Gold Nugget No. 7: First Sermon on the Festival of Reformation

by C.F.W. Walther
translated by Aaron Jensen

Walther delivered this sermon in 1861. In it he reminds the heirs of the Reformation exactly what they have inherited and encourages them to cling to it.

Lord Jesus, your Word is true and you certainly keep the promises you have made. You have promised your Church that though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet your unfailing love for her will not be shaken nor your covenant of peace be removed. And you have faithfully and gloriously kept this promise to her. Your Church had been unfaithful to you. She had listened to the voice of a stranger. She had broken your union. But look! You have remained faithful to her. You called to her and at your gracious call she turned back to you and you graciously took her back with open arms and made her glorious again. So open our eyes today to recognize this great miracle of your grace. Open our hearts to truly and sincerely rejoice about it. And open our mouths to worship and praise and thank you for it. But finally give us a new faithfulness that we remain in you, faithful Savior, until you have brought us to our true homeland. Amen!

Precious partners in faith and festival, loved in Christ!

The Lutheran Reformation, whose memory we celebrate today, was, after the founding of the Christian Church and the fall of heathenism through the holy Apostles’ preaching of the Gospel in all the world, the greatest work which has happened on Earth since the birth of the Savior. It was for the Church of the New Testament what it was for the Church of the Old Testament when the people of Israel were brought out from the slavery of Egypt through Moses and brought back from the Babylonian Captivity through Zerubbabel. The Reformation reshaped not only the Church, but also the entire world. Its history constitutes a major chapter in the history of the kingdom of God on Earth. With this work an entirely new era has dawned on Christianity. Not only we Lutherans, but all Christian denominations of modern times, owe the best thing which they have to the salutary work of the Reformation, and all political states of the west have experienced the reshaping influence of this work. No man has done that and no man could do that.

The Reformation was in no way the carrying out of a plan devised by men. It was not a work of man but really truly a work of the great God himself. This work was born not in time, but already in eternity, and not in Luther’s heart, but in God’s heart. In his humility, Luther was far away from wanting to reform the Church. He considered himself much too weak and powerless for this. But God prepared him for it without his even suspecting it, irresistibly brought him into it, and finally delivered him through it all in the most glorious way.

To be sure, the Reformation was not the founding of a new Church, for the old true Church had not sunk in the times of the fullest rule of the papacy and could not sink. But the time of the Reformation was the festival of Easter, the day of the resurrection of the Christian Church, on which arose from its grave the same Church which indeed had not been destroyed but rather covered and buried for centuries under the rubble of a thousand human teachings. Therefore the Reformation was just the greatest and most glorious proof for the truth of those statements of Christ, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” It may well appear that Luther was born as the ship of the Church not only leaked, tore its sail, cracked its rudder, and was powerlessly thrown back and forth by the storms and the waves, but also as if was already beginning to sink and be swallowed up forever by the surging waves. Already all true Christians thought the Lord was sleeping, unconcerned about the fact that the only saving vehicle of redeemed humanity was breaking down. Already they cried in weak faith, “Lord, wake up! Lord, help us, we are ruined!” But look! The Lord got up and threatened the wind and the sea. Then it became still and the ship of the Church, spiting the powers of darkness, safely glided again with full sails on the leveled surface of the water to the eternal harbor.

Oh, how we should rejoice today, how we should praise God today, how we should thank him today, that we by his grace are children of this Reformation and members of the Church resurrected by it! If ever, then today it is exclaimed to us, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” If ever, then today we should cry out, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Yes, today we should forget all the need and misery of our time and let our mouths be filled with laughter and our tongues with praise.

Of course, my friends, if this should actually happen among us then it is above all necessary that we vividly recognize the great need from which the Reformation redeemed us and the unspeakably valuable goods which were won for us by it. For too many people now just praise highly the work of the Reformation and not only do not recognize its true fruit, but have also long ago lost this fruit and have long ago fallen away from the Church of the Reformation. Therefore their thanks for this work is empty, their joy over it hollow, and their Reformation celebration only a oath which they make against themselves.

Therefore so that our thanks is sincere and honest, our joy a true joy, and our festival today one pleasing to God, let me now place before you the most important fruit of the Lutheran Reformation. May God grant us all his grace, for me to teach and for you to hear.

Text: 2 Thess. 2:1-12

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

On the basis of this word we read the subject of our consideration for today’s festival is:

That the Lutheran Reformation is the promised salvation of the Church from the bonds of the Antichrist.

