“‘Fear God and Give Him the Glory!’: The Slogan of the Lutheran Church Reformation” (Revelation 14:6-7)

Reformation Day (Observed)
Sunday, October 30, 2011

“Fear God and Give Him the Glory!”: The Slogan of the Lutheran Church Reformation
Reformation Festival Sermon on Revelation 14:6-7 by C. F. W. Walther (1881)
Translated by Joel Baseley. Abridged by Charles Henrickson.

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth, all the earth is full of your glory.” This we cry out today, O Lord our God, along with the cherubim and seraphim. For today we remember the glorious work of the Reformation of the church, which you began and gloriously brought to completion in the sixteenth century. Your glory had been taken from the very midst of your church, the glory that you alone are wise and just, and that you have given this glory to man. But behold! You then awakened your servant, Luther, revealed to him that he was by nature a poor, blind, dead, and lost sinner, and yet, at the same time, brought him to the living knowledge that your Word alone is the saving truth and your grace alone, the way to salvation. You restored your glory unto your church again through his faithful service. Oh, so lend us also your aid today that we render you solemn acknowledgment of this, so that by it we remain steadfast in your truth and finally be saved by your grace alone. Yes, do help us for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our only Savior. Amen.

Our text is Revelation 14:6-7: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’”

In the Lord, beloved fellow believers, confessors, and celebrants!

God’s glory is the first and last purpose of all things. “Soli Deo Gloria!” “To God alone be glory,” is intoned by the blasts of trumpets throughout the world. The whole world, heaven and earth and everything in them, was first made to God’s glory. That means that everything called into being realizes its purpose by showing forth God’s majesty. That is why David sings in the 19th psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.”

But as the work of creation declares the glory of God, so does the work of redemption and salvation. That is why, as soon as the Redeemer appeared upon earth, the choir of angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest!” And as once as the eyes and ears of the holy seer John were opened to the glories of heaven, he heard all the angels and saints cry out with a loud voice to God’s throne: “Laud and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and praise and power and strength be to our God, forever and ever. Amen.”

Now it follows from this, that if God’s glory is the first and the last purpose of all things and of everything God does, this glorification of God must also be the most reliable indicator as to whether a work comes from God or man, whether it is good or evil, whether it pleases God or displeases him. If a work is done and directed only to God’s glory, then it is a divine, good, and God-pleasing work. But if a work is done and directed not to glorify God, but only to glorify man, then it must be only a human, evil work, displeasing to God.

Now as we are gathered here, my friends, to solemnly celebrate the remembrance of the Lutheran Reformation, it is only right that we ask, before anything else: What sort of work was it? Was it a work to the glory of God, or to the glory of men? If it were a work done for the glorification of men, then woe to us Lutherans! But if it was a work which only glorified God, then it is good for us Lutherans to celebrate!

Well then, our text is obviously a prophecy concerning the work of the Reformation, and what does this text say? “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory.’” See there: “Fear God and give him the glory.”

The subject of today’s festival sermon will therefore be “‘Fear God and Give Him the Glory!’: The Slogan of the Lutheran Church Reformation.” I will inform you of this by the two fundamental principles upon which the work of the Reformation rests: 1) upon the principle that only God’s written Word is the saving truth; and 2) upon the principle that only God’s free grace in Christ is the way to eternal salvation. My friends, if we examine the history of the Lutheran Reformation, we see, from beginning to end, this great work rests upon these two principles as two pillars, immoveable as iron. Only God’s written Word is the saving truth. Only God’s free grace in Christ is the way to eternal salvation.

Now the first thing to be said concerns the Word of God. When Luther had, for the sake of his terrors of conscience, become a monk, he began to thoroughly read and study the Bible, in prayer and supplication. It was and remained, from then on, the true Paradise of his heart, which thirsted for the saving truth. The more he read his Bible, the more certainly he was persuaded that he did not have the deceptive and fallible word of man, but the eternal, infallible Word of God. For, whenever he read it, he shared the experience of those disciples on the Emmaus road, to whom the Lord had explained the Scriptures: His heart burned within him. This living faith in the Holy Scriptures as God’s Word was, then, the first way by which God prepared and armed him as his reformer, in a church which lay in utter ruins.

