1 feb. 2014

The Word of Christ and the Church

Furthermore, the same game is going on at the present time and, if one may put it this way, has been going on among all nations ever since the beginning of the world. The Jews are stubborn and obstinate because of their birth according to the flesh, and they boast that they alone are the people of God.

But look at the Turks, and you will see that they rely on the same trust in the flesh. For because they fight successfully against the Christians and have increased their power through many great victories, especially in these lattertimes,33 they first take from us with the utmost smugness the title that we are the people of God, especially since we are being plagued by so many defeats. But they arrogate to themselves the glory that they are the people of God, because they are so successful from day to day, especially against the Christians; for the Turks are by no means so fortunate when they fight against the Tartars and the Persians.34

Therefore since the Turks are elated by their success and are crammed, as it were, with victories, they regard us as dogs and swine. Sennacherib did the same thing at Jerusalem, and his success made him a blasphemer, so that he boasted that his idols were stronger than God, whose abode was in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 32:13–15).

Thus later on the gods of the Romans made the entire world subject to Rome. Consequently, the Romans were sure that their religion was the best, and the most pleasing to God. Therefore just as the Jews take pride in their birth according to the flesh, so the Turks in our time believe that they are the only people of God under the sun.

If you ask for the reason and how they prove this, they cite their victories, success, power, and wealth. They attach no importance to God’s promise; nor do they have any knowledge of it. They are unaware of God’s majesty, which bestows the kingdoms of the world even on the unworthy and ungodly; for the Turkish empire, whatever its extent, is nothing but a morsel of bread which a rich head of a household throws to his dogs.

This the Turks do not know. But Christians know it, and they regard the entire world with all its wealth as nothing; for they are waiting for another, better life in which one star will be more beautiful and more magnificent than this entire world. Moreover, for this conviction of theirs they have a firm foundation, namely, the promise of God which has been set before them in the Son of God, while the Turks have their stinking Koran, their victories, and the temporal power on which they rely. I readily believe, however, that in places which are close to the Turk many Christians lose courage because of this stumbling block and fall away from the faith, because they see that they are unlucky, but that the Turks are very prosperous.

Such Christians need faithful teachers to remind them that God’s favor should not be gauged from things that will perish, such as wealth, power, and victories, but from eternal benefits. For to bestow kingdoms and the wealth of the world is a small token of the majesty of God. These things God gave for the use of all when He created the world, but that gift reveals the nature of the Divine Majesty when we shah rise from the dead and live in the new world, and forever at that. Therefore it serves no purpose to say: “God is granting kingdoms. He is granting wealth. Consequently, I have a propitious God.”

One should rather say: “God gives a promise, and it deals with eternal life. Consequently, He is truly propitious.” Therefore the text before us should be used as a proverb: “Through Isaac shall your decendants be named”; that is, he who has the promise and believes shall be the heir.

Where there is no promise, or where the existing promise is not believed, there, in spite of wealth and kingdoms of the world, prestige and power, no church is to be found and no people of God. It is Ishmael who is cast out of the house, not Isaac, the heir.

Thus the pope and his followers arrogate to themselves the name “church,” but we should be fully convinced that they cannot be the church. The reason is that they are not the children of the promise; that is, they do not believe the Gospel but persecute it. Therefore although they boast of their apostolic succession, their office, and their legitimate authority, nevertheless, if they do not believe the promise, they are nothing except Ishmael in the house of Abraham; that is, they are children of perdition, not heirs.

As is clear from what has been said, Moses, Christ Himself, John, and Paul make this distinction; yes, the Second Commandment itself, when it forbids taking the name of God in vain, proves clearly enough that this is a false church—a church which does not want to refrain from using the name of God and yet misuses it.

But this serves to comfort us, for the name of God is awesome and should be feared. Because the false church uses it against the members of the true church, it must inevitably terrify them. When the pope excommunicates us, he does so by making use of the name of God. Therefore one should know from the Second Commandment that these very people who claim to be the only ones who are the church are misusing the name of God.

