Gold Nugget No. 8: Second Sermon on the Festival of Reformation

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

In this Reformation sermon, first preached in 1856, Walther celebrates the great freedoms which the Gospel brings.

God, you are a faithful and living God, who three hundred years ago heard the cries of your children and with a strong arm delivered them from the prisons of Babylon and redeemed them from the hand of their oppressor, that after long and anxious lamentations they could again sing joyful hymns of freedom and psalms of thanks and praise to you. See, we are assembled here today to commemorate together the great deeds which you once did among our fathers and to praise you together that you still today let their children, us included, enjoy what you once gave back to them.

Lord, let this celebration of ours be blessed that we be strengthened and aroused in the knowledge and faith of the truth which you again let illuminate your Church, so that we may again fill your Church with the fervor of the first love.

Yes, you know that it is continually becoming darker and drearier, always more and more evil and dangerous in this last evil time. Therefore equip us as is necessary for us that we not be among those who walk away and go lost but rather among those who remain here and save their souls, who persist here until the end, who are faithful here until death so that there we may finally come to view your face and accompanied by the heavenly harps sing the eternal Alleluia to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is loved and praised by angels and men in heaven and on earth from eternity to eternity. Amen! Amen!

Precious partners in the faith!

The Lutheran Reformation, whose memory we celebrate today, is, after the work of the Apostles, without a doubt the most important, the greatest, and the most salutary work which God has carried out on earth through men.

The Reformation has had an influence on every land and people of the earth which transforms everything and it still has this influence up till this hour. The Reformation has reshaped the entire human world from the bottom up, having given rise to both other principles in human hearts and also another order of things in the external conditions of the Church. It has pushed the river of world and Church history out of its old bed and dug it a new riverbed and irresistibly led it into it. With the Lutheran Reformation begins a new era of the world with an entirely new face. In every land and among every people of the earth it would now appear entirely different if there had not been a reformation three hundred years ago.

What it was for the earth when it was still formless and empty and there was still darkness over the depths and the Word of the Almighty said, “Let there be light!” the work of the Reformation was for all of Christianity. What the deliverance from the slavery of Egypt and later from the captivity of Babylon with the building of the new temple was for the Jewish Church, the Reformation was for the Christian Church. It was the recapitulation of God’s universal gracious visitation in the time of the holy Apostles.

In the course of fifteen centuries it had again become so dark within Christianity that millions of people, although they had been baptized into Christ, again helplessly asked, “What must we do to be saved?” without being able to receive the correct answer to this question. They knew that God is holy and that therefore man also should be holy, but that all men are already by nature sinners and therefore worthy of damnation. In short, they pursued the law enough. But it was not enough that they showed men their sinfulness and damnable worth from the divine laws so they also laid upon them the yoke of countless human laws for the transgressing of which they threatened them no less with God’s wrath, damnation, and hell. And it was not enough that they frightened the impenitent with the torments of hell awaiting them so they worried the pious with the formation of purgatory, through whose purifying flames alone the way to heaven goes. But nothing was said of the sweet Gospel. If a poor sinner who had woken up from the sleep of his sin asked, “Then can I be saved? And what must I do?” then it was said, “You must do this work and that work. You must undertake this penance and that penance.” And when he had done and suffered all this, then no man would or could say to him whether it was enough. They very well continued to preach that Christ is the Lord and founder of the saving Church but they did not portray him as the sweetly blessed friend of sinners who receives sinners, but rather as a harsh, angry, and terrifying judge who gathers around himself only holy people. They very well still always proclaimed that Christ has suffered for all sinners and sacrificed himself for them on the altar of the cross, but at the same time they preached that after baptism man himself must do enough for his sins and that therefore, for his reconciliation with the furious God, Christ must be sacrificed again in the mass. So then for countless millions of Christians it was as if Christ had not yet died for them and the reconciliation and redemption of the world had not yet taken place. Only a few wrestled with the dread of their sins in the silence of their chambers, and despairing of everything else clasped onto Christ in faith and hope and died blessed. However most of them either went over into eternity suspended between fear and hope and uncertain of the fate awaiting them or were plunged with wailing into their dark abyss, completely despairing of their salvation.

That was the prophesied time of the great apostasy, the prophesied time in which the Antichrist would sit in the middle of the Temple of God with his counterfeit powers and signs and wonders, the prophesied time of the false christs and false prophets, the prophesied time in which Satan rages free and unbounded against Christ and his Church.

But look! Finally the Lord shouted to the enemies of his Church, “This far you may come and no further; here is where your proud waves halt.” After the prophecies of the trouble and need of the Church the comforting prophecy of the twelfth Psalm was also fulfilled: “‘Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,’ says the LORD. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them.’” Finally the prophecy of the Revelation of St. John was fulfilled: “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people.” And this angel was Dr. Martin Luther.

