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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther’s View of Atonement and Reconciliation

Summary and Keywords

The inquiry into the nature of atonement (or reconciliation) presupposes a broken relationship. Atonement (or reconciliation) brings about the restoration of the relationship, creating both a change in and renewal of it. Hence, atonement is recognized as a communicative and open-ended process, which needs continual repetition and renewal. Indeed, God reconciled the world with Himself once and for all (2 Cor. 5:19), but this atonement event is reappropriated in faith and put into effect again and again.

In Luther’s theology, atonement designates the communicative disclosure of God’s salvation revealed to believers in the person and work of Jesus Christ in two ways: in the proclamation of the gospel and in the existential impartation of the person of Jesus Christ to the believer, who in turn is freed to enter new life, trusting in God, in the process of reconciliation. In this atonement event mediated by the work of the Holy Spirit, sin is overcome; the death and life of Jesus Christ are appropriated by God for the believer, and the person is separated from his or her sin. Therefore, atonement rests completely on the creative, communicative action of the triune God. However, there is also a human aspect involved that anticipates the believer’s death in baptism and transfers the believer into a new life (2 Cor. 5:17–19).

Keywords: Martin Luther, Christ, communicatio idiomatum, faith, grace, heart, communication, relational ontology, baptism, death, reconciliation, atonement

Atonement as a Restoration of a Broken Relationship

The quest, the longing and yearning for reconciliation and atonement, presupposes a broken relationship: Atonement enables a renewed relationship, reestablishes trust, and possibly relinquishes one from the need for compensation, punishment, retaliation, or revenge. Hence, atonement can be sought by the guilty offender as well as by the victim whom the other has wronged. The goal of atonement is to restore a relationship such that trust can be reestablished. “Atonement” is a threefold relational process: the two parties that need atonement and find it within a communicative process of reconciliation.. Since guilt is addressed and forgiven in the process of atonement, atonement reestablishes the relationship in a sustainable way. Atonement might require from the guilty party some compensation, waiver, or sacrifice on the side of the one propitiating. This compensation can reinforce the seriousness of the desire to reconcile; it can imply the willingness to provide a sacrifice or even imply a symbolic death for the sake of the relationship. Because in the course of the reconciliation process truth is discovered and atonement also requires a behavioral change, reconciliation is frequently associated with pain. Ultimately, a process of reconciliation also entails a communication between the two reconciling parties as an opening by the participants and a willingness to change their own attitudes and conduct.

Justification also presupposes a broken relationship. But unlike justification, atonement does not take place in a forensic context, but rather in the experience of overcoming a profound conflict. Compared with salvation or deliverance, the emphasis is more on the breakdown of the relationship and less on rescue from some deadly threat. At the same time, all these aspects of salvation are theologically interrelated: reconciliation, atonement, justification, salvation, and deliverance. Yet they have different emphases. For example, consider the concept of sin. If atonement (or reconciliation), as suggested here, is understood as the overcoming of an essential failure of the relationship, then sin analogously is apprehended as precisely this relational failure. In the context of salvation and deliverance, sin will more likely be emphasized as related to power.

In the context of biblical theology, the lexeme “atonement” initially calls to mind the postexilic ritual on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest vicariously offered a sacrificial animal for Israel and so made possible a reconciled path back into life. The relationship between God and humanity broken by sin and the transgression of the commandments could thus be restored in the process of atonement through the vicarious, and at the same time inclusive, death of the sacrificial animal.1

In the New Testament, for example, one can find this tradition incorporated into the Epistle to the Hebrews, which interprets Christ as the high priest. One especially finds it in the Pauline corpus and the Deutero-Pauline letters (for instance, Rom. 5:10f.; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20,22).2 Here, it is consistently maintained that God in Christ is the subject of reconciliation between God and man, for whom in turn reconciliation occurs in faith and makes new life possible for him. Christology and soteriology are necessarily bound together in this context.

Although the Bible paves the way, the question of the possibility of a concept of the doctrine of atonement has primarily been raised in modern Western theology.3 In debate with Albrecht Ritschl,4 Gustav Aulén distinguishes three different types of the doctrine of atonement, the first of which he prefers5: a “dramatic” concept of atonement (following the concept of Christus Victor, which one finds in the New Testament, the early church, but also in Martin Luther); an “objective” doctrine of atonement (following the example of the doctrine of satisfaction put forth by Anselm of Canterbury); and finally an ethically oriented “subjective” doctrine of atonement as exemplified by Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher and Ritschl, in which Christ is understood as a model in suffering and life. In the 20th century, Karl Barth in particular advanced a comprehensive reformulation of the doctrine of atonement in his Church Dogmatics, in which he, like Luther, resolutely takes a Christological focus and puts it at the heart of his dogmatic project.6

According to present theological-historical developments, the central question of the doctrine of atonement lies in how one can speak of reconciliation and at the same time maintain the moral irreplaceability of the moral subject. According to this notion, guilt is not a “transmissible debt” that can be transferred from one entity to the other. The question of reconciliation also poses the questions of guilt, contact with guilt, the responsibility of the individual, and consequently that of the possibility of subjectivity and morality.

Martin Luther does not use the German term for “reconciliation (or atonement),”7 but rather the Latin reconciliatio in several places. He attaches great importance to the event of reconciliation (or atonement), as he describes in several instances the breakdown of the relationship between God and humanity as “sin” and the way to overcome it in Christ. Because there are only a few limited occurrences, Luther’s theological concept of reconciliation (and atonement) must be deduced abductively.8

Hence, reflections on “reconciliation/atonement” in Luther’s work must be considered in the context of what contemporary Luther research has found, particularly in terms of his statements about the reality of God and humanity. Since the works of Wilfried Joest9 and Gerhard Ebeling,10 the concept of relational ontology has been widely established in Luther research,11 involving the assumption that humanity’s relatedness to itself, others, and its origin is original with the existence of humanity.12 The insight into the relationality of reality and thus also of faith, the relationality of God and humanity, and (following recent research)13 the insight into the communicability of reality are in the background of the following reflections on “reconciliation and atonement” in the theology of Martin Luther.