Let me

  1. Prove this to you, and

  2. Show what an urgent summons for us to faithfully persist in Luther’s teaching until death lies in this fact.

I.

The most important thing, my friends, which was foretold plain and clear about the fate of the Christian Church in both the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Scriptures is a two-fold thing, something extremely sad and something extremely comforting. The sadness consists in the prophecy that a great apostacy would take place in the Church through an Antichrist, or, as German would say it, a Widerchrist.1 But the comfort consists in the foretelling that the Church would still be saved from the bonds of this Antichrist late in the evening of the world.

In the Old Testament it was the Prophet Daniel who prophesied most clearly about both, in the New Testament it was the Apostle Paul. Daniel writes in the eighth and eleventh chapters of his prophecies that after Christ “a stern-faced king, a master of intrigue, will arise. . . . He will destroy the mighty men and the holy people. . . . and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power. . . . but reports from the east and the north will alarm him.”

But St. Paul prophesies even more clearly about this, and indeed, in the text we read taken from his second letter to the Thessalonians. The Christians at Thessalonica had let themselves be led away to the belief that the Day of Christ, that is, the Last Day, was happening already at their time. Now in order to take care of this error for them, the holy Apostle writes to them, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. . . . For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath2 of his mouth.”

With this Paul prophesies two different things. First, before the last day can come, a man must first set himself in the middle of the Temple, that is, in the middle of the Church, which means to set up his throne in it. He will assume a great holy appearance, even act as if he were equal to Christ and therefore God himself. But he will raise himself up as a true Antichrist or Widerchrist against everything that is called God or is worshiped, that is, against Christ, his Gospel, against faith and salvation, and through it will bring about a great apostasy and destruction of the Christian Church. But at the same time Paul also prophesies secondly that finally, however, the secret power of his lawlessness will be revealed and he himself will be overthrown by the spirit of his mouth, that is, through the Word of Christ, which is spirit and life.

So now the question arises: Who is this Antichrist? And when has he been revealed and spiritually overthrown?

Let us go into the history of the Church. For according to the testimony of the holy Apostle in our text, the Antichrist is to be sought not outside but inside the Temple of God, or in the Church. But in Church history the following is reported to us. Scarcely had the holy Apostles laid down their heads when not only did the pagan rulers continue their bloody persecution of the Church from the outside, but also countless heretics continually disturbed the Church from within its walls. But none of them could have been the Antichrist which was prophesied, for none of them claimed to be Christ’s substitute on earth and the head of all Christianity and therefore equal to Christ, and no one set himself in the middle of the Temple of God on a monarchial throne. Church history only tells us of one succession of bishops who have climbed to this height of impudence and sacrilege, and that is the bishops in Rome.

The first Roman bishops were men who, for the most part, were as enlightened as they were godly, who therefore also, since they were also the bishops of the capital city of the world, enjoyed great honor in all of Christianity. But what happened? Through this great honor, which had at first been given to them of the people’s own free will, they eventually became so proud and bossy that, for example, already around the year 200 the Roman bishop Victor excommunicated all the eastern churches and bishops just because they did not want to celebrate Easter at the same time as he did. In the time which followed there were, to be sure, still always some better-minded Roman bishops, who neither showed nor approved of this measureless bossiness. Around the year 600 the Roman bishop Gregory, nicknamed “The Great,” still explained, as did others, that anyone who calls himself the universal bishop of the entire Church, therefore making himself equal to Christ, is none other than a forerunner of the Antichrist. But look! A few years later a man by the name of Boniface III became bishop of Rome. He consulted the crazy Phocus, who had become Caesar through assassination and other bloody atrocities, and he requested of and received from Phocus the title of the Supreme Bishop, or Pope, of all Christianity.

