Quote of the Week – Worthily, Not Worthy

The following is taken from A Sermon on the New Testament, that is, on the Holy Mass (1520) by Martin Luther. The work as a whole does not yet represent Luther’s mature thought on the Lord’s Supper, but it does “replace the traditional notion of the mass as a sacrifice with the scriptural teaching of the Lord’s Supper as a testament” (LW 35:77). The very first paragraph is also a masterpiece on the purpose and limitations of the law, and may appear in a subsequent Quote of the Week. In the quote that follows, from paragraph or section 15, Luther helps us to distinguish between taking the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27) and taking it as intrinsically worthy people (which we neither can nor do).

Now if one of these two thoughts should assail you (since even [when we believe Christ’s testament in the Lord’s Supper] these thoughts do not leave)—the first, that you are way too unworthy of such a rich testament, and second, even if you were worthy, what it gives is still so great that human nature shudders when confronted by the greatness of the gifts (for what can be missing when there is forgiveness of all sins and eternal life?)—then, like I said, you must pay more attention to the words of Christ than to such thoughts. He will not lie to you; your thoughts will deceive you.1 If a thousand gulden [or $300,000] were bequeathed to a poor beggar or even to a buffoon, he would not claim it out of his own merit or worthiness, nor would he relinquish it on account of how great the gift was. And if anyone would throw his unworthiness and the greatness of the gift in his face, he would certainly not let any of this scare him away and would say, “How is this your business? I know very well that I am unworthy of the testament. I do not claim it on the basis of my merit, as if anyone owed it to me, but on the basis of the favor and grace of the testator. If he did not think it was too much to bequeath to me, why should I despise myself so, and not claim and take it?”

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe 6:361,362

Endnote
1 Luther has this, intentionally or not, in the form of a memorable rhyme: Er wirt dir nit liegen, deyn gedanckenn werden dich triegen.

Quote of the Week – Commands and Promises

The following is taken from Martin Luther’s closing reflections in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520). Note that after suggesting here that prayer, the Word, and the Christian’s cross might “seemingly be numbered with the sacraments,” Luther does go on to say that, properly speaking, sacrament is a label best reserved for “promises that have signs attached to them,” namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The quote is shared here not so much for Luther’s reflections on the sacraments, but for his reflection on law and gospel as the two main and thoroughgoing doctrines of Holy Scripture.

There are several other things, besides these, that can seemingly be numbered with the sacraments, namely all those things for which a divine promise has been made, like prayer, the Word, and the cross. For in many places Christ has promised those who pray that he will hear and answer them, especially in Luke 11, where he invites us to pray with many parables [11:5-13], and says concerning the Word, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and preserve it” [11:28]. And who can count up how many times he promises help and glory to the afflicted, the suffering, and the humbled? Yes, who can enumerate all the promises of God, since all of Scripture has the purpose of inciting us to faith, driving with commands and threats in this place and alluring with promises and consolations in that one? For indeed everything written in Scripture is either command or promise; the commands humble the proud with their demands, and the promises lift up the humbled with their remissions.

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe 6:571,572

Quote of the Week – Different Dishes, Same Food

Martin Luther preached the following in his sermon on the Saturday after the Festival of the Nativity of Mary, September 11, 1540, his fourth sermon on John 4 and his final sermon in a series on John 3 & 4. He was preaching on 4:10 when he said:

But since we don’t apply any respect to the divine Word and don’t seek out anything of our own proper glory either, we therefore don’t listen to the Word, and no one is listened to with any interest unless he has a good, clear voice. When you get to that point, you have already become half a Jacob, when you pay more attention to the pastor than you do to God, and when you do not see God’s person but merely gape to see if the person is learned and skilled and has an interesting style or good diction. For the man who speaks poorly is speaking God’s Word just as much as the man who can speak well. When a father speaks God’s Word, God is speaking just as much as he is, and when your neighbor speaks God’s Word, it is no less the Word than the angel Gabriel spoke. Whether a schoolboy speaks it or the angel Gabriel pronounces it, the Word is no different; it’s just that the one can present it better than the other. The dishes may be dissimilar; some are silver, others are tin or earthen vessels enameled with clay. But one and the same food is served in silver and tin, etc., and wild game that is well seasoned and prepared tastes just as good from a wooden bowl as it does from a silver one.

