27 September 2007

Rolling a Rock or Dipping Water with a Sieve

More from Dr. Luther's 1535 Lectures on Galatians (4:9), wherein he continues to wax eloquent on the dangers of the "beggarly elements," upon which sinful man is so prone to rely, and urges instead the diligent distinction between the Law and the Gospel:

"Anyone who seeks righteousness through the Law does nothing by his repeated actions but acquire the habit of this first action, which is that God in His wrath and awe is to be appeased by works. On the basis of this opinion he begins to do works. Yet he can never find enough works to make his conscience peaceful; but he keeps looking for more, and even in the ones he does perform he finds sin. Therefore his conscience can never become sure, but he must continually doubt. Then the heart trembles and continually finds itself loaded down with wagonloads of sin that increase infinitely, so that it deviates further and further from righteousness, until finally it acquires the habit of despair.

"Thus at the end of his life a monk is weaker, more beggarly, more unbelieving, and more fearful than he was at the beginning, when he joined the order. The Law or human traditions or the rule of his monastic order were supposed to heal and enrich him in his illness and poverty, but he became weaker and more beggarly than the tax collectors and harlots. For such people do not have that miserable habit of works on which to depend but are extremely aware of their sins and yet can say with the tax collectors: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13). On the other hand, a monk who has been trained in the weak and beggarly elements has acquired this habit: ‘If you observe the monastic rule, you will be saved.’ He has been so crazed and captivated by this false idea that on account of it he is incapable of grasping grace or even of remembering grace. Therefore neither past nor present works are enough for him, regardless of their quantity and quality; but he continually looks at and looks for ever-different ones, by which he attempts to appease the wrath of God and to justify himself, until in the end he is forced to despair. Therefore he who falls away from faith and follows the Law is like the dog in Aesop, which snapped at the shadow and lost the meat.

"Therefore it is impossible for men who want to provide for their salvation through the Law, as all men are inclined to do by nature, ever to be set at peace. In fact, they only pile laws upon laws, by which they torture themselves and others and make their consciences so miserable that many of them die before their time because of excessive anguish of heart. For one law always produces ten more, until they grow into infinity.

"In other words, anyone who strives to be justified by the Law is trying something that he can never achieve. Here one can apply, as I see the fathers did, the sayings of learned and wise men about a useless work, such as ‘rolling a rock’ or ‘dipping water with a sieve.’ I think that by such tales and parables the fathers wanted to commend to their pupils the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, to indicate that those who forsake grace may indeed tire and wear themselves out with difficult and troublesome labor, but that they accomplish a useless work. Therefore such men are correctly said to be ‘rolling a rock,’ that is, to be sweating foolishly, as the poets tell about Sisyphus: each time he rolled the rock from the bottom of the mountain to the top, it would roll right back again. And ‘dipping water with a sieve’ means wearing oneself out with an inexhaustible and a useless labor; thus the poets tell that the daughters of Danaus in the underworld carried water in cracked jars to a container with a hole in it.

"I wish that you students of Sacred Scripture would equip yourselves with such parables, in order to retain the distinction between Law and Gospel better, namely, that trying to be justified by the Law is like counting money out of an empty purse, eating and drinking from an empty dish and cup, looking for strength and riches where there is nothing but weakness and poverty, laying a burden upon someone who is already oppressed to the point of collapse, trying to spend a hundred gold pieces and not having even a pittance, taking clothing away from a naked man, imposing even greater weakness and poverty upon someone who is sick and needy, etc.

"Now who would ever have believed that the Galatians, who had learned a pure and sure doctrine from the great Apostle and teacher, St. Paul, could be led away from it so suddenly and be completely overthrown by the false apostles? It is not without reason that I remind you so often how easy apostasy from the truth of the Gospel is, for even devout people do not consider enough how precious and how necessary a treasure the true knowledge of Christ is. Therefore they do not work with as much care and diligence as they should to attain and keep it sure and firm.

"Besides, a majority of those who hear the Word are not disciplined by a cross; and they do not struggle with sin, death, and the devil. But they live smugly without any conflict. Because such people are not armed with the Word of God against the wiles of the devil, they are not disciplined or put to the test by temptations; therefore they never experience the application and the power of the Word either. To be sure, they follow present-day theologians and are persuaded by their words that they believe correctly in the matter of justification; but when these have departed, and when wolves come in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15), the same thing will happen to these men that happened to the Galatians, namely, they will be seduced and overthrown quickly and easily." (Luther’s Works, Vol. 26, CPH 1963)

No comments: