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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther on Christian Hope and the Hope for Eternal Life

Summary and Keywords

Luther does not develop a theology of hope because hope is not the central driver of his mature theology. Central for him is rather faith in the promise of God, which gives rise to hope as well as love. There are two sides to justification that correspond to the now/not-yet character of Luther’s eschatology. On the one hand, we are already righteous through the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which we have in spe but not yet in re. On the other hand, the hope of righteousness strengthens us against sin as we wait for the perfection of our righteousness in heaven. However, in the final analysis, the basis of our hope is not the incipient righteousness which has begun in us (in re) as we gradually grow in holiness and righteousness, but Christ’s own perfect righteousness which he imputes to us through faith (iustitia aliena). For hope can only be rock-solid if it is grounded not on anything within us, but on Christ alone.

The early Luther has a very different view of things because, before 1518, he is still very much under the influence of Augustine, which means that justification is primarily a process that goes on within a person’s heart rather than, as in the later Luther, faith in God’s word of promise that comes to a person from outside and gives what it says. The dominant theological concept in Luther’s early work is the theology of humility, which is predicated on the view that God must first humble you and cause you to despair, before he can raise you up and give you hope. Since here faith is not yet oriented to the promise but defined by humility, it has to remain uncertain, as does hope. In the later Luther, on the other hand, faith gives rise to confidence and hope because it is firmly grounded in God’s word of promise, which is always reliable because God does what he says.

With his faith firmly grounded in Christ, Luther knows that he can weather all the trials and struggles of life; in fact, he can even look forward to death, since for Christians death is but the door to life with God forever. For Luther, Christ is the only hope for a hopeless world. For him, this is not wishful thinking but is rock-solid because it is based on the promise of the crucified and risen Lord. This is also the basis of the Christian hope for eternal life in the presence of the Triune God, together with the renewed creation and all the hosts of heaven.

Keywords: Martin Luther, eternal life, faith, confidence, fear, humility, death, Last Judgment

Theologically, the topic of Christian hope belongs to eschatology,1 which is usually divided into two parts: universal or cosmic eschatology, and individual or personal eschatology. These are never really separated in Luther, and cannot be separated, as hope for the future of the world is intimately connected with hope on the personal level.2 Even if Luther is concerned mainly with individual eschatology, with how a person stands before God (coram Deo), that does not mean for a moment that he has no understanding of the importance of corporate eschatology, as we will see later. While the later Luther speaks of the confidence with which we can face the final judgment in the hope of eternal life, we will see that, for the early Luther, such confidence would be regarded as presumptuous and totally inconsistent with the humility expected of a sinner before God.

Assuming that there is an enormous difference between the thinking of the early Luther and the later Luther on the matter of Christian hope, this article considers each in turn on the basis of selected texts. Not all scholars agree, however, that there is such a profound theological difference between the early Luther and the later Luther. Although Luther continues to develop throughout his career, the substance of his mature theology, for all intents and purposes, is present already in the three great treatises of 1520, especially The Babylonian Captivity of the Church3 and The Freedom of a Christian.4 These documents, along with later important writings, provide a benchmark for determining the hallmarks of Luther’s reformational theology. Consequently, Luther’s early writings prior to 1518 (the year of his “breakthrough”) are adjudged as pre-reformational and, from a dogmatic standpoint, do not have the same normative authority as the later texts, but they are still significant, historically, for the light they shed on Luther’s theological development.5 This is the main methodological presupposition in this article.

The Early Luther

The selection of texts considered in this section is drawn mainly from Luther’s first series of lectures on the Psalms (1513–1515), as well as his lectures on Romans (1515–1516). In Luther’s mature, reformational writings, faith in the external, oral word of promise (i.e., the gospel) is the basis of our hope and confidence for the future, both in this life and in the life to come. However, he does not arrive at this position overnight. In the early stages of his theological development (initia reformationis), as attested by his first Psalms lectures and his Romans lectures, faith (fides) is not yet a central concept, and hope (spes) is not yet positively grounded in the certainty of faith.6

Fear and Hope

Luther is heir to an intellectual and monastic tradition that is strongly shaped by the nominalist tradition of the via moderna (William of Occam and Gabriel Biel), where humility is a central biblical7 and soteriological concept.8 As we will see shortly, all of Luther’s early thinking is shaped by the concept of humility (humilitas), especially his understanding of justification.9 Consequently, we do not find here the assurance of faith and the certainty of hope that is characteristic of his mature theology, since humility, at least as Luther understood it in his early years, cannot be a reliable basis for Christian hope.

The theology of humility is predicated on the belief that God humbles us before he exalts us, that he reduces us to nothing in order to create us anew, that he kills us to make us alive, and that he brings us to heaven by first taking us to hell. Penitent sinners are called to recognize their utter unworthiness in God’s sight by agreeing with his judgment in the law and, through a process of self-accusation and self-emptying (following the pattern of Christ in his death), they are to let themselves be completely annihilated by God through the law so that by his grace they may be raised to life with Christ. The monastic tradition of late medieval piety inculcated the total renunciation of all things: the willingness of the soul to be led, in imitation of Christ, into the hell of deepest God-forsakenness (resignatio ad infernum).10

Luther knows, however, that humilitas can never lead to certainty, because we can never know if we are remorseful enough or whether we have humbled ourselves enough. The following Luther text is a good illustration of how fear and hope are so closely intertwined that, verbally, they are virtually indistinguishable:

“Fear, the cross of the old self” and “hope, the life of the new self”: These two things are taught in all the psalms, indeed, in all of Holy Scripture, for God is so wonderful in his children, that he blesses them equally in contrary and discordant things, for hope and despair are opposites. Accordingly, his children must hope in despair, for fear is nothing else than the beginning of despair and hope is the beginning of enjoyment. These two things, direct opposites by nature, must be in us because the two selves, direct opposites by nature, are in us, the old and the new. The old self must fear, despair, and perish; the new self must hope, stand, and be raised up. Both of these are in one person and even exist in a single work at the same time. Just as a wood carver, by chiseling and taking away the wood that does not belong to the carving, enhances the form of his work, so hope, which forms the new self, grows in the midst of fear that cuts down the old Adam.11

Like Adam and Christ, the old and the new person, so too “fear and hope go hand in hand.”12 The Christian life is necessarily marked by crosses, suffering, humility, and judgment. If there is hope, it is always found in despair and is accompanied by fear, for fear is the beginning of despair and hope. These two opposites, fear and hope, are inseparably connected since they correspond to the old and the new nature of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator. Thus, for Luther at this stage, hope yields no positive comfort since it is not attached to any sure and certain external word of promise and so has no firm basis.

One of the key texts that guides Luther in his early thinking is 1 Corinthians 11:31, where Paul says that if we judge ourselves we will not be judged (by God). Luther here follows Bernard of Clairvaux, who, in an Advent sermon, takes up the same text, stressing to his hearers that if they judge themselves now in true remorse, they will escape the severity of the Last Judgment.13 Luther also learns from Jean Gerson, one of the great spiritual teachers of the late Middle Ages, that humility and hope are closely interconnected—but in a different way than in his mature thought—so much so that spes and humilitas could be thought of as the two sides of the same affective life14 which are bound together in the fides Christi.15 The positive is explained by the negative, and the negative leads to the positive. Those who hope are those who judge themselves and reduce themselves to nothing so that God can raise them up.

