Man cannot be genuinely motivated by any ethical force except beauty, yet so long as man remains under the Law, all attempts to obediently fulfill the Law are stained with a particular ugliness that human nature cannot escape. Scripture rightly derides and chastises man’s love of beauty insofar as it stands against the Lord and his righteousness; however, it scarcely praises and admonishes us to admire beauty, because what is aesthetically pleasing in action, form, and thought already suffices to prompt us towards itself when we have been renewed. Beauty cannot be entirely separated, therefore, from human thought and philosophy, and the Scriptures in one place call the beautiful woman vain, and in another place ascribe vanity to human philosophy. Though this is no coincidence, we see also that God has made things beautiful as well, so that for us to ignore beauty is to ignore that skill which the Creator alone possesses. Now for us Lutherans, it may be tempting to want to commandeer the notion of beauty to prompt good works in a non-legalistic fashion, as having found a genuine motivation which cannot be displaced. We should, however, heed the warnings of Scripture and instead place no trust whatsoever in beauty, but rather with our understanding we may comprehend what is beautiful and with wisdom we may delight in and perceive it. Nevertheless, there remains in us no power by our own strength to marshal the aesthetic value of the creation as a force by which we might be reconciled to God in our actions. Instead, it is the fact that we are already reconciled that sanctifies the beauty in our existence. We do not mean to mesmerize ourselves with anything other than that awe which is rightly due to God on account of his greatness. However, since we have been freed to truly enjoy this freedom in a way that is beautiful by virtue of the skill of the Creator and accessible through faith in Christ and rendered graciously to us, in that time which has been granted to us to live in Christ, we may freely and happily apply ourselves to that aesthetic which properly belongs to us already in Christ. Now this aesthetic punctuates our ethics in the Law with something surpassing human understanding, and yet, it teaches us to apply our minds, bodies, hearts, and souls to God in reverent, unassuming faith.
So that we may not be deluded by the tempter, it is important to force out of our minds the understanding that relies on the power of beauty, as if we could be redeemed through our own application to it. This particularly nefarious and destructive temptation was not lacking in the beginning when Eve saw that the fruit was “pleasing to the eye.” Nor has God hesitated with deluge to reprimand his sons when before the flood they were found to be aware of earthly beauty, because we read that human culture soon overwhelmed divine doctrine in Genesis 6. “When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’” God had planned to destroy man on account of man seeing beauty in only an earthly sense. Now the Scriptures do not tell us, man thought that the daughters of earth were beautiful. No, they saw that the daughters of earth were beautiful. Thus, they made a decision based on that beauty. So also, human free will cannot incline itself towards divine things. In the same way as a beautiful woman without discretion is like a pig with a gold ring in her snout, our free will must have theological discretion placed upon it. Our feelings in our flesh require the working of the Law to crush, trample, and expire our every haughty, self-righteous desire. Without that discretion, which comes from knowing our own sin, we cannot possibly pursue any good thing or be reconciled to God.
Yet if we must be crushed by the Law, on account of our inclination to this beautiful earthliness, then we cannot hope by that same inclination to find peace with God. God does not speak the Law unto us so that by it we may redirect ourselves to his glory. The Law kills, suffocates, and squeezes out our lives, leaving us as nothing but dust. We would be misunderstanding it if we said to ourselves: God’s Law is beautiful and good, therefore, my desire for it must be meritorious. This is where and how we particularly become befuddled. That God’s Law is beautiful and good ought to indeed catch our attention. It is more beautiful, in fact, than those daughters of earth by which the primordial man was absconded. For as the letter lamed of Psalm 119 declares: “Forever” the Word of the Lord is set in the heaven, and heavens are finer and more beautiful than earths. Merely to desire something beautiful can in no way prove meritorious. Otherwise, God would have praised men for desiring “the daughters of earth.” To be affected by the beautiful does not redeem us or perfect us. God does not call his Son the “beautiful” servant, but the “suffering” servant. Sin must be suffered not beautified. Its particular mark is that it does not glorify God with any scent of beauty. Our sinful stain does not bring glory to the Father, it rather sunders us and makes us enemies of God. Now if someone with such a stain on a nice shirt or outfit of some sort were to appear smiling in a picture, it would only result in laughter not beauty. So also, human efforts to appease God with sanctifying our lives through our efforts do not in fact even amuse him so much as provoke him to wrath. For the truly human beauty which does not arise at peace with God is nothing more than a false and unclean sacrifice, a strange fire to be offered before the Lord. Accordingly, there is no make up or cosmetic application to make us worthy before God; there is only the death of human nature to end our uncleanness.
