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Luther's Eight Sermons at Wittenberg

Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 6)

In Luther’s 5th sermon he begins to pick apart the incredible hypocrisy and contradictions of the papal man-made laws. For instance, he writes, ‘You have heard how I preached against the foolish law of the pope and opposed his precept, that no woman shall wash the altar linen on which the body of Christ has lain, even if it be a pure nun, except it first be washed by a pure priest. Likewise, when any one has touched the body of Christ, the priests come running and scrape his fingers, and much more of the same sort. But when a maid has slept with a naked priest, the pope winks at it and lets it go. If she becomes pregnant and bears a child, he lets that pass, too. But to touch the altar linen and the sacrament [i.e., the host], this he will not allow. But when a priest grabs it, both top and bottom, this is all right.’ Thus the implication is, a woman is not ‘clean’ enough to wash the altar linen while it is ok for a sexually immoral male priest to wash it…I am surprised the gender equality woke-activists haven’t picked this up! Luther was 500 years ahead!!

Luther preached against this foolishness, however he was concerned that his congregation had institued foolish ‘evangelical laws’ in place of the papal laws: ‘Against such fool laws we have preached and exposed them, in order that it might be made known that no sin is involved in these foolish laws and commandments of the pope, and that a layman does not commit sin if he touches the cup or the body of Christ with his hands. You should give thanks to God that you have come to such clear knowledge, which many great men have lacked. But now you go ahead and become as foolish as the pope, in that you think that a person must touch the sacrament with his hands. You want to prove that you are good Christians by touching the sacrament with your hands, and thus you have dealt with the sacrament, which is our highest treasure, in such a way that it is a wonder you were not struck to the ground by thunder and lightning. All the other things God might have suffered, but this he cannot allow, because you have made a compulsion of it. And if you do not stop this, neither the emperor nor anyone else need drive me from you, I will go without urging; and I dare say that none of my enemies, though they have caused me much sorrow, have wounded me as you have.’ What a way to speak to your congregation! But again, Luther is concerned about not making a ‘must’ out of something that is ‘free’. Whether the priest would place it in your mouth or whether you take it yourself with your own hands – what of it? Only do not make laws that Christ has not made. For freedom Christ has set us free…!

It goes to show that people who want to reform might be involved in reform – merely for the sake of reform. But we must reform and be involved in reform, not for the sake of reform itself, but for the sake of the gospel. Plenty of people love to be involved in protests, social change and in anything they can be a justice activist for, in order to give their boring life some meaning. However, if we reform for the sake of the gospel, we will be careful not to contradict the gospel in the pursuit of reformation. This is why Luther concludes, ‘Therefore no new practices should be introduced, unless the gospel has first been thoroughly preached and understood, as it has been among you. On this account, dear friends, let us deal soberly and wisely in the things that pertain to God, for God will not be mocked [Gal. 6:7]. The saints may endure mockery, but with God it is vastly different. Therefore, I beseech you, give up this practice.’

LW 51:88-91.

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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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Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 3)

Luther begins his second sermon with a summary of his sermon from the day before: ‘Dear friends, you heard yesterday the chief characteristics of a Christian man, that his whole life and being is faith and love. Faith is directed toward God, love toward man and one’s neighbor, and consists in such love and service for him as we have received from God without our work and merit. Thus, there are two things: the one, which is the most needful, and which must be done in one way and no other; the other, which is a matter of choice and not of necessity, which may be kept or not, without endangering faith or incurring hell. In both, love must deal with our neighbor in the same manner as God has dealt with us; it must walk the straight road, straying neither to the left nor to the right. In the things which are “musts” and are matters of necessity, such as believing in Christ, love nevertheless never uses force or undue constraint. Thus the mass is an evil thing, and God is displeased with it, because it is performed as if it were a sacrifice and work of merit. Therefore it must be abolished. Here there can be no question or doubt, any more than you should ask whether you should worship God. Here we are entirely agreed: the private masses must be abolished. As I have said in my writings, I wish they would be abolished everywhere and only the ordinary evangelical mass be retained. Yet Christian love should not employ harshness here nor force the matter. However, it should be preached and taught with tongue and pen that to hold mass in such a manner is sinful, and yet no one should be dragged away from it by the hair; for it should be left to God, and his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference. Why? Because it is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of men as the potter molds the clay and fashion them at my pleasure [Ecclus. 33:13]. I can get no farther than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach. And since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force any one to have faith. That is God’s work alone, who causes faith to live in the heart. Therefore we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it. We have the jus verbi[right to speak] but not the executio[power to accomplish]. We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.’