The Uncertainty of Hope

For the early Luther, there is no absolutely positive understanding of hope, but it must always be held in tension with humility. In the final analysis, the conceptual pair that characterizes Luther’s early theology is not faith and hope,16 as in his mature thought, but rather fear and hope. This is bound up with the fact that, prior to 1518, Luther has not yet learned to distinguish between law and gospel, so that the whole of scripture, even its promises, is meant to do nothing else than expose our sin and present Christ to us as our adversary.17 This means that even scriptural words that speak gospel, such as Romans 8:31, are turned into law. The gospel words, “So then, if God is for us, who will be against us?” are heard as law: “Therefore, who will be for us, if God is against us?”18 Hence, for Luther at this stage, the gospel is heard as law precisely because promissio and iudicium, promise and judgment, are kept together and not yet clearly distinguished. Consequently, Christians have no sure ground of hope but can only hope against hope.

In Luther’s pre-reformational theology, God is seen primarily as judge and executioner. While there is acquittal for the penitent, the promise of forgiveness is not proclaimed publicly in the gospel but whispered secretly in the heart. Therefore, faith remains uncertain and one can only live in hope. Yet this hope has no more grounds for hoping than faith has for believing, precisely because it is not yet given a sure pledge in the external word. The later Luther finds this pledge in sermon and sacrament, where God freely binds himself, unconditionally, to his promise. The net result is that there is no absolute hope in Luther’s early theology, only a qualified hope.

Admittedly, there are passages in Luther’s early Psalms and Romans lectures that have him speaking of the firm assurance of faith and hope.19 However, these texts need to be understood in light of his conviction that God reveals himself in the opposite way to which our reason would expect, and faith is called to believe God’s promise despite what it perceives and sees.20 This means that in Luther’s early lectures, the certainty of faith (certitudo) needs to be seen as one of two opposite poles in God’s revelation, the other being despair. As soon as sinners put their hope in God’s promise, they are immediately confronted with the reality of their own desolate state through God’s wrath and judgment. The same word that gives them hope also takes away all grounds for hope and leaves them in despair. The situation of the believing sinner can be characterized by “the constant oscillation between assurance and uncertainty, between spes and timor.”21 This dynamic corresponds to the Augustinian phrase that Luther uses repeatedly in the Psalms lectures, that the believer has grace and salvation “only” in hope (in spe), not yet in reality (in re).22 So then if faith is not yet oriented to the promise but defined by humility, as it is here, fides has to remain uncertain,23 and so too does hope.24

Becoming One with the Object of Hope

Concluding this survey of early Luther are a few words on his treatment of Romans 8:24,25 especially the statement “Now hope that is seen is not hope.” At the same time, this will segue into a discussion of the later Luther, with a brief comparison between the two Luthers. In his Romans lectures, Luther begins by agreeing with the wisdom of the ancients that the longer we are separated from the object of our heart’s desire, the more intense our love becomes. He then quotes Augustine, approvingly, to the effect that “the thing hoped for and the person hoping become one through the tenseness of the hoping,” and he concludes that love transforms the lover into the beloved. He then launches into an almost mystical contemplation of the way in which hope becomes one with the object of hope, even if it does not yet see it:

Thus hope changes the one who hopes into what is hoped for, but what is hoped for does not appear. Therefore, hope transfers him into the unknown, the hidden, and the dark shadows, so that he does not even know what he hopes for, and yet he knows what he does not hope for. Thus the soul has become hope and at the same time the thing hoped for, because it resides in that which it does not see, that is, in hope. If this hope were seen, that is, if the one who hopes and the thing hoped for mutually recognized each other, then he would no longer be transferred into the thing hoped for, that is, into hope and the unknown, but he would be carried away to things seen, and he would enjoy the known.26

Here it is clear that Luther at this early stage is very much influenced by Augustinian epistemology with its central tenet that an object must first be loved before it can be known, and that the person hoping for a thing becomes one with the thing hoped for. However, there are two problems here, which partly accounts for the strangeness of the language. First, love is still paramount rather than faith27; and second, Luther has not yet reached clarity on the doctrine of justification and therefore cannot delineate a firm basis for hope.

Luther’s later understanding of the phrase “the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5) shows a world of difference in approach. He distinguishes between the objective and subjective understandings of hope. The object of hope is Christ’s righteousness, which we already have now by faith (and so in spe) but not yet in fact. However, subjectively, hope can also refer to the person hoping. In that case, it means that we wait for this righteousness with hope and longing. Both are true at the same time. Luther comments:

We are justified, but we are not yet justified, because our righteousness is still hanging in hope, as Romans 8:24 says: “In hope we are saved.”28 We have begun to be righteous, but since in this life sin still clings to us, we will never be perfectly justified. So our righteousness does not yet exist in fact but only in hope.29

This dialectic is perfectly consonant with the now/not-yet character of Luther’s eschatology.30 We have our salvation in hope. However, for the later Luther, as we will see, having it in hope does not make it any less certain than having it by faith, since faith and hope are virtually one.

The Later Luther

The later Luther is defined here as the Luther of the 1520s and beyond, but especially of the years after 1525. By 1520, the basic contours of Luther’s mature theology are evident, and these are then further developed as he teaches and engages with theological controversies.

Faith, Hope, and Love

In the theological thought world of the high and late Middle Ages, the dominant concept is love, not faith, and the whole of Luther’s early theological development can be framed in terms of his struggle to rightly understand the relation between these two—indeed, between the three cardinal virtues of the medieval catholic tradition: faith, hope, and love.31 As soon as Luther gets justification straight, faith becomes the central theological concept, and love steps back to become the means by which faith is expressed coram mundo (Gal. 5:6). For the mature Luther, justifying faith is trust in God’s promise, which is first and foremost the orally proclaimed gospel, crystallized in the words “Your sins are forgiven you, for Christ’s sake.” Faith trusts these words, and that trust by its very nature is hope. But hope is not added to faith any more than is love, since faith is itself the source of both.

In Luther’s mature theology, “confidence” means basically the same as “trust,” but emphasizes especially the cheerful hope and the certainty of salvation. Whoever trusts God in all things expects everything from his promise. According to Luther’s translation of Hebrews 11:1 (1546), faith, understood as trust, is “a sure confidence in what is hoped for, and has no doubt about the things not seen.”32 Faith and hope, trust and confidence, are intimately connected. Not only do they have a family resemblance, but for him they are basically synonymous. According to the Romans Preface of the September Testament (1522), faith is “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain is it that a person would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and the knowledge of it makes us glad and bold and happy, in relation to both God and all his creatures.”33 In all this, faith is the fountainhead and from it flows hope, confidence, and love. This is important to emphasize because for the early Luther it was the reverse: certainty, to the extent he could even speak of certainty, was based on hope, yet hope could never be certain.

Faith and Hope under Attack

As Luther worked his way through the late medieval tradition with its emphasis on certainty based on hope, he arrived at his mature position, where he came to realize that certainty could only be based on faith. This insight was coincident with his Reformation understanding of justification by faith, where God’s righteousness was no longer understood as his strict demand but as his free gift.34 Luther also referred to this as the “joyful exchange” where Christ takes on himself our sin and in return gives us his own perfect righteousness.35 He now felt he no longer needed to be afraid of God but could stand in his presence boldly and confidently, because he no longer appeared before God as a sinner but as one clothed in the righteousness of Christ. As he reflected, toward the end of his life, on this theological breakthrough, he says that it was as if he had been born anew and heaven itself had been opened up for him. He now read the Bible with new eyes, and for the first time he heard clearly the voice of his savior. Remembering back, he says that it was as if he had “entered paradise itself through open gates.”36 This new understanding of righteousness filled him with joy, hope, and confidence.

