February 19, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
This parable of the seed and the sower is a parable about the Word of God. Jesus makes that clear. But what of that? We are Lutherans, we are sola Scriptura. It is one of the hallmarks of the Reformation. And we pride ourselves on being Bible believing Christians, do we not? The Word, the Word, the Word they still shall let remain. But what of that?
Salvation comes by the Word alone. But the Word is never alone. It doesn’t exist in a void; the parable shows us that the word comes from somewhere, it’s headed somewhere, it encounters many things, and sometimes it even produces something. The Word alone. But the Word is never alone.
God’s Word Produces the Fruit of Faith and Confession
We have entered the year of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. 2017 will be a big year for all things Lutheran. You’ll see it on TV, in print, and we’ll make a pretty big deal of it here in the Lutheran Church as well. But what does it mean to be Lutheran? That’s the question. Not so much what it means for an individual to be Lutheran, but rather what it means for a church to be Lutheran.
There are a number of false interpretations of the Lutheran Reformation that you’re sure to see in the coming months, and if we don’t get the Reformation right, we will be misled into a Lutheran Church that isn’t truly Lutheran. The first misinterpretation of the Reformation you may encounter is that it as a phenomenon of German nationalism. It’s not something that we Lutherans in America generally consider, but it will probably be an idea floated more than once in the next year.
This view of the Reformation sees it as a unifying religious movement for the German people. The assertion will be made that Luther paved the way for Hitler, and that Germany’s nationalism of the last century began with the Reformation of Germany. The only problem is that the Reformation wasn’t very good at it. Unlike the Church of England, the Reformation never began a Church of Germany. Wherever the Lutheran Reformation took hold, there was division, dissension, and often war. Germany was fractured into many confessions—Catholic and Reformed and Radical Reformed. The only way that unity was achieved, and the path to the Germany of the early 20th century paved, was by removing what was distinctively Lutheran from the German churches in forced union. That’s what caused many of our forebears to come to America and establish Lutheran churches.
A second way of interpreting the Reformation—one that we should be on greater guard for ourselves—is the heroic interpretation. That Luther was a Great Man of history. Granted, he was a larger than life figure, and had a certain charisma about him, but the Lutheran Reformation cannot stand on the person of Luther. In fact, Hermann Sasse observes that the only time that veneration of Luther asserts itself is when the church is in decline.
Third, and perhaps most worrisome for us, is the false interpretation that the Lutheran Reformation is the beginning of a new cultural era. In this view of the Reformation, Luther is seen as the one who frees us from the shackles of medieval Roman Catholic superstition. Here, Luther and the Reformation is seen as one very important step in the progress of humanity. It is the trajectory that puts us into modernity, or perhaps even post-modernity.
You will often here this when someone in the Lutheran Church objects to something as being too catholic. This is a complaint leveled against crucifixes, vestments, chanting, candles, private confession, and frequent communion. This misinterpretation of the Reformation often leads people to falsely think that the Reformation is about casting off foolish superstitions for a purer, more rational gospel. Never mind that these are the very things the Lutheran Church was explicit about retaining and sometimes even restoring—as it was in the case of weekly communion. Where the Roman Catholic Church had taken away that privilege from the laity for centuries, the Lutherans fought tooth and nail to claim the weekly sacrament as their right. And we’ve just given it right back, to our shame.
So if the Reformation isn’t about German unity, or a charismatic Luther, or the progress of humanity, what is it about? It is about a return to the Word. The Reformation has its basis in the Word of God. But it’s not that simple. The Calvinists claim the Word of God. The Roman Catholics claim the Word of God. Anyone who’s religious and follows Christ bases their belief in the Bible.
To be Lutheran is to believe sola Scriptura—the Word alone—but also with it is the sola fide and sola gratia—faith alone and grace alone. And this is where the parable comes in.
The parable of the sower is to show us that you can have the Word of God and still be damned. Because you do not have faith. It is indeed the Word alone that creates faith, but the Word must be properly received and understood. And that is the defining teaching of the Lutheran Reformation. To be Lutheran is to believe, teach, and confess that the righteousness of God is found in Jesus Christ.
You’ve heard this parable dozens of times before. You know the story. What I want to focus on is Jesus’ explanation of what the good soil is. And that in the noble earth, these are they who, hearing the Word, hold it fast in a noble and good heart, and bear fruit in patience (v 15). This is my translation, and I want you to pay special attention to the phrase “noble and good.” These words have a sort of technical meaning in Greek usage. The word is καλοκαγαθία, and the idea is that the noble and good heart is pious and righteous and virtuous. But it doesn’t get that way itself. It becomes that way by being trained in righteousness.
This is rediscovery of the Lutheran Reformation. Righteousness is not something that you produce, but it’s found in Christ and given by Him. Like a sower plating his seed. The Reformation was about turning self-righteous hearts into hearts trained by Christ to receive righteousness from Him. This is why Jesus says shortly after this parable, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Lk 8:18). It’s not enough to have God’s Word. Paths and mystics and rocks and Catholics and thorns and Reformed all have God’s Word, but it matters as much how you hear it as it does that you have it.
How should you listen to God’s Word? Listen for forgiveness. That is what drives righteousness. The Gospel is about the justification of the sinner—his becoming righteous—through the forgiveness of sins. The seed of this Word of forgiveness is found not only in the preaching of the Gospel, but in the Word added to Baptism, in the Absolution, and the Words of Institution in the Supper. By these means, the seed of the Word is planted in your heart, and it makes it noble and good.
The only thing left is fruit. What is the fruit of this Gospel? Certainly good works are included, but I want to draw your attention to one particular fruit—the fruit of confession. Not confession of sins, but the confession of faith. There were be no Lutheran Church without a Lutheran Confession. The teaching of the Word that creates faith by the forgiveness of sins is then also spoken. You say with God what He has first said to you. That’s what it means to confess. And you can find a simple, clear, and concise way to do that in your Small Catechism. Did you think that was just for children? No, it’s for you, too. It’s what trains you to see in the Word of God, wherever you look, the righteousness of God that is in Jesus. Christ.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard