Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 9

René Malgo

Falling for the Devil’s Tricks
Once we become aware of Satan’s rage, of how dangerous the end time is and how weak we poor beggars actually are, we could be immobilized by despair. But it is just then that we see the practical value of the near-expectation and wisdom of Luther’s theology, which is founded on the truth of God’s Word. Yes, we are living in the end time. But if we stay close to Jesus Christ, if we expect Him, proclaim His gospel and believe in it, then the Holy Spirit will keep us solidly grounded and accomplish His work through us—whichever way He pleases to do it.

The Frog in a Kettle
It is by no means wrong to proceed with the notion that we are living in the end time, as Luther did. We know the time of the end commenced with the first appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 4:4; Heb 9:26). Since then, the Last Days have continued to come into ever sharper focus. The New Testament declares that the times will get worse and worse in terms of man’s moral conduct. Christ said that “…the love of many will grow cold” (Matt 24:12). Paul warned that men will “think highly of themselves” and grow to “despise those that are good” (2 Tim 3:2-3). According to the above, prophecy is being fulfilled daily, except that no one knows when the end point will have been reached. For that reason, the signs pointing to Antichrist are so important. The world is steering towards the zenith of rebellion against God (2 Thess 2). We Western Christians in particular must be aware of this, just as Luther was; otherwise, we will be in danger of sliding into apathy.

Antichrists have been at large now for 2000 years (1 John 2:18). And they don’t walk around with a large sign reading: “I am a false teacher, a false prophet, a wild wolf in sheep’s clothing, and an Antichrist. Run for your life!” No, when the adversary, who presents himself as “an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14), pursues his destructive work, he goes about it in a very subtle manner.

To illustrate this, the Bible teacher Gregory Beale points to the anecdote of the frog in a kettle. Thrown into hot water, the frog would immediately jump out. If, however, the frog is placed in cold water, which is then warmed slowly, the frog (a cold-blooded creature) will not notice anything amiss, but all at once he is cooked and therefore dead.

A Christian who takes his Lord and the apostles seriously has to know that the devil, however invisible, is actually going about “as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Paul said: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12). Luther realized early on what that means, in a society in which a Christian seems to be free and where affluence abounds. Prior to the Reformation, he stated that the devil can endanger the church even without persecution; namely, with “relaxation and security: Woe on us who are blinded by such surfeit and well-being that we fall for the devil’s tricks.”

Christians are not in a battle with people and world governments, but with the “cunning attacks of the devil.” They are fighting “against the ruler of darkness” (Eph 6:11-12). True, Satan is a defeated enemy (Col 2:15), but for that very reason his rage is more intense and unabashed while he is yet able. His spirit permeates this world, bedazzles and manipulates people to keep them from knowing the living God (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:1-3).  

Martin Luther knew this, believed it, and lived accordingly. Granted, at times he spoke impulsively with overconfidence, but in his assessment regarding the current world and Satan, Luther was far ahead of multitudes of carefree Christians today, who are living under the impression that “all things [will] continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet 3:4).

The Battle of Faith
“The time is at hand.” “The Lord is at hand.” And until then “the days are evil” (Rev 1:3; Phil 4:5; Eph 5:16). This is what the Bible says, not Luther. Therefore, we should live as he did; namely, in constant readiness and realizing that the Day of the Lord could arrive at any moment. We should be vigilant and sober, prepared for doing battle with the devil.

And this does not mean rituals, public exorcism of demons, new prohibitions, or powerfully worded prayers for release. What is needed is staying as close as possible to the Word of God—Luther knew this (see 2 Cor 10:5; Eph 6:16-17). That is the place where God graciously communicates and where He can be found. “Draw from the source and read the Bible diligently!” Concerning Satan’s attacks, Luther declared: “When I reach for the Scriptures, I have won.” He had experienced himself that our weak faith is strengthened when, “however small it may be, it reaches for the Lord and His Word.”

Particularly in the midst of temptations, Luther experienced “how right, how true, how sweet, how powerful, how comforting the Word of God is.”—“My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Scripture enables the one “who loves it to grow through its power.” Linked to this is the “iron wall” of prayer. “For we must know that our cover and protection are in prayer alone.” “Nothing surpasses the need of constantly bending God’s ear.” Thus, we can withstand the battle “by ever more prayer and reading of holy Scripture.”

In the end, each one must personally be “fortified and ready to fight with death and the devil by himself.” For, “Satan attacks everyone exactly where he can be tempted,” and where his target is the weakest. But the battle for faith is not just an individual struggle. Luther could never imagine a solitary Christian existence. Successful battle can ultimately only be taught within the communion of the saints, the congregation of the living God. Here, Luther thought quite differently from many modern evangelicals. In his time not everybody was literate, let alone was able to afford owning a Bible.

