The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 1:16-17
In Christ Jesus, who “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Ti. 3:5), dear fellow redeemed:
Who is responsible for the Reformation movement? The answer that comes immediately to mind is Martin Luther, the bold monk from Wittenberg, Germany. But that is not really correct. The one who brought about the Reformation was God the Holy Spirit. The Reformation did not grow out of someone’s personality, personal strength, or intellectual ability. It grew out of the powerful Word of God.
To be specific, the Reformation can be said to have grown out of the short text before us today from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It may seem straightforward and comforting to us, but it was terribly perplexing to Martin Luther. The part that troubled him the most was the part about “the righteousness of God.” He said these words “struck [his] conscience like lightning” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 193), and that they were “like a thunderbolt in [his] heart” (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 308-309). He went as far as to say he hated these words.
He had been taught to understand “the righteousness of God” as referring to the vengeful God who punished unrighteous sinners. He explained it in this way: “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 [by the good works he had done]. 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” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
But as discouraged as he was by this text, he couldn’t leave it alone. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was missing something. The ideas didn’t seem to match up. On the one hand, Paul wrote about “the righteousness of God.” On the other hand, he cited a passage from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk about how “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had been taught and was convinced that no one could be righteous before God unless he did enough good works to please Him. But Paul was connecting righteousness to faith.
One day Luther was sitting in the tower at his monastery pondering the words before us today, when it suddenly dawned on him. He realized the problem was not with the text—the problem was with him! He said he now “began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 337). He learned that there was a difference between “the righteousness of the law” and “the righteousness of the gospel.”
The righteousness of the law is how God requires us to live according to the Ten Commandments. But the righteousness of the gospel is not about what we do at all. The righteousness of the gospel is all about what God gives to sinners according to His grace. What Luther learned in these two short verses is the proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 442-443). He didn’t come to this understanding on his own. He gave all glory to God. He said, “The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me” (LW, Vol. 54, p. 194).
This is why I said that God the Holy Spirit brought about the Reformation. But there are many who disagree. They wish the Reformation had never happened. They view it as the work of the devil. They feel this way because the Reformation caused the church to break in pieces like it never had before. Besides dividing the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, the Reformation also led to the formation of other Christian denominations like the Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. (We’ll be studying these denominations in more detail in our next Bible Class.)
We, too, are sad that the church is so divided. But we thank God for the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the Gospel message of salvation had been obscured. Christians were not confident that their sins were forgiven because of what Jesus did. They were terrified of death because they thought they would be in purgatory a long, long time paying for their sins. This is why they jumped at the chance to buy indulgences authorized by the pope. They were told that as soon as they purchased an indulgence, they could send a loved one from purgatory to heaven and store up merit for themselves.
But an indulgence is not needed for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Jesus is. He stated this clearly when He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). We call this “the Gospel in a nutshell.” This is the good news—that God the Father sent His Son to take on our flesh to save us. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life under the Law for us, and He carried all our sins to the cross to atone for them there. We are saved because of what He did and not because of anything we do. As soon as we believe this good news by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have eternal life in Him.
This runs contrary to natural human thinking. We think that since we messed up, since we sinned, we have to fix it. We have to make up for our wrongs by doing lots of good. Even we who know this is not the case still beat ourselves up over past sins. We won’t let ourselves live in the grace of God. We won’t let ourselves rejoice in His wonderful love and goodness toward us. “I have sinned too much,” we think. “My faults are too many.”
Do you realize that is just another way of saying that Jesus is not much of a Savior? If your sins are too great, if your past is too horrible for God to forgive you, then He is a very limited God, and Jesus was wasting His time on the cross. Why was Jesus there if not for you? Why did He suffer if your sins could not be forgiven? Or was He there because your sins could be forgiven? And did He rise again from the dead because your sins are forgiven? This is why He suffered, died, and rose again: to blot out all of your sins with His precious blood and to win your eternal salvation.
