(Tilemann Heshusius, Sermon for Christmas, Postilla)
Der Allmechtige und Gutige Gott/ hat nicht allein der gantzen Welt seinen Son geschencket/ und verehret zu dem reichen Trost/ wie wir jetzt gehoeret haben/ sondern auch geleret/ wie wir seiner moegen geniessen/ Und alle der Gueter theilhafftig werden. Er begeret zwar nicht von uns grosse Schetze oder Bezahlung/ das wir im solche Gueter abkeuffen muesten/ Oder das wir uns zubesorgen hetten/ Unsere Armuth were zu gros/ Wir koendten zu solcher Herrligkeit nicht kommen/ Er fordert auch nicht von uns schwere harte Dienste/ damit wirs muesten verdienen/ Sondern alles wil Er aus gnaden schencken. Eines fordert er nur/ das wir solche thewre Gaben mit Glauben annehmen/ An dem Newgebornen Kindlein alle unsern Trost und frewde haben/ unnd durch in von Suend und Todt uns helffen lassen/ Gott spricht selber/ Jesa. 55/ Wolan/ alle die ir duerstig seid/ kompt her zum Wasser/ Un die ir nicht Gelt habt kompt her keuffet/ und Esset/ Kompt her/ Keuffet one Geld und sunst/ Wein und Milch. Das ist One alle Vergeltung wil uns Gott solche thewre Gaben widerfaren lassen/ Das wir durch seinen Son den Himmel und die Seligkeit erlangen moegen.
How we Should Make Ourselves Participants in the Saving and Joyful Birth of Jesus Christ.
Tilemann Heshusius, Sermon for Christmas, Postilla
The Almighty and Kind God has not only given the whole world His Son, and set Him forward to give rich comfort, as we have now heard. But instead He also teaches how we might enjoy what is His and become participants in all His good things. He does not at all require of us great treasures or payment, that we must buy such great good things from Him, or provide ourselves with them. Our poverty is too great. We could never come to such glory. He also does not demand hard service of us with which we must merit these good things, but instead He wants to give them all out of grace. He only requires that we receive such precious gifts with faith, that we have all our comfort and joy in this newborn child, and let Him help us from sin and death. God Himself says in Isaiah 55, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come here to the waters; and he who has no money, come here, buy and eat. Come here, buy wine and milk without money and without price. That is, God wants to let these gifts come to us without any payment, that we might receive through His Son heaven and blessedness.
I repost this because the Gospel for the 14th Sunday after Trinity is also the Gospel for thanksgiving day, and because it is so excellent.
“And this is the method God employs with us all to strengthen and prove our faith, and he treats us so that we know not what he will do with us. This he does for the reason, that man is to commend himself to him and rely on his mere goodness, and not doubt that he will give what we desire or something better. So also these lepers thought: very well, we will go as he commands, and although he does not tell us whether he will cleanse us or not, this shall not influence us to esteem him any the less than before. Yea, we will only esteem him so much the more and higher, and joyfully wait, if he will not cleanse us, he will do still better for us than if we were cleansed, and we will not on that account despair of mercy and favor. Behold, this is the true increase of faith.
“Such trials continue as long as we live, therefore we must also continue to grow just as long. For when he tries us in one instance in which he makes us uncertain how he will treat us, he afterwards always takes another and continually enlarges our faith and confidence, if only we remain unmovably steadfast.
“Therefore observe that when God appears to be farthest away he is nearest. This word of Christ reads as though we cannot know what he will do, he does not refuse nor promise anything, so that the lepers…might have become offended at it, and begun to doubt…
Thus it also happened to the people of Israel in the desert, they thought God did not bring them out of Egypt, upon whom nevertheless they called and they knew while in Egypt that he would help them. But all this is done that we may not remain in weakness when we first begin to believe, but grow and ever increase until we be able to take the strong nourishment and become satisfied and full of the Spirit, that we may not only despise and triumph over riches, honor, and friends, but also over death and hell….
