Sermon for the Reformation Festival

by Georg Stöckhardt
translated by Nathaniel Biebert
Luther nailing the 95 theses.

The following is a Reformation sermon taken from Georg Stöckhardt’s well-known book of sermons, Gnade um Gnade (Grace for Grace, taken from Luther’s translation of John 1:16). The sermon was given by Stöckhardt himself in 1885. Georg Stöckhardt was a pastor and professor in the Missouri Synod in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was known as an eloquent and caring preacher, an expert exegete of Scripture, and a devout and pious man. A condensed biography of Stöckhardt may very likely appear in a coming issue of Studium Excitare, but the reader may find a more detailed and fascinating biography of the man here.

In the following translation, a few things must be noted. First, in the original German there were only a total of 8 paragraphs. For the sake of reading convenience, the translator has further divided the content. Second, German texts like to have long sentences. The translator tried to err on the side of being literal; therefore in many places sentences may be cumbersome to follow. However, wherever possible, the longer and/or more complex sentences have been divided up into smaller sentences, and sometimes words have been added to aid in understanding. Notable additions are found in the endnotes. Third, often a word cannot be literally translated into English. In these cases, the translator chose what he thought to be the best equivalent, and placed the original German into an endnote for the interest of readers who know German. Fourth, the text often used masculine pronouns to refer to any person, male or female. (This also used to be common in English.) The translation retains the gender of these pronouns, but any female readers should know that they are not excluded from the message in any way, shape, or form. The places where this is the case will be obvious to the reader. Finally, the language in this sermon grows quite harsh at times when talking about the pope and the Roman church. Stöckhardt does not have to be excused for this; he knew as well as any pastor that the shepherd has to protect his flock from and warn them of the wolves. He is very zealous for the truth of the Gospel. Consequently, just as Paul calls opponents of the Gospel “dogs” in Philippians 3, so Stöckhardt also speaks harshly against the chief opponent of the Gospel at Luther’s time--the Roman church.

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Luke 19:45-47

Then he went into the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and buying therewithin, and he said to them, “It stands written: ‘My house is a house of prayer;’ you however have turned it into a den of assassins.” And he was teaching daily in the temple. But the high priests and scribes and the leaders among the people plotted against him, that they might kill him.1

The 31st of October is a memorable day that Christianity will never forget as long as the world endures. On this day evangelical Christianity, which has been set free from the pope, celebrates the Festival of the Reformation. What took place on this day in the year 1517 was the beginning of the Reformation. The work of the Reformation was not completed all at once on this day, but nevertheless begun. On that day the foundation-stone was laid, as it were.

Our Dr. Luther, the reformer of the church, reformed as long as he was living. What he preached and wrote all the way into his final years, and the Word, which he set over against the pope and the enthusiasts, helped to bring about the purification of the church and the preservation of pure doctrine in the church.2 Those 95 Theses that he nailed on the castle church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, were his first reformatory writing, the first writing that made a deep cut into the life and way of the church, into the corruption of the Roman Church.

On the outside,3 what took place with the nailing of the theses in Wittenberg was no great extraordinary event at first. It was at that time common practice in university cities to herald great festivals also through so-called academic documents. Any one doctor drew up some theses or sentences on a subject that was important to him and of interest, and made the same known by posting them. Then there would be a disputation over them by the scholars in a public gathering. Those 95 Theses of Luther were also such theses of disputation. The Festival of All Saints fell on the first of November, and that was at the same time the church dedication day for the collegiate and castle church at Wittenberg. This festival also brought many theologians into the university city of Wittenberg. And on this occasion Luther now wanted, before a great circle of theologians, to broach a matter that moved him at that time--his deliberation over the indulgence. He had compressed this deliberation of his into the 95 sentences, and at first it was only his intention that there would be disputation over them by the theologians, the teachers of the church.

Yes, directly the church dedication day of the collegiate church at Wittenberg seemed to be very fitting for such a discussion over the indulgence, because special indulgences were promised by the pope to the believers who took part in this celebration. Thus what Luther prepared on that 31 of October, on the day before All Saints' Day, was no new extraordinary occurrence. He had no clue that this writing of his would attain world-wide fame and would be read by all Christianity and all future generations of Christianity. However, that this event could possibly have serious consequences--of this our Luther was well aware. He later expressed himself in this way: “When I began to write (he is referring to those 95 sentences), I said to God with great earnest that if he indeed would want to begin a game with me, that he would do it only for himself and would guard me against this: that he would not bring me, that is, my own wisdom, into the mix of it.”