You’re not alone in wondering if this message of the Gospel is too good to be true. Luther wondered this. So did the Apostle Paul. Paul admitted he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of God. But, he said, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Ti. 1:14-15).
Paul spread this Gospel message all over Europe. No matter how much he was ridiculed and attacked, he would not stop preaching the good news. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is hard for us to understand how a message, a collection of certain words, could have the power to save. Our words do not have this power. But God’s words do.
In His Gospel, God reveals His righteousness. He shows us that what we could not accomplish, He accomplished for us. He tells us that we are no longer His enemies doomed to eternal destruction. Now we are His children destined for eternal life. Everything He required of us in His Law, He gives to us in His Gospel.
The Gospel message is able to do this for us because the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work through it. Just as He opened Luther’s mind and heart to understand and believe the good news of what Jesus had done, so He does the same for us. He works faith in our hearts through the Gospel, and He continues to strengthen our faith in the same way.
This faith, a gift from God, joins us to Jesus and everything He did to save us. This is why God the Father counts all who believe in His Son as righteous. We are righteous because Jesus was perfectly righteous. His righteousness covers over all our sinfulness. And because Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again, so we live in Him. Jesus Himself promised, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:26).
When the Holy Spirit led Luther to understand the truth about what God had done for him, he could not contain his joy: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther now realized that his sins were all forgiven, not because of anything he had done, but by faith in his Savior. “And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’” he said. “Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).
The Gospel of salvation through Jesus is our “gate to paradise” too. It is why we celebrate the Reformation. It is why we will not budge an inch from the Bible’s teaching for the sake of outward unity in the church. The Gospel is everything to us. If we lose the good news of what Jesus has done for us, we will go back to thinking salvation depends on ourselves. And then we are lost.
But as long as we have the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is at work cleansing, comforting, and strengthening us. He continues the work of reformation in our hearts just as in the church, so that we are pointed always to Jesus, our Savior.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, who is “with us in the fight with His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 251, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Can you answer this riddle: When is a million dollars equal to a penny, and when is garbage more valuable than gold? These things are true where there is no food. Money cannot buy what is unavailable, and the garbage heap may produce something more edible than gold. We need food; we cannot live without it. But there is something still more important than food for our bodies. That is food for our souls.
Food for our souls is consumed not with our mouths, but with our eyes and especially with our ears. It is almost always the case that when sinners are converted, they are converted because someone spoke the Gospel to them. Someone told them about Jesus’ saving work, and they listened. The power to open their ears to hear did not come from the person who told them, but from the Holy Spirit who brings sinners to faith through the Word. This is what Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The spiritual food of the Gospel is necessary for faith to survive and grow. When a Christian stops hearing the Gospel, his faith weakens, and his love for others grows cold. This was true when John the Baptizer came on the scene. God’s people, the Israelites, had bad teachers at the time. These teachers taught them plenty about obedience to the law but hardly at all about repentance and faith. John urged them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:8), and he baptized them “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luk. 3:3).
He also made it clear to them that the long-promised Savior was coming. In fact the Savior was among them already. This was a major time of transition. The Church of believers which to this point had lived by the inspired words of the prophets now could hear from God in the flesh. The promise made was now the promise fulfilled.
About this change Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” What did that mean? In the short period of time since John was imprisoned and Jesus was traveling and preaching more extensively, many heard Him gladly. But others despised Him. Some were willing to follow Him to death. Others were content—even eager—to see Him die.
There is no middle ground with Jesus. A person either believes in Him as Savior, or he does not. Many today say they believe in Jesus, but they do not actually hold the saving faith. They look up to Jesus only as an example for how to live, as an activist for social justice, or as a self-esteem coach. But they look away from His horrible suffering and death. And they pay no attention to His resurrection. They do not want to reckon with Jesus as Savior because then they would have to reckon with themselves as sinners.
