David Wells on Luther’s Anxiety: God’s Wrath & Grace


Prof. David F Wells wrote God in the Wasteland as part 2 of four boelanoks that were (are) a tour-de-force examination of what is typically referred to as ‘evangelicalism.’ That’s a rather nasty term, and I dislike it precisely because it has no concrete referent. Be that as it may, Wells’ books are remarkable examination of where the church is and has gone wrong and where it will continue to go wrong unless a significant shift takes place soon. His newest volume The Courage to be Protestant  brings all the ideas together in one tidy place.

Anyhow, Wells comments on a certain Martin Luther’s struggles ‘before he came to a more biblical understanding of Christ and of justification. In many of his writings he speaks of his Anfechtung, the terrible burden of unrelieved anxiety that arose from his guilt and the seeming inaccessibility of God’s grace.” (127) Wells then quotes Luther:

Hell is no more hell, if you can cry to God…But nobody would ever believe how hard that is, to cry unto the Lord. Weeping and wailing, trembling and doubting, we know all about them. But to cry unto the Lord, that is beyond us. For our bad conscience and our sin press down on us, and lie so about our necks, so badly that we feel the Wrath of God: and the whole world could not be so heavy as that burden. In short, for our nature alone, or for the ungodly it is impossible to stand against such things and cry out to God himself, who is there in his anger and punishment and not go elsewhere.”

Wells concludes:

Nor did Luther find his approach to Christ to be any easier: “I knew Christ as none other than a stern judge, from whose face I wanted to flee, and yet could not,” he wrote. “I used to turn pale, when I heard the name Christ.” And again, “I have often been terrified by the name of Christ, and when I saw him on the Cross, it was a lightning stroke to me.” All of Luther’s anxiety was finally resolved by his discovery of Paul’s explication of the doctrine of justification and God’s complete conquest over his own wrath in the person of his Son, through whom freedom from judgment is offered by grace through faith.” (128 )

This is yet another example, a stunning example, of the need and importance of preaching God’s grace, not to the exclusion of God’s wrath, but in significant disproportion to it (at least 10:1). Even the mighty Luther, even he, was not completely overwhelmed, free, satisfied until he learned of God’s grace and rested in it.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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