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe 47:229-230

Luther in Need of Every Comfort

Letter from Martin Luther to Nikolaus von Amsdorf in Magdeburg
Wittenberg, November 1, 1527

Sources

Translated from the WA Br, no. 1164; De Wette, no. 910; Enders, no. 1219. The German translation in StL-Walch, no. 1137, was also consulted.

Letter

Grace and peace. As it pleases the Lord, so it happens, my Amsdorf, that I who used to comfort everyone else up till now, am now in need of every comfort myself. This one thing I ask, and you will ask it with me, that my Christ may do with me as he has pleased, only may he keep me from becoming an ingrate and an enemy of him whom I have preached and worshiped with such great zeal and fervor up till now, though not without sins many and great have I offended him during that same time.1 Satan is asking for a Job to be given to him once again,2 and to sift Peter with his brothers,3 but may Christ see fit to say to him, “Spare his life,”4 and to me, “I am your salvation,”5 even as I continue to hope that he will not be angry at my sins to the end. I wish to respond to the Sacramentarians, but until I get stronger in spirit, I can do nothing. I will keep your copy of the book,6 but will return it in due time.

A hospital has started up in my house. Augustin’s Hanna7 has been nursing the plague inside of her, but she is getting back on her feet. Margaretha Mochinna8 caused us some fright with a suspicious abscess and other symptoms, although she too is getting better. I am very fearful for my Katy, who is close to delivering,9 for my little son10 has also been sick for three days now and is not eating anything and is doing poorly; they say it’s violence of the teeth,11 and they believe that both are at very high risk.12 For Deacon Georg’s wife, also close to delivering herself, has been seized by the plague and is now busy trying to find out if there is any way the infant can be rescued.13 May the Lord Jesus mercifully stand by her side. Thus there are conflicts without, anxieties within,14 and sufficiently rough ones at that; Christ is visiting us. There is one consolation that we set against Satan as he rages, namely that at least we have the word of God for preserving the souls of believers, no matter how he may devour their bodies. Accordingly you may commend us to the brothers and to yourself, in order that you all might pray for us to endure the Lord’s hand bravely and to prevail against Satan’s might and cunning, whether through death or through life, Amen. At Wittenberg on the day of All Saints, in the tenth year of indulgences having been tread underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking at this hour, comforted on both sides, 1527.

Your Martin Luther.

Endnotes

1 This double negative construction seems to be as awkward in Latin as it is in English. A footnote in the St. Louis edition reads: “The reading non sine is so repulsive [anstößig] to us that we have employed sane [‘certainly’] in its place. It did not seem right to the former translator either” (21/1:1028, no. 1137). However, it is highly unlikely that sane was the original reading.

2 Cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5.

3 Cf. Luke 22:31-32.

4 Job 2:6

5 Psalm 35:3 (34:3 Vulgate)

6 The book Das dise wort Jesu Christi / Das ist min lychnam der für üch hinggeben wirt / ewigklich den alten eynigen sinn haben werdend / und M. Luter mit seinem letsten büch sinen und des Bapsts sinn / gar nit gelert noch bewärt hat. Huldrych Zuinglis Christenlich Antwurt. (That These Words of Jesus Christ, “This Is My Body Which Is Given For You,” Will Forever Retain Their Ancient, Single Meaning, And Martin Luther With His Latest Book Has By No Means Proved or Established His Own and the Pope’s View: Ulrich Zwingli’s Christian Answer), published in Zurich in June 1527. Cf. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532), p. 313-315.

