The Holy Cross Cannot Be Found Wanting: Luther on Persecution and Martyrdom

martyrsMartin Luther never softened his message to make it more acceptable.  He did not do this for his theological opponents, his colleagues, or his agreeable listeners or readers.  If there is something for which we may praise (and criticize) Dr. Luther, it is his candor.  Straightforward statements (of Law and Gospel) fill Luther’s sermons and writings.  When he wrote about the topic of Christian suffering or persecution, he was no different.  Consider his most famous hymn:  “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”  The words describe the battlefield of the Christian’s interior and external life.   This is how it concludes: “If they take our life, wealth, name, child and wife-Let everything go: They have no profit so: the kingdom ours remaineth.” (Luther’s Works 53:284-85)

While Dr. Luther believed the Christian’s final victory over death rested on Christ’s redemption through the cross, he taught that Christians would suffer trials, persecution, and possibly martyrdom in this world.  He emphasized rightly the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ’s promise opposed to the late medieval idea that Christians earned merit through the imitation of Christ or the saints.  However, Luther also taught that Christians do imitate Christ in response to the gift of faith.  Specifically, God often called upon Christians to imitate Christ’s suffering through persecution and martyrdom. In fact, he stated that the preaching of God’s Word would bring persecution through the loss of property, family members, and various tribulations.  For instance, in his explanation of the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Thy Will Be Done), he wrote:

“For where the Word of God is preached, accepted, or believed, and produces fruit, there the holy cross cannot be wanting. And let no one think that he shall have peace; but he must risk whatever he has upon earth-possessions, honor, house and estate, wife and children, body and life. Now, this hurts our flesh and the old Adam; for the test is to be steadfast and to suffer with patience in whatever way we are assailed, and to let go whatever is taken from us.” Large Catechism III. 65-66

When the persecution and martyrdom of Lutherans began in the early 1520s, Dr. Luther understood this to be the restoration of the true Christian life.  The word of the true gospel causes offense and ultimately leads to opposition from those who seek to justify themselves through good works.  Luther understood persecution and possible martyrdom to be the proper result of preaching the rediscovered gospel. For example, Luther explained to Hartmug von Cronberg (an early lay noble supporter of Luther’s teaching) that “Wherever Christ is, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, and Annas will inevitably be also, so also his cross.  If not, he is not the true Christ.” (LW 43:63)

In April 1530 Dr. Luther preached a sermon in Coburg to Elector John the Steadfast and his entourage of legal and religious officials.  In the near future he knew they would be making a confession of Christ at the diet of Augsburg.  His hearers understood that this confession could result in the loss of their land, titles, home, and even lives. Therefore, Dr. Luther reminded his hearers that their potential loss of everything, including their lives, did not compare with Christ’s suffering on their behalf. Luther stated that Christians should never search for suffering but only accept it in faith when it comes.  While unbelievers oppose the preaching of the gospel, this same divine word consoles in desperate times and allows the believer to struggle against the devil and the world. Suffering molds believers into the likeness of Christ. Affliction and persecution increases faith and ultimately, “the gospel cannot come to the fore except through and in suffering and the cross.”  In this sermon, Luther exhorted this group of clergy and lay rulers to fulfill the words of his most famous hymn. (LW 51:197-208; quote on LW 51:207)

For a more complete discussion of this topic see C. Matthew Phillips, LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, vol. 24, 2 (2015): 21-26.  If you are interested in ordering the journal see: LOGIA.

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