Luther Visualized 15 – Treasures of the Reformation

The Law and the Gospel

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Allegory of Law and Grace, oil on panel, after 1529; housed in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

I am posting this out of order; it was originally intended to be the last post in this series. However, it is fitting to post it on this day commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.

There are any number of treasures or hallmarks of the Reformation that could be highlighted on this day—the three solas, as just one example. But in 1549, three years after Luther’s death, when a young Martin Chemnitz accompanied his relative Georg Sabinus on a trip to Wittenberg and “in a letter written in Greek” asked Philipp Melanchthon “to show [him] a method of properly instituting and shaping the study of theology,” Melanchthon gave a response that bespoke Luther’s lasting influence on him. He “replied that the chief light and best method in theological study was to observe the distinction between the Law and the Gospel.”

If a person could only be given one piece of advice before opening and reading the Bible on his own, this would indeed be the best. There are two main teachings in the Bible, the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin and how we should live. It shows us that we can never measure up to God on our own, and therefore it threatens, terrifies, and condemns us and thereby prepares us for the Gospel. The Gospel shows us our Savior Jesus and how he has lived and died for us. It showcases God’s gracious promises to us, and so it comforts, assures, and saves us. This distinction is the single greatest aid for reading and understanding the Bible. As the apostle John wrote, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And if there is one piece of artwork that correctly and beautifully captures that distinction, yes, encapsulates all of the Reformation’s and confessional Lutheranism’s theology, this painting by Cranach is it.

The left half of the painting depicts the Law. The defenseless sinner is driven by death and the devil towards eternal destruction in hell, having been judged guilty by Jesus, enthroned in heaven above as Judge of the world. The man was unable to keep God’s law and earn God’s favor because of original sin, inherited as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, portrayed in the background. In the foreground on the right, the chief prophet Moses, holding the two tables of God’s law, explains to the other Old Testament prophets that the Law can only condemn and hope must be sought elsewhere. The tree on the right is bare, representing how the Tree of Life is not accessible to fallen mankind by his own powers, or how fallen mankind is spiritually dead and can produce no good fruits (works pleasing to God).

The right half of the painting depicts the Gospel. Jesus is portrayed not as Judge of the world, but as the Savior of the world. John the Baptist points the defenseless sinner to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) through the atoning sacrifice of his life on behalf of sinners. Through this good news, the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, instills faith in the sinner’s heart, and thus the sinner receives the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice; the sinfulness of his heart is covered by Jesus’ blood. The rest of the panel depicts, for the most part, scenes from Jesus’ life. In the background, instead of judging from heaven, he comes down from heaven to share in our humanity and suffer our condemnation in our place (the incarnation in the womb of the virgin Mary). In the foreground, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is portrayed as the ultimate proof of his victory over death, the skeleton under his left foot, and the devil, the dragon under his right foot. In the upper right hand corner, Jesus ascends into heaven, the nail-marks in his feet still showing. The counterpart to the serpent’s tempting and mankind’s fall into sin in the left half is the prefiguring or foreshadowing of Jesus’ redeeming work through the bronze serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:4-9) in the right half. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14,15). The tree in this panel is leafy, representing how the Tree of Life is accessible to fallen mankind through faith in Jesus, or how the one who believes in Jesus has spiritual life and produces good fruits.

What God does in his law demand
And none to him can render
Brings wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the law requires,
And lost is our condition.

Yet as the law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and has God’s anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He has for us the law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.

Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Your death is now my life indeed,
For you have paid my ransom. – Paul Speratus, 1523

Today is an anniversary celebration like none other. Happy Reformation Day, dear readers!

