The “Old Mire” of Works-Righteousness (Luther)

  Although I appreciate almost any sermon by Martin Luther, there are some that brilliantly stand out to me. One of those is a sermon called “Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life.”  It’s a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:5-7:  “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” (NASB).

At one point in the sermon when Luther was discussing “sincere faith” he contrasted faith in Christ to works of the law.  The law, he wrote, drags us to the judgment seat of God, shows all the ways we’ve disobeyed, and calls down the sentence of the Judge.  The gospel, however, is the fact that Christ is our mercy seat, and through faith alone in him alone, we find forgiveness and the favor of God.  Luther said that even though we might understand this reality, it’s very difficult to let go of the law and our works in order to hold only to Christ for acceptance and peace with God.  Here’s how he explained it:

Let him that will, try and enter upon the beginning of this matter, and he shall soon see and experience, how hard and difficult a matter it is for a man who has passed all his life in works of great holiness, to leave the whole and cleave with his whole heart through faith unto this Mediator only.

I myself have now preached the Gospel for nearly twenty years, and have assiduously devoted myself to reading and writing upon faith, and may justly seem to have emerged from this false opinion. Yet even now, at times, I feel that old mire sticking to my heart; under the influence of which, I would willingly so act towards God, as to take a something with me in my hand to him, for the sake of which he should give me grace according to my righteousness. And scarcely can I be brought to commit myself with all confidence to mere grace only. And yet it must be so, and cannot be otherwise. The mercy-seat must stand and prevail alone (seeing that he has set himself before us as the only refuge) or no one shall ever be saved.

…And I have no other consolation, no other help or hope of salvation, than that Christ my mercy-seat, who never sinned, who never was defiled with iniquity, who died for me and rose again, now sits at the right hand of the Father, covers me with the overshadowing wings of his protection; so that I doubt not, that through his benefits and intercession, I am safe before God, and delivered from all wrath and terror of judgment. Thus, faith sets nothing before itself to trust in rashly, but remains pure in all things by resting in Christ alone.

 Martin Luther, “Sermon VIII: Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life,” in Select Works of Martin Luther: An Offering to the Church of God in “The Last Days,” trans. Henry Cole, vol. I (London: T. Bensley, 1826), 542.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Afraid? Worried? Bring it to God (Luther)

 Although I just posted these words of Luther in September 2019, they are applicable today as well.  If you’re worried, afraid, or anxious, here’s a short devotional for you:

Martin Luther’s exposition of 1 Peter 5:5-11 is a very helpful commentary on the Apostle’s words.  I was especially encouraged by his comments on verse 7: all your anxiety place on him because he cares about you (my translation). Here are some of Luther’s notes:

Let not your burden rest upon yourselves; for ye cannot bear it, and must finally perish beneath its weight.  …But, confident and full of joy, cast it from you and throw it on God, and say: Heavenly Father, thou art my Lord and God, who didst create me when I was nothing; moreover hast redeemed me through thy Son. Now, thou hast committed to me and laid upon me, this office or work, and things do not go as well as I would like. There is so much to oppress and worry, that I can find neither counsel nor help. Therefore I commend everything to thee. Do thou supply counsel and help, and be thou, thyself, everything in these things….

Let him who would be a Christian learn to believe this. Let him practice and exhibit faith in all his affairs, bodily and spiritual, in his doing and his suffering, his living and his dying. Let him banish cares and anxious thoughts. Courageous and cheerful, let him cast them aside; not into a corner, as some vainly think to do, for when burdens are permitted to conceal themselves in the heart they are not really put away. But let the Christian cast his heart and its anxieties upon God. God is strong to bear and he can easily carry the burden.

Besides, he has commanded that all this be put upon himself. The more thou layest upon him, the more pleasing it is to him. And he gives thee the promise that he will carry thy cares for thee, and all things else that concern thee.  This is a grand promise, and a beautiful, golden saying….

