An Eternal Gospel to Proclaim

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“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Revelation 14:6).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Today we celebrate the Reformation of the Church, initiated when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. With its impact upon not just the Church, but on much of Western civilization, the Reformation has proved to be one of the most significant chapters in world history. But in what way?
In his book, “Here We Stand,” Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse suggests that there are three inadequate interpretations of the Reformation. First, there is a “heroic interpretation,” where Luther is regarded as a larger than life hero in much the same way as a George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln might be viewed. Focus is placed on Luther’s character, traits, inner struggles, and personality, his personal and professional successes.
Second, there is the “cultural-historical interpretation.” Here the Reformation is understood as a cultural revolution, a turn from the unenlightened darkness of the medieval world full of suppression and superstition to the dawn of a new world marked by the power of the intellect and freedom of the individual.
Third, there is the “nationalist interpretation,” which was quite popular in Germany, especially in the years leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. Here Luther is portrayed as the German Reformer who defied a pope in distant Rome and the Spanish emperor, Charles V, to establish a German Church with the Bible and liturgy in the German language. Here Luther and the Reformation become a symbol of German identity and independence.
Sasse suggests a fourth interpretation that better understands the Reformation as one episode in the long history of the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church, which is gathered around the means of grace. If it is to be considered a movement, it must be considered a movement of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. That is why we adorn the chancel with red paraments and why I wear a red stole today. Red is the color of Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies a holy Christian people for Christ Jesus through the Gospel that forgives sin. 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, language, and people.
This brings us to our text from Revelation 14:6-7, where St. John reports that he saw an angel flying overhead with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth. This was the text Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen used in the funeral sermon at Luther’s burial in 1546, where he identified Luther as that angel who carried this “powerful, blessed, divine teaching,” which would continue to live, overthrowing the Babylon of the pope’s church (Brecht III:379). While it is doubtful that John was referring specifically to Luther, the Reformer certainly was among a long line of men who have proclaimed the eternal Gospel.
The Gospel Luther preached was nothing other than the one eternal Gospel that is the power of God unto the salvation of all who believe. This is the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting the trespasses of sinners against them, but forgiving them on account of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. It is that Word, and that Word alone, that was the heart of the Reformation. It is that Word by which you and I became and remain Christians.
Luther’s confidence and our confidence is the Word of Christ, this eternal Gospel that we proclaim. In the early days of the Reformation, Luther came out of hiding in the Wartburg Castle to return to the pulpit in Wittenberg to rescue the Reformation from those radicals whose fanaticism would turn it into a chaotic revolution. On that occasion, Luther confidently proclaimed: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29] or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such loss upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (AE 51:77).
Luther, like St. Paul before him, knew that the Word of the Lord is not chained, but is a living, loose, and lively thing. Luther trusted in the promise of the Lord recorded in Isaiah 55:10-11: “My Word… shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s Word is the power of God. It is His Word, His eternal Gospel. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). So, “The Word of the Lord endures forever,” became the battle cry of the Reformation.
What St. John saw in his vision was the eternal Gospel being proclaimed through the holy, Christian, and apostolic Church. The angel is the heavenly figure of those messengers sent out to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ from the apostles and martyrs of the Early Church to the pastors and confessors of the faith today. This Gospel has never ceased to be proclaimed. It is an eternal Gospel against which our Lord says even the gates of hell will not prevail.
That’s not to say that will never be dark days. Luther came on the scene during just such a time. The precious Gospel of forgiveness, the very heart of the Christian faith, was being obscured. It was, in fact, so obscured that most Christians never heard it, at least not in its fullness. Early on, Luther himself struggled in the faith because he did not know the full message of the Gospel. His “fear of God” was a superstitious, slavish fear of a tyrannical master, not the reverence and trust of a child for his or her loving Father.