Even when something is truly wrong and unbiblical (like the mass) Luther warns against responding to it without faith in God and love for man. If we have faith in God when we respond, we cannot but be drawn to the absolute conviction that His Word alone is the only means of reformation. If we love our fellow man, we will not physically drag people away from the mass – by the hair which must have happened – but be faithful preachers of the Word, ‘his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference…we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it.’ This is what made the reformation a reformation – rather than a revolution! A revolution is man’s way of making change through violence, coercion and a manipulation of reality and truth. A reformation is God’s way of making change through the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of truth. The Devil loves revolutions, God’s Word is too powerful to need them.

Luther goes on to say that forcing change on someone results, ‘in a mere mockery, an external show, a fool’s play, man-made ordinances, sham-saints, and hypocrites. For where the heart is not good, I care nothing at all for the work. We must first win the hearts of the people. But that is done when I teach only the Word of God, preach the gospeland thus God would accomplish more with his Word than if you and I were to merge all our power into one heap. So when you have won the heart, you have won the man—and thus the thing must finally fall of its own weight and come to an end…Faith must not be chained and imprisoned, nor bound by an ordinance to any work. This is the principle by which you must be governed. For I am sure you will not be able to carry out your plans. And if you should carry them out with such general laws, then I will recant everything that I have written and preached and I will not support you…

And in Luther’s conclusion to this sermon we can see the very heart of the reformation, the so called’ ‘formal cause’—that is, the ultimate authority of Scripture summarised in the phrase Sola Scriptura. This is a famous quote from Luther and one of my favourites—but it makes the point:In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe [i.e. a revolution]. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself…’

So what does the church really need? The devil says psychology, eloquence, oratory, trendiness, sociology, relevance, revolutions. Nope, we just need faithful preachers of the Word. Full stop.

LW 51:75-78

©Nathan L. Runham. All Rights Reserved.

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Luther's Eight Sermons at Wittenberg

Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 2)

Luther has come back from isolation in Wartburg to a congregation and city that has in many ways revolted against the Roman Church but they have done the right thing, in the wrong way. Luther continues his first sermon, ‘And here, dear friends, one must not insist upon his rights, but must see what may be useful and helpful to his brother…Therefore we must not look upon ourselves, or our strength, or our prestige, but upon our neighbor, for God has said through Moses: I have borne and reared you, as a mother does her child [Deut. 1:31]. What does a mother do to her child? First she gives it milk, then gruel, then eggs and soft food, whereas if she turned about and gave it solid food, the child would never thrive [cf. 1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12–13]. So we should also deal with our brother, have patience with him for a time, have patience with his weakness and help him bear it; we should also give him milk-food, too [1 Pet. 2:2; of. Rom. 14:1–3], as was done with us, until he, too, grows strong…If all mothers were to abandon their children, where would we have been? Dear brother, if you have suckled long enough, do not at once cut off the breast, but let your brother be suckled as you were suckled. I would not have gone so far as you have done, if I had been here. The cause is good, but there has been too much haste. For there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won.

How then shall we reform? (noting that we do live in a different context to what Luther found himself) Luther writes, ‘Let us, therefore, let us act with fear and humility, cast ourselves at one another’s feet, join hands with each other, and help one another. I will do my part, which is no more than my duty, for I love you even as I love my own soul. For here we battle not against pope or bishop, but against the devil…Therefore all those have erred who have helped and consented to abolish the mass; not that it was not a good thing, but that it was not done in an orderly way. You say it was right according to the Scriptures. I agree, but what becomes of order? For it was done in wantonness, with no regard for proper order and with offense to your neighbor. If, beforehand, you had called upon God in earnest prayer, and had obtained the aid of the authorities, one could be certain that it had come from God. I, too, would have taken steps toward the same end if it had been a good thing to do; and if the mass were not so evil a thing, I would introduce it again. For I cannot defend your action, as I have just said. To the papists and blockheads I could defend it, for I could say: How do you know whether it was done with good or bad intention, since the work in itself was really a good work?…you [the Wittenberg congregation] could have consulted me about the matter.’

Luther is treading a fine line here. He will not defend the unloving actions of his congregation, but he might be willing to defend these very same actions to the ‘papists and blockheads‘ on the basis that the mass is fundamentally idolatry, and that the Roman church did not know the motives of those who carried out the ‘right thing’ in the wrong way.

What is important to Luther at this very early stage of the reformation? Reforming the church in truth – through love. And this is still as challenging to us today. Oh, and he did not say we needed to be nice, but loving…some will need the law, others will need the gospel.

LW 51:70-75