Others pay lip service to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but then they say with a straight face: “It wasn’t enough. The work isn’t done. Now we have to do our part.” That isn’t what the Bible teaches. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified—declared right with Him—by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Jesus does not need our help to save us. He won our salvation through His work alone—His perfect life, His death for our sins, His resurrection from the dead. He did it all. This clear understanding and proclamation of the Gospel is the legacy of Martin Luther and the Reformation.
Into his 30s, Luther thought that salvation required our good works. He understood “the righteousness of God” as the holiness God demands of us in His law. But through Luther’s study of the Word, the Holy Spirit led him to understand and believe that “the righteousness of God” is what is bestowed on sinners through faith in Jesus. Romans 1 says that “in the [Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (v. 17). We are saved—we live—by faith alone in Jesus.
When Luther understood this, he said it was as though he could see the gates of heaven open before him. He now set out to let others know about God’s grace and forgiveness. He preached and wrote tirelessly about what the Gospel means for sinners. He wrote so much, that not even half of his writings have been translated into English—and we already have about 100 volumes that have been translated!
Luther pointed people to the food their souls needed. It is the food that souls still need. But how hungry are you to hear the good news of God’s grace? If you lived in a time of famine, and food was scarce, imagine how far you would go to find something to eat for yourself and your family. But would you go that far for the pure Gospel? Or would you be content to nibble on the spiritual food that doesn’t taste quite right but doesn’t really seem to be fatal?
A tainted gospel is what is served at many Christian churches around us. The Gospel of what Jesus has done might be mentioned, but the main message conveyed there is what we have to do for God (or for the church). Or the Gospel is mentioned, but nobody hungers for it, since the law is not preached to convict them of their sins. How far would you go to hear the pure preaching of the Gospel and to have the Sacraments rightly administered?
The devil, our flesh, and the sinful world are so effective at their work, that they convince us there are more important things in life than hearing and learning God’s Word. There is money to make, hobbies to pursue, sporting events to watch, parties to attend. We wouldn’t miss the television show we love or maybe the evening news, but we might miss church. We religiously check our social media accounts or news feed each day, but we haven’t got time for Bible study and prayer.
Martin Luther fought some hard battles to guard the truth of the Gospel from those who wanted to pollute it or do away with it. That battle has not ended. Every generation must fight for the truth of God’s Word, or they will lose it. We cannot be indifferent about the Word. We cannot be complacent. Those who oppose the Word are not complacent. You know how fiercely they fight to get us to change our beliefs to match the thinking of the world. If we do not bow down with them at the altar of human passions and perversions, they seek to destroy us.
The question we have to ask ourselves, and the question that really determines whether or not we are Lutheran Christians is this: Is the Bible God’s Word? If we answer “yes,” there are other questions that follow, such as: Is the Bible clear and sufficient? Are we free to reinterpret the Bible to fit the times? Are we free to pick and choose what to believe from the Bible? Can we actually be Christians if we deny what the Bible says?
Jesus tells us that opposition to God’s Word will not diminish. With the devil’s encouragement, there are many who want to violently snatch it away from us. So Jesus urges us to actively defend the truth. We must struggle and fight for it, not using physical force, but by knowing how to use “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
If we are willing to compromise the truth of God’s Word, nothing in the Word is safe. If we compromise what it says about moral issues, it won’t be long before the Remedy for sin is done away with too. If there is no longer objective right and wrong, then there is no longer a need for a Savior, who came to right all wrongs.
This is why we cling to the Word so tightly and defend it so fiercely. We do not want to lose the Gospel. We cannot forfeit the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus won for all people. He came to deliver us a good conscience through His perfect life in our place and His death on the cross. There is no question that our sins are many—choosing the empty promises of the world over His Word, choosing our plans over God’s will, ignoring the spiritual feast He continuously supplies. These are serious sins, as all sins are.
But Jesus died for all these sins. They were counted against Him, so they are no longer counted against you. By faith in Jesus, all the spiritual blessings He won are yours. There is nothing you must do to gain them. You don’t have to prove your worth somehow. You and I do not deserve to be saved, but God considered us worth the life of His only Son. Jesus willingly went to the cross for you. He died so that you could join Him in His everlasting kingdom.