Hence, different perspectives play a role: the necessity of reconciliation in the breakdown of relationship between God and humanity; God as subject of reconciliation in the person and work of Jesus Christ; and the communicative character of faith as reconciliation that becomes effective for the individual. A brief reflection on the question of “universal salvation” as it relates to Luther’s theology concludes this discussion.

The Reality of Humanity

As relationally constituted beings, humans are destined to live in relationships, where relatedness is oriented to itself, to others, and to humanity’s origin. The New Testament’s “Great Commandment” indicates that these relationships should be formed genially: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (NRSV, Luke 10:27 par.).

For Luther, this understanding of humanity’s correspondence to God and to neighbor, shaped as relationally rich life, is fulfilled in the observance of the first commandment14: “See, this is the work of the first commandment, in which it is commanded, ‘You shall have no other gods,’ which means: ‘because I alone am God, you should put your confidence, your trust, and your faith in me alone.’ That means not having a God whom you only name with your mouth … but rather you trust him sincerely and ascribe to him all goodness, all grace, and good will. And this faith, trust, and confidence of the heart is fundamentally the true fulfillment of the first commandment, without which no works could satisfy this commandment.” 15 In the Catechism, Luther understands the fulfillment of all the other Decalogue commandments as the fulfillment of the first commandment; he always repeats the formula of his interpretation of the commandment (“We should fear and love God, that …”):16 When humans keep the first commandment, loving God with the entire heart and putting all trust in him, they fulfill all the other commandments, such that trust in God orients and determines their dealings with all the rest.

In its central role, the first commandment corresponds to a basic anthropological insight of the reformer in his catechismal interpretation, according to which humans are beings that can set their hearts on something or someone, as they trust and therefore believe. Indeed, a human cannot do otherwise than to relate the core of its person, the heart, to another: “Therefore having a god is nothing other than trusting and believing him sincerely, as I have often said, faith and trust of the heart make both God and idols.”17 Whatever it is that a person sets their heart on—that becomes god to them. “On what you … set your heart and confide in, that is actually your god.”18 When obeying the first commandment, the human conforms to God, as they acknowledges him as creator and understands themself as creature. Luther expresses this kind of faith that determines one’s whole being in the brief statement: “We should be humans and not God, that is the Summa.”19

The fact is, however, that humans miss this purpose and do not fulfill the first commandment; the heart is set on something that cannot help them and thus is not God. Instead, the heart trusts an “idol.” Luther identifies this transgression of relationship as “sin” and understands it as a breakdown of relationship, which is the root of an evil act, as evil deeds stem from it. In sin, the transgression of the relationship of correspondence to God is expressed, which from his early days, Luther described as perversion of the standards between God and man: “The human cannot naturally desire for God to be God. On the contrary, he wants himself to be God and God not to be God.”20 For Luther, not being satisfied with one’s humanity, and wanting to seize God’s position, marks humanity as sinner and generates the necessity of reconciliation between humanity and God.

To obtain such a reconciliation from humanity’s own strength, and to make the relationship between God and humanity right again, two routes initially come to mind: an autonomous decision of reason and good will and a consistent ascetic practice involving the willingness to sacrifice.

Although Luther ascribes extensive power to reason, it still lacks the means to end the distortion of the relationship between God and man, because it itself is affected by the perversion of the heart. For Luther, the person is, as only theology can capture, “subjected to the power of the devil after the fall, to sin and death, both evil, which is eternal, and not to be overcome by his own power.”21 This limitation of human power also includes the works of reason: “I believe, that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, and cannot come to him from my own reason or power.”22 For Luther, knowledge alone does not allow any behavioral change to enable reconciliation.

Not only did Luther experience reason’s power to choose as unsuccessful and frustrating, but he also experienced the attempt to obtain access to reconciliation by practicing the fulfillment of the commandment this way as well.23 Referring to the period before his reformation discovery, he describes this frustration experienced in the state of personal “tribulation” (Anfechtung),24 when he hated the term “righteousness of God” because he understood it to mean righteousness in the sense of a “formal” or “active righteousness” (iustitia formalis seu activa), with which God punishes the sinner25 to fulfill the demands of atonement. For such a formal or active righteousness, however, in Luther’s experience, no human achievement or ascetic renunciation is sufficient to obtain reconciliation, righteousness, and peace. For practice cannot achieve the lasting restoration of humanity.

After extensive study of the Bible, the reformer had developed another way to atonement with a new understanding of faith: The righteousness applicable before God is not increased by knowledge or practice; but rather God’s righteousness consists in the fact that it imparts itself to the sinner and works to reconcile by creatively changing the believer: “the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely the passive righteousness, by which the merciful God makes us righteous through faith. As it is written: the just shall live by faith”26

Because the breakdown of the relationship between God and man is deep enough that the human cannot initiate reconciliation on his own, God must work reconciliation: “That is the conclusion, that this reconciliation between God and us cannot happen, even if all the world does what it can do with all its strength. Nor does it mean that we come to this reconciliation by loving God and thus he is reconciled with us. No, rather: God so loved the world …” (John 3:16)27 Luther’s crucial insight comes in the recognition that God not only must work reconciliation, but rather has accomplished reconciliation, revealed and taken hold of a person in faith as promised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

God in Jesus Christ as the Subject of Atonement

A fundamental assumption of Luther’s concept of the reconciliation of God and humanity is his tight connection between soteriology and Christology: the gospel of Jesus Christ and of the reconciliation occurring in the person and work of Christ—“God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself” (2 Cor. 5:19)—becomes effective in the appropriation of the believer, 28 whereby God himself is present in the reconciliation event accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Luther receives the early church doctrine of the two natures and takes the model of the communicatio idiomatum, according to which the human and divine natures are without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation in the person of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, one encounters God in the person of Jesus Christ, to the effect that Jesus Christ has such a complete share in the divine nature as true God and true man that God does not have to be reconciled, but rather is completely present in the life, suffering, and death of Christ29: “This is the general belief, that we trust in one Lord Jesus Christ who is true God and true man. From this truth of the two substances and unity of the person, that which is called the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties, follows. One can truly say: this man created the world and this God suffered, died, and was buried. These things, however, are not true in the abstract properties of the human nature [but rather only insofar as they relate to the concrete person of Jesus Christ].”30