Luther, Sermon on the Gospel for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, Church Postil
Therefore if a soul is awakened, by all means it ought to be advised: “Seek Christ and his Light! Nothing else does any good!” But they should be directed into God’s Word and told: “This is what bears witness to him!” He must not be told to seek the revelation of God upon his knees, but rather to receive the revelation and epiphany of God that is present in the Scriptures upon their knees, full of gratitude and joy. He ought to be shown from God’s Word, with simple, powerful passages who Jesus is, what his office and calling is, his great faithfulness. Then he can be addressed in a perspective and in the confidence of a saved child of God among the angels: “Now you know him. He is all present, that is, where his Word and his name are remembered. He loves those who sought him not, why not those who seek him? Which of his promises can you possibly nullify even if your heart is contrary and despairing? None of them, none! His is mercy and faithfulness, even if you are ungracious and unfaithful to him. He knows that, He knows you. Trust his Word, only there will you not err.” Everything else may let you down, with everything else anything can happen. But his promise to you will never fail. In the world you will have trouble—so what? With him, in his promises, you have peace!” If someone has hemmed in a soul so narrowly (Voos’en’s autobiography contains good examples of this) that they must finally despair of themselves, that they finally must give up, to then become blessed upon the Word, then, from then on, he’ll not trust his preparations, or prayers and watchfulness, never trust our running and striving, but they will retain the same means that had introduced those souls to Jesus, that is, unconditional faith in God’s Word and promise. Whether one comes into persecution, temptations, heartache, whatever it might be, if he always retains a strict distinction between God and people, God’s Word and feelings, God’s faithfulness and human faith,–and in this way presses on to unconditional faith, despite feelings, that clings solely to the Word of God—he is back upon that narrow road of Thomas, not to see and yet to believe. The Defender of Israel be thanked and praised, who doe\s not slumber nor sleep, who knows all beleaguered souls and their woes and therefore has manifested to them such glorious heart-gripping Words of his irrevocable covenant of peace, so that those who are surrounded by hounds and wild beasts can have an unassailable light for their feet; his promises, rising over them like the sun above them that can never set but that comes with salvation under his wings. In this way those souls are given a point outside this world so when everything below becomes unhinged, it turns their sorrow to pure thoughts of peace. That’s how peaceful, steadfast hearts are made, that patiently persevere in the battles of life! Whoever practices such a blind (yet enlightened!) reliance upon the Word, becomes experienced in the fight of faith. He doesn’t merely throw his arms around the Word, but, in the Word, around the Lord himself, who is called the rock, and by and by, he takes on the nature of the Rock himself, as he gives way to nothing that would bring him to fall from his roots and foundation. Persecuted souls are shown universally, and in every particular case, that all weaknesses disappear, all sins are forgiven, whenever one turns to the Word of the cross with unconditional trust, yes, that all your complaints along with all your sins therefore end up always giving way to God’s promises by a pure faith and reliance on them, despite all feelings. This is the goal sought for any sort of malady in spiritual life, to prayerfully apply a few short, bright, clear passages of the Scripture, in all simplicity, for the comfort of troubled souls. Practical advice from human wisdom or dressing God’s wisdom in human garb don’t help in this. God’s Words imparts God’s mind, presented and taught to the heart. If one use it (for without using it, no one will be led into real glory!) it accomplishes much more than all worldly advice. Even if afflicted hearts often barely heed it, they must be lifted up by their pastors to see what angels apprehend, turning their weak eyes away from stubble to God’s Word. God will hardly be understood by speaking only in baby talk, much less by using intricate human conclusions and illustrations of the certainty of eternal life. “I simply believe it all” says the comforted heart of one dying in the Lord, as he justly shuns all human comfort. No one should have scruples as if it were wrong to base mankind’s salvation on a few proof passages. It’s certainly impossible to exhaust all the divine comfort in all God’s Word when telling it to people. But highly educated people can do that no better than untaught laymen. One also ought not fear that the spirit of their affliction must teach us to apply some different passage than we’ve learned, since every passage is absolutely true and has a heaven full of salvation. One may confidently stick with a few passages and use them repeatedly. By using them faithfully and repeatedly he will be assured those passages are God’s word of eternal assurance, but all men are liars. Nothing in Scripture is expendable, and nothing from man, even when it is well applied, is as effective, by which people might look to other men, who are passing away and do not remain, but one must learn to always turn to his God alone, to appropriate his comfort from out of God’s Word alone. If one is assailed by doubt, then do not bring him to overcome his doubt by proofs from reason. For then that person under attack will perceive that doubt comes from reason, but that it stems from not having enough knowledge or understanding. He will believe that it is a matter of right reason even when he doubts. But if you hold God’s Word before a doubter and you faithfully stand upon it, that it is greater than all doubts, such confidence for faith by a pastor (Seelsorgers) strikes down doubt and awakens trust when it has fallen asleep. Obviously the despising of God’s Word by opposing reason, which sets itself against God, will drive them from the plan of salvation. –So if one is in deep contrition, then the Absolution is declared to him with divine authority and he is preached that the Absolution is greater and mightier than all the sins of the world. If one is in the throes of death, then a prayer of thanks is said in which yet a third Word of eternal life is spoken from the Scriptures, and the great assurance of God’s promise is praised to the one dying, compared to which even death, with all its threats, becomes a shameful lie. If one is attacked by Satan’s deceit and might, we know what sort of sword we have to place into one’s hand. If one wants to reassure and justify himself, he is shown God’s judgment over all people in his word and how God’s judgment shatters every human whim. If one wants to sin, he is shown in God’s passages God’s love and warning, wrath and curse—what else can be done?
