Eucharistic Meditation

If, then, the mass is a testament and sacrament in which the forgiveness of sins and every grace of God are promised and sealed with a sign, it follows self-evidently what is the best preparation for it. Without doubt the mass is given to them that need it and desire it. But who needs forgiveness of sins and God’s grace more than just these poor miserable consciences who are driven and tormented by their sins, are afraid of God’s wrath, judgement, death, and hell, and would be eager to have a gracious God, desiring nothing more greatly than this? These are truly they who are well prepared for the mass. For with them these words have found force and meaning, when Christ says, “Take and drink, this is my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Where such a soul believes these words, as it ought, it receives from the mass all the fruits of the mass, that is, peace and joy, and thus is thereby well and richly fed in spirit.

But where there is no faith, there no prayer helps, nor the hearing of many masses. Things can only become worse. As Psalm 23 says, “Before my eyes thou hast prepared a table for me against all my affliction.” Is this not a clear verse? What greater affliction is there than sin and the evil conscience which is always afraid of God’s anger and never has rest. Again, Psalm 111 says, “He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered, and has provided food for those who fear him.” It is certain, then, that for bold and satisfied spirits, whose sin does not prick them, the mass is of no value. For they have as yet no hunger for this food, since they are still too full. The mass demands and must have a hungry soul, which longs for the forgiveness of sins and divine favour.

But because this despair and unrest of conscience are nothing but an infirmity of faith, the severest malady which man can have in body and soul, and which cannot at once be speedily cured, it is useful and necessary that the more restless a person’s conscience, the more should he go to the sacrament or hear mass. He should do this in such a way as to picture to himself therein the word of God and feed and strengthen his faith by it; never to make a work or sacrifice of it, but let it remain a testament and a sacrament, out of which he shall take and enjoy a benefit freely and of grace. Thereby his heart may become sweet toward God and obtain a comforting confidence toward him. For so sings the Psalter, Psalm 104, “The bread strengthens man’s heart, and the wine gladdens the heart of man.”

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 109–110.

More than Forgiveness

From Luther’s Epistle Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter (1 Peter 2:11–20):

We have heard above that the two parts are to be together in a Christian and emphasized in Christan teaching. The first part is faith, that we are redeemed from sin through the blood of Christ and have forgiveness. The second part, after we have [faith], is that afterward we should become different people and live a new life. In Baptism, or when we begin to believe, we receive not only the forgiveness of sins (which is the grace that makes us God’s children) but also the gift that must do away with the remaining sins and kill them. Our sins are not forgiven so that we would continue in them (as St. Paul says in Romans 6), as the insolent spirits and despisers of grace allege. Rather, even though sins have been blotted out through Christ’s blood, so that we do not need to pay or make amends for them, and we now are children of grace and have forgiveness, yet that does not mean sin has been entirely done away with and killed in us.

The forgiveness of sins and the killing of them are two different things. Both of them must be proclaimed against those who confuse and turn things upside down with false doctrine. Against the first, the pope and many others have taught that the forgiveness of sins is to be obtained through the trickery of their own self-chosen and invented works and their own satisfactions. This error always continues in the world from Cain at the beginning to the end. Then, when this error has been put down, there are again false spirits on the other isde, who have heard the preaching about grace and boast about it and yet produce nothing more from it, just as if that were enough, and forgiveness should do nothing more in us than that we remain as we were before. Afterward, there were just as many as before, when we still knew nothing at all about Christ and the Gospel.

Therefore, those who want to be Christians must know and learn that, since they have obtained forgiveness without their own merit, they must from now on not allow or indulge in sin, but rather oppose their former, evil, sinful lusts and avoid and flee their work and fruits. That is the summary and meaning of this Epistle reading.

Luther’s Works, Vol. 78: Church Postil III (St. Louis: CPH, 2014), 154–155

What Is the Christian Life?

These two are the first elements of Christian life: Repentance or contrition and grief, and faith through which we receive the forgiveness of sins and are righteous before God. Both should grow and increase in us. The third element of Christian life is the doing of good works: To be chaste, to love and help the neighbor, to refrain from lying, from deceit, from stealing, from murder, from vengefulness, and avenging oneself, etc.

Philip Melanchthon & Martin Luther, Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony (LW 40)

Chants for the Reformation Lessons

After the lecture on Music and the Reformation last Friday, we celebrated choral vespers. To get a sense of an earlier time in the Lutheran church, the readings (Epistle & Gospel for Reformation Day) were chanted according to Luther’s directions in Die Deutsche Messe. Here’s the music (text from ESV®).

The Epistle:



The Gospel:



Click here for a PDF version

Death as debtor to Christ

An interesting thought from Luther’s sermon for New Year’s Day in the Church Postil:

For when death fell on Him and killed Him, and yet had no right or case against Him, and He willingly and innocently submitted and let Himself be killed, then death became liable to Him, did Him wrong and sinned against Him, and itself spoiled everything, so that Christ has an honest claim against it. Now the wrong of which [death] became guilty toward Him is so great that death can never pay nor atone for it. Therefore, it must be subject to Christ and in His power forever, and so death is overcome and put to death in Christ. (Luther’s Works 76 [CPH, 2013], 45)

Again, this fits beautifully with the centrality of the baptismal union:  all things are subjected to Christ, for the Church (Eph. 1:22). Apart from Christ, death rules over my body. In Christ, death is subject to me, because it is subject to Him and I am in Him.

