The Gospel as a Passing Downpour

by August Pieper
translated by Nathaniel Biebert

August Pieper served on the faculty of the Wisconsin Synod’s seminary from 1902 to 1941. He still contributed to the Theologische Quartalschrift for a couple years after he retired. The following article is taken from Volume 30, Number 3 (July 1943). It is, rather ironically, the last one Pieper ever wrote for the Quartalschrift. The words “To be continued” at the end seem to echo a hollow ring agreeing with the title.

We still have the gospel today – thanks be to God! But this familiar phrase and Pieper’s commentary on it still strongly encourage us to make frequent use of the Means of Grace, and to daily wrestle with our gracious Lord in prayer on behalf of the proclamation of his gospel among us.

There are some observations that the reader may make in reading this article. One can notice that Pieper is aging and not in his prime as a writer. He sometimes switches tenses for no apparent reason, and he seems to ramble at times. Nevertheless, one can easily deduce that this was also a man who was married to the Scriptures his entire life. His handle on Hebrew words and phrases (as obscure as they may be) testifies to this. Finally, one can see that Pieper loved the gospel dearly, and he intensely desired that God’s people treasure it.

The endnotes are the translator’s. He hopes that they do not become cumbersome for the reader. May God shower upon his people all the blessings that come with the gospel, and may that shower be a downpour that soaks each one of them to the core!

Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but only one is necessary! ... Luke 10:41.1

We concluded our last essay on the saving counsel of God (Quartalschrift 1943, No. 2) with Luther’s exhortation to “his beloved Germans,” in which he pleads so lovingly and at the same time threatens so terribly. It is an urgent appeal for them to most earnestly make use of the gospel, which he preached to them, as their only and ultimate opportunity to attain the eternal salvation of God.

In order that we may be able to conveniently read over and thoroughly examine these words of Luther in their context, we once again set them here in their entirety:

Beloved Germans, buy while the market is close at hand! Gather while the sun is shining and while there is good weather! Make use of God’s grace and Word while it is here! For you should know this: God’s Word and grace is a passing downpour,2 which does not return to where it has already been. It has been with the Jews; but what’s lost is lost, and they now have nothing. Paul brought it to Greece; what’s lost is lost, and they now have the Turks. Rome and Latin-speaking regions have also had it; what’s lost is lost, and they now have the pope. And you Germans dare not think that you will have it forever, for the ingratitude and disdain will not let it remain. Therefore take hold and hang on tightly, while you are able to grab and to hold. Lazy hands are bound to have a hard year.3 (Letter to the Town-Councilmen, Volume 10, 464.)4

Is Luther right? -- What does he really mean? He starts from the assumption, that all his students and teachers know not only the universal saving counsel of God in its essential points (1Ti 2:4ff, Jn 3:1-18) and the institution of the holy ministry according to Matthew 28:18-20, but also what the Lord himself says in Luke 24:46-49 about the temporal progression of the preaching of the gospel among peoples: “and beginning at Jerusalem.” This sequence has been confirmed throughout history from the beginning and will be followed until the Last Day. -- That is what Luther meant.

Now Luther is admittedly an intellectual giant in the history of the Christian church. He comes forward here in the conviction of a prophet, although he has never boasted of direct revelations. But here he has also become personally certain of what he is talking about through the study of inspired Scripture, which he believes like a little child. And it is true that what the most extensive historical knowledge and the most thorough linguistic ability in the Scriptures often has not seen with pure reason, the Holy Spirit revealed to the child-like believing heart of Luther through his diligent study of Scripture. In him was fulfilled relatively early the prophecy: “They will all be taught by God” (Jn 6:45), so that he was able to say with Paul, “I know in whom I believe, and I am certain that he can protect my deposit for me until that day” (2Ti 1:12), and was able to say with Psalm 119:99 without vain self-glory, “I am more learned than all my teachers.”

Despite all this, Luther was not inspired and was able to err. So we must absolutely test also this expression, about the gospel as a passing downpour, against Scripture itself.

The Old Testament distinguishes between two kinds of rain, a shower and a downpour. The first kind, when the Lord did not intend special chastisements, fell very regularly as the early rain5 in autumn and as the late rain6 in spring, and came irregularly also at other times besides. It was called גשם (rainfall) or also שעירים7 (light rain or drizzle). Sometimes it was also probably mixed with some unmelted snow. In every form, however, it served to sustain the people for this year and assisted the seed for the next year. The Lord draws a comparison between such a shower and his saving Word in Isaiah 55:10ff.

