A Sermon for the 400th Anniversary of the Reformation

By J. P. Koehler in October 1917

Translated by Marcus Koch in November 1983 on the occasion of the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s Birth.

Printed in Faith-Life Vol. LVI, No. 5, September-October 1983.

In view of the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Reformation this year [1917], we find a keen interest throughout Protestantism in the “value” (“den Wert”) of the Reformation and the “achievements of the Reformation with their influence on modern culture.” Volume upon volume is thrown on the market and added to the almost overabundant Luther literature. Most of them are of trivial content, and, though perhaps unintentionally, are designed to achieve success in the market place. This jubilee year, however, should awaken a special interest among us who call ourselves Lutherans, or, more expressly, Lutheran as against the Protestant circles who do not take the import of the Reformation so seriously.

What then will be the question of the day among us? Will we concern ourselves primarily with the question as to what results the Reformation produced in subsequent history in the purely formal field, in all areas of life, in science, in art and literature, and especially in the poetry of everyday life? We could very well do this, and rightly so, even though we do not consider these achievements, if we wish to call them that, as the most important. If it had not accomplished all this, God knows, we would still be sitting in the dark Middle Ages today. Justifiably we say “dark,” for a thick veil engulfed that which the great God, with so much anguish, humanly speaking, indeed in the sweat of His brow, had brought forth again into the light out of the clutches of stiffnecked Pharisaism, namely, the revelation of his grace in Christ Jesus for a world in the sin of Adam and Eve given over to damnation and eternal pain. Again to put this great deed of God back into the true light was the task and achievement of Doctor Martin Luther in his Reformation.

We will, however, not look at the Reformation in the actual sense of that word, but we would for a change rather pose, in altogether general terms, the question: How do we celebrate the Reformation correctly? We answer at once: In the true heartfelt knowledge of the righteousness valid before God, his righteousness, the one accounted valid before God. This is how Luther translates, and quite correctly, if rightly understood. The original text, however, has a somewhat different form: dikaiousyne theou, i.e., the equivalent of a compound noun: Gottgerechtigkeit, God-righteousness. The inherent meaning is: a righteousness which God creates, which originates in God, which therefore also exists from eternity, which again, inasmuch as it derives from God, is also valid before him, as Luther correctly translates. [Let us insert Luther’s translation here: “Sintemal darinnen (im Evangelium) offenbaret wird die Gerechtigkeit, die vor Gott gilt, welche kommt aus Glauben in Glauben; wie denn geschrieben stehet: Der Gerechte wird seines Glaubens leben.” The KJV: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith.”]

As may be gathered from the wording of our theme, it is not our concern to celebrate men. The occasion rather brings to our mind the word of the Psalmist: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?” And yet, since we are after all living in human circumstances, and God’s eternal thoughts of salvation work themselves out inside of man, among men and through men, we can hardly avoid taking also men into consideration in our presentation. And what greater personality, next to Paul, could be the subject of our discussion than a man like Luther? We mention Paul as the inspired man of God, since Luther in his work unmistakably reminds us of the apostle Paul in his work in the beginnings of Christianity. The inner development of both also reveals great similarities, although the spiritual disposition of the one, before the break through of the saving truth and its certainty, differed from the other.

It would be interesting to show this in a brief comparison, but we will refrain from this and confine ourselves to a short presentation of the intellectual-spiritual development of Luther, which can realistically picture for us how a man through the guidance of the Holy Ghost from above comes to the true knowledge of the righteousness of God.

