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Abiding truth: Part 12

One of Luther’s favorite things to preach about was Christmas—God made flesh to save us.

Nathaniel J. Biebert

Martin Luther and Christmas were like two peas in a pod. He called Christmas a “great festival,” a “beautiful festival,” a “lovely festival.” He called the Christmas story a “joyful, blessed history,” a “comforting, lovely account.” He composed three original Christmas hymns—Christian Worship 33, 38, and 53—including his famous 15-stanza hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” In fact, Luther and Christmas have become so intertwined in many minds that when “Away in a Manger” was first published in the 1880s, it was falsely claimed that Luther had composed both text and tune for his children.

But what married Martin Luther to Christmas more than anything else was his preaching. Between 1514 and 1544, he preached at least 47 different Christmas sermons on Luke 2:1-20 alone, not to mention the Christmas sermons he preached on Matthew chapter 1, John chapter 1, and Isaiah chapter 9, and the Christmas sermons he prepared only for print. Just between 1527 and 1533, he preached six sermon series on Luke chapter 2, each of them three to five sermons long.

Luther himself tells us how he could do that and why he did: “[The account of Christ’s birth] is a rich history on which there are many sermons to preach” (Luther’s Works [WA], Vol. 29, p. 679). “By God’s grace we know almost all of this Gospel text quite well; on the other hand, we don’t know it at all. We know it well because we hear it and read it and sing it so often . . . and yet we know nothing. That is why we are moved by it only a little or not at all, and it does not go to our hearts and does not occupy us as it ought.” If we knew it well, we would always “have joy and delight from it” (WA, Vol. 23, p. 726).

Luther almost invariably began his sermons on Luke chapter 2 with “the history.” Jesus’ birth was not merely a cute story. “Notice the certainty in the statement of the evangelist [Luke] that the birth of Christ took place at the time of Emperor Augustus and when Cyrenius was governor of the Roman Empire in Syria” (LW, Vol. 52, p. 8). All the comfort we derive from the Christmas story is rooted in its historicity. “Is he here for the sake of the geese, cows, or pigs? He is a human. If he had wanted to help the pigs, he would have assumed the nature of a pig. . . . He has put on human nature; he was made the son of a virgin” (WA, Vol. 37, p. 236).

The fact that Mary had to give birth to Jesus in shameful circumstances was proof that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, that he came to suffer and that those who bear his name must suffer, and that he came for a world of sinful rogues and wretches. The world either thinks little of the account or think that it’s ridiculous, but believers revel in every detail like the angels did.

Luther then moved on to the angel’s message to the shepherds, “the first and best preaching” in the New Testament (WA, Vol. 29, p. 656). Don’t miss it when the angel says that a Savior is born “to you.” “T-O Y-O-U [in Luke 2:11] should be written in large letters” (WA, Vol. 27, p. 493), yes, “in blazing letters” (WA, Vol. 37, p. 236). “For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart. For, if what the angel says is true, that he is our Lord and Savior, what can sin do against us?” (LW, Vol. 51, p. 216). The angel’s sermon is also proof that God communicates his grace and works saving faith through the proclamation of the gospel.

When Luther reached the song of the angel host, he divided it into three stanzas:

1) “Glory” belongs “to God in the highest,” not to our works or merit.

2) “Peace on earth” is the result of the Christ-child’s birth for those who believe he came to reconcile them with God.

3) When humans have this peace, then they also have “good will,” which Luther said he would rather translate as “delight” (WA, Vol. 49, p. 291).

From the example of the shepherds, Luther taught that faith in Christ produces good works. And good works are not limited to what is done in a monastery or in an official church-related position (after all, “the shepherds returned” to their flocks).

Luther simply could not get over the miracles of Christmas. It was miracle enough that God would stoop so far down as to assume human nature in the womb of the virgin. “But is even more miraculous that the Son of God . . . does this for the sake of the poor, condemned human race, to deliver them from the curse and the devil’s power and to restore them to their proper condition again” (WA, 10/3:432).

Perhaps this is all best summed up in a Christmas hymn that predated the Reformation and seems to have been Luther’s favorite. He quoted it at least five times in

his Christmas sermons and cited it as proof that the gospel was preserved even in the darkness of the pope’s false teaching:

For us today is born a child,

A perfect son so peerless,

Of Mary, fair maid undefiled,

To cheer mankind so cheerless.

Were he not born, we all had dwelled

In fear and fire, from God expelled—

Salvation’s ours forever!

To you, sweet Jesus, glory be

For sharing in humanity!

Let hell subdue us never! (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 131:2)


Nathaniel Biebert is pastor at Risen Savior, Austin, Texas.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the final article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Want to read more of Luther’s Christmas sermons? Check out Biebert’s recently published English translation of Luther’s Christmas sermons on Isaiah 9:6.


Luther still speaks

In his book on the bondage of the will, Luther wrote, “What matter of more sacred importance can lie hidden in Scriptures now that the seals are broken, the stone is rolled from the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries is brought to light: Christ, the Son of God made Man—God Triune and yet One, Christ, who suffered for us and will rule eternally? Are not these things known and sung in our very streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what else will you find in them?” (What Luther Says, Vol. 1, #437).

“Keep Christ in Christmas” urged the sign on the front lawn. Luther would agree, and so do we. At the center of our salvation lies the glorious teaching of God becoming man to save us. That little baby clothed in the diapers of poverty is a miracle of love.

Maybe we should also have yard signs that read “Keep Christ after Christmas.” The Bethlehem crib is only part of the story of our salvation. If the account were to end there, Jesus’ birth would still be a miracle, but worth nothing to us. That diapered holy child asleep on the hay must lead to the sin-laden one on the cross for whose seamless robe calloused soldiers cast their dice. Nor dare it end on that skull-shaped Good Friday knoll. An emptied borrowed Easter tomb and a “mission accomplished” Ascension complete the story of redemption.

Of course, we want to keep the Savior’s birth at the heart of our Christmas joy. But we surely don’t want to stop there. “Christ, the Son of God made Man . . . Christ, who suffered for us and will rule eternally” are things we know and will want to sing about all year long.


Richard Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.  


 

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Author: Nathaniel J. Biebert & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part 11

Heaven is our home, and God promises we will rise glorious to live there forever in perfect joy. 

Mark E. Braun 

We are accustomed to seeing a jowly, rotund image of Martin Luther. But in his early life he was often frail and sickly.   

Earthly sickness 

A description of Luther in his mid-30s called him so “emaciated from care and study” that one “can almost count his bones through his skin.” He recalled that as a monk he nearly killed himself “by fasting, abstinence, and austerity” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 8, p. 173). He suffered at times from rheumatic fever, upper respiratory infections, inflation of his nasal cavity that led to a ruptured eardrum, an abscess in his leg, and various infectious diseases.  

As he grew older, Luther was afflicted with kidney stones, digestive problems, and gout. The care he received from doctors sounds as dreadful as the diseases it was intended to cure. In one treatment, Luther complained that doctors gave him so much water to drink “as if I had been a big ox.” Doctors later prescribed a “tonic” of garlic and horse manure boiled together. Luther rarely suffered in silence, and his laments were blunt and earthy.  

His final sickness was preceded by heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and pain down his left arm. He died of a heart attack three months after his 62nd birthday.  

The root cause of all his illnesses, he knew, was not medical but theological. Luther remarked on the perfection Adam enjoyed before the fall: 

For us today it is amazing that there could be a physical life without death and without all the incidentals of death, such as diseases, smallpox, [and] stinking accumulations of fluids in the body. In the state of innocence no part of the body was filthy. (LW, Vol. 1, p. 110) 

Our first parents “lived among the creatures of God in peace, without fear of death, and without any fear of sickness” (LW, Vol. 1, p. 113). It was sin that caused “hideous lust, depravity, troubles, sicknesses, and other evils” (LW, Vol. 4, p. 5). From the story of Job “one can gather sure enough proof of what Satan is able to do and what he desires most.” Satan “sends enemies” and “even infects the body and fills it with boils” (LW, Vol. 3, p. 270). 

Luther frequently called his own body a “maggot sack” and a “decomposed rascal” (LW, Vol. 28, p. 112,110).  

Heavenly joy 

But in a series of sermons on the great resurrection chapter 1 Corinthians 15 begun in 1532 and extending into 1533, Luther celebrated God’s cure for sin’s corruption. Human reason, he knew, can only conclude that “the world has stood so long, that one person after another, remains dead, decomposes, and crumbles to dust in the grave” (LW, Vol. 28, p. 69). Yet our assurance of resurrection is grounded in the resurrection of Christ, “the chief article of the Christian doctrine” (LW, Vol. 28, p. 94).  