7 Hanna or Anna, the daughter of the Torgau burgomaster Matthäus Moschwitz or Muschwitz, had married Augustin Schurf, professor of medicine in Wittenberg, prior to the fall of 1522. She died on January 26 or 27, 1540. Rf. Nikolaus Müller, Die Wittenberger Bewegung, p. 332.

8 Margaretha of Mochau from Seegrehna, probably a sister of Karlstadt’s wife

9 She gave birth to Elisabeth on December 10.

10 Johannes (Hans) Luther

11 That is, teething

12 That is, of falling victim to the plague

13 Deacon Georg Rörer had married Johannes Bugenhagen’s sister, Hanna, in 1525. She had given birth to their first son, Paul, on January 27, 1527. She died from the plague the day after Luther wrote this letter, a few hours after giving birth to a stillborn child. Cf. Brecht, op. cit., p. 208-209. As far as Hanna Rörer’s efforts to save her infant, performing a cesarean section on pregnant women who had passed away was already stipulated in the Royal Law (Lex Regia) at the time of Numa Pompilius. The Medieval Church firmly adhered to that stipulation, but this operation was not performed on living women until the 16th century (Heinrich Haeser, Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Medizin und der epidemischen Krankheiten, 1:803; 2:209).

14 Cf. 2 Corinthians 7:5.

Strieter Autobiography: Newburgh

[Continued from Part 19. If you have not yet read Part 1, click here.]

Newburgh

The first St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Newburgh, Ohio, with parsonage in the background (today St. John's Lutheran, Garfield Heights)

The first St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Newburgh, Ohio, with parsonage in the background (today St. John Lutheran, Garfield Heights)

In 1854 a small portion of Zion’s Church in Cleveland, Mr. Pastor Schwan’s congregation, branched off and formed an independent congregation in Independence, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, near Newburgh, two miles south, and named it St. John Church.1 Twenty or so families combined to form it. They built a little frame church and a small parsonage behind it. They called me to be their pastor. In October 1854 I moved there with my young wife, Mother-in-law Ernst, and her five younger little daughters.2 On the 18th Sunday after Trinity I was installed by Pastor Schwan, with Pastor Kühn from Euclid and Pastor Steinbach from Liverpool assisting. The church was dedicated at the same time. Pastor Kühn delivered the sermon. Pastor Steinbach presided at the rite of dedication.3 On the 19th Sunday after Trinity I delivered my inaugural sermon.

I preached and taught school during the week to twenty or so children. With the exception of one family and a widow Z. they were all Hanoverians. Father H. H. Böhning was the senior member. When we met to elect our Board of Elders and determine the salary (I was to be paid two hundred dollars per year), Father Böhning said, “I will give this much.” And he went through the ranks this way, and asked at the end if they were happy with that. “Yes,” they said, cheerfully and unanimously. Besides the two hundred dollars they also gave wood for fuel and a lot of other stuff. They took very good care of us. There I had it very nice for a change. The people loved me and bore with my weakness4 very patiently. They also loved my wife very much. The girls M. B. and M. B. gave her a new dress every year. They also liked Mother-in-law Ernst and the girls. The dear people came to church very regularly, and the same was true for Catechism instruction and the men’s attendance at congregational meetings. There was a very brotherly spirit among us.

My church attendees [Kirchkinder] enjoyed listening to God’s Word. It also had its fruit. One time Widow Z. came to me and said that her neighborlady had brought her an entire basketful of goodies, and when she asked why she was doing this, she had answered, “On Sunday the pastor preached about love, and it went to my heart.”

One time H. B.5 spoke his mind to me rather quite freely and definitely said more than he should have. The next day he came: “Mr. Pastor, I am sorry. I have as many regrets about what I said as I have hairs on my head.”

One time I noticed that a certain man had peered into the glass a little too deeply. The next morning there was a knock at the door. I said, “In here [Herein]!” which is what we said back then. In comes my man So-and-so. I say, “Have a seat, sir!” He sits down. I say, “Now, my dear man, what brings you to me this early?”