This is what we celebrate today, that God used Martin Luther to proclaim the Gospel so clearly, and that the Gospel is still clearly heard today. What Jesus promised is still true, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His church]” (Mat. 16:18). The forces of evil will not overcome our Lord and His Word. The Powerful Gospel which Opens Ears to Hear will prevail. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(1877 painting, “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner)
The Festival of the Reformation | St. Simon & St. Jude, Apostles – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 15:17-21
In Christ Jesus, who perfectly spoke the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), so that sinners might repent and believe in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
For most of the apostles, we know something about their personal lives. We know their occupation before they were apostles. We know some of the questions they asked Jesus, and the statements they made. We can also read Gospels and Epistles recorded by apostles such as Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul. But we know very little about Simon and Jude, whose saint day has been established on October 28.
Simon is referred to in the New Testament as “the zealot” (Lk. 6:15; Ac. 1:13). This may mean that he belonged to a Jewish revolutionary force called the “Zealots” before he became an apostle. This group opposed Roman rule over Israel and was willing to use force to advance Israel’s independence. There is no other mention of this apostle Simon beyond his name and title.
Simon’s fellow apostle, Jude, is listed either before (“Thaddaeus”—Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18) or after him (Lk. 6:16; Ac. 1:13) when the twelve apostles are named together. Jude, or Judas, was a common name at this time, just as the names Simon and James were. There were two apostles named Simon, two named James, and two named Jude, or Judas. The only time the apostle Jude is quoted in the New Testament, he is clearly identified as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (Jn. 14:22). While it is possible that the apostle Jude wrote the second to last book of the Bible, it is generally thought that a different Jude is the author.
Historical tradition indicates that Simon and Jude worked as missionaries in Persia following Pentecost, and that they were martyred there at the same time (Lindemann, The Sermon and the Propers, Vol. IV, pp. 119-120). This may explain why their lives are commemorated on the same day. But it could also be because little more can be said about one than the other.
The apostles Simon and Jude are not important to us because of their personal lives. There are no lessons to be learned from their weak or courageous statements of faith, because none of those statements are recorded. They were two men chosen by Jesus to witness His wonderful words and actions over three years, and then to Speak the Truth about His death and resurrection “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac. 1:8).
We do not have personal accounts of their missionary activity. But Jesus’ words to the disciples the night before His death give us an idea what they faced. Jesus warned them that the world would hate them just as it hated Him. They would be persecuted on account of His name. And so it happened. The apostle James was killed by government officials (Ac. 12:2). The apostle Peter was arrested shortly afterward and would have been killed also, but he was freed from jail by an angel (vv. 3-11). The apostle Paul details many abuses and troubles he endured simply because of what he preached (2Co. 11:23-27).
What is it that makes the world react in this way? What is so scary about the Christian message? Paul explained that “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1Co. 1:22-23). The Gospel stands in the way of human thinking, and therefore it is opposed.
The Jews expected a Messiah who would come with great power and wow the world with His mighty works. Instead Jesus came in humility and suffered a wretched death on the cross. This is not what they were looking for in the Messiah. The Gentiles on the other hand seek wisdom. Their god is the human mind. If something does not match their natural sentiments, they reject it. In this thinking, there is no place for an incarnate God and a victorious resurrection.
This is why Jesus is rejected. The world’s unbelievers are not convinced they need a Savior, and they are offended by the Christians’ insistence that they do. They want to believe that they are basically good, and that they are in firm control of their own destiny. But the Bible teaches the opposite. It teaches that all people by nature are dead in sin and are on the road to eternal punishment in hell. Unless the Holy Spirit works faith in human hearts, they cannot be saved.
