The Discipline of Lent

As we approach the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 1st this year), I am beginning to mention the history of Lent and referring to it as a season of repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love (almsgiving). I’m also starting to hear the old-saw response from some Lutherans. Here’s a note from Bill as an example:

This is in no way Lutheran!!!!!!!!! We are saved by God’s GRACE not WORKS of discipline. We cannot cleanse our own hearts.
I would like to know who is responsible for this error so that I can speak to them.
I’ll post my response to Bill as an open letter.
Dear Mr. Lindeman,
You are correct. Lent is not about our giving up something to somehow please God by our good work.  Lent is about what Jesus Christ gave up to pay the penalty for the sins of the world — His holy and innocent life. This is the message of the Gospel.
If during Lent Christians choose to give up something or rededicate themselves to helping those in need as a way to proclaim the salvation Christ has won for all by His suffering and death, then such activities are sacrifices that glorify God. Yet as you say in your note, nothing we do through discipline, self-denial, or good works can ever earn the Lord’s forgiveness or repay Him for what He accomplished for us.  We are saved by grace.
Though the Scriptures do not mention Lent, it has a longstanding tradition in the Church. Though we are not certain how it developed, by A.D. 350 the forty-day fast that we now have was already part of the Church’s practice in most places. Many identify the Second Festal letter of Athanasius in A.D. 330 as the earliest reference to a forty-day day fast leading up to Easter. 
For Christians living in the Fourth Century Lent had two major emphases: First, it was seen as a time of repentance and denial of self. All Christians were to examine their lives according to the Ten Commandments and other Christian ethical precepts and repent where necessary. They were to remember what it cost their Savior to save them, The second emphasis of Lent was as a time of instruction and preparation for those who wanted to become members of the Christian Church, i.e., the catechumens. During Lent they learned the Christian doctrine by studying the Creed. They were led step by step through prayer and special rites toward baptism. The instruction of the catechumen led to baptism and receiving the Lord’s Supper in the service on Easter.
At the time of the Reformation, some Christians wanted to eliminate Lent since Scripture didn’t command it. Luther, however, urged that it be kept, for he saw Lent as an opportunity for the strengthening of faith. “Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained, not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the Passion history and the Gospels appointed for that season” (Luther’s Works AE, 53:90). Here Luther instructs that Lent should be preserved, in part, because it reminded Christians of the Passion (suffering and death) of Jesus and encouraged them to meditate upon it. However, no one should be forced to participate. It should be voluntary.
Lutherans retain Lent to this day, because we see it as a salutary outward discipline that gives Christians a wonderful opportunity for spiritual renewal. As Lent begins, we are invited to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and love of neighbor by exercising the discipline of Lent: repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love (almsgiving). These may become specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal as we come face to face with the sin that hinders our walk with Christ. Living out a discipline takes our Lord’s words about self-denial seriously (Matthew 16:24). In the Lenten discipline, we come face to face with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we focus (or refocus) on His self-sacrificing passion, death and resurrection, which has brought us acceptance, forgiveness and redemption by God. Through that same discipline, we make a loving response to God who gives us the power to live anew.
Blessed Lent,
Pastor Scot Kinnaman
And to you too, dear blog reader, my prayer is that you have a blessed Lent and a joyous Easter celebration.

An Eastertide Reflection from Martin Luther

From Concordia Academic blog.
LW 58: Selected Sermons V

LW 58: Selected Sermons V

Martin Luther’s preaching during Eastertide in 1544 and 1545 provided his listeners with four sermons on 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter of St. Paul. “It would be better,” Luther wrote, “to give this season its due and, between Easter and Pentecost, for the instruction and comfort of the people, to give a thorough exposition of the article concerning both Christ’s resurrection and our own—that is, the resurrection of all the dead—on the basis of the preaching of the apostles, such as the fifteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians, all of which deals with the resurrection of the dead” [WA 21:349–50]. The sermons emphasized the assurance of the general resurrection; the ways in which Christians can “read” nature and be assured of God’s miraculous power to bring life out of death; and the unity of Christ’s resurrection with the resurrection of Christians, which means Christ’s victory over death also belongs to Christians.

For your Eastertide reflection, the following is a condensed version of the third sermon, on 1 Cor. 15:51–53. Here Luther contrasts the “bearable” divine speech in the present preaching of the Word with the unbearable sounds of the Last Day: the shout of the angel and the trumpet of God. The Christian should always keep the Last Day in mind, Luther says, as they fulfill their vocations in the world faithfully, remembering the last trumpet while enjoying the “eating, drinking, good cheer, and happiness” that God grants as a benevolent Father—but not mocking God and the last judgment with security amid unrepentant sin.

The complete text of this sermon and the other three sermons on 1 Corinthians 15, including the detailed annotations not included here, are available in LW 58: Selected Sermons V. Click Luther’s Works for information on becoming a subscriber to the extension of the American Edition of Luther’s Works.