In our resurrection, “everyone’s body will remain as it was created.” Yet for the resurrected man or woman “it will no longer be necessary to eat, to drink, to digest, to sweep, to live with husband or with wife, to beget children, to cultivate the fields, to rule home or city” because “all that pertains to the essence of these temporal goods and is part of temporal life and works will cease to be” (LW, Vol. 28, pp. 171,172). The form of our resurrection body “will be a wholly different, more beautiful, and perfect existence, devoid of all infirmities and wants” (LW, Vol. 28, p. 172). Death itself will be undone. Death will say to us: “Stop eating, drinking, [and] digesting, and lie down and decompose so that you may acquire a new, more beautiful form, just as the grain does which sprouts anew from the soil” (LW, Vol. 28, p. 182). 

The resurrected body “will sally forth into heaven” to “play with sun and moon and all other creatures” and will be “delighted by this.” It will be so satisfied and blessed that there will no longer be any thought of eating and drinking. “We will be illumined by [God] and know him, not only with regard to the soul, but our whole body will be pervaded. It will be as clear and light as air,” and “yet we will have a true body” (LW, Vol. 28, pp. 189,190). All this will be true because “God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live.” Since Christ has removed all the filthy, shameful effects of sin, “all will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on earth.” This can only happen when we “first shed this old, evil garment through death” (LW, Vol. 28, p. 203). 

Later in 1533, in a sermon on John 14:6, Luther summarized our great hope: 

I am baptized in Christ, and believe that he is my Savior and the Way on which I am to come to heaven. Hence, though I do not know the duration of my sojourn here or how soon I will divest myself of this bag of worms, I do know that I will live with him eternally. Even though this mortal body closes its eyes and all its senses, and though it does not know what will become of it—this is immaterial. It should not know or perceive this, but permit itself to be carried to the cemetery, to be interred in the ground and reduced to dust until God raises it up again. And yet, God be praised, as a Christian I do know where I will go and abide; for I was assured of this in Baptism, and likewise in the Sacrament. (LW, Vol. 24, pp. 44,45) 


Mark Braun, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Grace, Waukesha, Wisconsin. 


Luther still speaks 

Busy as Luther was, his eyes of faith were focused on heaven. In a sermon on Titus 2:13, he urged believers, “We should learn to bring our eyes, our hearts, and souls to bear upon yonder life in heaven and in a lively hope await it with joy. For if we would be Christians, the ultimate objects of our quest should not be marrying, giving in marriage, buying, selling, planting, building—activities that Christ says (Matt. 24:37f.; Luke 17:26ff.) the wicked will be engaged in especially before the Last Day. To be sure, we, too, must use these things in order to satisfy the needs of the body. But our ultimate quest should be something better and higher: the blessed inheritance in heaven that does not pass away” (What Luther Says, Vol 2, #1891) 

Luther was no stranger to death. It had invaded his parsonage and carried off two daughters, one 8 months old and the other 14 years. But the Reformer found his comfort in what the Scripture said and what he therefore preached. Since Christ had paid fully for sin, death could no longer be punishment for the believer. Instead it was the necessary step from earth to heaven. 

See how important is the message of the gospel that God restored to the church through his servant Luther. Without the assurance that sin’s punishment has been paid, death would still be sin’s horrible wage. Hell would still be the sinner’s painful destination. For eternity, the sinner—both body and soul—would be locked behind hell’s dismal prison doors. 

Luther lived with his eyes of faith focused on heaven. While he waited, though, he was busy preaching the victory won fully by the Savior. 


Richard Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.  


 

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Author: Mark E. Braun & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 11
Issue: November 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part 10

Gospel freedom is often a Reformation truth we take for granted.  

Wade R. Johnston 

What has become the most memorable Reformation truth of our hymns, the most powerful of our preachments, the most lasting in our conversations as brothers and sisters? What was the point of Luther’s Reformation? It’s the very thing we so easily take for granted, that the church in every age has been tempted to move beyond, that resonates so poorly with our fallen human nature: that Christ was crucified for sinners—and you qualify.  

How can we take this for granted? Can we forget both what we were and what we are? We were dead in trespasses and sins, lost, condemned under the law, slaves to iniquity, under God’s wrath. We were that way before we could walk or talk, cheat or steal. We were born that way. Now we are children of God. We have been redeemed, forgiven, ransomed, set free. We have been born that way, born again in the waters of Holy Baptism. We are this, not on our own, but in Christ, by grace, through faith, which is the gift of God through the Word.  

At the heart of Luther’s message is the distinction in Lutheran theology, law and gospel. The law kills. The gospel makes alive. The law accuses. The gospel pardons. The law exposes. The gospel clothes. The law says “do,” and it can never be completely done, and the gospel says “done,” and all that is done is freely given, completed by Christ who died and rose for us.  

Saint and sinner 

We find freedom in this gospel. And yet we remain sinner-saints this side of the grave. That is, while we are children of God, the sinful flesh still hangs around our neck, the old Adam still kicks and screams, tempts and prods. For this reason, we can take the gospel for granted. The old Adam tugs and pushes us back under the law or into lawless immorality.  

Perhaps we want to let works back into salvation, to do something—any something, even just a little—to help Christ out, to climb the ladder to heaven just a little under our own power. The other temptation is that we want to plunge into lawlessness, to abuse our freedom, to live as though we have been freed to sin and not freed from sin.  

Whatever the case, freedom can be scary, and life as a sinner-saint is a struggle. We can easily get distracted, sidetracked, bored, or ungrateful with God’s good gifts and his gospel.  

Freedom to live 

As we celebrate this 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, now is the time to refocus and to reclaim our freedom, not by doing, but by receiving and by hearing. And Christ is still speaking. The Word is still living. The Spirit is still active. The church is still standing. The pulpit, altar, and font still call out, “Freedom, freedom, here is true freedom, freedom to live life in a world given back to you, all as a gift, all in Christ, all for your neighbor. You need nothing more. You are free from sin to live for Jesus and others.” 

The gospel isn’t just a set of facts; it’s a force. It’s a force that stakes claims and declares realities. Luther realized this. The righteous live by faith. That’s right, they live! Confident in their standing before God, the righteous are set free to stand in grace, walk in the Spirit, and serve with the trust that no work is too small in Christ’s sight, no neighbor too unworthy, no audience too slight. The Christian is called out of point-keeping and ladder-climbing and kudos-earning into spontaneous, selfless, joyous service to Christ and neighbor—not for salvation, but as one saved. The Christian is free. Free to be a father or mother, to enjoy a meal, to dance, to sing, to do his or her job, to talk and listen and laugh, not in order to be something, but rather having been declared, already being, something—namely, God’s own child.  

When everything is a gift, all that is left is freedom and joy and peace, even in suffering. Enamored with Christ, who first loved us and gave himself for us, we receive the world and all that is in it back again from his pierced hands for what it is. We look forward to a new heaven and a new world that will transcend anything here or anything we can imagine. We can let today be today, this world be this world, and thus live freely in the moment and in this life, even as we pine for the new Jerusalem that awaits.  

Next time you find yourself less than impressed with the church’s chief message and gift to the world, Christ crucified for sinners, remember that you qualify. Ask yourself if you’ve fallen back into slavery, whether to sin or to work-righteousness; whether you’ve been living tit-for-tat, as someone with no tomorrow or with a today that is less than a gift. And then remember you’ve been buried to such fruitless effort; that you’ve been baptized into new life; and that you are a son or daughter of the Jesus Christ who died your death, not for you to live in chains, but to set you free.  

One of my favorite prayers is a short one: “Jesus, be Jesus for me.” Jesus is Jesus for me. And Jesus is Jesus for you. That is the whole point of the Scriptures. Jesus came to be Jesus for us.  

So, look around. See the world around you. See it for what it is, your family, your friends, your job—all of it. It’s for you, from Jesus. It’s a world given back to a sinner declared a saint, to a dead man or woman brought back to life.   


Wade Johnston, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Nain, West Allis, Wisconsin. 


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the ninth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

Richard E. Lauersdorf

As the Reformation continued, Luther voiced a deep concern. In a sermon on John 7:37-39, he warned, “When the Word of God first arose, twelve or fifteen years ago, people diligently listened to it, and everybody was glad that ‘good works’ were no longer to plague them. They said: God be praised that we now have water to drink. For then we were thirsty, and the doctrine tasted fine; we drank of it and found it a precious teaching. But now we are sated; we are tired of the drink and are surfeited with it” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, #3817). 

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” states an old proverb. This can happen also with the “pearl” of the Reformation, the teaching that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ’s work of redemption. The more we hear this saving truth the more it might fade in value in our sight. 

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” the pastor preaches in every sermon. Having heard it all before, we might be tempted just to nod nonchalantly. “Jesus died for me,” we teach our children. But again that blessed truth can become a sentence recited only by rote instead of with joy.  

Our itching ears may want something new, something more modern and relevant. Something that centers on man’s efforts instead of on God’s timeless grace. Something that addresses the needs in society instead of the thirst of the soul.   