So every Christian should expect this hatred and persecution in the world, just as the apostles did. Christianity is a religion of self-denial in a world that preaches self-indulgence. It is a religion of humble faith in a world that preaches pride and self-determinism. It is a religion of love for others in a world that preaches hatred and revenge toward one’s enemies. Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
But the primary problem we face as Christians is not the wrath of the world. It is the weakness of our own flesh and our constant failings. Jesus chose us “out of the world,” and yet we so often speak and think and act no different than those who still are “of the world.” We take the Lord’s name in vain just like unbelievers do. We exhibit anger and hatred like they do. We deny our sins like they do. We gossip like they do. We live selfishly like they do. We buy into the lie that the way to be happy and successful and to get the most out of life is to put ourselves first.
Suppose Simon and Jude and the other apostles had done this. If they did what was beneficial for themselves, they would have quietly left Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and gone back to their previous occupations. Or they might have preached while times were good and then stopped preaching at the first sign of opposition. But the Holy Spirit compelled them to Speak the Truth, no matter the consequences.
After Pentecost, Peter and John were hauled before the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Ac. 4:18-20). How could they deny the One who had died and risen again? How could they fail to tell people what this meant—that sin is forgiven and death defeated? No better news than this had ever been spoken or heard. God had visited His people! The world’s Savior had come!
The apostles preached this message boldly and courageously, and their preaching turned the world upside down. The message of Christ crucified brought Jews and Gentiles, rich people and poor people, outwardly good people and outwardly bad people to faith in Jesus. They realized that all their attempts at self-justification were pointless; they could not save themselves. But Jesus had saved them. He had satisfied the righteous requirement of the law on their behalf and died in payment for their sin.
This is the saving truth that has been passed along from generation to generation until it has come to you. You also are a sinner whom Jesus redeemed with His own blood, and whom He has clothed in His righteousness. You may have failed again and again and joined in the sins of the world again and again, but Jesus grants you forgiveness again and again through His Word and Sacraments.
You would not know the good news of your salvation except for the work of the apostles and all the faithful confessors who followed them. Besides remembering the apostles Simon and Jude today, we also remember the work of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers. We know far more about Luther than we know about Simon and Jude. But Luther from 500 years ago and Simon and Jude from 2,000 years ago are significant for the same reason: They proclaimed the pure Gospel message. They counted “everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Ph. 3:8).
We honor the memory of these faithful confessors by doing the same thing. We fix our eyes on Jesus. We hear and learn His Word. We Speak the Truth. We take up our cross and follow after Him. We servants are not greater than our Master. If He, the Perfect One, was persecuted, then we should expect no better treatment. If the God of perfect love was hated, then we should welcome the world’s disdain.
We have a remarkable illustration of this when the Christian church was beginning to grow in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had given power to the apostles to preach and to heal the sick. More and more were coming to faith through the Gospel. The Jewish authorities wanted to put a stop to the apostles’ work before the movement grew any more. So the authorities “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Ac. 5:40).
But instead of complaining about their injuries or shying away from their work, the apostles rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (vv. 41-42). This courage and strength did not come from inside them. It came from God.
That is where our courage comes from as well. Through the powerful Word, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith, so that we are prepared to Speak the Truth in every situation. Like the Apostles, We Speak the Truth about Jesus. We proclaim everything He has done to save us and the whole world of sinners.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of the Reformation (500th Anniversary) – Pr. Faugstad exordium & sermon
On February 18, 1546, Martin Luther died. He had been the unquestioned leader of the Reformation movement since it started some thirty years earlier. Now this brilliant, steadfast, controversial man was gone. With Luther out of the picture, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, decided that the time was right for war against the Lutheran princes. He hoped first to subdue the Lutheran forces and then to stamp out the Lutheran faith. In April of the next year, 1547, the Lutheran armies were defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg. John Frederick the Magnanimous, the Elector of Saxony and Luther’s good friend, was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. His life was spared only when he gave up his title and lands, including the town of Wittenberg, where Luther had lived and was buried.
