Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther

There is little overt religiosity in Luther, but in the vicarious representative action of John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God's preserving work in the world.

June 8th, 2012

The tagline for the British television series Luther asks, "What if you were on the devil's side without knowing it?" But a closer examination of what drives Luther in the series shows that a more appropriate question might be, "What if Luther is on God's side without knowing it?"

The case for John Luther as a moral hero is perhaps best illustrated by examining the dynamics of one of the plots developed throughout the second season, namely his interaction with the estranged daughter, Jenny. There are other themes and scenes, perhaps more visually evocative, that also warrant reflection. In the second series finale, for example, Luther douses himself in gasoline, risking the very real possibility of a horrific baptism by fire, in an attempt to minimize the damage posed by a suicide bomber. And one of the few instances of noteworthy religiosity in the series comes as an estranged mother and daughter meet in a church, a confrontation that has little to do with spiritual reconciliation and everything to do with the concrete brokenness caused by human sin.

But in John Luther's dealings with Jenny, we find out that what drives Luther is an overriding need to protect other people from injustice and harm, and even sometimes the consequences of their own sin and guilt. Just how "Lutheran" this impulse is becomes apparent when we examine the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.

The Lutheran Theology of Luther

The reformer Martin Luther is justly famous for his doctrine of vocation, or calling, and its implications for the Christian life. Luther understood vocation as a Christian's place of responsibility before God and for others in the world. One of the critical aspects of Luther's view of vocation was that we represent God to others in our service to them. He said that Christians act as masks or "coverings" of God (larvae Dei), the visual and physical representations of God's action on earth. In some real and deep sense, the hands of Christians serving others are the hands of God. Even non-Christians, in their roles in the social order, can be said to represent God's preserving action in the world.

Luther also understood the ambiguity inherent in any action undertaken in a fallen world. His doctrine of justification made it clear that on no account might humans presume to stand before God with a presumption of innocence or merit based on their own works. No matter how faithfully a Christian might work, or what good things a Christian might seek to do, none of this can justify us before God's righteous judgment. Our justification in this sense depends solely on the righteousness imputed to us on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

One of Luther's famous sayings in this regard is the curious imperative: "Sin boldly!" He quickly follows it up with a second command: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world." Luther then concludes with a clear statement about the moral ambiguity inherent in this world: "As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells."

The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes this Lutheran understanding of vocation and radicalizes it in his doctrine of "vicarious representative action" (Stellvertretung). In Bonoheffer's view, we act as representatives of God to one another precisely in our ability to take on, in a limited and provisional way, the guilt of others. For Bonhoeffer this action means that we live "for others," just as Christ lived, died, and was raised "for us." As Robin Lovin puts it, "Responsible action is a true imitation of Christ, a willingness to be despised and abused for the sake of those who have themselves been despised." This idea of vicarious representative action, of living for others in a deeply sacrificial way, is what animates the life and work of DCI John Luther.

Pierced for Our Transgressions

John Luther's willingness to suffer, to be despised, and even to be killed for the sake of others is manifest throughout the series. In a line of work that is characterized by the daily risk of life and limb, the risks Luther takes on a regular basis are foolhardy, at best. When Jenny Jones's mother, with whom Luther has a complicated history, comes calling, Luther finds himself unable to follow his safer judgment and remain uninvolved. He feels responsible in some way for the plight of Jenny, who after her father's death has become addicted to drugs and a victim ("actress" seems like the wrong word) in the pornography business.

Luther ventures onto the set just as filming is about to begin and (to put it delicately) "removes" Jenny from the situation. He follows through and delivers Jenny to her mother, and the task he had been asked to complete has been finished. But everything is not well. Jenny knows that living with her mother will not be healthy. She knows she needs help and she pleads with John to help her. Again, despite his "better" judgment, Luther cannot resist helping. He cannot bring himself to simply tell her, "Go and sin no more," and leave it at that. John Luther is thus in a very real way a natural lawman. His innate sense of justice and of obligation is so deep that he simply cannot stand by and leave broken things alone. He has to try to help, even if it means risking his reputation, his livelihood, and indeed his life.

Photo: Jordan Ballor

Get Your Hands Dirty

He ends up risking all three in Jenny's case. Those who run the porn ring have orchestrated the whole arrangement in order to get Luther into a position where he is exposed and compromised. At one point the gangsters nail Luther's hand to a table: Luther is literally pierced for Jenny's transgressions. He has put himself in this position willingly, knowing what it might cost. In the process, the gangsters do end up getting some leverage on Luther so that he has to appear to do their bidding, at least for a time.

To Luther's colleagues, Luther seems to have been compromised. When DS Erin Gray asks Luther's friend and protégë Justin Ripley about Luther's suspicious actions, Justin expresses full, even perhaps credulous, faith in Luther's fidelity. "There's loyalty, and there's naivety," says Gray. Justin responds, "There's a difference between getting your hands dirty and being dirty." Justin knows Luther, and he knows that Luther will risk getting his hands dirty in order to do what he feels morally obligated to do. Likewise Justin doesn't hesitate to get his own hands dirty to protect Luther. Luther's brand of responsible action is contagious, it seems.

Sin and God's Side

In this difference between "getting your hands dirty and being dirty," we have a seminal expression of Bonhoeffer's idea of vicarious representative action and Luther's idea of moral ambiguity. We don't always know when the line is crossed and we become dirty. But getting dirty, and even being dirty, is a risk we are bound to take, a risk we are bound to take in trust that it is not on the basis of our clean hands but rather on the redemptive work of Jesus that we might be justified. Jesus, in fact, is the exemplar of this vicarious representative action, the scapegoat of the Old Testament, who takes on the sins of others. As the Apostle Paul writes, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Because of Christ's atoning work, we are free to risk getting our hands dirty.

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God's preserving work in the world.

As Bonhoeffer writes, in a creative modification of one of Luther's dictums, "God would rather hear the curses of the godless than the hallelujahs of the pious." And in the case of John Luther, it might just turn out that as a servant of justice in the world, amidst heartbreak and brokenness, this godless man is on God's side, even without knowing it.


Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is a general editor of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology (Lexham) and is the author and editor of numerous books.


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