Luther and Religious Experience


Lutherans tend to look askance at testimonies of direct communications between God and the believer, even if it is just a matter of “feelings.” Lutherans emphasize the “objective” — the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, even the objectivity of the atonement such that we believe it takes away the sins of the world. No one need ever fear having been left out of the purview of God’s graciousness or loving solicitation.

But you spend enough time with the good Doktor and he will surprise you. Reading Luther is not at all like reading a textbook but more like diving into an ocean: you will get caught up in waves and currents that will sweep you this way and that, pull you under, then throw you to the surface, where you will float peacefully for a time — until you’re carried away again.

For no one can rightly understand God or His Word who has not received such understanding directly from the Holy Spirit. But no one can receive it from the Holy Spirit without experiencing, proving and feeling it. In such experience the Holy Spirit instructs us as in His own school, outside of which naught is learned save empty words and idle fables. When the Holy Virgin, then, experienced what great things God wrought in her, notwithstanding she was so poor, meek, despised, and of low degree, the Holy Spirit taught her this precious knowledge and wisdom, that God is a Lord whose work consists but in this — to exalt them of low degree, to put down the mighty from their seats, in short, to break whatever is whole and make whole whatever is broken. . . .

Therefore, to God alone belongs that sort of seeing that looks into the depths with their need and misery, and is nigh unto all that are in the depths; as St. Peter says, “God resisteth the proud, but to the humble he giveth grace.” And this is the source of men’s love and praise of God. For no one can praise God without first loving Him. No one can love Him unless He makes Himself known to him in the most lovable and intimate fashion. And He can make Himself known only through those works of His which He reveals in us, and which we feel and experience within ourselves. But where there is this experience, namely, that He is a God who looks into the depths and helps only the poor, despised, afflicted, miserable, forsaken, and those who are naught, there a hearty love for Him is born, the heart o’erflows with gladness, and goes leaping and dancing for the great pleasure it has found in God. There the Holy Spirit is present and has taught us in a trice such exceeding great knowledge and gladness through this experience.

—Commentary on the Magnificat (1521); emphasis mine

How can we worship God as we should? By coming to the realization that he is for us, despite our degraded condition. But how is this apprehended? How is it made real to us, become our own? Luther seems to be saying here that it is more like a love affair, a meeting of two hearts, the greater comforting and uplifting the lower, than it is the working out of a theological syllogism, or even the brokenness that comes from repentance.

The righteousness of God’s only begotten Son is transferred to us in the Great Exchange, but it remains outside us. God’s own Spirit, however, resides within us, applying not only Christ’s benefits but a real experience of God’s love. That experience is a sense of joy; that divine presence, a resurrection to new life, even here, even now.


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