So what happened? As the years passed, Luther saw with increasing clarity that what was preached and written in the Roman church, that is, the most horrible doctrines, diametrically opposed to God’s Word, were being propagated, so that he was driven to zealously criticize them as they came up in writings and in sermons. As he was doing this, he most certainly must have assumed that the pope, along with his cardinals and bishops, as well as the scholars at the universities, would agree with what he was saying, since he was informed in everything he produced by God’s Word. That is why his heart was most confident when he wrote his famous ninety-five theses against the abominable selling of indulgences by Tetzel and, on the 31st of October, 1517, nailed them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

But behold! Instead of the pope being indebted to his faithful Luther, he much rather declared that Luther’s theses, derived from God’s Word, were condemned heresies. He commanded him, under the most horrible threats and in the name of the church, to recant them and then be silent. So what did Luther do? Instead of being intimidated by the high status of the papacy and his entourage into recanting God’s Word, the scales were rapidly falling from his eyes. Far from being scared off by these papal threats, Luther now became more confident and bold than he had ever been before, just because of these threats. Luther could well have been shaken and become confused about anything else he had learned up to this time, except for one thing: Only the written Word of God is the saving truth. This could not be shaken or made uncertain. Rather, it stood immovably fast, like a rock in the sea.

Therefore, Luther showed up at the Diet of Worms in 1521 with unparalleled boldness and a heroic spirit when the emperor summoned him. When he was also ordered there to recant his doctrines, he vindicated them in a powerful speech, which concluded with these words, now renowned in all the world: “Unless I am overcome and convinced by the witness of the Holy Scriptures or with obviously clear and plain grounds and reasons–for I believe neither popes nor councils alone, since it is clear and plain that they have often erred and have contradicted themselves–and thus am corrected by those passages that have been used and applied by me, for my conscience is captive to God’s Word, then I cannot and I will not recant. For it is neither safe nor sane to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”

But as little as Luther allowed himself to be led away from the clear Word of God by the authority of the papacy, the fathers, councils, and the church, even so little, and much less, by the authority of reason. When, in the midst of the church of the Reformation, Zwingli stepped up in Switzerland and declared that it was against reason to believe that in the Holy Supper the true body and the true blood of Christ are present, and when, by this, he misled a large number of Christians, it must certainly have been frightening for Luther that the church of the Reformation might become divided and split by it. He testified: “Please believe me, I wish I could remain silent about this darkness and keep quiet, even if it cost me my life three times over.” But as Luther was willing, were it possible, to shed his blood and to offer his body three times for the sake of the peace and unity of the church–to sacrifice God’s Word for it, he could not and would not do. He would not deny the clear words of Christ, “This is my body, this is my blood,” for the sake of reason. He himself writes: “I am captivated and cannot escape it. The text stands there too powerfully, and these words won’t let themselves leave my thoughts by other words.”

So you see it is sure. The first fundamental principle upon which the whole work of the Lutheran Reformation rests is the principle: Only the written Word of God is the saving truth.

Yet, my friends, there is yet a second cornerstone upon which the great work of the Lutheran Reformation rests, and that is this principle, which is equally important: God’s free grace in Christ is the only way to eternal salvation. Let me now, secondly, tell you about this.

That the way to eternal salvation is not by human will, ability, works, and actions, but only by God’s free grace in Christ, was not something Luther heard a word about growing up. In his youth he was much rather taught that a person must earn his salvation for himself. But as he could never come to certainty of salvation that way, his consternation about it grew more and more. In his anxiety, it never once occurred to him to flee to Christ, for Christ was presented to him up until this time, not as a gracious Savior of sinners, but as a strict judge, before whom he was terrified if he even saw him portrayed in a painting. Therefore, far from finding peace for his soul through his rigorous monk’s life, through his prayer, though fasting, through weeping, wrestling, and battling, and through his vigils in the frost and cold, his troubled soul was sinking ever deeper, until he stood at the brink of complete despair.