Whoever attempts to fight this battle alone will experience shipwreck at the hands of temptation and seduction. That is why the Holy Spirit tells us concerning the approaching Day of the Lord, that we Christians should not “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb 10:25). He who does so only hurts himself.

A Simple Recipe
Luther’s recipe for a fruitful Christian life is “refreshingly simple and straightforward,” observes church historian Carl Trueman. A Christian makes progress “by the reading and hearing” of the Word of God and, furthermore, “particularly” within the congregation. A Christian congregation exists wherever “the Word” is preached, taught, remembered, and lived by way of an evangelical “catechism.” In Luther’s words, “The Holy Spirit has to constantly work on us through the Word.”

In addition, Luther declares that the Holy Spirit “comes to our inner self through the faith and other spiritual gifts.” Here, however, he was not speaking of various kinds of subjective revelations, for externally the Spirit is present when the Word is preached. And something that seems strange to modern evangelicals: the Holy Spirit also comes “to us” in baptism. This was for Luther a means to the security of salvation; that is, a visible acknowledgment of God’s intention to redeem us. And He appears in the “sacrament of the altar,” which for Luther signified the bodily presence of the God-Man Jesus Christ in communion. Baptism as well as communion was to Luther the visible expression of God’s working in this world and among the believers.

Even though many evangelicals today look upon baptism and communion only as symbolic acts, the valid principle remains: the life-giving, visible working of the Holy Spirit is inseparably linked to God’s Word and the communion of the saints, as well as with the order God has instituted within His congregation.

Martin Luther’s own experience taught him that it makes little sense to fight on one’s own against the wily devil: “When Eve was walking alone in Paradise, Satan deceived her. I have found that I never succumb to sin more easily than when I am alone.” Therefore: “Look for a Christian brother, a wise advisor. Strengthen yourself within the community of the church.” Luther recommended “company, also female,” and spoke of “eating, dancing, singing and having fun.” However, he always meant this in a chaste manner. Sexual permissiveness and depravity disgusted him throughout his life.

Thus, Luther’s theology was not dark, difficult or oppressive, but life-embracing. This is because, “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17). For him, as for Paul, spirituality in the end time meant “to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2). Putting a finer point on it, Luther specified: “To father offspring, loving one’s wife and obeying the authorities, those are fruits of the Spirit.”

The Reformer recognized that “we are all kings and priests in Christ.” This told him that on the one hand, in the end time the believer in such a position should honor the Lord by living in faith, as “a free master over all things and not be subject to anyone”; while on the other hand, the believer should live as “a servant unto all and subject to everyone” (1 Cor 9:19). Christians may have different stations: they may be prince, knight, pastor, housewife, farmer or servant. But one is not more holy than the other, because every believer is through salvation equally free and, by the commandment of love, equally a servant. The practical love to which every believer is called “flows from his faith in Christ.”

The point is to honor God with a life that is “godly and Christian.” That should be our greatest concern. Until the Lord Jesus’ return, the believer must be faithful with the gifts, the tasks, and the opportunities given to him by the Holy Spirit, as was also emphasized by the apostle Paul (see 1 Cor 4:2; Luke 19:13).

This attitude distinguishes Luther from the restrictive fanatics of his day as well as ours. Luther’s end-time battle for the faith led him neither into lethargy nor an over-regulated piety, but rather to the affirmation of life as God’s gift. We can become as the frog in the kettle when we remain lone fighters, reject the authority of God’s Word, fall into fanaticism, or go beyond God’s commandments and construct our own religiosity, which only considers outward appearances.

This liberty is not a contradiction to a holy life. For example, Luther’s Great Catechism starts with the principles of the Ten Commandments as a binding standard for Christian life. Of course, sanctification takes place only after the Holy Spirit has given us faith in Christ and changed our personality and attitudes, by inscribing God’s commandments on our new hearts. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us fortitude, who comforts our “weak, downcast and despondent conscience,” and who gives us “true” fear and love of God, says Luther. In turn, the Holy Spirit is present and works wherever Christ is preached.

When all is said and done, Luther’s thoughts and life were focused on Jesus Christ alone; on His power, His intervening, His faithfulness, and His working. Speaking of this, there is a Bible verse which Luther took as his motto. This verse shows us how Christians can stand fast in dark hours, withstand the roar of the enemy, and survive the end time—namely: “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15b).

Midnight Call - 12/2017

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