This month as we celebrate the Reformation, may the Lord of the church give us a renewed thirst for the gospel water of life. 


Richard Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Wade R. Johnston & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part 9

Good works do not earn God’s love, but good works naturally flow from our faith in Christ.

Brian K. Hennig

Luther staunchly maintained that a person is “justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Nearly everything he wrote, preached, or taught defended or promoted this central teaching of Scripture.

Luther’s opponents complained that his emphasis on justification by faith alone encouraged people to reject good works and to welcome lawlessness and immorality. To these critics, Luther replied, “We do not . . . reject good works; on the contrary, we cherish and teach them as much as possible” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 31, p. 363). Yes, Luther regularly taught the importance of good works, but he did not speak about them in the way the church of his day did. He maintained that they did not earn God’s favor. Instead, they naturally and freely flowed from our faith in Christ.

First of all, Luther stressed that true good works follow God’s will in his Word. Instead of urging Christians to follow an elaborate system of traditions, ceremonies, fasting, pilgrimages, or venerating saints, Luther directed them to follow God’s law. God’s law shows us how we are to love God above all else and then love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matthew 22:37-39). His Ten Commandments provide a wonderful summary and guide for demonstrating that love. Luther said it this way, “There are no good works except those works God has commanded, just as there is no sin except that which God has forbidden. Therefore, whoever wants to know what good works are . . . needs to know nothing more than God’s commandments” (LW, Vol. 44, p. 23).

OUR SINS ARE COVERED BY CHRIST

Yet Luther also understood that it is only through faith in Christ that a person’s attempts at obeying God’s commandments are acceptable before God. Luther said: “Apart from faith all works are dead, no matter how wonderful they look or what splendid names they have” (LW, Vol. 44, p. 113). By nature, all a sinner can do is sin. Even the good things we do “are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Like a child tracking mud through the house while bringing flowers to his mother, even the good that we do is stained by sin.

Nevertheless, through faith in Christ’s perfect life and innocent death, we possess his righteousness. By faith his righteousness covers our sin so that even our imperfect works are “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Luther summed up this comforting truth when he wrote:

Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead, yet [God] will not punish or remember it. Such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins are followed by good works. What is still sinful or imperfect in them will not be counted as sin or defect, for Christ’s sake. The entire individual, both his person and his works, is declared to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us and spread over us in Christ. (Smalcald Articles, III, XIII:1,2)

We find great comfort in hearing that God accepts the good works of every believer in Christ! We may be tempted to think that the meager, everyday things we do for others do not really qualify as good works before God. We may also feel that the seemingly pious, impressive things that others do have more value in God’s eyes. To those feeling inadequate about their service to God and others, Luther wrote, “In this faith all works become equal, and one work is like the other. . . . For the works are acceptable not for their own sake but because of faith” (LW, Vol. 44, p. 26). All good works are acceptable to God through faith in Jesus (cf. 1 Peter 2:5).

CHRIST IS THE MOTIVATION

Luther also underscored that Christians receive the ultimate strength and motivation for doing good works. They receive it through the message of God’s love for them in Christ. Through that message the Holy Spirit leads us to trust in Christ for salvation. From that faith in Christ flows a sincere love for God and others. The apostle John said, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). When branches are connected to a tree or vine, they are able to bear fruit. In a similar way, we are able to produce the fruits of love because we are connected to Christ by faith (cf. John 15:5).

What wonderful motivation and strength for serving God and others! We do not need the hope of earning God’s favor to compel us to obey God’s Word. We do not need praise, recognition, or reward to motivate us to show love:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? (LW, Vol. 31, p. 367)

Luther properly understood that our faith in Christ, nourished by the gospel, ever seeks to demonstrate itself in love. He realized that “faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward” (LW, Vol. 31, p. 365).


Brian Hennig, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the ninth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

Richard E. Lauersdorf

Luther correctly understood that good works are a result, not a cause of our salvation. In a Christmas sermon on Titus 3:4-8 he preached, “My good man, you must have heaven and already be saved before you can do good works. Works do not merit heaven; but heaven, given out of pure grace, does the good works without any expectation of merit, simply for the benefit of our neighbor and for the glory of God” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, #4911).

Luther preached and wrote often that good works do not help earn salvation. Along with St. Paul, he hammered home the thought that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). This is why he was hated by the Roman church that insisted then and still today that works are necessary for salvation.

Such a teaching appeals to our old Adam. After all, we can’t be so bad that we can do nothing to save ourselves. But such a teaching robs God of the full glory for the salvation he has prepared for sinners. It steals from the sinner the confidence that he truly is saved by Christ’s work. It leaves those who are dying with the horrible uncertainty whether they have done enough to have heaven’s doors opened for them.

Luther, however, did not rule out good works in the life of a believer. For him the emphasis, as Scripture so plainly points out, was on the motive. Believers seek to serve God and their fellow man, not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward, but entirely out of love for Christ. In heartfelt gratitude for salvation the believer asks, “Lord, what would you have me do?”


Richard Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Brian K. Hennig & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part 8

In Baptism and Holy Communion, God gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

David J. Valleskey

Throughout his ministry Martin Luther had to fight a battle on two fronts. On one he fought to reform the church, cleansing it of the gospel-obscuring errors and traditions. While he was doing that, on the second front he opposed those who introduced new errors.

Luther did not hesitate to take on both adversaries. Perhaps nowhere do we see more clearly the double battle Luther was fighting than in his work of restoring to the church a right understanding of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

The first front

Luther reduced the number of sacraments from the seven taught by the Roman Catholic Church to two, since only two—Baptism and Holy Communion—were truly means of grace.

He accepted as scriptural the church’s practice of the baptism of infants. But Luther strongly objected to the teaching that Baptism wasn’t enough. He wrote, “We must . . . beware of those who have reduced the power of baptism to such small and slender dimensions that, while they say grace is indeed inpoured by it, they maintain that afterwards it is poured out again through sin, and that then one must reach heaven by another way, as if baptism had now become entirely useless. . . . Baptism never becomes useless, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 36, p. 69).

Luther accepted the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. But that is where his agreement with the Roman Catholic Church ended. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther speaks of three “captivities.” The first was the tradition of withholding the cup from the laity. On the basis of the accounts in the gospels and 1 Corinthians, Luther concludes, “Christ gave the whole sacrament to all his disciples” (LW 36:20). He didn’t need to say more.

The second “captivity” was transubstantiation, the teaching that the priest changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus; the bread and wine are no longer present. Again, simply on the basis of Scripture, Luther turns away from the tradition and maintains that Jesus’ body and blood are truly present and the bread and wine also remain in a sacramental union with the body and blood.

“The third captivity of this sacrament is by far the most wicked abuse of all, . . .” Luther writes, “that the mass [Holy Communion] is a good work and a sacrifice” (LW 36:35). Holy Communion had become an unbloody sacrifice offered to God. Luther objected: “In the mass we give nothing to Christ, but only receive from him” (LW 35:93). Christ offered the one and only sacrifice for sin—himself.

The second front

On the other side were a number of contemporary reformers who went beyond the Scriptures on the sacraments. Some maintained that immersion is the only proper mode of Baptism. Others rejected infant baptism and insisted on re-baptism. Many denied that the body and blood of Jesus are truly present in the sacrament.

Luther may have spent as much or more time and pen and ink on combating the errors of these men as he did in battling with the Roman Church of his day. A major bone of contention was the little word is: “This is my body. This is my blood.” In a meeting at Marburg with Ulrich Zwingli and others who denied the real presence, Luther wrote in chalk on his table, “This is my body.” At the end of the meeting, when accused that he had not proved the real presence from the Scriptures, Luther removed the cloth with which he had covered these words and said, “Here is our Scripture passage. . . . We have no need of another passage” (LW 38:67).

The meeting ended with Luther’s sad comment, “Our spirit is different from yours; . . . for it cannot be the same spirit when in one place the words of Christ are simply believed and in another place the same faith is censured, resisted, [and] regarded as false” (LW 38:70,71).

The most serious error of these reformers was their rejection of the sacraments as the means of grace. Zwingli wrote: “In baptism we receive,” not the forgiveness of sins, but merely “a token that we are to fashion our lives according to the rule of Christ” (LW 37:16, fn 7). And again: “It is clear that the eating of the Eucharist does not take away sins” (LW 37:102, fn 167). This was precisely the opposite of Luther’s scriptural contention that “the best and greatest part of all sacraments . . . is the words and promise of God, without which the sacraments are dead and are nothing at all” (LW 35:91).

In confirmation class, when I ask a question along the lines of, “How does the Holy Spirit work in our hearts?” the answer usually is, “Through the Word.” Invariably, one of my students adds: “Through Word and sacrament,” a reminder that the sacraments also are a means through which God channels into our hearts the gifts of forgiveness, new life, and salvation.