But what happened? Luther read in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans the words, “The just shall live by faith.” These words made a most wondrous impression upon him, so that, from then on, they resounded day and night in his soul and were always on his mind. Without yet rightly knowing how to understand these words, he thought that somehow all of his works-righteousness was excluded by these same words. “The just shall live by faith.” Finally, after years, the meaning of those words became clear to him by the working of the Holy Ghost. That is, according to those words, everyone who believes in Christ as his gracious Savior will be righteous and saved before God. Now these words, “The just shall live by faith,” sounded like heavenly music in his ears. Luther says of himself in this blessed moment of his life: “I suddenly felt as if I were completely born anew and had found myself entering into Paradise as through a wide open door.”

From now on, Luther’s second motto was and remained: Only God’s free grace in Christ is the way to salvation. You only have to open any of Luther’s writings to find that everything, everything that he wrote had the single goal of showing that God alone is to be given glory for the salvation of man, and not men. That God alone had not only won, earned, and prepared salvation, but also that God alone has made people partakers of this salvation; that God alone creates the desire and brings it to completion, according to his good pleasure. That God alone converts a person, alone grants him repentance and faith, and alone preserves him in faith until his blessed death. Therefore, Luther explains that a sermon that is Christian is only one which “so praises and preaches Christ in such a way that people learn that they are nothing and Christ is everything.”

He explained that the doctrine that man is made righteous and saved before God only by free grace through faith in Christ is first and foremost. Therefore this doctrine was Luther’s touchstone, by which he tested every other doctrine. He wrote: “If we understand this article rightly and purely, then we have the true sun of heaven. But if we lose it, then all we have is the deepest black darkness of hell.” In short, Luther considered the doctrine of the justification of a poor sinner by grace, only through faith in Christ, as his real fortress and stronghold, which he had to maintain above all things. He would not let anything take his attention away from it, nor would he surrender a single letter of it.

So there can be no doubt. The fundamental principles upon which the whole work of the Lutheran Reformation rests are these: Only God’s written Word is the saving truth, and only God’s free grace in Christ is the way to eternal salvation. The preaching of the angel with the eternal gospel in our text, “Fear God and give him the glory!” was truly the motto of this great work. “Soli Deo Gloria,” “To God alone be the glory,” was not only Luther’s war cry, by which he charged into battle, but it is really the summary, the epitome, the kernel and the star of all of Luther’s doctrine and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church named after him.

Oh, how we can rejoice today in our celebration of the Reformation, because we are members of this church, because we are Lutherans! For a church in which all doctrine gives glory only to God and not to men cannot be a false church, but must be the true church of God upon the earth.

So therefore, as surely as God’s Word alone is the saving truth and God’s free grace in Christ alone is the way of salvation, as our church believes, teaches, and confesses, let us also stand fast by her, just as faithfully, in these last, troubled times. She, our church, does not preach to us the undependable doctrines of man, but only God’s entire certain Word. She does not turn us to our own failing works, but only to God’s free and eternally steadfast grace in Christ. Thus she gives us an unshakeable ground of faith and a comfort that remains with us even in death’s bitter little hour. So let us then with our church believe, with our church confess, with our church fight and suffer, so that someday we also, through a blessed death, will be gathered with her to the church triumphant, and sing with that lofty choir: To God alone be glory, also in heaven, forever and ever. Amen.

[The unabridged sermon may be found in “Occasional Sermons and Addresses of C. F. W. Walther, Second Edition” (pp. 266-70), and in “Treasury of C. F. W. Walther, Vol. IV, Festival Sermons and Prayers for Reformation and Luther Commemorations” (pp. 100-09), both copyright 2008 by Joel R. Baseley.]

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Published in: on October 29, 2011 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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