Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
Our story begins one hundred and two years after the Lutheran reformers presented their case to the Roman envoys at the Diet of Augsburg in what would come to be known as the Augsburg Confession, which became the backbone of the confessions of the Lutheran Church. On the morning of November 6, 1632, two armies gathered on the field at Lützen, just a little over six miles southwest of the city of Leipzig in Germany. On one side, the Evangelical forces, led by King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden; on the other, the Catholic imperial forces commanded by the Bohemian generalissimo, Albrecht von Wallenstein. It was the height of the Thirty Years War. The war, already raging for fourteen years, was caused by religious and political tensions between the member states of the Holy Roman Empire and the surrounding kingdoms. By its end in 1648, it would claim the lives of some 4.5 to 8 million people. Sweden had intervened in the conflict in 1630, when Gustavus Adolphus decided that he ought to support the Lutheran and Protestant forces in the German states. After a rocky start, the Swedish army, comprised of Swedes, Germans, Finns, and Scots mercenaries, demonstrated that they were a force to be reckoned with, earning King Gustavus fame and glory. Dismayed by these victories, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand called Wallenstein out of retirement to stop the Swedish king. On the field at Lützen, there would be a reckoning.
At daybreak on the misty battlefield, King Gustavus summoned his court preacher, a man named Fabricius, and all the regimental chaplains of his army, directing them to hold a prayer service before the army would march into battle. Gustavus himself took part in the service, and, as it was reported, spent the morning in fervent prayer.
As part of the service, the entire host of Gustavus’ army sang a favorite hymn of the king, considered his “battle hymn:” “Verzage nicht, du Hauflein klein.” This hymn was about spiritual battle, however. It did not ask God to protect its singers against the pike and shot that Wallenstein’s army would be sending their way. Instead, its words entreated its singers to have no fear of that greater Enemy who goes about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. It entreated them to trust in Christ for their protection and salvation, and asked him to be their defender and captain. We know this hymn as, “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe,” the very hymn that our choir just sang. Can you imagine it, the sound of nineteen-thousand German, Swedish, Finnish, and Scottish voices booming out this hymn into the morning mist?
But why sing a hymn about spiritual warfare before engaging in battle with flesh-and-blood enemies? The King of Sweden, his pastor, and his chaplains understood that their struggle was not just against physical enemies, but metaphysical ones. Certainly, the Thirty Years War was largely fought on account of political causes, but the religious side of the war was part of an older struggle, stemming from the time of Luther, when the Holy Roman Empire tried to stamp out evangelical— that is to say, Gospel-focused— preaching and teaching on the part of the Reformers, going so far as to condemn the very words of Paul with regard to the Gospel in the proceedings of the Council of Trent in the 1560s. Indeed, the Thirty Years War began because the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand had outlawed the building of Protestant Churches in Bohemia. This led to a revolt against the empire on the part of those who wished to freely preach the Gospel. That old Satanic Foe who swore to work woe against God’s people would attempt to use this war to keep the Gospel from being preached and heard freely in Europe, to let it be replaced by a religion of works that explicitly condemns the Gospel news. The war between the Gospel and Satan’s lies would be fought on this battlefield, too. The war on the ground would be fought with pike and shot, but all around the combatants, Christians on both sides, the powers of Satan, Death, and Hell would be doing what they could to sow destruction, lack of faith, and hate.
This has always been the fight of the Church. The devil, the sinful world, and death all hate the preaching of the Gospel of Christ and what it creates. They hate the good news that Christ, through His death and resurrection, has freed all mankind from condemnation under the Law to be justified— that is, made righteous— in the eyes of God by faith in the work of Jesus Christ, and they do their utmost to obscure, hide, or twist it. Because knowing this, believing this, sets us free from bondage to sin. Trusting that Christ’s death and resurrection happened for us for the forgiveness of sins, makes us like the former slaves to sin Jesus speaks of in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus, the Son of the household, sets us free from our bondage, and we are free indeed! But the old Foe doesn’t want us to know this. He’d rather we continued living in our bondage, slaves to the sin that still smoulders in our bones.
The Devil and his comrades-in-arms don’t want us to trust in Jesus. They want us to trust in anything but Jesus. Rather than believing in God and trusting His words, the Devil would rather we believed in ourselves. Satan and his cronies want us to trust in our understanding, our intellects, and our personal strengths, because when we do this, we set aside God and His words for us, and create new gods out of ourselves and our imaginations. We make idols in His place and pay them obeisance. And there have been many times when we human beings did exactly this. We forgot the truth, and pursued other things.