For Luther, the inclusion of the doctrine of the two natures and the communicatio idiomatum is connected to a specific soteriological interest: Because in Christ divine and human natures are connected with one another, communicating with each other, and sharing with one another, God and man can share in faith in the concrete presence of a believer—and so freely, that this impartation is not understood as reciprocal, but rather that man allows impartation and participation to occur. For Luther, following the reception of the early church decisions, this communication in the sense of a (reconciling) impartation of God and man not only is the result of the work of Christ in his self-sacrificing suffering and death, but also is realized from the beginning in his person. Hence, one can rightly speak of an incarnational perspective of Luther’s theology,31 also reflected in his Christmas sermons: The message of the angel on that holy night—“Fear not, see, I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Luke 2:10—presents them with the savior who will help and comfort them32 because with this savior God himself is given to the world: “The angels worship him above; here he serves us and places himself in our sludge.”33

Recourse to the doctrine of the two natures enables yet another interpretive perspective: Christ, the true human, fulfills the purpose of every human based on his fulfillment of the first commandment in correspondence with God and as the true image of God34 (2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3; Col. 2:15). This understanding of correspondence rededicates the believer in that likeness, which is possible because in Christ, as true God, life is stronger than death: “God created man in his image. So he is the image of God.… Lamentably, we have lost this image through Adam’s fall, but we acquire it again through Christ. The image of God is the image of holiness, justice, and truth. It was lost, but restored through Christ.”35

Luther uses the term imputatio, imputation, for the dedication of the correspondence to God to the believer becoming visible and effective in Christ: With the imputatio, God makes full reconciliation effective to humanity, while he imputes the being of Jesus Christ to humanity communicatively and creatively36: “Thus it is a wonderful definition of Christian righteousness that it is God’s crediting or imputation for righteousness or as righteousness, because of the belief in Christ or because of Christ himself.”37 In this context, it would be a misunderstanding to assume that Luther thinks of “imputation” as only an external attribution that does not change the nature of humanity.38 Rather, with the imputatio, the reformer assumes that the reality of reconciliation of God and humanity imputed to the sinner by God becomes really effective and tangible in faith, because in faith God and humanity come near each other in a communicative manner. They communicate with each other in the person of Jesus Christ and share in each other, and, for Luther, the presence of Jesus Christ becomes effective for the believer in faith and through faith in his heart, the center of his person: “Therefore Christian faith is not something futile or an empty husk in the heart, which could exist in mortal sin until love comes along and makes it alive. But rather, true faith is a certain confidence of the heart and a solid affirmation, with which Christ is grasped, so that Christ is the object of faith, but not the object. Rather, as I would say, Christ himself is present in faith.”39

His understanding of faith shows how Luther focuses his understanding of justification and reconciliation Christologically: “Namely, Christ himself is reconciliation, justification, peace, life and salvation.”40 In faith, Jesus Christ is taken hold of as present, and the presence of Christ allows everything that a human needs to become reconciled with God: “Then comes the other word, the divine promise and assurance, and asks, ‘Do you want to fulfill every commandment? To become free of your evil desires and sins, as the commandments compel you and demand of you; then behold, believe in Christ, in whom I assure you there is all grace, righteousness, peace, and freedom. If you believe, then you have these things; if you don’t believe, then you don’t have them. What was impossible for you regarding all works of the commandments, which must be of much and yet of no use, becomes easy and light for you through faith.”41 Because everything that is necessary for reconciliation between God and humanity happens in faith, in order to come to this reconciliation a human must involve himself in that event begun in and with Christ and let Christ become involved in his life: “And this is our greatest comfort, to put on Christ and to involve him in my, your, and the whole world’s sin and to behold him as the one who carries all our sin.”42

Reconciliation as restoration of the broken relationship between humanity and God cannot be obtained by human power, which is why Luther understands God as the subject of reconciliation, whereas the human can only allow this even to happen.

With the idea of the irreplaceability of the moral subject, Enlightenment philosophy (particularly Immannual Kant) objected to the idea of reconciliation occurring extra nos through representation. For Kant, guilt is such a personal offense that the consequences must be borne by the offender. It does not constitute a “‘transmissible debt’ like a money debt (for which it is the same to the creditor whether the debtor himself or someone else pays for him) that can be transferred to another, but rather it constitutes the most personal kind of debt, namely, a debt of sin, which only the criminal, not the innocent … can bear.”43 If one holds to the assumption of the irreplaceability of the moral subject, then the idea of reconciliation through representation seems to be closed. The guilty himself must be held accountable and bear the consequences of breaking the relationship. Reconciliation would at best be possible in terms of a waiver of God’s rights, or by the human struggling to attain reconciliation—perhaps in terms of “conversion of thought”44 through education, which attempts to make a good man out of a bad one. In this context, the question about the scope of reason, good will, and the anthropological location of sin arises once again.

According to Luther, however, the transgression of the relationship between God and humanity cannot be overcome with a conversion of one’s way of thinking, because transgression concerns the heart, the center of the person, which orients everything else. For the reformer, sin is so connected with the nature of humanity that it is baked into him like a cake whose ingredients are indistinguishable: “God sees original sin and essential sin, not what we do, but rather what we suffer, which we, whether we want to or not, possess and thus are not completely good. We are born with it, we inherit it from our parents, and it is baked into humanity.”45

In order to overcome sin and to obtain reconciliation, the person must rid themself of themself—in Luther’s view, they must die: “If sin is to come out, then the body must die.”46 Because sin is “baked into” humanity, humanity has become indistinguishable from sin and thus cannot break loose from sin based on its own strength. Given such deadly seriousness, a conversion in one’s thinking comes up too short. Renunciation of one’s very life can be the only successful sacrifice for reconciliation. Thus, the sinner must go through death in order to obtain reconciliation—a death which God died for them and granted them in the person of Jesus Christ and which is appropriated by the believer in baptism.47 “This is just a piece of the resurrection and the beginning of new life, which also creates new meaning and thoughts, which otherwise no one could have, if they had not already crossed over through faith and had seized the resurrection and therefore also preferred the external man to his whole humanity.”48 In his Christologically and Soteriologically focused theology of baptism, Luther adheres to the idea that the sinner must die in order to obtain reconciliation, but at the same time does not suffer this death bodily because Christ died for him. At the same time, however, he enters into new life through his death in his baptism.