I scruple therefore and wonder whether there is any theological value in the adoration of “life” as an abstract principle, because human life should, by all means, first be cleansed by Baptism before it attempts anything at all. One might as well as say that we simply value ethics in the church if we are going to go around parading about life too much. It was not Christ’s life alone, but his death and resurrection that transformed us. Life indeed belong to Christ. Christ is life. In him is life, and so for us to speak of human life apart from him as something credible would be devaluing Scripture, the Word, and Christ himself. If the merit of life rests in Christ alone, then it does not rest in our trips to the park for softball or in our vocations, i.e., sans Christ., but only in those things which by reference to Christ may be conceived of in his light and truth as life. For he says that he come that we may have life. Not, that is, so that we may be deprived of it. So he comes to fill us with his life, not to tax our already valuable lives for the purpose of developing the kingdom of God into a great economy. Our situation is that of an indebted man who has been set free, not that of a hard worker who has paid his dues. So also, our lives are not valuable in themselves. Were we to die, we would lose nothing. Our life is hidden with Christ. The value behind our being alive has already ascended to heaven, shall return on the Last Day, and live eternally; in him, therefore, we too shall live eternally. All of human life has been transformed by the entrance of the divine into its midst. Our purposeless existence is more noteworthy, now, than the baseball which Babe Ruth slammed or Grant’s Farm. For the baseball itself or the farm is nothing extraordinary versus other creatures, but when it is discovered that Babe Ruth hit a home run, the ball obtains a value external to itsself. When it is found that a plot of land was formerly cared for by a famous general, it obtains interest and worth it never had in itself. So too, we should not think: I am a morally valuable creature and have kept my value the way that is satisfactory to God. On the contrary, there would be no point in God’s saving us if he could not look down and say, “Ah, my Son has been there and suffered through it.” He therefore puts us in the museum dedicated to his Son, dedicated in the place he has gone to prepare for us. We are relics of his righteousness, obtained with his precious body and blood, and not at all to be forgotten or devalued in all eternity.
This too may sound and seem like a beautiful thing, i.e. what God does for us. This is the direction of our sanctification. Not that we from our flesh desire our own good and pursue it, but rather that we having hope according to these promises trust and rely on God’s salvation. Our present existence has therefore been accomodated to the Spirit which tells us these things, so that we no longer live according to the flesh. Now it is a vast mistake too frequently and readily made that we use this as a lemma for why we should not sin. This is not the lemma but the theorem itself; it is a kind of downpayment on eternal life that for now too we live in the Spirit. In speaking, therefore, of the present life God utters these words through King Solomon: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannotfind out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” In this sense, we the redeemed saints of God can appreciate God’s creation and our present life without shame. We may take wives, have jobs, pursue goals, and acquire possessions and property without shame. Not that we are shameless, but that God has made this beautiful for us. If we want to contemplate the order of mathematics, trace out the details of plant life, and devise programs that provide functionality to our lives, we need not fear that God is angry with our efforts. This is because God has made this beautiful. If we pursue these ends, therefore, with ethical diligence, we need not persecute our efforts as legalism, pietism, or vanity. There is a beauty in these efforts which God himself causes. The reason, therefore, for which the apostles sternly warn against sin is not, itself, enmity with God that seeks for mollification but fear of God that is holy and desires that the working of God may not be lessened or obscured by sin. Now this is not, therefore, a question of merits so much as a question of aesthetics. The beauty of the Christian life is justified by the suffering of Christ, not its own aesthetic quality. Just as life (see the previous paragraph) I call sanctified by the presence and disbursement of Christ, so also, the present good deeds we pursue can be obtained through faith in an ethical and aesthetically pleasing way.
