We tend to think about enthusiasm as a good thing. For Martin Luther, however, an enthusiast was someone who looked to himself as the source of his religious devotion. That may sound like Luther was referring to those who say things like, "God is within." One might also think of fanatics, or of "Holy Rollers." Luther's use of the word enthusiasm had a much broader meaning than that:
In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world. Its venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent. It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy....
Pretty strong words. All heresy? But they get even stronger:
God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit-without the Word and Sacraments-is the devil himself.
The devil himself? Wait a minute. I felt that God told me that I was going to have boy when I was pregnant, and I had a boy. That must have been God! I felt like God told me to drive down that street, and I saw someone in need. That had to have been God!
The truth is, it might have been God, it might not. You do have a 50/50 chance of being right if you think you know if you are going to have a boy or girl (assuming you didn't peek). And, there are a lot of people in need, on a lot of streets. But it is the devil himself if we think that we have an exclusive line of communication to God, even in the little things. Why? Doesn't my hearing from God show my trust in the Lord, my growing relationship with him? Luther points out:
God wanted to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word [Exodus 3:2-15]. No prophet, neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments or the spoken Word. John the Baptist was not conceived without the word of Gabriel coming first, nor did he leap in his mother's womb without Mary's voice [Luke 1:11-20, 41]. Peter says, "For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" [2 Peter 1:21]. Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy. Much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak when they were still unholy. They were holy, says he, since the Holy Spirit spoke through them.
The outward Word is not an inferior Word. It is the only Word that we can cling to as true, and it is the Word that gives to us the forgiveness of sins. Jesus said, "Already you are clean because of the Word spoken to you." John 15:3. It doesn't get any better than that! Am I saying that God does not lead us in our daily lives? On the contrary, relying only on the external, written, objective Word of God frees us from fear so that we can respond to Him in love, and serve our neighbor. If I am stuck at Wal-mart praying about what kind of toothpaste to buy, afraid that God will be mad at me if I don't hear him correctly, I am not trusting him and there is not much energy or time left to love my neighbor (I am not saying that we can't pray about toothpaste, but if Crest and Colgate cost the same, pick one! God will guide and care for you no matter which one you choose!). I realize that is an extreme example, but the dynamics are the same if we look to our own devotion, or our own inner "hearing and movements" as the Holy Spirit Himself. This type of enthusiasm certainly leads us away from Christ and ironically, back to focusing on ourselves, where we began. This is deadly, and as Luther said, is the devil himself. I thank God that Christ died for the sins we commit when we are trying to be religious. And it is His Word, not ours, that makes us holy.
Luther quotes taken from "Smalcald Articles", Article IIX, 9-12, from Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions, Reader's Edition, Paul McCain, General Ed., 2006.