Weekly Devotions for 9/5

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. – Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSVUE)

In this final week of the summer series on Martin Luther’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, we turn to outward experiences. Many Lutherans are uncomfortable with talk of having an outward experience of the Holy Spirit. It seems too presumptuous or tied to talk of extraordinary experiences such as speaking in tongues. Yet Luther does insist that there is an outward component to the experience of the Holy Spirit. While the primary gift of the Holy Spirit is inward faith, it is accompanied by outward marks or fruit of the Spirit.  This fruit is secondary and does not bring with it salvation, but is rather a transforming work of the Spirit.  

The fruits of the Spirit, for Luther, are incredibly varied.  “So all these things are services and fruits of the Spirit.  Raising one’s children, loving one’s wife, and obeying the magistrate are fruits of the Spirit,” Luther holds. (WA 39 II, 239, 29-31)  Luther felt that in his day the Spirit no longer regularly gave gifts such as speaking in tongues or faith healings, but rather that these were gifts of the Spirit in biblical times.  He was thus distrustful of claims to the contrary. At the same time he was not in principle opposed to the idea that God may at some point resume giving such gifts. We must however be cautious with claims of gifts such as tongues or faith healings. In fact, we must be cautious about all experiences of faith.

There are two related reasons for Luther’s caution.  First of all, we can easily turn experiences into works or requirements of faith.  Too much emphasis on our experiences can risk us thinking that we must do something to create our faith or to earn our salvation.  Secondly, we can easily be deceived by experiences and think that they are authentic when they are not.  

Given these concerns, Luther insists that the outward function of the Holy Spirit does not ever contradict the inward experience of faith. True signs of the Holy Spirit do not need to add anything to the basic truth of the gospel, but rather work to confirm it.  They are a public witness so that others might see God’s grace and transforming power in our lives. The signs of the Holy Spirit that we can most reliably trust are our responding in faith to the preaching of the gospel, the promise of salvation in the reality of the sacraments of communion and baptism, and in our turning to care for our neighbor in need.  When we are inspired to faith through the sermon, when we trust that in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist we receive the Word of God that we have been saved, and when we are moved to feed the hungry and cloth the naked, then we can be assured that the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts.  Yet the key for Luther’s theology is that these things are always responses to the Holy Spirit inspiring our faith.