In contrast to that, the Old Testament designates what Luther calls a downpour with the simple noun שטף (Job 38:25), or it paraphrases with גשם שוטף or also שעירים שטפים8 (Eze 13:11). These all have the same meaning: a sudden, violent storm.

The downpour is characterized by coming unexpectedly, moving back and forth in the storm with great torrents raging from the side, tearing away the looser ground, except at its edges, severely beating the firm ground, and exposing every stone. -- To such a downpour Luther compares the gospel’s coming to and remaining with the peoples of the earth.

Here, however, the concepts of gospel and people are to be comprehended just as precisely as the concept of the downpour above. Luther is talking about the pure and full gospel, the genuine gospel, as it has come from God’s heart. He is not talking about a gospel mixed up with the law, a hodgepodge-gospel, with which the entire body of sects deludes itself – to the detriment also of the unbelieving world. By “people” Luther understands what we otherwise just as correctly term “nation,” a rather large mass of people who have obtained their unity through propagation within their race,9 beginning with one or more distinct original couples. They are more or less preserved by their physical, mental, and even religious commonality in particulars, and perhaps provide themselves with a strong worldly government for protection. The word “people” as it is used here, however, does not necessarily include every person or family or private society of such a people.10

Now Luther says, “The gospel has been with the Jews; what’s lost is lost, and they now have nothing.”

When, how, and where has the gospel been with the Jews?

Not from the beginning of humankind. Adam and Eve were not acquainted with any “gospel” and had no need of any. They had paradise, for they were created in the image of God, righteous and holy. They were dearly loved and richly blessed by God. Jews, in the national sense, first appeared 2000 years later. A gospel could first appear only after the fall into sin. Only then the world became lost in sin’s guilt and pleasure, doomed to lifelong misery and agonizing death, kept in death and decay for the final, everlasting judgment. Read through all the verses of Luther’s hymn, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (Christian Worship 377),11 and recall the last foundation of God’s saving counsel in John 3:16: “God so loved the world,” etc.12 Then it will become clear to you why God did not simply annihilate the lost human race in anger with his powerful Word and start a completely different human race. Then it will become clear to you why he decided instead to redeem fallen humankind and to save them for eternal salvation. The message about this decision – which is the gospel about Christ – he sent to the peoples immediately after Adam’s fall, as soon as they appeared in turn. Accordingly we read already in Genesis 4:26: “And Seth also begot a son and named him Enosh; at that time people began to preach about the name of the Lord.” This message went next through ten long-lived generations, so that these had ample opportunity to compare with each other the gospel that was revealed to them, and to strengthen their faith in it. Until the time of Noah, they lived a life of 700 to over 900 years. But what God had in mind for this gospel was shown precisely in the time of faithful Noah. When the earth was filled with humans and the descendants of Noah had become indifferent in religion, they took as wives “whomever they wanted” (Ge 6:2), especially utterly godless and Cain-like women. Then God the Lord came with the dreadful judgment of the flood upon the peoples. With it he drowned every living human, all but eight souls, namely Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their wives. Noah was over 500 years old when his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth were born.

In this way the Lord had the gospel about the coming Savior preached to the Old Testament church, until it came to an end, for the time being, in the downpour of the flood. For even Noah’s sons soon forgot it. There is not much pertaining to the gospel in what we hear about Noah’s sons in the subsequent history of peoples. Concerning Ham (Cush), we learn that he furnishes the fierce ruler Nimrod for the first great power that is formed in the Assyrian-Babylonian assortment of peoples. Concerning Japheth, we learn that he will unite the more recent Caucasian peoples under the scepter. Concerning proud Shem, we learn that he must bring to recognition the Semitic peoples, who are vanishing in the world, but he must lose his most valuable man in order to build a new people, which the true God has chosen as his Old Testament Messianic kingdom. That was Abram (Abraham) from Ur of the Chaldeans, a descendant of Shem. This people, also descended from Shem, receives in the course of time two characteristic names, the spiritual name Israel and the earthly name Jews. That is how the gospel comes to the Jews; but it is only the very modest prelude to it. Luther’s phrase, “like a downpour,” will also not remain outside for long.13 Now the historical circumstances urge us to contemplate the most prominent men of God in the Old Testament, the tri-generational Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, on whose gospel all New Testament faith and life stands. This history proceeds in Scripture from Genesis 12 and extends throughout the entire book of Exodus. Here, however, we can only touch on the narrower history of the foundation of the Old Testament kingdom of God in the most important main points.