And what happens when we do this? This is what Paul talks about at the beginning of his letter to the Christian congregations at Rome from which our Epistle reading comes: how the Roman pagans had “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served a creature rather than the Creator” [Romans 1:24-25]. The ancient Romans worshiped gods made in their own image, and in some cases, worshiped men that they had elevated to gods. Like all idolaters, Paul says that God “gave them up to dishonorable passions”— they engaged in perverse sexual practices, bloodsports, and other vices. Their authors and poets wrote stories that, while admittedly seen as literary classics today, nonetheless were bawdy or held up immoral behavior as good and proper, or at least laughable as opposed to serious. Their politics honored deceit and slander— people worked as “witnesses for hire,” and Roman lawyers, rather than arguing cases on the basis of the law, sought to use character assassination and slander as a means to win. The pagan Romans were given to other gods, and most especially to the god of the self.
The congregation at Rome was prey to temptations to follow suit, to give into the lies that Satan and his cronies had whispered to them to draw them astray. Some members of it apparently did so. Paul says so himself. “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, even one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man— you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself— that you will escape the judgment of God?” [Romans 2:1-3] Paul continues: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” [Romans 2:12]. No one can live according to God’s Law and trust in his abiding by it to save him from sin— he still does evil. Even trusting in one’s own ability to resist temptation is an evil act in and of itself because it places one’s own willpower over and above God. Being a good Jew (or a good Christian) by following the rules will not save you.
This was the question that Luther wrestled with as a monk in his study in the tower at the Black Cloister in Wittenberg in 1519, where he was trying to understand just how sinful man could have any standing before God. The Law, as Paul says, brings knowledge of sin. God is righteous, but man is not. When you realize that you are under the Law, your unrighteousness becomes apparent, and in Luther’s day, God was seen as an implacable judge, whose righteousness caused him to punish sinners. The core of the Gospel had been obscured in the Church at large. The Church forgot the Good News again; where was the hope that Christ supposedly brought? Baptism got you in the door of the church, but after that, you were on your own to work out your own salvation. What you did with the initial grace you received in baptism determined your fate. And if the Law condemns all sinners, how could anyone ever appease God’s wrath or be loved by him? It’s not as if Luther’s church was free from the vices of first century Rome about which Paul wrote. In his own pilgrimage to the Eternal City, Luther saw atheists masquerading as priests, using the church as a source for gain. He saw brothels full of clergy. Bishops violating the requirements of their offices by fathering illegitimate children. He saw relic brokers selling people false hope. And of course, he saw the sale of indulgences, God’s grace sold to sinners at a good price. How could there be salvation for anyone in God’s church when the men entrusted with her keeping were so broken? How could there be salvation for anyone when the Devil was running rampant in the holy places, drawing those who ought to have known better astray into flagrant sin? How could any of them be saved?
Of course, you and I struggle with the same old sins that all of humanity has struggled with since time immemorial, too. We make our own gods out of money and sex, we buy things that we think will make us happy, and we turn people into objects for our own gratification, using them to achieve the aims we want and discarding them. We deify people— our leaders, our celebrities, sports heroes— and when they fail to meet our expectations we either despair of ourselves or we turn on them. How many times have we seen, in the aftermath of an election, our friends and neighbors wailing in the street because their candidate didn’t win, and how America is doomed? If you haven’t yet, well, just wait a few weeks— you will (God help us!). We treat these people like gods and expect them to deliver the life we want in a Godlike way, when of course, they cannot. When we do this, we fall into the same trap our forebears have, and Satan claps his hands, knowing that our trust is misplaced, focused away from the very One on whom it should be fixed.
And then there’s our cult of self. How often have you told someone, “I’m a good person,” or heard the same said by someone else? Or alternatively, “I’m not a bad person?” We think of ourselves in these terms. “I haven’t done anything ostensibly bad or wrong, so therefore, I must be good!” Or, “I have done everything right, therefore I must not be bad!” We are like the Pharisee in the parable—“thank God I’m not like those other sinners!” Unfortunately, that isn’t going to cut it. If all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and if, as Jesus says, God alone is good, then to even think that, if we do what we think God wants us to do, we have any sort of standing with him through our deeds, we are sorely mistaken and judged along with the rest of those “obvious” sinners. And how often, when we know we have fallen astray in some way, have we said, “If I just try harder, I can overcome this sin that is afflicting me?” And how often have we found ourselves right back in that sin not too long after, despairing over our inability to do what we said we would, or even becoming resigned to our sin, giving into it and letting it rule us because we can’t do anything about it? How terrible to let despair overwhelm us and condemn us as the sinners we know ourselves to be, with no hope for overcoming sin or the identity it gives us!
