Preparing to Preach on Reformation Sunday: Thoughts from Hermann Sasse

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Whether you are a Christian or not, you cannot escape the significance of the Reformation. It is an important chapter in western history; yes, in world history.

Each year, on the last Sunday of October we celebrate the Reformation of the Church. It was ignited by a 33-year-old priest on October 31, 1517 when he tacked his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Of course, whether you are a Christian or not, you cannot escape the significance of the Reformation. It is an important chapter in western history; yes, in world history.

The Lutheran theologian of the last century, Hermann Sasse, in his important book Here We Stand, suggested that there are three inadequate interpretations of the Reformation:

First, there is a heroic interpretation of the Reformation. In this view, Luther is regarded as a hero in much the same way as a George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln might be viewed. Focus here is placed on Luther’s character, traits, inner struggles and personality.

Second, there is what Sasse calls the cultural-historical interpretation of the Reformation. Here the Reformation is understood as a movement of liberation, a turn from the unenlightened darkness of the medieval world full of suppression and superstition to the bright dawn of a new world marked by the power of the intellect and the freedom of the individual.

Third, there is the nationalist interpretation of the Reformation and, as you might imagine, this was quite popular in Germany especially in the years leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917. Here Luther is portrayed as the German Reformer who defied a Pope in distant Rome and a Spanish emperor, Charles V, to assert a German church with Bible and liturgy in the German language. Here Luther and the Reformation became a symbol of German identity and independence.

Sasse tells us that each of these views the Reformation is inadequate… and he is right. The fourth view, says Sasse, is the correct view. This is the understanding that the Reformation is an episode in the history of the one, holy Christian, and apostolic Church. This is why we adorn the chancel with red paraments and the pastors wear red stoles on Reformation Sunday. Red is the color of Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, and enlightens a holy Christian people for Christ Jesus through His Gospel which forgives sin. The Reformation is an episode in the history of the church. We call it Reformation for the church had become deformed by false and misleading teachings which were embodied in errant practices making Christ’s holy bride almost unrecognizable under the papacy.

This young Wittenberg professor spotted pastoral malpractice in the Roman church and he sought to argue the case on behalf of Christian people living under the burden of demands which they could not fulfill by their own spiritual power. Luther was not about creating a new church, but restoring the Gospel to the Church so that genuine repentance and true faith might be preached among every nation, tribe and language and that people might be brought to worship God as He wills to be worshipped in Christ Jesus.

Not only is Sasse’s Here We Stand well-worth reading as you get ready to preach on Reformation Sunday, there are several other Sasse essays that might prime the homiletical pump. In a short essay from 1937, “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” Sasse demonstrates how the Reformation was sparked by Luther’s pastoral duty of hearing confession. It was his time in the confessional box that “led him to draw up his theses on indulgences.”[1] It was the Roman Church’s teaching that indulgences could substitute for fruits of repentance which prompted Luther toward the discovery that the word of absolution did not merely signify that the conditions for forgiveness had been met. Instead, absolution was the very word of the Living Christ that delivered the forgiveness of sins into the ears and hearts of the broken. Luther did not set out to change the church or much less establish a new one. Instead, he sought to reform that which had become deformed; namely preaching and pastoral care.

Luther’s Reformation, Sasse contends, sought to give the Word of the Lord free course in the church. Of this Word, Sasse writes: “The Word discloses man as a sinner. It tears every task from his face, even the mask of piety. It shows us that in our religion, in our moral striving, we seek not God but ourselves. It shows us that there is no righteousness which can be attained by man’s own efforts: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’ (Romans 3:10 KJV).

But moreover, Luther found in the Scriptures what he henceforth understood as the real meaning of the Gospel.”[2] This Gospel was not a theological theory for Luther. “The Gospel was for him not a doctrine about the possibilities of the forgiveness of sins but the message of God to the sinner to desire the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of this forgiveness.”[3] Asceticism, morality, sanctification and the hope of immortality can be found in other religions. “But forgiveness of sins is found only in Jesus Christ.”[4] Without the preaching of Christ’s forgiveness, the church would remain deformed.

