The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the festival of Pentecost, is John 15:26-27. These words contain Jesus’ Maundy Thursday promise to his disciples to send them the Holy Spirit — a promise that was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. My sermon preparation this week took me to Luther’s sermon on the same words. Below are some of Luther’s comments on these verses. These excerpts are from Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 24.
Christ wants to say: “I will give you a gift over and above the comfort I afford you in the revelation of My own fate, over and above this disclosure of the behavior of the world, namely, that it will rave and rage against the truth in spite of its better knowledge and against its own conscience. This additional gift will be My Spirit, who will renew in your hearts these words I am now speaking to you and will fully clarify them for you, so that you will understand them ever better and know what both I and the world mean in your lives. He will give you strength and courage to enable you to continue to adhere to Me and to pursue your course. For if He were not with you and you were to engage in daily combat with both the devil and the world, you would not be able to bear this. Therefore it is surely necessary for Him to be with you, not only to have His words resound in your ears but also to strengthen your hearts with His light and His fire. Then you will be able to persist; you will have power exceeding that of both the devil and the world with all their malice and might. …
The devil has two weapons with which he assails the Christians respecting either their office or their own persons, in the hour of death or at other times. These weapons are sin and the penalty for sin. The stronger of these is the terror of sin; by means of this he renders the heart fearful and despondent by saying to it: “You have done this and that.” He is a past master at this. He not only cites the sins which you yourself must confess, such as murder and adultery, and blows them up with his fiery breath to such proportions that your heart melts like salt in water; but he can also transform your good conduct and your best works into many kinds of sin and shame, so that you do not keep even a speck of them. Anyone who has engaged in real combat with him a few times is well aware of this.
Then the devil deals in the same way with the penalty for sin. He says: “With this or with that sin you have deserved to be broken on the wheel, to be put to the rack, to be killed a hundred times, and to be damned to eternal hell in addition.” He makes things so hot and horrible that man considers heaven and earth too cramped and wants to hurl himself into fire from fright. Man lies there and tortures himself with thoughts such as these: “O Lord God, what have I done? If it is bad, it is not good; if it is good, it is far worse.” If the devil takes hold of you there, and you do not know how to defend yourself, he has soon gained the victory.
Therefore God has been gracious to us and has given us a Comforter to counteract this spirit of terror—a Comforter, who, as God Himself, is much stronger with His comfort than the devil is with his terror. And now when the devil also comes along with God’s Law, advances against your works and your life, and shatters these so thoroughly that even your good works appear to be evil and condemned—an art in which he is a master and an excellent theologian—the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, will come and whisper consolingly to your heart: “Be of good cheer and unafraid. Go, preach, do what you have been commanded to do; and do not fear the terrors of sin, death, or the devil, even if these terrors present themselves in the name of God. God does not want to be angry with you, nor does He want to reject you; for Christ, God’s Son, died for you. He paid for your sins; and if you believe in Him, these will not be imputed to you, no matter how great they are. Because of your faith your works are pleasing to God; they are adjudged good and well done even though weakness does creep in. Why do you let your sins be falsely magnified? Christ, your Righteousness, is greater than your sins and those of the whole world; His life and His consolation are stronger and mightier than your death and hell.” …
Behold, this leads to a confident and staunch heart that can scorn the devil with all his terror and torment, defy all his might, and say: “Sin, if you want to condemn me, you will first have to condemn Christ, my dear Savior, Priest, and Intercessor with the Father. Death, if you want to devour me, you must begin on top, with Christ, my Head. Devil and world, if you want to torment and frighten me, you must first pull Him down from His throne. In brief, I will fear nothing, even if lightning were to strike this moment and throw everything into confusion. For Christ is mine with His suffering, death, and life; the Holy Spirit, with His comfort; and the Father Himself, with all His grace. He sends the Holy Spirit to preach Christ into my heart and to fill it with His consolation. This is the main glory and prerogative of the Holy Spirit.”