God has begun a great game in the world and in the church with those 95 Theses of Luther. Subsequent history proves that. And precisely the content of the 95 Theses was of such a nature that it could set the hearts of Christians into great motion and confusion--on the one hand into fear and dread, on the other hand into joy and amazement.

The Roman pope had already raged for centuries as a thief, murderer, and tyrant in the church. He had feasted and reveled from the fat of the sheep. Worst of all, he had cheated poor souls out of their salvation; he had killed off souls, which Christ had purchased at great cost,4 by his shameful practices, lies, and blasphemies. And the corruption, the falsehood, and the superstition of the popish church are reflected and reach their climax, as it were, directly in the selling of indulgences. Luther, by stepping up against the indulgence in this way, attacked the corruption of the church at a sore spot. The dream that the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, had on the night before that 31st of October is familiar. He had a dream5 that a monk6 wrote something down on the door7 of his castle church at Wittenberg, and that the quill of this monk grew longer and longer. It reached as far as to Rome and knocked off the miter8 from the pope’s head. The dream came true. Luther has snatched at the life of the papacy with his theses on the indulgence. Through them he has torn up the great web of lies of antichristendom. And in those theses he has held against the falsehood of Satan, the Babylonian darkness, the bright and clear9 light of truth. Those theses are a clear and powerful preaching of the Gospel.

In four weeks these 95 sentences ran through all Christianity like a wild-fire. They were read and discussed at the market and in the street, in the inns and factories, in the castles of the rich and the huts of the poor. And why was it that hearts were so captivated? The Gospel, the old forgotten truth, like a new report had again come among the people in and with these theses. Yes indeed, Luther has thrown these theses, prepared by hand and by the Spirit of God, onto the paper and made them publicly known without much preparation and study, yet with a bold grasp on his quill.10 That was truly the beginning of the Reformation. In this beginning11 all subsequent work of the Reformation and the entire teaching of Luther is reflected. Thus today let us continue to stand by this beginning and for once let us contemplate:

The preaching of Luther concerning the indulgence.

  1. How he has spoiled the indulgence of the pope;12
  2. How he has proclaimed the correct indulgence of Christianity.
1.

The selected Gospel text concerning the temple purification has long prevailed in the Lutheran church as the Gospel text of the Reformation festival. The temple purification that Christ executed in the days of his flesh is a striking image of the Reformation of the church, which Christ brought about through his chosen tool, Dr. Luther. When Jesus set foot in the holy building in Jerusalem for the last time, Israel’s apostasy, unbelief, and hypocrisy had assumed the most hateful and disgusting form in that very place. In the temple the buyers and sellers had built their nests; there stood the tables of the moneychangers and the pigeon retailers. Out of sacrifice and public worship a fair had grown. Later in the Christian church the same outrage appeared. In the book of Acts it is related concerning Simon the sorcerer, that from the apostles he wanted to purchase with money the miraculous power to distribute the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.13 This way and habit of purchasing spiritual things and goods through money was then forbidden14 in the church for a time.

But the Roman bishop, the head of the church, later set up the tables of the moneychangers and retailers in the church himself. He regarded it as a holy privilege to confer indulgence and remission from all sins and penalties under certain conditions. And the condition that was most agreeable for him was this--that the people paid money. By paying money15 the believers could thus obtain forgiveness of sins and all blessings of the kingdom of heaven from the pope as the vicar of Christ and of God.