On July 17, 1505, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. Great inner need, conditioned by several known events, caused him to take this step, of which his father disapproved. An unusually tender conscience, which he received so to speak with his mother’s milk, distinguished him already in early childhood from others. But the natural freshness of youth, which never fully left him, outweighed the otherwise mostly depressing depth of his finely attuned (fein organisierten) heart. With maturing manhood the critical side of the reasoning mind developed, which seeks above all to penetrate into things, the case more or less with every young man, but in Luther this served as a counterbalance to an extraordinary consciousness of sin. Hence the violent inner conflict which was lacking in those of his own age, in his contemporaries, his teachers, indeed, in his entire generation, with the exception perhaps of the common people, who really never come to grips with the doctrine of their church, nor can they, but who take the Gospel into their hearts as a treasure never to be lost, the Gospel as it was still present in the church of that day under the unfailing influence of the Holy Ghost. Evidence of this appears also in that when Luther stepped out into the public sphere with his hard-won treasure, all the people, especially his “dear Germans,” flocked to him.

What went on inside Luther during his years in the monastery, especially during the years 1508-1515 when the light of truth gradually began to dawn in him, we will only be able to touch on here. One must have experienced this himself; and even then one is not in a position to gave an exact account of his own development and will be inclined to come up with all kinds of false interpretations of what he observed in himself, as we know this to be the case indeed with Luther. — Whatever, we Christians can at least to a certain degree empathize with what went on inside him, if indeed our own Christianity is an inner experience in which the intellect plays a secondary role.

The burning question for Luther from the first day of his life as a monk was: How will I attain to the full deliverance from the natural drive of self-love and come to the perfect love of God? With total commitment he went about seeking the answer. But the question is in itself false, doubly false, since it was born of a falsely attuned conscience. Therefore the solution was of necessity also false, and Luther very soon sensed this because the pangs of conscience never left him; in fact they increased. Neither the self-imposed humility of a beggar-monk nor the conscientious observance of the rules of the order nor the most exaggerated asceticism changed anything in this regard.

In all this however, he did not forget to study. Obeying the wish of the vicar general of the order, he was finally required to give himself entirely to the study of sacred theology, which he now in tune with his natural bent pursued all the more intensively. It is gratifying to see this “reclusive monk” in solitude at work pursuing his study with amazing and untiring diligence and exactness. No friendly admonition from his superior could coax him from it, with the result that he soon faded away to a mere skeleton and later, after his dispute with Cajetan, the latter described him as “a beast with hollow eyes.” But it wasn’t this alone. We must picture Luther, next to Paul, as the most tenderhearted of men. For when we now hear with what manner of things he had to contend in his studies, then it becomes clear why it was just he whose hair was made to stand on end in this effort and why after eight years of bitter conflict his flesh had to hang from his bones. And the feeling of an enormous responsibility overwhelmed him when in 1507 he was granted consecration to the priesthood, in preparation for which he had to study through, with bleeding heart, the canon of the Mass by Gabriel Biel.

Biel’s theology was cast in the same format as the theology of the Middle Ages, namely, in that of so-called scholasticism. Scholasticism was the scaffolding as it were of the Middle Ages. To the investigation of the Scriptures it tried to apply philosophy or rather the philosophical method of the old Greeks in investigating all things per se. It did this, however, not to the content of Scripture, because that stood as self-evident, but it worked rather to systematize and prove the content by means of philosophy. The early Middle Ages went back primarily to the old Greek philosopher Plato, whereas the later Middle Ages, beginning with the 13th century, went back to the last of the great Greeks, namely Aristotle, who until then had remained relatively unknown. Out of this conflict between the old and the new scholasticism all manner of new tendencies again arose to contend with each other, especially in the movements called realism and nominalism. We’ll not go into any of these terms here because that would require a detailed study in itself. It will suffice if we realize that this entire way of dealing with the Scriptures was fundamentally false. Philosophy is speculation, i.e., human intellectual investigation of the things around us, the brooding reflection on God and creation, or, expressed philosophically, on the relation of being and material. But Scripture is not speculation. We have come to know it as revelation from God and have experienced it in our hearts. And this is also just what Scripture says of itself. At the same time Scripture also has a human element, namely the human language. Therefore it is also to be explained as any human language is according to its words and context. Every other method of explaining the Scripture is from the start false and foolish. But we may at once add, without the Holy Ghost it will still not be understood.