1. Abraham's call.

In Genesis 11 we find the earliest table of nations; it ends with Abraham’s immediate family.14 In chapter 12, Scripture begins with the personal history of Abraham, the narrower history of the Old Testament kingdom of God. This history must become clear to us in its main phases, if what we so resolutely emphasize as the pure doctrine or the pure gospel of Luther is to be understood.

Genesis 12: -- And the Lord said to Abram (not yet Abraham; Abram means high father, an exalted father raised up by God as one to be revered and honored by everyone), “Leave your fatherland,” in which you were born. That is Ur of the Chaldeans, the proud, Semitic country that fancies itself as better than all this Assyrian-Babylonian assortment of peoples, and is under the impression that they are good enough and powerful enough to conquer and rule over the world. Forsake this people, and not only this people, but also your kindred, that is, your relatives. Only one, Lot, Haran’s young son, and Abram’s barren wife Sarai, were allowed to go with him. -- It was not just an emigration, but a separation of families. -- But the most noteworthy thing about this was that God did not reveal to him where, into which country, Abram should emigrate. “I will make you into a great (numerous) people and will bless you, and I will make a great name for you (will make you famous on earth) and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and in you all generations on earth shall be blessed.”

Much is demanded; but infinitely more is promised or threatened, depending on the circumstances.

(To be continued...)15
  • 1. Literal translation of the Lutherbibel text: “Martha, Martha, you have much anxiety and trouble, but one thing is necessary!” This does not reflect the Greek text as well, nor does it contrast the one necessary thing with the many things, with which Martha is concerned. Although this passage also includes the first part of verse 42, Pieper cites it as one verse, probably for the sake of conciseness.
  • 2. “Downpour,” “heavy shower,” and “torrential rain” are all equally accurate translations of the German word Platzregen.
  • 3. German: ... faule Hände müssen ein böses Jahr haben. Luther enjoyed using proverbs. This one was likely used in his day with reference to farming. Perhaps it could also be translated: “The lazy cannot enjoy at the harvest what they have not maintained by their labor.” See footnote on p. 353 in Volume 45 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works (cf. footnote 4 below).
  • 4. German: An die Rathsherren, Band X, 464. Pieper is citing Dr. Martin Luther’s Sämmtliche Schriften, published by Concordia Publishing House in 1885. A translation can also be found in Volume 45 of Luther’s Works (Walther I. Brandt, ed., Muhlenberg Press: Philadelphia, PN, 1962), pp. 352-353. Notice, however, that the main phrase under consideration is translated “passing shower of rain.” This does not accurately reflect Luther’s thought behind the phrase (as Pieper aptly shows).
  • 5. German: Frühregen; Luther used this word to represent the Hebrew word יורה. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001) defines it: “early rain, which falls in Palestine from the last of October until the first of December ...” It is called “early” rain as opposed to the “late” rain. See below.
  • 6. German: Spätregen; Luther used this word to represent the Hebrew word מלקוש. BDB defines it: “latter-rain, spring-rain (i.e. showers of March-April; important, as strengthening and maturing crops) ...”
  • 7. It is rather amusing that Pieper should even include this word. It only occurs once in the entire Old Testament with this meaning (cf. Dt 32:2 NIV, translated “showers”). Later he makes it sound as though it is used more often.
  • 8. This phrase does not actually occur in the Hebrew Old Testament. Cf. endnote 7. The Ezekiel passage contains the first paraphrase (גשם שוטף).
  • 9. We would tend to agree with Pieper on this point only as we look back at history. Today this aspect of a nation is not as relevant in some countries, especially the United States.
  • 10. Cf. Luther’s Works, Volume 2, Page 257.
  • 11. German: vgl. Luthers Lied „Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein“ durch all Verse, Nr. 96; Pieper’s number reference is to the Evangelisch-lutherisches Gesangbuch published by Northwestern Publishing House in 1872.
  • 12. This is likely a reference to that previous essay, of which he makes mention in the first line of this essay.
  • 13. Pieper is saying that the gospel downpour will not remain out of the picture for long, especially once God calls Abram.
  • 14. Genesis 10 actually has the heading “The Table of Nations” in the NIV. Pieper’s reference may be mistaken. If he does indeed mean Genesis 10, when he says that the table ends with Abraham’s “narrower” family (translated more freely as “immediate family” in the article), he would be referring to 10:21-25. But he probably means the earliest table of nations (or “register of peoples”) among the Semites. This would fit better in context, and then his reference to Genesis 11 would stand as it is.
  • 15. To the translator’s knowledge, Pieper never finished the article, even though he did not pass away until three years later (December, 1946).