At Luther’s time the mischief of the indulgence had gained the broadest sphere of influence. So-called indulgence preachers16 passed through the regions of Christianity and offered for sale letters of indulgence, remission certificates, in which the grace of the pope, the grace of Christ and of God, was chartered and sealed. Through the German states the indulgence preacher Tetzel made his rounds. He had a warrant from the archbishop of Mainz. It stated that17 whoever should buy Tetzel’s letters of indulgence would thereby acquire forgiveness of all sins, God’s favor and grace, deliverance from purgatory, and a share in all the church’s possessions, benefits, and blessings. In all towns through which Tetzel traveled he now put up his retailer’s table with all pomp and festive show. In the churches he erected a red cross with the pope’s banner and then began first of all to praise the grace of the indulgence. His tickets of indulgence he called letters of assured safe-conduct, which would lead the soul through the vale of tears and the turbulent sea of the world into the blessed fatherland of paradise. He boasted that his cross had the same power as Christ’s cross. What he required from the people was, as it was called, “the helping hand,” that is, money. Concerning everything else--the chief articles in the Law, in the Word, remorse, repentance, faith, sanctification, chastity18--he said not one word.19 Whoever simply gave money was free from sin, wrath, hell, and purgatory. And so rich and poor now bought that rich grace. To the one who proffered no money, grace and the gate of paradise remained obstructed. The young Vergerius, a poor student in Annaberg, wanted to have the grace of the indulgence for free and without pay. So he refused to give even a mere mite. But he was refused by Tetzel for precisely this reason. It was obvious that it was only aimed at the people’s money.

The pope was the most deceitful money shark and the dirtiest swindler on God’s green earth. And his prelates, his officials and servants, also wanted to make their profit from this fair. Such indulgence preaching and selling was a welcome divine service for lazy Christians who were satisfied with food and drink. They could obtain heaven so easily.20 Sincere souls however were offended by this scandal in the highest way. The pope’s religion of lies celebrated in the abuse of indulgences one of its greatest triumphs. That was the lie of the papacy, that man through his own works and satisfaction could earn salvation for himself. For that reason heavy burdens had formerly been imposed on sinners doing penance: fasting, prayer, mortification of the flesh, and pilgrimages. That was too cumbersome for most, and prayer and fasting brought in little as profit for the pope. So it was a desirable way out for both parties, shepherd and herd, to transform works and the merit of works into money.

The nature of the papacy was and is hypocrisy upon hypocrisy.21 The pope is the man of sin.22 The Roman church is a Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the source23 of all vice and crime. But the sore conscience needs a salve; and this salve is the outward show of piety. God’s name and God’s Word must be a cover for wickedness. And the selling of indulgences and the letters of indulgence with their pious and beautiful words concerning grace, heaven, paradise, grace on the part of the seller, sacrifice on the part of the buyer--all of that now too proves itself to be as a beautiful brightly-colored cloak of the inner moral corruption.24

And that was now the blessed hour of the Reformation, when Luther uncovered and publicly exposed this shameful deception that cost Christians their money and goods, yes, also their soul and salvation. As Christ had once swung the whip in the temple of Jerusalem, driven out the sellers and buyers, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and of the pigeon retailers, so Luther, full of holy courage and spirit, seized the whip and rod of the Word. With it he punished the outrage in the holy building25 and spoke to the pope as Peter once spoke to Simon the sorcerer: “May you be condemned with your money, since you think that God’s gift may be acquired by money.”26 He began his indulgence sermon as Christ once began his sermon: “Repent!”27 He wakened the conscience of Christianity, which had become apathetic, obstinate, cold, and dead, and said: “Repent; fear God; give God the honor!” He warned the poor, alarmed hearts and consciences against the indulgence of the pope, who only would want to fish for the mammon of the people and would have their souls ruined in doing so.

And Luther and his word succeeded. The first blow hit its mark, and other heavy blows followed it. He brought the indulgence into discredit and spoiled it in short order. Then, without using the sword, he demolished the entire proud building of the papacy, which was built upon falsehood and deceit, upon theft and greed, upon ambition, pride, and arrogance. He did this through the breath of the Spirit--the Word of God. In this way he has purified and reformed the church. And we rejoice in the freedom and redemption that God has given to us through our Luther.28

The indulgence idol has turned into disgrace and shame. The old superstition has been extinguished. No longer does anyone29 believe in the power, the redeeming power of the indulgence groschen.30 However, Christianity is still not totally purified in all places from the old blemishes. The lie has in many ways only assumed a finer form and shape. The popish way is the religion that best suits the old Adam. Man readily wants to earn grace and heaven for himself. On the other hand he would like to make the way to salvation as easy and convenient for himself as possible. And there is money, a small offering, the most convenient means to come to terms with God and the church. The Roman church has opposed the Reformation up until the present day. It demands from its members money, offerings, and alms. It demands from the poor their mites, their savings, and from the rich it demands wealthy institutions and testaments. In exchange for them it promises God’s reward and blessing, and it sacrifices and reads masses for the living and for the dead.

