Luther's Counsel on Persecution
In 1523, papist patience had worn thin within the Holy Roman Empire, and persecution of those holding the pejorative name of Lutheran began in earnest. Although God's hand managed to protect Luther from the flames, he had to endure the sad news as many of his followers throughout the empire lost postings as pastors, were imprisoned or exiled, or were burned at the stake. Many of Luther’s letters on persecution are from this early period in the reformation and deal with everything from government oppression of the population, to the imprisonment of kings, to the denial of a family inheritance. While most of his letters were written as semi-private counsel and consolation, some, like the "Letter to the Christians of Miltenburg" were written openly for public consumption.
Luther wrote to the Christians of Miltenburg while they found themselves in the midst of severe persecution. Miltenburg was a town that fell within the territory governed by Archbishop Albert of Mainz, whose reliance on the sale of indulgences to pay for his simony prompted Luther's 95 theses. Pastor John Drach, who had been called to Miltenburg in early 1523, was a popular preacher and well-liked by many but encountered resistance from priests in the area who charged him with heresy for his positions on fasting, celibacy, holy days, etc. (Luther's Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 199). Drach's superiors excommunicated him in the fall of 1523. It was a short-lived pastorate. Yet many in his congregation learned their lessons well from him and adhered to them even in his absence.
Things got worse when some of pastor Drach's followers were beheaded for their beliefs, and the evangelical faith was forcibly suppressed. Archbishop Albert refused to allow the persecuted people to receive letters, so Luther wrote an open letter that was sure to find its way to them. In this letter are many recurring notable themes from Luther’s other writings as well as an excellent exposition of Psalm 120. He asks those who are persecuted to pray for him. He counsels that persecution should be regarded as a sign that God loves you and has counted you worthy. And yet he is profoundly pastoral in his counsel. He both encourages the bold and comforts the timid:
"But someone will say, 'it is forbidden to mention the Word of God on pain of death and confiscation.' Well and good! If a man is strong, let him defy his command, for they have no right to make such a prohibition. God's Word ought not, must not, and will not be bound. But if anyone is too timid and weak, I shall give him other counsel: Let him be joyful in secret, thank God, and praise his Word, as has been said above, and let him pray God for strength to speak of it also in public that the enemy and the avenger may be destroyed” (p. 203).
With this, he enters into his commentary on Psalm 120.
"In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me" (Psalm 120:1). Here, Luther reminds us that we should turn to the Lord amid our distress. The devil often makes us ashamed to do this by tempting us to think of all the times we haven’t prayed to God with thanksgiving. Why should He listen to us now? But God is not spiteful. He is no "fair weather friend," but the kind of friend whom we can call upon in an emergency even after long years of silence. Nothing pleases Him more than when we remember Him during the hard times. He is glad to hear us and help us.
"Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue" (v. 2). It often happens that persecution comes from those with deceitful lips and lying tongues. They refuse to hear the word of truth. They are "unwilling to suffer the word of God" (p. 204). They will only have their wicked, poisonous, and false doctrine preached, and they do whatever it takes to silence true, Christian preaching. It often seems like the world has forgotten to blush, except at the name of Christ. Today, victim blaming, shaming and defaming runs rampant when Christians are the targets of terrorism and genocide. Yet in all this, we share in the ignominy of our Lord by bearing our cross and following Him. We pray, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
"What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?" (v. 3). Here, Luther cautions his readers. Often we are timid; we think we can compromise with the deceitful tongues. But this can never happen. The world cannot compromise with God's word, and it cannot tolerate God's word, neither can the Spirit accept such earthly help. God’s word is opposed to the way of the world. It turns the world upside down. The world wants to rule even over God. It wants to tame his word with compromise and make God it's equal, but God will not have it. Christ will not worship Satan for all the kingdoms on earth. (Matthew 4:10)
"A warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!" (v. 4). Luther now turns to describe the true help that comes amid distress. The sharp arrows of the warrior are preachers faithful to the word of God like Pastor Drach and people who are not ashamed of the Gospel but know that it is the power of salvation. With the love of the Spirit burning in their souls, other Christians become the help in times of persecution. They are the ones who light a fire burning with coals of juniper, and these embers are fanned into love and compassion for those who suffer for the word of God. Like campfires when lost in the woods, they are companions through the dark nights of the soul.
"Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!" (v. 5). Luther says this is what happens to preachers who have no faith in the Gospel. They are forced to live as sojourners in Arabia among unbelievers. This is a warning to us pastors. So often the Gospel is not trusted. A pastor sees his people sinning in one way or another and thinks that what they need is Law, more Law. He wants to see results, and the Gospel doesn't deliver these results in the way and timing he expects. These types of pastors will never see the fruits of true faith because true faith only comes with the preaching of the Gospel. On the other hand, the Law is found in every religion, and even among those who claim to believe nothing at all. It is as helpless in producing faith in the church as it is in society. It demands love but never gives the power to love. But in the forgiveness of sins is life and salvation because there we are showered in the love of God. The Gospel alone sets the broom tree on fire.
"Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace" (v.6). This is the result of false preaching or the preaching of only the Law. Such preaching does not bring the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. Persecutors hate this peace and hate the comfort it brings to consciences. So like the devil, they accuse us with the Law. Such accusations are true, or based on truth, for we are guilty of transgressing God's Law. The only lie in the accusation is the absence of the Truth: the Way and the Life who died for our sins and rose for our justification. That someone would rest in the Gospel is anathema to them. They demand evidence of faith in works, and the works fail to deliver.