Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 19, 2009

Luther on John 3:16

In a recent post from last week, I shared a Luther quote about last Sunday’s Gospel from John 2:13-22.  The Gospel for this Sunday (Fourth Sunday in Lent) is chosen from just one chapter later, specifically John 3:14-21.  In light of the back-to-back Gospel accounts from John, I thought I’d share some back-to-back Luther quotes on these excerpts from John.  In particular, here are a few of Luther’s comments on the most famous verse in Scripture, John 3:16, taken from Volume 22 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works.

Shortly before Christ had said: “The Son of man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Now He says: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” What Christ said above about the Son of man — that He must be lifted up — He now also says about the Son of God. He tells us that God’s great love prompted Him to give His only Son. Earlier He said that Mary had given her Son, and now He says: “God the Father gave His Son to be crucified.” God’s Son and Mary’s Son is only one Person. He appropriates both natures for the work of salvation and redemption from eternal death. John the evangelist always links the two natures, deity and humanity, together.

Someone may ask: “How is it possible for the Son of man to save and to give eternal life?” Or: “How can it be that God’s Son should be delivered to be crucified?” It sounds plausible that the Son of man might be crucified; but that He should bestow eternal life does not seem reasonable. And it seems just as incongruous that God’s Son should die and give His life for the life of the world. But we must bear in mind that when we speak of Christ, we are thinking of His two natures in one Person and that what is ascribed to the two natures is really comprehended in one Person. Thus I can very properly say that the Son of man created heaven and earth, just as I say that the Son of God is the Creator of heaven and earth. We dare not follow those heretics, the Nestorians, the ancestors of the Turks, who alleged that only Mary’s Son, not God’s Son, died for us. For here we find it clearly stated and written: “God gave His Son for the world.” And this Son is assuredly not only Mary’s Son, born of Mary, but also the Son of God. And when Christ was delivered to Pilate to be crucified, and when Pilate led Him from the judgment hall, he took hold of the hand not only of the man Jesus but also of the Son of God, whom he crucified. Therefore St. Paul said: “If they had understood, they would not have crucified the King of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), whom all creatures usually adore. Thus it was God’s Son who was conceived by the Virgin Mary, who suffered and died, was buried, descended into hell, and rose again from the dead.

This is the way to interpret expressions of the apostles, bishops, and ancient teachers: “Oh, Thou Son of David!” Or: “Thou Son of Mary, have mercy on me!” “Oh, dear Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be gracious to me!” The words are a prayer to God and are the equivalent of: “Oh, Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me!” In these words you also worship the Son of Mary, because the two natures are united in the one Christ.

Thus the words of this text indicate that God gave His Son for us and that the Son of man died for us. There are not two Jesuses, the one coming from the Father and the other born of Mary. No, there is only one Jesus. Therefore the ancient fathers said that the attributes of both natures are ascribed and imputed to the whole person of Christ “in the concrete,” creating a “communication of properties,” a union in which the attributes of the one nature are imparted to the other.  Each nature, of course, has its own peculiar character. For instance, it is peculiar to the human nature of Christ to be born of the Virgin Mary. The divine nature has different attributes. But since the Person of Christ cannot be divided, there is a communion, which enables one to say: “The infant Christ, who lies in the cradle and is suckled by the Virgin Mary, created heaven and earth.” Also: “The Son of God who is with the Father from eternity nurses at His mother’s breasts, is crucified, and dies.” “For the communion of the natures also effects a communication of properties.” The ancient fathers diligently taught this and wrote about it.

But now we have to make the practical application and learn why the Person who is God and man came into the world. The Lord Christ teaches us this too when He says that any believer in Him shall be delivered from eternal death and be assured of eternal life. It was not an angel, a principality, or any of the world’s mighty who became incarnate and died for us — no, both the angelic and the human nature would have been too weak — but it was the divine nature that assumed humanity. It was Christ who adopted our flesh and blood that we might be saved through Him. …

Thus it all depends on this great and grand miracle, that I believe that God gave His Son for us. If I do not doubt this, then I am able to say in the midst of my trials: “I concede, devil, that I am a sinner burdened with the old Adam and subject to the wrath of God. But what do you, devil, say about this: God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that all who believe in Him might not perish but have eternal life? These words I believe!” And you must speak these words in sincere faith. For Christ has passed through death and sin, and death was powerless to hold Him. And now Christ says: “If you believe in Me, death shall not devour you either. Even if death should hold you for three days or so, as he detained Me for three days in the earth and Jonah for three days in the belly of the whale, he shall nonetheless spew you out again.” You might have reason to be surprised about all this — not only that you must be born anew but also that God so loved the world that He gave us a potent plaster, remedy, and syrup against sin, death, the devil, and hell, so that whoever lays that on his heart will not perish. …

I am stressing this for a very good reason. Many heretics have arisen — and still more schismatic spirits will appear — who have assailed this article of faith and have been offended at the thought that God should suffer. The Godhead, they argued, is an eternal majesty, while humankind is only a temporal creature. They toyed with this article regarding the two natures in Christ most adroitly and alleged that Mary was not the mother of the Son of God, and that Christ, Mary’s Son, is not the Son of God. They were offended by the two natures found in Christ. In place of the two natures they contrived to find two persons. According to Holy Scripture, however, we declare that there are two natures in Christ but only one Person and not two, and that this one Person, God and man suffered, that the Son of God and of Mary was crucified. A schismatic spirit may contradict this and say: “Ah, God cannot be crucified!” But tell him that this Person, who is God and man, was crucified. Since God manages to harmonize this, we, of course, must harmonize it too and declare that Mary is Christ’s mother not only according to His humanity, but that she is also the mother of the Son of God and that her Son is both God and man. This is the language … in Heb. 6:6, when he speaks of the false Christians who “crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold Him up to contempt.” And in 1 Cor. 2:8 he says: “If they had understood, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Since it is the language of St. Paul and of Holy Scripture that the Son of God and the King of glory was crucified, we can accept it without hesitation. Anyone who believes the Bible will not mutter a sound against it. We can also reverse the picture and say: “This Infant, born of Mary and suckled by her or lying in her lap, created heaven and earth.” If someone were to interpose: “Well, what, after all, could such a lithe child create?” I reply: “This is what Holy Scripture says.” For instance, in Luke 2:11 we hear the dear angels sing at Christmas time: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” That angelic song, in which Christ was called the Lord, was sung at a time when the Infant still clung to His mother’s breast.

The fathers contended fervidly for this, maintaining against the heretics that there are two natures in Christ but not two persons, that there is only one Son. This is how Scripture speaks and how we, too, must speak. To be sure, Christ was crucified according to His humanity, and He created heaven and earth according to His divinity; but since this one Person is God and man, it is proper to say: God’s Son is the Creator of heaven and earth, and God’s Son was also crucified. One dare not divide the Person, leaving only the human nature; but one must bear in mind that this Person is also God. Thus St. Hilary says: “When Christ suffered, the Logos was quiescent.” If we fail to hold that the Person who was crucified was both God and man, we are eternally damned and lost. We must have a Savior who is more than a saint or an angel. If He were not superior to these, we would get no help from Him. But if He is God, then the treasure is so heavy that it not only outweighs and cancels sin and death but also gives eternal life. No mere human could acquire eternal life for us or overcome devil and death.

This is our Christian Creed, and in conformity with it we confess: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and died.” Let heathen and heretics be ever so smart; hold firmly to this faith, and you will be saved. It follows, then, that whoever believes in the Son of man, who was born of Mary, who suffered and was buried, will not be lost but is a son of God in possession of eternal life. Devil, sin, and death will not be able to harm him; for he has eternal life.

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