But the yeast has also penetrated little by little into the Protestant church. How are the Lutheran, Protestant churches of the old homeland doing? There the worldly authorities hold sway and impose taxes, even impost and taxes for the benefit of the church. And whoever outwardly leads an irreproachable life in the precepts of the church and pays his taxes is a good church member. He has a portion and enjoyment in all rights and benefits of the church. Whoever lays his confessor’s fee upon the altar is absolved; he may believe whatever he wants, and may live however he wants. In very many so-called evangelical, even Lutheran synods of this country the goods of the church are offered for money. Whoever amply contributes on behalf of church goals has a seat and voice in the church, and his faults great and small are overlooked. Who wants to deny that even among us many false brothers and members have already snuck themselves in, who make a trade of piety and seek earthly gain and profit in the congregation? Yes, everyone should take good care that they would not be deceived themselves, that they certainly would not fancy that they satisfy God with their outward righteousness and religiosity, with their offerings and alms.

Meanwhile, may we confess to God’s honor that we are children of the Reformation, that the church of the Reformation still has a place with us. That cry of the great reformer, which resounded through Christianity for the first time on the 31st of October, has still not died out or been forgotten. We chastise those who only stress outward legal obedience.31 We passionately declaim against all worldly character and worldly disposition. God’s Word is nevertheless still living and powerful with us, which rouses consciences from sleep and to the fear of God.

It is true that32 we build our churches with the offerings of believers, with the mites of the poor. But we take only willing gifts. As soon as someone brags and boasts of his money, appeals to his offering and thereby wants to gain an influence on church matters, yes, with his money would even33 like to buy himself off from obedience to the Word of God and from the discipline and fear of the Lord, then we speak: “May you be condemned with your money!” We still hear in the public sermon the prophetical voice: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near!” When a stranger approaches our church, and hears and scrutinizes that which is spoken here, and when he sees and observes that which is dealt with here, then he will soon recognize this much: Among us money, honor, and respect do not have value or decide matters; we are rather concerned with higher and better things, with the kingdom of heaven, with the eternal goods of the kingdom of God. We still desire and intend nothing other than God’s Word and will and the salvation of mankind. May God help us, that we do not lose our crown, our treasure!

2.

By God’s grace we still have Luther’s preaching concerning the correct indulgence, concerning the indulgence of God. When Christ the Lord visited the temple for the last time, he was not satisfied with overturning the tables of the moneychangers and removing that abominable fair from the holy building. Rather he also now preached the Gospel in the temple, as our text reports. That was the true purpose for which the temple was consecrated.34

Our Luther has purified the church, has cleansed it from the dirt and filth of the indulgence. But while he was condemning the popish indulgence, he was already showing to Christianity in the 95 Theses the true indulgence that avails in the church. He was showing the treasures of the kingdom of heaven, which are better than all gold and silver in the earth. In the writing in which he explained those 95 Theses, Luther laments that the correct indulgence is despised in the popish church, indeed, is nothing at all anymore. And according to Luther this is the correct indulgence: that God remits guilt and forgives sin and misdeed for Christ’s sake apart from all merit and worthiness of men, without demanding satisfaction or cash exchange, freely and for nothing. He had experienced himself of how much consequence this indulgence is. When he wrestled in the cloister with much work, fasting, praying, mortifying of the flesh, not with gold or silver, no, with torments of body and of the soul, yes, with the offering up of his life for reconciliation with God, then his eye and his heart fell upon the great words: I believe in one forgiveness of sins. By holding fast this phrase, he found rest for his soul.

And what he himself experienced, that he now preached. And directly also in the 95 Theses he loudly extols the remission of guilt, the forgiveness of sins. The two theses that created the biggest stir were these: “To every Christian who is truly penitent belongs full remission from penalty and guilt, even without letters of indulgence.”35 And the second: “Every true Christian, be he living or dead, has a portion in all blessings of Christ and of the church, even without letters of indulgence, through God’s gift.”36 And this was then the great theme of all his teaching and preaching: God’s present, gift, and grace, God’s indulgence, the remission of guilt and penalty--all of which Christ has won.