That’s how Christ wages war against his foes—the serpent and the serpent’s seed, and overcomes them all—until: “It is finished!” In that way Luther, in the Name of God, struck the eminence of the papacy and all his lies. Thus can each one win victory for himself. When one always, in word and deed, in every case confesses God’s Word, that is the best, sharpest, most peaceful conscientious Protestantism. For without being grounded in the divine Word, faith floats in the breezes and in the fog, as a human dream or delusion.
This path makes for peace. It seems easy, but there is nothing harder than this—walking and teaching to walk upon it. Look at most preacher and their sermons, what are they? Nice words, well ordered sentences, practical tirades, presentations, a torture and a cloud of words. But they know nothing of the way of faith, of grounding souls upon God’s Word. Among our preachers and caretakers of souls (Seelsorgern) there are a hundred mystics and preachers of works to one who desires to speak nothing but what God says with all that he says in a self-denying love for God’s Word; to just one who does not want to increase his own honor but lets God’s Word triumph over and above him and his gifts, instead of his gifts and wanting to be turned into their savior. If more preachers had found their peace in God’s Word, there would be far fewer babblers in the pulpit and, among them, more men with stable minds, who knew with assurance whom they believe, who in trouble and death could peacefully assert: “my friend is mine and I am yours.”
Consider this, dear souls—and if it’s false, say something better, for it is worth the effort to talk about the path to peace!
Peace be with you! Amen.
On the Divine Word, as the Light that Leads to Peace by W. Loehe (from Der Lutheraner vol. 3, p. 56 trans. Joel Baseley)
So why is it that with so many preachers which God has given to his people in recent years, we see so many who don’t press on into the peace of justification? –St. John in his first epistle 3.4 says with great assurance of himself and his people: “My beloved, we are now children of God” –v. 14 “We know that we have come from out of death into life”–and he addresses them in 4.4 “Little children, you are of God!” So one has a surety of being children of God. People who are able to say that about themselves have pressed through from death unto life. But these days why are there so few such people? Why are most people terrified when the question is posed to them point blank, yes or no: “Are you born again? Are you a child of God? Are you in the life that comes from God?” Why is the answer so seldom given those questions a quiet, humble, steady: “Yes, just as you say!”? Why is it usually a shame faced “No!”, a tentative, “I don’t know!”? Why do so many, especially young hearts awakened by those sermons of evangelical preachers, listening to them raptly and attentively, wrestle and struggle for faith because those sermons are so forthright to assure them that it must be within their power to believe; –but then, after a few years, their circumstances change, they get married and start a new family and their youthful Christianity disappears with their red cheeks; and what about even those whose awakenings had elicited great hopes, who were the pride and joy of their teachers, but turned out to be as the flowers of the grass who had sprung up not from beyond, but from the earth, who only have their season, as all things in the world? Why do some experienced men and sober minded women look back in poignant bemusement at that awakening in their youth and assert that this awakening was just part of their joy of youth as everyone experiences joy in youth,–and like all others’ youthful joy, even if it was, by all means, more pure and chaste, yet it had only been enthusiasm (Schwaermerei)? How does it happen that so many look back upon their youth in the initial awakening of their glowing souls with dismissive thoughts to say: “I thought it important, but it was nothing!”?
Perhaps many sorts of reasons could be proposed why these sad circumstances occur. I might especially propose the following for your consideration. Consider, my brothers, might what I’m saying here be true?
