Martin Luther, in his biting text The Bondage of the Will, states, “The highest degree of faith is to believe that [God] is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many . . . If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just there would be no need for faith.”
Viciously responding to Erasmus’s peaceful diatribe about free will’s necessity, Luther, the man responsible for beginning the Protestant Reformation, explicates an essential truth about the Christian faith. To note, this truth is for faith in Christ, not merely faith. The latter finds its perfecting sustenance in Christ, while the former hopes to find it in fallen humanity. But why is this distinction necessary? The truth that Luther delineates throughout his text is about Christ, not about us. It is about His perfection, not humanity’s vain striving towards our own perfection.
This delineated truth: to live humbly within the throughs of paradox. This term, commonly found within a high schooler’s English class, does not merely describe something or somone in contradictory terms. Paradox brings unsuspecting and invariably contradictory words together. What happens when we see God through this lens? Luther does just that, bringing His mercy and wrath together. But paradox doesn’t simply ‘bring’ contradictory elements together; it fuses them in truth. So for Luther to bring God’s love and God’s judgment together is for this 15th century theologian to beautifully unite judgment and love. Confused? Rightfully so. Luther is quick to remind us that this confusion, or lack of understanding, is necessary for faith in Christ. That without the discontinuity between God’s love and His wrath, His providence and our free will, etc. we would have no room in which to exercise faith.
As faith’s object is that which cannot be seen, or the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, there must be a platform upon which this faith can be practiced. That platform is paradox. Rather than stifle the glory of God by placing his divine qualities withincategories of ‘either-or’, paradox allows His qualities to be described using ‘both-and.’ Neither merely loving nor only wrathful, God is both loving and wrathful. And because paradox allows for these contradicting qualities to not only coexist but unite, our faith in Christ becomes richer as His nature is magnified beyond our narrow understanding.
What does paradox look like when practically applied? Though not necessarily fit for pragmatics, paradox is helpful in our individual and communal applications of faith. In supplication, paradox allows us to come before God knowing both our own corruption and His love for us. With only one or the other, our supplicating lacks God’s redemptive love or it lacks His hate for sin. In worship, paradox allows us to praise God as both an individual and a community, a sinner in a crowd of the sinful. In relationships, we come to others as both fallen and redeemed, understanding that they, as humans, are capable of this duality as well. And in self-reflection, we can better understand the unique relationship between our intellect and love, the unique combination by which we view everything. Ultimately rest in this paradox: “And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me. For I am His, and He is mine.”