Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Luther and the Holy Spirit: Why Pneumatology Still Matters

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Luther and the Holy Spirit: Why Pneumatology Still Matters

Article excerpt

The person of the Holy Spirit receives little attention in the life of some churches. For many of us, the Spirit is our focus on Pentecost, and we may speak of the Spirit in a vague way when we address the thorny issue of sanctification, but our theology, teaching, and pondering often focus on the other two persons of the Trinity.

"Charismatics" and "Pentecostals," of course, do not suffer such a deficiency. However, in traditions that are not so oriented toward gifts of the Spirit, there is a noticeable lack of discussion of the work of the Comforter. This lack of attention is unfortunate. The primary work, or office, of the Holy Spirit should not slip from Christian catechesis, preaching, and theological training. In this article I address the role of the Spirit in Martin Luther's theology of justification and sanctification and look at the practical implications for preaching and teaching that follow from his understanding of the Spirit active in faith.

Luther's theology of the Holy Spirit

Luther's understanding of the Spirit's activity was more dynamic and focused than that of Roman Scholasticism. In his discussion of The Third Article in his Small Catechism he writes:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus
Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by
the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the
true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the
whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the
one true faith; in which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives
all sins to me and all believers, and will at the Last Day raise up me
and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal
life. This is most certainly true.

This short commentary clearly explains the essence of the Holy Spirit's activity: The Spirit creates faith in the sinner. Here we begin to see some of the essential implications of Luther's pneumatology. Indeed, a proper understanding of the work of the Spirit is necessary for a proper understanding of faith. Faith is not a good work undertaken by believers but something done for us and within us by the Spirit of God. "But the real faith, of which we are speaking, cannot be brought into being by our own thoughts. On the contrary, it is entirely God's work in us, without any cooperation on our part." (1)

The power of the Word is found in the work of the Spirit which accompanies it. Paul Althaus explains, "The fact that the external word enters and overwhelms the heart is therefore not the result of an inherent dynamic which the word possesses in itself. On the contrary, the activity of the Spirit which always occurs through the word, must first be added to the preaching and hearing of the external word." (2)

The Spirit, moreover, enables a person to appropriate the saving message of the gospel. As Luther never tired of explaining, good news is only good news when it exists pro me--for me. Althaus clarifies: "This 'for me' is the decisive and essential factor in justifying faith which definitely distinguishes it from everything else which we otherwise call faith and especially from a mere 'historical faith.'" (3)

Although faith is the work of the Holy Spirit within the redeemed, the believer is not a passive agent. A Christian is active in the daily struggles of believing:

... people think: Doing good works is a heavy task, but believing is
something that is soon done. To be sure, faith does seem to be an easy
matter; but it really is a difficult art. Temptation and experience
certainly teach that, on the contrary, we must say that clinging to
God's Word so that the heart is not afraid of sins and death but trusts
and believes God, is a far more bitter and difficult task than observing
all the rules of the Carthusian and monastic orders. (4)

For Luther, a Christian participates in the work of God. …

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