Since the sin of humanity died with Christ’s death, Christ forestalled the death of humanity, which is reenacted in baptism,49 Christ likewise dedicates his resurrection, and thus a new, reconciled life, to humanity: “If we see that sin is laid on Christ and he overcomes it through his resurrection and we boldly believe, then sin is dead and destroyed because it does not like to stay on Christ. It is devoured by his resurrection, and you now see no wounds or pains on him, therefore no signs of sin.”50 The philosophical Enlightenment concept about the irreplaceability of the moral subject cannot be reconciled with Luther’s basic anthropological assumptions. However, it also takes seriously the deep connection between the breakdown of relationship and personal existence both in its culpability and in its tragedy; thus, it has the potential to make experiences of suffering illuminating and comforting, rather than good and sincere attempts.

The Communicative Foundation of Faith as the Realization of the Event of Reconciliation

Reconciliation can take shape and become effective when a broken relationship is reestablished in the process of reconciliation. In Luther’s theology, faith holding onto Christ constitutes the means and reality of reconciliation.

For Luther, faith is the acceptance of salvation by the believer, when the believer understands the gospel not as mere historical truth, but rather as applicable for the believer’s own life. Luther distinguishes different forms of faith with fides historica and fides apprehensiva: “Here it should be noted, that one believes in two ways: first, one believes of God, that is, I believe that what one says of God is true.… Second one believes in God, that is, I do not only believe that what is said of God it is true, but I also set my trust in him.”51 The fides historica considers it true that Christ was born and under the circumstance has reconciled the world with himself. The fides apprehensiva, however, applies this event to the believer: “That Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, is the lord and savior and perhaps will help Peter and Paul is something I do not doubt. But that does not concern me. That is not faith. If you believe that, it is not enough, but rather to such faith it must be added that the savior was born for you.”52 Hence, faith accepts the Gospel as true and applicable to one’s own life: “I believe that Jesus Christ … is my Lord.”53

Moreover, faith not only is the subjective attachment to the event of salvation, but also, for its part, designates an impartation of God and man as a communicative process. In his Treatise on Freedom (1520), Luther develops the image of the “joyful exchange” of faith following the example of medieval bridal mysticism, in which the soul is united with Christ: “Not only is there so much faith that the soul becomes the same as the divine Word, full of every grace, free and blessed, but it also unites the soul with Christ as a bride with her bridegroom. From … this marriage it follows … that Christ and the soul become one body, thus both participants share circumstances, accidents, everything in common, such that whatever Christ has, the believing soul has as well, and whatever the soul has becomes Christ’s own. Here the exchange and struggle now begins.”54

The “joyful exchange,” which is made possible by the communicative existence of Jesus Christ in two natures,55 marks a communicative interchange between the sinner (the soul) and Christ, whose means of correspondence to God and neighbor is unhindered such that Luther designates his piety as “unassailable, eternal, and almighty.”56 What occurs in the communicatio idiomatum in the person of Jesus Christ also occurs in the joyful exchange: The properties of the divine nature are attributed in concrete implementation of faith in human nature and vice versa: the righteousness of Christ is realized for the sinner, because a communication between man and God occurs in the particular presence of faith. Thus, Luther understands the communication between man and God as originating from God, through communication made possible by the Holy Spirit, as he expresses in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my lord, or come to him from my own reason or power, but rather the Holy One called … illuminated … sanctified me”57—God the Holy One must effect faith in humanity, as he is present to man through his word.

Hence Luther understands the communication of faith as an event shaped by the word, in which the soul “becomes like the divine word, full of all mercy, free, and blessed,”58 and at the same time takes hold of the proclaimed and spoken gospel of Jesus Christ as a creatively effective, reality-constituting, and life-changing event: “But if the word is heard … and the heart adheres to him through faith, then the heart … is brought to truth by the word of truth, as when the cold wood attaches to the burning fire, is ignited, and warmed by it. However, when the heart is thus wetted by the word, soon all efforts and aspects are also changed in a similar manner. All the aspects do that towards which the heart is inclined, be it good or evil.”59 With the proclaimed word, which changes the orientation of the heart because of the realization of the gospel in those who hear it, the entire reality of life is changed. The word awakens trust, which defines being in the heart of faith,60 though the work of the Spirit61 by which humanity fulfills the first commandment and all the other commandments.

For Luther, the efficacy of the proclaimed word has its basis in God’s self-binding in his word: “But then he is there [for you] because he gives his word and is bound by it and says: you shall find me here. If you now have the word, you can certainly take hold of him and have him, and say, here I have you.”62 Because God bound himself in his word, a transfer from one reality to another can take place in the proclamation. Luther describes this idea by saying that Christ became a sinner for humanity in a figurative, metaphorical way,63 and hence the efficacy of this transfer of reality is due to the pictorial language of metaphor. For its part, the self-binding of God in Jesus Christ makes speech about God possible, which effects a transitus from one existence to another.

The communicative relatedness of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ is understood in the proclamation of the gospel such that the event of relatedness occurs concretely in the present act of speaking, and thus a metaphora, a transmission, takes place: from sin, through death, into life. For Luther, in this event, the concrete realization occurs in the “word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19) in the individual, of whom the word speaks: the reconciliation of God with the world and with this particular believer, in whose heart trust in God is awakened and who experiences transferal from the reality of sin to the reality of reconciliation. Faith means having the trust to let God work in his word—changing, saving, and reconciling. Hence, not only the acceptance of salvation or humanity’s response to the reception of salvation is described, but also the reality of salvation itself and the realization of Christ’s act of salvation in the individual and, hence, the effect of reconciliation between God and humanity, in whom the event of justification of the godless is also represented in the human experience. Because faith takes hold of the present Christ and the human is connected to Christ, such faith that holds onto Christ can thus be understood both as the means and as the reality of the reconciliation between God and man.