Luther knew that this would not be the end of the spiritual attack that he had felt so strongly in his earlier monastic years, for all who work with the word, study the word, and meditate on the word can expect spiritual attack.37 But in his early years, he did not know how to handle it, how to counter it with the words of Christ in the gospel. Consequently, his Anfechtung drove him to contemplate the inner state of his soul, and the more he did so, the more he was constantly left in doubt about his own salvation. He could never be sure that he had ever done enough or was good enough to please God. There was a time when he even looked to mystical theology to provide the answer to his desperate search for the certainty of salvation.38 But with his breakthrough, all that changed. He now discovered that the answer was not to be found inside himself but outside. Certainty was not to be gained through contemplation of the inner life but through the reception of God’s gifts and blessings, which were won on the cross and are now given out freely through the gospel and the sacraments.39 With his turn to the outside, after a futile preoccupation with his inner feelings, he discovered in the external, oral word of forgiveness the certainty of salvation that he had previously been searching for in the mystical experience of being near to God and “in the soul’s affective ability to hope.”40 Luther articulates the significance of this outward turn in a memorable passage:

And this is the reason our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.41

Luther knew that the Christian, as simultaneously saint and sinner (simul iustus et peccator), will still be subject to spiritual attack (Anfechtung/tentatio), but this need no longer lead to uncertainty because the Christian knows that he or she must hold onto Christ and the promises of God whenever faith comes under attack.42

Death in the Midst of Life

We cannot speak about Christian hope in the face of death, especially the hope for eternal life, without first speaking briefly about death itself. Luther reflects on this most expansively in his interpretation of Psalm 90,43 which graphically depicts the dismal state of humankind under God’s wrath and sentence of death. He assumes the biblical tradition, which teaches that humans were created for life, not death. Death,44 with its fear and terror, is an intruder in God’s good creation. The consequence of human sin (Rom. 6:23), it is the inescapable destiny of the entire human race. Death robs us of the pure, unadulterated joy for which we were created, so that we can all join in singing that doleful medieval hymn: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” Death, theologically, is not a natural thing, like the cycle of nature, nor is it a kind of haven, an escape from the troubles and misfortunes of the world, as taught by some of the humanists of the Reformation period. Rather, viewed from the angle of the law, it is the result of God’s wrath and judgment on sin and so gives rise to enormous anguish and Anfechtung. Just as no human being could ever understand the profundity of sin and guilt without God’s revelation in the Bible, so too no one could ever come to a theological understanding of death apart from and without God’s word. Moreover, it is only from the scriptures that we learn that death is not simply the consequence of sin but that it is ultimately caused by God himself. Therefore, Luther says, “it is a profound saying when Moses says to God: ‘You cause us to die,’ for he is saying: ‘It is your doing, God! Because of your wrath, the entire race is swallowed up by death.’”45

Yet for Luther, that is not the entire story. He knows that not only “in the midst of life are we in death,” but also that the gospel and faith invert this hymn, so that now we joyfully sing: “In the midst of death we are in life.”46 And so, as he reflects on Psalm 90, we will see that he finds reason for hope even in our sentence of death.

Life in the Midst of Death

As we have just seen, Moses refers death to God himself. He does this to warn us not to look for help anywhere except to him who caused this evil in the first place: “For it is he who has torn, and he will heal us” (Hos. 6:1). Luther gives God the strange name of “He kills and restores to life; he brings down to hell and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6). But, as he points out, this same God who causes mortals to die also commands them to return—to life.47 Luther calls God’s death-dealing work his alien work and his life-giving work his proper work. So God kills through the law, which is his alien work, and makes alive through the gospel, which is his proper work; he wounds in order that he may heal (Deut. 32:39).48 Luther picks up the language of “alien work” and “proper work” from Isaiah 28:21 and explains it in the Heidelberg Disputation (1518): God humbles us and makes us despair (alien work) so that he might exalt us in his mercy and give us hope (proper work).49 God’s alien work is meant to serve his proper work, his law-work, his gospel-work.

Already at the beginning of his interpretation of Psalm 90, in a brilliant exegetical move, Luther finds significance in the fact that the psalm is titled “a prayer of Moses.” For him this is a sign that there is hope for life in the midst of death. He astutely observes that to pray means to seek help. And to pray in the midst of sin and death is a sign of the possibility of forgiveness and a remedy for death. Indeed, praying against death surely means hoping for life?50 He also points to a general principle that portends hope: “Wherever a Commandment of the First Table or works of the First Table are involved (prayer is a work of the First Table), there, of necessity, faith is included and the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”51 Luther also deduces the teaching of the resurrection from Jesus’ words against the Sadducees. The argument runs like this: Yahweh God is the God of the living and not the dead. Therefore, since he calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it must mean that the patriarchs are alive in him (Matt. 22:32). From that he concludes: “All people, therefore, who worship this God, who believe in Him and pray to Him, will be alive even in death. Why? Because they manifestly do not worship, adore, and believe in the God of the dead but the God of the living. Therefore, the worship of God, faith, and prayer truly include the article of the resurrection and of life everlasting.”52

As noted above, Luther believes that the very title of Psalm 90, “A Prayer of Moses,” is a pointer to the resurrection. It is instructive to consider how in his mature thought he deals soteriologically with the theme of death and life. His principal hermeneutical approach is informed by his law/gospel distinction, which for Luther always has a pastoral aim (skopos): to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable. He claims that both the teaching about the dread reality of death (the work of the law) and the remedy for death in the form of prayer (the work of the gospel) are pastorally necessary—the former to warn those in danger of becoming smug or hardened, and the latter to comfort those who are terrified by death and its manifestation of God’s wrath. Luther beautifully sums up the function of law and gospel here with these words: “The voice of the Law terrifies because it dins into the ears of smug sinners the theme: ‘In the midst of earthly life, the snares of death surround us.’ But the voice of the Gospel cheers the terrified sinner with its song: ‘In the midst of certain death, life in Christ is ours.’”53

In summary, Psalm 90, which so movingly sets forth the human predicament in the face of death and God’s wrath, also persuasively proclaims the victory that we have in Christ over death and God’s wrath. Therefore, Christians can have brave hearts in the face of death and can look to the future with hope and confidence.

Hope and Confidence in the Face of Death

In his 1519 Sermon on Preparing to Die, Luther speaks pastorally to people who fear death because of either their sin or God’s wrath. By means of his counsel and comfort, Luther strengthens their conscience against the temptation to despair in the hour of death. He encourages them not to look inward at their sin but to look outward to Christ and to impress on their hearts the image of Christ and his saints, who have overcome death, and to keep this before their eyes.54 Death can be a very lonely and solitary experience.55 On the other hand, in this sermon he expressly says that you do not die alone but “God looks upon you and so too do all the angels, the saints, and all creatures and so you will remain in the faith, held up and supported by all these hands.”56 We note in passing that the latter text highlights the importance of the universal context of dying. We are alone in the hour of death, and yet we are not alone.