Then from this time on, so from the seventh century on, the Roman bishops became more and more impudent. They shamelessly declared that Peter had been the prince of the Apostles, that on him Christ had built his Church, that only to him were the keys to the kingdom of heaven entrusted, and that he was appointed and established as Christ’s substitute on earth. But also that he, the Pope of Rome, is Peter’s successor and therefore also the entire Church rests on the Roman Pope. He alone has the keys to heaven and as Christ’s Vicar or Substitute on Earth he has the highest court in the Church. He has to decide what is true faith and what is false faith, and every Christian must render unconditional obedience to his commands the same as to God’s commands with penalty of God’s disfavor and the loss of his salvation. Yes! Eventually the popes blasphemously declared that they themselves had the power to release from God’s commands and to change or abolish all God’s institutions, such as the holy Sacraments, and to make new sacraments themselves. All offices in the Church, they declared, had their power, authority, and validity from the popes alone. But not only in the Church did they want to be first, the ones to whom everything was subjected; eventually they also declared that all princely, kingly, and imperial power is nothing but an outflow of their power as Christ’s substitute on Earth. Therefore they excommunicated princes, kings, and emperors who would not obey them. They laid the most abusive penances on them and had them do the lowliest services of slaves. For example, Pope Gregory VII had Emperor Henry IV stand in the courtyard wearing the clothes of a penitant and beg for papal grace. And what’s more, the popes established and deposed emperors and kings, released the subjects from their oath of faithfulness, and declared themselves to be the feudal lords of all the kingdoms of the world and declared all the rulers in the world to be their fief-bearers. Therefore when new lands were discovered, the Americas for example, they maintained that these lands actually belonged to the Pope, who consequently could give them away and distribute them to whomever he thought it good to do so. Through all kinds of deception and scheming they had also thought to bring to themselves a great stretch of land in Italy next to the city of Rome, and in order to cover up the theft of this land they produced a false document, made-up and forged, claiming that it had been written by Emperor Constantine and that in it he had given and vested and sealed to them those Italian lands which they called the church-state.

But after the Roman popes not only ruled the consciences but also had thought to obtain for themselves a great worldly power, they now also used these things to enforce everything which they commanded and forbade people to believe and do. The idolatrous mass, the worship of the saints, and other superstitious abominations were introduced in place of the worship of Christ. They assembled a great amount of laws which the popes had enacted at various times into one book which they called the church order. In it they declared, among other things, that even if a pope lives godlessly and through his unfaithfulness drags the entire crowd of men to hell with him, still no mortal is allowed to say to him, “What are you doing?” For since all things are his to judge, he may not be judged by anyone. All councils or church assemblies, all bishops, all priests and monks he declared to be his immediate subjects and they make up his standing army within all Christianity. To chain these so-called spiritual people to himself alone, he forbade them from marrying and having a family life, and so that the so-called laity could not discover his apostasy, he forbade them from reading the Holy Scriptures. Woe to him who wanted to raise his voice for the truth. Whoever did not want to render obedience to the pope’s laws of faith and life and recognize him as the lord of the Church was met with excommunication. And he persecuted all his opponents and all witnesses of the truth, yes, even if they were emperors or kings, with fire and sword in unheard of monstrosity.

After all this can there well be any doubt as to who has been and still is the Antichrist prophesied in the Holy Scriptures? It is no man other than the Pope of Rome. All the signs which the Holy Scriptures give about the Antichrist in various places we find together in the Roman popes.

Now who is it who revealed him, who destroyed him without any human power and overthrew him with just the spirit of Christ’s mouth? Many Christians soon suspected that Rome was the spiritual Babylon prophesied by the prophets and the Revelation of St. John and that the Pope of Rome must be the Antichrist foretold in the Scriptures, and many famous spiritual and worldly writers loudly and publicly expressed it also already before Luther. Also already before Luther mighty emperors and kings and great scholars tried everything to overturn the power of the pope and to save Christianity from him. But look! The secret power of the lawlessness of the Antichrist still remained hidden and the power of the papacy just climbed higher and higher. Even if many nobles and scholars may have seen through the pope’s antichrist essence, the poor Christian people remained imprisoned by him and they were afraid to fall away from Christ’s Substitute on Earth, which is what he was considered to be, and so to lose their salvation.
Therefore all people, high and low, learned and unlearned, had to tremble before the spiritual and physical sword of the Pope.

Then finally God raised up Luther. And what did he do? He did nothing but, as St. John had prophesied about him in his Revelation, flew as an angel with the eternal Gospel through heaven to the Church, that is, he again preached the Gospel of Christ purely. He did nothing but loudly testify with St. Paul, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” He did nothing but show from God’s Word that man is not saved by any merit or by any worthiness but only for the sake of Christ and only by grace. And look! With this teaching Luther took away the impenetrable fog from the secret power of lawlessness which had been veiled for more than a millennium. This Gospel of grace was the spiritual sword which, as Daniel had written, should kill the Antichrist without any human power. This Gospel of grace was the reports from the east and the north which, as the same prophet had written, alarmed the destroyer of Christianity and should knock him from his throne. This Gospel of grace was the spirit of the mouth of Christ which, as St. Paul writes in our text, should overthrow the man of lawlessness, who opposes God and is doomed to destruction.