He says, “Oh, sir, you know that already!” and he started to cry and pleaded with me to forgive him anyway.

One time I stayed overnight at Father Böhning’s. Before going to bed he read from the Bible, prayed, and sang with his family the entire hymn, “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,”6 and my, how lovely! My Newburgers, as they called us, were good singers overall. We would also sing in four parts. My Ernst Böhning sang a splendid bass, and my Friedrich Tönsing a fine tenor. Mary Böhning and Mary Borges and several others sang the first part and W[ilhel]m and John Böhning sang alto.

Almost every Sunday we were taken along as guests after the service. Often we ended up at Father Böhning’s. The good old mother boiled us pea beans [Vicebauna] with a long sausage in there and meat. Beforehand there would be a milk soup with these tiny little dumplings. My, that was delicious! The Borges family also invited us often and took us along, and many others did too.

I received a call from the vicinity of Baltimore, but the Newburgers would not release me. Another one from the vicinity of Columbus, Ohio, but again I was not released, and yet another from old Frankentrost, but they would not release me then either.

Now my Jüngel7 came to me one day. I say, “What brings you to me so unexpectedly?”

He says, “Tomorrow morning I will tell you.” In the morning he took a letter from Dr. Sihler out of his pocket with an enclosed call and accompanying note from W[ilhel]m Stelter, from Crystal Lake, Marquette County, Wisconsin. In it was stated that over 300 families had been deserted by their preacher and had been left for the fanatics and Albright Brethren there. Help had to be provided immediately. Dr. Sihler had thought of us both.

Jüngel said, “I cannot and I dare not leave. I have recently received a United congregation in Amherst, which I dare not abandon. You must go.”

I presented it to my congregation. Fritz Tönsing was chairman. It was discussed back and forth, all of it in favor of my staying. Finally the chairman says, “I will call the question now, so that we know where we stand. All in favor of letting our pastor move, say Yes!”

Everybody was silent.

“All opposed, No.”

“No,” everybody called out.

Tönsing smiled and said, “I am going to ask again, but a bit differently: All who are convinced in their conscience that we should let our pastor move, say Yes.”

“Yes,” they said, though very meekly. That was in November 1859.

With my neighboring ministers [Amtsnachbarn] I was on good terms. I visited them and they me. Held conferences with each other regularly. In Cleveland was Schwan. He was our senior. In Ohio City, now West Cleveland, my dear Lindemann. Already at the seminary we had gotten along very well.8 In Euclid was Kühn. In Liverpool first Steinbach, then Jüngel. He was also at the seminary with me and we were always close friends.

I know that one time Schwan and Lindemann marched the five miles out to me. I walked to Schwan after school almost every Monday. We also went to take baths together in Lake Erie and often went for walks. After these recreations we would set about on our sermon for the next Sunday. Schwan had the Latin Harmony9 and I had Luther. He would read, then I would read. At this point he would ask, “Strieter, what should we use?” I would then have to start outlining, and he would laugh sometimes, but he also often commended me. One time he said, “Your outline is absolutely excellent. If Walther had it, he would turn it into a sensational sermon, but you, sir, are too stiff.”

I said, “Yeah, how does one go about becoming more smooth?”

He said, “Copy someone else’s sermons, so that you get into a different channel. Take Fresenius.10” I buy myself Fresenius right away11 and start copying, word for word in fact, and I commit it to memory. Sunday I mount the pulpit and repeat everything beautifully up through half of the first part; at this point I lose my line of thought. My Tönsing was sitting close to the front and looking me right in the eye. As I was losing it, he looked down at his feet. I didn’t get back on track; everything got jumbled together. Finally in my anxiety I say, “Amen!” Before everyone left, I signal my Tönsing: “Did you notice something today, sir?”

He says, “Yes sir, I did. You lost your spot.”

I put my Fresenius in the corner though and went back to making my own sermon, after I had made my usual study of Luther, especially his House Postil.12 This was my method: When I was finished with Luther, I started thinking and prepared the whole thing in my mind right up to the Amen, and then I wrote it and delivered it that way.