A second essay is from 1946, just after World War II, titled, “Luther’s Legacy to Christianity.” In this work, Sasse observes, “The legacy which Luther left behind can properly be grasped only by one who realizes that this legacy applies to all of Christendom on earth.”[5] This is the case as Luther sought to restore the pure preaching of God’s justification of the ungodly to the Church for it is only in this message of divine reconciliation that the Church can claim the right to exist.

Sasse maintains that the note found in Luther’s pocket after his death with the words scribbled, “We are beggars; that is true,” defined the entirety of the Reformer’s work. Where human beings cease to be beggars before God, there can only be unrelenting despair or pompous self-righteousness. Rome can speak of the sola gratia, but not the sola fide. Our righteousness is forever and always the righteousness that comes by faith alone. “He [Luther] knew that the sola gratia must be enlarged by the sola fide, that to ‘by grace alone’ must be added ‘through faith alone.’” [6] Only where this is done can the Christian remain a beggar before a gracious Lord.

Luther understood this, says Sasse, like no teacher before him. Luther’s confession is set in stark contrast with that of Aquinas. For Aquinas, Christ cannot enter into living communion with a sinner. Luther asserted the very opposite: “Christ dwells only among sinners.”[7] This, Luther holds, is the Gospel which is inexhaustible for broken, beggarly sinners.

A third essay that holds promise to provoke deeper and substantial preaching on Reformation Sunday is a piece Sasse wrote relatively late in his life (1968) entitled, “Erasmus, Luther, and Modern Christendom.” Here Sasse argues that the great dispute between Erasmus and Luther has never really come to end. It continues down to the present day as both secularists and the religious hold out a place for the freedom of the human will. Erasmus was troubled by Luther’s assertiveness when it came to both sin and faith. According to Sasse, Luther, “saw behind Erasmus’ concept of an undogmatic Christianity the coming neo-paganism of the modern world.”[8] In this sense Sasse concludes that Erasmus, “believes in God, but he has not entirely lost his belief in man. He is fighting for the dignity of man who is not totally lost, who has retained his free will and can cooperate with the divine grace. He has never been able to understand the depth of human sin.”[9] Erasmus recognized moral and administrative defects in the Roman Church, but it was Luther who became the Reformer for he, not Erasmus, recognized the problem of human bondage to sin and preached a Gospel which was not about renovation of character, but resurrection from the dead.

There is much homiletical fodder for preachers to ponder in these and the many other essays, letters and sermons of Sasse for the joyful task of preaching on Reformation Sunday. Unlike his contemporary, Rudolf Bultmann, who insisted that preachers must demythologize the text of Holy Scriptures for successful preaching, Sasse recognized the need to demythologize not the text, but the hearer. In this recognition he relies on Luther’s understanding of the human being’s captivity to idolatry. It is the preaching of Christ crucified that sets captives free and makes beggars out of princes and princesses in the kingdom of grace. This freedom is the theme of Reformation Sunday and we may learn from Sasse how to use Luther’s legacy to proclaim it.[10]

[1] Hermann Sasse, “Luther on the Teaching of the Reformation” in The Lonely Way, Vol. I edited by Matthew C. Harrison (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001), 322.

[2] Sasse, “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” 327.

[3] Sasse, “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” 328.

[4] Sasse, Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” 328.

[5] Hermann Sasse, “Luther’s Legacy to Christianity” in The Lonely Way, Vol. II edited by Matthew C. Harrison (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002), 172.

[6] Sasse, “Luther’s Legacy to Christianity,” 174.

[7] Sasse, “Luther’s Legacy to Christianity,” 176.

[8] Sasse, “Erasmus, Luther, and Modern Christendom,” in The Lonely Way, Vol. II, 381.

[9] Sasse, “Erasmus, Luther, and Modern Christendom,” 383.

[10] For more on this, see John T. Pless, “Hermann Sasse the Preacher” in Witness: Erlangen Sermons and Essays for the Church 1933-1944, trans. Bror Erickson (Saginaw: Magdeburg Press, 2013), 7-30.