Kicking off a new weekly feature highlighting the inspiring work of late Lutheran theologian and Mockinghero Gerhard Forde, here’s a memorable portion from one of our absolute favorite volumes, On Being a Theologian of the Cross. The following excerpt is part of his unpacking of the first thesis of Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (“The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.”). Don’t let the historical context put you off, Forde has an incredible knack for breathing life, excitement and pastoral sensitivity into Reformation texts:
The law ‘Thou shalt quit!’ is for the alcoholic quite right and true. It is a ‘most salutary doctrine of life.’ However, it does not realize its aim but only makes matters worse. It deceives the alcoholic by arousing pride and so becomes a defense mechanism against the truth, the actuality of addiction. That is not what the law is for. Law is not intended to isolate from God in independence and pride, but to expose the need for God and his grace. Thus the law does not cure but kills. And so it is, one way or another. It drives either to despair or presumption. This is, of course, most offensive to us. Something in us wants to hold out till the last for the ability of the alcoholic to ‘get it all together’ and quit. ‘Doesn’t it work that way at least for some people?’ so we cry. Perhaps this is where the analogy reaches its limits. In human affairs it may sometimes work. The addict may not be so far gone as was thought and may be able to quit. But when we shift to the relationship with God it is another matter. The ‘intervention,’ the cross itself, exposes the absolute depth and hopelessness of our addiction. Before the cross there can be only repentance. Even when the person is able to quit, he may be dancing on the edge of the abyss of pride and its constant companion, despair.
This means there are two ways we can miss the mark of righteousness before God, two ways the relationship can be destroyed. One is more or less obvious: outright sinfulness, unrighteousness, lawlessness, self-indulgence, what the Bible would call ‘worldliness’ or, perhaps in more modern dress, carelessness or heedlessness. In other words, we can just say to God, ‘No thanks, I don’t want it, I’ll take my chances.’ The other is much less obvious and more subtle, one that morally earnest people have much more trouble with: turning our back on the gift and saying in effect, ‘I do agree with what you demand, but I don’t want charity. That’s too demeaning. So I prefer to do it myself. What you are offering is too cheap. I prefer the law, thank you very much. That seems safer to me.’ What this means, of course, is that secretly we find doing it ourselves more flattering to our self-esteem — the current circumlocution for pride. The law, that is, even the law of God, ‘the most salutary doctrine of life,’ is used as a defense against the gift. Thus, the more we ‘succeed,’ the worse off we are. The relationship to the giver of the gift is broken. To borrow the language of addiction again, it is the addiction that destroys the relationship. The alcoholic can be either a drunk or a ‘dry drunk.’ While the latter is socially preferable, there is little to choose between them in a broader religious view. One can be addicted to what is base or to what is high, either to lawlessness or to lawfulness. Theologically there is not any difference since both break the relationship to God, the giver.
Therefore the law can’t save us… The law is not a remedy for sin. It does not cure sin but rather makes it worse. St. Paul says it was given to make sin apparent, indeed, even to increase it.