When Luther posted his 95 Theses, the eternal Gospel was hard to find. It was drowned out by the rants of pope and preachers who proclaimed a different “gospel” that made Christ’s Gospel only part of the equation. It was a strange brew of the old covenant and the new, something that turned grace into works and works into grace, an utter confusion of Law and Gospel. Still, the Gospel was never swallowed up. And the Medieval Church, though it had obscured the Gospel, had never lost it completely. It was still there, tucked into elements of the liturgy, the Office of the Ministry, preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
And so the Reformation was not the start of something new. The Lutheran reformers were no radical rebels, forsaking the Church to start a new, Protestant one. They sought a Reformation from all the errors that had accumulated over the years that obscured the eternal Gospel, things such as indulgences, sacrifices of the Mass, prayers to the saints, and the doctrine of purgatory. They retained as much as possible of the traditions that served to promote the Gospel, such as the liturgy, crosses and crucifixes, feasts and festivals, and Christian art. They sought a return to the eternal Gospel. And by God’s grace, His Word did prevail and prosper.
The eternal Gospel has a long history. It was promised to our first parents immediately after the fall: The Seed of the woman who would crush Satan’s head. It was proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets as they called God’s people to repentance in the midst of rebellion and apostasy and back to faith in the promise of the Messiah. In the fullness of time, it was fulfilled as the Incarnate Word suffered and died under Pontius Pilate for our trespasses and was raised again on the third day for our justification. This eternal Gospel was preached by the apostles, confessed by the creeds, and when it had been dimmed and diminished by human notions of salvation by works, it was restored to the Church by the Lord through His servant Martin Luther. The eternal Gospel has a long history and a promising future.
Oh, I know: humanly speaking, these present days might appear dark and foreboding. The Church has lost much of its influence upon our nation and its culture, and it seems her foes and critics are more and more vocal, at times, intimidating and threatening. And there is always opposition from within. The temptation to add one’s own merits to Christ’s, to cover oneself with the filthy rags of self-righteousness rather than the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness.
So the Church must constantly be on guard. She must be perpetually reforming herself. And in our reforms we must not seek to bring forth new and different things, things that the Church has never known, but always to return to the old, that is, the eternal Gospel and to those things that adorn and proclaim it. For salvation is found in no other Word.
Luther once warned his fellow Germans that the Gospel is like a summer rain shower. Therefore, we are to be eager to hear Jesus’ words while they are proclaimed in our midst. The prophet Amos warns of a famine of the Word of God when through man’s persistent rejection, God lets His Word move on to other places. There are places mentioned in the New Testament where once there were Christian congregations alive and thriving, but today you will find none. Think of the majestic cathedrals in Europe today that are nearly empty on a typical Sunday. Do you realize that on any given Sunday, there are more people attending Lutheran services in Africa than all of North America and Europe combined?
Nevertheless, the eternal Gospel is being proclaimed. And wherever the eternal Gospel is proclaimed and received as God’s own announcement that the ungodly are justified not by works of the law, but by the atoning death of Jesus now received by faith alone, there is the true worship of God of which the angel speaks. There the Living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the One who is the source of vast oceans and bubbling little springs, is feared, loved, and trusted about all things.
That is the true worship that, by God’s grace, Luther restored to the Church. In this worship, human beings do not seek to placate a holy God with the idolatry of their own sacrifices, but learn rather to receive God’s favor as He bestows it in His preached Word, in the waters of Baptism, and with His body and blood. That is why our Confessions call faith the highest and holiest worship of God, for faith looks to Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins, comfort now in this life of suffering, and hope in that kingdom yet to come.
So we celebrate this Reformation Sunday not with a nostalgic recollection of a great and heroic man named Martin Luther, nor as a marker of a tipping point of Western civilization, nor as a reminder of our German heritage. No, we celebrate this Reformation Sunday by repenting of our unbelief, confessing our slowness to treasure God’s Word, and by faith laying hold of the eternal Gospel Luther preached, for in it we have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
We have an eternal Gospel to proclaim. Jesus lived a perfect, obedient life under God’s Law. He died upon the cross, shedding His holy, precious blood as the payment for the sins of the world. Jesus rose on the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection to eternal life. He sits at the right hand of God the Father interceding on behalf of His Church. On the Last Day, He will return to judge the living and the dead, and give you and all believers in Him eternal life. This is the eternal Gospel we proclaim: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen  


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