What would happen to the Lutherans? Would Luther’s important work be undone? There were some who gave in to the Emperor’s demands. They compromised the clear teaching of the Gospel. But others boldly took their stand against the Emperor and his armies, knowing this could very well result in loss of property and life. With an unyielding spirit and a firm faith, they sang, “Still must they leave God’s Word its might, / For which no thanks they merit; / Still is He with us in the fight, / With His good gifts and Spirit. / And should they, in the strife, / Take kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
Even if every earthly treasure were taken from them, they knew they possessed everything in Christ. They could not lose. The Gospel of God’s abundant grace was theirs, and through it, His kingdom. This Word of grace is the great inheritance of the Reformation which has been passed down to us today, and which we are resolved to pass on to those who will follow after us. Let us therefore rise and sing, “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage” (TLH 283; ELH 583).
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Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, the messianic Reformer who alone could overcome the violent enemies of mankind, dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer had boldly preached God’s truth. He had gone forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17) to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and pointed to him as “the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29). As Jesus began His public work, John continued to preach in the wilderness. Even the ruler of the land was not safe from his words. John openly declared that King Herod had sinned by taking the wife of his brother for himself. The king would not tolerate this. He arrested John and threw him in prison (Mk. 6:17). John had told the truth, but the truth was not welcome.
Jesus warned the disciples that this is how it would be for them too. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” He said, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [A]nd you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (16-18, 22). They would be hated because they believed, taught, and confessed Jesus’ name.
Doesn’t it seem strange that anyone should get so worked up about mere words? Why not let people say whatever they want? How much harm can words do, as long as they are not accompanied by any sort of aggressive action? But the devil knows what a potent weapon words are, particularly God’s words. He cannot tolerate God’s Word. Wherever the Word of God is sown, the devil comes and tries to snatch it away, so that it cannot take root and grow in the heart (Mt. 13:19). Until the end of the world, the devil will throw everything he can against the work of the Word.
We see this in the way the apostles were attacked simply for preaching the Gospel. The same happened to the early Christians, as Satan incited the Roman authorities against them. The devil also poisoned the hearts of leaders within the church, so that they would attack the Word from the inside. Often these attacks were subtle, resulting in a gradual chipping away at the truth over time. But “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). By the time of the Reformation, the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus alone had largely been set aside. In its place, a complex system of private masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, and other works of satisfaction had been established.
Some had tried to address these abuses in the church, and these men had either been muzzled or martyred, just like the apostles and prophets had been before them. Then God raised up Martin Luther. He was a loyal son of the Roman Church and took orders to become a monk. But as he studied the Word, Martin became convinced that serious errors had come into the church. He prepared 95 Theses criticizing the sale of indulgences and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He wanted them to be the topic of a public debate in the immediate region. Instead, these statements were copied, printed in bulk, and sent far and wide in Europe.
Little did Luther know that just four years later, he would be standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, who ordered him to take back everything he had written. This, he could not do. “[M]y conscience is captive to the Word of God” he said. “I cannot and will not recant…. God help me.” He surely needed God’s help, since both the Roman emperor and the Roman pope wanted him silenced—and by fire if necessary.
What should Luther do? By this time, he was one of the most famous and powerful men in Germany. Had he called for the sword to be taken up against the Roman authorities, many would have answered that call. But what good would it have done? We remember Peter who took out his sword to fight for Jesus. Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). The sword of violence may be able to subdue outwardly, but it can never conquer the heart. The heart is conquered by a different kind of sword, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
Luther recognized this. He wrote, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, pp. 77-78).
The Word of God is the catalyst for the Christian’s victory, but it is also the catalyst for violence against the Church. The devil does all he can to snatch the Word away from people and people away from the Word. Jesus refers to this wicked activity when He says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” How can the Christian stand against the persecutions, the pressure, the threats, and the lies the devil instigates?
The answer is: humbly and faithfully. Isn’t that what Jesus Himself did? The Apostle Peter writes that each Christian must take up the cross of suffering and follow after Jesus. “For to this you have been called,” he says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:21-23).