The Lutheran church is a church of Word and sacrament. Martin Luther refused to let either tradition or reason obscure the clear teachings of Scripture. Through him our Lord graciously restored to his church the fullness of the treasure of the sacraments.


David Valleskey, a retired pastor, is currently serving at Beautiful Saviour, Carlsbad, California.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the eighth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

Luther had much to say about the proper use and the rich benefits of the sacraments. In a sermon on John 4:2 he said, “If you omit the Word, Baptism is simple water and the Lord’s Supper is bread; for the Word is the kernel of the Sacrament. The holiness of St. Peter makes no Sacrament, nor do the materials. Only the Word does, as, for instance; I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. When the Word comes to the element, it becomes a Sacrament, and then Baptism is a ‘washing of regeneration’ (Titus 3:5). Otherwise if the Word is not there, bread remains bread and water is water. But when the Word is added—which says: This bread is my body and the cup is my blood, again: This do in remembrance of me—then it is a Sacrament” (What Luther Says Vol. 3, #3946).

Baptism is not just a handful of water nor is the Lord’s Supper just a sliver of bread and a sip of wine. The sacraments are not something we do for God, but something great he does for us. And their power comes not from who performs them, but from God’s gospel promise connected with them.

Through his Word in the sacraments, God applies the gospel to the individual. In my baptism he comes to me, cracks open my heart of unbelief, and wraps me in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. At the Communion table he comes again to me, the individual sinner, and assures me that he gave his body and blood for my sins and that I can go in peace.

With his sacraments, God shows how much he loves me.


Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: David J. Valleskey & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Abiding truth: Part 7

Law and gospel. Diagnosis and cure. We need both. The law show us our sin, and the gospel shows us our Savior.

Joel V. Petermann

Toleration. That’s been the catchword for the first decades of the 21st century. In social settings it means that we accept other cultures and races without passing judgment on or discriminating against them. It means we don’t judge anyone’s actions and orientations if they are different from ours. In the education setting it often means we are careful not to tell a student they have made a mistake. Instead of pointing out an error, we are to dwell only on the positive.

Unfortunately, toleration easily becomes indulgence, and it also can cause chaos. A toleration mindset that accepts the idea that nothing is wrong, anything goes, or you just have to accept that others are different from you means no standards, guidelines, or boundaries for behavior or thought exist. In society, relativity becomes the watchword; what may be wrong for you is okay for me. Such thinking leaves us unable to enforce laws, to punish wrongdoers, and to keep order. In school, students begin to lose the ability to accept constructive criticism and to rise above failures.

Let’s face it, none of us like to be told that we have done something wrong. It affects our self-worth. It demotes “ego.” It can depress us or make us angry. We often respond to accusations of failure with defensiveness or excuses. We try to find a way to make ourselves look better, to restore our self-fantasy that we are better than we really are.

So toleration is handy. It speaks the language of our soul. Don’t tell me I can’t be the way I am. Don’t tell me I’ve made a mistake. Let me live in my bubble of self-glory, and I’m much happier.

At least so I think.

Law speaks harsh reality

Martin Luther knew that this isn’t the way that Scripture speaks. God’s Word has two teachings. Even though the Bible calls one of them the “strange” work of God (Isaiah 28:21), it is nevertheless his work. It isn’t the work of toleration. It is the work of calling a spade a spade. It isn’t couched in politically correct verbiage. It doesn’t allow for any wiggle room or loopholes. It is called God’s law. Proper use of the law in our lives is to let the ax fall true and swift. The law cuts to the heart of the matter. There is no, “yes, but” allowed. Wrong is wrong. Right is right.

Luther pulled no punches when he categorically stated, “That . . . upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god” (Concordia Triglotta, p. 538). That’s the first commandment. You either worship the Lord your God and he is most important to you, or you are an idolator. If money is more important to you than God, then money is your idol. There is no middle ground.

The rest of the Ten Commandments are not tolerant of our lives of sin. Say the name of Jesus flippantly and you are sinning. Despise God’s Word by not gladly hearing it and you sin. Disrespecting your mom and dad is not mimicking the Simpsons, it is sin. Abortion and hatred are both sins. Revenge is sin. Having an affair online is sin. Feasting your eyes on sexy pictures or movies is sin. Wanting everything in the ad flyers or online sidebars even though you don’t have the money is sin. Badmouthing your boss in the breakroom is sin. It’s not just sin if we act on it; it’s sin already in our hearts. That’s not toleration. It’s truth. There are standards. They’re called God’s commands, and they are not negotiable.

Gospel is good news

But neither is his gospel. That’s the other teaching which God’s Word speaks to us. Luther knew it better than anyone, because Luther had deep anguish over his sin. He knew that God didn’t tolerate his sin. He feared God. He trembled at the intoleration of God’s law. It is perfect and unbending. That’s why Luther found the gospel so sweet. The gospel is complete and final. The gospel simply states: “Don’t be afraid!” Why shouldn’t we be afraid of the intolerant law? Because the law finds its end in Christ and his cross. The law is destroyed by the conquering cry, “It is finished!” The law’s threats and curses are gagged by the Easter morning declaration: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

God didn’t tolerate our sin. He paid its price for us. He became the damned in our place. There is no more wonderful truth. My worth is not found by convincing myself I am not as bad as I know I am. It is found in knowing that Jesus loves me as I am. He gave me new worth—worth in God’s eyes through his precious blood. That’s the uncompromising truth God’s Word and Luther still speak today.


Joel Petermann, president of Michigan Lutheran Seminary, Saginaw, Michigan, is a member at St. Paul, Saginaw.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the seventh article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

Luther had much to say about the proper use of the law and the gospel. In a sermon on Galatians 3:23,24 he proclaimed, ‘‘To be sure, both are God’s Word: the law, or the Ten Commandments, and the gospel; the latter first given by God in Paradise, the former on Mount Sinai. But everything depends on the proper differentiation of these two messages and on not mixing them together; otherwise one will know and retain the proper understanding of neither the one or the other.” (What Luther Says, Vol. 2, #2276)

Both law and gospel are God’s Word. Both need to be heard and absorbed by the sinner. In his law God tells us what he wants us to do or not to do. He also shows plainly that we have failed and deserve eternal punishment. In his gospel he tells us how his Son has paid our punishment and fulfilled his demands. We might say the law is God’s strong left arm that shoves the sinner away as unworthy. The gospel is his gentle right arm that draws the sinner close and clothes him with Christ’s righteousness.

When the law is soft-pedaled, the need for the gospel is diminished. Anemic preaching of the law seduces us to careless contentment about our spiritual condition instead of showing us our desperate need for salvation.

When the gospel is thinned out, it leads to uncertainty about our salvation and leaves us with an unsettling question, “Have I done enough?”

A veteran professor once advised, “Preach the law in all its severity. Preach the gospel in all its sweetness.” Luther would agree!


Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Joel V. Petermann & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Abiding truth QUIZ: How much do you know?

Take our short quiz about Reformation history and test your knowledge.

1. Where in Martin Luther’s writings can you find this quote: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 31, p. 31)?

A. The Ninety-five Theses

B. Treatise on Good Works

C. Babylonian Captivity of the Church

D. Address to the Christian Nobility

2. Luther was born and died in the same city. Which city?

A. Smalkald

B. Mageburg

C. Eisleben

D. Wittenberg

3. Which of these statements is true about Pope Julius II?

A. He dedicated the cornerstone for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome on April 18, 1506.

B. He was called the “Warrior Pope.”

C. He and the popes after him raised money by selling indulgences to rebuild St. Peter’s.

D. All of these statements.

4. Luther left the Wartburg with a rough draft of the New Testament in German. Who helped him with it when he returned to Wittenberg?

A. Frederick the Wise

B. Philip Melanchthon

C. Johann Eck

D. Paul Gerhardt

5. Where in Luther’s writings can you find this quote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (LW, Vol. 31, p. 344)?

A. The Ninety-five Theses

B. The Freedom of a Christian

C. Babylonian Captivity of the Church

D. Address to the Christian Nobility

6. While Melanchthon and the others were in Augsburg in 1530, Luther remained behind in the safety of which castle?

A. Coburg

B. Torgau

C. Wartburg

D. Neuschwanstein

7. While at the Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament into German. Which of these statements is correct?

A. He translated from the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin Bible.

B. He used Tyndale’s English Bible

C. He translated from the Greek Testament Erasmus published in 1516.

D. He had no books at the castle but translated from memory.

8. Where in Luther’s writing can you find this quote: “The temporal authority is under obligation to protect the innocent and prevent injustice, as Paul teaches in Romans 13” (LW, Vol. 44, p. 157)?