Sources
August L. Graebner, “An Autobiography of Martin Kemnitz” in Theological Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, October 1899), p. 480

Cranach Digital Archive here and here

Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993), #390

Quote of the Week – Commands and Promises

Similar Paintings

Hans Holbein the Younger, Allegory of Law and Grace, oil on oak panel, early 1530s; housed in the Scottish National Gallery

Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) was a renowned artist and contemporary and sympathizer of Luther. This painting, clearly influenced by Cranach’s above, is usually titled An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments or even The Old and the New Law, but the painting itself clearly identifies its contrast between the law (lex) and grace (gratia). (The painting correctly shows that both the Old and the New Testaments proclaim grace in Christ.) On the left the two tables of the law are given from heaven to Moses. The law makes us conscious of our sin (peccatum; Romans 3:20; 7:7-13), inherited from Adam as a result of the fall into sin (Romans 5:12-19). The wages of sin is death (mors; Romans 6:23). Nevertheless our justification was foreshadowed (mysterium justificationis) through the bronze serpent erected on the pole (Numbers 21:4-9), and Isaiah the prophet (Esayas propheta) foretold of salvation through the coming Christ (“Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son [Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium]” – Isaiah 7:14).

At the center of the painting is man (homo). “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body subject to death [Miser ego homo, quis me eripiet ex hoc corpore morti obnoxio]?” – Romans 7:24.

On the right, John the Baptist (Ioannes Baptista) points sinful man to Jesus, the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), who takes away the sin of the world (Ecce agnus ille Dei, qui tollit peccatum mundi – John 1:29). His coming down from heaven to take on human flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary is the token of God’s grace. An angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the valley below. Jesus as the living bread who came down from heaven (John 6:51) on the right side is the antitype to the bread that was rained down from heaven on the Israelite camp in the wilderness, depicted on the left side (Psalm 78:23-25). As an adult, Jesus is explaining to his disciples that he came to seek and to save what was lost and that he must suffer, die, and rise again in order to do so (Mark 8:31; Luke 19:10). His crucifixion is pictured as our justification or acquittal from sin (justificatio nostra) and his resurrection from the dead as our victory (victoria nostra) over death and the devil (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Middle Panel of the Epitaph Altar for John Frederick the Magnanimous in the Parish Church of St. Peter and Paul in Weimar, oil on lindenwood panel, 1555.

Duke John Frederick I of Saxony commissioned the work to the left a couple years before his death. Lucas Cranach himself died the following year, so the project was taken up and completed by his son. 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 4:16; and John 3:14,15 are printed on the pages of Martin Luther’s open Bible. John the Baptist points to Christ with his finger; Luther points to him with his gaze. Cranach the Elder painted himself in between the two, with Christ’s blood spilling onto his head. (He has made himself the counterpart to “the defenseless sinner” of his earlier painting.) His gaze is directed at the viewer, inviting him or her to worship Christ as Savior with him. The other unique detail is the angel flying in midair in the background over the shepherds, which has a double allusion. The first allusion is to the angel who announced the birth of Christ. This second allusion, indicated by the scroll he holds, is to Revelation 14:6,7. Johannes Bugenhagen, the pastor of the parish church in Wittenberg, preached on those verses for Luther’s funeral and identified Luther as the angel or messenger mentioned there. (Subsequent Lutheran preachers have also not shied away from that identification, though they also apply it to any Christian who faithfully proclaims the gospel.) The words printed on the victory banner borne by the lamb beneath the cross are those of John 1:29. The other details correspond exactly to Cranach’s earlier painting above.

Upper Peninsula Mission Trip (1864)

Introduction by Friedrich August Crämer
Report by Johann Jacob Hoffmann

Translator’s Preface

In the process of working on Johannes Strieter’s autobiography, I have had to do a lot of perusing of old issues of Der Lutheraner, the first official periodical of the Missouri Synod. While looking for something else, I came across the following mission trip report by J. J. Hoffmann. Hoffmann has already been covered by both Strieter and myself in a previous post, but this report helps to supplement the information found there.

If we didn’t know how the story ended with J. J. Hoffmann – namely, with him getting ejected from the Missouri Synod – we might not perceive anything too out of the ordinary in this report. After all, Professor Crämer of Concordia Fort Wayne submitted it to Der Lutheraner with his wholehearted approval and C. F. W. Walther, the editor, had no problems publishing it. The fact is that the easily detected arrogant tone of the report was not a stranger to the pages of Der Lutheraner. When this arrogance was pointed out by other Lutheran church bodies and their periodicals (which the Missouri Synod would only concede as half-Lutheran at best), the Missouri Synod and the authors of Der Lutheraner would simply dismiss such accusations as resentment against Missouri’s “unrelenting adherence to Christian doctrine and practice” (cf. Mark Braun, A Tale of Two Synods, p. 22-30). While it is true that the Missouri Synod at this time definitely was the synod most faithful to biblical, Lutheran doctrine (the most important characteristic of any church body), putting that doctrine into practice in love, understanding, and patience was not its strong suit.