This faith as transitus between the reality of humanity under sin and the reality of Jesus Christ (which Luther defines as “grace” [gratia] and into which he wants to “transplant” [transplantare] the faith of humanity),64 remains a contested reality in this life. Reconciliation remains unfinished, which is why Luther repeatedly describes the Christian as simul justus et peccator, living two lives as it were: “My natural or physical animated life and the alien life which Christ lives in me. According to my creaturely life I died, but I already live in my alien life.”65

According to these reflections, if reconciliation is a relational process that takes place through linguistic and nonlinguistic means and signs, then it occurs between two related beings who are drawing near to each other in the process of interpretation and understanding. This insight is revealed in the implementation of interpretation and understanding: The message of reconciliation applies to me (pro me) and implements a new reality for me. Because it involves a mediating event, it is plausible that the mediation and reconciliation process is fallible and interminable. Reconciliation points beyond itself, to its ultimate completion, which cannot yet be reached at this time.66

The Prospect of Universal Salvation

Reconciliation as a relational experience enables the renewal of a fundamentally broken relationship in a communicative process and reestablishes lost trust.

In order to become effective, it requires mediation through signs, and it causes a transitus from one experience and meaning of reality to another. If God was in Christ and is reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19), then one can ask about the possibility of a hope for reconciliation of the whole world at the end of time. Luther appears to come to this question with a double outcome of the Final Judgment, in which the “pious will live eternally in Christ” while the “evil will die with the devil.”67 But, on the basis of his own experience of Anfechtung, he locates judgment in a person’s inner life and in the soul-searching caused by the confession of sin, from which only the revealed salvation of God in Christ can free him.68 Hell already takes place in this life, but Luther neither denies nor questions its existence in the afterlife.

If, however, one takes seriously what is in the background of Lutheran theology, namely, the belief that the human has absolutely no possibility of achieving salvation on their own but rather salvation is the work of the merciful God alone, then reconciliation of the whole world can at least be expressed as a hope and perhaps abductively ascertainable in Lutheran theology. In this context, the fact that faith should be regarded as that which makes the reconciliation begun by God effective as a restoration of relationship, does not speak against the idea of reconciliation of all. If one takes seriously the hope that in the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), will wash away the tears, and end death (Rev 21:4), then one might also say that God enters into relationship, comforting these creatures and the whole world, reconciling and creating life.

Additionally, considering Paul’s request to let oneself be reconciled with the God of all (2 Cor 5:20) after the word of reconciliation is heard, it could be held (following Luther’s theology) that reconciliation is exclusively a work of God,69 and that the word of reconciliation initiates a communicative, reality-constituting process at the end of time. However, nothing in the way of a verifiable proposition can be derived from Luther’s idea of reconciliation; rather, the idea of a reconciliation of the whole world can be derived in the mode of a theologically grounded hope, as salvation on the one hand and punishment on the other.

Review of the Literature

In German-speaking Luther research since the works of Wilfried Joest and Gerhard Ebeling, the view has been widely established that Luther’s theology can be reasonably interpreted in the context of a “relational” ontology vis-à-vis a “substance ontology” (which is based on Aristotelian thought), and, as was shown in the preceding exposition, also needs to be applied to the topos of reconciliation. In this relational context, more and more recent work concerning Luther’s theology can be found regarding his understanding of righteousness, faith, and sin. In his dissertation, Rüdiger Gebhardt inquires after the understanding of reality implied in Luther’s doctrine of justification and especially works out the leading categories of “relatio,” “communicatio,” and “metaphora” by studying the figure of “joyful exchange.”70 Sibylle Rolf pursues the question of how Luther understands the imputation of righteousness and the nonimputation of sin, and she shows how the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and hence the dedication and appropriation of Christ’s righteousness is achieved in Luther’s theological focus on the Christ event, as it is in faith itself in which Christ and the believer are connected with each other.71 Most importantly, these works point out the insight into a relational structure of faith with regard to the question of Luther’s understanding of reconciliation.

Since the 1970s, in the context of Finnish-speaking research on Luther, the presence of Christ in believers has been discussed in dialogue with Russian Orthodox theologians. The real change in humanity through faith by the presence of Christ in faith has been particularly emphasized. In dialogue with the Russian-Orthodox Church, this participation of humanity in God based on the presence of Christ has been called theosis, which is based on the unity of man with Christ in which Christ gives himself to humanity. Works by Tuomo Mannermaa, Risto Saarinen, Eeva Martikainen, or Simo Peura benefit scholarship in having worked out the effective side of justification—which has particular relevance for the question of Luther’s view of reconciliation of humanity with God. Justification as well as reconciliation can be understood as events carried into effect by God by the Holy Spirit in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally, for Luther’s concept of reconciliation and its mediation to believers in the appropriation of the individual, there are works of significance, which Luther’s theology understands and construes as a speech event. Ever since Oswald Bayer’s recognition that, for Luther, the proclamation of God’s Word denotes a speech act, the linguisticality and immediateness of Lutheran theology have been investigated further. In this light, Luther is perceived as a rhetorician, who tried to evoke certain affects in listeners based on his basic, experiential language.

More recently, linguistic and semiotic idea such as semiotics or performance theory have been used, particularly by Charles S. Peirce, in order to describe the performative character of Luther’s doctrine and theology. For instance, Gesche Linde establishes a connection between “sign and certainty” and connects it to Luther’s theology. The relationship of communicatio idiomatum and the communicative impartation of salvation to believers has already been seen, particularly in the Treatise on Freedom, for example by Anselm Steiger or Oswald Bayer. Against the background of performance theories, further work on Luther’s understanding of proclamation, faith, and reconciliation is very promising so far, as the inner connection between Luther’s esteem of the spoken word and his understanding of reality can be further illuminated.