Secondly, He is also called a Spirit of truth who opposes all lies and false arguments. For the world, too, is always full of spirits, as the saying goes: “Wherever God erects a church, the devil builds his chapel or tavern next to it”; that is, wherever God’s Word springs up in its purity, the devil ushers in sects, factions, and many false spirits, who also deck themselves with the glory and the name of Christ and His church. But it is all false to the core, without truth or certainty. Christ says: “I will give you the Spirit who makes you sure and convinced of the truth. Then you need no longer have any doubt regarding the truth of this or that article pertaining to your salvation, but you can be convinced of your stand and be judges competent to pass judgment on all other doctrines. Thus He will not only make you warriors and heroes, but He will also confer the doctorate on you and call you doctors and masters who can determine with certainty what is true or false doctrine in Christendom. The devil will not prove cunning enough, and no spirit will be smart enough, to falsify your doctrine or to lead you astray.”
When a person is beset by doubt and begins to go astray in his faith, this is indeed one of the severest trials. It hurts when the devil gives the conscience no rest but terrifies it inwardly with sin and with fear of God and outwardly with tyrants and manifold persecution. To be sure, this is bad and hard to bear. But when the devil sees that he cannot win either inwardly with his terror or outwardly with torture, he resorts to cunning and crafty tricks. He begins to lure one with hypocritical praise. “Oh,” he says, “you are an excellent Christian. Continue; you are on the right road.” Thus he insinuates himself into the circle in which you move. He holds with you for a while, until he sees the opportune moment. Then, after he has spied on you, he leaves you and becomes a venomous enemy of yours. He begins to boast against you: “You are not the only one who has Scripture and God’s Word.” Thus they say today: “Do we not have the Spirit just as you do?”…
Through these sects the devil works far greater harm than he does through tyrants. For even though the latter attempt to frighten us away from the true doctrine with violence and threats, still they are few in number. But when the devil spits out his venom in the name of the Gospel and of the Christian Church, and offers to help souls from error on the pretext that hitherto they have been incorrectly instructed or never sufficiently instructed, and that they will now receive better and different information, then it happens that not only one or two people but a whole city and country falls away. In one hour he tears down what has taken many years to build. This is what happened to us through the schismatic spirits and others.
Therefore Christ promises to give us a Spirit who will not only strengthen our hearts and increase our courage but will also make our faith sure, remove all doubt, and enable us to judge all other spirits. Such a promise is necessary, in order that we may successfully resist the devil’s lies. For he can present these so attractively adorned and embellished “as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect,” as Christ declares in Matt. 24:24. What would we have done if we had not had this sure conviction, given to us by the Spirit of truth? Who would have had the courage to chide and condemn such great and glorious semblance of truth as is found in the papacy? Or who would have such audacity today, since now they are beginning to bedeck themselves with holiness more than ever?
This Spirit of truth, however, steps forth boldly and pronounces the sentence: “This is the truth; that is fabrication, no matter how long it is adorned with the name of the church and of Christ, boasts of that name, and bears the semblance of the church.” From its very inception Christendom has prevailed amid innumerable sects and lying spirits in the past. And it will prevail in the future. The church survives all this and retains its Baptism, Sacrament, Gospel, Christ, Ten Commandments, and prayer in all their purity. It judges and thus separates from itself all false doctrine and all opposition, even though the devil becomes an angel of light and appears in a form as beautiful and resplendent as God Himself, as he did to Christ according to Matt. 4:l ff. Inspired by this same Holy Spirit of truth, St. Paul calls himself a doctor or “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim. 2:7), that all the world may hear his message and that everyone who wants to remain undeceived and be saved may adhere to it and follow it.