One time conference was held by me. Jüngel brought his neighboring United minister along. He already had all sorts of United ideas during the conference. Theology was also discussed during dinner. After Lindemann had spoken, the United gentleman said, “That all depends on how you look at it.”

Lindemann lifted his plate into the air: “How you look at it!? This is a plate, no matter how I might look at it.”

The gentleman was silent, but after the meal he took his hat and left.

One time Lindemann and I had to go to Holmes County, Ohio, where I had been together with B[esel], in order to dedicate a church. Engelbert was there now.13 Lindemann preached in the morning and I in the afternoon. Because of the sermon I gave, I continued to get quite a bit of razzing. That’s because I was betrayed.14 I had my dear old Pennslyvania Dutchmen in front of me and was going right along in my sermon and said that on the Last Day our dear Lord would call out, “Jack, John, George, come out!” and just like that they would be standing there with glorified bodies. To my Pennsylvania-Dutchmen it wasn’t funny at all; they all had on completely serious faces. The dear old Arnold had already told me earlier, “I think you are a pretty smart guy [Ich denk, du bist a ziemlich smarter Kerl].”

Endnotes

1 Today this is St. John Lutheran Church of Garfield Heights.

2 Henry F. Rahe, Johannes and Elizabeth’s eventual nephew (a son of Elizabeth’s next oldest sister Martha), in his previously cited “Sketch of the Parents of the Ernst Girls” (rf. endnote 21 here), writes: “When they got to Newburgh, Rev. Strieter could not support the Widow Ernst and her five daughters, and besides the parsonage was too small. Aunt Martha worked out and they farmed out three of the girls to other pastors. Aunt Sophie, Aunt Sarah and my mother, Anna, all of them under eleven years of age were the ones placed in pastors’ families and they had a hard life of it. Aunt Sophie, who resembled her mother in stature, temperament and will power more than any of the other girls, would not put up with this farming out proposition and they had to take her home and keep her there until after her confirmation. She then went to work for Rev. H. C. Schwan. It no doubt was a hard thing for Grandmother Ernst to send her young girls, eight, nine, and ten years old, to other people even if they were ministers. It was her own doing, and Uncle Strieter was to blame for much of it. All relatives, both from the Ernst and Wittig sides, opposed her determination to go with Strieters, and promised her all the help she would need to raise her family. This act estranged her from all her relatives, especially her brother. She never corresponded with any of them or visited them. She was the one who was estranged and not the relatives. In later years and especially in her last illness (Uncle Leutner in whose home she died told me this), conscience pangs bothered her, on account of her conduct toward her relatives, especially her brother and the separation from her husband. I once spoke to Uncle John Strieter about this moving of the family from Vermilion and he admitted that it probably would have kept the family together had they remained in Vermilion and would have been ‘better according to human reason, but what was to be, was to be.’”

3 From the “Church News [Kirchliche Nachricht]” section of the November 21, 1854, issue of Der Lutheraner: “After a number of members of the Cleveland congregation formed their own parish with our consent, St. John’s Congregation in Independence, and issued an orderly call to Mr. Pastor J. Strieter, who had been in Elyria and Vermillion [sic], he was committed by me to his new office, at the behest of the Most Reverend President of the Middle District of our synod, Mr. Dr. and Prof. Sihler, on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, with Mr. Pastors Kühn and Steinbach assisting, and the newly erected church was dedicated at the same time. — Now may our dear fellow believers include also this congregation in their prayers. — H. C. Schwan. Address: Revd. J. Strieter, Newburgh P. O., Cuyahoga Co., O[hio]” (p. 56).

4 Strieter more than once mentions “his weakness,” and he seems to be referring to something in particular. Later in this chapter he specifies this weakness by referring to the delivery of his sermons.

5 This is perhaps the “Father H. H. Böhning” he mentions earlier, but since Johannes always uses his last name elsewhere, it is more likely someone else.