Martin Luther, “Third Sunday after Trinity (1 Peter 5:5–11),” in Luther’s Epistle Sermons: Trinity Sunday to Advent, trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. III, The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1909), 74.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

“…Mid All Harms” (Luther)

 Here’s a great Reformation hymn with an excellent structure: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It’s by Martin Luther and it’s called “We All Believe in One True God.”

We all believe in one true God,
Maker of the earth and heaven,
The Father who to us the power
To become his sons have given.
Soul and body guard us, guide us,
‘Mid all harms will keep and cherish,
That no ill shall ever betide us.
He watches o’er us day and night,
All things are governed by His might.

And we believe in Jesus Christ
Lord and Son of God confessed
From everlasting days with God
In like power and glory blessed.
By the Holy Ghost conceived,
Born of Mary, virgin mother,
That to lost men who believed
He should Savior be and Brother;
Was crucified and from the grave,
Through God, is risen,
Strong to save!

We in the Holy Ghost believe,
Who with Son and Father reigneth,
One true God; He the Comforter,
Feeble souls with gifts sustaineth,
All his saints, in every nation,
With one heart this faith receiving,
From all sin obtain salvation,
From the dust of death reviving;
These sorrows past, there waits in store
For us, the life forevermore!

Martin Luther, from “We All Believe in One True God” found in The Hymns of Martin Luther.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Civil Authority as God’s Institution (Luther)

 I’ve been enjoying Martin Luther’s commentary on the Genesis Flood; it’s been interesting, helpful, and even encouraging in a Christian way.  Today as I was studying Genesis 9:1-17 I came across the following statements Luther made on what this text has to do with civil government. These comments are based on Luther’s exposition of Genesis 9:4-5 (But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood, I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed [NIV]).  Can you hear some echoes of Romans 13?

…Now God adds a commandment pertaining to civil government. Since it was no more a sin to kill an ox or a sheep for food than it was to pluck a flower or an herb growing in the field, there was some danger that men might misuse this God-given power over the beasts and go beyond it even to the shedding of human blood. Hence, he now adds a new law, that human blood must not be shed…

…Here, however, God bestows a share of his authority upon man, giving him the power of life and death, that thus he may be the avenger of bloodshed. Whosoever takes man’s life without due warrant, him God subjects not only to his own judgment, but also to the sword of man. Though God may use man as his instrument in punishing, he is himself still the avenger.

This is the source from which spring all civil laws and the laws of nations.

Heed, then, this passage. It establishes civil authority as God’s institution…

The importance of this text and its claim to attention consists in the fact that it records the establishment of civil authority by God with the sword as insignia of power, for the purpose that license may be curbed and anger and other sins inhibited from growing beyond all bounds. Had God not granted this power to man, what kind of lives, I ask you, would we lead? He foresaw that wickedness would ever flourish, and established this external remedy to prevent the indefinite spread of license. By this safeguard God protects life and property as by a fence and a wall.

Martin Luther, Luther on Sin and the Flood: Commentary on Genesis, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. II, The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1910), 277.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

God’s Speaking About Himself (Luther)

 John Calvin famously said that God “lisps” when he speaks to us (Institutes, I.xii.1).  That is, our infinite God accommodates himself to us in a way that we finite humans can understand.  For example, although God is invisible and does not have a body, in his Word he often mentions his eyes, hands, and ears.  Martin Luther also discussed accommodation in his comments on Genesis 6:6, where the text talks about God “regretting” or “repenting” (נָחַם) that he made man.  Here are a few quotes from Luther’s comments:

 …God himself condescends to the low plane of our understanding and presents himself to us with childlike simplicity in representations, as in a guise, so that he may be made known to us in some way. Thus the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove; not because he is a dove, but in this crude form he desired to be recognized, received and worshiped, for it was really the Holy Spirit. No one, to be sure, will say that the same passage defines God as a voice speaking from heaven, yet under this crude image, a human voice from heaven, he was received and worshiped.