The entire Gospel embodied and presented to us

Grunewald: LambTherefore also it is vain talk when they say that the body and blood of Christ are not given and shed for us in the Lord’s Supper, hence we could not have forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. For although the work is accomplished and the forgiveness of sins acquired on the cross, yet it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word. For what would we otherwise know about it, that such a thing was accomplished or was to be given us if it were not presented by preaching or the oral Word? Whence do they know of it, or how can they apprehend and appropriate to themselves the forgiveness, except they lay hold of and believe the Scriptures and the Gospel? But now the entire Gospel and the article of the Creed: I believe a holy Christian Church, the forgiveness of sin, etc., are by the Word embodied in this Sacrament and presented to us. Why, then, should we allow this treasure to be torn from the Sacrament when they must confess that these are the very words which we hear every where in the Gospel, and they cannot say that these words in the Sacrament are of no use, as little as they dare say that the entire Gospel or Word of God, apart from the Sacrament, is of no use?

via The Large Catechism – Book of Concord (V.31–32)

Anti-heresy anthem

Some months ago, and at the end of a longer article, Pr. David Petersen quoted a hymn by Luther that was still included in The Lutheran Hymnal (no. 260) but was left out of the Lutheran Service Book. Like a lot of TLH hymns that didn’t make it into LSB, this one’s a time-tested treasure of the church. It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 12, applied to the Church.

1. O Lord, look down from heaven, behold
And let Thy pity waken:
How few are we within Thy Fold,
Thy saints by men forsaken!
True faith seems quenched on every hand,
Men suffer not Thy Word to stand;
Dark times have us o’ertaken.

2. With fraud which they themselves invent
Thy truth they have confounded;
Their hearts are not with one consent
On Thy pure doctrine grounded.
While they parade with outward show,
They lead the people to and fro,
In error’s maze astounded.

3. May God root out all heresy
And of false teachers rid us
Who proudly say: “Now, where is he
That shall our speech forbid us?
By right or might we shall prevail;
What we determine cannot fail;
We own no lord and master.”

4. Therefore saith God, “I must arise,
The poor My help are needing;
To Me ascend My people’s cries,
And I have heard their pleading.
For them My saving Word shall fight
And fearlessly and sharply smite,
The poor with might defending.”

5. As silver tried by fire is pure
From all adulteration,
So through God’s Word shall men endure
Each trial and temptation.
Its light beams brighter through the cross,
And, purified from human dross,
It shines through every nation.

6. Thy truth defend, O God, and stay
This evil generation;
And from the error of their way
Keep Thine own congregation.
The wicked everywhere abound
And would Thy little flock confound;
But Thou art our Salvation.

(Pr. Petersen also relates some incidents at the time of the reformation, when this hymn was used as an anti-heresy shield by congregations if a false preacher got up in the pulpit!)

In 1724, to mark the bicentenary of the publication of the first ever Lutheran hymnal, J.S. Bach began a project whose aim was to compose a chorale cantata for every Sunday of the church year.

Usually, church cantatas were based on biblical texts, such as the Gospel reading of the day. The chorale cantata was a new venture: to take the hymn of the day and turn it into a cantata, with the usual choir, soloists and orchestra. Usually, the text of the first and last verse would be presented as they were, while the words of the inner verses would be paraphrased in a series of recitatives and arias. The chorale tune would be heard in some version in the opening movement, and be sung in four-part harmony as the closing movement.

For reasons not entirely clear to us, Bach never completed the cycle (probably he lost his librettist), although he did get through most of the year.

The chorale cantata for the second Sunday after Trinity (last Sunday), BWV, was a setting of none other than this great anti-heresy anthem. It was my privilege to introduce it in last week’s episode of Sunday Cantata on Lutheran Radio UK.

To encourage you to go and listen to it here, here’s a little taster of the opening movement. It’s written in a deliberately archaic style, as a conscious nod to the past, as befits a project that sets out to celebrate the present benefits of a past event.

The chorale tune itself is sung by the altos of the choir, reinforced by the oboe. Around it, the choir sings a solemn fugue, based on the melody.

[In this recording, Bach Collegium Japan is joined by Concerto Palatino.]

Per Fidem Solam: Romans 3:24 in the Würzburg Glosses

It would seem that Luther’s decision to add the word ‘allein’ (alone) to Rom. 3:28, for which Roman Catholic apologists have pilloried him and his followers ever since, wasn’t quite such an innovation after all:

A N G L A N D I C U S: Per Fidem Solam: Romans 3:24 in the Würzburg Glosses

Here’s what Luther had to say about the matter in his Open Letter on Translating.