Further Reading

Aulén, Gustav. “Die drei Haupttypen des christlichen Versöhnungsgedankens.” Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie 8 (1931): 501–538.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald, and Benjamin Gleede, eds. Creator est Creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2007.Find this resource:

Christe, Wilhelm. Gerechte Sünder: Eine Untersuchung zu Martin Luthers “simul justus et peccator.” Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2014.Find this resource:

Gebhardt, Rüdiger. Heil als Kommunikationsgeschehen: Analysen zu dem in Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre implizierten Wirklichkeitsverständnis. Marburg: Elwert Verlag, 2002.Find this resource:

Linde, Gesche. Zeichen und Gewissheit. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.Find this resource:

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Der im Glauben gegenwärtige Christus: Rechtfertigung und Vergottung: Zum ökumenischen Dialog. Hanover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1989.Find this resource:

Mätzke, Verena. Gerechtigkeit als “fromkeit”: Luthers Übersetzung von iustitia Dei und ihre Bedeutung für die Rechtfertigungslehre heute. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013.Find this resource:

Rolf, Sibylle. Zum Herzen sprechen: Eine Studie zum imputativen Aspekt in Martin Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre und zu seinen Konsequenzen für die Predigt des Evangeliums. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2008.Find this resource:

Steiger, Johann Anselm. “Die communicatio idiomatum als Achse und Motor der Theologie Martin Luthers: Der fröhliche Wechsel als hermeneutischer Schlüssel zu Abendmahlslehre, Anthropologie, Seelsorge, Naturtheologie, Rhetorik und Humor.” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie 38 (1996): 1–28.Find this resource:

Wenz, Gunther. Geschichte der Versöhnungslehre in der evangelischen Theologie der Neuzeit. 2 vols. Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1984–1986.Find this resource:

Wenz, Gunther. Versöhnung. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) Cf. Bernd Janowski, Sühne als Heilsgeschehen: Traditions- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien zur Sühnetheologie der Priesterschrift (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2000).

(2.) For New Testament theology of sin and reconciliation/atonement, cf., for example, Otfried Hofius, “Sühne und Versöhnung: Zum paulinischen Verständnis des Kreuzestodes Jesu,” in Paulusstudien (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1989), 33–49.

(3.) Cf. Gunther Wenz, Geschichte der Versöhnungslehre in der evangelischen Theologie der Neuzeit, 2 vols. (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1984–1986). Subsequently, the question of the possibility and the reality of reconciliation is raised in the turn to the believing subject in the wake of the Reformation and with respect to the philosophy of Hegel and its theological reception.

(4.) Albrecht Ritschl, Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung (Bonn: A. Marcus, 1882–1883).

(5.) Gustav Aulén, “Die drei Haupttypen des christlichen Versöhnungsgedankens,” Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie 8 (1931): 501–538.

(6.) Especially in the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics. Jüngst cf. Paul Dafydd Jones, “Barth and Anselm: God, Christ and the Atonement,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12.3 (2010): 257–282.

(7.) See below.

(8.) For the methodology of abduction compared with deduction and induction according to Charles S. Peirce, cf., for example, Sibylle Rolf, Zum Herzen sprechen: Eine Studie zum imputativen Aspekt in Martin Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre und zu seinen Konsequenzen für die Predigt des Evangeliums (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2008), 17–19.

(9.) Cf. especially Wilfried Joest, Ontologie der Person bei Luther (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1967).

(10.) Cf., for example, Gerhard Ebeling, Disputatio de homine, vols. 1–3 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1977, 1982, 1989).

(11.) Cf. also Ebeling, Dogmatik des christlichen Glaubens, vol. 1 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1987), 348: “[The] ontology of relation is concerned about reality as a whole.… Talk about God and the world is only understood situationally, when it is understood as the speech of humanity and at the same time as speech to humanity and by humanity.”

(12.) Cf. also Wilfried Härle, Systematische Philosophie (Munich: Kaiser, 1987), 210–216.

(13.) In recent German Luther research, cf., for example the works of Rüdiger Gebhardt, Sibylle Rolf, Verena Mätzke, or Wilhelm Christe.

(14.) On the connection between faith and fulfillment of the commandments, cf. especially Luther’s sermon “Von den guten Werken” (1520), in WA 6:202ff; LW 44:15ff.

(15.) WA 6:209, 26–35; LW 44:30. In this citation and all others, Luther’s Early New High German is adapted to contemporary language usage.

(16.) So in the Small Catechism, cf. the confessional documents of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, published in the commemorative year of the Augsburg Confession in 1930, reprint Göttingen, Germany, 1992, 507–510.

(17.) In the Large Catechism, Bekenntnisschriften, 560.

(19.) WA B 5:415, 45f.

(20.) “Non potest homo naturaliter velle deum esse deum, Immo vellet se esse deum et deum non esse deum” (Already in 1517, in Disputation gegen die scholastische Theologie, WA 1:225, 1f.; LW 31:10.).

(21.) From the Disputatio de Homine (1536), in the 20–22 Theses: “20. Theologia vero de plenitudine sapientiae suae Hominem totum et perfectum definit. 21. Scilicet, quod homo est creatura Dei, carne et anima spirante constans, ab initio ad imaginem Dei facta, sine peccato, ut generaret et rebus dominaretur, nec unquam moreretur, 22. Post lapsum vero Adae subiecta potestati diaboli, peccato et morti, utroque malo suis viribus insuperabili et aeterno” (WA 39/I:176, 5–11; LW 34:138).

(22.) In the interpretation of the third article of faith in the Small Catechism, 1529, Bekenntnisschriften, 511f.

(23.) In this context, Luther is contending with the view going back to Aristotle, that justice can be practiced by good deeds, just as an instrument is mastered more and more through practice. For example, in the Heidelberg Disputation (1518): “Quia iusticia Dei non acquiritur ex actibus frequenter iteratis, ut Aristoteles docuit, sed infunditur per fidem.”—Because the righteousness of God is not acquired from frequently repeated actions, as Aristotle taught, but it is infused through faith (from the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, WA 1:364, 4f.; LW 31:55).