…This is the simplest way of treating such passages, for the nature of God we cannot define; what he is not we can well define—he is not a voice, a dove, water, bread, wine. And yet in these visible forms he presents himself to us and deals with us. These forms he shows to us that we should not become wandering and unsettled spirits which dispute concerning God, but are completely ignorant concerning him, since in his unveiled majesty he can not be apprehended. He sees it to be impossible for us to know him in his own nature. For he lives, as the Scripture says in 1 Timothy 6:16, in an inaccessible light, and what we can apprehend and understand he has declared. They who abide in these things will truly lay hold of him, while those who vaunt and follow visions, revelations and illuminations will either be overwhelmed by his majesty or remain in densest ignorance of God.

Luther, Martin. Luther on Sin and the Flood: Commentary on Genesis. Edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Translated by John Nicholas Lenker. Vol. II. The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther. Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1910, paragraphs 161-163.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

The Kindness of God in the Gospel (Luther)

 In Titus 3:4-5 the apostle Paul wrote about the goodness (χρηστότης) and kindness (φιλανθρωπία) of God in saving sinners by his mercy and not their merit.  While it is true that God is just and will punish the hard-hearted unrepentant sinner, it is equally true that he is good and kind towards sinners.  We can’t forget that great reality as we tell others about Jesus and as we follow him ourselves.  In other words, the gospel is not law, it is good news of God’s great kindness and love shown in Christ to sinners.

Martin Luther discussed this reality – God’s goodness and kindness in the gospel – in a sermon on Titus 3:4-7.  Here are a few parts of it that are good reminders of the kindness of God shown in the gospel:

So God also, by the gospel, is preached and offered unto us wholly good, bountiful, and sweet, open to all, rejecting none, bearing all our sins and offences, repelling no man with excessive severity; for we read and hear nothing declared in the gospel but mere grace and goodness, whereby he most mercifully hears us, and most gently handles us, and not any man according to his deserts [deserving].

…The meaning of the Apostle is this; our God hath in the gospel shewed himself unto us not only bountiful, kind, gentle, and sweet, which can bear and will receive all, but also he so loveth us, that of his own accord he joineth himself unto us, seeketh to have to do with us, voluntarily showeth and offereth his grace unto us, and most gently embraceth as many as only do not refuse his grace and love, and desire to draw nigh unto him.

What should he do more? Who cannot see why we count the gospel a preaching, joyful, and full of all consolation of God in Christ? For what can be spoken more lovingly and sweetly to a sinful and afflicted conscience than these words?

Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon, “Of Salvation by Grace, without Works,” in Thirty-Four Sermons on the Most Interesting Doctrines of the Gospel (London: Gale and Fenner, 1816), 98.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI, 54015

Cooking for God in Heaven (Luther)

  “What does it mean to serve God?” Luther asked in a sermon on Matthew 6:24-34.  He answered his own question echoing Scripture: it means listening to Christ, accepting the gospel, and obeying God.  If we are not obeying God we are not serving him no matter how religious or spiritual our lives may look. In fact, we can serve God in whatever calling he’s called us to do.  We don’t necessarily have to go into some ministry or travel far to serve him.  Here’s Luther:

In every way, therefore, it is serving God when one does what God has commanded, and does not do what God has forbidden.  

When a preacher preaches God’s Word, baptizes, administers the sacrament, exhorts, rebukes, warns the secure, comforts the timid and distressed, in this way he is serving not only men but God, who has ordained and commanded these things; and there is joy in doing them, knowing of a certainty that it is God’s will and command.

In the same way, a poor servant girl has joy in her heart and can say, My job is to cook, make the bed, and clean the house; who has commanded me to do these things? My master and mistress have commanded me to do them.  Who has given them such authority over me? God has ordained this. Ah, then it must be true that I am serving not only them but also God in heaven and that God has pleasure in this. How, indeed could I be more blest? It is tantamount to cooking for God in heaven.

Martin Luther, Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7.10-11.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015