6 The original hymn has nine stanzas.

7 Heinrich Jüngel, originally from Hesse-Darmstadt, was pastor in Valley City, town of Liverpool, Medina County, Ohio.

8 Wilhelm Lindemann, originally from Hanover, had enrolled at Fort Wayne during the 1851-1852 school year.

9 This refers to the Harmonia Quatuor Evangelistarum or Harmony of the Four Evangelists, a harmonizing of and commentary on the four Gospels begun by Martin Chemnitz, continued by Polycarp Leyser, and completed by Johann Gerhard in 1627.

10 Johann Philipp Fresenius (1705-1761) was a pietistic Lutheran pastor at Nieder-Wiesen, Giessen, Darmstadt, and Frankfurt am Main, who remained loyal to the Lutheran Confessions and opposed the Moravians.

11 Since it appears that Schwan and Strieter studied and preached on the Gospels together, the book Strieter bought was probably Heilsame Betrachtungen über die Sonn- und Festtags-Evangelia (Beneficial Reflections on the Sunday and Festival Gospels), first published in 1750. Fresenius also had a book of sermons on Epistle texts published in 1754.

12 There were two editions of Luther’s House Postil (a postil is a book of sermons). The first was published in 1544 by Veit Dietrich, formerly Luther’s personal secretary. The second was published in 1559 by Andreas Poach, a former student of Luther, on the basis of the notebooks of Georg Rörer, a deacon at the Wittenberg parish church and tireless transcriber and copier of Luther’s sermons. (Thus Poach’s edition is sometimes also called Rörer’s edition.) From the next chapter we know that Strieter possessed the German volumes of the first Erlangen edition of Luther’s works (1826-1857). Volumes 1-6 of that edition (1826) contained Luther’s House Postil, interspersing the sermons found in both Dietrich’s and Poach’s original editions.

13 Wilhelm Engelbert, originally from Nassau, had enrolled at Fort Wayne during the 1852-1853 school year and had graduated in 1855.

14 Namely, Pastor Lindemann told the other pastors about Strieter’s sermon when they got back. Pastor Engelbert’s account of this dedication was published in the February 18, 1859, issue of Der Lutheraner (vol. 15, no. 13): “This past 17th Sunday after Trinity [September 26, 1858] was a day of celebration for St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Holmes County, Ohio, for they had the great joy of consecrating their newly erected frame church. In the morning Pastor Lindemann preached on Galatians 2:16 and presented on that basis: What the true adornment of an evangelical Lutheran church is, namely 1. the pure message about justification, and 2. the listeners who make this message their own in true faith. In the afternoon Pastor Strieter preached on Luke 19:1-10 and showed from that text: 1. how Christ has moved into this church, and 2. how we should serve as his hosts” (p. 103).

[Read the next part here.]

Luther Sermon Reader, Be Aware

Here’s both a humorous line from one of Martin Luther’s sermons, and an illustration of how it got tweaked and expanded (and distorted) over time.

Luther preached a sermon on Luke 7:11-17 in his home on Trinity 16, September 15, 1532. The second part of his sermon was that we should learn compassion from Jesus’ example. Luther emphasizes that showing compassion does not mean leaving sin unpunished. To underscore his point, he cites his own course of action. Here’s his original line (WA 36:329):

If a maidservant is disobedient, then I bring out the oak version of the butter log and spread a nice piece of buttered bread for her with it.

Veit Dietrich’s edition from his 1545 House Postil (WA 52:482):

So if there are wicked children or servants in the house, it is a payment from God when a person takes an oaken butter log in his hand and smears their hide with it.

Andreas Poach’s edition from his 1559 House Postil (EA2 6:54):

So if there are wicked children or servants in the house, it is also a work of mercy, which God is pleased to reward, when a person takes an oaken butter log in his hand and spreads a nice piece of buttered bread on their hide with it, to soften it up.

