Luther on the conscience

I spent some time over the weekend re-reading one of my all-time favourite books: The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin by Randall Zachman (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993). In the section on Luther (97 pages), he outlines that for Luther, a bad conscience is that which lacks faith and peace because it fails to hear and receive God’s word of grace, and to go on believing that Word while experiencing and seeing the opposite. God’s blessing remains hidden under a curse. At the heart of what Luther is concerned with here is the fundamental distinction between the only two available theological alternatives: (i) a theologia gloriae, a religion of the conscience, and so of the flesh which calls evil good, judges according to what it feels, is ever motivated by self-invented good works in an effort to be at peace with God, and thus never attains confidence in God’s mercy, but rather is driven to indifference, presumption and despair, and (ii) a theologia crucis, a religion of revelation, which says and believes what a thing is in contradiction to feelings and appearances, which never trusts the conscience but rather submits its accusations and acquittals to the truth of the gospel (through which is the proper interpretation of the Law) as attested to in the Scriptures and comes under the form of the cross. In other words, in the context of theologia crucis, we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, even though all we see is a shamed and abandoned man hanging on a cross. And even though the believers’ conscience may testify to the contrary, we must believe that that word concerning our forgiveness and sanctification is true and resist every lie associated with a theologia gloriae. Just as ‘nature wants to feel and be certain before she believes, grace believes before she perceives’. I’m now looking forward to seeing how Forsyth draws on Luther (as well as Kant and Maurice) in how he understands the role of the human conscience.


For other excellent discussions on Luther see Gerhard O. Forde, On Being A Theologian of the Cross: Reflections of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997). A must read! and Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).

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