Meta-Exegesis on Spirit and Law

The following is a bit of meta-exegesis, which is to say that instead of providing and explanation of a religious text (exegesis), I am providing a commentary on another person’s explanation of a religious text. Although, what I offer is not so much a commentary but rather me wrestling with and processing another person’s exegesis. The exegesis comes from Luther’s preface to Romans, which has had a profound influence on the shape of modern Christianity. And so, without further ado, I give thee Luther’s text:

In chapter 7, St. Paul says, “The law is spiritual.” What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. But no one can give such a heart except the Spirit of God, who makes the person be like the law, so that he actually conceives a heartfelt longing for the law and henceforward does everything, not through fear or coercion, but from a free heart. Such a law is spiritual since it can only be loved and fulfilled by such a heart and such a spirit. If the Spirit is not in the heart, then there remain sin, aversion and enmity against the law, which in itself is good, just and holy.

As I was reading the above selection from Luther, I was struck by Luther’s statement about the kind of heart which the Law requires if one’s deeds are to be acceptable to God. About this heart Luther states, “no one can give such a heart except the Spirit of God.” In processing this it occurred to me that when one lives independent of the Spirit such a one must become a law unto himself. Certainly this becoming a law unto oneself will be profoundly shaped by culture, but nonetheless, apart from the Spirit one falls into radical autonomy (self naming, self law-making), which is opposed to God, for He alone is the author of all things, who established the law of all things. In hearing this, I imagine it will be tempting for religious types, such as myself, to concur and to therefore think that our business as humans is to bring our being into conformity with God’s law. This would be wrong. Why? Because it would still be the product of our autonomy, even if it is an autonomy directed toward compliance with God’s laws. We, in-and-of ourselves can not bring about the kind of conformity God desires.

The thing is, God never intended humanity to live independent of his Spirit; we were always meant to have our hearts in the hands of the Spirit, so that by the Spirit’s intimate influence we would, as a matter of course, be shaped more and more into God’s likeness. God constituted us to be precisely that kind of creature that at root functioned through the movement of the Spirit. It is this reality, the move of the Spirit in the depths of our being, that we lost in the Fall, and it is this reality that we recover through faith, and are immersed into by baptism. In this light, it could be said that Christians are not called to live in conformity to the Law, but rather are called to live out the reality of their baptism, which is to say that they are called to live by faith, which is to further say that Christians are called to trust the Spirit to work out the life of Christ in them, a life of which the Law is a mere shadow.

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