by Mark Hertenstein
If someone was to ask me what Luther’s legacy in Western Christianity is, that person would probably expect several different things––reformation, schism, The Freedom of a Christian, 95 Theses, sola fide, sola scriptura, even theology of the cross. I would, however, surprise them by the following quote:
“Wir sind Bettler; hoc est verum.”
“We are beggars; this is true.”
It might seem strange to choose this quote among all others. It might seem strange to take this quote of Luther’s above any event or idea, but there is no other quote that so completely encompasses Luther’s theology and life than this quote.
It is, in fact, the last written statement of his, found just after his death on February 18, 1546. In a way, I think he wrote it knowing that it was his final word on his work.
As for Luther’s person, this is his own personal statement about his life and work. Luther certainly asserted his correctness in dealing with Scripture. He certainly believed he was right, but even he had to admit that he was without knowledge. He still recognized that he was inadequate to what Scripture tried to teach and convey regarding justification, the new relationship between God and believer, but it is Luther’s theology that continues to generate controversy and discussion to this day. And therein is the genius of this last statement. It is a summation of all he sought to teach. This statement is the legacy of his theology that he has bequeathed to the West.
“We are beggars; this is true.”
He has two goals in mind with this statement. First, as he noted as early as his Lectures on Romans, man’s bloated image of himself must be destroyed in order for us to be properly disposed for faith and grace. In other words, the false pretense and image we have of ourselves must be destroyed by God through the Law, what God requires of man and what condemns man. Only then is man in a position to recognize the gravity of his situation before God, that we have no standing and that we may only beg for mercy.
Second, of course, there is the fact that God does give grace through faith, and it is not our own work. As Christians, everything we have is given to us. We own nothing of our own, not even our works are truly our own. Thus we are to give glory to God, as others are when we do them, because it is only by God’s will and power that we can do good works. Though he may have done so polemically, this was the ultimate message of his Bondage of the Will, that humanity has no ownership of any part of its own salvation. It is powerless to save itself, and God acts alone in saving.
Not even our very existence, our being created and being creatures, is our own. That finds its ultimate origin in God’s work. Quite literally, nothing is our own on this earth.
The reason I believe that this statement is Luther’s legacy in the West is that it still upsets and challenges. Precisely because it must be repeated from time to time against some prevailing wisdom that puts man in a seat of power, Luther’s statement is his lasting legacy. It continues to challenge us, philosophically, theologically, culturally, and socially because it forces us to realize God is Lord, man is not, and man is given greater, not lesser, responsibilities for others as a result.
The implications of Luther’s statement are enormous for our contemporary context. If nothing is our own, but everything a gift from God, perhaps we would not descend into the radical individualism or utilitarianism that so defines the modern West. This covers a host of issues that are hot topics within societies of the West: abortion, sex, and life issues; politics, economics, and social order; the use and abuse of the environment; and the list can go on.
It challenges us even more than it challenged Luther’s contemporaries because the issue of man being able to do what is within himself (facere quod in se est), so much a topic of debate and theological current at the time of Luther, has not lessened from the sixteenth century. In the wake of rationalism, the Enlightenment, and the rise of modernism/post-modernism, man’s view of himself and what he can do on his own has grown even more.
And that is why Luther’s last words still haunt, unsettle, and challenge the West––because it unseats man from his proud position as lord and master of himself and this world.