A. The Ninety-five Theses

B. Treatise on Good Works

C. Babylonian Captivity of the Church

D. Address to the Christian Nobility

9. Luther was married to Katherine von Bora. Which of these statements is true?

A. Katherine was a former nun.

B. They were married on June 13, 1525.

C. Two daughters died before they reached adulthood.

D. All of the above.

10. Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism were published in which year?

1. 1517

2. 1529

3. 1535

4. 1546

11. Where in Luther’s writing can you find this quote: “A Christian . . . does everything gladly and willingly. . . . He simply serves God with no thought of reward, content that his service pleases God” (LW, Vol. 44, p. 27)?

A. The Ninety-five Theses

B. Treatise on Good Works

C. The Freedom of a Christian

D. Address to the Christian Nobility

12. Melanchthon wrote the first Lutheran doctrine textbook. What was its title?

A. Evangelical Lutheran Doctrine

B. Christian Doctrine

C. Loci Communes or Common Places

D. Bible Truths

13. Lutherans became the first Protestants when . . .

A. Lutheran princes protested an imperial order to return to Roman Catholic practices and doctrine.

B. Luther, at Worms, said he would not retract his teachings.

C. The Lutherans read their confession at the Diet of Augsburg

D. They were not the first; John Calvin was the first Protestant.

14. Henry VIII, King of England . . .

A. Defended the Roman Catholic sacraments and opposed Luther.

B. Was married to Catherine, a relative of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

C. Left the Roman Catholic Church and became head of the English church.

D. All of the above.

15. Where in Luther’s writing can you find this quote: “But whatever is without warrant of the Scripture is most hazardous and should by no means be urged upon anyone, much less established as a common and public mode of life” (LW, Vol. 36, p. 76)?

A. The Ninety-five Theses

B. Treatise on Good Works

C. Babylonian Captivity of the Church

D. Address to the Christian Nobility


Answers: 1. A; 2. C; 3. D; 4. B; 5. B; 6. A; 7. C; 8. D; 9. D; 10. B; 11. B; 12. C; 13. A; 14. D; 15. C.


What does it mean for you to be a Lutheran today? Go to wels.net/lutheran-heritage and give us your insights and comments. We want to share some of the comments in October.


Luther’s writings

In 1520, four of Luther’s works (all mentioned in this quiz) sent shock waves throughout the church of his day.

The first was the Treatise on Good Works. Luther directed Christians to look to the Ten Commandments for direction on what to do that would please God. Only what God commands is good when done out of faith in Christ. It is better for a Christian to serve others than to go on pilgrimages or follow self-imposed good works.

In the second, To the Christian Nobility, Luther challenged the princes to reform the church. He maintained that all Christians are equal before God and have the duty and right to oppose corruption and error. Luther removed the special distinction between clergy and laity; only ministry made them different.

The third, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, shook the ground under the Roman Catholic concept of a sacrament. Luther identified only two sacraments instead of seven. Baptism and Holy Communion are the only sacraments that have New Testament authority and were part of the early church’s practices. He defined a sacrament as a rite instituted by Christ that has visible elements connected with the promise of forgiveness in Christ.

The Freedom of the Christian is the fourth. Luther suggested that the Christian is free from all false ideas about good works. God grants forgiveness by grace. Therefore, Christians freely love God and their neighbors, not to earn something from God but willingly to do what pleases him.


 

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Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

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Abiding truth: Part 6

All believers are equal before God, although they have different roles.

Michael A. Woldt

“Pastor, will you pray for me?”

As a pastor, I’m happy to pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ. However, I bristle when I hear someone add, “You have an extra-special connection with Jesus. He’ll listen if you ask.”

Whenever someone expresses the thought that a pastor’s prayers are handled like “priority mail” before God’s throne while the prayers of “ordinary” believers wind up in the “presorted standard” pile . . . I feel compelled to respond. “I’ll gladly pray for you,” I say, “but please understand that your prayers are just as important as mine. You and I have the same connection to Jesus. We are both God’s royal priests.”

The priesthood of believers

Let’s ask the good Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” Perhaps the term priest conjures up images of bloody Old Testament sacrifices or a cleric in full garb carefully chanting the Mass. Peter paints a different picture. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:5,9).

We become God’s priests when the Holy Spirit brings us to faith through the gospel. “To [Christ], who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5,6). As royal priests, we enjoy forgiveness of sins and access to the Father at all times (Ephesians 2:18). Everything we do as Christians, whether at home or through our congregation, is an exercise of our priesthood. We proclaim the praises of God when we share the gospel with others and when we offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).

Satan’s war against the truth

Five hundred years ago, God used Luther to restore the biblical teaching that all believers are priests of God. Since then, Satan has been waging war against that same

truth. Satan understands that Jesus loses an army of witnesses when the priesthood of believers fails to declare his praises.

Four hundred years after the Reformation, Professor August Pieper addressed the Nebraska district convention and offered this observation:

Here is a truth that needs to be emphasized in our day, that individual Christians are to exercise their priesthood (as long as they do not violate good order in the church).

Unfortunately, one doesn’t see much of this among us Lutherans. Congregations call someone to be their pastor, others to teach their children, still others to serve as officers of their congregation. But what about the rest of the members? They’re informed of their financial responsibilities and reminded that they’re expected to attend worship services, to receive the Lord’s Supper regularly, and to live a godly life. But the real priestly activity to which Luther referred is usually left up to the called workers. Most often individual Christians as such do not share in preaching and teaching God’s Word, in baptizing and using the Keys, in the priestly work of praying and offering sacrifice, in striving to preserve sound doctrine, and in showing concern for the lives their fellow Christians are leading. It’s almost as though the congregation has hitched its pastor to the congregational wagon, after which the members climb aboard and allow themselves to be pulled along by the pastor. That surely was not Christ’s plan for his church. [Translated from German by the late Professor John Jeske.]

God’s design for gospel ministry

So, what is Christ’s plan for his church? God’s plan is that some Christians are called to serve their fellow priests through the office of the public ministry. “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11,12). However, our Lord did not establish the office of public ministry to replace, diminish, or interfere with the priesthood of all believers. God’s design calls for all believers to function side by side with the office of the public ministry in the one gospel ministry of his church.

Public ministers are called by God through his people. They represent their fellow priests as they lead worship services, administer the sacraments, preach, teach, and visit the sick. Using Word and sacrament, public ministers empower and equip their brothers and sisters in Christ to flourish in their roles as royal priests.

What does a well-functioning priesthood of believers look like? It looks like a repentant sinner pleading for God’s mercy while lying on a pillow damp with tears. It looks like a father reading a gospel-centered devotion to his family after supper. It looks like a mother teaching her toddler to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” It looks like a woman coming out of church and informing her pastor, “I’m praying that Jesus continues to bless your preaching and teaching of his Word.” It looks like a factory worker striking up a conversation with a struggling coworker who needs to hear about the Savior’s unconditional love. It looks like people joined together in our synod to support mission outreach, nurturing ministries, and ministerial education. It looks like every act of kindness and love flowing from a baptized child of God.

The Lutheran Reformation fostered a renewed appreciation for the priesthood of all believers. It exposed Satan’s lie that only professional clergy possess the right to use God’s Word, forgive sins, and approach God in prayer. Every Christian has unlimited access to God. Every Christian enjoys the privilege of declaring God’s praise! Let’s all be the priests we are!


Michael Woldt is pastor at David’s Star, Jackson, Wisconsin.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the sixth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

A basic truth God restored through Luther was the “priesthood of all believers.” Expounding on 1 Peter 2:9, Luther wrote, “It is certainly clear and plain enough that he (St. Peter) speaks to the whole congregation, to all Christians, when he says: You are the chosen generation and the holy people. . . . Some may be selected from the congregation, who then are its officers and ministers, and are appointed to preach in the congregation and administer the Sacraments. But we are all priests before God, if we are Christians. For since we are built on this Stone, who is our High Priest before God, we also have all that he has” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, #3651).

Every believer is a priest into whose hands the Lord of the church has entrusted “all that Christ has.” Every Christian has the privilege and the duty of telling penitent sinners that the doors of heaven are open.

For the sake of order, the Lord has also given us the office of the ministry. Believers call other believers to be their representatives in their kingdom work. Publicly such called servants preach and teach, not as replacements for believers or as their superiors, but as partners in the greatest work on earth.

There aren’t two classes as the Roman church taught in Luther’s day and today. That teaching proclaimed that the clergy was the superior class that claimed authority from ordination. The laity was the lower class whose duty was as someone put it “confession, contrition, and contribution.” Luther blew the cover off this false teaching. On the clear basis of Holy Scripture, he preached that every believer is a priest before God.

I’m a priest. You’re a priest. Thank God for the privilege. Pray God we be faithful priests.


Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Michael A. Woldt & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part 5

Our confidence as we face life and death is not based on faith, but on God’s promises.