So it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can detect in Hoffmann’s report the early traces of an arrogance, pride, and domineering manner so extreme that it eventually proved too distasteful even for the Missouri Synod and its leadership. (And indeed it is good to see that it was eventually dealt with decisively.) It is also bleeding with irony in light of the eventual rejection; Hoffmann was so clearly proud to be a Missourian, but once ejected by the Missourians, he would become as much as enemy as before he had been a friend.

Nevertheless, wherever his Word is preached, God accomplishes his good purposes and saving will, even when the human instrument is less than perfect and the truthful message of the messenger’s mouth does not sound in harmony with that messenger’s actions. (All of us pastors must have recourse to that truth, without, however, lounging around comfortably in it.) And we see that truth on display in this report as well, for we cannot deny that Hoffmann’s trip bore spiritual fruit for God’s kingdom. To the triune God alone be the glory, and that is indeed not just a pious wish and prayer, but the reality.

I translated what follows from Der Lutheraner, edited by C. F. W. Walther, vol. 21, no. 4 (October 15, 1864), p. 28-30.

(Sent in by Prof. Crämer)
Mission Trip Report

For a long time already it has been a real desire of the members of our dear Wisconsin Conference that the region along Lake Superior belonging to the state of Michigan might be visited for once, since so many of their former congregation members have moved there and they had received repeated requests from them to be visited. This summer they now called upon our Pastor J. J. Hoffmann to undertake a trip there. He was found agreeable to the task, set out on foot on August 8 of this year, thankfully covered the distant, wearisome, and perilous journey under God’s protection, and provided me the following report about his arrival at the place of his destination and what he accomplished there, which I simply must share with the dear readers of Der Lutheraner:

[Hoffmann’s report follows to the end. Prof. Crämer left out the first part of the letter.]

Finally I came to Rockland on Monday at midday. The Rockland, Minnesota, and National Mines are in that city.

Already shortly before my departure I had heard that there was a German preacher in Minnesota (now called Rockland); he was also purported to be Lutheran. If everything had not been arranged already, this news might have induced me to postpone the trip for a bit and to gather more information first. As matters stood though, by this point I had to make the trip. In addition, I did know that he was not from our synod and that his service was therefore of no use to our former congregation members anyway. I now inquired after this preacher with my innkeeper first, who was a well-cultured man, an old soldier, and had served in Italy and in France. Now he was lying on his deathbed though. He had had a stroke at the top of the stairs in his house, fallen down, and from then on had completely lost all feeling from his chest on down. Even though no one was supposed to disturb him, the condition he was in nevertheless required that much more that I speak with him. I soon found that he too was one of the poor people who had fallen away from their faith on account of the baseness and the shameful greed of a large part of the so-called spiritual leaders in Germany. By one such clergyman he had been defrauded of his father’s entire estate of some 30,000 thalers. To the question of whether he then considered what was written in God’s Word to be true, he only kept on saying that he had formed his own ideas on that. He was nevertheless tolerating it when I was preaching law and gospel over and over again between our conversation, and although he never said anything in response, one tear was chasing the next.