The Occamites 

Luther did not as yet know this, but he was soon to learn it. First however, he would have to pass through an unmerciful hammermill. With body and soul he now threw himself into scholasticism, especially the new scholasticism or the then modern theology, as we speak in our century of modern theology as against the theology of Luther’s time. The main spokesmen of this movement with whom he had to concern himself were above all the Englishman William Occam and his followers. [Active from ca. 1275-1337, Oxford, Paris, and Munich, where he died.] And what did Occam teach? We can summarize it in one short sentence: Man can do anything if he only wants to. This conclusion of Occam’s was by no means pulled out of thin air, but was the inevitable result of his nominalistic philosophy applied to the Scriptures. And what a monstrosity this sentence became as its consequences unfolded. You can keep the Ten Commandments and do so to the last letter if you only want to. You can love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your being if you only want to. You can even consider black as white if you only want to. Yes, even your egotistic drive of self-love, through careful control of your senses and your imagination, you can change to pure and unadulterated love of God if you only want to. And if with bleeding heart Luther then asks, “How then does God on his part help me to accomplish this?” well, then he found that the grace of God was portrayed as God’s favoring (beguenstigende) judgment on his forced works and merits. And the God who dispenses such grace to him he finds portrayed as the absolute, i. e., the only unending, almighty will, who as creator called the world into being out of pure arbitrariness; who as lawgiver declares, also out of pure arbitrariness, one action as moral, another as immoral; who as redeemer, again out of pure arbitrariness, put a God-man, and not for instance a stone, as a substitute for the substance of righteousness lacking in man.

This was the “God of grace” whom our Luther came to know in those years. Oh how this revelation must have cut into his heart! How he must have feared this God, indeed, hated him, when in agitation over these matters he was in dire straits; when Satan, the foe of his life, accused him, and the longer the more incisively call to him: “You’re done for, because this God has predestined you to eternal torment.” It is a wonder that our Luther did not despair, that he did not shatter on this rock of disfavor (Ungnade). And now, when we see further how God led him out of this vale of errors into the bright light, then with so much greater heartfelt joy we join in exclaiming: “You have led him wisely; wonderful are your ways, O you great God!”

The Mystics 

Not without purpose did our dear God lead him into the care of the nobleminded superior of the novitiate, who understood the gospel in its essential meaning and then dispensed the comfort of it to the much distraught Brother Martin. Our dear God brought him into contact with still another man, the eminently evangelical superior of the order, Johann von Staupitz. Like the superior of the novitiate, he too, ever and again, told Luther with emphasis, “You must believe that God has forgiven also your sins.” Indeed, Staupitz understood how to picture the gospel for Luther in a still brighter light when he impressed on him: “Christ certainly did not go into death for painted sins!” No one could appreciate better than Luther in particular the loving fatherly leadership of these two, the most noble figures in his circle of friends at that time. And in later life Luther never ceased to appreciate and acknowledge that the heartwarming words of these two men gave him the first comfort in the many years of deep inner turmoil. Indeed, later in life he asserted that the fatherly treatment of these men gave him the first taste of a never hoped for, genuine, fatherly love, of which he had received so little in his own father’s house, where only the law of the rod prevailed.

The personal influence of these men was undoubtedly of great importance. Of much greater importance, however was the fact that the dear God, right at the beginning of his years in the monastery, led him into the school of the so-called mystics. Both Staupitz as well as the superior of the novitiate were mystics. The word mystic is related to the Greek word Mysterion, i.e., secret worship of God, and designates a religious movement of the Middle Ages. It arose in opposition to scholasticism, which was the systematic theology of the Middle Ages, about which we heard before, and from this conflict it developed its distinctive shape and form. By its overwrought emphasis on emotion it sought to know a resulting union with God already in this life. As to its aim, it of course badly missed the mark. However, by the fact that it put emphasis on the emotions as the main element in the union with God, it took so great a step forward that we can hardly imagine how much this meant to Luther.