James F. Korthals

For years Martin Luther lived in misery. He agonized over the uncertainty of his relationship with God. He viewed his Savior not as a loving God but as an angry judge. To add to his spiritual turmoil, close encounters with death further deepened his despair. On one occasion, Luther suffered from a severe fever and witnessed a university friend die from the plague. He realized he could have been the one who died, but then what would happen? How could he come before God’s judgement throne? Could he be saved?

Weighed down by his guilt

After a close encounter with a lightning bolt, Luther’s fear about eternity drove him to join the Augustinian Eremite monastery in Erfurt. Upon his entry into this regimented existence, he was told his monastic vows would lift the load of guilt from his conscience. Monastic life would restore him to the status he had enjoyed immediately after his baptism. The record of his sins would be wiped clean, and he would be a new man.

Young Brother Martin dedicated himself to being a good monk. Yet peace with God continued to escape him. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (Luther’s Works [LW] Vol. 34, p. 336,337).

Luther later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I” (Luther The Reformer, p. 53). Yet the harder he tried to please his God, the more aware he became of his own sinfulness. Weighed down by his sins, Luther went without food for days and spent long hours in prayer. He thought he could beat the sin out of his life with a whip.

Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s mentor and monastic superior, tried to direct him to God’s mercy, but without success. Finally, Staupitz concluded that the young man needed more work to distract him from fixating on his sins. Staupitz ordered Luther to pursue an academic career. Ultimately, Staupitz wanted Luther to earn a doctorate in theology so he could teach at the new University of Wittenberg.

The Bible was not unknown to Brother Martin. The day Luther entered the monastery he received a red leather-bound copy of the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. The demands of teaching forced Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Yet what he found did not always comfort his troubled conscience. He heard the apostle Paul say, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). When Luther read these words, his eyes were not drawn to the word faith, but to the word righteous. He thought, “Who could ‘live by faith’ but those who were already righteous?”

Luther remarked, “I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and customs of all the teachers, I had been taught . . . [that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 336). Luther did not think he could live by faith because he knew he was not righteous.

Freed by God’s grace

As Luther continued to study, he was led to see a way that overcame this dilemma. Years later, Luther wrote, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, . . . I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).

Freed from the weight of his guilt and assured of divine love, Luther believed and taught that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. Faith trusts in God’s promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross. This forgiveness, Luther believed, was God’s work from beginning to end.

To Luther the church was no longer an earthly institution headed by the pope; rather it was the community of all those to whom God had given faith. He knew the Bible said that there was no spark of goodness in us to seek God. Luther believed only “fools” built their theology on such a flimsy foundation. Humility was no longer a virtue that earned grace, but it is a response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of following the church’s teachings but of trusting the promises of God.

Luther no longer feared death but placed his faith—itself a gift from God—in Christ who had won forgiveness for all his sins.

In a 1527 sermon Luther wrote confidently:

“When the hour of dying comes and death is before one’s eyes and frightens us with its glance of the devil’s cunning and God’s wrath, so that you think that you are certain to go under and you look around for a place to stay and to step . . . you must only look and direct all your senses to, and hear nothing other than, what God’s Word says. You should ignore what you feel or at least overcome it. Seize upon the Word and let nobody take it from you. Say to yourself, ‘Here I am in death’s distress and anxiety; but I know that I have been baptized and that God has promised me this and this.’ Put his Word above everything else, no matter how strongly death presses in!” (Weimarer Ausgabe Schriften, Vol. 24, p. 184).


James Korthals, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at David’s Star, Jackson, Wisconsin.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the fifth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

 

Salvation is entirely by grace. Even the faith that lays hold on it is not of our doing, but God’s gracious working in us. In his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, written in 1520, Luther put it this way, “Do not think lightly of faith. It is a work that is of all works the most excellent and the most difficult. Through it alone you will be saved, even though you were obliged to do without all other works. For it is the work of God, not of man as Paul teaches (Eph. 1:19). The other works he performs with our cooperation and through us; this alone he works within us and without our cooperation.”

Today some mistakenly insist that faith is something sinners must somehow produce in their hearts by their own efforts. Though Jesus died for the sins of the world, they teach that the sinner must also must do his part. One must believe.

So we hear about people making their decision to believe. We hear theologians pointing to faith instead of to what faith believes. Luther correctly taught that faith is only the hand into which God pours his blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. God must even break open the fist of unbelief by the power of the gospel to turn it into the receiving hand of faith.

All glory be to our gracious God who not only planned and prepared our salvation, but gave us the faith to believe it.

 

 


Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: James F. Korthals & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part 4

Luther held on to the hope we have in Christ, whether in life or in death.

Paul E. Koelpin

In Luther’s medieval world, art of all kinds—both literary and visual—often served as a reminder that in the midst of life we are surrounded by death. We might wonder whether people really needed a reminder. The average lifespan was short in the early 16th century—perhaps only 35 years—in large part because epidemic disease could easily ravage a German village. And infant mortality was high. Coping with death was no easy matter.

Finding victory in death

It was even harder for a young man relentlessly troubled by his conscience. Martin Luther feared the moment of death. How could he face his end with any confidence? Spiritually sensitive and insecure, Luther retreated to the shelter of a monastery. The decision made perfect sense. It was not that monks lived longer, but monks observed a routine of patterned “holiness.” Such a life seemed to offer a ray of hope for his distressed soul. But try as he did—and he tried very hard—he could not find the peace for which he was longing. What lingered was the image of God as judge. Luther despaired of becoming righteous. How could he know he had done enough to be righteous in God’s sight?

Luther began a quest for an answer. He found it in the words of Holy Scripture. There, particularly in St. Paul’s exposition to the Romans, Luther discovered that God supplied the righteousness that sinners lacked. Paul wrote: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). A great exchange occurred on Calvary’s cross. Jesus bore the punishment for all sinners; sinners receive his righteousness. Christ’s victory becomes ours by the gift of faith. Luther’s Easter sermon of 1530 proclaimed both victory and peace. “This is why I do not worry,” he declared with confidence.

Facing the death of loved ones

Just months after he preached that sermon, Luther learned of his father’s death. When he received the news, he was a long way from where he wanted to be. He was staying at the Castle Coburg, on the southwestern edge of Saxony. Luther had wanted to be in Augsburg where supporters of the Lutheran cause had been summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to present a confession of their beliefs. But the Emperor had declared Luther to be an outlaw. He could live safely only in Saxony under the protection of the Elector of Saxony. Arrangements were made for Luther to be as close to the proceedings in Augsburg as he could get—the Coburg Castle, several days’ journey away but still in Saxony.

The spring and summer of 1530 were tense and anxious days. According to a well-founded account, Luther scrawled the words of Psalm 118:17 in Latin on the wall of his castle chamber—Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera Domini (“I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done”)—still memorialized at Coburg today. These words were a confession of Luther’s confident Easter faith. What the psalm writer trusted by promise, Luther knew by faith in Jesus Christ—a declaration that life in Christ is eternal and the days of life here have purpose.

All the same, dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy. After receiving the news of his father’s passing, Luther wrote:

This death has certainly thrown me into sadness, thinking not only [of the bonds] of nature, but also of the very kind love [my father had for me]; for through him my Creator has given me all that I am and have. Even though it does comfort me that [my father], strong in faith in Christ, had gently fallen asleep, yet the pity of heart and the memory of the most loving dealings with him have shaken me in the innermost parts of my being, so that seldom if ever have I despised death as much as I do now. (Luther’s Works [LW] 49:319)

Luther’s reaction was both human and devout. He grieved; he believed. He understood well how the Christian is “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Colossians 2:12) and must constantly “die to sins” (1 Peter 2:24). For Luther the struggle with the sinful nature did not go away, it was merely transformed by the gospel from a life of failed and futile effort to a life of repentance and faith.

Twelve years later, in 1542, Luther’s 13-year-old daughter, Magdalena, died in his arms—another untimely death. He admitted at the time that his grief was almost too much to bear. Yet he comforted mourners with these words: “You should be pleased! I’ve sent a saint to heaven—yes, a living saint” (LW 54:432-3).

One of Luther’s biographers submitted that the faith of Luther turned the perception of his time on its head. Instead of a preoccupation with death, Christian faith allowed Luther to see that “in the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”


Paul Koelpin, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the fourth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Luther still speaks

Luther correctly understood the connection between Good Friday and Easter. In an Easter sermon in 1530 he proclaimed, “Know ye, then—sin, death, devil, and everything that assails me—that you are missing the mark. I am not one of those who are afraid of you. For Christ, my dear Lord, has presented to me that triumph and victory of his by which you were laid low. . . . My sin and death hung about his neck on Good Friday, but on the day of Easter they had completely disappeared. This victory he has bestowed on me. This is why I do not worry about you.”

