Preaching with Luther in October 



Preaching with Luther in October

October 6, 2013 - Lectionary 27


 In 1532, Luther preached on today's Epistle lesson, focusing especially on 1 Timothy 1: 5-7. In this text he found the "sum of the Christian life" in pure love: the pure love of God received by faith in Christ who is the act of God's pure love and the pure love that now lives for others in the world in those who by faith in Christ has received God's pure love. But to live in this love, in a world full of lovelessness that still seeps and creeps still into hearts of believers, we need to distinguish the judgment of God's love on lovelessness from the mercy of God's love in Christ.


God is love. For Luther, to be God is to give.


"True love flows from a pure heart. God has commanded me to let my love go out to my neighbor and be kindly disposed to all, whether they be my friends or enemies, just as our heavenly Father himself does. He allows his sun to rise and shine on the good and evil and is most kind to those who are constantly dishonoring him and misusing his goods through disobedience, blasphemy, sin, and shame. He sends rain on the grateful and the selfish [Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35] and gives even to the worst rascals on earth many good things from the earth, and money and possessions besides. Why does he do this? Out of sheer, pure love, of which his heart is full to overflowing, and which he pours out freely over every one without exception, be he good or bad, worthy or unworthy. This is a real, divine, total, and perfect love, which does not single out one person nor cut and divide itself, but goes out freely to all." (Luther's Works 51: p. 267).


In this way of pure love, then, true children of God are to be perfect as is their Father in heaven. This perfect and pure love, Luther continues following the text of 1 Timothy, proceeds from a "good conscience." A good conscience is not a dead one or an easy one, but none other than the conscience that appears in the Sermon on the Mount from which Luther had just quoted, the conscience that lives before God who knows in secret and sees in secret. This "conscience" is the "judgment of love." To receive it in "good conscience," however, one must know about another judgment of love, the judgment of mercy which is the justification of the sinner by faith in Christ.  So he continues:


"Even though I may have lived a good life before men, let everything I have done or failed to do remain there under the judgment seat as God sees fit, but, as for me, I know of no other comfort, help, or counsel for my salvation except that Christ is my mercy seat, who did no sin or evil and both died and rose again for me, and now sits at the right hand of the Father and takes me to himself under his shadow and protection, so that I need have no doubt that through him I am safe before God from all wrath and terror. Thus faith remains pure and unalloyed, because then it makes no pretensions and seeks no glory or comfort save in the Lord Christ alone. The man who can do this will be the justified man... Therefore, keep these two widely separated from each other, as widely as ever you can, so that neither can approach the other: on one side your life and holiness and the judgment seat, which demands and drives you to have a good conscience and live rightly toward men, but on the other side your sin before the mercy seat, where God will lovingly welcome you and take you into his arms like a beloved child with all your sins and frightened conscience and will no more remember any wrath. See, if that is the way faith were preached, men would be justified and all the rest, a pure heart and good conscience through genuine, perfect love, would follow. For the man who through faith is sure in his heart that he has a gracious God, who is not angry with him, though he deserves wrath, that man goes out and does everything joyfully. Moreover, he can live this way before men also, loving and doing good to all, even though they are not worthy of love. Toward God, therefore, he stands in a relationship of certainty that he is secure for Christ the Mediator's sake, that he does not wish to cast him into hell, but rather lovingly smiles upon him and opens heaven for him." (Luther's Works 51: pp. 282-3).


October 13, 2013 - Lectionary 28

In 1521 Luther published an expanded sermon on the story of the Healing of the Ten Lepers in Luke 17:5-10 in which he found a summation of "the entire Christian life with all its events and sufferings." "In this leper it teaches us faith, in Christ it teaches us love... faith and love constitute the whole character of the Christian. Faith receives, love gives. Faith brings man to God, love brings man to his fellow. Through faith he permits God to do him good, through love he does good to his brother man."


On the basis of the spreading report of Christ's goodness, says Luther, the ten lepers were bold to appeal to Him for mercy. This boldness is already the beginning of their healing. Faith is not "a sleepy, lazy thing in the soul... but a living and powerful thing... It creates wholly a new heart, a new man, who expects all grace from God... makes bold to cry and pray in every time of trouble." Faith is bold because "Christ teaches us to love" not by words alone but by being God's love to us, just as if Christ said to the lepers: "Through me in faith you now have everything that I am and have; I am your own, you are now rich and satisfied through me..."


The love of Christ, he continues "naturally teaches us how to do good works. For they alone are good works which serve your neighbor..." Ora et labora, prayer and labor: "our work is called love, our faith is called prayer." Faith without works is dead. Indeed, Luther criticizes religious works as doing no good at all: "Cursed be he who lives and works only for himself" by trying to earn salvation through "self-chosen" works of devotion, "for Christ did not wish to do his own will nor live for himself!" Such good work that benefit others is what faith permits Christ to do for oneself and thus goes on to return to others.


Luther thus sees in the return of the Samaritan leper to give thanks a model of sanctification, "the increase and perfection of faith" through trials and testing.

 Sanctification consists in the "returning" to give God alone the glory for all His rich mercy in Christ. The "returning means, to bring home again to God the grace and goods receives... not to cling to God's gifts, but only to himself who gives them," the Giver of the gifts.


Thus Luther speaks of sanctification as a transformation of affects, a new and "lovely disposition" that tastes and sees the goodness of the Lord in opposition to the idols and demons that captivate desire in the world of malice and injustice. In this way the return of glory to God alone de-divinizes the world. Soli Deo gloria is a profoundly (not shallowly partisan) political act. Sundays and Seasons then is right on target today in suggest that the return of thanksgiving is "a true eucharist" opposed to all the other sacrifices still demanded in blood and treasure by the powers of this world. (Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicolas Lenker, 8 volumes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprinted 1983] V: pp.60-101).