He also informed me about the pastor and had someone bring me to him. The pastor was an alumnus of the mission institute in Basel. It was therefore no surprise to me when I learned he was not a Lutheran. Nevertheless, he agreed with me when I said that calling it the Basel Mission Institute was actually an absurdity, since, for instance, when it sends out its graduates with Reformed leanings and those with Lutheran and United leanings, it has to and does say to all of them alike: “It is true that you all have differing convictions, but each of you should just make the most of the conviction he has. It is all from the Holy Spirit, and so each of you should just act and teach according to his conviction.” The institute also has absolutely no confession whatsoever that could be considered Lutheran – not once is the Small Catechism of Luther promoted there, nor is the Augsburg Confession. It has fallen squarely in the middle of the current of the spirit of the times and wishes precisely to train people who are only going to preach “Christ,” as if that could happen without preaching his doctrine pure and whole. And from this kind of institute the Michigan and Wisconsin Synods get their preachers and still want to be called Lutheran synods, even though their pastors who come from the institute are not at all acquainted with the symbolical books of the Lutheran church, and thus not their doctrine either. I used these facts to show him how the Michigan Synod, to which he belonged, could not be truly Lutheran. This too he granted, and seemed in general to have a desire to become truly Lutheran. I told him I would not preach in Rockland and asked if he knew anyone there who had formerly been in our fellowship. He said No. When I later returned to Rockland again, I simply could not understand how it had escaped his notice that many Missourians were there, apart from concluding what I subsequently found out. Tuesday morning I traveled 12 miles by stagecoach to Ontonagon, a sizable city along Lake Superior to which the pastor in Rockland laid no claims. I was looking for a Lutheran there and happened to meet him as soon as I got off the stagecoach. He ran an inn and poured me some beer there. He was in other respects a very noble man, but right away he said, “You won’t have anything to do here; the people will probably not come. I don’t go to any church myself, though my wife and a few other women like to go.” Another man said, “A pricher? Gimme a break! The parson! I need the parson like I need a…” A third man said, “The folks here are too smart; they’re nobody’s fool. There won’t be anyone who comes” (“and I won’t either,” he might as well have added). Another woman said: “There are not many Lutherans here” – even though there are 18 families – “and many of them go to the English church. I go there too, since I can understand English as well I do German,” and with that she murdered some English so badly that it might have moved someone to pity me just for having to be there to hear it.

On the other hand I also met many honest souls; they also greatly bemoaned the lack of love for God’s word. But most of all they lamented the fact that the people had become even more indifferent through ignorant preachers, and they accordingly wished very much that a competent man would gather them. So too at many places along the lake I met several people who had moved there from our congregations. They were very happy beyond measure at the assurance that our synod would provide them with a preacher at their request, and they asked me to please see to that. So I now collected addresses of people in the following places: Buchanan,1 Burlington,2 and Portland3 in Minnesota; Superior City, La Pointe, Bayfield, and Bay City,4 along with Ashland in Wisconsin; and Marquette and Munising in Michigan. I also met a number of people from Portage Lake5 that reported to me that close to 100 families (and probably even more) were living in the neighborhood who were without a preacher, and they too expressed the desire that I would see to it that a competent man come there. I told these people that Pastor St. in Rockland had applied to his synod on their behalf, but they declared that they knew nothing about that and wanted to have nothing to do with it, since they could not continue to rely on that synod. —

