Luther learned how to think about persecution.
The stories bother us. A Christian speaks the truth of God’s Word in a respectful way, and yet people condemn her on social media. The child of God publicly confesses exactly what the Scriptures teach—that salvation is found in Christ alone—and faces charges of arrogance and lovelessness. “Why,” the frustrated Christian asks, “is everyone else free to express their convictions and I must silence mine?”
It doesn’t seem fair that we should have to face persecution simply for speaking the good news of Jesus. After all, we do so out of love. The message we proclaim makes the difference between everlasting separation from God in hell and everlasting glory in heaven. In addition, we’re simply carrying out the task the Savior of the world entrusted to us. Why should we be persecuted for doing something that is both loving and right?
If we choose to focus on the persecution we experience as Christians, the likely result will be frustration and anger. That will only impede us from the work the Lord has given us to do. The better course would be to imitate the faith of Martin Luther as he suffered for doing what was right and loving. The persecution he endured for proclaiming the gospel came not only from the emperor but also from the church of his day. Yet he faithfully continued to preach and teach the good news of righteousness through faith in Christ. He did so because he treasured the grace of God in Christ above all else and because the Holy Spirit had taught him what to think about persecution.
Christians are persecuted
Luther recognized, perhaps more readily than we, that wherever Christians proclaim the gospel the enemy of the church fights against it. The devil cannot stand the gospel, because he knows that the Holy Spirit works through it to call people out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of faith. Luther believed what the Lord said through the apostle Paul: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). The devil is no cartoon character but a powerful enemy who actively persecutes Christians in many ways.
The reformer also knew what the Lord Jesus told his disciples before sending them out to proclaim his Word to the world: “The student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24). Every word the Savior spoke issued from a heart of love, yet they nailed him to a tree. If people hated Jesus for what he said and did, all who follow Jesus ought to expect the same kind of treatment. For that reason, we should not be surprised by persecution, as if something strange was happening to us.
Worthy of persecution
Truth be told, Luther did express some surprise about the suffering. What shocked him was that the Lord had deemed him, a sinner, worthy to suffer for the gospel of Christ. In a letter he wrote the day after he was threatened with excommunication, Luther said, “Yet I rejoice with my whole heart that for this best of causes I suffer evil, who am not worthy of being so tried” (Luther’s Correspondence, Vol. 1, p. 366). The Spirit had taught the reformer to believe what Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11). His thinking matched that of the apostles, who rejoiced about being flogged for preaching the Word of Christ, “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
Luther recognized, perhaps more readily than we, that wherever Christians proclaim the gospel the enemy of the church fights against it.
The apostle Paul, who experienced intense persecution as he preached the gospel, spoke in a striking way about the suffering Christians endure because of their connection to Christ: “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). The word translated granted has the word grace at its root. If we believe in Jesus as our Savior, Paul says, it’s exclusively because of God’s undeserved love. In the same way, the apostle contends, if we suffer because of our confession of Christ, it’s because of God’s grace. Suffering for the gospel comes to us as a gift from the Savior who loves us and gave himself into death for us. Such suffering is not a burden to be shunned but a blessing to be embraced in joy and humility.
The Spirit taught Luther to trust that the Lord always blesses his people through the persecution they must endure as Christians. St. Paul testifies about the critical work the Lord does through suffering: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3,4). The Lord uses the trials Christians experience to purify their faith so that they rely even more fully on what the Lord says and not on what they see and feel.
Confident in Christ
Some of Luther’s closest friends advised Luther not to attend the Diet of Worms. They were convinced that his life was in grave danger, and with good reason. Jan Huss, a century earlier, had been promised safe conduct to and from the Council of Constance, only to end up being declared a heretic, imprisoned, and burned at the stake. Luther fully realized that his life might come to an end at Worms, whether by the decree of Emperor Charles V or at the hands of a zealot who thought he would be offering a great service to the church. That concern didn’t stop him, however, from entering the city. In a letter written just days before he arrived in Worms, Luther explained his actions: “But Christ lives and we shall enter Worms in spite of the gates of hell and the powers in the air.”
Luther knew that the risen Savior had been exalted to the highest place and ruled over everything for the benefit of his people. The Lord who had watched over the men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) could protect him too if he so willed. The Spirit had convinced Luther that nothing could separate him from the love of God in Christ. Certainly not persecution. Not even death. By God’s grace and Christ’s work, he would live forever in glory.
It’s time to stop complaining about the persecution we experience as Christians. Let’s embrace it as a blessing from our Savior. Let’s continue to proclaim the righteousness of Christ through faith no matter what suffering we may have to endure, because Christ lives and reigns. And we will too. That glory will make any cross we have to carry now seem trivial.
Author: Earle D. Treptow
Volume 109, Number 01
Issue: January 2022