Martin Luther’s Missiology (Part 8)

lutherWhy is it absolutely essential for God’s messengers to go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the eternal riches of Christ? Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, people cannot be saved. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “But outside the Christian church (that is, where the Gospel is not) there is no forgiveness, and hence no holiness.” (Large Catechism, The Third Article, The Book of Concord, Tappert Edition, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959, 418:56.) Again Luther, “As we explained before, we could never come to recognize the Father’s favor and grace were it not for the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the Father’s heart. Apart from him we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But neither could we know anything of Christ, had it not been revealed by the Holy Spirit.” (LC, The Third Article, 419:65)

Christians are never to lose sight of the fact that the salvation of people everywhere depends on the universal proclamation of the Gospel. Luther writes,

If the heathen are to praise God, He must first have been made their God. If He is to be their God, they must know Him and believe on Him and let go of all idolatry. For man cannot praise God with idolatrous lips and an unbelieving heart. If they are to believe, they must first hear His Word and thus receive the Holy Spirit, who purifies and enlightens their heart by faith. For one cannot come to faith or receive the Holy Spirit before one has heard the Word, as Paul says, (Rom 10:14): ‘How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?’ (Gal. 3:2): You have received the Spirit by the preaching of faith. If they are to hear His Word, preachers who proclaim the Word of God to them must be sent to them. (Quoted in Montgomery, 163-64, WA 31: I, 228f.)

For Luther, the work of missions is a fruit of the Gospel. As God’s Spirit works in the hearts of believers through the Word, they cannot but speak the Gospel knowing that God’s Word will not return void or empty. (Montgomery 167) Bosch writes of Luther, “The starting point of the Reformer’s theology was not what people could or should do for the salvation of the world, but what God has already done in Christ. He visits the people of the earth with his light; he furthers his word so that it may ‘run’ and ‘increase’ till the last day dawns. The church was created by the verbum externum (God’s word from outside humanity) and to the church this word has been entrusted. One might even say that it is the gospel itself which ‘missionizes’ and in this process enlists human beings (Holsten 1953:11).” (Bosch, 244) Luther expresses this relationship between the saving experience and the proclamation of the Gospel to others:

For once a Christian begins to know Christ as his Lord and Savior, through whom he is redeemed from death and brought into His dominion and inheritance, God completely permeates his heart. Now he is eager to help everyone acquire the same benefits. For his greatest delight is in this treasure, the knowledge of Christ. Therefore he steps forth boldly, teaches and admonishes others, praises and confesses his treasure before everybody, prays and yearns that they too, may obtain such mercy. There is a spirit of restlessness amid the greatest calm, that is, in God’s grace and peace. A Christian cannot be still or idle. He constantly strives and struggles with all his might, as one who has no other object in life than to disseminate God’s honor and glory among the people, that others may also receive such a spirit of grace …. (Luther’s Works 24:87-88)

There is a vital connection between missionary proclamation and the power of God’s Word. God does not simply “zap” Christians with faith apart from the means of grace; nor does God transport Christians from place to place via a “Star Trek” transporter. No, the Lord works through His chosen instruments. The Lord works through the simple word of Holy Scripture and the ordinary words of pastors and people as they speak/share that Word. The Lord also uses ships and horses, cars, trains, and planes to get his messengers from one place to another. Luther writes, “This noble Word brings with it a great hunger and an insatiable thirst, so that we could not be satisfied even though many thousands of people believe on it; we wish that no one should be without it. This thirst ever strives for more and does not rest; it moves us to speak, as David says, ‘I believe, therefore have I spoken’ (Ps. 116:10). And we have (says St. Paul, II Cor. 4:13) ‘the same spirit of faith … we also believe and therefore speak.’” (Quoted in Montgomery, WA 10 II, 54) Montgomery observes, “Here we have Luther’s philosophy of missions, distilled in six scriptural words: “I believed, therefore have I spoken.’” (Ibid. 168) In Luther’s Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Luther testifies to the power and necessity of God’s Word in the missio Dei, “Though hordes of devils fill the land All threat’ning to devour us, We tremble not, unmoved we stand; They cannot overpow’r us. Let the world’s tyrant rage; In battle we’ll engage. His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgement must prevail! One little word subdues him.” (Lutheran Worship 297:3, Emphasis added)

God speaks through the proclamation of the Gospel whether spoken by properly called pastors or by the priesthood of all believers who, by virtue of their baptisms are given the task of confessing the name of Christ within their God-given vocations or wherever it is that God leads them.[1] John Pless observes, “The royal priesthood proclaims the riches of Christ’s atoning work not in the public preaching of the church, but according to each member’s station in life. It is within the context of one’s vocation that every man, woman, and child confesses Jesus Christ and proclaims His saving work.” (John T. Pless, in “Reflections on the Life of the Royal Priesthood: Vocation and Evangelism” in Shepherd the Church: Essays in Pastoral Theology Honoring Bishop Roger D. Pittelko. (Fort Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2002), 284.)   Luther says, “Every Christian has the responsibility and privilege of taking that Word to others within his or her divinely appointed walk of life.” (Quoted in Charles P. Arand, “The Ministry of the Church in Light of the Two Kinds of Righteousness” in Concordia Journal, Volume 33, No. 4, October 2007:346.)

Some additional thoughts from Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther regarding the laity’s involvement in the dissemination of the Gospel: “For no one can deny that every Christian possesses the word of God and is taught and anointed by God to be priest, as Christ says, John 6 [:45] … Here again it is certain that a Christian not only has the right and power to teach God’s word but has the duty to do so on the pain of losing his soul and of God’s disfavor.” (Stolle, p. 21) Again, Luther, “If a Christian finds himself in a place where there are no Christians then, “he needs no other call than to be a Christian, called and anointed by God from within. Here it is his duty to preach and teach the gospel to erring heathen or non-Christians, because of the duty of brotherly love.” (Stolle, p. 21) Commenting on 1 Peter 2:9, Luther says, “We live on earth only so that we should be a help to other people. Otherwise, it should be best if God would strangle us and let us die as soon as we were baptized and had begun to believe. For this reason, however, he lets us live that we may bring other people also to faith as he has done for us.” (Stolle, p. 20) C.F.W. Walther echoes Luther’s call for evangelizing the world, “You see, dear brethren, … we are assembled here not for our own sake. We are in the faith, and by this faith we hope to be saved! But there are still millions who have no faith! This is why we are here … so that we might bring salvation to as many people as we possibly can … Only for this reason does our gracious God allow Christians to live on earth, that they might bring others to the saving faith. Otherwise God would immediately take a Christian to heaven as soon as he is converted.” (C.F.W. Walther, Essays for the Church, Vol. 2. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992): 60-62.

NOTE: This paper on Martin’s Luther’s missiology has been published previously on “Go!” But, I have had requests to publish it again. Over the next number of Mondays, an adapted version of a paper I presented at Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton (October 30, 2008) will be posted.

[1] “The royal priesthood proclaims the riches of Christ’s atoning work not in the public preaching of the church, but according to each member’s station in life. It is within the context of one’s vocation that every man, woman, and child confesses Jesus Christ and proclaims His saving work.” (John T. Pless, in “Reflections on the Life of the Royal Priesthood: Vocation and Evangelism” in Shepherd the Church: Essays in Pastoral Theology Honoring Bishop Roger D. Pittelko. (Fort Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2002), 284.

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