On October 6, 1522, Margaret, the regent of the Low Countries under Charles V, arrested all of the Augustinians in the Monastery of Antwerp under the suspicion of being influenced by the theology of Luther and Melanchthon. Most of the friars were exonerated of this charge and quickly released, but three remained imprisoned for their beliefs: Henry Vos, John van den Esschen, and Lambert Thorn. Thorn was let go, but the other two were not so lucky. Vos and Esschen remained steadfast to their belief in the evangelical doctrine, and as a result, they were taken to Brussels, declared heretics, condemned to death, and burned at the stake on July 1, 1523. In light of the persecution, imprisonment, and death of the first Protestant martyrs, a month later Luther sent a general letter to the evangelicals in the Netherlands to comfort and encourage them.
Luther begins by setting the suffering of the saints in its proper imperial context. Despite Charles V wearing the crown, the true nature of the kingdom of this world is that of darkness and the true ruler of this world the devil. The political and established religious powers set against them are merely the masks of Satan and his prince the Antichrist. They bear this office not because they are particularly perverse or wicked men but because they persecute the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments. Therefore, they stand against the church of Christ and true evangelical theology. It is into this darkness, evil, and anti-Christian milieu that God has broken in with the light of his gospel.
For Luther, the context or backdrop of Christian suffering is the Last Day. Rescued from the principalities and powers of the dominion of darkness, the believer stands in the kingdom of light, as Paul says in Colossians 1. Yet in this life, we remain with one foot in each realm. In this eschatological conflict, the host of Satan’s army stands arrayed against us. However, on our behalf stands not only the legions of God’s angels but the holy and most blessed cross. It is the blood of Christ which qualifies us for His kingdom, and it is by the blood of Christ that we endure under the weight of our own cross.
The image of the cross stands as central to Luther’s comfort for those who endure persecution. That God handed his own Son over to death, shame, and condemnation and yet did not forsake him forever is of tantamount importance. Though the world may not value our life, put us to shame, or even kill us, we know by the example of Christ that the blood of the saints will not be forgotten, but is in fact precious in the sight of God. Like the blood of Cain, the blood of the martyrs cries out to God and he is swift to answer. Because Christ’s resurrection defeated death, hell, and Satan, those who suffer for his name will be raised, glorified, and stand victorious on the last day.
The image of the cross stands as central to Luther’s comfort for those who endure persecution.
In this way, even shame, suffering, and death are taken captive by God and forced to proclaim the goodness, faithfulness, and mercy of the Lord. On account of Christ, the devil cannot use his own tools for his own ends. All things do in fact work for good for the beloved of God as Paul says in Romans. Furthermore this captivity of suffering and death allows the Christian to rejoice and be of good cheer even in the thick of affliction, because although we may feel as though God has forsaken us for a little while, with great mercy he will gather us to himself as Isaiah prophesied. And as David declares, the Lord will be with us in trouble, he will deliver us and give us honor because his name has been placed upon us.
Luther closes his letter of comfort by praying that the saints who remain will endure under persecution and shame because God is powerful to answer all prayers. He will indeed answer and send his Holy Spirit to call, gather, and strengthen the body of Christ united to its head, Jesus. In this holy congregation, God’s people will continue to be declared holy by the forgiveness of sins, made holy by the resurrection from the dead, and remain holy in the life everlasting. To all this, Luther finally adds, “Amen,” which is to say, “Yes, indeed, I believe it, it shall be so.” By ending with the Christian, “Amen,” Luther ends with the faith of a Christian, the faith given by God, and the faith that finally justifies and conquers all fears.