That was indeed one of the main faults of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, as well as of the Lutheran orthodoxy of later years: it divided the human spirit into halves: intellect or reason and will, and in so doing always overlooked the emotions (das Gemuet), the chief factor in the human soul. That is why the Scriptures remained for the scholastics a book with seven seals, since its main appeal is after all to the emotions. The Scriptures themselves testify to this: “Now faith is the substance (assurance) of things hoped for” [Luther: Zuversicht],assurance, not intellect, not will. What then?! A settled inner longing that conscious of the omnipresence of its God is happy (selig)—and so a matter of the emotions. Emotion, incidentally, is also a characteristic of the German people, more so than of other peoples, who are more attuned to the intellect and the will.

That of course still doesn’t say that the Reformation had to blossom forth just in Germany as some would have it, a charge, now that we are at war, brought against the Germans.

After this digression, let us see what Luther learned from these mystics. To be sure, also these people did not possess the Gospel in all its wonder and beauty. But even while holding to the ideas generally held in Catholicism regarding good works, the law, the merits of monastic asceticism, they had come a giant step closer to the essence of the gospel. The spiritually gifted mystic Bernard of Clairvaux [d. 1153] often, already at that time, unmistakably taught justification by faith only, as the treasure of treasures. Above all he again and again pointed to the cross.

To their greatest credit, however, we must add that they constantly referred Luther to Augustine (born at Tagaste in Numidia in 354 and died in Hippo in 430) as the greatest of the church fathers. Augustine also was a mystic. From his writings, most of which Luther read, he also got to know what he had constantly heard from the others, namely the vanity of human existence, and became acquainted with emotional (gefuehlig) speculations about God, man, and the soul. What then was it that attracted him so in his study of this “greatest of all theologians”? Was it that they explained to him the clear, transparent Scriptural doctrine of justification? No way! That Luther finally came to that insight was, next to God, his own doing. But the knowledge that one did not necessarily have to teach as the Occamites did, indeed, that the most original of the church fathers taught differently, that was the great find for him. And this knowledge acted as an antidote to the poison of the satanic doctrine of salvation taught by the Occamites.

Well, you ask, didn’t Luther study the Scriptures themselves? Of course. But up to this point he could read them only through the eyes of his old teachers. But now his vision became clearer, his heart freer. Now he gradually began to understand the Occamite proposition: “Only the Scriptures are infallible,” not however in the way they did. Occam stated that only as a proof of his critique that the pope and councils can err, a critique not considered so terrible at the time. Only later, when Luther, challenged by his enemies, entered the battlefield and said with heartfelt conviction: “The Scriptures cannot be broken, but pope and councils err and have erred,” were the Curia and its disciples almost beside themselves with anger at such effrontery.

The doctorate 

Luther was still far from being in the clear with the new thoughts he had come to by this time. But they served as an incentive to a still more intensive study of the Scriptures, the wonderful treasures of which in their rich depth the dear God would gradually be unlocking to him. Then in the year 1508, on the recommendation of Staupitz, Elector Frederick the Wise appointed him to the University of Wittenberg, founded in 1502. There he had to devote himself to the study of philosophy, but he did not rest until he was finally assigned to the chair of theology. But before this, for a second time he was transferred to Erfurt during the years 1509-1510. Then in 1511 came his pilgrimage to Rome, which was to prove especially fruitful to him, for there, quite unexpectedly, his eyes were opened to the horrible decadence in his dear church. Back in Germany again, he earned his doctorate in theology. It involved certain expenses. But the good-hearted Elector paid the bill for his highly honored professor, Luther. In taking the doctorate he also had to take the oath: “To defend the evangelical truth to the best of his ability.”