Luther addresses the fear the dying have of God’s wrath and judgment. His counsel is not to let the evil one deflect our attention away from the God of grace and mercy who speaks his forgiving, reassuring word in Jesus Christ. Thus faith always has a “nevertheless” character to it. It is called to believe in the love of God in the face of his perceived wrath, to believe the liberating word of the gospel despite the accusing voice of the law. Furthermore, faith always has the character of a battle.57 We have to struggle to drive out from within ourselves the image of God’s wrath and to grasp the image of his mercy.58 This, at least, is Luther’s counsel to those who are struggling with Anfechtung in the hour of death.

Luther finds great hope and comfort in what he calls “the death of death.” He derives this idea from a Christological interpretation of Hosea 14:14, “O death, I will be your death. O hell, I will be your destruction,” and uses this to argue that in Christ’s death and resurrection, God has turned the tables on death and all his enemies by setting them against themselves. So Luther, in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, notes how in scripture, especially in Paul, we often find law opposed to law, sin to sin, death to death, devil to devil, and so forth. He continues, “It is as though Paul were saying: ‘The Law of Moses accuses and damns me. But against that accusing and damning Law, I have another Law, which is grace and freedom. This Law accuses the accusing Law and damns the damning Law’. Thus death killed death, but this death which kills death is life itself.”59 This theme of the death of death60 is a vital element of Christian hope and a source of comfort to those who are approaching death.

However, the basis of Luther’s hope and comfort in the face of death is not only Christ’s victory over death and the grave, but also the sacrament of his body and blood, because it mediates Christ’s victory to us in a tangible way. Luther makes this connection between Christ’s victory and the sacrament on the basis of his Christological exegesis of Psalm 16:10, where he notes that death once tried to devour Christ’s flesh but was itself devoured: “For this food was too strong for death, and has devoured and digested its devourer.” He then applies this to the Lord’s Supper, where we receive this same flesh of Christ: “God is in this flesh. It is God’s flesh, Spirit-filled flesh (Geistfleisch). It is in God and God is in it. Therefore, it lives and gives life to all who eat it, both to their bodies and their souls.”61

Luther also makes a connection between baptism and hope. He notes that “through baptism we are restored to a life of hope, or rather to a hope of life. This is the true life, which is lived before God. Before we come to it, we are in the midst of death. We die and decay … as though there were no other life anywhere. Yet we who believe in Christ have the hope that on the Last Day we shall be revived for eternal life.”62

The Final Judgment

Luther confesses with the creedal tradition that Christ will return on the last day to judge the living and the dead. But in his early monastic days, Luther was terrified of this day because the predominant picture he had of God was that of a severe judge. He knew from scripture that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). For this reason, he dreaded the last day and the final judgment; he was afraid that he would fail to meet the strict requirements of God’s law. This was not just Luther’s experience; it was common to the people of the Middle Ages generally. The fear of facing God’s wrath is vividly expressed in the medieval Latin hymn Dies irae, dies illa (“O Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning”) sung in the Requiem Mass. It is only after Luther learns to distinguish the promise of the gospel from the demands of the law that he no longer fears death and can even look forward to the Last Judgment and see it as a day of mercy.63

The reason for his newfound confidence is that he now trusts the message of the gospel that proclaims Christ’s victory over God’s wrath and judgment.64 Instead of focusing on himself and his inner spiritual life, he now turns his attention outward and looks to Christ and trusts his promise, which Luther holds to be indubitably true because God does not lie.65 And, as we have seen, for Luther the promise is located in the oral proclamation of the gospel and the enacted word of the sacraments. He is now emboldened by the gospel to join the Apostle Paul in mocking and ridiculing death because it has been robbed of its power and can no longer hurt us (1 Cor. 15:55).66 In the final analysis, his ground of hope is the gospel message that on the last day, the judge will be the savior, the crucified and risen Lord. This makes the Last Judgment more a welcome home than a day of reckoning.67

Luther looks forward to the last day for himself because it will mean the public vindication of all he has taught and believed, and the beginning of the beatific vision where he will see God face to face. He knows the last day will bring about the destruction of the Antichrist68 and the end of the problem of evil, for in the light of glory there will be no more theodicy, and God’s justice, now hidden, will be made manifest. So Luther is ultimately not too concerned with the injustices that abound in this life because he knows that at the final judgment accounts will be settled, and “that whatever has not been punished and rewarded here will be punished and rewarded there, since this life is nothing but an anticipation, or rather, the beginning of the life to come.”69

Because he approaches the last day in faith, in communion with Christ and all the saints, he can refer to it as “that happiest day of the church (ille dies Ecclesiae laetissimus”).70 It is noteworthy that Luther here does not speak simply of the hope of the individual Christian but of the hope of the church. This is another example of corporate eschatology, which in Luther sits side by side with personal eschatology, although the latter receives the greater emphasis.

The Last Judgment is identical with the resurrection of the dead and the consummation of the world.71 Luther knows that the faith of the church teaches that the Spirit of God, the Spiritus Creator, will re-create and revivify our mortal remains at the resurrection on the last day. But he also knows, with the New Testament, that when Christians die, they are immediately with Christ (2 Cor. 5:6ff.; Phil. 1:23) without being in any intermediate state before the resurrection.72

While Luther speaks about the reawakening of all who have died, he teaches that eternal life is given only to those who believe in Christ. We see this contrast in the Small Catechism’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed: on the one hand, Luther says that “on the Last Day [the Holy Spirit] will awaken me and all the dead,” but then goes on to say, “and give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life.”73 Luther here gives no hint of any universalism, but follows the dogmatic tradition of the church in distinguishing between, on the one hand, the universal resurrection of all people, and, on the other, the particularity of eternal life which is given only to those who have faith in Christ. Luther holds to the eternal damnation of unbelievers but does not say much about it—certainly not in the catechisms—because his focus is on redemption. Luther nowhere countenances Origen’s theory of apokatastasis (universal restoration), which teaches that all will be saved, including the devil. Indeed, his Confession of 1528 explicitly rejects it. Luther knows only the twofold outcome of the Last Judgment: either eternal life or eternal death. 74 Going on from Luther, while we can never say, dogmatically, that all people will be saved, even though that is God’s express will (1 Tim 2:4), we can at least pray that God in his infinite goodness will have mercy on those who have rejected him and that as a result hell will be empty. Hope for the final deliverance of all can never be made into a dogmatic statement or become the public teaching of the church, but it can be and is the fervent prayer of the church.75

If the World Were to End Tomorrow …

It is well known that Luther is supposed to have uttered the statement, “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” However, this is most likely apocryphal as so far it has not been found in any of his writings.76 Scholars think it has a relatively recent origin; the first written evidence for this saying comes from 1944. One theory is that it originated in the German Confessing Church, which used it to inspire hope and perseverance during its opposition to the Nazi dictatorship.77 But even if Luther did not say it, he might well have said it, as it is entirely consistent with his confident and positive outlook and hope for the future.

