What follows here is a continuation of a message from the Theology of the Cross series, The Christian’s Most Precious Treasure. That article provides more background on the opus alienum and opus proprium of God, which are two “perspectives” on why God does the things he does, and why they don’t seem quite “God-like” to us.
God humiliates man, in order that he may justify him; he makes man a sinner, in order that he may make him righteous – and both aspects of this matter are increasingly seen by Luther as works of God. Although Luther initially appears to have believed that man humbled himself, there are clear indications in the later stages of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms] that he is moving towards a more theocentric understanding of the various aspects of justification. God induces in man a state of total humiliation – a term which Luther prefers to ‘humility’, on account of the latter’s associations with the monastic virtue of humility – and then he accepts this as the righteousness which he demands of man if he is to be justified. Once Luther has grasped the fact that it is God who takes the initiative in Justification, and that he must be regarded as active rather than passive at every stage of the process, he is increasingly obliged to recognize the problems which are raised by this assertion. It is not man who humbles himself – it is God who humbles him. Even in the earlier stages of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms], where Luther allows man a greater role in his own justification, God is still seen as instigating man’s humiliation, even if man himself must cooperate with God if this humiliation is to be properly effected.
How does God humiliate man? Through the experience of the wrath of God, the threat of hell and eternal damnation, through Anfechtung and suffering. It is through experiencing the wrath of God that man is humbled, and forced to concede that he cannot, by himself, stand in the presence of God – and thus he turns to God in his helplessness and hopelessness, and by doing so, is justified. Paradoxically, it is thus through God’s wrath that his mercy is able to operate, in that man would not seek that mercy unless he knew how much he needed it. It is considerations such as this which lead Luther to distinguish two aspects of the work of God in justification. Even at the earliest stages of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms], Luther may be found to employ the concepts of the opus alienum [“the work alien to God”] and opus proprium [“the proper work of God”] to deal with this paradox…. While the impenitent taste nothing but the severity of the wrath of God, the penitent recognize the merciful intention which lies behind it, in that they discern that it is intended to move them to repentance, humility and faith, and thus to receive the grace of God. God, having ordained that he will bestow grace upon the sole precondition of humility is obliged to stand by his primordial decision – and thus, if man is to receive grace, he must meet this condition. The intent underlying the opus alienum Dei is to enable man to fulfil this precondition, and thus to receive the grace of the merciful God who is hidden in his strange work. As we showed on the basis of our analysis of the soteriology of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms] in the previous chapter, Luther appears to interpret fides Christi as sibi iniustus esse ita coram Deo humilis [“unjust to him to be humble before God”], where fides Christi is the righteousness which God requires of man if he is to be justified.
If man is to recognize his own unrighteousness, and thus be moved to humility he must first be forced to concede his own utter unworthiness, and the futility of his situation, if left to his own devices. The merciful intention of the opus alienum thus becomes clear, although this may only be recognisable to faith…. The Word of God, by passing its severe judgement upon man, makes him a sinner, and thus executes the opus alienum – but in that this moves man to cry out to God for mercy and grace (which are immediately forthcoming!), it indirectly executes the opus proprium.
It is of considerable significance that Luther later illustrates the concepts of the opus alienum and opus proprium in the Heidelberg disputation with specific reference to the justification of the sinner: ‘thus an action which is alien to God’s nature results in an action which belongs to his very nature: God makes a person a sinner, in order to make him righteous.’ The fundamental insight, recognized by faith alone, is that God’s wrath is his penultimate, and not his final, word.