On the Last Trumpet of God

[1 Corinthians 15:51–53]
Translated by Mark E. DeGarmeaux

…It is fitting in this time after the Easter festival to preach and deal with the article concerning the resurrection, not only the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead for all our sakes, just as He also died for all our sakes, but also our own resurrection, so that we may be firmly grounded in faith and completely certain that our own body will come forth again and live. For the resurrection of Christ is of no use to us at all if we, for whose sake Christ rose again, do not follow after Him and rise again from the dead just as He did. But we will not be able to follow after Him and rise to life with Him unless we believe that His resurrection happened for our good. Neither will we believe it unless we preach about it continually and proclaim this article without ceasing, so that it may take root in our hearts. Continue reading. . .

Matthew 11:12-19 Festival of the Reformation

Neither Dance Nor Dirge

Matthew 11:12-19

photo by Teo’s photo on Flickr

Go to any farmer’s market, open-air craft fair, or urban street bazaar, and you can get a reasonable idea of the market Jesus is speaking about in our Gospel. The merchants arrive and set out their wares for the day, and soon the customers come looking for the best deals. And while this is going on, And kids will be kids, whether in ancient Palestine, or 21stcentury America. Playing happily one minute, the next minute the children are looking about for something to do. And then comes one of the most maddening, tedious conversations ever you will hear from child or adult:

“So, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.” “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.” “What do you want to do?”

“We could do this.”

“Nah, I don’t want to do that.”

“Oh, okay.” “How about this?”

“I really don’t want to do that either.”

“Huh.”“Yeah. I guess there’s nothing to do.”

Suggesting things to do, but the other person not only wants to do none of them, but neither do they offer an idea of what they might want to do. There are times when people are more focused on having a problem, than on finding a solution for the problem. Jesus presents a situation as a metaphor. There were kids that went to the marketplace, the gathering place, looking for something to do. But when some suggested they play wedding games, the other mates weren’t interested in doing that, they weren’t in the mood to dance and be happy; so they counter with the idea of a playing funeral games, but their mates don’t want to do that either, they weren’t in the mood to be mournful. They just weren’t in the mind for a solution.


But Jesus isn’t talking about games around the marketplace. He’s talking about how his hearers regard salvation. They want a Savior; they just don’t want a savior like he is. They don’t want the message he proclaims, in fact, they would like him to change the message to suit them.

We can better understand what Jesus is talking about if we look back a few verses. The few brief verses of Gospel read earlier are part of a larger section in the Gospel of Matthew in which John the Baptist, then sitting in jail, has sent to Christ two of his disciples, with a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3) When the messengers had gone back, Christ begins to teach the crowds concerning John. Part of that teaching is before us.

When John the Baptist preached he had a pretty austere lifestyle. Some today, if they were being charitable, might call him a minimalist. He lived in the wilderness eating locust and wild honey. He was the second Elijah pointing to the coming of the Messiah. John didn’t take a drink now and then, you didn’t find him at feasts; he was all about the business of being the messenger appointed by God. And his rugged ‘no frills’ lifestyle accentuated the message to repent, for the kingdom of God was at hand. Many went out to hear him preach, and as a result, many were baptized in the Jordan River. While many believed, many didn’t like what they heard. John’s message declared that man couldn’t find favor with God on his own; that his works count for nothing.

Now while they didn’t like what they heard, they had a hard time disputing what John said, because John’s preaching was in fact Scriptural. They needed another reason to justify why they would turn away from John. If you can’t impeach the message, impeach the messenger. So they took out after John’s lifestyle; any guy who lives out in the wilderness and wears camel’s hair, well he has to be a bit nuts, they even said that John might be demon-possessed. The implication is that surely you don’t want to be getting your spiritual advise from a lunatic, a demon-possessed lunatic, do you?

Then along comes Jesus, just as John had foretold. In fact, one day John outed Jesus from the crowd declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And although Jesus was the sacrificial lamb on the way to the cross, he did not live the austere lifestyle of John. Jesus travels from town to town, accepting and participating in the hospitality offered by others, eating and drinking what is wholesomely set before him. Christ first recorded miracle is while he is attending a wedding feast with his mother, and turns water into wine for the celebration.

Christ came to bring good news to the poor; to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3). And freely eating and drinking, and participating in the pleasant things of life, were in harmony with the message of Christ.

Both John and Jesus were preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the terms of the children in the market place there were two games in town from which you could choose. If you didn’t like the ‘funeral dirge’ lifestyle of John, then chances are you would like the happier, freer lifestyle of Jesus. Yet while many did believe Jesus, the same people who rejected John rejected Jesus. The same ones who would say “don’t listen to John because he is so austere he must be demon possessed,” were the ones who said, “don’t listen to Jesus because he eats and drinks wine, so he must be a glutton and a drunk, and he eats with sinners and tax collectors; and we think he’s demon possessed too.”