When a soul has awakened and now seriously asks: “what must I do to be saved?”, it is quite right to say: “Seek Jesus and his light! Nothing else does any good!” But where one ought to seek Christ, as a rule, is left pretty vague. Most point those asking to seek the Lord upon their knees, to call to him with a yearning and desirous spirit, so he will not fail to appear–in his own time, at his own appointed hour. Now the poor soul forsakes everything. He cries. He won’t let go of the All-present One until he blesses him. And the All-present one who hears the cries of the young ravens, also blesses them with a joyful awareness of his nearness. The blissfully awakened gets up off his knees and believes–he believes that he has now found his Savior. His trembling heart would be content to die, like Simeon. For it has experienced God’s salvation. –But alas, now that’s done. Young people may have many such times in Christ. But the older he gets in Christ, the more seldom he receives these waves of joy. And if that has been the gauge of his Christianity, it’s fading away. He is best in a forlorn longing for the past, and thus, he turns into a pitiful pillar of salt, like Lor’s wife, who looked back, and, because of that never reached Zoar, that peaceful harbor of salvation that lay before her.
Dear brothers! That path does not lead to peace, nor to the God-given confidence that nothing can ever again separate us from thelove of God. That path is obviously nothing but a path of feelings and of works. When a person is awakened, it must then be our first task to tell him that his feelings of excitement or whatever joy attends him (for not every awakening is attended by feelings–and they may be sweet or bitter) are transient and are not even the most important part of what’s happening. He ought rejoice as if he were not rejoicing, nor place such a great value on hi sfeelings, as if when they were missing the main pillars of his existence would shake and quake. Much more, from beginning to end, he must–and this is the main point we are making–he must not look to himself, who is constantly changing, for his spiritual life, but rather to the unchangeable promises of God’s Word, which, God be praised!, stand outside us, untouched by our feelings, that are a divine surety and guarantee and a pure letter of assurance and peace to redeemed souls. Yes, we must present these promises of God to a newly awakened Christian as even greater and more important than their faith. For in the work of our salvation faith is what is in people and entrusted to people, but, even so, faith itself is not always the same, now weak, now strong, while God’s Word stands fast and never wavers in a thousand years. As much higher as God is than man, so much higher is God’s Word and promise than our faith. Faith waxes and wanes, God’s Word is now as it is at any other time. God’s Word is God’s manifest faithfulness and tender mercy. God’s Word is God’s presence in grace or wrath, whether man wants it or not. –Where ever God’s Word and promise is, there is also God’s strength of grace and life.
It would be very much in order were we to employ such arrogance when addressing the devil and say, I have God’s Word and I know that with it I have accomplished much good–some I have instructed, others I have admonished, here I have helped some with charitable gifts; I know these to be good works in spite of the devil’s slander. I say, we may boast before the devil, because we have received nothing from him. But toward God, from whom we have everything, we may not boast; rather we must humble ourselves.
Luther, House Postil, Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (first sermon, part 11)
A couple of months ago Logia (a Lutheran theological journal) published an article I wrote about the faith of infants prior to baptism. Readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of its content, but I’m grateful to Logia and especially its editor, Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer, for publishing it and working to get it ready for print. The article’s topic is one that I think needs wider exposure among Lutheran pastors. First of all, it gives profound comfort for Christian parents who lose children prior to Baptism. Secondly, it sheds light on theological controversies that have arisen among confessional Lutheran pastors in the past few years—in particular, the nature of infant faith and the question of infant communion. Finally, it challenges us, through the example of one particular question in pastoral care, to evaluate the degree to which contemporary confessional Lutheran theological assumptions diverge from those of the first generation of the Reformation.
The article examines a little book by Johannes Bugenhagen, a reformer who was also Luther’s pastor at the church in Wittenberg. The book, called On Unborn Children, seems not to have been widely known among Lutheran theologians in the last century or two. In it Bugenhagen sets out an argument for infant faith and infant baptism against Anabaptist objections. Then he turns to discuss the faith and salvation of infants which die before baptism.
Briefly, Bugenhagen argues that infants have the promise of salvation given to them by Christ when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” On the basis of that word we are required to bring our infants to Christ in Baptism, since in Baptism Christ receives them and gives them faith and brings them into the kingdom of heaven.