Wouldn’t it be something if Luther were standing in our pulpit this Easter? In a sense he does. When our pastor preaches, it will be the same glorious message that God restored to the church through Luther. Good Friday is nothing without Easter. And there could be no Easter without Good Friday. As the Reformer put it, “My sin and death hung about his neck on Good Friday, but on the day of Easter they had completely disappeared.”

On Good Friday the Savior said of sin’s payment, “It is finished.” On Easter Sunday the Father added his exclamation point by raising his Son from the grave. So what do we have to fear? For us, death is now like a snarling dog that can’t bite us for it has no teeth. For us, death is not a period at life’s end, but a comma, signifying more is yet to come. This is the victory that our crucified and risen Savior bestows on us.

Luther won’t be in our pulpit this Easter, but thank God the message he treasured from the Scriptures will be!


Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Paul S. Koelpin & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part: 3

How are you saved? Lutherans in our circles find that an easy question to answer: By grace alone.

James G. Kiecker

It’s easy for us to say now, “I’m saved by grace alone,” but it wasn’t always so easy. When Martin Luther came on the scene five hundred years ago, theologians and scholars had been debating about this for at least a thousand years. They all believed that grace was necessary for salvation, but at the same time, it was assumed that a person’s efforts to do good were also needed.

The question became how much grace from God does a person have to add. Some said God contributed a lot of grace and humans only did a little. Others said that salvation was mostly by human effort with God adding only the finishing touch. One prominent theologian in the 1400s stated boldly: “To those who do what they can, God does not deny grace.” Most theologians settled somewhere in the middle, saying both grace and good works were necessary.

Between 1515 and 1518 Luther studied the Scriptures and learned that grace alone, not good works, saves. Armed with the Bible’s answer, Luther wrote a number of books criticizing many of the abuses in the church. First, he wrote to the German nobles and said that since the church wasn’t reforming itself, it was the duty of the rulers to do the reforming. Luther’s list of what needed correcting was long.

Another book criticized the way Holy Communion was celebrated. It was called a sacrament, but it had been turned into a sacrifice performed by the priest—an offering the church gave to God, hoping to receive God’s grace. The people were left hoping that God would be gracious to them because of their efforts and the priest’s sacrifice.

Still another book dealt directly with good works. By Luther’s emphasis on grace, some people got the idea that good works shouldn’t be done. Wrong. When it came to salvation, good works were worthless. Works did not earn heaven, but they were done willingly, out of gratitude for God’s gift of grace in Christ.

Erasmus challenges Luther

Church officials wanted someone to silence Luther. The choice fell to a scholar whom many considered the greatest in Europe, Erasmus of Rotterdam. Though a priest, he was not a theologian. He had devoted his life to studying ancient Greek and Roman literature. His interest in Greek led him to publish a Greek New Testament, which Luther used when he translated the New Testament into German in 1521.

Erasmus had been highly critical of abuses in the church. He condemned monks for their laziness and drunkenness. He criticized priests for leading impure sexual lives. He disapproved of priests laying burdensome penalties on people for their sins which would have to be “purged away” in purgatory. He even considered selling indulgences, those “permission slips” to get out of purgatory, to be a money-raising scheme. His criticisms of church abuse were in line with many of Luther’s.

At the same time, he was pressured by clergy and scholars to denounce Luther once and for all. And they had some leverage. Erasmus had always depended on the support of patrons for his living expenses. But Erasmus wanted to remain neutral, so he hesitated to write.

But finally he wrote. He directed his attack against what Luther stated about the human will and choice. Erasmus couched his assault in the form of a discussion about God’s grace alone on the one hand, and on the other, humans’ ability to freely choose to do good and aid in their salvation. He wrote that he had “no fixed conviction” about the issue, but added: “I think there to be a certain power of free choice” (Library of Christian Classics XVII, p. 37). He also said that the “contribution of free choice [to salvation] is exceedingly small” and “a man owes all his salvation to divine grace, since the power of free choice is exceedingly trivial” (LCC XVII, pp. 89,90). Erasmus concluded his book by writing: “I prefer the view of those who attribute much to free choice, but most to grace” (LCC XVII, p. 96).

But even the “small” and the “trivial” contributions of free choice were too much for Luther. If anyone can contribute even a tiny little something to gain heaven, grace alone is defeated and the death of our Savior to pay for our sins is compromised. It’s no longer Christ alone but Christ and works. Luther believed what Paul wrote, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Romans 3:20).

Luther responds

Luther responded to Erasmus with his own book, a blistering attack in which he made clear that no human is free to choose God or do his will, but is in bondage to sin and the devil. Humans have to rely solely on God’s grace, which is received by the faith the Holy Spirit gives us. Choice passages abound: “It follows that free choice without the grace of God is not free at all, but the captive and slave of evil” (Luther’s Works 33:67). He left Erasmus and even those today who depend on the least bit on good works with a haunting question: If good works are necessary, “what is left here to grace and the Holy Spirit” (LW 33:107)? Answer: Nothing.

Luther trusted solely and completely in Christ. And that is the way things were left. Erasmus followed the track of the Roman Catholic Church. His approach is the same as most Protestant church bodies today and the average person on the street.

But we Lutherans have stood with Luther and St. Paul: “By grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8). That’s it. When asked, “How are you saved,” we answer gladly, “We’re saved by grace alone.”


James Kiecker, a retired pastor, is a member at Holy Cross, Daggett/St. Mark, Wallace, Michigan.


Luther still speaks

Luther never tired of preaching and singing about grace. In a sermon on John 1:17, he declared, “A good song may well be sung often. Grace consists in this, that God is merciful to us, shows himself gracious for the sake of the Lord Christ, forgives all sins, and will not impute them unto us for eternal death. This is grace: the forgiveness of sins for the sake of the Lord Christ, the covering up of all sins” (What Luther Says, Vol. 2 #1839).

The devil can’t deny the salvation won by Christ, so he seeks to pollute it. One of his best attempts is to tell the sinner that he can do something to earn his salvation. And the sinner’s pride gladly bites into this poisoned fruit.

In Luther’s day this perverted teaching prevailed. It deeply affected and infected Luther. In the monastery he fasted religiously. He prayed countless hours on his knees on the cold chapel floor. He even beat himself for his sins. And when all was said and done, he cried out in despair, “My sins, oh, my sins.”

Then God through the Scriptures opened his eyes to the concept of grace. Grace teaches that salvation is not won by what the sinner does, but what Christ has done. Grace emphasizes that salvation is not to be earned, but to be received as a free gift from God. That’s what grace means—something completely undeserved given to people who are totally undeserving.

Someone described grace as God’s Righteousness At Christ’s Expense. We might use different words to define this precious Bible truth. But with Luther, we agree that grace is a “good song (that) may well be sung often.”


Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the third article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


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Author: James G. Kiecker & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part: 2

Luther identified the doctrine of justification as the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. God attaches the same importance to the doctrine.

Daniel M. Deutschlander

Every doctrine in the Bible is important. We teach every doctrine in God’s Word precisely because it comes from God’s own heart and mouth in the Bible. But we also defend and teach every doctrine because to pervert any doctrine undermines this doctrine by which the church—and our faith—stands or falls. That’s how important it is to get this doctrine right.

God’s diamond

Justification is God’s diamond in his golden bowl. First, let’s marvel at that diamond’s beauty. The holy writers in the Bible never tired of doing that. For example, St. Paul, among his most beautiful summary definitions of this doctrine, writes, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). It’s so simple and so brief, so deep and so profound. Let’s spend a few moments examining this jewel.

Jew or Gentile: Each one of us is one or the other. Together we are descendants from Adam and Eve. In them we were created to reflect the glory of God, his wisdom, his might, his goodness, his justice. We were created to receive him and all that he wants to give us of himself and of his heavenly and eternal kingdom. But we fell short, so short! Through the fall of Adam, we have become a total perversion of God’s gracious intent. What is there for us then? What would you do with a vacuum cleaner that didn’t fulfill its purpose? Throw it in the trash to perish with other such rubbish! That’s what reason would expect God to do with us.

But look! “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” To be jus-tified means to be forgiven, to be acquitted in God’s courtroom. He doesn’t throw us into the trash heap of hell. Instead, out of grace, undeserved love, he declares us to be the opposite of what we are both by

nature since Adam’s fall and by our own thoughts, words, and deeds. He declares that he has redeemed the whole world, not by anything we have done or intended to do or tried to do. He has done it all by Christ, the one anointed by God to be our Savior. He did it all! He did it for all! He did it freely, not because he was forced to do it but because of his own measureless love for us. He did it freely, not because we would somehow earn or deserve or pay him for it but because he alone wanted the title of Savior; he would share that title and that work with no one, not a bit of it!

Luther captured the splendor and the simplicity, the beauty and the depth of this diamond doctrine with arguably the most beautiful words ever penned outside of the Bible itself. Of Jesus, he says in the Small Catechism’s explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”

What Luther says applies to everyone. Were it not so, each of us would have reason to live and die in dread with the question: Does justification cover even me? But there is no such question to torment us! He justified all! He justified me! Christ came for me. By his death and resurrection, Jesus is my Savior too!