How could they reject both John and Jesus for the opposite ways of life? If you are pleased with poverty, why did John displease you? If wealth pleases you, why did the Jesus displease you? They could reject both, because both preached the same message. Both preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Both proclaimed that man couldn’t save himself by his own works. Both proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the Savior, foretold by prophets, who would sacrifice himself for the sins of the world. That is a message that the enemies of the Gospel cannot take, because is it is a message that requires them to deny themselves, confess their sins, and trust in Christ.

So the strategy is clear, if you can’t impeach the message, impeach the messenger. Jesus came as the savior of all, and those who opposed him attacked his character by branding him a glutton and a drunk. And then they went on to say that, just as John had a demon, so too Jesus has a demon. In Mark 3 we hear how the Jewish scribes, declared that Jesus “ ‘is possessed by Beelzebub’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out demons’ “ (Mark 3:22).  And later in this Gospel, Matthew records how the Pharisees announced that “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that he casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24).

But that wasn’t enough. The sinful nature cannot stand the Gospel, because it knows that Gospel is the death of sin and death. And it is not enough to just turn from the Gospel, or even to bad-mouth it. Don’t underestimate sin’s hatred of grace. But because sin and sinners are so offended by it, those who reject it must get rid of the Gospel. What happened to John? His preaching against Herod’s open sin of adultery got him beheaded. And what of Jesus? You know. The chief priest and the Pharisees gathered false witnesses, staged a trial, and convinced Pilate to authorize his crucifixion. Sin would rather take life, even yours, rather than have you hear the Gospel. But sin did not shutter the Gospel, not by John’s death, not even by Jesus’ death.

The text takes us back to the greatest days this world has ever seen, when the Kingdom of Heaven came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ, when in John the Baptist the Old Testament reached its most radiant climax and the New Testament dawned.

In his commentary on Matthew, Dr. Jeffery Gibbs reminds us that our God is a God of history; that is he is “always engaged in his creation by coming into it with deeds—deeds of judgment and deeds of salvation.” Overall, there is a movement toward salvation, and moments come when God does something new. In his teaching about John, Jesus is laying it out plainly that in the ministry of John, God was doing a new thing. And if Jesus’ hearers failed to recognize what God was doing through John, then they would miss what God was doing through Jesus.

Let’s get back to our Lord’s teaching about the children. Those children who are sitting in the marketplace are the ones of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks: “Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isaiah 8:18). And also the psalm: “the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). And elsewhere: “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2).

So those children who are signs to Israel sat in the marketplace, and because the Jews did not want to listen, the children not only spoke but shouted to them, at the top of their voices: “we played the flute for you, but you did not dance.” That is, we challenged you to do good deeds at the sound of our song and to dance to our flute, just as David danced before the ark of the Lord, and you did not want to. The children go on to say, “We sang a lament, but you did not mourn.” that is we challenged you to seek repentance, and the Jews did not want to do even this.

The children’s two invitations, that is the Lord’s dual path to salvation was equally rejected since the Jewish leadership scorned both poverty and wealth alike. One was called a man with a demon, the other a glutton and a drunkard. Therefore, because you did not want to accept either teaching, then the teaching of God is that“ wisdom is justified from her own deeds.” Jesus certainly said about himself. For Jesus is Wisdom itself. According to St. Jerome, Jesus, who is the glory of God and the wisdom of God, has been acknowledged to have acted justly by his sons, those who preach and teach rightly about the kingdom of God, those to whom the Father unveiled what he had hidden from wise, experienced people (adapted from Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew 2.11.16).

Beginning his teaching with the term “this generation,” Jesus is certainly speaking directly of his contemporaries in Palestine. And yet, as long as there remain those who war-against the kingdom of God, there remains a theological significance to the Lord’s words for all generations. Many today do not want to be called sinners, do not want to be called out as being in need of repentance. Many today want to party on their own terms rather than to rejoice on the terms of grace set out by Jesus. Christ’s unconditional grace strips us of all our own supposed righteousness, all our claims, and declares us instead to be needy beggars who have nothing to offer but can only receive.

Apart from the Holy Spirit, by human wisdom alone, this gift of grace is a gift that we too would despise. If we find ourselves regularly acknowledging our sin, living lives of repentance, and rejoicing in the gracious Messiahs’ love and forgiveness—to God be the glory, for these are the only gifts offered by God to save his people from their sin through his Son, Jesus Christ.


Today we are gathered to celebrate the Festival Reformation. Normally our festival days celebrate events that happen in the Bible. But today we celebrate a series of events that happened nearly fifteen centuries after the Ascension of Jesus. The first commemorations of the Reformation were annual thanksgiving services for the translation of the Bible into the German language or to commemorate the introduction of the Reformation. Luther’s Pastor, Johnnes Bugenhagen already provided for such a celebration as early as 1528. In 1543—still three years before the Reformer’s death, as part of the church orders for the churches in Brunswich (1543), Bugenhagen set the date for the annual thanksgiving as St. Martin’s Day, in memory of Luther’s birth on St. Martin’s Eve. Later, some church orders appointed the service to be held on the Sunday after the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24), since the Augsburg Confession was presented on June 25. After the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648) the Elector of Saxony appointed October 31 as the day of thanksgiving.