But such a humble and faithful demeanor is not always what others see from us. Often, they see behavior that looks no different than how unbelievers are. We can be just as proud, just as petty in our disputes, just as eager to get revenge. Besides that, we worry. We worry that God will not protect us as well as He says He will. We let the devil’s violence intimidate us, while ignoring the victory Jesus won for us.
God knows these weaknesses well. Nothing is hidden from Him. But He does not leave us to be overcome by the devil. He sent Jesus to rescue you. He sent Jesus to crush Satan’s head and silence his accusations against you by giving His holy body and blood in payment for your sin. Then He rose from the dead on Easter in triumph over your death. Your greatest enemies, the ones that would do you eternal harm, have all been conquered by your Lord.
Not only that, but He continues to protect and bless you with His presence just as He promised, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). In his famous hymn, Luther says about the devil that “Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal.” But as powerful as Satan is, he cannot defeat you. Jesus fights for you – “The Lord of hosts, ’tis He / Who wins the victory / In ev’ry field of battle” (ELH 251, vv. 1, 2).
As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we can look back at 500 Years of Violence against the truth. God’s Word will always be opposed in the devil’s kingdom. But those 500 Years of Violence are also 500 Years of Victory. The Apostle John reminds us that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jn. 4:4). The devil could not defeat Christ, and therefore he cannot defeat those who trust in Christ.
May the Lord continue to keep us steadfast in His Word, so that we remain in the saving faith and look confidently forward to our final victory by the power and grace of God.
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The Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
The Festival of the Reformation
Text: Philippians 3:17-21
In Christ Jesus, “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1Tim. 1:17), dear fellow redeemed:
Martin Luther never ran for political office. That was not really an option for him in 16th century Germany, which was governed by emperor, electors, and princes. Even if it had been, Luther was not concerned about political revolution. He was interested in the reformation of the church, a church which no longer clearly taught salvation by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. But in order for the church to go about its proper work, government also needed to recognize its God-given responsibilities and to know the limits to its authority.
Luther explained that God has established two kingdoms. One is the kingdom of God’s right hand—His heavenly kingdom—, which is the kingdom of His grace and promises. The other is the kingdom of God’s left hand—the temporal kingdom—, which operates by reason and law, by punishment and reward. “Both must be permitted to remain,” said Luther; “the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds. Neither one is sufficient in the world without the other” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, p. 92).
You and I live in both of these kingdoms at the same time. We live in the world and are governed by the laws of our country, and we belong to Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which is governed by His Word. The kingdom of the world may seem more powerful at times, but it will ultimately come to an end. God’s spiritual kingdom may seem weaker, but it will endure eternally with Jesus as its victorious Head. This is why, according to God’s command, We Respect the Authorities, but We Worship Only One King.
In 1521, Martin Luther stood before Emperor Charles V, the ruler of a good portion of Europe at that time. He had been summoned before the emperor to answer for what he had been teaching and writing over the past four years. Luther thought he would have the opportunity to explain why he taught what he did on the basis of the Scriptures. But instead, he was ordered to recant (or take back) all of it. Luther refused. How could he deny the teaching of the Bible? He said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Was Luther right to respond in this way, or did he fail to show proper respect to the emperor, whose authority was from God?
To answer this question, we should review what the Bible says about the governing authorities. In the thirteenth chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). The Apostle Peter wrote much the same thing in his first epistle, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (2:13-14). This clearly says that the authority of government is established by God. Just as children must honor their fathers and mothers, so citizens should honor the governing authorities (Fourth Commandment).
But there must be some limit to this authority. And there is. Government officials do not have authority from God to disregard His Commandments and abuse their power. Their responsibilities as rulers are to protect citizens from harm, preserve order in society, and uphold and support what is good. God also gives government the authority to assess taxes. As Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21; also Rom. 13:7).
