One of the frustrating realities of church history is that the spotlight often shines where, and only where, its interpreters choose to point it. The focus tends to be where all the chatter happens. History, however, transcends our small spotlights (more like little flashlights in view of the scope of the church’s past). Pockets, sometimes entire rivers, of historical individuals, their writings, and their contributions are missed or bypassed.
I wonder if something like this has happened with Luther’s sermons on the Gospel of John. Published by Concordia in the standard works of Luther, these sermons stretch an impressive four volumes:
Jaroslav Pelikan claims in his introduction to volume 22 that Luther “turned repeatedly to St. John in his sermons, disputations, commentaries, letters, treatises, and table talk.” In other words, the Gospel of John was key to Luther’s exegetical, theological, and apologetic development and output. Given that major Reformation controversies oscillated upon doctrines like justification, other books like Romans and Galatians are at the front of reception history. Yet Luther was just as committed to the exposition of the Gospels (note Luther’s sermons on the Gospel of Matthew as well). In fact, so early was Luther influenced by John’s Gospel that the earliest Luther sermon we know of is one that was birthed out of John’s world.
A brief word about the history of these sermons (and here I am following Pelikan, who elaborates upon the history more than I will). Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558) occupied the pulpit as the parish pastor in Wittenberg (it’s hard for 21st century American readers to understand, but some towns had but one or two pulpits). Luther was called upon to step in and preach in Bugenhagen’s absence. Invited by King Christian III himself, Bugenhagen was off to Denmark in 1537 where he would assist with church reform.
The timing was anything but ideal. Suffering from various illnesses, Luther’s body was flirting with death itself. It was a scary time for Luther’s disciples. Yet Luther was unbelievably resilient, surviving the sickness, only to return to the study to prepare sermons for Saturdays and Sundays. We read in a July 5th, 1537, letter to Brugenhagen: “I have begun to preach and lecture once more; in fact, yesterday I preached in your place. …Christ lives; and we are Christs—with and without the apostrophe (Christi sumus in nominative et genitivo).
The task would prove more challenging than Luther imagined. Not only did each week demand multiple services and sermons but Luther’s body had not recovered entirely. Instead, illness revisited, making preaching a demanding task. “I am so overloaded with tasks and so troubled with sicknesses that I have often been compelled, and still am, to leave my duties unperformed.”
I, for one, am thankful Luther did not leave his duties unperformed. These sermons represent invaluable insight into Luther’s thought. To begin with, they provide us with a window into Luther’s hermeneutic. Considering Luther’s controversies with Rome, attention is typically occupied with his commentaries and sermons on Paul’s epistles. His sermons on John’s Gospel, by contrast, tell us how Luther interpreted and theologically digested a very different type of literary genre.
Furthermore, Luther’s soteriology is under inspection in his works on the epistles, but in the Gospels, his Christology arrests our attention. That alone is a reason to read Luther on John. But there’s more. As Luther’s comments on certain Christological passages, he shows his acquaintance with the church fathers, and, sometimes, medieval fathers as well. Luther is not shy to appeal to the Fathers, demonstrating how he is standing on their shoulders for hermeneutical assistance. Simultaneously, his appeal to the fathers is doxological in nature. He moves back and forth from text to praise and from praise to text, for Luther is incapable of separating the gospel of God incarnate from the Christian life.
Perhaps one example will suffice. Consider one of Luther’s comments on the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14):
Therefore the holy fathers had good reason to contemplate these words so much: “And was made man.” It would not be out of place for us still to weep for joy. Even if I should never be saved—which God forbid!—this thought would still fill me with joy: that Christ, who is of my flesh, blood, and soul, is sitting in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, and that such an honor has been conferred on my frame, flesh, and blood. As St. Bernard further deliberated on these words, he derived some very comforting thoughts from them. He said: “Now I can see that God my Lord is not angry with me; for He is my flesh and blood and sits at the right hand of the heavenly Father as Lord over all creatures. If He were ill-disposed toward me, He would not have taken on my flesh and blood.” We, too, should contemplate these words, “And was made man,” with reverent awe and sing them with long notes as is done in church. This is proper and right, since all our comfort and joy against sin, death, devil, hell, and despair revolve about them and nothing else.
I find Luther to be a master chef, displaying to his readers not just a snack or meal but a banquet. Not only is his commentary academically stimulating but it is pastorally edifying as he brings us back to the Word made flesh in order to proclaim the gospel according to John.
Every student of Luther should read these four volumes to better comprehend Luther’s exegetical and theological framework. Every pastor should have them on his shelf as he prepares to preach on John’s Gospel. Luther is, we might say, the pastor’s teacher in the study and the pastor’s voice in the pulpit. Luther is dead, but his sermons still preach.
Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Owen on the Christian Life, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, and Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at MatthewMBarrett.com.