Striving for Heavenly Things: An Example of Luther’s Preaching on Sanctification

In a previous post, I described how Dr. Luther recognized St. Paul’s pattern of teaching good works and virtues after the preaching of the Gospel (Christians Teach Morals). Most often he connected the good works that result from faith with a Christian’s various vocations in life.  Certainly, the assigned biblical texts for certain days shaped Dr. Luther’s preaching also.

An example of Luther’s preaching in this manner may be found in his sermon for Easter Wednesday on Colossians 3:1-7. [Luther’s Works, vol. 77, pp. 103-112]  He described how a Christian will struggle against earthly vices during his or her entire mortal existence.  Here Luther explained that since Christians have been raised with Christ by faith, they should demonstrate this through striving for the higher things of heaven.  This includes the mortification of fleshly vices, such as sexual immorality, greed, and idolatry.  Luther presents an explanation of these sins and explains how they will steal a Christian’s faith.  He also recognized that some had misunderstood the preaching of the Gospel as a license to sin.  In Luther’s time, some denied that God wanted Christians to obey his commandments.  Following St. Paul, Dr. Luther warned:

“It is especially necessary to emphasize this admonition at this time, because we see that there are many—even more as time goes on—who boast about the Gospel and yet know that such things defile and condemn a person.  Yet they continue in security and do not imagine that God becomes angry about this or that they are running up as large a tally as they can.  It has now become common for people to do whatever they desire, and yet they want it not to be done, nor do they want to be rebuked for it.  Some act as if they are so completely pure and blameless that what they do must not be called evil or wrong deeds. They pretend great Christian love and virtue, and yet they treacherously carry on their evil traps and tricks.” LW 77:108.

This statement and numerous others should serve to refute the false notion that Dr. Luther did not want Christians to obey God’s law or strive to overcome sin. In fact, he taught that true faith in Christ embraces this struggle to put to death worldly desires and seek the heavenly things. Dr. Luther continues:

“He [St. Paul] wants the Christians diligently to guard against these vices and completely to die to them, because these were rebuked even by the heathen.  On the other hand, we who belong to Christ in heaven should strive for nothing but purity, for it is proper for a Christian to keep his body in discipline and sanctification, or chastity, so that he does not contaminate and defile himself.” [LW 77:108].

Later in the sermon, Luther explained that only faith in Christ may understand this teaching.  While even ‘the heathen’ recognized the evil of certain vices, only those who have been raised with Christ to seek the higher things may begin to live in a sanctified manner.  Dr. Luther acknowledged this to be a real struggle for the Christian in this mortal life because saints retain sinful inclinations.  Saints, who do not engage in this struggle, risk losing God’s grace and faith.  He concluded that sinful desire would be killed “if you acknowledge it through repentance, are earnestly displeased with it, and seek and receive forgiveness through faith in Christ.  Thus you will oppose the sinful desires so that they do not become deeds and rule over you.” [LW 77:112] {Compare to Smalcald Articles 3.3.40-45}

 

 

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.


At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Comments

Striving for Heavenly Things: An Example of Luther’s Preaching on Sanctification — 5 Comments

  1. Hmmmm!? This sounds suspiciously like an affirmation of Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification. The ordination vows of the United Methodist Church still contain, I believe, the question for ordinands “are you going on to perfection.” Would you please enlighten me as to the differences between what Luther stated and what Wesley stated? Where does “simul justus et peccator” factor into Luther’s position on sanctification?

  2. @Dan Cash #2

    Dr. Luther acknowledged that absolute perfection was never possible in this life. However, Christians must continue to struggle and strive by the power of the Holy Spirit (always connected to God’s Word and Sacraments) to live a holy life. I’d encourage you to read the link to the Smalcald Articles also.

    Also, Christians continue to struggle because they are ‘simul justus et peccator.’

  3. I’ve recently gotten my copy of The Lutheran Confessions from Concordia Publishing House, so I definitely will read the Smalcald Articles section pertaining to this issue. Thanks.

  4. Exactly! If the Christian were not “simul,” there would be no struggle. The whole Christian life is a struggle of the new Man in Christ vs the old Man in Adam, or flesh vs spirit, as St. Paul says in Galatians 5. These are opposed to one another.@Dr. Matthew Phillips #3

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