Therefore Luther had hardly brought the Gospel of salvation through faith among the Christian people with mouth and feather, through preaching and writing, when suddenly the chains and bonds with which countless consciences had been imprisoned were torn, when suddenly it was like scales fell from the eyes of not thousands but millions of people. They saw with terror that the one whom they had considered to be Christ’s substitute was the Antichrist, that the one whom they had viewed as the head and the shepherd of Christianity and the Church was its archenemy and destroyer. Entire Christian kingdoms and nations now fell away from him and they who had previously shaken and trembled before him and his excommunications now laughed at and mocked him and his empty threats. Through the Reformation the Antichrist received a fatal wound from which nothing can ever heal him. Spiritually he has already died. Whoever still depends on the Antichrist now does not do so because the Antichrist has not yet been unmasked but because he has closed his eyes to the light which now shines forth into the most secret hideout of the Antichrist and makes his hidden abomination clear and obvious to all human eyes. All Christianity can now raise the cry of victory with which the Revelation of John already resounds, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the great.” Only one thing is still left: that, as our text says, the Lord comes and “destroys [the Antichrist] by the splendor of his coming.”

II.

Of course, my friends, until then we are still always in danger of falling into the nets and ropes of the Antichrist. Therefore let me now show you secondly what an urgent summons for us to faithfully persist in Luther’s teaching until death lies in the fact that the Lutheran Reformation is the promised salvation of the Church from the bonds of the Antichrist.

What was the reason, my friends, that the Antichrist could set himself in the middle of the Temple of God, in the middle of the Christian Church which Christ had made to be a free and equal brotherhood, set up a monarchial throne in it, bind the consciences of Christians, and falsify, even rob all sacred things and institutions of grace? How was it possible that the Church which the Apostles had founded so firmly and to which they had left such a great treasure of saving knowledge fell into such great darkness and blindness? God does not carry the blame for this. He has also after the death of the holy Apostles always raised up more men who proclaimed the word of salvation pure and with a demonstration of the spirit and the power of Christianity. The true reason why the great apostasy of the Antichrist would take place in the Church our text already indicated before when it says, “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” See, God allows the Antichrist to set himself in the middle of the Temple of the Christian Church. It was God’s punishment upon the despisal of the truth, upon the disdain for pure Gospel teaching which God out of grace had given the Church through the Apostles and through the pure teachers after them. The same thing happened to the Gentiles which had happened to the Jews. The Jews were stricken with blindness and madness because they rejected all the prophets sent to them and finally their own Messiah. Now when the Gentiles had been called and did not let themselves be warned by the grave example of the Jews but also treated the pure teaching about salvation with contempt, then God struck them too with blindness so that they submitted to the Antichrist instead of to Christ.

We Lutherans now have double the examples of warning, both that of the Jews and that of the Gentiles before us. So let us then take this double warning to heart! To be sure, the Reformation has saved us from the bands of the Antichrist, but still there is always the great danger that we again become caught in these bands. For instance, we may not say that we are free from the spirit of the Antichrist just because we are not papists. The spirit of the Antichrist consists not merely in that you acknowledge the pope as the Substitute of Christ, but above all in that you accept a false show of Christianity instead of the true Christianity, that you, just like the pope wants, praise Christ highly and yet do not want to be saved by Christ alone, that you talk a lot about faith and yet want to be justified before God on the basis of works, that you take pride of God’s grace in Christ and yet seek salvation in your own sanctification and worthiness, that you hold high the means of grace, the Word and the holy Sacrament, and lift them high with words and yet do not place your trust in these means of grace alone. A proof for this is supplied by the many denominations of our new homeland: Methodists, Baptists, Reformed, United, Presbyterians, Episcopalians. They all want to know nothing of the pope but are stuck deep in the false antichrist teaching of man’s own sanctification and take away from Christ and the means of grace their honor of alone justifying and saving sinners. They very well also take much pride in faith, God’s Word, and the holy Sacraments, but if you test their teaching more precisely, then you see that they turn faith into their own feelings and useless human sanctification and turn the saving faith worked by the means of grace into man’s own work.

God be eternally praised that we now have present the pure teaching of righteousness and salvation only by grace for the sake of Jesus Christ without our works through faith in the Word and Sacrament! But if we think these high goods of divine grace insignificant then it will go for us as it did for Christianity after the death of the holy Apostles and their faithful followers. God will send us powerful delusions so that we will believe the lie.

Of course, my friends, if we hold fast to Luther’s teaching then we can be sure that we remain preserved from all the still so dangerous temptations of this last time, and that we will finally reach the goal of faith, which is the salvation of our souls.