The world did not end in Luther’s day, and it has not yet ended in our day. But Luther, like the Apostle Paul, had a balanced eschatological outlook. He loved life and used every moment God gave him in teaching, preaching, reforming the church, and working with leaders to resolve problems and promote the wellbeing of church and community. But Luther knew that we can do nothing to build the kingdom of God here on earth, but God himself will bring his kingdom to completion in his own good time. That is the eschatological proviso. Meanwhile, in the midst of all the joys and toils of this life, Luther never lost sight of the world to come and the hope of eternal life. He loved all the good gifts that God gives us through church, family, and government, but, like the writer of Hebrews, he knew that “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

Luther likens the present world to the scaffolding that God has put in place while he is working on the new building, the new heaven and the new earth. He says that this scaffolding will be pulled down and done away with once the building is completed.78 He also paints an imaginative picture of heaven79 with the saints resplendent in their new celestial bodies80 in a joyous paradise, throbbing with new life and filled with an abundance of splendid things, radiant with color. One cannot help but think that the paradisal garden he describes in a letter to his son, Hans, is really a picture of heaven:

I know of a pretty, beautiful, [and] cheerful garden where there are many children wearing little golden coats. [They] pick up fine apples, pears, cherries, [and] yellow and blue plums under the trees; they sing, jump, and are merry. They also have nice ponies with golden reins and silver saddles.81

Yet, as Althaus rightly says, “every attempt to picture eternal life and the new creation in detail is placed under the condition: ‘We know no more about eternal life than children in the womb of their mother know about the world they are about to enter.’”82

The Christian Hope for Eternal Life

On the one hand, eternal life in heaven is a continuation, albeit a perfection, of the new life in communion with the Triune God, which has begun already here on earth through baptism. On the other hand, eternal life is a new reality, the new creation. It is inextricably connected with the resurrection and entails a new body, a new heaven, and a new earth. The new body is totally different from the present one83; and yet this new body in heaven will retain its identity with the old body on earth.84 So the new creation implies both continuity and discontinuity with the original creation.85 Romans 8:21 makes clear that God will set creation free from its slavery to corruption; he will not begin from scratch. But, at the same time, there will be a marvelous transformation and newness to creation, just as with our resurrected bodies.

We have an anticipation of the life of the new creation already here and now through the gospel. The gospel through its different enactments—the proclaimed word and the enacted sacraments—bestows on us the gift of eternal life, for as Luther famously says in his Small Catechism, “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”86 “Life,” here, is not just biological life, even though that too is a gift of God, but the life of the new age, which begins here on earth and will continue beyond the grave in the consummation of all things. This twofold understanding of eternal life as that which begins here and is perfected in the hereafter is consistent with Luther’s eschatology, according to which God’s victory over sin comes in two ways: “First, it comes here, in time, through the Word and faith, and second, in eternity, it comes through the final revelation [that is, the second coming of Christ].87

The Christian hope for eternal life is summed up in the Third Article of the Creed, which Luther expounds in his catechisms. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism, as confessed in this Article, to lead believers from the world of sin and death into God’s eternal kingdom. Luther extols baptism, in the Large Catechism, as a most wonderful gift, “which snatches us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God’s own, overcomes and takes away sin and daily strengthens the new person, and always endures and remains until we pass out of this misery into eternal glory.”88 In fact, Luther says that baptism and the promise of the Lord’s Supper89 prepare us for eternal life with God in the new creation.

In regard to the Lord’s Supper, Luther cites Ignatius of Antioch as saying that the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood bestows on the human body an “immortal nature,” though hidden from faith and hope until the last day. Ignatius called the sacrament “the medicine of immortality”90 because he believed that there is something heavenly in it that can and does give eternal life. He held that through the physical eating of the sacrament (John 6:55, 6:58), our bodies are already incorruptible in hope.91 Luther’s insistence on the bodily nature of the Lord’s Supper is highly important. He not only argues, contra Zwingli and the other spiritualists of the day, that physical elements can mediate spiritual blessings, but also that our bodies, too, participate in the grace that Christ gives through his sacraments.

In his Lectures on Genesis, Luther makes the amazing statement that since God has begun to speak with us, this is a pointer to the fact that there is another life after this and that we are not made for this life alone. Indeed, the fact that he has given us his word and commands “clearly proves that there remains a life after this life and that humans were created not for this physical life only, like the other animals, but for eternal life, just as God, who has ordered and ordained these practices, is himself eternal.”92

In a similar way, Luther posits that since God speaks with us here in time, and in our own language, this must mean that we are destined to live forever, for God would not speak in vain for the sake of only a “moment” of time.93 Accordingly, he concludes, “where and with whomever God speaks, whether in anger or in grace, that person is surely immortal.”94 Just as God speaks us into existence at the beginning, so too he speaks us into eternal life at the end. Luther represents God the Father as saying, “My word is eternal and in this word you are eternal.”95 Hence, the word of God and the word of Christ are determinative for our future.

Review of the Literature

Almost nothing has been written directly on the topic of Christian hope in Luther, although there are many passing references to hope in the standard books on Luther’s theology. Usually, books that deal with Luther’s eschatology will mention the concept of hope but will not treat it in detail. However, understood in the broader sense, hope includes the topic of the resurrection. While this is not dealt with in detail in this article, it is referred to at different points in connection with death. It is dealt with more fully in the article on Luther’s eschatology.

The exception to this almost barren landscape of literature addressing the topic of Christian hope in Luther is a 1962 monograph by Reinhard Schwarz, dealing with faith, hope, and love in the early Luther.96 However, as helpful as this book may be for properly appreciating the medieval background of Luther’s early Psalms lectures (the Dictata) and the way that Luther at this stage understands the relationship between the three theological virtues, it does not deal exclusively with hope, and what it does say about hope is limited to the Luther’s early pre-reformational theology, which, as we have already seen, is not representative of his later, mature understanding.

There is no doubt that, for most people, the book that comes to mind most readily with the mention of Christian hope is Jürgen Moltmann’s The Theology of Hope (1967).97 This, however, is not a book on Luther’s understanding of hope as such, but deals more generally with the ground and implications of Christian eschatology. It was written at a time when the academy was strongly influenced by the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann, with its emphasis on the “now” of God’s revelation to the exclusion of the future. Moltmann, by contrast, focused attention on the future and argued that our life as Christians should be totally eschatological. He insisted that Christian hope is hope for a real future and not merely for people, individually, but for the entire world; indeed, it is hope for the transformation of the whole creation. This conjunction of individual and corporate eschatology is, as we have seen, also in Luther.

The modern theologians of hope who follow Moltmann are not content with a purely academic study of hope. They are keen to see how their vision of hope can be actualized to produce concrete results in praxis. Hope must not be allowed to justify inaction in the name of patient waiting. Rather, it must challenge the status quo and lead to change and transformation.

Gerald O’Collins, in his reflections on the theology of hope,98 gets to the nub of the modern approach to hope with these words:

To hope is not then simply to count on God for the future, but also to commit oneself to certain conduct in the light of that future. What is required is an attitude of creative expectation which sets about transforming the present state of affairs, because it is open towards the universal future of God’s kingdom. This approach to Christian conduct meets the criticism which Bloch99 rightly makes of Christian hope as it is so often preached and lived, viz., as a quietistic trust which lacks the will to change and attempts no remedy for present misery.

Although these sentiments are a long way from what we have heard Luther saying as he addresses the situation of Christians caught in Anfechtung and facing death and the fear of God’s wrath, nevertheless they are not inconsistent with Luther’s own outlook and efforts to alleviate need and work for improvement in the social and political contexts of his day. Other articles in this encyclopedia open a window on Luther’s efforts in the civic realm in this regard, all of which, of course, were grounded in faith, sustained by hope, and manifested in love.

The main difference between Luther and modern exponents of the theology of hope is that for Luther there was no line of continuity between his political and social work and the universal future of God’s kingdom.100 The kingdom is an eschatological entity which is utterly new, and its fulfillment will be ushered in solely by God himself—the trinitarian God of hope.101 Human beings can do nothing to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. As Luther says clearly in the explanation to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Your kingdom come”), “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer [let alone without our work], but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.”102 This is the climax of Christian hope for Luther: the hope for the kingdom of God, for eternal life, in the new heaven and the new earth—God’s new creation.