Accordingly, one must make a distinction in dealing with the church and with the name of God. God’s name is worthy of reverence and is holy, but it is very frequently misused. Then we should not be afraid; but we should be despisers, not indeed of the name of God but of those who misuse it and want to frighten us.

You must have the same opinion about the church. It is saddening to hear the papists lie and say that we are reprobate and dead members of the church; but let us distinguish between the true use of the name “church” and its misuse. Ishmael also calls Abraham father, but the situation is far different from what it is in the case of Isaac. Thus the papists call themselves the church; but if it is true—as cannot be denied, not even by Satan—that the church is made up of those who have the promise and believe it, it follows that the pope with his followers is not the church, but that he misuses the name “church,” because he is an enemy of the promise and persecutes those who believe the promise.

Therefore it is certain that the name “church” is very often grossly misused, for not only heretics but even Turks and Jews call themselves the church. Therefore he who simply says that he is the church says nothing at all. He must prove this. Otherwise we shall have every right to hold the name “church” in contempt, because it is being misused.

But the Second Commandment compels us to make a distinction; for just as the name of God is being misused, so the name “church” is also being misused. For the church exists only where the Word is and where there are people who believe the Word, in accordance with this text: “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.”

But the pope persecutes the Word and takes the name of the Lord in vain. Therefore he is the Antichrist and that loathsome beast (Rev. 13:1) which has blasphemous names on its forehead, that is, which teaches nothing but real blasphemies and profanes the name of God through constant misuse.

In the Gospel of John (14:23) Christ says: “If a man loves Me, he will keep My Word.” Therefore those who want to be the people of God or the church must have the Word of Christ, that is, the promises of God; and they must keep them, that is, believe them. These are the people whom the Father loves and to whom He comes to make His home in them (John 14:23). But so far are the pope and his followers from keeping the Word of Christ that they alone most tenaciously hate and persecute it.

Because they frighten us with the name “church” and the name “God,” let us make the distinction which the Holy Spirit makes in the Second Commandment, namely, that some use the name of God properly, but that others misuse the name of God. The proper use of the name of God is where the Word and the promise are. On the other hand, where the Word is blasphemed, there the name of God is being misused.

Therefore we should not be frightened; for we know that among such people the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit do not make their home, but that the devil himself lives there, as is recognized from their forehead, on which there are blasphemous names.

In short, there is no people of God unless it has the promises and believes them. Those who, like the Jews and the Turks, trust in works, laws, and other gifts are not the church, because works, laws, etc., are not the promise.

But in our churches we retain the confession, accept the promises, and keep the Word of Christ. As a result, up to this time many have been killed and are still being killed solely on account of the Word, because they refuse to give up the confession of the Gospel. These are the sure signs which prove that we are the true church, but that the pope and his followers are the church of Satan.

But what shall we say to this? The papists baptize, they administer the sacraments, and they absolve from sins; therefore they are the church. And we cannot deny that we ourselves, through their ministry—because we were baptized by them—came into the fellowship of the true church.

My usual answer to this objection is as follows: The external sacraments and also the Word can be transmitted or administered even by the ungodly. Judas, for his person, did not belong to the church; yet he was in the ministry of the church, and those who were baptized by him were rightly baptized.

We may say the same thing about the papists, who, so far as they themselves are concerned, are blasphemers and ungodly. Yet when they baptize, administer Communion, and absolve—provided that they retain the essentials—their ministry is valid. For even though they are blasphemers, still I, who make use of their ministry and believe, am not a blasphemer; but through faith I truly obtain what God’s promise offers, no matter how wicked he who recites the promise to me may be.

Therefore it is not enough to have the name “church,” to be called a bishop, a cardinal, a priest. “All these things,” as Paul says, “are carnal and pertain to the person.” But God does not regard the person;35 nor should we regard those masks of the flesh. We should look at the Word and on the basis of this account devise a proverb against the papists in the following manner: Abraham has two sons. One of them is a son according to the flesh and does not have the promise of Christ. He persecutes the other son, who is the heir of the promise. The same thing still happens today, will always happen, and has happened from the beginning; for Cain, the first-born, demanded the promise for himself and killed his brother Abel.