God’s golden bowl

How does this verdict from God’s high court come to us? It is in a golden bowl. It comes to us and we receive all of the benefits of this redemption in the golden bowl, that is, the gospel message of the Word. Yes, the Bible is precious simply because it is God’s Word. But it is precious beyond measure because it

is the vessel that holds this diamond from God’s own heart, this decree of justification. Even more important, we would never believe the message of justification were it not that God has attached power to that message. That power in the gospel proclamation of justification overcomes our inborn unbelief and hostility to God. It brings us to trust his Word, to breathe a sigh of relief at the message: Christ redeemed all! Christ redeemed me too!

Again, Luther has captured it so well for us in the Small Catechism. What was Jesus’ goal in redeeming us? “He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.”

And how does it all become my own? Luther points to the golden bowl in the explanation to the Third Article: “By my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”

Oh, may we never tarnish the golden bowl through false doctrine, lest we darken the radiance streaming from the heart of God in this diamond of justification! Instead, give thanks, worship, and adore the Savior for this diamond in God’s golden bowl.

 

 

Dan Deutschlander, a retired professor, is a member at St. Mark, Watertown, Wisconsin.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the first in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.

Small Catechism quotes are from The Book of Concord.

 


Luther still speaks

For Luther there was no more important teaching in Scripture than justification. Writing to a friend in 1530, he stated, “This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves , and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour” (What Luther Says, Vol. 2, #2195).

Simply put, in the courtroom of heaven, God the holy Judge declared the whole world of sinners not guilty. He did this not because he ignores sin, but because his Son Jesus paid the penalty for all sinners. When the Holy Spirit brings the sinner to faith, Jesus’ payment becomes the sinner’s very own. God signed the check of forgiveness for the world. The Holy Spirit writes our name on the recipient line when he brings us to faith.

In Luther’s time, this precious truth was buried deep under the debris of man-made teaching and tradition. Thank God he used his servant Martin Luther to blow the dust off and restore it. Without the doctrine of justification we would never be sure of our salvation. If we were serious about reaching heaven, it would be by pounding the rungs of our own works on the ladder and never being sure it was tall enough. When we would sin daily, there would be only dread of punishment instead of the comfort of heavenly forgiveness. When we would close our eyes for the last time, it would be without the assurance that we would open them in heaven.

The doctrine of justification has rightly been called the article by which the church stands and without which it falls. We don’t know if Luther ever used those words, but that’s what he taught. So do we. God help us ever to do so.

Richard E. Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.

 


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Author: Dan Deutschlander
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Abiding truth: Part: 1

Scripture alone is the authority for all Christian teachings.

John A. Braun

Martin Luther stood before those assembled at the Diet of Worms and proclaimed, “Here I stand.” His bold confession of faith hardened the opposition to him. Emperor Charles V wondered why he had put up with Luther for so long. After his confession, Luther remained in Worms a short time and then began the journey back to Wittenberg under the protection of the Emperor’s promise of safe conduct.

He did not make it to Wittenberg. On May 4, 1521, Luther was abducted along the way. With crossbow and sword, horsemen forced Luther out of the wagon with only his New Testament and Hebrew Bible. He ran next to the horses for a short distance and then mounted and rode off. At 11:00 that night, they arrived at the Wartburg Castle. His kidnapping had been arranged for his own safety, and for the next months, Luther became Knight George behind the walls of the castle.

In the meantime, the Emperor and those remaining in Worms issued the Edict of Worms. Luther officially became guilty of high treason because he would not revoke his teaching.

God’s Word in the hands of the people

Safe at the Wartburg, Luther kept busy. His friends in Wittenberg communicated with him by letter, delivered books to him so he could study and write, and kept him informed. Some thought Luther was dead, but soon his new writings began to appear.

In one of his letters, dated Dec. 18, 1521, and addressed to his friend John Lang, Luther set a remarkable goal for his remaining time in the castle: “I shall be hiding here until Easter. In the meantime I shall . . . translate the New Testament into German, an undertaking our friends request. I hear you are also working on this. Continue as you have begun. I wish every town would have its interpreter, and that this book alone, in all languages, would live in the hands, eyes, ears, and hearts of all people” (Luther’s Works 48:356).

So Luther set to work, no doubt, using the recent Greek edition Erasmus had published in 1516. He did not translate from the Latin Vulgate, the only authorized Bible at the time. This work, like much of his other work, defied the accepted teachings of his day. Translating the Bible into the common language of the people was considered a desecration of the sacred text of the Bible. But Luther’s goal was to put God’s Word into the hands of people in a way that they could understand it for themselves.

In the quiet, uninterrupted time Luther had at the castle, he made great progress. On March 1, 1522, he returned to Wittenberg with a rough draft of the New Testament. In just under three months, Luther had done what most considered impossible. His colleagues in Wittenberg considered it astounding.

In Wittenberg, Luther recruited Philip Melanchthon and George Spalatin, among others, to help perfect the translation. Melanchthon was the eminent Greek scholar on the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, and they asked Spalatin to help with some of the German.

The work that came from their efforts went to the printer, Melchior Lotther, in July and kept three presses busy. Workers were not allowed to take any of the completed pages out of the workshop for fear they might pass them on to another printer.

The printing was done in late September. Their efforts became known as the September Testament or September Bible. It was a huge success; estimates suggest that 5,000 copies were sold in two months. The approximate cost was between $15 and $25. A December Testament followed, correcting some of the typos and other errors. The translation of the Old Testament began at once, but it was not completed until 1534—12 years later. In those 12 years, one estimate is that 200,000 New Testaments were sold.

What a great blessing we have as Christians five hundred years after Luther! We have the Bible in our own language. If we can’t read Greek, Hebrew, or even German, we can read God’s Word in English. Today anyone can walk into almost any bookstore and buy the version they prefer. Technology even gives us the choice of a wide range of translations on our mobile devices. Luther helped usher in that freedom. The Bible is in the hands of the people, just as Luther planned.

Bound by the Scriptures

At Worms Luther had declared, “I am bound by the Scriptures.” He said clearly that both church councils and popes could make mistakes and that they often contradicted each other. The only authority he could trust was the Scriptures. Even before the Diet of Worms he had rejected the decrees of the Roman church on indulgences, claiming that all human words and authority are “not above, but under the Word of God” (Luther’s Works 31:266-7). The message of the Bible was important; Luther understood Christian faith as “nothing else than believing what God promises and reveals” (Luther’s Works 31:270-1).

We too are bound by the Scriptures. All human ideas change; God’s Word does not. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). The apostles also believed the word of the same God and were credited with righteousness. Luther believed the Scriptures and received the same righteousness, forgiveness, and life. We are also declared righteous by God for the sake of Jesus by our faith in God’s promises revealed in the Bible.

Being bound by the Scriptures means we do not say more than the Scriptures, but we do not say less than the Scriptures either. When the Bible doesn’t clarify things, we have a choice about what to believe. It is neither commanded nor forbidden.

It also means that even if all our friends and the entire world believe something different from what God says, we hold to what God says in his Word. No higher authority exists. We treasure one Christ for salvation, one source of truth, and one comfort for eternity. Here we stand. God help us.

John Braun, chairman of the Reformation 500 Committee, is the executive editor of Forward in Christ.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the first in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.

 


Luther still speaks

“Sola Scriptura,” Luther correctly preached. Nothing more and nothing less than what Scripture said was to be taught. In a Lenten sermon he declared, “Everyone should flee, as from the devil himself, the sects and enthusiasts who lead us away from the Word and Scripture to human ideas. . . . For this is leading from a rock into quicksand. The more you try to gain a footing there, the deeper you sink, and it is impossible to avoid finally going down. God’s Word alone is the true, abiding rock on which a person can depend with certainty” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, #4740).

There’s a lot of quicksand around us today. We see church bodies that once stood on the rock of God’s Word sinking into the quicksand of human teaching. For them, “thus saith the Lord” has become “yea, hath the Lord said?” as they twist or even ignore God’s clear Word to suit their own purposes.

Others in increasing numbers treat God’s Word as irrelevant. In sinful pride the creature ignores its Creator’s voice, marching instead to the beat of its own drummer. Reason’s prideful voice, materialism’s selfish refrain, universalism’s acceptance of anything as truth drown out the Word and leave man in smug indifference to the eternal truths of God’s Word.

And we? We pride ourselves on being a church body that holds to the Word. We love to sing, “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage.” But let’s remember how that is possible. With Luther we still stand on the rock of the Word because the Lord has kept us there. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need to pray, “Lord, grant while worlds endure, we keep its teachings pure throughout all generations.”

Richard E. Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.

 


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017

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