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. “Die Zukunft Jesu Christi zum Letzten Gericht.” In Gott als Autor: Zu einer poietological Theologie. Edited by Oswald Bayer, 161–186. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Theology the Lutheran Way. Translated and edited by Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

Bussie, Jacqueline A. “Luther’s Hope for the World.” In The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times. Edited by Christine Helmer. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.Find this resource:

Gunn, Richard. “Ernst Bloch’s ‘The Principle of Hope.’” New Edinburgh Review 76 (1987): 90–98.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Translated by Martin J. Lohrmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Hinlicky, Paul. Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomír Batka, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Leppin, Volker. Martin Luther. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006.Find this resource:

Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. Translated by James W. Leitch. London: SCM Press, 1967.Find this resource:

Peters, Albrecht. Creed: Commentary on Luther’s Catechism. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2011.Find this resource:

Reinhuber, Thomas. Kämpfender Glaube: Studien zu Luthers Bekenntnis am Ende von De servo arbitrio. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.Find this resource:

Sasse, Hermann. This Is My Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1959.Find this resource:

Schwarz, Reinhard. Fides, spes und caritas beim jungen Luther: Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der mittelalterlichen Tradition. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1962.Find this resource:


(1.) See Jane E. Strohl, “Luther’s Eschatology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomír Batka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 353–362.

(2.) See Oswald Bayer, “Die Zukunft Jesu Christi zum Letzten Gericht,” in Gott als Autor: Zu einer poietological Theologie, ed. Oswald Bayer (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 182 (Thesis 8).

(3.) WA 6:497–573; LW 36:3–126.

(4.) WA 7:1–38 (German); 39–73 (Latin); LW 31:327–377.

(5.) However, that does not mean that there are no reformational elements at all in Luther’s early theology. A good example of this exception is the metaphor of “the great exchange” (see n. 35), which is certainly a hallmark of his Reformation theology and yet appears already in Luther’s 1516 letter to Spenlein: WA BR 1:35–36, no. 4 (April 8, 1516); LW 48:12–13. This formal equivalence reminds us that not all that Luther said and wrote in his pre-reformational period has to be left behind.

(6.) Contra Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin J. Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 81–83, who holds that Luther’s understanding of faith in his first series of lectures on the Psalms is reformational and so not fundamentally different from his later view of faith found in later documents.

(7.) Luther asks near the beginning of his Romans lectures in the year 1515, “What else does Scripture teach if not humility” (WA 56:199, 30; LW 25:183).

(8.) See Oswald Bayer, Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie (2d rev. ed.; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989), 32–77.

(9.) Ernst Bizer, Fides ex auditu: Eine Untersuchung über die Entdeckung der Gerechtigkeit Gottes durch Martin Luther (Neukirchen am Niederrhein: Neukirchener Verlag, 1958), 20–21, holds that all Luther’s writings up to the end of his Hebrews lectures (1518) are pre-reformational and uses the key term “humility” (humilitas) to describe the theological emphasis of this period. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (1483–1521), trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 128, adopts a similar approach. This article follows Bizer, Brecht, and Bayer in not dating Luther’s “breakthrough” and hence the beginning of his reformational theology until the autumn of 1518. Readers interested in studying the question of dating further will find a good starting point in these authors. For an alternative approach, see Hamm, Early Luther, 26–31.

(10.) The classical expression of this pious ideal of selfless resignation to hell is found in Thomas à Kempis, Imitatio Christi, bk. 2, ch. 11, esp. nos. 10, 19–21.

(11.) WA 1:208, 15–30 (on Ps. 130:5); cf. LW 14:191. Noted by Bayer, Promissio, 154.

(12.) WA 1:207, 31; cf. LW 14:190 (on Ps. 130:3).

(13.) WA 4:198, 19–21. Luther links the understanding of remorse in 1 Cor. 11:31 with that in Rom. 8:10 and Ps. 77. For discussion, see Bayer, Promissio, 39–43.

(14.) In the Dictata, Luther lists the four basic affects (or in the language of Aquinas, principal passions): hope (spes), joy (gaudium), fear (timor), and sorrow (dolor): WA 3:404, 30–33; LW 10:343 (on Ps. 68:17). As Miikka Anttila, Luther’s Theology of Music: Spiritual Beauty and Pleasure (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 114, observes, the Psalter, more than any other book of the Bible, highlights the affectivity of the communion of saints. It does not just talk about the affects of the psalmists but portrays their feelings, in relation both to God and to other human beings. Although Luther speaks highly of the positive emotions, joy and hope, and sees them as “Christian affects,” he does not denigrate the negative emotions of fear and grief or see them as something to be eradicated. Luther notes that the Psalter “teaches you in joy, fear, hope, and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken” (WA DB 10/I:104, 1–4, Preface to the Psalter). Here hope is one of the four basic affects; later we will see that it is also one of the three cardinal virtues (to use the language of Aquinas).

(15.) See Hamm, Early Luther, 74 n. 39.

(16.) See Reinhard Schwarz, Fides, spes und caritas beim jungen Luther, unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der mittelalterlichen Tradition (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1962), 227–240, where he specifically deals with hope and its relation to faith at the time of the first Psalms lectures (1513–1515).

(17.) Commenting on Matt. 5:25, Luther says: “The gospel is the name and word of God, because it is our adversary. Therefore, we must agree with our adversary on the way” (WA 3:574, 10–12; LW 11:57; trans. alt.; see WA 3:573, 27–28; LW 11:57, First Lectures on the Psalms). In relation to Rom. 8:15, he says that it is only by agreeing with our adversary (God, our judge) that he will become our friend (WA 56:368, 28; LW 25:358).

(18.) WA 1:208, 3–4 (emphasis added); cf. LW 14:191. Noted by Bayer, Promissio, 154.

(19.) For example, Luther says that Christ is the ground of trust and the assurance of hope (WA 3:56, 31–32; LW 10:68; First Lectures on the Psalms). If these words were isolated from the thought-world of the early Luther, they would eloquently represent his mature thought. See also the passages noted by Hamm, Early Luther, 76, n. 45.

(20.) WA 18:633, 7–12; LW 33:62 (The Bondage of the Will, 1525). God acts sub contrario when he wounds in order to heal, kills in order to make alive, damns in order to save, and so forth. Here God does an “alien” work to achieve his “proper” work. This paradoxical form of revelation is closely connected with Luther’s theology of the cross (theologia crucis), according to which God’s power is hidden under weakness, his love under wrath, his victory under defeat, his glory under ignominy and shame. For more, see Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 168, 171, 172, etc.

(21.) Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 77 n. 47.

(22.) WA 4:259, 2–3, and in the new series WA 55/I:752: “our every rejoicing is in the hope of things to come, and not in the reality of the things present” (WA 4:380, 35–36; LW 11:518); “the works of God are intelligible, that is, perceptible, only by the understanding and by faith. In hope, not in reality” (WA 3:367, 34–36; LW 10:310).

(23.) Justification also has to remain uncertain for Luther in his Romans lectures because, as we have already seen, his basic theological framework is the theology of humilitas and according to that, justification is not by faith but by humility, for fides and humilitas are basically synonymous. For more, see Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 60.

(24.) Bayer, Promissio, 51. See also Jared Wicks, Man Yearning for Grace: Luther’s Early Spiritual Teaching (Washington, DC, and Cleveland: Corpus, 1968), 106–111.