Yes, he preached the Gospel his entire life. He extolled the Gospel already in his theses. He writes: “The true treasure of the church is the holy Gospel concerning the glory and grace of God.”37 Luther demanded repentance, true repentance of the heart. He did not demand outward repentance or penance payment in the least, but inner repentance and true remorse over sin. He set before the eyes of sinners, even in the 95 Theses, the wrath that the Law brings38, the terror of hell, and God’s majesty. But he only did this, because only the one who has been in hell also longs for heaven, and sees and tastes the sweetness of the God’s grace.39 The alarmed sinners Luther then refers especially to God’s absolution. Directly also the power of absolution Luther has brought out in his theses. That would be the correct indulgence, when the priest would absolve sinners from their sins in the name of God. Luther, already in the writing on the indulgence, laid all importance on faith. Whoever would simply believe the words: “For you are your sins forgiven,” would truly have what the Word declares--for him sins would be forgiven.

Luther incites Christians to genuinely good works and teaches, already in those theses, that giving and doing good to the poor and thirsty is much better than taking40 an indulgence.41 But that was his opinion, that a believing Christian, for whom sins are forgiven, now also shows his thirsty brothers love and kindness free and for nothing, for the sake of God.

Luther in his theses proclaims woe to the prophets who say, “Peace, peace,” when however there is no peace.42 He blesses the prophets who say to Christ’s people, “War, war,” when however there is no war.43 Moreover he excites Christians’ desire for the cross, and encourages them to bear it readily and willingly for Christ’s sake.44 If guilt be forgiven, then one is able to endure the cross well. Yes, Luther has made the gates of paradise wide, wide open for poor sinners. He has saved many thousands of souls through his teaching and preaching.

The blessed year of grace, the great year of remission and jubilee, which began at the time when Luther nailed his theses on the indulgence to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, has not yet passed away. We still have and hear the same teaching and preaching. That which we unceasingly preach is the Gospel concerning the glory and grace of God. We struggle to show the Christian people this greatest treasure from all sides, so that they might take pleasure in it and enjoy it from the heart. We preach the Gospel concerning Christ, concerning Christ’s suffering, death, and satisfaction. We proclaim the great day of salvation, the year of grace, the great year of remission, which commenced when Christ cried out on the cross, “It is completed!”45 We remind Christians again and again of the one thing, which they have long known: Know that you are redeemed from your empty way of living, after the manner of your fathers, not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, an innocent and unblemished lamb.46

This is the great theme of our teaching and preaching: God’s grace in Christ, the free grace of God. We dispense the treasure of the correct indulgence, the treasure of God’s grace and forgiveness, in confession and absolution. The poor sinners, who plead guilty to their sins and desist from all payment and satisfaction of their own, we pronounce free, released, and unencumbered from all their sins. True, we also terrify consciences with the lightning and thunder of the Law, with the frightful splendor of divine majesty. But we only do this, so that they might cry out for pity, flee to the cross of Christ, and await the grace of the Redeemer with confidence.

We preach faith, and seek to awaken and strengthen faith in those who hear us. We direct faith solely to God’s gracious pledge and promise. We also preach concerning good works, love for one’s neighbor, and love for one’s brother. We do not want to have any lazy or lethargic Christians. But as often as we speak about works, we reject the merit of works. We remind Christians: The one to whom much is forgiven, to whom much is remitted, also now loves much; he loves God and Christ in his insignificant brothers.

We urge our Christians to take the cross upon themselves and to more willingly endure the hate of the world, as well as to live with the world in peace and friendship. We teach with Luther that through Christ’s grace the cross has now become a blessed cross. We show Christians the open heaven, which is opened by Christ’s indulgence, by Christ’s blood, the costly ransom. We seek to make Christians certain of their salvation already here below.

That is our preaching; that is Luther’s teaching. May God so help us, that this beautiful light would not go out again, that it would gleam for us until we enter the gates of death, that it would shine for our children on till the end of days, until the dawning of glory’s splendor. Amen.