But it is still an important day. So much so, that some have stated that Martin Luther was as essential to the Church in his time as John the Baptist was to the church in the opening days of the New Testament. So now you understand why this Gospel from Matthew 11 is appointed for Reformation.

Another tradition that ties the readings for this Festival Day to our reformer is the suggestion that the angel in our First Reading from Revelation 14 (:7), is none other than Martin Luther, messenger of God in what is certainly the Last Days of the Church. 18th century Lutheran theologian Christoph Starke comments on Revelation 14: 6-7:This shows that the teacher would emerge in the Church, go forth, and be seen and heard by everyone in the Church. This sermon has true repentance as its goal. It indicates the words of the eternal Gospel clear enough. This eternal Gospel is also the central point of all divine wisdom and doctrine, as the angel few in the midst of heaven. . . Those who see this as being fulfilled explain it thus: It applies to a specific teacher that is supposed to reform and purify the Church under the Antichrist. Thus it refers to Luther with his helpers who began the Reformation.

C.F.W Walther himself, and others in the LCMS, understand this verse as foretelling typologically Luther’s work as the reformer. That is why Walther picked Revelation 14:7 as the verse for the fledgling Synods theological and news publication: Der Lutheraner, and why the angel of Revelation 14:7 flew on its masthead.

Whether St. John saw and recorded a revelation or prophecy of Luther we cannot say for sure. But we dare not downplay that the Lord used Luther, according to his will, to preach the Gospel to all nations. The Gospel had been all but lost by 1500’s. The Church had slowly replaced the teaching of God’s mercy and grace for the forgiveness of sins, with the teaching that the only way to salvation was to do good works and meritorious living in quantitates sufficient to out-weigh the sin in one’s life.

This was the church and the teaching that Luther grew up in. He grew to hate God, for as he was taught, he believed that God required him to keep a law he couldn’t keep in order to be saved. Thanks be to God that this despair did not drive Luther from the Church. Instead, what Luther rediscovered in the Scriptures rocked his world—and the whole world, as a result. While certainly Luther deserved God’s judgment and condemnation for not keeping God’s law, it was also true that Jesus Christ had died as the perfect sacrifice upon the cross for his sin. And the forgiveness that Christ secured on the cross was given as a free gift to all, along with the faith to believe it. The Reformation that was thus begun was the result of Luther, working within his calling as a pastor and doctor of the church, notifying the church of the truth, and calling for the church to abandon its teaching of salvation by works and returning the Bible’s teaching that by Christ’s death, salvation had been won for the sins of the world. Luther preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

What was the Church’s response? They refuted his teachings. Those in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church called him a glutton and a drunk, a wild boar, and servant of Satan. But that wasn’t enough. It is not enough to just turn from the Gospel, or even to bad-mouth it. Again, don’t underestimate sin’s hatred of grace, and those who reject it must get rid of the Gospel. Luther was declared a heretic, and in that day, a heretic was also an enemy of the state—it was a capital crime; they declared open season on Luther making it legal to kill him, if they could catch him. They wanted him gone because Luther’s teaching that salvation was free for sake of Jesus is the death of any teaching of salvation earned by good works. But the Lord preserved Luther’s life for many more years so he could further the work of the Reformation

Since the days of John the Baptist until even now, the church has suffered violence, and the violent seek to take it by force. But Wisdom is justified by her deeds. The Wisdom of God is that the Gospel will be preached until he returns in glory—the ultimate Day of Judgment revealed to John and recorded for us in the last book of the Bible. You and I don’t live in times, or locations, where violence is directed at us for speaking the Gospel. But there are plenty of Christians around the world who suffer violence, even death, for speaking the truth of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to others. It is good for us to pray for those who are persecuted for the faith around the world. And it is good for us to give thanks for the rare and historic privilege of gathering together in worship in peace, without persecution or violent mobs surrounding us. All in all, here in this country, we have it pretty easy for the moment

However, we must remain vigilant, for it is exactly at the times of peace or prosperity that we are most in danger of loosing the Gospel. It makes sense. When death is a daily threat, you want to cling to the eternal life that Christ has won. In times of peace and prosperity, salvation seems less important, and Christians tend to get distracted. The proclamation is not as sweet when death shadow and God’s wrath don’t feel so close at hand. And that is when the church starts to stray to make the faith about improving and enjoying life here, or to compromise and call sin and false teaching okay. The devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh are happy to nudge us along this path because they hate the Gospel and like nothing better than to see it overthrown, in big ways certainly, but no more so than on individual basis. It is only when we truly understand the consequences of our sin and the reality of death, that we are thirsty for the Gospel.

