Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 1)

What do you say to a congregation that has been influenced for change in a radical manner? In his first sermon on March 9 1522, Luther begins by laying down some ground rules for his Wittenberg congregation—many of whom had not seen him since he left for the Diet of Worms in April the previous year. Some of his congregation may have seen him a few months before this sermon after he grew a beard and temporarily travelled out of Wartburg Castle under the disguise and name of Knight George. But now they see him standing in front of them as a concerned pastor—albeit one with a price on his head, thanks to the Holy Roman Emperor. 

Luther commences his sermon with the reality of life, ‘The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me. Therefore every one must himself know and be armed with the chief things which concern a Christian. And these are what you, my beloved, have heard from me many days ago.’ Even in a world of turmoil and threats we cannot forget the need of personal salvation and the gospel. For this chief article must be foremost. In view of this, there are four things that Luther wanted his congregation to know. First, ‘we must know that we are the children of wrath, and all our works, intentions, and thoughts are nothing at all.’ Second, we must know that,‘God has sent us his only-begotten Son that we may believe in him and that whoever trusts in him shall be free from sin and a child of God, as John declares in his first chapter, ‘To all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ [John 1:12].And with respect to these two points Luther admits,I do not feel that there has been anything wrong or lacking. They have been rightly preached to you, and I should be sorry if it were otherwise. Indeed, I am well aware and I dare say that you are more learned than I, and that there are not only one, two, three, or four, but perhaps ten or more, who have this knowledge and enlightenment.’

However, it is on the third point that Luther begins to correct and rebuke his own beloved congregation, ‘we must also have love and through love we must do to one another as God has done to us through faith. For without love faith is nothing, as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 2 [13:1]): If I had the tongues of angels and could speak of the highest things in faith, and have not love, I am nothing. And here, dear friends, have you not grievously failed? I see no signs of love among you, and I observe very well that you have not been grateful to God for his rich gifts and treasures.’ Ouch! Luther certainly was not woke nor was he familiar with the need to be trendy and non-offensive (although he did still have his head shaved in the tonsure of a monk). Moreover, it seems evident that he had never heard of the church growth movement! This is not how you speak to your congregation if you want them to come back, is it? But wait there is more. He continues, ‘Here let us beware lest Wittenberg become Capernaum [cf. Matt. 11:23]. I notice that you have a great deal to say of the doctrine of faith and love which is preached to you, and this is no wonder; an ass can almost intone the lessons, and why should you not be able to repeat the doctrines and formulas? Dear friends, the kingdom of God—and we are that kingdom—does not consist in talk or words [1 Cor. 4:20], but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises. God does not want hearers and repeaters of words [Jas. 1:22], but followers and doers, and this occurs in faith through love. For a faith without love is not enough—rather it is not faith at all, but a counterfeit of faith, just as a face seen in a mirror is not a real face, but merely the reflection of a face [1 Cor. 13:12].’ For the Wittenberg congregation this must have been seemed rather harsh and it was probably unexpected. After all, their pastor has a reward on his head for his arrest or death. It was the Roman Church that has done this, so why can’t the congregation react violently, defiantly and even ignorantly against the Pope and his minions? Because what they are doing, they are not doing in love. They now know the gospel of justification by faith alone, but this gospel without love is mere gossip. A reaction to untruth and error with hate and violence is not truth.

What else do we and the Wittenbergers need?  ‘Fourthly, we also need patience. For whoever has faith, trusts in God, and shows love to his neighbor, practicing it day by day, must needs suffer persecution. For the devil never sleeps, but constantly gives him plenty of trouble. But patience works and produces hope [Rom. 5:4], which freely yields itself to God and vanishes away in him. Thus faith, by much affliction and persecution, ever increases, and is strengthened day by day. A heart thus blessed with virtues can never rest or restrain itself, but rather pours itself out again for the benefit and service of the brethren, just as God has done to it.’ It might be hard to admit, but our patience—or lack of it—with where the world is heading right now might be an indicator of our faith. Remember Luther has just come back from involuntary isolation in Wartburg Castle. The Church and Empire wanted him dead. How did he respond? How did Luther encourage Christians to respond? To know the gravity of our depravity, the sufficiency of our saviour, the love of God and the patience of faith even though we ‘must needs suffer persecution.’  After all, this is what Christ did for us.

See LW 51:70-75.

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