HT: Anthony Sacramone

Sanctification—joining the fray

Since the world and its dog is writing about this just now…

Recently, I have been heartened to read several blog posts each on sanctification, by Pr. Mark Surburg and Pr. Jordan Cooper, respectively. You can read them here and here. That means, amongst other things, that Pr. Paul McCain is no longer alone beating this worthy drum.

All those worthy folks make the case entirely to my satisfaction, sources and all. That walking repository of quotations, Pr. William Weedon, adds some pretty useful quotations to the mix in some of the comments. You can read them here, along with some sturdy criticisms as well.

This is a topic that has troubled me for some time. Even before I began to train as a pastor, I had come across the view that seems to be pretty widespread in certain English-speaking confessional Lutheran circles: that the Law only kills, and only the Gospel has a positive application. Of course, no one ever says that—but an awful lot of preachers preach as if that were true. Which amounts to the same thing. Indeed, Prs. Surburg and Cooper both nail the issue on the head by discussing the role of preaching in sanctification. Because that is the question.

There are so many different factors at work here that I lack the space, the energy and, frankly, the competence to deal with it all here. Just a couple of observations must suffice:

(1) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is a biblical teaching. You can’t get past that. “Be ye holy even as I am holy” means that something needs to happen. It also means that it has a behavioural aspect. If the will of God is my sanctification, and that means that I must renounce sexual immorality, then my behaviour must be marked by holiness.

That doesn’t mean that holiness is defined by behaviour. Of course not. But if my behaviour is unholy, then my life makes a lie out of that which God has declared me to be. Why else would I pray that God forgive me and by His Holy Spirit increase in me true knowledge of God and of God’s will and true obedience to His word?

(2) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is embedded in the Lutheran confessions. Just read the first 8 articles of the Augsburg Confession, and the fourth section on Baptism in the Large and Small Catechisms. FC IV:40 is pretty clear, too.

(3) To teach good works is the duty of every preacher. And it’s not a coincidental or secondary duty, but part of the whole counsel of God. It’s a salutary exercise to read through Paul’s letter to Titus and to make a note of all the things that Paul instructs Titus to do. And, if you are a preacher, place yourself in Titus’ shoes and do what Paul instructs you to do.

(4) Not to teach God’s will concerning holiness of life and good works clearly and explicitly to the Christian congregation but somehow to expect the Holy Spirit to do His work is simply functional enthusiasm. If you are a Lutheran who says that the Holy Spirit works through means, and is never separated from those means, then that applies to faith and love alike. The Christian learns God’s will by hearing what God’s will is, through the preaching of God’s word. For the Christian, the Law doesn’t only accuse, because the Christian delights in the Law, which is good and holy, and because the Christian is free to obey the Law, in love and therefore without fear.

In short: if you don’t expect people to believe the Gospel without hearing the Gospel, you shouldn’t expect people to be conformed to God’s will without hearing God’s will. The Gospel alone empowers fallen people to do God’s will. But what that will is must be taught and proclaimed.

(5) It’s never a good idea to define yourself reactively. It’s OK not to use red wine if that becomes a sine qua non amongst the Reformed. It’s OK not to wear a Geneva gown if that’s required by the local Presbyterian board of elders as the true mark of a Christian minister.

It’s not OK to deny the works of the Holy Spirit because the charismatic movement happened and went crazy. And it’s not OK to deny sanctification as a real-life fact just because Wesley preached and people believe what he said, or because the Pope is Roman Catholic and espouses Roman Catholic teaching.

It’s not OK not to teach good works because there are lots of evangelical, liberal and every other kind of legalists out there burdening Christian consciences.

The truth is true, and if someone twists the truth into something else, the Christian response is to trumpet the truth with ever-greater purity, rather than pretend that it isn’t true.

(6) The Law is not merely the foil for the Gospel. It’s part of the whole counsel of God. We are not saved from the Law: we are saved from the accusation of the Law. We are not freed from God’s will: we are freed to do God’s will.

(7) The Law-Gospel distinction is not a tool for select which bits of God’s word we proclaim. It’s not an exegetical hermeneutic, but a pastoral one.


Finally, don’t take it from me. Just this last Sunday, Luther proclaimed in the House Postil that the two great subjects of Christian preaching are faith and love. The apostles knew that, the fathers of the church knew that, the Reformers knew that, as did the great preachers of the 17th century, and all great preachers. How do I know they knew that? Because that’s how they preached. And that’s how I ought to preach, too.

War and Peace

In the next episode of Sunday Cantata, we will hear BWV 126, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, a chorale cantata on the hymn by Luther, known in English as ‘Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word‘.

I won’t say much here—listen to the episode on Lutheran Radio UK!—except this:

The peculiar combination, usual in Bach’s time, of Luther’s original hymn with his paraphrase of the mediæval antiphon, Da pacem, Domine (Verleih uns Frieden gnädliglich) creates a beautiful effect. In the space of just over 15 minutes of music, we go from the midst of a battle and all its noise and tumult, to the heavenly peace Christ is bringing to those whom He keeps steadfast in His word—or, more literally and more properly, whom He guards us by His word.

The cantata opens with the urgent sound of the bugle call:

But it closes with the most sublimely beautiful and peaceful Amen:

That says it all!