(25.) We note in passing that the first part of this verse forms the basis of the encyclical Spe salvi (“In this hope we are saved”); see Pope Benedict XVI, On Christian Hope: Spe salvi, Encyclical Letter (Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2007). The biblical text itself is significant as Paul says that we are (were) saved in hope, while Luther stresses more that we are saved for hope. Neither say that we were saved by hope.

(26.) WA 56:374, 6–21, esp. 14–21; LW 25:364.

(27.) It is true that, according to 1 Cor. 13:13, faith, hope, and love all remain, but the greatest of them is love. However, Paul is speaking eschatologically, not soteriologically.

(28.) Note that neither Paul nor Luther says that we are saved by hope. Rather, we are saved by faith in hope.

(29.) WA 40/II:23, 27–24, 7; LW 27:20–21 (Lectures on Galatians, 1535).

(30.) See Strohl, “Luther’s Eschatology.” Chapter 24.

(31.) See Schwarz, Fides, spes und caritas, 40–49, where he discusses the unity of the three theological virtues at the time of Luther’s early lectures on Lombard’s Sentences.

(32.) WA DB 7:371.

(33.) WA DB 7:15–18; LW 35:370–371 (trans. alt.). See further Luther’s explanation of the first commandment in the Large Catechism (“faith and trust”: BSLK 560.31–32; BOC 386) and the “Treatise on Good Works (1520)” (WA 6:209, 26; LW 44:30): Confidence, Trust, Faith.

(34.) This forensic understanding of justification, which is typically Pauline, operates with a clear distinction between the law that exposes sin and the gospel that forgives sin. Here righteousness is imputed to faith. This is a different model of justification from that of the great exchange, which operates with the idea of participation. However, in both cases, it is faith born of the Spirit that receives the gifts.

(35.) WA 7:54, 31–55, 23 (Latin); LW 31:351–352 (The Freedom of the Christ, 1520). Luther develops the notion of the joyful exchange from the patristic idea, first articulated by Irenaeus: “He became what we are in order to make us become what he is” (Adversus Haereses V, preface) and then taken up by Augustine with the phrase admirabile commercium, which Luther translates as der fröhliche Wechsel. This is also a good instance of the participative view of justification, which, for Luther, always stands side by side with the forensic view, as the two can never be separated. On that, see Olli-Pekka Vainio, Justification and Participation in Christ: The Development of Justification from Luther to the Formula of Concord (1580) (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions; Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008).

(36.) WA 54:186, 8–9; LW 34:337 (Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, 1545).

(37.) WA 50:660, 1–16; LW 34:286–287 (Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings, 1539).

(38.) Hamm, Early Luther, 221.

(39.) In his treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525), Luther makes a vital distinction between salvation won and salvation distributed. Christ won forgiveness for all on the cross, but he did not distribute it on the cross. Rather, he distributes it here and now through the proclaimed gospel and the enacted sacraments. It is Christ’s work on the cross that acquired salvation for us, and Christ’s work through the Word and the sacraments that distributes it to us, and creates and sustains faith in us (WA 18:203, 27–38; LW 40:213–214).

(40.) Hamm, Early Luther, 221.

(41.) WA 40/I:589, 18–28; LW 26:387 (Lectures on Galatians, 1535).

(42.) Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, trans. and eds. Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 128–134, stresses that the promise is certain and can be relied on in the midst of Anfechtung because it functions as a speech act or performative word that does what it says.

(43.) WA 40/III:485–594; LW 13:75–141 (1534–35/1541).

(44.) In light of today’s discussion about the relation between faith and science and our attempt to work with a consonance model rather than the old conflict model, it is necessary to nuance this statement by saying that “spiritual” death is an intruder in God’s good creation rather than biological death. However, since this whole discussion lies outside the purview of Luther’s day, nothing more need be said.

(45.) WA 40/III:12–14; LW 13:96 (trans. alt.).

(46.) Luther reverses the two phrases of the famous medieval hymn, “In the midst of life we are in death” (media vita in morte sumus), which he had published in German translation in 1525 (see WA 35:126–132, 453, 454).

(47.) WA 40/III:16–19; LW 13:97. Note that “return” here does not mean return to the dust, as the context might lead us to think, but return to life.

(48.) WA 40/III:584, 29–585,4; LW 13:135. See also WA 18:633, 9–12; LW 33:62: Sic Deus dum vivificat, facit illud occidendo. This is another example of where Luther sees God acting sub contrario. See n. 18.

(49.) WA 1:356, 35–357, 17; LW 31:44. Although the language here of humbling and exalting might sound somewhat like the theology of humility, it is very differently conceived, as here it is based on a clear distinction between law and gospel. The humilitatis theologia works with God speaking just one word which functions as both law and gospel, while Luther’s mature theology has God speaking two words: the law that kills and the gospel that gives life. Because the gospel is a new and different word from that of the law, Christians who are under spiritual attack (Anfechtung) can cry out to God and appeal to his word of gospel against his word of law. This is the value of the forensic understanding of justification, which stresses faith in the external word of promise (gospel) and the Christus pro nobis, in contrast to the participative view, which operates with the idea of the great exchange, and stresses the Christus in nobis who, in the Spirit, takes our sin in exchange for his righteousness. As mentioned in n. 34, these two should never be separated. On this matter, see also Paul Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 81.

(50.) WA 40/III:495, 27–495, 15; LW 13:82 (trans. alt.).

(51.) WA 40/III:495, 17–19; LW 13:82.

(52.) WA 40/III:22–26; LW 13:82–83.

(53.) WA 40/III:496, 16–17; LW 13:83. See n. 28.

(54.) WA 2:689, 24–33; LW 42:104–105. Note that at this stage in his development Luther still often links Christ and the saints together. It is only some years later that he gets to the point where he speaks of Christ alone, as the mediator of all spiritual blessings, without the saints.

(55.) Luther makes this point in the first of his Invocavit sermons (1522): “The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but everyone must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me” (WA 10/III:15–20; LW 51:70).

(56.) WA 2:695, 31–34; LW 42:112 (trans. alt.). See also Bayer, “Die Zukunft Jesu Christi,” 183.

(57.) This is the thesis of Thomas Reinhuber, Kämpfender Glaube: Studien zu Luthers Bekenntnis am Ende von De servo arbitrio (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000). See also Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 55–59, where he speaks about faith and experience in opposition.

(58.) WA 40/II:342, 18–21; LW 12:321 (Ps. 51, 1532/38).

(59.) WA 40/I:267, 18–21; LW 26:155–156. A similar emphasis is to be found in Luther’s sermons on 1 Cor. 15 (WA 36:478–696; LW 28:63–213).

(60.) This theme is powerfully proclaimed and celebrated by J. S. Bach’s cantata for Easter Day: Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4), based on the text of Luther’s chorale “Death Held Our Lord in Prison” (WA 35:443, 7–445, 5; LW 53:256–257). Verse 2 is especially moving as Luther proclaims the death of death: “It was a strange and awesome strife/when life and death contended;/ the victory remained with life,/the rule of death was ended:/stripped of power, no more it reigns,/an empty form alone remains:/death's sting is gone for ever. Hallelujah!” (No. 89 in Lutheran Hymnal and Supplement, trans. Richard Massie (Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1989).