So remember Jesus’ words that He spoke about himself: “Wisdom is justified by her works.“ Only Christ, and Him crucified, is the Wisdom of God. And only Christ our crucified and risen Lord has grace and forgiveness for you. Don’t judge this Wisdom by it’s reputation in the world. The world will always declare the Church, at best, useless, or the source of all evil, as long as it proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t measure the Wisdom of God by the preacher. Preachers come and preachers go. Some might eat locust, some might spend time eating with sinners; but the measure of the messenger is the message. The measure of the preacher is whether he preaches the Word of God. Don’t measure the Wisdom of God by the congregation. Congregations will vary in size, appearance, and energy levels. But the measure of a congregation is it’s confession of faith—what it believes; what it declares. If it declares the Wisdom of God: that you are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone, that is the place to be. That wisdom is justified by its works because it works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all those who believe.

You have been rescued from a generation that did not want to confess Jesus is Lord. Several generations, in fact. In truth, every generation. Wherever the sinful flesh exists, there you will find enemies of the Gospel. It is easy on such a day as this, to point to the Reformation  or to the Saxon immigration even the founding of our own Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod as the days of deliverance of the Church. But then we would overlook the faithful work of congregations in every age that have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel, even yours now in this age. And by the grace of God, in those congregations you hear the Gospel and believe what it says. You hear that Christ has died for your sins, that he has made you his own in your baptism and that he gives you everything that you need for your body and life, including feeding you with his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

In a world darkened by sin, the Lord has made you wise unto salvation, counts you among his redeemed and beloved children. From countless altars in faithful congregations, the Lord shines the light of His salvation through the Means of Grace to you. “The Word forever shall remain, No thanks to foes, who fear it; He’s by our side, upon the plain, With weapons of the Spirit,” namely, His means of Grace, so that for the sake of Jesus you are forgiven all your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thanks for ideas and content to Pastor Timothy Pauls, Jerome, Christoph Starke, Hilary, Herbert Lindemann, Oskar Pank, Pastor Chad Kendall, and Dr. Jeffery Gibbs.

Luther’s Works–new volume now available


Luther's Works, #69

At the turn of the millennium Life magazine rated Martin Luther as the third most important person of the last 1,000 years. His confession of the Gospel of Christ has given direction and purpose to many both inside and outside the Lutheran Church. Still after nearly five hundred years since the Reformation began, the writings of Martin Luther continue to inform and inspire preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ arond the world. Therefore it is a shame, that while the fifty-five volumes of the American Edition is the most extensive collection of Luther’s works in English, it doesn’t contain even one half of all Luther’s writings.

But with the publishing of Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 69, that is all about to change. Concordia Publishing House has embarked on a historic project to translate and publish 20 new volumes of Luther’s Works that have never been translated into English. A team of scholars and translators have been at work. This first volume in the new series demonstrates that this team is committed to ensuring that the new editions of Luther meets the highest levels of scholarship and quality.

In announcing the publishing of this first volume in the Luther’s Works extension, my colleauge Dr. Benjamin Mayes writes:

Volumes 22–24 of Luther’s Works: American Edition did not give us all of Luther’s preaching on the Gospel of John. Now, in the new volume 69, we have Luther’s exposition of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, as well as his preached meditations on the entire passion and resurrection of our Lord according to John. In LW 69, Luther is an expert guide through the mysteries of Lent and Easter. Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown’s introductions and footnotes in many ways surpass the scholarly apparatus of the old series. Brown sets Luther’s commentary in the context of patristic, medieval, and contemporary Reformation commentaries on John in order to show what was most important to Luther as he preached on Christ’s passion.

The last part of our new volume is truly unique. For the first time, we have collected and translated all of Luther’s sermons on John 20:19–31, where Jesus breathes on His disciples, gives them the Holy Spirit, and bestows on them His authority to forgive and retain sins. This passage, which is quoted and explained in many editions of the Small Catechism, as well as in the twenty-eighth article of the Augsburg Confession, has been the center of not a little controversy over the years. The sermons here in LW 69 show in what ways Luther’s explanation of this passage changed through his career, and in what ways it stayed the same. In every sermon Luther’s concern to uphold the forgiveness of sins through the word of absolution is clear and heartening.

Whether, you are new to Luther, or whether you have been using the American Edition for years, I encourage you to check out this great collection of sermons.

You can order you copy of volume 69 at the website, or you can go here to find out more about the new series and even become a subscriber.

How to Meditate on the Passion of Christ

April 5, 1519, Martin Luther sent a copy of his essay titled A Sermon Concerning Meditation on the Holy Sufferings of Christ to his friend George Spalatin. Within five years, it had been published in twenty-four editions. It was enormously popular. It was translated into Latin in 1521. Later, when Luther put together helps and sermons for preachers, it was included as the sermon for Good Friday in the Church Postil of 1525.

This translation is based on the English translation that appeared in a 1906 collection of Luther’s writings, titled Lutherans in All Lands. An alternate translation may be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, Volume 42, pgs. 7ff.

The original edition of the text is found in the Weimar Ausgabe as Ein Sermon von der Betrachtung des heiligen Leidens Christi in WA 2:136-142.

