The Aesthetic Beauty of the Gospel

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Mark Mattes:

To be human is to be captivated by someone or something, and this is no less true for Christians. We sing “Fairest Lord Jesus” because Jesus has captivated our hearts. We experience the gospel as beautiful—that God would reach out to rebels to forgive them, embrace them, and return them to his care.

But seldom do we explore how this gospel is beautiful.

Luther wouldn’t seem to be a go-to thinker for a theology of beauty. He’s known for his ferocious and desperate wrestling with God and conscience. Beauty, by contrast, conveys a sense of tranquility, delight, and pleasure. These words hardly seem compatible with the storms Luther faced.

But there’s another side to Luther. He had a deep appreciation for music and the visual arts. He played the lute, sang tenor, composed hymns, and was good friends with the Wittenberg painter Lucas Cranach. (He also inspired Bach.) This appreciation was undergirded by his conviction that the gospel is intrinsically beautiful.

Beautiful Cross

Luther’s theology of beauty grew out of his understanding of the gospel as God’s word of comfort and joy to repentant sinners. But this gospel isn’t attractive to everyone.

Luther distinguished this “theology of the cross” from the “theology of glory,” which can initially seem more enticing. In the theology of glory, sinners aren’t wholly in need of new birth; they can exercise some virtue that can help them ascend to God’s own goodness, beauty, and purity. But in the theology of the cross, God’s law isn’t a path to greater purity; it’s a mirror that exposes sin.

In this desperate situation, humanity needs God to redeem our ugliness. Here Luther drew the distinction between the “love of man,” which “comes into being through that which is pleasing to it” and the “love of God,” which “does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.”

Human love needs an object of beauty to spark it. God’s love, however, is inherently creative; it needs no such object. Out of the nothingness of sin and death, God creates new men and women in Christ, who trust in his mercy. God deems sinners beautiful for Jesus’s sake.

Beautiful Savior

Jesus has a special kind of beauty. Medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas came up with criteria for beauty based on light, color, proportion, and integrity or perfection. But for Luther, these standards don’t apply to Jesus Christ. Jesus was, as Isaiah tells us, “without form or comeliness” (Isa. 53:2). Indeed, he was deformed by sinners: stripped, beaten, scourged, crucified, and hung to die.

But Jesus didn’t just die as a victim of human violence. He also bore God’s wrath against sin, all so that sinners might be forgiven. Through Jesus’s atoning work, our sin is buried in a tomb never to be found again, even by God.

For Luther, Jesus’s atoning work is most beautiful. Jesus didn’t measure up to Aquinas’s standards, but he was beautiful according to those who saw beauty as paradoxical. One such thinker Luther read was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). Bernard didn’t approach beauty in the classical terms of analogy, which assumes a scale of beautiful things ascending to God, who is Beauty as such. Instead, Bernard defined beauty paradoxically, seen for example in his exegesis of the Song of Solomon, where the bride (the soul wedded to Christ) describes herself as dark yet comely (Songs 1:5). As sinners we’re ugly before God, but paradoxically, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we’re embraced by God for Jesus’s sake, and so are beautiful to God.

Sinners Beautified

Repentant sinners crave this beautiful word of forgiveness, and through it, grow in love for their heavenly Father. Their lives are transformed by the generosity awakened within them, which is then directed in love toward their fellow humans and creation.

Faith itself is markedly aesthetic. When sinners live solely by trust in God’s promise, they find their senses awakened. They appreciate creation as a sheer gift from God and receive it joyfully. Faith kindles wonder and evokes gratitude. This is the abundant life Jesus promises (John 10:10), not a life where everything is perfect, since crosses are set before us, but one open to the gamut of experience—the ups and downs—voiced in praise and lament as described in the Psalms.

Beauty in Christian Life

When sinners trust in God’s promise, they find their senses awakened. They appreciate creation as a sheer gift from God and receive it joyfully. Faith kindles wonder and evokes gratitude.

The God who redeemed us in a beautiful manner is also the God who crafted a beautiful world.

And so beauty guides our daily walk with Christ; we find unexpected delight in the details of our service to others, their service to us, and God’s presence in every inch of creation. Most importantly, in worship, we gather with angels, archangels, and all the hosts of heaven to enjoy Christ: we taste and see that he is good (Ps. 34:8).

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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