(24.) On the “Reformation turn” or the “Reformation breakthrough,” cf., for example, Volker Leppin, Martin Luther, Gestalten des Mittelalters und der Renaissance (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006), 107–117. Based on the sources, Leppin argues less for a “Reformation breakthrough” and more for a gradual development of Reformation theology, which came to completion in 1520.

(25.) In the preface to the Opera Latina (1545), WA 54:185, 17–19: “Oderam enim vocabulum istud ‘Iustitia Dei,’ quod usu et consuetudine omnium doctorum doctus eram philosophice intellegere de iustitia (ut vocant) formali seu activa, qua Deus est, iustus et peccatores iniustosque punit” (LW 34:336).

(26.) Luther came to this realization as a result of extensive reading of Scripture. See it in context (WA 54:186, 3–8): “Donec miserente Deo meditabundus dies et noctes connexionem verborum attenderem, nempe: Iustitia Dei revelatur in illo, sicut scriptum est: Iustus ex fide vivit, ibi iustitiam Dei coepi intelligere eam, qua iustus dono Dei vivit, nempe ex fide, et esse hanc sententiam, revelari per euangelium iustitiam Dei, scilicet passivam, qua nos Deus misericors iustificat per fidem, sicut scriptum est: Iustus ex fide vivit” (LW 34:337).

(27.) In a Pentecost sermon from 1528, WA 27:167, 4–8: “conclusum, quod ista reconciliatio inter deum et nos non potest fieri, wen alle welt zu hauff thut cum omnibus quae potest. Nec est die meinung, ut venias ad hanc reconciliationem, ut diligamus deum et ipse nobis propicius sit. Sed sic deus diligit.”

(28.) In this context, Luther develops his misleading formulation of faith, in which the divinity creates its truth and relevance: “Fides est creatrix divinitatis, non in persona, sed in nobis”—Faith creates divinity, not in God’s person, but in us (WA 40/I:360, 5 f.; LW 26:227; to Gal. 3:6).

(29.) Hence, not only do the later designated genera, idiomaticum, maiestaticum und apotelesmaticum, harmonize with Luther’s soteriological Christology and his understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, but also the genus tapeinoticum widely rejected by orthodoxy.

(30.) “Fides catholica haec est, ut unum dominum Christum confiteamur verum Deum et hominem. Ex hac veritate geminae substantiae et unitate personae sequitur illa, quae dicitur, communicatio idiomatum. Vere dicitur: Iste homo creavit mundum et Deus iste est passus, mortuus, sepultus etc. Non tamen haec rata sunt in abstractis (ut dicitur) humanae naturae” (WA 39/II:93, 2–10).

(31.) Hence, it would be misleading if the incarnational perspective were played against a perspective of the theology of the cross. For Luther, the interrelationship of God and humanity begins with the birth of Jesus Christ. On the cross, this path, which begins in the manger and continually progresses, is completed.

(32.) Cf. WA 37:239, 12 f.: “Das sol man behalten, das es die erste predigt ist et adhuc durat, das er der heiland sey, der uns helff en und trosten sol” (On December 26, 1533).

(33.) From a sermon on December 25, 1533 (WA 37:232, 3 f.).

(34.) Luther calls Christ the true image of God in about twenty places.

(35.) From the Disputatio de iustificatione (1536), WA 39/I:124, 11–15: “Deus condidit hominem ad imaginem sui. Ergo est imago sui … Hanc imaginem miserabiliter amisimus per lapsum Adae, sed recuperamus eam per Christum. Imago Dei est sanctitatis, iusticiae, veritatis imago. Haec est amissa, sed reparata per Christum” (LW 34:177).

(36.) Luther’s understanding of imputatio should be distinguished among three aspects: the imputation of faith for righteousness, the nonimputation of sin, and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. As personal, communicative imputation, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness enables both other forms of the righteousness of imputatio. Cf. Rolf, Zum Herzen sprechen, S. 32ff.

(37.) In the large Galatians commentary 1531, WA 40/II:370, 19–21: “Est itaque mirabilis haec definitio Christianae iustitiae, quod sit imputatio seu reputatio divina pro iustitia vel ad iustitiam propter fidem in Christum vel propter Christum” (LW 26:233).

(38.) Such external attribution could be suggested by the distinction between effective and forensic justification, in which the imputatio comes to be on the side of forensic justification. In post-Lutheran theology, the distinction between forensic and effective justification plays a much larger role than it does with Luther, for whom neither aspect can be separated from the other.

(39.) See Gal. 2:16, WA 40/I:228, 31–229, 15: “Quare fides Christiana non est otiosa qualitas vel vacua siliqua in corde quae possit existere in peccato mortali, donec charitas accedat et eam vivifi cet, Sed si est vera fides, est quaedam certa fiducia cordis et firmus assensus quo Christus apprehenditur, Sic ut Christus sit obiectum fidei, imo non obiectum, sed, ut ita dicam, in ipsa fide Christus adest” (LW 26:129).

(40.) In his reading of Galatians, 1531 (WA 40/I:261, 26f.): “Ipse Christus enim est reconciliatio, iustitia, pax, vita, salus” (LW 26:151).

(41.) In the Treatise on Freedom (1520), WA 7:24 (1520); Highlighting S. R., Luther continues, “For I have put all things on faith, such that whoever has it, might have all things and should be blessed. Whoever does not have it, has nothing. Additionally, the promises of God provide what the commandments call for, and accomplish what the commandments require, so that it all belongs to God, both the commandment and fulfillment (LW 31:349).

(42.) Gal. 3:13; WA 40/I:436, 24–26: “Et haec consolatio nostra summa est, sic Christum induere et involvere meis, tuis et totius mundi peccatis et inspicere eum portantem omnia peccata nostra” (LW 26:279).