By Martin Luther

Wrong Ways to Meditate on Christ’s Passion
Some people meditate on the Passion of Christ and become angry at the Jews. They sing and go on and on about Judas too. [1] They are just doing what they always do. They love to complain about other people. They spend all their time condemning their enemies. I guess this is a meditation of sorts, but not a meditation on the sufferings of Christ. It is just a meditation on the wickedness of the Jews and Judas.

Other people who like to talk about the benefit of meditating on Christ’s Passion miss the point. Something Albertus [2] said can be very misleading. He said that thinking about the Passion of Christ is better than fasting a whole year or praying through the Psalms every day. Some people blindly follow him, take his comment literally, and then act contrary to Christ’s passion. They are just looking out for their own interests, trying to get out of doing other things. They superstitiously decorate themselves with pictures and booklets, letters and crucifixes. Some of them even go so far as to imagine that by doing these things they are protecting themselves against drowning, burning, the sword, and all sorts of other dangers. [3] They try to use the sufferings of Christ to prevent any suffering from coming into their life, which is of course entirely contrary to how life really is.

Then there are the people who like to sympathize emotionally with Christ. They weep and wail over Him because He was so innocent. They are like the women who followed Christ from Jerusalem. He rebuked them! He told them that they should weep for themselves and their children. They run headlong into the Passion season thinking they are receiving great benefit by pondering deeply on things like how Jesus left Bethany, or the pains and sorrows suffered by the Virgin Mary. [4] They meditate on these things for hours and hours on end. But they never get any farther. Somehow they don’t reflect on Christ’s actual suffering and death. God only knows if they are doing this more to sleep than to watch and wait with Christ. [5]

People like this include fanatics who try to teach people that they receive a great blessing from simply attending the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, standing there and watching it being performed. They try to tell people that simply showing up and watching a Mass, automatically works blessings, by the very act of doing it. They would lead people to believe that the Lord’s Supper has nothing to do with faith in the promise of the Lord’s Supper, or being worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was not instituted for its own sake, as if simply doing it was the point. It was given for the purpose of meditating on the Passion of Christ. If we don’t do this, we are turning the Lord’s Supper into a human work. We are making it a useless thing that we do, no matter how good it may be in and of itself. What use is it to you that God is God, if He is not God for you? What use is eating and drinking if they are not beneficial for you? We should be afraid of thinking that we will become better simply because we celebrate the Lord’s Supper a lot, while all the while failing to receive its true benefit.

The Right Way to Think About Christ’s Passion
When we meditate on the Passion of Christ the right way, we see Christ and are terrified at the sight. Our conscience sinks in despair. This feeling of terror needs to happen so that we fully realize how great the wrath of God is against sin and sinners. We understand this when we see how God sets sinners free only because His dearly beloved Son — His only Son — paid such a costly ransom for us, as Isaiah 53:8 says, “He was stricken for the transgressions of my people.”

What happens to us when we see the dear Child of God struck down like this? We realize how inexpressible, even unbearable, is the Son’s total commitment to saving sinners. How else can we feel when we realize that a person so great as Christ went out to meet this fate, suffering and dying for sinners? If you truly and deeply reflect on the fact that God’s Son, the eternal Wisdom of God, suffers, you will be filled with terror. The more you reflect on it the deeper you will feel this way.

You should deeply believe, and never doubt, that in fact you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to Him. St. Peter struck terror in the hearts of the Jews when he said in Acts 2:36-27: “You crucified Him!” Three thousand people were filled with terror. Trembling in fear they cried out to the Apostles, “Dear brothers, what should we do?” Therefore, when you look at the nails being driven through His hands, firmly believe that it is your work. Do you see His crown of thorns? Those thorns are your wicked thoughts.

Look! When one thorn pierces Christ, you need to know that more than a thousand should pierce you. They should pierce you for all eternity even more painfully than they ever pierced Christ. When you see nails driven through the hands and feet of Christ, know that you should be suffering this for all eternity, with even more painful nails. Everyone who looks on Christ’s sufferings and forgets about them, thinking they are of no worth, will suffer such a fate for all eternity. The Passion of Christ is a mirror of what is to come. This mirror is no lie and no joke. Whatever Jesus says will happen, completely.

Bernard [6] was so terrified by the sufferings of Christ that he said, “At one time I thought I was secure. I didn’t know a thing about the judgment that had been passed on me in heaven, until I saw that the eternal Son of God had mercy on me. I saw that He stepped forward and offered Himself on my behalf, receiving my judgment and taking my place. I can no longer feel so carelessly when I realize how serious the sufferings of Christ are.” This is why Jesus commanded the women, “Do not cry for me. Cry for yourselves and your children” (Luke 23:28).