(61.) WA 23:243, 28–30; LW 37:124–125 (That These Words of Christ … Still Stand Firm, 1527) (trans. alt.). Luther says in the same treatise that, unlike ordinary food which we transform in our stomachs, the food that Christ gives us in the sacrament is so powerful that it transforms us to be like him (WA 23:205, 6–31; LW 37:100–101). On this, see Axel Wiemer, “Mein Trost, Kampf, und Sieg ist Christus”: Martin Luthers eschatologische Theologie nach seinen Reihenpredigten über 1. Kor 15 (1532/33) (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 170–184.

(62.) WA 42:146, 27–32; LW 1:196 (Lectures on Genesis).

(63.) See Albrecht Peters, Creed: Commentary on Luther’s Catechism, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2011), 201. Luther in his Fourteen Consolations says that so surely are the blessings of Christ ours by faith that we can even dare to look forward to the judgment of God, however unbearable the prospect (WA 6:133, 15–18; LW 42:164).

(64.) The first two lines of Luther’s hymn, Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, expresses this thought well: “Jesus Christ. our blessed Saviour, /Turned away God’s wrath for ever.” The hymn is based on an earlier Latin hymn by Johann Hus, Jesus Christus, nostra salus (No. 281, Lutheran Hymnal and Supplement).

(65.) Luther argues in The Bondage of the Will that “It is an irrefutable and self-evident proposition that God does not lie and is not deceived” (WA 18:716, 1; LW 33:185).

(66.) WA 6:133, 20–23; LW 42:164–165 (Fourteen Consolations, 1520).

(67.) WA 33:540, 17; LW 23:336: “On the last day he will judge, but as a savior, who will help me and turn everything that gave me grief upside down.”

(68.) Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 420.

(69.) WA 18:785, 10–13; LW 33:291–292 (The Bondage of the Will, 1525). See Jacqueline Bussie’s critique of Luther, “Luther’s Hope for the World,” in The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 113–128. In her judgment, Luther’s theodicy seems to condone a passive acceptance of evil in this world rather than urging an active struggle against it. Set against the death camps of this world, she argues that “Luther’s cavalier words of eschatological hope become cruel platitudes” (116).

(70.) WA 53:401, 35–36 (Preface to Urbanus Rhegius, Prophecies of the Old Testament Concerning Christ, 1542); WA BR:567, 24–568, 40, no. 512, June 27, 1522. See Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 421.

(71.) On the consummation of the one’s own life and the consummation of the world, see Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 327–330.

(72.) On the so-called intermediate state in Luther, see Peters, Creed, 305 n. 624.

(73.) Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (6th ed.; Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 512.11–12 [BSLK]; The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 356 (emphasis added) [BOC].

(74.) WA 36:538, 22–27; LW 28:103–104 (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15); WA 26:509, 13–18; LW 37:372 (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528). For a broader discussion of the idea of apokatastasis panton, see also Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 337 ff.

(75.) See Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 327.

(76.) On the apple or pear tree legend, see Carter Lindberg, “Luthers Apfelbäumchen: Bemerkungen zu Optimismus und Pessimismus im christlichen Selbstverständnis,” Wuppertaler Hochschulschriften 7 (1976): 5–24.

(77.) Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90.

(78.) WA TR 2:627, 9–13, no. 2741 (1532).

(79.) Luther does not conceive heaven as a place. His break with the ancient world’s spatial conception of heaven has great significance for sacramental theology as well as the philosophy of life. Further, Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1962), 251, 415. Elert (517) draws attention to a lovely snapshot that Luther gives of the contrast between life on earth and life in heaven: “Now the creatures are wearing only their work clothes; afterwards they will put on an Easter coat and Pentecost clothing” (WA 44:628, 16; LW 8:67, Lectures on Genesis).

(80.) WA 36:678, 38–679, 6; LW 28:202–203 (Commentary on 1 Cor., 1533).

(81.) WA BR 5:377–378, no. 314; June 19, 1530; LW 49:321.

(82.) Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 425. Luther does not say very much about whether, in his opinion, there will be animals in heaven. However, from what he does say, we can assume that he had no doubts that animals and other nonhuman life would be present in heaven. See WA 41:301–318 (Pred. über Rom. 8:18ff; June 20, 1535). See also Luther’s sermon on Ps. 8 (WA 45:229–234; LW 12:97–136; Nov. 1, 1537).

(83.) WA 49:733, 4; Sermons on 1 Cor. 15, 1540/45 (Die Dritte Predigt, von der letzten Posaunen Gottes).

(84.) See Wiemer, “Mein Trost,” 182–184.

(85.) The resurrection is not a creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but a creation out of creation (creatio ex creatione). Although Luther does not say this in so many words, it means that resurrection does not exclude the immortality of the soul but includes it. The I, our human identity, is not destroyed by death but is judged.

(86.) BSLK, 520.28–30; BOC, 362.

(87.) BSLK, 674.7–10; BOC, 447 (The Large Catechism, 1529).

(88.) BSLK, 707.14–20; BOC, 466.

(89.) WA 6:528, 36–529, 5; LW 36:60 (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520).

(90.) For more on this, see Hermann Sasse, This Is My Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1959), 182–186.

(91.) WA 23:233, 21–35; LW 37:118 (That These Words of Christ … Still Stand Firm, 1527).

(92.) WA 42:61, 28–32; LW 1:81 (on Gen. 2:3, 1535). What Luther says here about the animals being for this life only is inconsistent with other statements where he speculates that both human and nonhuman creatures will be found in heaven. See, for example, the sermon on Rom. 8:18ff. (20 June 1535), where he maintains that God’s eschatological promise embraces all creatures and not just humans (WA 41:301–318).

(93.) Considered from God’s standpoint, our life is nothing more than a mathematical point (punctum mathematicum). See WA 40/III:572, 5–7; LW 13:128 (Ps.90).

(94.) WA 43:481, 34–35, 33; LW 5:76 (on Gen. 26:24–25, 1541). This remark of Luther has led some to think that he is advocating a form of universalism. However, if we look at what Luther says across the entire spectrum of his work, that conjecture cannot be sustained.

(95.) WA 31/I:456, 8; LW 14:134–135 (Ps. 147).

(96.) Schwarz, Fides, spes und caritas; and see n. 15 above.

(97.) Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. James W. Leitch (London: SCM Press, 1967).

(98.) Gerald O’Collins, The Theology of Hope.

(99.) The monumental three-volume work of the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982), first published in 1954 (vol. 1), 1955 (vol. 2), and 1959 (vol. 3), played a significant role in stimulating Moltmann’s own thinking about hope. Bloch develops an ontology of human existence that posits that “we are already, as human, what we are not-yet.” He believes we exist “ecstatically,” meaning that we stand out of ourselves in the sense of ahead of ourselves “towards an open future which we ourselves actively determine and towards which our hoping is addressed.” Bloch’s imminent eschatology has no room for any heaven, except a heaven on this earth, created by human beings in accordance with the Marxist revolutionary imperative that all things be made anew. See Richard Gunn, “Ernst Bloch’s ‘The Principle of Hope,’” New Edinburgh Review 76 (1987): 90–98.

(100.) See Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, The Futurist Option (New York: Newman, 1970).

(101.) Robert Jenson, “Second Thoughts about Theologies of Hope,” Evangelical Quarterly 72 (2000): 335–346, has reflected deeply on the inextricable connection between the Triune God, who is the source of life, and the history of the world. He rightly concludes, after wrestling especially with the philosophy of Hegel, that “there is no alternative to faith in a God of hope other than nihilism.”

(102.) BSLK 513.7–9; BOC 357.