Yes, he was the one whom God selected after centuries when the voice of the Gospel was silenced to be the new witness of his truth, to be the new herald of his grace, to be the new messenger of his Gospel to every nation, tribe, language, and people. God let him first discover the great need of his sin and that no human work, no human satisfaction, no human penance can save from the need of sin. God opened up the Word of the Gospel to him and let him finally find peace, rest, and certainty of his salvation only in the faith in Christ Jesus who justifies the godless.

So then Luther entered confidently and joyfully when three hundred years ago the darkness of midnight had already broken over Christianity, and he cried with St. Paul into the world again, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And look! Carried on the wings of an angel this Gospel again penetrated every corner of the globe and thousands and millions of souls craving comfort and certainty heard the blessed message with delight. All those who wanted to be saved were now helped. For now there was again bread for all the hungry, again water for all the thirsty, again a savior for all the wretched, again grace for all sinners, again salvation for all the lost, again an open heaven for all the damned. And o great grace! The living rivers of truth and grace which once flowed anew over Christianity three hundred years ago still flow today. Even we here in the distant West live under the sound of the old and eternally new preaching of Luther about the free grace of God in Christ for all sinners, and no sin and no world and no hell can ever take from us the comfort that we are justified and saved children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

O precious and incomparable fruit of the salutary work of the Reformation! Therefore worship and praise be to God today before all the world until our end and one day before all heavens from eternity to eternity.

Of course, my friends, I have already repeatedly spoken to you about this greatest blessing of the salutary work of the Reformation on earlier days of its commemoration. Today let me now remind you of another blessing which will no less rouse us to thanks and joy. This is, namely, the precious blessing of the freedom of the conscience. But before we rejoice in this, let us bow the knees of our hearts in still devotion before the throne of grace.

Text: 2 Cor. 10:4-5

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

My friends, when the holy Apostle Paul writes in the passage we read, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds,” he has with these words also planted the banner of freedom of religion and conscience on the battlements of the Christian Church, for he here testifies, and to be sure at the same time in the name of all his fellow Apostles, that they were far away from wanting to use the weapons of physical force to spread the kingdom of their Lord, that rather their weapons were contemptible before men but before God they were the mighty sword of his Word. This banner of the freedom of religion and conscious, after for a long time in Christianity it had laid curled up in the dust, was again unfolded by the Reformation. Therefore I will now portray for you:

The freedom of religion and conscience, a precious blessing of the Lutheran Reformation.

Through which the two-fold principle was again brought to light and to prevalence:

  1. That it is not external force but free inner conviction which binds people to the Church, and

  2. That it is not the statutes of men but only the Word of God which may rule in the Church.

I.

My hearers, the principle that it is not external force but free inner conviction which should bind people to the Church is not only expressed by the holy Apostle in our text when he says, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world,” but this principle is also so intimately connected with the actual nature of the kingdom of Christ that wherever this principle no longer applies the kingdom of Christ ceases to be. For this kingdom is only where there are hearts which believe in Christ with an intimate conviction and serve him in free love. Through all the life and works of Christ and of all the Apostles this principle is actually sealed a thousand-fold, and the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, express it on every page. So it says among other things about Christ in the 110th Psalm, “Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy majesty. . . ” And the Prophet Jeremiah prophesies about the time of the New Testament, “‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and I will write it on their hearts.’”

This prophecy came to fulfillment also at the time of Christ and the Apostles. The Jews and originally the dear disciples very well awaited a Messiah who would subjugate all the kingdoms of the world with sword and military power. But Christ was only bent on bringing the hearts to faith through his Word and making them willing to be his followers. He was so far away from forcing anyone into his Kingdom that rather he burst into tears over the reluctant Jerusalem and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Therefore when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans who did not receive Christ, the Lord rebuked them and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Furthermore when Peter drew his sword in Christ’s defense, Christ called to him, “Put your sword back in its place . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Therefore when Christ was asked by Pilate about his kingdom, he answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place. . . . You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The truth, and nothing but the truth, is therefore the kingly scepter of the ruling of his kingdom. Therefore when Christ sent out his fighters to conquer the world he gave no deadly sword into their hands but commanded them to just preach the Gospel and said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” And they, the precious Apostles, did not use the miraculous gifts imparted to them to force anyone into the kingdom of their Lord through external power. Rather, the Word with prayer and tears was their only weapon. They said, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” And wherever their message of peace was despised, they shook the dust from their feet and went away.