It is as if Jesus is saying, “Learn from my death what you have earned and what you deserve to receive.” It is like a little dog is being killed in order to frighten a large dog. This is why the Prophet said, “All generations will lament and wail more than Him.” He doesn’t say they lament Him. They are lamenting for their own fate. This explains why the people were filled with terror in Acts 2:27, as I’ve already mentioned, and said to the Apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” The church sings, “I will ponder this diligently and then my soul will languish.” [7]

A person should carefully consider this point. The benefit of Christ’s sufferings depends entirely on a person coming to know himself well and being filled with terror to the point of death. If a person does not reach this point, the sufferings of Christ will really not benefit him. Christ’s sufferings naturally make all people alike. As Christ died horribly in his body and soul for our sins, so we must, like him, die in our own consciences because of our sin. This does not take place through a lot of words, but by means of deep thought and a profound realization of our sins. Let me illustrate my point. Let’s say an evil person kills the child of a prince or king without bothering you, and you continue singing and playing as if you were entirely innocent. Then you are arrested and convinced that you were the reason the child was killed. You would be horrified! Your conscience would strike you deeply. So, you should be even more upset when you consider the sufferings of Christ. The Jews who killed Christ, and have now been judged and banished by God, were merely the servants of your sins. You are truly the one who strangled and crucified the Son of God through your sins.

If anyone is so cold and unfeeling that he is not terrified when he views the sufferings of Christ, he should tremble with fear. You must become like the pictures of Christ’s sufferings. It can’t be otherwise. Either here in time or in hell for all eternity. At the moment of your death, if not sooner, you need to fall into terror, tremble and shake with fear, and experience all that Christ suffered on the cross. It is terrible to wait until you die to do this. Pray to God and ask Him to soften your heart now and so you can meditate fruitfully on Christ’s passion. It is impossible for us to meditate on the sufferings of Christ by our own ability or power. God must plant these sufferings into our heart. This meditation on Christ’s suffering, as with all doctrine from God, is not given to you so that you can go off and do your own thing with it. No, you should always first search for God’s grace and long for it. On your own, you can’t do anything. Everything depends on God’s grace. People who never view the sufferings of Christ correctly are the people who never call upon God and ask him to help them. Instead, they try to consider Christ’s suffering on their own and end up regarding Christ’s sufferings in a purely human and unfruitful way.

Let me say this very clearly and openly for all to hear. Whoever meditates on Christ’s sufferings the right way for a day, an hour, even for fifteen minutes, is doing something far better than fasting for a whole year, praying all the Psalms every day, or listening to one hundred masses. The right kind of meditation on Christ’s suffering changes a person’s character. As in Baptism, a person is newly born again through such meditation. Then the sufferings of Christ are accomplishing their true, natural and noble work. They kill the Old Adam. They banish from us all lust, pleasure and security that we might think one of God’s creatures can give us, just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.

We need to realize that feeling born again is not something that is up to us. It may be that sometimes we will pray for it, but do not receive it just then. We should not despair, but keep on praying. At times it comes when we are not praying for it. God knows what we need. He will do what is best. It is free and unbound. It may be that when our consciences are causing us distress and we are deeply unhappy with our lives and what we have done we do not realize it, but the Passion of Christ is doing this to us. On the other hand, some people may think they are meditating on Christ’s Passion, but they become so caught up in thinking about themselves that they can’t work their way out of it. The first group are truly meditating on Christ’s Passion, others are just making a show of it and it is false.

The Comfort of Christ’s Suffering
Up to this point in our discussion, it is as if we have been in Passion Week and Good Friday. Now we come to Easter and Christ’s Resurrection. When a person, whose conscience has been filled with terror, understands his sins in this light, he needs to watch out that his sins do not remain in his conscience, for then nothing but pure doubt will result. Just as our sins flowed out of Christ and we became aware of them, so we should pour them back on Him again and set our conscience free. Make sure you do not bite and devour one another with sins in your heart, running here and there with your own good works, trying to make satisfaction for them, trying to work your way out of your sins by means of indulgences. It is impossible! Unfortunately, it is still the case that many people, far and wide, think they find a refuge in such satisfactions and pilgrimages.

Take your sins and throw them on Christ. Believe with a joyful spirit that your sins are His wounds and sufferings. He carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Isaiah 53:6 says, “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Peter says in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, “For our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” You must rely on these verses from the Bible with all your might, even more when your conscience tries to kill you. You’ll never find peace if you miss this opportunity to quiet your heart. You will have so much doubt that you will despair. If we dwell too much on our sins, going over and over them in our conscience, keeping them close to our hearts, soon they will become too much for us to manage and they will live forever. But when we see our sins laid on Christ and see Him triumph over them by His Resurrection, and fearlessly believe this, our sins are dead and become nothing. Our sins don’t stay on Christ, but are swallowed up by His resurrection. Now you see no wounds, no pain, no sight of sin at all in Him. That is why Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” In His sufferings Christ made our sins known and was crucified for them. By His resurrection He makes us righteous and frees from all sin. If you are not able to believe then pray to God for faith. This is entirely up to God. He gives faith at times very dramatically and openly, and at other times, secretly and quietly.

