Anfechtung. This German word is extremely difficult to translate precisely into English, however, it is an extremely important word in Martin Luther’s theological understanding. While there is no single word, or even group of words, that fully translate for us the meaning of anfechtung, it touches on a person’s feelings of extreme anxiety, fear, despair and understanding of the self unable to pass muster before God. This anxiety causes the individual to feel lost and helpless in relation to God’s call to be righteous. Luther vividly felt the consequences of his sin, of his separation from God caused by his inability to fully be the person God wished he would be. These bouts of anfechtung, of extreme anxiety and despair were, for Luther, forms of temptation which drove him from believing the promises of God because he, Luther, could never be good enough to deserve them. Luther’s bouts of anfechtung were titanic struggles within himself for, he believed, his very soul. How could he ever hope to live up to the expectations of God? No matter how hard he tried, he understood fully that he lived his life grasped by the power of sin and incapable of fulfilling the requirements of the law which he found in Scripture. In the midst of this anxiety and doubt Luther was left to despair that he never could reach for and grasp the salvation he so dearly wished could be his. Luther fully could understand St. Paul describing this separation from God in Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (7:15)
As we celebrate Reformation Sunday this month, we are drawn to the events that led Luther to call for a new way of understanding our relationship with God, which, as Luther fully came to understand, was not new, but was proclaimed in Scripture. We also look at the Reformation and at Luther to see where we, even today, find connection and common ground. We, too, if we are honest, realize that we fall far short of what God would want us to be, and that we, as sinful humans, are incapable of overcoming our sin and making ourselves righteous. So, we are left with despair in our relationship with God, except for the Gospel message that proclaims another story. “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3: 22b-26).
This piece of Scripture, which will be part of our second lesson on Reformation Sunday, describes the antidote to Luther’s anfechtung. Yes, we are sinners. That is the truth. But God chooses to restore our relationship as a gift, by grace, through Christ. Luther came to understand that salvation doesn’t come from what we do or don’t do, but from what Christ already has done and continues to do in and for us. Because of Jesus, God sees us as righteous and considers our relationship restored. We hear this message and, through the Holy Spirit at work in us, come to understand it as truth. This is faith, and in this faith we live the reality of our restored relationship with God. This new realization for Luther became the salve for his anfechtung wound. He still had his doubts, his bouts of anxiety and despair, but by constantly recalling the Gospel message of salvation through Jesus, Luther was able to pull himself out of the abyss and find comfort and solace and life in the good news. It is this understanding of Gospel as divine gift that has been passed down to us generation after generation as our traditional center for theology and practice in the Lutheran Church. It is our comfort and solace, the salve for our wounds and the very presence of Christ in our lives. We are sinners. This is true. But it also is true that through Jesus, God reconciles us, restores our relationship, and gives us the gift of life in his name.