He was still far from seeing the truth in its clarity, but he who seeks shall find. Now back in his own element, he dug the more intensely into the Holy Scriptures in order finally to come up with the truth. And what do we see? In his lecture notes on the Psalms for the years 1513-1515 the conviction is expressed with more and more clarity: the greatest evil is guilt, the greatest treasure is the lifting of it, a good conscience. Yes, even more. In order to attain that good conscience, there is only one way, namely the firm trust in God that he will put sin aside in view of the merit of Jesus Christ, that by imputing this to man he also gives him the power to overcome evil. Furthermore, in his lectures on Romans in 1515-1516, we find the same things expressed. In his study of Romans he had to come to grips with the concept of “the righteousness of God.”

The scales fall from his eyes 

Then either toward the end of 1515 or the beginning of 1516, after he had worked through the writings of the two mystics, Johann Tauler and the so-called Frankfurter, the compiler of the “German theology,” the scales finally fell from his eyes because these Germans revealed to him what he had never heard before but had certainly sensed in his inner being. These two were the first to clarify for him what had been going on in his inner soul, that God takes a man into his school if he wants to make him his child; indeed, how he will plunge him into the pain of hell only to lead him out again, and now not as Occam had said, out of pure arbitrariness, but with the loving intention to humble a man, to get him off his high horse and so make of him an acceptable heir of the kingdom of heaven. That gave him the key to understanding himself. Now God appeared to him as he who actually determines a man for salvation according to his good pleasure and not as Occam taught, out of mere arbitrariness. This put everything into a different light. He knew that Scripture expressly says of him: “God would have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And furthermore he had personally experienced that this God had accepted just him, who all these years had tortured himself with the accusation: he has not accepted you. He knew that God now was saying to him as he had always been calling out to him: “You are mine, I am thine, and no one shall tear you out of my hand.” This made Luther truly penitent, for he really recognized his own unworthiness, and so Holy Scriptures now appear to him as a treasure of divine wisdom surpassing any human understanding, and not as Occam had taught, a Sammelsurium, a conglomeration of unreasonable doctrines.

The question whether Luther was first converted when he attained to this knowledge is not for us to answer. This is a delicate matter that goes on in the soul of man and escapes our physical eyes. God alone knows that. But judging in Christian love, we may say that when the thought first stirred in his soul that with all his doings he was sinking but deeper “into hell’s fierce agony,” he was already an acceptable child of God. Be that as it may, it is enough that Luther finally came to the God-given knowledge: “It is a precious thing that the heart become firm, and this comes about through faith.” And the clearer the words of Paul now became, “The just shall live by faith,” the more humble he became, and then, in the middle of the battle against the devil and his horde, in 1524 this great song of repentance could flow from his lips:

Though in midst of life we be,

Snares of death surround us.

Where shall we for succor flee,

Lest our foes confound us?

To thee alone, our Savior!

We mourn our grievous sin, which hath

Stirred the fire of Thy fierce wrath.

Holy and gracious God!

Holy and mighty God!

Holy and all-merciful Savior!

Thou eternal God!

Save us, Lord, from sinking

In the deep and bitter flood!

Have mercy, O Lord!

If we truly take this to heart, beloved, then we celebrate Reformation Day in truth—a day of repentance, a constant battle against devil, world, and our flesh, in which we finally always, again and again, stretch out our hands for the grace we long for deeply, reaching out for it as though it were suspended somewhere in the air, but which actually surrounds us—the trouble lies in our dim eyes—a grace we need only to embrace with both arms as a youth would like to embrace the whole world in the unsullied hope: the world is mine! Only that here in this we have something that accomplishes what is real for time and eternity in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

And if then, with this, according to God’s good pleasure, the Holy Ghost works on our hearts, then we will not start reasoning about it, but we will step before the world with artless simplicity and ourselves bring a self-evident witness to the truth, as Peter did when testifying before the council of the elders: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

May God help us to this. AMEN.