Klug’s English edition of Poach’s edition (Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996], p. 27-28):

It is, therefore, an act of mercifulness, chastisement from God, when, in the case of wicked children or household servants, an oaken butter switch is taken in hand and a little bit of pastry is applied to their hide, in order to soften it up a little.

I’ve been reading Klug’s edition for some of my devotions, and it’s certainly edifying. But it’s kind of frustrating when you read a memorable line like this, and you’re reasonably certain that you’re going to find something different when you go back and read the original.

Luther’s Great Pentecost Hymn

Translator’s Preface

The first stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn, “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” was originally a Latin antiphon (a responsive prayer or exclamation, either spoken or chanted at the beginning of the service) for Vespers on the evening before Pentecost, in use from the 11th century. Currently, in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, we still use the first part of this antiphon as a refrain for the Psalm appointed for Pentecost (Psalm 51b, Christian Worship p. 87), as the Verse of the Day for Pentecost, and there are hints of it in the Prayer of the Day for Pentecost. The antiphon, in its entirety, went thus (in English):

Come, Holy Spirit, fill up the hearts of your believers, and kindle in them the fire of your love: You who have gathered the nations in the unity of the faith through all the diverse languages. Alleluia, Alleluia.”

In the 15th century, even before Luther was born, more hymns and songs were beginning to appear in German, including a paraphrase of this antiphon with its own melody.

In the early 1520s, Luther repeatedly appealled to men like Georg Spalatin for scripturally sound, clear, and appropriate Psalm arrangements and hymns in German. His appeals basically fell on deaf ears, so Luther himself took up his pen and composed more than 20 hymns between 1523 and 1524 that appeared in the first evangelical hymnals of 1524. One of them was, “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott,” which is known at least in Wisconsin Synod circles as, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” (Christian Worship 176).

For this hymn, Luther tweaked the already existing German stanza and set it to an adapted and simplified version of its customary melody. The earliest printed version of the original German stanza went thus (in English prose):

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God
Fill up with the pot [or kettle] of your grace
The heart and mind of those believers of yours.
Your burning love kindle in them,
You who through the radiance of your light
Have gathered in one faith
The people from all the world’s tongues,
For which may praise and honor to you be sung,
Alleluia, Alleluia.

This was one of Luther’s favorite hymns, as he made clear in 1539, when he told his companions, “The hymn, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,’ the Holy Spirit himself composed about himself, both the text and the melody” (WA TR, #4478).

One of Luther’s changes was to begin the fifth line with, “O Lord,” probably both to tie this original stanza with the two new ones he composed (whose fifth lines also begin, “O Lord”) and to emphasize the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The most notable change to the original German stanza was the sixth line. The original stanza, as also the older Latin antiphon, emphasized the unity of the Church’s faith, into which the Spirit had gathered people from all nations and tongues. But Luther relegated the concept of unity to the word “gathered” itself, and he substituted “to the faith” for “in one faith.” Thereby he meant either to emphasize the purenesscorrectness, and truth of that faith, or to reinforce the truth that we are saved by faith alone; the gathering work of the Holy Spirit is a gathering primarily to faith. (Good works will always follow faith as a matter of course.)

Luther’s three stanzas went thus (in English prose):

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
Fill up with the blessing of your grace
Your believers’ heart, disposition, and mind;
Your burning love kindle in them.
O Lord, through the radiance of your light,
You have gathered to the faith
The people from all the world’s tongues.
May this, Lord, to your praise be sung.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

You Holy Light, Precious Protection,
Cause the Word of Life to shine on us
And teach us to know God correctly,
To call him Father from our hearts.
O Lord, protect from foreign doctrine,
That we seek no other master
Than Jesus with correct faith
And trust in him with all our might.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

You Holy Fiery Burning, Sweet Cheer,
Now help us joyfully and cheeredly
Steadfastly to remain in your service,
[And help] the tribulation not to drive us away.
O Lord, through your power prepare us
And fortify the timidity of the flesh,
That we here valiantly contend
And through death and life press on to you.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

With his additional two stanzas, the hymn, while not reflecting Luther’s best poetry, nonetheless is a treasure of biblical, and thus Lutheran, theology. He highlights salvation by grace alone, apprehended through faith in Jesus alone, worked through the Word alone. The doctrine and importance of the means of grace – the gospel of Jesus in Word and sacraments – is especially highlighted in st. 2. This doctrine is the driving force behind Luther’s prayer in that stanza for purity and correctness of teaching. The theology of the cross, another hallmark of Lutheranism, is highlighted in st. 3 in gripping terms.

