Monday, January 4, 2016

Mark's thoughts: Luther's striking Christmas "Gospel"

In the discussion about preaching in the Lutheran church, I think there is a growing realization that modern Lutheranism has strayed from the biblical language of exhortation and admonition about good works and the life of new obedience. A key factor for many in this recognition has been the reading of Martin Luther’s sermons.

More and more, one hears pastors say that we should “just preach the text.”  By this, many mean that if language about how Christians are to live is present, then this should be included in the sermon.  Sometimes the corollary to this is that if such language is not present in the text, then a sermon will not include language that exhorts and discusses good works and new obedience.

Certainly, not every sermon will include language about how Christians are to live.  The attention span of today’s hearer is far more limited than in the past, and as a result sermons need to be shorter.  There are inherent limits on what can be done in any given sermon, and a sermon may develop in a way that simply does not lend itself to including language about good works and new obedience.

But if a text does not include language about how Christians are to live, does this mean that our starting assumption will be that the sermon will not as well?  A reading of Luther’s Church Postil soon makes it evident that Martin Luther did not see things in this way.  A classic example of this is his treatment of the Gospel Lesson for Christmas Day, Luke 2:1-14 (called “The Gospel for the Christmas Eve Mass” in the 1522, 1528 and 1532 versions) (LW 75:209, ftnt. 1). 

The Gospel text does not have any language in it that addresses how Christians are to live – after all it is simply a narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ.  However, in his treatment of the Gospel lesson for Christmas, we see both Luther’s keen insight into the Gospel and also his understanding about what Jesus Christ means for the life of the believer.  Luther begins by emphasizing the “for you” of the Gospel.  He writes:

The first is faith, and it is right that we recognize it as the first in all the words of God.  It is of no value only to believe that this history is true as it reads; for all sinners, even the condemned, believe that. Scripture and God’s Word do not teach that faith is a natural work without grace.  Rather, the right and gracious faith which God’s Word and work demands is that you firmly believe that Christ is born for you, and that this birth is yours and occurred for your benefit (LW 75:215).

Martin Luther described Jesus’ saving work at the “great exchange” in which Christ takes our sin on the cross and gives to us His saving righteousness.  Here Luther applies a similar idea to Christ’s birth for us:

See, in this way Christ takes our birth away from us and absorbs it into His birth, and gives us His, that in it we might become pure and new, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as if he also, like Christ, had been born bodily of Mary. Whoever does not believe this, or doubts it, is no Christian (LW 75:216).

For Luther, this must be the starting point of the Christian life.  He comments:

This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it. Christ must above all things become our own, and we become His, before we can take hold of works (LW 75:216).

Yet receiving Christ’s work for us does not conclude the matter.  It cannot. Luther goes on to say:

If Christ has now thus become your own, and you have by such faith become pure through Him and have received your inheritance without any personal merit, only through the love of God who gives to you as your own blessing and the work of His Son, then the example of good works follows, that you will also do for your neighbor as you have seen Christ has done for you.  Here good works are their own teacher. What are the good works of Christ?  Is it not that they are good because they have been done for your benefit, for God’s sake, who commanded Him to do the works on your behalf?  In this, then, Christ was obedient to the Father and served us.
Therefore, since you have received enough and have become rich, you have no other commandment in which to serve and be obedient to Christ than so to direct your works that they may be good and useful to your neighbor, just as the works of Christ are good and useful for you.  For that reason He said at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you” [John 13:34].  Here you see the He loved us and did everything for us in order that we may do the same, not for him – for He does not need it – but for our neighbor. (LW 75:216-217).

Luther sees the Christian life as that of being drawn to Christ and then also toward the neighbor:

See, these are the two things that a Christian is to practice. The one is toward Christ, that he draws Him into himself and through faith he makes Him his own, clothes himself in Christ’s blessings, and boldly builds on them. The second is towards his neighbor, that he lowers himself [to serve] him and lets him rule over his possessions as he rules over the possessions of Christ (LW 75:217).

For Martin Luther the saving work of Jesus Christ for us comes first.  However, this can never be separated from the love which the life of faith now gives the neighbor in service.  In fact, Luther can even define the Gospel as including both of these:

The other mystery or secret teaching, is that in the church nothing more than the Gospel should be preached.  Now the Gospel teaches nothing more than the two previous things: Christ and His example; and two kinds of good works, the one belonging to Christ by which we are saved through faith, the other belonging to us by which our neighbor receives help. Whoever teaches anything other than the Gospel leads people astray; and whoever does not teach the Gospel according to these two parts leads people all the more astray and is worse than the one who doesn’t teach the Gospel because he desecrates and cheats with God’s Word, as St. Paul complains about some [2 Cor. 2:17] (LW 75:218; emphasis added).

Luther’s words here are particularly striking.  While he certainly understands “Gospel” in the strict sense of the term to be matter of pure gift, he is not at all hesitant about using the word in a broader sense that includes the Christian response of good works for the neighbor.  There is Christ as Savior for us, and Christ as example for us. There is the work of Christ to save us and our work which helps the neighbor.  Both are included here in what Luther calls "Gospel.In fact Luther says that anyone who “does not teach the Gospel according to these two parts leads people all the more astray and is worse than the one who doesn’t teach the Gospel because he desecrates and cheats with God’s Word.”

Luther himself does not emphasize the second part in every sermon.  So, for example, it is virtually absent from his treatment of the Epistle for the Third Day of Christmas, Hebrews 1:1-12 (LW 75:256-276), as instead he discusses the incarnation. But as a general description it holds true, and with remarkable consistency he takes up Christ as example and our work for the neighbor.  Martin Luther is simply unable to discuss the Gospel, without also talking about what those who have faith in Jesus Christ now do.  He does not believe that the text needs to include language about how Christians are to live in order to take up the topic in the sermon.  The presence of the Gospel propels his thought and discussion in this direction.  Luther’s Church Postil  reveals that the post-communion collect he wrote is really a description of his homiletical outlook:

We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another (LSB 166).


  1. I ran across a similarly broad definition of the Gospel by Luther from Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows (1521) "The gospel is simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man. Among these benefits are those declarations of God's commandments and the exhortations to keep them, which Christ made in Matthew 5, 6, and 7." (LW 44:256) The context is fascinating.

    Speaking from a layman's perspective, I have found it pretty difficult to wrestle with some of the opposing claims about the truth that surround these issues, but I am grateful that it has driven me to take up a more earnest study of the Scriptures, the Lutheran Symbols, and our fathers in the faith.

  2. Thanks again for your excellent work on this subject, Mark. What a joy to have, at least, an edition of the Postils by the "chief teacher of the churches of the Augsburg Confession," as Luther is described several times in the Book of Concord, rendered in excellent English, based on the best available texts.

  3. I second Paul McCain's sentiment. Also, I have long loved Luther's Postils as I love all of his writings from this fecund period of his early writing ministry. Lastly, I really do hope that more and more pastor/theologians in our Lutheran movement come to realize the beauty seen in this expression of the gospel, as Paul quoted, "The gospel is simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man. Among these benefits are those declarations of God's commandments and the exhortations to keep them..."

  4. 1 Cor 15:1-4 is the Gospel, according to Paul and the Holy Spirit. Faith I the Gospel should, and generally does, bear the fruit of good works, but the 3rd Use of the Law is still the Law, not the Gospel.