But what happens to those who are not baptized? Bugenhagen argues that the promise of Christ—“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” still applies to unbaptized infants. They are brought to Christ and offered to Him through the prayers of parents and the church. And Bugenhagen’s contention is that such children, when they die prior to Baptism, are certainly saved and should be treated that way. Bugenhagen’s view was apparently also the view of Luther, who appended his more famous“Comfort for Women who have had a Miscarriage” to Bugenhagen’s book.
Bugenhagen’s approach to the question comes as something of a surprise to some confessional Lutherans. First of all it seems to imply that infants receive faith in Christ apart from the external Word, at least in the case of unbaptized infants. And that view, that unbaptized infants receive faith apart from the means of grace in response to the prayers of the church, was not only the perspective of Bugenhagen but also stated explicitly by the great theologian of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, Johann Gerhard (see his A Comprehensive Explanation of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, published by Repristination Press).
Secondly, Bugenhagen’s approach seems largely unknown to confessional Lutheran pastors, who typically will point parents of unbaptized infants who die to the Word they heard while still in the womb instead of to the promise of Christ regarding little children and the efficacy of prayer.
Why does Bugenhagen’s book merit wider attention? First of all because of the comfort it gives grieving parents. Bugenhagen provides a certain comfort instead of a vague hope. He doesn’t tell grieving parents “Your miscarried child might be in heaven because you went to church and had family devotions and they might have believed what they heard in utero.” He says: “Your child is certainly with the Lord, because Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ And you brought your little child to Christ in your prayers. Besides this the church also interceded for your little one. And the Holy Spirit prayed within you with inexpressible sighs. And so your child was most certainly brought to Christ, who has promised that the kingdom of heaven belongs to infants who are brought to Him.”
Secondly, confusion about the nature of infant faith has been behind some theological controversy among Lutheran pastors in recent years. Relatively recently some furor erupted on the internet as liturgically-minded, confessions-subscribing pastors argued about the validity of infant communion. Neither party denied the reality of the faith of infants. But the failure of some pastors to understand the reason the reformers did not institute infant communion has something to do with this lack of clarity on how infants receive the Word of God and faith in Christ. According to Bugenhagen, infants receive Christ and the Gospel although they are not capable of being taught or understanding the contents of the Gospel. They are received because Christ promises to receive them, not because they have the same capacity for a faith that is capable of self-examination as adult Christians.
Finally, it invites us to look at the ways in which contemporary confessional Lutheranism may be narrower than the Lutheranism of the reformers and of the period of orthodoxy. Bugenhagen does not seem to understand the Smalcald Articles’ dictum No Spirit apart from the Word the same way many of us do. Moreover, he ascribes a great deal more to the prayers of believers than many contemporary Lutherans seem to find comfortable. Finally, his insistence that the purpose of theology is for the comfort of the afflicted consciences of believers challenges our tendency to simplify theology into slogans designed to easily identify heresy.
Bugenhagen’s book opens up a number of discussions it would be useful for confessional Lutherans to have. But my main hope in writing the article was and is that his approach to the comfort of parents who have lost children before baptism would become more widely known among Lutheran pastors.
From the Church Postil Ascension Sermon
48. When one understands and believes this text, then the teaching of the other text should follow, namely, that we should also do good works. Yet good works must accompany faith and depend upon faith, which always clings to Christ and pleads before God that he will graciously and for Christ’s sake accept and be pleased with the supplicant’s life and works, and not impute to him that which might be imperfect and sinful in him. Hereupon follows properly the text, Mt 28, 20: ”Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” Fail not to observe the first and essential condition; for if faith is absent, all our good works and upright life count for naught before God. Indeed, it is not possible to do truly good works without faith. Christ says in John 15, 5: ”For apart from me ye can do nothing” etc.
49. Observe, by making this distinction you can rightly understand this passage. Learn how to apply it and to derive from it consolation in the struggle with a conscience, terrified by sin and death. Only in the experience of such agony can one know the power of faith. This truth is apparent even among the papists and all sectarians, for they also preach these words, although in a superficial and indifferent manner as if they were of no importance. They thus show, by their besmirching additions, that they understand nothing about the subject. Alas, exclaim the papists, that you preach nothing but faith, notwithstanding we are neither unbelievers nor Turks. Well, my good man, if it is so easy, then try it once and see how you will fare in the hour when death overtakes you, or when Satan terrifies and disheartens you, and when your reason and all your senses feel nothing but God’s wrath and the anguish of hell.