Think about it. The might of all the powers of the earth was futile for overthrowing the throne of the Antichrist. All the wisdom and intelligence of the wise and learned was futile for revealing the secret power of the lawlessness of Christianity. But as soon as Luther flew as the angel with the eternal Gospel through the Church of heaven, as soon as Luther came with the spirit of the mouth of Christ, with the pure Word of God, then the sun came up and it soon became so bright that even children saw through the temptations of the Antichrist. Babylon made a great fall and the pure evangelical Lutheran Church grew up joyfully and quickly into a great tree whose life-giving fruits of grace, righteousness, and salvation entire peoples now enjoyed and under whose shadowy branches they now rested and sang hymns of praise and thanks to Christ and his grace.

So let us then, my precious brothers and sisters, enter this day, the festival of the Lutheran Reformation, together, make a union, and swear with a holy oath to the gracious God who has sent the pure Lutheran teaching to us before millions: We will faithfully persist in Luther’s teaching until death. It is this teaching which once revealed and conquered the Antichrist and liberated and delivered the Church from its Babylonian captivity. It is this teaching through which the old apostolic Church was brought back out of its grave, woken up, and gloriously revived. It is this teaching which once the precious men of God, Luther, Martin Chemnitz, Johann Arndt, Johann and Paul Gerhard, held so firmly until death and in which they ultimately fell asleep blessed in the peace of God. And this teaching still has this same power today.

This old teaching of Luther is still today the bread of heaven which gives the soul true life and the certainty of salvation. This old teaching of Luther is still today the bright light in whose glow no Antichrist and no false teacher, even if he masquerades as an angel of light, can lead us astray. This old teaching of Luther is still today the good sword of the spirit, the true weapon with which we can conduct the Lord’s war, conquer everything, and hold the field. This old teaching of Luther is still today the straight road which does not lead us into the abyss of doubt, error, and finally into despair, but which leads us straight to Christ, to grace, and into heaven without any detours. This old teaching of Luther is still today the powerful heavenly medicine which dresses all the wounds of the heart, heals all the sicknesses of the soul, and brings us eternal recovery. This old teaching of Luther is still today the voice of the Good Shepherd who also calls back the little lost sheep and opens the Father’s arms, which the heavenly Father himself stretches out to his lost son if he returns. This old teaching of Luther is still today the peaceful deathbed of the wounds of Christ on which even the greatest sinner can still find rest in that last most urgent hour and confidently surrender his soul into the hands of his faith God and Savior who has redeemed him.

O my friends, we still do not recognize nearly enough how great the grace is which we enjoy by having the pure teaching of Luther. We still are not nearly zealous enough to hold it firmly, to confess it before all the world with joy, and to defend it courageously against all attacks from unbelievers and the heterodox. Oh, let us today, when we remember the great deeds which God has done through this teaching more than three hundred years ago, wake up and give praise and thanks to God that he has shown such great mercy to us before millions. We cannot praise and thank God enough for this pure teaching of Luther in all eternity, let alone here in time.

Oh, how the Christians in the time of the deep papal darkness would have praised God if suddenly God had given to them the precious teaching about how to be saved as we have it and given them the glorious freedom to preach and to hear this teaching as we enjoy it here! With tears of joy they would have fallen to their knees and praised God for his eternal faithfulness. So let us then recognize the time within which we are afflicted. Let us keep what we have so that no one may take our crown. Let us joyfully sacrifice everything, our temporal possessions and goods, the honors and praises of the world, the desires and joys of this earth, even blood and life rather than give up even just an iota of the blessed teaching which makes us eternally rich, brings us honor and praise before God, and secures joy for us here and eternal life and salvation for us there.

Yes, let us be faithful Lutherans, faithful until death, for then we are also faithful to Christ, whose Word we possess purely. The fight which we must fight is certainly difficult indeed, but is really just a brief one. It lasts only until death. Therefore let us persist until then. When we have done that, we have won. Then there we will view face to face with delight what here we have seen in faith as a poor reflection in a mirror. Then we will see with jubilation that our trust on the Word alone which is often ridiculed here was not in vain. From Christ’s hands we will receive the crown of our trust’s faithful champion and then we will enter into the choir of all the angels and the elect and sing to him an eternal Alleluia. Amen! Amen!


  1. “Antichrist” means “in place of Christ.” “Widerchrist” means “against Christ.” 

  2. Luther translates this word “Spirit.”