Therefore, here is what you need to do. First, stop looking at Christ’s sufferings any longer. They have already done their work and have terrified you. Press forward through all difficulties and see His friendly heart. Look how full of love God’s heart is for you. It was this love that moved Him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and sin. If you do this, your heart will be sweetly loving toward Him. The assurance of your faith will be stronger. Ascend higher through the heart of Christ to the heart of God and then you will see that Christ would not have been able to love you if God had not willed all this in His eternal love. Christ is obedient to this love, and so loves you. In the heart of God you will find a divine, good, fatherly heart. As Christ says, you will be drawn to the Father through Christ. Then you will understand what Christ meant when he said in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.” This is how we know God as He wants us to know Him. We know Him not by His power and wisdom, which terrify us, but by His goodness and love. There our faith and confidence stand unmovable. This is how a person is truly born again in God.

When your heart is set on Christ, you are an enemy of sin, because of love, and not because you are afraid of being punished. Christ’s sufferings should be an example for your whole life. You should meditate on them in a different way. To this point we have considered Christ’s Passion as a sacrament that works in us. Now we want to consider the sufferings of Christ in a different way, in a way that is something that works in us when we suffer. When the day comes that sickness and sorrow weigh you down, think how little it matters compared to the thorns and nails of Christ. If you have to do something you don’t want, or can’t do something you want to do, think about how Christ was led about by others, tied up as a prisoner. Does pride attack you? Look at how your Lord was mocked and disgraced along with murderers. Do sexually impure thoughts and lust come your way, thrusting themselves on you? Think how bitter it was for Christ to have his tender flesh torn, pierced and beaten, again and again. Are hatred and envy at war within you, or are you seeking vengeance? Remember how Christ prayed for you, and all of his enemies, with many tears and cries. He had more reason than you to seek revenge! If any trouble or adversity trouble your body or soul, take heart! Say, “Why shouldn’t I also not suffer a little since my Lord sweat blood in the Garden because of his anxiety and grief? I would be a lazy, disgraceful servant if all I want to do is lie in bed while my Lord is forced to do battle with a painful death.”

This is how you find strength in Christ and are comforted when you struggle with all kinds vice and bad habits. This is the right way to meditate on the Passion of Christ. This is the fruit of His suffering. That is why somebody who meditates on Christ’s passion, in this way, really is doing something better than hearing the whole Passion story read, or reading all sorts of Masses. People who make the life and name of Christ part of their own life are truly called Christians, as Paul says in Gal. 5:24: “Those who are in Christ have crucified the flesh with all its passions and lusts.” We need to meditate on Christ’s passion, not with lots of words or with a showy display, but put it to true use in our lives. Paul admonishes us in Hebrews 12:3, “Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Peter says in 1 Peter 4:1: “Since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” But this kind of meditation on Christ’s passion is not used much. It is very rare, although the Epistles of Paul and Peter are filled with it. We have changed the essence of meditation on Christ’s Passion into a show, and simply painted meditation on Christ’s passion in letters and on walls.
To God Alone Be the Glory!

Revised translation by:
Paul T. McCain
The First Sunday in Lent
February 29, 2004

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright @2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1. Luther is alluding to a medieval German hymn, Wretched Judas, What Have You Done?
2. Albert Magnus (1193-1280) was a Scholastic theologian, a teacher of the most famous of all such theologians, Thomas Aquinas.
3. Luther is referring to the practice in his day of carrying around all kinds of Christian “trinkets” in a superstitious way as good luck charms, intended to ward off all sorts of dangers.
4. Much was made in Luther’s Germany about Christ leaving the home of his friends and supporters, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Veneration of Martha was widespread throughout Germany at this time.
5. Contemplations on all the events surrounding the actual crucifixion, such as meditating on Christ leaving Bethany, or on the suffering of the Virgin Mary to last up to five hours. Many times they would last even longer and people would fall asleep.
6. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), was a Cistercian monk, mystic and the founder of the Abbey of Clairvaux. He was held in high esteem by Luther, who often quotes him.
7. This could very well be from Bernard of Clairvaux hymn Salve Caput Cruentatem, later loosely paraphrased by the most famous of all Lutheran hymn writers, Paul Gerhardt in his hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

A Note About this Text
April 5, 1519, Martin Luther sent a copy of his essay titled A Sermon Concerning Meditation on the Holy Sufferings of Christ to his friend George Spalatin. Within five years, it had been published in twenty-four editions. It was enormously popular. It was translated into Latin in 1521. Later, when Luther put together helps and sermons for preachers, it was included as the sermon for Good Friday in the Church Postil of 1525.
This translation is based on the English translation that appeared in a 1906 collection of Luther’s writings, titled Lutherans in All Lands. An alternate translation may be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, Volume 42, pgs. 7ff.
The original edition of the text is found in the Weimar Ausgabe as Ein Sermon von der Betrachtung des heiligen Leidens Christi in WA 2:136-142.