But what happened later in the Christian Church? Just when through the carelessness and wickedness of those who bore the office of watchman the pure Christian religion became adulterated and almost entirely lost and in its place all kinds of errors and abominations forced their way into the Christian Church, just when the Antichrist had set himself in the middle of the Temple of God and pretended, as Christ’s substitute and Peter’s successor, namely as a pope, that is as a father of all Christians, to rule the entire Church, they then taught that the freedom of religion and conscience is nothing but a corrupting delusion and that if those who are erring do not let themselves be convinced and won over through teaching and warning they must be bound with force to the true Church and in so doing be led back to the truth or exterminated from the earth as a heretic.

The consequence of this was that now it was not the heretics but rather the witnesses of the truth who were cruelly persecuted and executed. Under the pretext of having to defend the true Church and religion, fight against their enemies, and snatch the blind from their corruption by force, they transformed the entire Church into one great association of martyrs. They set up heretic courts everywhere which convicted those who raised suspicion of not agreeing with the ruling Church on everything. Through the selected torments they sought to compel them to a confession and recanting of their alleged heresy and, if this was fruitless, brought them from life to death. Even the heathens in the first centuries did not rage against the Christians to make them renounce Christ and to bring them back to heathen idolatries as cruelly as baptized Christians later raged against Christians to force them into a false Christianity. Woe to him who read God’s Word in secret and found Christ in it if his conscience compelled him to confess his heart’s faith! He was immediately pressured with sword and flame, and if he did not let himself be robbed of the jewel of his heart, the sword and flame silenced him. They ordered so-called crusades against the inhabitants of every land where pure knowledge showed itself, and in the name of the true Church murdered everything living from the elderly to infants. The blood of Christians, shed by Christians in the name of Christ, flowed in the middle of Christianity in rivers, and everywhere burned the lit stakes of Christians on which Christ’s witnesses sealed their confession with their fiery death. The entire Christian religion and Church seemed to be the institution of a wicked spirit to frighten, to torment, and to murder humanity for the saving truth. Even mighty emperors and kings had to lend their might to the bloody work of this supposed Church if they themselves did not want to fall victim to its bloody attacks.

But what happened? Things are different now. Entire great lands and peoples have liberated themselves from the blood-dripping shepherd’s staff of the Antichrist in Rome sitting in the middle of the Temple of God. The principle that it is not external force but free inner conviction which binds people to the Church was again brought to light and to prevalence. In the greatest and mightiest Christian kingdoms of the World this principle has forced its way through and even where the might of the Antichrist still has its mercenaries their swords rust in their sheathes and their stakes are extinguished. Hardly anywhere do they dare to deny that freedom of religion and conscience was an inalienable possession of all men. But above all we live here in a land which once was drenched with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people shed by the armies of the Antichrist but where now the banner of the freedom of religion and conscious flutters happily over city and land. Here we may confess what we believe and here we may serve God as we know him.

And what is the work which the modern world and also this new homeland of ours, and therefore also we, have to thank for this blessing? It is none other than the work of the Lutheran Reformation. Therefore, my brothers, let us truly and vividly visualize what power would now possess the Christian lands and also this new homeland of ours if in the Reformation the papacy’s antichrist system of power, force, torment, blood, and murder had not been exposed in its shame by God’s Word. The Christian Church would finally have transformed into a monarchy extending over the entire world and finally everything which is called man would have had to tremble under the pope’s scepter of iron and blood. Therefore let us thank our faithful God today and worship him from the heart and praise him who has redeemed us from such a dreadful tyranny through the work of the Reformation and has given us along with millions of our forefathers and contemporaries the grace to plant the tree of freedom of religion and conscious, under whose shade we can live peacefully in abundance of physical and spiritual blessing, especially here.

II.

Of course, my friends, the true freedom of religion and conscious rests also on the principle that it is not the statutes of men but only the Word of God which may rule in the Church. Therefore let me today remind you secondly that also this principle was again brought to light and to prevalence.