God has given government no authority over His Church. Government has no authority to tell you what you may and may not believe. It has no authority to legislate what a pastor preaches from the pulpit or what parishioners confess from the pews. It has no call from God to allow one religion or set of beliefs while outlawing another. As Luther stated before Emperor Charles V, a person’s conscience is free from any directive of government. Not surprisingly, the emperor was outraged. How dare Luther ignore his demand? He ordered that he should be arrested after which he would be tried as a heretic. But the ruling Elector of Luther’s homeland secretly whisked him away to a remote castle, so that his life was spared.
Emperor Charles thought he was acting properly and within his authority by condemning Luther. In the same way, the governing authorities in our day may also threaten us and our beliefs because they think they stand on the side of justice. They think that if any progress will be made, it must be done by the efforts of mankind. Others accuse Christians and their Gospel as being the source of the world’s problems. Their goal is to silence Christians and ultimately to eliminate them. Today’s sermon text predicted this. It says that there are many who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Such people are not fit to serve in positions of authority, and yet, God lets this happen. Why?
The Christians in the Roman Empire in the first centuries A. D. must have wondered this as no less than ten waves of persecution against them swept through the land. Luther might have asked this when he was condemned by the emperor. We see government officials in our day promoting what is wrong and attacking what is good. But we are in no position to tell God what He should be doing (Rom. 11:34). God may allow wicked rulers as a judgment against an immoral land. Or He may allow it so that a sharper distinction is made between the Church and the world. Or He may use the attacks of a corrupt government to bring wandering Christians back to Him and strengthen their faith. Whatever God’s reasons and plans may be, we know that He ultimately works these things out for the good of His children (Rom. 8:28).
We must admit that when we live in times of peace, and when we are happy with our government officials, we are tempted to let down our guard as Christians. Or else we put too much trust in the officials. We think that if this or that person is elected, everything will get better. But if they are not elected, everything will be lost. As citizens of this country in God’s left hand kingdom, we have every right to support and vote for whatever policy or politician we think is best, or even to run for political office ourselves. But we must not forget where our true hope lies and where our salvation is found, that is, in Jesus.
Jesus is easy to overlook. He came in such humility that hardly anyone believed He was the Messiah sent from God. They were looking for something more – a conqueror’s disposition, a dazzling display of power, a real threat to the Roman authorities. Instead He submitted to these authorities. Even as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailed as a king, He did not come to threaten any earthly rulers. The only thing that worried the Roman governor Pontius Pilate about Jesus, was the prospect of sending an innocent Man to death. Pilate said to Him, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:10-11).
If God did not will the death of His only Son, Pilate could have done nothing with Him. But it was God’s will that Jesus should die for the sins of the Jewish leaders who called for His death, for the sins of Pilate, and for the sins of you and me. Jesus hardly looked the part of a king when He was led to Calvary and nailed to the cross. But the sign was right; He was the “King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19). In fact, He is the King of all. On the throne of the cross, wearing thorns for a crown, Jesus single-handedly destroyed the powers of sin, devil, and death that had ruled the world for so long. By His humble sacrifice, He won eternal life in His kingdom for you and for me and for all.
There is no ruler or government that can promise you this. The kingdom of the world can only promise riches and happiness in this life, and it rarely delivers them. Your King promises forgiveness and eternal salvation, and He freely delivers these gifts day in and day out. His grace does not depend on donations to His campaign, or to an impeccable history of loyalty to Him. He remains our merciful King no matter how much we have doubted Him or how often we have looked for help and salvation anywhere else.
Earthly kingdoms, governments, and rulers all topple, but the spiritual kingdom of Christ prevails over every enemy and continues to conquer not by force or by the sword, but only by the Gospel in God’s Word and Sacraments (Mt. 16:18). Luther wrote in his great reformation hymn that even if our enemies take away our “kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
With us remains the kingdom and its King. No matter what happens in our country in the future, we will pray for our elected officials (1Tim. 2:1-2) and obey them as far as God’s Word permits. But we will worship only one King, because “our citizenship is in heaven.” When Jesus our King returns in all His glory, the great and powerful rulers and government officials of this world will all fall to their knees and will have nothing more to say except “that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11).
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