I’ve been enjoying Robert Kolb and Charles Arand’s new book, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Baker Academic, 2008). Especially noteworthy is Luther’s awareness that God acts through his word. God speaks and his words create, change, and transform. God creates by his word (Genesis 1). In the same way God created light by his word, God illuminates and transforms sinners by his word (2 Corinthians 4:6). God enters into this world by his word (John 1). In general, the word of God is active in impacting human existence (Isaiah 55:11). Of course, the antithesis to God’s work is Satan—the father of lies (John 8:44).
In Luther’s theology, God determines reality through his word.
This efficacy of God’s word forms the thrust of chapter six (“The Functions of the Word”; pp. 131-159). Kolb and Arand break Luther’s understanding of the power of God’s Word into the following subsections:
- The Word Creates.
- The Word Re-Creates.
- The Word Establishes the Relationship of Conversation Between God and His Human Creatures.
- The Word Elicits Faith.
- The Word Simultaneously Reveals God and Hides God.
- God’s Word Kills and Makes Alive.
Though obviously I don’t agree with all of Luther’s application of the doctrine, this chapter (and the book in general) does shed light on a number of important theological categories.
God’s word and justification
Near the end of chapter six, the authors wed the efficacy of God’s proclamation to God’s declaration of a sinner’s justification. God’s words literally determine the reality of justification. Listen to how Kolb and Arand state this (and notice Luther’s practical use of the doctrine).
Although one might misunderstand the concept of “pronouncing sinners righteous” as a divine shell game, Luther found the concept helpful in reassuring those who still found evidence of sinfulness in their hearts and minds, as well as in their actions. It assures them that God’s love trumps their sinfulness. When hearers were concentrating on their sinfulness, Luther emphasized that God considered them righteous, or counted and reckoned them free from sin through his verdict of “Innocent!”—no matter how they felt about themselves. …
Those who see this form of forensic justification as merely a legal fiction do not share Luther’s understanding of the power of the Word of God. The reformer knew that from the beginning of the world, God determined reality by speaking. Therefore, he was certain that God’s word of forgiveness created a new reality in the life of the sinner. The reformer could not explain the mystery of evil and sin continuing in the lives of those God had claimed as his own in baptism. But he did not doubt that when God said, “Forgiven,” the reality of human sinlessness in God’s sight was genuine and unassailable. God’s children must live with the mystery of the continuing sin and evil in their lives as they engage in the battle against their own sins. But they have no warrant to doubt that God has established the mightier reality of their innocence in his sight. And what he sees is real because he determines reality. (pp. 154-155)
This excerpt ministers to my soul. It reminds me that in wrestling with sin there is a greater, God-spoken reality that transcends the struggle. Through the perfect sacrifice of the Son I have been justified! I stand guiltless and blameless before a holy God, not because some distant judge slammed the gavel and signed a paper. My blamelessness comes from God’s spoken declaration. He spoke “Innocent, guiltless, righteous” and by declaration effectively created the reality of my justification.
When we see the profound power behind God’s words in shaping reality, our justification transcends “legal fiction” and—as Luther fully understood—becomes strength to endure trials, overcome circumstances, live fruitful lives, and find hope with the struggle with sin. May God give us the conviction of our justification so we may plant our feet in this divine amnesty and speak with the boldness of Paul, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). May I see what Luther saw, the indestructible foundation for our justification is directly connected to the declaration of God.
Luther has given us a great reminder that we can apply to all of Scripture—God’s words are not relevant today because they accurately align with reality, but because God’s words determine reality.