It would be both highly disadvantageous and completely foolish to deter men from pursuing this aesthetic worship of Christ which manifests in our lives, even if they operate for it in a legally critical way, from a trepidation against legalism or from a nascent anti-nomianism. Is there anything wrong with saying, “God’s Law forbids these actions, therefore I ought not to do them.” If you seek merits in that, of course there is something wrong, but if you, relying on Christ, pursue the aesthetic quality of obedience, then you are no longer living fo yourself but for Christ. This purported aesthetic does not exist at all, even if it is presumed by force of argument, without faith in Christ. Faith in Christ alone gives on the power to become a son of God and live this way. You cannot desire to do good (productively) without first knowing that you do evil. Then, you are not pursing the righteousness of your works, but their good; in the mean time, you are obtaining through faith the righteousness in Christ, not a present good. For the time being, we obtain suffering in Christ, not an excess or plethora of good. Consequent to our suffering is, indeed, a list of many good things, but it should not be thought of as non-suffering on that account. We must keep the proper sense of things un-obscured by psychologizations that add value for the purpose of obtaining perceived worth. The true worth of our lives comes from God; this is the inspiration for the pursuit of this beauty. Only faith allows us to conceive of and pursue this beauty, both in an intuitive sense and in an ethical nuanced way.
Our little Lutheranism, which has done so much good for us, therefore ought not to be deprived of this beautiful quality or this affectation with wonder for the beauty that is in her. We do not manifestly purchase this beauty with our credibility, we rather receive this credibility by hearing and through the means of grace. There is, indeed, someone’s perfection that comes to light in our midst, only it is not our own! But we become vessels not by imitation so much as through faith. We become vessels not in the way that Martha busied herself with doing deeds and had little time to hear, but rather we become filled with that light as the hearing of Christ’s mercy renews our sin-stricked corpses with his own righteousness. We are sinners, but we have been validated and perfected by talk. Yet this talk includes that we long for peace and diligently work for it. And peace has the aspect of the beautiful insofar as it is a reconciliation between things, just as the beautiful is a kind of perfection of things. So what good is freedom if we are oblivious to the good? And what is the good if it is not apparent in the beautiful? It is good to know, for example, what the Pythagorean Theorem shows us, for such knowledge is pleasant and beautiful to behold, as light. The light of God’s creation, by being beautiful, stimulates and breeds in us a desire fro the light of God’s grace, as Kepler thought. So it is good that after we have supped and tasted of this divine mercy, we would apply ourselves not to reticent indifference to beauty, but unto a hearty good work. But we know that our desire for this beauty cannot obtain that grace. Yet on this account shall we sin that grace may increase? No, for this concept reverberates precisely with how the matter has been taught to us by the holy apostles. Sin is a stain that has been borne by Christ; yet, let us not sin. Further, let us even uphold the Law, yet not in a functional way but in an aesthetic way. Even Walther says that a man may obey the Law in a mathematical way. The Law is not rejected for this purpose.
When we say, therefore, that there is a third use of the Law, we may, I submit, call this the aesthetic use. To say that it is a guide is not to make it into a source of merit. It is rather a guide the way that a teenage girl reads Cosmo to want to have a great experience. It is a guide to experiencing this brief, tenuous, vain life. It is not my purpose to insult the Law, but it must be illustrated what it is and is not capable of. But once you deprive the Christian of this use of the Law, that the Law can illuminate his present experience, then you only conjure up in him that whatever is sinful is just as beautiful as whatever is in accordance with the Law. Neither the sinfulness of man nor his whitewashed legalism obtained true righteousness, and we have a righteousness in the Gospel that exceeds that of the Pharisees, a righteousness that comes from Christ. But if we were to speak of the present experience, we have a consciousness of an ethical beauty that is desirable not for merits but in the light of the present moment. Such a law is as desirable in our circumstances as the rules of mathematics are for him who wants to determine the rate of of growth in sales.
Men feed off of the beauty of such analytics and it keeps them psychologically functional in an often deranged and impure world. Our goal is not to pick up and heave a great humanism, but to take away entirely that beauty is not Christian suffering but imbecility. Restore to the mind the concept of that beauty, and it will regain its sanity. Nebuchadnezzar went off and ate grass like a cow for years because of his pride. He could not distinguish between man and beast. He did not see the beautiful distinctions and acted like cattle. But the beauty and order of human life serves a philosophically valid task. In this purely practical and temporal species of thought, we should use and invoke ethical reflections. But if we glorify man in them, then we are fools. What is beautiful, rather, ought to be sought from God’s working. He is the creator who has made the lily to be clothed with such raiment. What he makes beautiful, therefore, let us not trample with superfluous meditations. For he has made things beautiful in their time, and he has put us in this time. If we therefore are hindered from enjoying his work, it will not draw us closer to him. For the truest stimulant to our appetite for God’s grace is and must remain wonder at our Creator’s power, beauty, and sublime glory.