My friends, as dreadful as the tyranny was which the popes and their assistants imposed upon the Christians that they sought to force them to their own belief through external power, through fire and sword, it was still in no way the most dreadful and most terrible thing which the Christians suffered through the papacy. Through it the papacy still took from the Christians no more than the poor temporal life and helped them into heaven all the earlier and to an all the more radiant crown. Yes, when the popes became more and more drunk on the blood of the saints, it became all the clearer that the papal throne was the throne not of Christ, but of the Antichrist, the throne of Satan, and through this the eyes of not a few were opened concerning the secret power of lawlessness. But the most dreadful and most terrible thing was this: that little by little the principle emerged, and finally also they preached it into the hearts of Christians, that it is not only the written word but also the statutes of men which bind a Christian’s conscious. For through this the papacy has not killed mere thousands physically, as it has with its external force, but it has eternally corrupted and murdered millions spiritually, namely, their souls, and deceived them about their savior, about grace, about heaven and salvation with satanic tricks. They taught, at first concealed but finally more and more impertinent and free, that the Church, and by this they meant the pope along with his bishops and priests, stand in Christ’s place, that it has the spirit of Christ and therefore cannot err, that not only can it alone understand and interpret the Word of God but also even what it teaches, establishes, and institutes beyond and contrary to God’s Word is to be observed the same as the clear teachings of the Word of God and institutions of Christ. Therefore it must be obeyed unconditionally. Every Christian must believe and do whatever it orders to believe and do under penalty of a loss of divine grace and salvation. Whoever contradicts and is disobedient to the Church contradicts Christ himself and rebels against him. It alone has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Therefore only through it can the Christian attain the blessings of grace and of salvation. Its excommunication is God’s excommunication and is to be feared even if it excommunicates unjustifiably. The laity are not allowed to read God’s Word or even to look into it. In the Church assemblies no lay person is allowed to raise his voice and judge concerning matters of doctrine, faith, and conscious. The Church, that is, the pope and his spirituality, ought to rule. The laity ought to let themselves be ruled by it, subject themselves to it and obey it.

Oh, who can describe the torments of conscious with which countless Christians were pained as a result of this spiritual tyranny! And who can count the company of souls who were led astray to sin and error by this and who finally in the false hope of salvation were devoured by hell!

The largest number of baptized Christians went quietly forward in the blind delusion that if you believe what the Church believes and are subject to it, then you will not be lacking salvation. Another great number very well noted the errors coming into style and recognized the truth clearly revealed in God’s Word, but the illusion imprinted upon them from youth on “The Church cannot err. You must listen to the Church and obey it” soon extinguished again in most hearts the meager light of the truth which had arisen. The delusion that not only may the Church rule and reign over the written Word of God but that there are men whose words and commands Christians must observe as God’s words and God’s commands and be subject to them—this delusion stood as an angry cherub out of the abyss with a flaming sword before the gates of truth and grace. This delusion caused often even the most sincere souls to gather with great zeal the wood for the stakes of the witnesses of the truth. Therefore when a simple farmer once did this in the burning of the holy martyr Hus, the precious witness exclaimed, “O holy simpleton, whoever has misled you has committed a greater sin!” Therefore Luther says about himself that he, when he was still bound by the papal faith, would have helped to condemn and burn anyone who would have taught at that time what he now teaches himself.

Truly, if God had not finally helped, eventually no more men would have come to a knowledge of the truth, no more men would have been saved, Christ’s Church would have been overpowered by the gates of hell and all humanity would have finally been deceived about the redemption which had happened for them.

But look! When the need had climbed the highest, the help was the nearest. And what was it through which help came to Christianity? It was the Lutheran Reformation which was carried out to victory three hundred years ago through God’s miraculous power. Through it also this principle, that it is not the statutes of men but only the Word of God which may rule in the Church, was again brought to light and to prevalence. For when Luther had learned from God’s Word that only faith in Christ justifies and saves before God, and when the Holy Spirit himself had divinely sealed this teaching in his heart, then the shout, “You must listen to the Church!” could no longer terrify Luther. Then he laughed at the required obedience towards the Church and at the ordained priesthood as an empty specter, for now he knew that the true Church and the true priests are just the believers and that they listen to no other voice and they subject themselves with their conscience to no other king than Jesus Christ in his holy Word. Therefore he cried at Worms before the emperor and the kingdom. “Unless I am overcome by clear testimonies of Holy Scripture I cannot and may not recant. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

And look! Luther’s testimony has forced its way through and so the sun of the freedom of conscience has risen over everything and illuminates all who do not want to close their eyes to its sweet light. The bonds of human statutes are torn. Our Christian freedom is won for us again. Christ is again our only king and the only law of our kingdom is his holy Word.

Well, let us then also grasp the apostolic warning deep within our hearts: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Still Satan tries again, and he still tries today to snatch this jewel away from us again. Oh, let us therefore firmly hold onto what we have. Let us neglect no opportunity to know our freedom in Christ more and more completely, more and more deeply, and more and more sincerely. For what does all the freedom of religion help us if our conscience is bound by the teaching of men? On the contrary, if we do not let go of the freedom of our conscience, even if the freedom of the public practice of our religion be taken, even if they draw their swords against us and force us with burning stakes, we are still free even in the deepest underground prison, and even the most agonizing death just opens for us the exit from this miserable life and the entrance into the land of complete eternal freedom.

The Word they still shall let remain,
Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain
With his good gifts and Spirit.
And do what they will—
Hate, steal, hurt, or kill—
Though all may be gone,
Our victory is won;
The kingdom’s ours forever! (CW200)

Amen.