October 20, 2013 - Lectionary 29

In the culminating work of his theological life, the Commentary on Genesis that took a decade to compose, Luther was willing to take up the difficult story of Jacob's battle at the Jabbok.


"This passage is regarded by all as among the most obscure passages of the whole Old Testament. Nor is this strange, because it deals with that sublime temptation in which the patriarch Jacob had to fight not with flesh and blood or with the devil but against God Himself. But that is a horrible battle when God Himself fights and in a hostile fashion opposes His opponent as though on the point of taking away life. He who wishes to stand and conquer in this struggle must certainly be a holy man and a true Christian. Accordingly, this story is obscure because of the magnitude of its subject matter, and because of its obscurity all other interpreters pass it by. It would also be permissible for us to pass it by. But we shall still say what we can." (Luther's Works 6: p. 24).


He is willing to tackle the story because he thinks it tells a great truth about spiritual suffering and what is true pastoral counsel and consolation. "These matters must be dealt with carefully for the sake of those who will be future pastors of the churches," he writes. "For there will always be some who will suffer these temptations. They should be cheered up and strengthened by the voice of the pastors in this manner: "In like manner [as Jacob, according to Luther], have confidence, my son; believe that you have been baptized, that you have been pastured and fed in the Lord's Supper and absolved by the laying on of hands, not mine, but God's, who has said to you: 'I forgive you your sins; I promise you eternal life.' " The revealed God in Christ, then, can and must prevail, as Jacob prevailed in the wrestling match who would not let go until he got the blessing, over the hidden God who "appears in hostile form."


Indeed, if "we retain the grammatical, or historical, sense," and resist the temptation to allegorize away the offense, the "obscurity" in the story is that here "God appears in hostile form." "The chief significance of this story, then, is the example of perfect saints and of temptations in high degree, not against flesh, blood, the devil, and a good angel but against God appearing in hostile form. For although Jacob does not know who this man is, he nevertheless feels that he has been forsaken by God or that God is opposed to him and angry with him." Indeed, Jacob's foe, Luther opines, "the wrestler, is the Lord of glory, God Himself, or God's Son, who was to become incarnate and who appeared and spoke to the fathers." When God appears in hostile form -that is, as disincarnate, not as the baby in the manger, the man on the imperial stake-- Luther writes, "the afflicted heart complains that it has been forsaken and cast off by God. This is the last and most serious temptation to unbelief and despair, by which the greatest of the saints are usually disciplined... But before we reach this stage [of Jacob who prevailed by faith in the incarnate God], life may be a trying experience."


 Luther imaginatively depicts the spiritual struggle: "Undoubtedly, the [attacker] sounded forth with terrifying voice, saying: "You must perish, Jacob; you are in for it!" To this Jacob would have replied: "No! that is not God's will. I shall not perish!" Yes and no there assailed each other very sharply and violently. Such things cannot be adequately expressed by word of mouth, especially when God Himself is saying: "You will perish!" and the spirit shouts back: "I shall not perish, but live... I may be pushed, assailed, and thrown down, yet I shall not die." So they struggled with arms and words alike as two wrestlers usually do. But in the meantime, faith, too, joined the struggle by praying and crying... This was the crisis of the struggle, in which faith exerted itself more than the arms did by urging and repeating: "No, no, etc.! God has given me orders, called me, and sent me to return to my father-land; I shall not believe you nor agree with you. Even though God kills me, well, let Him kill me, but I shall still live." In this manner they employed different words at different times during the two hours."


In Luther's telling, faith prevailed and conquered God, when God appeared in hostile form. (Luther's Works 6: pp.  24-28). Sundays and Seasons does well here to connect the story of Jacob at the Jabbok with Jesus at Gethsemane, for there the Incarnate Word struggled and prevailed for us all.


October 27, 2013 - Reformation Sunday

We can't do better today than to recall the famous words from Luther's 1522 Preface to Romans, with but the following critical observation. The idea that Luther teaches a purely "forensic" righteousness externally credited to the believer's account that does not transform the person is belied by this text. For Luther, faith is the divine work and gift of the Holy Spirit; faith is the new birth, a beginning to be sure that is not yet completed. Accordingly God's does not "impute" the sin that still remains but forgives it. This is where forgiveness or non-imputation of sin comes in for Luther: because we have peace with God by Spirit-given faith in the righteousness of Christ from God for us, God does not count or reckon or impute the sin that remains. But we have peace with God because by faith the Spirit has changed us from unrighteous people into righteous ones. I have added italics to emphasize the transformative nature of faith as gift of the Spirit in this famous passage.


"But because we believe in Christ and have a beginning of the Spirit, God is so favorable and gracious to us that he will not count the sin against us or judge us because of it. Rather he deals with us according to our faith in Christ, until sin is slain. Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith. When they see that no improvement of life and no good works follow-although they can hear and say much about faith-they fall into the error of saying, "Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved." This is due to the fact that when they hear the gospel, they get busy and by their own powers create an idea in their heart which says, "I believe"; they take this then to be a true faith. But, as it is a human figment and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, nothing comes of it either, and no improvement follows.


"Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.


"Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God's grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire... Righteousness, then, is such a faith. It is called "the righteousness of God" because God gives it, and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ our Mediator, and makes a man to fulfil his obligation to everybody. For through faith a man becomes free from sin and comes to take pleasure in God's commandments, thereby he gives God the honor due him, and pays him what he owes him." (Luther's Works 35: p. 369).


Sundays and Seasons does well to suggest that the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification be lifted up today, since the convergence that it claims is possible when Lutherans self-critically return to Luther's actual teaching of faith as the Spirit's transformative work in believers.