On Wednesday evening then I held church, to which the Presbyterians came, since it was the exact time their weekly service was held and since their preacher is in the war. I spoke to them, at their wish, on the 32nd Psalm. To the Germans I spoke on the summary of all gospel passages, John 3:16-18. After church I met another Missourian with whom I spoke quite a while longer and who also came back in the morning because he couldn’t get enough. I also succeeded in posting a few copies of Der Lutheraner and Lehre und Wehre as missionaries and certainly these will produce abundant fruit under God’s blessing. I also put a copy of Die Abendschule to work, and this too is certainly more conducive to making the reader into a healthy Christian than many so-called Lutheran papers. The Herold also happened to fall into my hands and I found the article on the slave-drivers in the Missouri Synod. You can imagine what effect it had on former members of our congregations. If they had previously considered the Herold to be a good, Christian paper, now their eyes were opened regarding this pet child of the Michigan Synod after I explained to them the whole story of the history of this writeup. About 8 o’clock in the morning I rode back to Rockland again, since I unfortunately did not have time to accept the various invitations because the steamboats here have such unpredictable travel schedules. When I arrived there at midday, my innkeeper’s health had gotten worse and worse. I asked him if he would permit me as a preacher to speak a few words with him. To all such inquiries he would only say that his head could not take it. When I asked him if he at least wished that I would pray for him, that God would make him healthy or be gracious to him in any case, he answered in the affirmative: “I thank you kindly for that, sir.” Friday morning I found him completely withered away. I stood for while at his bed by myself and shooed the flies away. Then he cried out suddenly in great agitation, perhaps ten times one after the other, “Pastor! Pastor!” The word “pastor” I understood quite clearly; I’m guessing that the second word, which I could not make out as clearly, was the name of the pastor through whom he had lost his father’s estate. I bent over him and asked him loudly if I should pray with him, to which he clearly mumbled, “Yes,” as he bowed his head. I knelt down and grabbed hold of his already cold hands and prayed. This was his last word. I thought that he would at least make it until evening yet, and since his wife came in and cried out anxiously, “Ah, leave my husband alone, sir! Leave my husband in peace!” I left to go and see the mines once. I rode down 1200 feet with my escort in a box. Then we got out and went zigzagging around in the mine, and after we had come back to 1200 feet from 1500 feet underground, we sat down and consumed our midday meal. Afterward I rode up alone – in 2 minutes I was back on the surface of the earth, and now I heard that the innkeeper had died. I also found a few Missourians now, but they belonged to the congregation, and I was asked to please preach to them on Sunday, and since it was okay with their pastor, who seemed to have honest intentions on the whole, that’s what I did. After church many Missourians remained standing at the church doors, and when I asked them if any of them were from our congregations, I received multiple “I am” and “Me too” answers. In the evening the people now held a meeting, and there I found out something I never would have guessed. The congregation was founded by Missourians, who banded together as “Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church,” and the church property had also been procured through their efforts. The former preacher was also from the Michigan Synod. After he moved away the Board of Elders had applied to our synod for a preacher through Mr. P. Stecher. Meanwhile the Michigan Synod had sent the present Pastor St. to the congregation without their desire or knowledge. So the congregation had taken him in pro tempore, as it were, until one of our own would come, which had not yet happened by that point. Since they were looking for advice, I was compelled to tell them that, since the congregation was supposed to be an evangelical Lutheran one and had been founded as such, they should also make every effort to see to it that Lutheran doctrine and practice held sway in the congregation. But if that could not be accomplished, then they could not remain in affiliation with that congregation or that synod. The pastor was present at this meeting and also seemed to see the necessity of adhering firmly and exactly to Lutheran doctrine and practice, or of dropping the name “Lutheran” if that was not the case. The Lord grant that this congregation become more and more that which it was founded to be.

So then, this trip accomplished this much at any rate: We now know those whom we have to keep track of, and I can now fully inform the brother who will serve as missionary there exactly what the situation is with the people and the area. God only grant that these poor people who are looking for help might also soon be able to be helped. To that end we must then persistently ask the Lord of the harvest to fill up the hearts of our students and many others who will still join them with real love for Christ and their fellow redeemed, so that they devote themselves to the wearisome task [Dienst] of mission work with commitment and dedication. We must also pray that he would open the hands of our congregation members so that such energetic pupils, but especially the poor ones, are able to be trained, and that he would also bless the work of our precious Pastor Brunn to that end, so that we are able to answer the cry for help of our dear, scattered fellow brothers and are thus also able to help fill the heavenly storehouses of our Savior.

I do not wish to burden you further, sir, with the details of my return trip. Let me just say that I departed on Monday morning at 9 o’clock and made it back to Jenny,6 the boundary of my parish, on Saturday morning at 9:30, August 27. I was so tired though that I could hardly walk the length of my living room any more. From here to Minnesota [i.e. Rockland] it is a good 200 miles, even though it might not amount to that much according to the measurement indicated on a map. By now, God be praised, I have recovered again to some extent; at first, though, I was nearly lame for 2 weeks. But now I ask you, worthy Mr. Professor, to work with me at getting the synod to send a competent man to that area. Material for congregations is available in abundance and little by little more and more people could be assembled, and then the desire of those Christians would be fulfilled, and those who did not seek God would learn to seek him again and find him.

May then the Lord of the great harvest be pleased to help in this regard too, according to his grace, for the sake of his name. Amen.

Yours,
J. Jacob Hoffmann

Endnotes

1 Today the closest community to this location is Knife River. There is a Buchanan Historical Marker 3.5 miles southwest of Knife River along Highway 61.

2 Now named Two Harbors

3 Location unknown to me, though most likely along the coast of Lake Superior like the others

4 Formerly northeast of Ashland along the coast of Chequamegon Bay

5 The Houghton and Hancock area

6 That is, Merrill, Wisconsin, which used to be called Jenny Bull Falls, or Jenny for short.