from whom we should accept favors. Here people erect buildings, endow and sacrifice abundantly, give and do what should be given and done, just in order that we may praise the service we are rendering to God. On the other hand, when we are asked to give to our neighbor who is in need of our help, and to do good to him, we will not and cannot do or give anything. In brief, we refuse to accept anything from God, and we refuse to give others anything. This is a shameful and accursed plague inflicted on the human race by the devil, who corrupts and contaminates all that is good, true, and holy.

In some ways, Luther comes very close to the regulative principle of worship here, referencing some of the same texts that would be used in subsequent discussions (the example of Cain, Colossians 2). Obviously he doesn’t quite get that far, perhaps because he is thinking so exclusively in terms of the favor of God, whether we receive it freely or acquire it by effort, that he doesn’t stop to apply his own words to the regulation of worship apart from the question of justification.

If He is to come or, as Christ said earlier, if He is to be sent or to proceed, also to hear and to speak, He must, of course, be something. Now He surely is not the Father, since the Father does not come and is not sent. Nor is He the Son, who has already come and now returns to the Father, and of whom the Holy Spirit will preach and whom He will glorify.
But Christ point in particular to the distinctive Person of the Holy Spirit or His attribute, also to His divine essence together with the Father and the Son, when He says: “Whatever He hears He will speak.” For here Christ refers to a conversation carried on in the Godhead, a conversation in which no creatures participate. He sets up a pulpit both for the speaker and for the listener. He makes the Father the Preacher and the Holy Spirit the Listener. It is really beyond human intelligence to grasp how this takes place; but since we cannot explain it with human words or intelligence, we must believe it. Here faith must disregard all creatures and must not concentrate on physical preaching and listening; it must conceive of this as preaching, speaking, and listening inherent in the essence of the Godhead.
Here it is relevant to state that Scripture calls ou Lord Christ according to His divine nature a “Word” (John 1:1) which the Father speaks with and in Himself. Thus this Word has a true, divine nature from the Father. It is not a word spoken by the Father, as a physical, natural word spoken by a human being is a voice or a breath that does not remain in him but comes out of him and remains outside him. No, this Word remains in the Father forever. Thus these are two distinct Persons: He who speaks and the Word that is spoken, that is, the Father and the Son. Here, however, we find the third Person following these two, namely, the One wh hears both the Speaker and the spoken Word. For it stands to reason that there must also be a listener where a speaker and a word are found. But all this speaking, being spoken, and listening takes place within the divine nature and also remains there, where no creature is or can be. All three Speaker, Word, and Listener must be God Himself; all three must be coeternal and in a single undivided majesty. For there is no difference or inequality in the divine essence, neither a beginning nor an end. Therefore one cannot say that the Listener is something outside God, or that there was a time when He began to be a Listener; but just as the Father is a Speaker from eternity, and just as the Son is spoken from eternity, so the Holy Spirit is the Listener from eternity.
Earlier we heard (John 14:26; 15:26) that the Holy Spirit is sent not only by the Father but that He is also sent by, and proceeds from, the Son. Therefore this Listener must be called the Listener of both the Father and the Son, not of the Father alone or of the Son alone. Christ has stated plainly: “The Comforter, whom I shall send to you from the Father.” The expression “to send” has the very same connotation that the expression “to proceed from” has. For he who proceeds from someone is sent. Conversely, he who is sent proceeds from him who sends him. Consequently, the Holy Spirit has His divine essence not only from the Father but also from the Son, as the followings words will illustrate further.
Thus these words confirm and teach exactly what we confess in our Creed, namely, that in one divine essence there are three distinct Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is illustrated by means of a metaphor, or a picture of natural things, in order that we in our weakness may be able to know what is meant and to talk about it. But we cannot search it our or understand it. We must believe, and cling to, these words which we hear from Christ Himself, just as Christendom and especially the holy fathers and bishops did. They had disputations about this article, and they fought for and preserved it against the heretics and lying spirits who made bold to meditate on and to affect wisdom concerning these sublime, inscrutable matters beyond and apart from Scripture.

Martin Luther, on John 16:13