In the third place, Christ says: “When you have been comforted and emboldened by the Holy Spirit, and your mind and understanding have been kept in the certain truth, He will also impel you to testify of Me. First He will bear witness internally in your hearts; then also externally by means of miraculous signs and by your confession and preaching. He will enable you who were with Me from the beginning to tell what you have heard and seen. Such testimony will exalt Me both against the angry lion and against the wily dragon, that is, the murderer and the spirit of lies.” These words must be carefully noted; for with them Christ defined the work of the Holy Spirit or rather portrayed to us what His teaching and testimony would be and what it would not be. Christ says: “He will bear witness of none but Me. This will be known as the Holy Spirits sermon. Therefore He will not be a Moses or a preacher of the Law such as you have had and still have; but I will put into His mouth another and more sublime sermon than the one Moses gave to you. Moses taught you nothing but the Law or the Ten Commandments, which he had received from God; he told you what to do and what not to do. But this One will make of you preachers and confessors who tell and testify, not of their own deeds and life but of Me.”…
Admittedly the devil has the upper hand with the Law or the Ten Commandments. When he says, “You are a sinner!” I must say yes to this. But if he infers from this that I am to be damned and to become his own, I say no. For I still have a sermon or word, which is known as the Holy Spirit’s testimony and the sermon about Christ: “You hold only Moses before my eyes; he proclaims God’s command to me. But I must and will not remain in Moses’ school. For I myself know and, unfortunately, know too well that I am a sinner. I will have no further discussion with you as to whether I have done something or nothing that is good. If my deeds are wrong, let them be wrong. But now I must and will hear and learn the Holy Spirit’s message to me, namely, how Christ shed His blood for us, blotted out sin for me, overcame death, extinguished God’s wrath and hell, and makes me an heir of eternal life solely through His suffering, death, and resurrection.” This message the devil cannot abolish.
Therefore there is no other manner or way of comforting, strengthening, and instructing consciences and of protecting and defending ourselves than by this sermon and testimony of the Holy Spirit. With this doctrine I can condemn the devil and all his suggestions and arguments, and say: “You cite to me God’s commandment and Law; I cannot object to this. But when I must stand before God’s judgment seat, I must and will not discuss the things pertaining to my life; for I surely know in advance that these cannot pass muster there. You, however, you rogue, want to drown and submerge me in thoughts about how to fulfill the Law, about how to satisfy God through my own efforts and because of this to forget Christ, my Savior. In this way you tear me away from the testimony of the Holy Spirit.”
Therefore he who has comprehended this revelation and testimony of the Holy Spirit can judge all such doctrine well and correctly and differentiate as follows: There are two types of life and work. The one is my life and work which must be carried out in accordance with the Ten Commandments; the other is that of Christ my Lord, which is recorded in my Creed. My salvation and happiness and all consolation for my conscience depend on the latter. With this differentiation I can meet the devil’s attacks on me and say: “May God forgive me if my life does not conform perfectly to the Ten Commandments; but I cling to the life of this Man who died for me, whose Baptism and Sacrament I have received.” This does not imply that one should not perform as many good works as possible. But now, when we are engaged in a battle with the devil and our own conscience, there must be no argument about this.
Here there must be a life and piety higher than the life and piety of all men; here there must be Christ our Lord, who died and rose again for me, and Baptism, which I have, not by virtue of my works but through Christ. This alone shall and must do what is required. Then I have certainty both with regard to doctrine and with regard to life; then I cannot fail. When the devil wants to make us pious, he emphasizes the importance of our life at the expense of faith; or when he has something special in mind and wants to make you clever and smart, he appeals to your reason in opposition to doctrine, just as he did in the case of the heretic Arius and to others. But if you cling to the Lord Christ’s life and say: “I am not baptized on my or on any other man’s life but solely on my Christ,” he can gain nothing. Thus when the devil assails you by citing this sublime article of faith, refers you to your own intellect and wisdom, no longer discusses life but talks about how one should believe, and attacks the very foundation on which you build, then he will stress the subtle thoughts of reason and ask how this agrees. If at such a time you want to insure yourself against a fall, you must again say: “Listen to me. I do not believe my own reason and wisdom; my faith is expressed in the prayer of the children: ‘I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, and in the Holy Spirit.’ ” This is God’s Word, which is proclaimed in the world through the Holy Spirit. The children know it too, and the gates of hell will not overthrow it (Matt. 16:18).