Getting Ready to Preach on Reformation Sunday: Gleanings from Has Joachim Iwand

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If we take the article of justification out of the center, very soon we will not know why we are evangelical Christians or should remain so.-Hans J. Iwand

When I was serving in the congregation, I made it a habit to read a different book on Luther each October to help focus my preparation to preach for Reformation. One such book I would heartily recommend to preachers (I require my students to read it) is Hans Joachim Iwand’s The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther (Wipf & Stock, 2008).

Iwand (1899-1960) was a Lutheran pastor and ultimately a professor of systematic theology at Göttingen and Bonn. He spoke out against Nazism, lost his teaching position, and spent time in prison during World War II. His deep knowledge of Luther and his personal suffering served to shape him as a preacher and teacher of preachers.[1]

Although only available in English translation in 2008, The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther was written in 1940. In this book, Iwand laments the tendency to take the Reformation for granted or reduce its message to a few clichés. Iwand moves quickly to assert, “For Luther, the article of justification is the critical axis from which we can decide whether or not the Church preaches the Gospel or spouts a dead and decaying formula” (15).

Justification by faith alone is not simply one item on the menu; it is, to use the language of Oswald Bayer, “the basis and boundary of theology.” It is also the basis and boundary for preaching. It is not to be assumed this is something which is already known. Pointedly, Iwand writes:

“An evangelical church that views the teaching of the righteousness of faith as self-evident – but about which no one should trouble himself and further because other issues are more important – has in principle robbed itself of the central solution by which all other questions are illuminated. Such a church will become increasingly splintered and worn down. If we take the article of justification out of the center, very soon we will not know why we are evangelical Christians or should remain so. As a result, we will strive for the unity of the church and will sacrifice the purity of the Gospel; we will have more confidence in church organization and church government and will promise more on the basis of the reform of Christian authority and church training than either can deliver. If we lose our center, we will court pietism and listen to other teachings and we will be in danger of being tolerant where we should be radical and radical where we should be tolerant” (16).

Justification by faith alone is a matter of life and death.

Luther did not so much set out to reform the Church as he did to reform preaching (and with it, pastoral care). Luther’s fuss over indulgences was not simply a complaint about ecclesiastical malpractice but the substitution of human works for the righteousness of faith. Indulgences obscured the preaching of Christ crucified and misdirected trust away from Him to one’s own works.

Luther did not so much set out to reform the Church as he did to reform preaching (and with it, pastoral care).

It is clear Iwand is doing more than rehearsing the historical events of the sixteenth century. He is speaking to preachers of his day, and what he had to say in 1940 rings just as true in 2023.

The starting point for Luther is the First Commandment. The First Commandment requires faith alone. When God is not feared, loved, and trusted above all things, human beings do not become godless but project themselves in the space which God has reserved for Himself. Unable to will that God is God, they covet divinity for themselves and their own projects. As Iwand puts it, the human project, even when clothed in the language of religion, piety, and spirituality, is “annihilating God” (22-23). The unbeliever will utilize his own good works for this task: “As a result, the complete fulfilling of the Law can lead us to complete transgression of the Law and alleged good works can be more harmful than good ones” (24). It is only in the preaching of God’s justification of the ungodly that God remains God and sinners are brought to justify God in the way of David in Psalm 51:4 as he declares God is justified in His verdict. If human beings do not justify God in the confession of their sin, they will inevitably seek to justify themselves. Self-justification is the default position of fallen humanity. “The confession of sin, on the other hand, frees a person from himself” (31).

Chapter Two, “Law and Gospel” is at the heart of Iwand’s short book. Preaching law and gospel is not a balancing act, as though the preacher needs to serve up five pounds of law followed by five pounds of gospel. Both law and gospel remain, and both are to be preached to the Christian, but Christ is not made into a Moses and the Gospel does not legislate righteousness. Law remains law. Gospel remains gospel. Luther, “means, that where grace ceases to be grace, then morals and faith, works and grace, politics and religions are mixed together and Christianity becomes a moral philosophy in which everything depends, in the final analysis, upon moral training” (39).

It does not require much imagination to see how this is happening today in American churches on the left and the right. On the left, churches champion liberationist causes. On the right, churches seek to recruit warriors for a war against the decadence of a secular culture. Both confuse law and gospel, substituting the preaching of the Word which frees (see John 8:31-36, the Gospel for Reformation Sunday) with cheer leading for or against social issues. In the process, they confuse the proclamation of Christ’s sanctification with a message of “if you just try harder” you can create a more just society or become a genuinely devout disciple. The Lord’s people are subjected to endless scolding that leaves them either with the delusion of spiritual heroism or, more likely, in a state of frustration and despair.

Iwand does not set the preaching of the Law aside. “Only angels do not need the Law anymore” (45). The Law is proclaimed not as a tool for moral development and spiritual improvement, but to drive us to the Gospel of Christ Jesus so faith resides in Him alone. One of many take away points for preachers is Iwand’s observation: “Luther knows too well that a person wishes the Law did not exist at exactly the same moment in which he tries to fulfill it” (48).

In the third chapter, Iwand treats Luther’s understanding of faith and works. Here Iwand takes up the old charge of Luther’s opponents, old and new, who maintain that Luther’s teaching on the Law and sin undercut the foundation for the moral life. On the contrary, the Law gives us a knowledge of self, so we recognize our inability to declare ourselves righteous. Only in Christ are good works a reality. Without Christ we are only “holy apes” (Luther) who believe that by imitating the actions of others we can attain holiness. Instead, Christ Jesus makes outward obedience the “new obedience” where good works can be done not out of compulsion but as the fruit of faith: “That is precisely the heavenly gift Luther finds in the New Righteousness; the freedom of the children of God who do work simply that it may be done, but who not need to do any work at all in order to know they live by God’s grace” (67). Luther’s “Two Kinds of Righteousness” is really about the one righteousness which counts before God, the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. This is the theme of Iwand’s fourth and final chapter.

The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther is a wonderful condensation of key themes from Luther’s lectures on Psalm 51 and his greater commentary on Galatians. Iwand takes us to the head waters of Luther’s theology. As such, his book is an excellent homiletical pump primer for preachers who will step into the pulpit not only on the last Sunday of October but every Sunday to preach the righteousness of Christ alone, received by faith alone, through the Word alone.


[1] For more on Iwand see, Hans Joachim Iwand on Church and Society Opened by the Kingdom of God, ed. Benjamin Haupt et al, trans, Christian Einertson. London, England: T&T Clark, 2023.; Gregory A. Walter. “Hans Joachim Iwand” in Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, ed. Timothy Wengert. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017. 374-375.; and Christian Neddens. God’s Promise for a Speechless Church: Hans Joachim Iwand and His Project of Sermon Meditations after World War II, in “Concordia Pulpit Resources” 34: 1. December 3, 2023-February 11, 2024. 12-15.