Accordingly, just as the sons of Abraham are of two kinds, so the church is of two kinds. One is killed and suffers persecutions; the other kills and persecutes the brethren, just as Cain and Ishmael did. But each of the two has its own sure fruits. The false church blasphemes and persecutes the Word; but the true church retains the confession and patiently bears persecutions, just as today we stand before the emperor and the entire world and confess the Word.

On the other hand, the papists deny the Word of Christ and try to suppress it by means of their ungodly decrees. These fruits of praise and of blasphemy, of confession and of denial, are manifest. Therefore we cannot doubt that the church of the pope is the church of Satan, even though godly people can make proper use of their ministry when they retain the essentials.

Therefore let us carefully note this text, which prevails against all who glory in the flesh. The Jews glory in their blood and say that they are the descendants of Abraham; the Turks, in their victories and power; the pope, in the apostolic succession. But we reject the conclusion when they say: “We are the successors of the apostles in our office; therefore we are the church.” For in this passage it is written: “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named,” not through Ishmael; that is, the people of God are not those who have the physical succession but those who have the promise and believe it.

For a twofold use is made of the name of God: a blasphemous one and a holy one. In the true church it is holy and to be feared, but in the false church it is not to be feared. For one must boldly hold on to and constantly inculcate this comfort which the Second Commandment teaches, namely, that the name of God is subject to very gross misuse.

It is a common statement in the schools that equivocal terms are not valid for teaching,36 for those who employ equivocal terms start out from confused words with several meanings. Therefore they teach nothing. Thus the name “God,” and also the name “church,” are being used in an equivocal sense; for some make proper use of it, but others use it in an improper way.

Thus when the pope declares that all who do not approve of his decrees incur the wrath of Almighty God, this in itself is a terrible statement; but it is equivocal and improperly used. Therefore I do not care a straw about those threats and thunderbolts. Likewise, the name “church of God” has no meaning in logical argumentation; for a dialectician does not accept a word unless it has only one meaning.

Therefore the true church of God is the one which does not misuse the name of God but hears and keeps the Word of Christ, that is, believes the promises. When I hear its name, I prostrate myself in true humility and worship it, for I am sure that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dwell in it. But when those who do not keep the Word of Christ but persecute it and walk in their self-chosen forms of worship adorn themselves with the name “church,” then the word which by its nature has only one meaning becomes equivocal.

Therefore just as it would be folly to be afraid of a painting of a man drawing a sword, so it is folly to be frightened by the name “church” when it is used in a blasphemous manner; for it is merely the picture or mask of the church. But the true church is where Isaac, the son of the promise, is. There the name of God should be feared. There is our salvation and our strength, as the psalm says (Prov. 18:10): “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it.”

In short, where the Word of Christ is and is kept—that is, believed—do not be in doubt about the church, even if he who either administers the sacraments or teaches is godless and a blasphemer. “For the Word of the Lord, like rain, does not return empty” (Is. 55:10–11).

This is why we say in the Creed: I believe in the holy church; that is, the church which has the Word by which all things are consecrated (1 Tim. 4:5). But this church puts up with Ishmael, its persecutor, until the words and prayer of Sarah and Isaac begin, that is, until the true church, by its persistent prayer and crying, brings it about that Ishmael is cast out. Yet Ishmael does not believe this until he experiences it in very fact.


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33 In 1526 the Turks had won the Battle of Mohács in Hungary, and in 1529 they had captured Buda; Luther may be thinking of such events as these.
34 A century earlier, in 1402, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I had been defeated by Timur.
35 Luther has in mind such New Testament passages as Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25.
36 Cf. Aristotle, Topics, 1, 15.

Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 4 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 21-25. Saint Louis : Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1964 (Luther's Works 4), S. 4:28-35.

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