The English translation in Christian Worship is unfortunate on a number of levels. Here is a sampling:

  • “All your graces” in line 2 of st. 1 is a misunderstanding of Luther’s “deiner Gnaden Gut,” which is really just a poetic way of saying, “your grace.” It thus misses the stress on God’s saving love in Christ.
  • Lines 6 & 7 of st. 1 turn Luther’s accomplished historical, gospel fact into a plea for something as-yet unrealized to be realized.
  • Luther’s original address, “Precious Protection” (could also be translated “Noble Refuge”), in line 1 of st. 2 somehow got turned into “Guide divine.” Thus the connection between that name and the second half of the verse is lost. (That connection is sort of redirected to the first half of the verse.)
  • “Call him Father with delight” in line 4 of st. 2 is a little unfortunate, though perhaps necessary in our modern world of broken homes and failed fatherhood in abundance. Luther’s original emphasis was simply on knowing and calling on God as a Father, period, as opposed to knowing him as an angry judge and being afraid to call on him or to have anything to do with him.
  • The translation that personally bothers me the most is the rendering of Luther’s, “rechtem Glauben” (“correct faith”), as, “living faith.” Certainly we want a living faith (as St. James makes clear), but perhaps now more than ever we need to emphasis that there is also a correct believing and an incorrect believing, and it is only correct believing (that is, believing in the truth) that can and will be living faith in the truest form. That this is the proper way to understand Luther’s phrase is probably best proved by the German compound noun which combines precisely these two words, Rechtgläubigkeit, which we would translate as orthodoxy, but many of us don’t know what orthodoxy means either – teaching and believing the right way (which implies there is a wrong way – contrary to the popular American expression, “You just gotta have faith…”).
  • “Grant us the will your work to do” in line 2 of st. 3 neither captures the connection between “süsser Trost” (line 1) and “getrost” (line 2) in Luther’s original nor the meaning and beauty of line 2 as a whole.
  • It’s always unfortunate when the concept of steadfastness gets lost in translation, as it does in line 3 of st. 3.

I was asked by a committee within our synod to study this hymn, and I found that I could not really meditate on it properly or with full edification without at least making my own attempt to rectify these problems. My own opinion is that my rendition of st. 3 below is the best of the three, while the rendition of st. 1 could probably use the most improvement (for which I will gladly take advice from readers).

The hymn itself is a prayer – a prayer especially appropriate for Pentecost, but also for every day of our lives. This powerful prayer is also my own in presenting a new translation of it below.

Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord

Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord!
In your believers’ hearts be stored
The fullness of your grace and light;
Your burning love in them ignite.
O Lord, what has your radiance done!
Within the faith you’ve made as one
People and realms of ev’ry tongue!
For this, O Lord, your praises e’er be sung!
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O Holy Light, Shield Supreme!
The Word of life upon us beam
And teach us all the highest art—
To call God, “Father,” from the heart.
O Lord, keep us from falsehood free;
Let Jesus our sole master be,
That with a faith correct and right
We place our trust in him with all our might.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O Holy Fire, Cheer so sweet!
Help us, with joy and cheer replete,
To serve you steadfast, come what may,
Nor by our trials be driv’n away.
O Lord, lend power for the fight,
Repress for us Old Adam’s fright,
That we as knights wage battle brave,
Press on to you in heav’n through grief and grave.
Alleluia! Alleluia!