(43.) Immanuel Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793), III. “Der Mensch ist von Natur böse,” in Kant, Schriften zur Ethik und Religionsphilosophie, 6 vols. published by W. Weischedel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998), vol. 4, 726 f.

(44.) In his work on religion, in the first section, in the given edition, see 699; Kant explicitly claims, “For, if the moral law commands that we should be better people now: then it unavoidably follows, we must also be able to do so” (AaO, 702.).

(45.) In a sermon on January 1, 1525, about the circumcision of Christ according to Luke 2, WA 17/I:1, 29–32.

(46.) Sic si peccatum sol her auss, oportet corpus sit mortuum (WA 17/I:2, 6f.).

(47.) Cf. Hofius, Sühne und Versöhnung, especially 41f.

(48.) WA 37:69, 35–39.

(49.) “The Christian is already halfway out of death because his life is death. The Christian is pushed into death when baptized.… The Christian is already touched and pushed into death by the word and by baptism, that he expected the death in a single moment for the sake of Christ from death.… Therefore his right foot is already stepping out of the grave. And he has a powerful helper, Christ, who has already taken him by the hand.… Now only the left leg is left, the old sack, until the other half comes [out of the grave] completely on the last day.” From a sermon on November 3, 1532, WA 36:580, 13–581, 10: “Christianus ist bereits die helfft ex morte, quia vita eius est mors, quia, quando baptizatus, wird er gestossen in tod, … Christianus ist bereits gerurt und gestossen per verbum et baptismum in mortem, ut singulo momento expectet mortem propter Christum a morte.… Ideo dextero pede schon ex sepulchro. Et habet potentem adiutorem Christum, qui eum schon manu gefast.… Es ist noch umb den lincken schenckel zuthun, umb den alten sack, alioqui mher den die helfft, in extremo die gar.”

(50.) In a sermon reflecting on the holy passion of Christ, 1519, WA 2:140, 18–22.

(51.) From the shorter form of the Ten Commandments, of faith, and the Our Father (1520), WA 7:215, 1–6.

(52.) WA 32:266, 11–14: “Credo natum ex virgine dominum et Salvatorem forte Petro et Paulo wird er helff en, me non respiciet. Tum dicis quidem te ista credere, sed. Si etiam possibile, ut crederes, tamen non satis, adiuncta fi de, ut credas Tibi natum salvatorem.”

(53.) In the Small Catechism, 1529, Bekenntnisschriften, 511.

(54.) WA 7:25, 26–34 (LW 31:351).

(55.) WA 7:25, 34f.: “Die weyl Christus ist gott und mensch.” (LW 31:351.)

(56.) WA 7:25, 35f (LW 31:351).

(57.) See note 22.

(58.) WA 7:25, 26f. (LW 31:351).

(59.) “Verum quando verbum sonat, quod veritas est, et cor ei adhaeret per fidem, tunc cor imbuitur eadem veritate verbi et per verbum veritatis verificatur, Sicut si lignum frigidum adhaeret ferro ignito, ab eodem etiam ignescit et ardet. Corde autem sic per verbum imbuto mox et omnes vires et membra similiter immutantur. Hoc enim faciunt omnia membra, quo cor inclinatur sive bonum sive malum.” (From the Disputatio de fide infusa et acquisita of 1520, WA 6:94, 10–15.)

(60.) At this point, we can speak rightly of the performative power of the proclaimed gospel.

(61.) In Luther’s way of putting it in the interpretation of the third article of faith in the Small Catechism: “I believe, that I cannot from my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Ghost has called me by the gospel, sanctified and kept me in true faith” (Bekenntnisschriften, 511f.).

(62.) WA 23:151, 14–17, in the treatise, “that this word of Christ—that is my body, etc.—has yet to be determined against the enthusiasts” [Schwarmgeister], 1527.

(63.) In the treatise against Latomus: WA 8:86, 31 (Hervorhebungen S. R.): “Christus dum offerretur pro nobis, factus. est peccatum metaphorice”—since Christ was sacrificed for us, he becomes sin in a figurative sense. Somewhat later, Luther continues: “Et in hac translatione non solum est verborum, sed rerum metaphora” (WA 8:87, 6f.): And this act of transfer is not just a metaphorical manner of speaking, but rather an actual act of transfer (LW 32:195).

(64.) WA 40/I:284, 29–33 (pointing to Gal. 2:20): “Sic Paulus conatur nos prorsus abstrahere a nobis ipsis, a lege et operibus et in ipsum Christum et fi dem Christi transplantare, ut nihil plane spectemus in ratione iustifi candi quam gratiam et eam longissime separemus a lege et operibus, quae procul hic abesse debent” (LW 26:168).

(65.) WA 40/I:287, 28–30 (pointing to Gal. 2:20): “Mea naturalis vel animalis, et aliena, scilicet Christi in me. Secundum animalem meam vitam mortuus sum, iamque vivo alienam vitam” (LW 26:169f).

(66.) In more recent systematic theology, there has been more reflection on this insight, particularly through recourse to semiotics. On the reception of semiotic concepts, cf., for example, Martin Vetter, Zeichen deuten auf Gott: Der zeichentheoretische Beitrag von Charles S. Peirce zur Theologie der Sakramente (Marburg: Elwert Verlag, 1999).

(67.) In the treatise Vom Abendmahl Christi. Bekenntnis, WA 26:509, 15f; LW 37:372.

(68.) Cf. Christian Danz, “‘Und sie werden hingehen: Diese zur ewigen Strafe, aber die Gerechten in das ewige Leben’ (Mt. 25,46): Überlegungen zur Funktion und Bedeutung des Letzten Gerichts in der protestantischen Theologie,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie 53 (2011): 71–89, especially 73–79.

(69.) Cf. Wilfried Härle, Dogmatik (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2012), 643.

(70.) Rüdiger Gebhart, Heil als Kommunikationsgeschehen: Analysen zu dem in Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre implizierten Wirklichkeitsverständnis (Marburg: Elwert Verlag, 2002).

(71.) Rolf, Zum Herzen sprechen.