Paul knows that there can be no comfort taken in one’s works or deeds on their own merit. Keeping the Law does not make a person righteous. But Paul preaches good news to his Roman audience. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and none are righteous before him, but God has revealed his own righteousness in his son, Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a propitiation for the sins of the world on the cross. It’s Jesus who makes a person righteous, who justifies that person before God’s throne, who makes it so that when God the Father looks upon the sinner in the dock, he sees his own beloved Son and declares that sinner cleared of the debt of sin. In the work of Christ, the blood of the Son of God wins the atonement for all people, whether or not they have been able to keep the Law perfectly. They haven’t been able to— that’s an incontrovertible fact. Even Paul, the most observant of all the Pharisees, who by his own admission kept every part of the Law as perfectly as possible, still failed at this. But Christ’s death and resurrection is the gift by which God gives grace to mankind as a free gift and delivers them from their sin. This is true for Paul, it is true for Luther, and it is true for us, too.
But how does one receive this grace Christ won for the world when he gave himself as a propitiation for all sins? By faith! Paul says, “Where then is boasting? It has been shut out. Through the work of the Law? Through deeds? By no means! but through the law of faith. For we hold that a person is made righteous [justified] by faith apart from the works of the Law” [Romans 3:27-28]. Faith in the work of Christ is all-sufficient to receive his grace which makes it possible for a person to stand before God and be declared righteous. The Law, while being God’s good and gracious will for humanity, cannot save a person when he has sinned, though God certainly desires that his children try to abide by it. The Law does not grant life. Faith in the work of Christ is what makes a person alive. Christ is at the very center.
This is the heart of the Gospel, that God justifies us by grace through faith in the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ. It’s what the Devil, the sinful world, and death all try to obscure and hide from us. This is what Luther discovered while poring over Romans in the tower at Wittenberg in 1519. He was agonizing over what Paul meant when speaking of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1, when he had a breakthrough: The righteousness of God about which Paul speaks is not an abstract quality of God, but rather it is the righteousness, the justification, that he grants to a person by faith. Thus Luther was able to grasp that when Paul says that “the just person lives by faith,” he doesn’t mean that a person is justified by the way he lives, but rather that faith in the work of Jesus Christ grants grace that makes living possible! God is not a terror who crushes sinners who cannot not keep his statutes. Instead, God, in the work of Christ, gives those who trust in the work of his Son the gift of faith which grants them eternal life.
It is this truth, that we are justified by grace through faith in the work of Christ alone, apart from the works of the Law, that underlies all of Luther’s theology, as well as that which underlies the theology of the whole church catholic. It is the article of faith upon which the church stands or falls. It is the article of faith that the Devil, the sinful world, and death hate, because it is their undoing. It is the article of faith against which all the powers of evil make war, and as I said, they do their best to subvert belief in it, to draw those who preach it into sin, to destroy reputations and lives and to undermine the message of the Gospel so that we would rather fall into rank idolatry or despair. But we come back to the words of Gustavus’ battle hymn:
Be of good cheer; your cause belongs
To Him who can avenge your wrongs;
Leave it to Him, our Lord.
Though hidden yet from mortal eyes,
His Gideon shall for you arise,
Uphold you and His Word.
As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew
Against us shall prevail.
Their might? A joke, a mere facade!
God is with us and we with God—
Our vict’ry cannot fail.
Christ, our captain and savior has brought to nought all that the forces of evil can do. Christ’s work alone saves, not any work on the part of man. The evil forces of this world try to help us forget this to destroy us, but Paul knew it, Luther learned it, King Gustavus II Adolphus believed it, and we must cling to it, too. That is why Gustavus had his men sing this hymn. The stabbing point of a pike or a musket ball can take one’s life (and they did take Gustavus Adolphus’ life that day at Lützen, though his army won the day and defeated Wallenstein), but Satan can lead one’s soul down the way of death. Trusting in Christ’s justifying work will, however, preserve it, and bring life everlasting, something no merely human physician can do. So take heart! Look to the Crucified One, and trust in him. Because of him, your sins no longer can rob you of the promise he has won for you in his work. He has erased your sins. He has made you righteous. He has made you free to live as a redeemed child of God, and whoever the Son sets free, is free indeed. Amen!