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Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 4)

As a pastor returning to the mess that Karlstadt had begun – in trying to bring revolution – Luther explains the method he uses to decide whether something is to be considered ‘free’ or a ‘must’. Remember this is Luther’s third sermon having returned from Wittenberg from isolation in Wartburg Castle (although he probably didn’t have to wear a mask): ‘We have heard the things which are “musts,” which are necessary and must be done, things which must be so and not otherwise: the private masses must be abolished. For all works and things, which are either commanded or forbidden by God and thus have been instituted by the supreme Majesty, are “musts.” Nevertheless, no one should be dragged to them or away from them by the hair, for I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club. I said this plainly enough; I believe you have understood what I said…’

It seems that through Karlstadt’s influence some had sought to correct the forbidding of marriage by forcing Nuns and Monks to marry. This, Luther knew, was as wrong as the forbidding of marriage in the first place. How does Luther address this? ‘Now follow the things which are not necessary, but are left to our free choice by God and which we may keep or not, such as whether a person should marry or not, or whether monks and nuns should leave the cloisters. These things are matters of choice and must not be forbidden by any one, and if they are forbidden, the forbidding is wrong, since it is contrary to God’s ordinance. In the things that are free, such as being married or remaining single, you should take this attitude: if you can keep to it without burdensomeness, then keep it; but it must not be made a general law; everyone must rather be free. So if there is a priest, monk, or nun, who cannot abstain, let him take a wife and be a husband, in order that your conscience may be relieved; and see to it that you can stand before God and the world when you are assailed, especially when the devil attacks you in the hour of death. It is not enough to say: this man or that man did it, I followed the crowd, according to the preaching of the dean, Dr. Karlstadt, or Gabriel, or Michael. Not so; every one must stand on his own feet and be prepared to give battle to the devil. You must rest upon a strong and clear text of Scripture if you would stand the test. If you cannot do that, you will never withstand—the devil will pluck you like a parched leaf…Therefore I say, what God has made free shall remain free. If anybody forbids it, as the pope, the Antichrist, has done, you should not obey. He who can do so without harm and for love of his neighbor may wear a cowl or a tonsure, since it will not injure your faith. The cowl will not strangle you, if you are already wearing one...’

As an heir of the reformation I often look impatiently at Luther and wonder why he takes such a mediating role even though other reformers would later go further than Luther on some issues. This impatience, however, might even tempt me to run – not just fall – into the revolutionary trap of Karlstadt. But we have to remember that the reformation is in its early days. Luther himself is still in the process of reforming. However, I think the main reason for Luther’s ‘mediating’ tact here, is found in his recent discovery of justification by faith alone. What Luther did not want to do was to remove one erroneous ‘must’ (priests must not marry) only to replace it with another erroneous ‘must’ (priests must marry). Or, in other words, to remove one work and simply to replace it with another work. For both these attitudes contradict the theology of grace and justification by faith alone. This should help us to understand Luther at this point.

Now, the reformed churches would go onto modify this method of working out what is free and what is a must. In general, Luther would say what God has said is a must – is a must. But with what God has not said is a must – therein is freedom. The reformed tradition would generally agree with this if applied as a general principle. However, when it comes to worship, the reformers would understand ‘must’ and ‘free’ slightly differently. ‘Must’ and ‘free’ must be interpreted through the lense of what God has explicitly said and commanded, and only what God has commanded must be done in worship. If God is ‘silent’ on something, Luther might give the freedom to do it, whereas the later reformers—in view of worship in particular—where God is silent, so must we be (i.e. it does not automatically give us the right to practice it, for example like the lunacy of waving of flags in worship etc.). This is where the regulative principle of worship comes in. For example, if God hasn’t commanded us to wear a cowl in worship, the reformers would say we must not wear it. Whereas Luther would say it isn’t forbidden so it is free with regard to conscience. I do however, agree with the reformers here. How we worship our holy God has never been left up to us to decide for ourselves. The worship of God must follow only what God has commanded.

The regulative principle of worship can be justified to support a number of different things, so we should be careful how we come to our conclusions. But what we can learn from Luther here, is that we must not replace a law-work with another law-work, and that our conclusions must – to the best of our ability – be drawn from Scripture (or be deduced by good and necessary consequence) so that we stand on them in good conscience.

LW 51:79-84

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Resurrected to Freedom…

For many millions around the globe, this weekend is the time we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus points us to the resurrection that awaits us all – whether to death or to life (John 5:29). It points us to the one through whom life comes, and this by faith: “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in Me will live, even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26)

The role of the original apostles was tied to the resurrection. Being a firsthand witness to the resurrection was a mandatory qualification to be an apostle. Yet for the apostles, witnessing the resurrection was not only their qualification but it was also their message that they were first hand qualified to preach and teach (Acts 1:22).

The apostles preached that King David foresaw the resurrection (Acts 2:30-31). Yet, their preaching and teaching of the resurrection caused a great disturbance among David’s people. The religious hated the apostles (Acts 4:2) and the philosophers thought they were strange (Acts 17:18), while others merely mocked (Acts 17:32). Yet, all along the Holy Spirit empowered them with signs and wonders to preach (and confirm) the resurrection (Acts 4:31). Thus, the message of the resurrection caused believers to distribute their wealth and care for the needy (Acts 4:34-35) because it literally changed their lives.

The message of the resurrection also comes with it a command to repent because God will judge the world. God’s appointed judge has been verified as Jesus by the very sign of his resurrection from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). The resurrection gives God’s people hope, and this hope brought the Apostle Paul to trial (Acts 23:6; 24:15, 21). We have light because of the resurrection (Acts 26:23) and the resurrection declares that Jesus truly is the Son of God i.e., God in the flesh (Rom 1:4). The resurrection also gives us confidence to live for Him, because if we are united with him in death we will be united with him in resurrection (Rom 6:5).

But sadly as many of these millions celebrate the resurrection, there will be, in fact, many who celebrate their bondage to sin. Why? Because there are many who wish to celebrate the resurrection without faith in Jesus and what he actually achieved for us on the cross and through the resurrection. He “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). There are many who think repentance – if they even talk of repentance – is merely admitting that we are not perfect like everyone else. There are others who celebrate the resurrection with a different Jesus or a different gospel – a gospel which includes our cooperation or contributing works in order to be made right with God.

If we are not celebrating the biblical resurrection we are like prisoners of war in a prison camp cheering at the allies’ deliverance of a neighbouring POW camp – without realising the fact that they will not be coming to deliver our camp. How miserable we would be in the day of judgement, if that is us.

The resurrection is too important to get wrong and too wonderful to miss. I pray this weekend, we will celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the place of deliverance not the place of imprisonment, condemnation and captivity.

May you be able to say with Apostle Peter, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3–5)