  • 1. Translation of the Lutherbibel text
  • 2. Was er predigte, was er schrieb, bis in sein Alter hinein, das Wort, das er dem Papst und den Schwärmern entgegensetzte, diente zur Reinigung und Reinerhaltung der Kirche.
  • 3. äußerlich besehen (lit.: outwardly examining)
  • 4. die Christus teuer erkauft
  • 5. 5
  • 6. Stöckhardt uses the diminutive Mönchlein (“little monk,” or “dear monk”), probably to add a dream-like tone to his words, and not necessarily because the monk in Frederick’s dream was little or dear to him.
  • 7. Stöckhardt only uses the preposition an, which has the connotation of “on the side of.”
  • 8. The miter is the liturgical headdress worn by bishops and abbots. (The German word, Bischofsmütze, literally translated, simply means “bishop’s cap.”)
  • 9. sonnenklare (lit.: sun-clear, clear as the sun)
  • 10. The German simply states: mit einem kühnen Griff (lit.: with a bold grip). The translator admittedly took some interpretive liberties for the sake of understanding.
  • 11. Referring to the 95 Theses
  • 12. Referring to the 95 Theses
  • 13. Acts 8:9-24
  • 14. The German word verpönt has the idea of “forbidden under severe penalties.”
  • 15. Um Geld (lit.: For money)
  • 16. They would be “so-called” preachers, because in the German language the word for preacher, Prediger, does not have the connotation of “lecturer,” “moralizer,” or “one who talks down to another,” so much as it does in English. And, of course, that is precisely what the indulgence “preachers” were-moralizers who emphasized the Law and offered God’s grace at a price.
  • 17. Darin hieß es (lit.: it was said in it)
  • 18. Or “purity”
  • 19. Lit.: “it was passed by in silence.”
  • 20. Die konnten so leichten Kaufs den Himmel gewinnen.
  • 21. Stöckhardt uses three different words for “hypocrisy” to describe the papacy: Gleißnerei (to gleißen is to shine or glitter on the outside), Heuchelei (to heucheln is to feign or pretend), Scheinheiligkeit (lit.: holiness of appearance, seeming holiness). The translator thought it awkward to write “hypocrisy, hypocrisy, and hypocrisy,” and comparable synonyms are lacking in English. That is why the translation is written as it is.
  • 22. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
  • 23. Stöckhardt here uses a colorful word, Grundsuppe, which literally means “foundational soup.”
  • 24. “inner moral rot” or “inner moral putridity” are also possible and legitimate translations.
  • 25. Stöckhardt is metaphorically referring to the church.
  • 26. Acts 8:20
  • 27. Matthew 4:17
  • 28. Stöckhardt is not an idolater. He knew as well as we that freedom and redemption are given to us through Christ, as he amply testifies in his other sermons. But he also has a firm understanding of just how lost the Gospel had become during Luther’s time. We can all be thankful that God used Luther to reintroduce the true message of the Gospel to Christianity, the Gospel of freedom and redemption through Christ alone. This is without a doubt what Stöckhardt means.
  • 29. Stöckhardt would be hard pressed to prove this. His point is simply that Luther dealt a huge blow to the credibility and authority of the indulgence, a blow from which it has yet to recover.
  • 30. The Groschen (pronounced GROH-shen) was the small silver coin used to purchase an indulgence. To the translator’s knowledge there is no one-word equivalent in English, so he simply kept the German word.
  • 31. Wir strafen alles äußerliche, gesetzliche Wesen.
  • 32. “It is true that” does not exist in the German text, but is understood in light of the following sentence.
  • 33. “even” is also an interpretive addition to the text.
  • 34. Das war die rechte Weihe des Tempels. (lit.: That was the correct consecration of the temple.)
  • 35. Thesis 36
  • 36. Thesis 37
  • 37. Thesis 62
  • 38. Romans 4:15
  • 39. Psalm 34:8
  • 40. The verb lösen can also mean “untying” or “unbinding.” Indulgence letters may have been rolled up, with a string or ribbon tied around them, or Stöckhardt may at least have had that impression.
  • 41. Thesis 43
  • 42. Thesis 92; Luther takes this expression from Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11.
  • 43. Thesis 93
  • 44. Thesis 94
  • 45. John 19:30
  • 46. 1 Peter 1:18,19