by Rev. John T. Pless
Written 472 years ago this Christmas, Luther’s letter to Prince Joachim remains a testimony to the Reformer’s pastoral theology.
Martin Luther was at his best at Christmas. With stark simplicity and yet profound insight, Luther’s Christmas sermons speak of the lowliness of the Lord’s birth in a way that prefigures the cross. The great German preacher of the 20th century, Helmut Thielicke was fond of saying that the crib and the cross are of the same wood. That is certainly true of Luther’s Christmas preaching as it is filtered through the cross, where God’s Son brought the incarnation to its real purpose: His death for sinners. Luther’s ballad-like hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (358 LSB), tells the story of Christmas with striking beauty and clarity as it charts the trajectory of God drawing close to man, of God moving from heaven to earth:
Welcome to earth, O noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
You came to share my misery
That You might share Your joy with me.
Ah, Lord, though You created all,
How weak You are, so poor and small,
That You should choose to lay Your head
Where lowly cattle lately fed. (stanzas 8–9)
Luther’s memorable Christmas preaching and his poetic mastery of the story of Christ’s birth would be put to use pastorally in his care for a young prince.
Prince Joachim of Anhalt was 26 years old when Christmas came in 1535. For months he had battled deep melancholy and depression. Luther had spent time with the prince, praying for him and speaking the Lord’s words of consolation and peace into his ears a year earlier, in the summer of 1534. Yet Joachim’s bouts with depression persisted.
On Dec. 25, 1535, Luther writes a tender but powerful letter to Joachim that resounds with the pure Gospel for those who are downcast and disillusioned in this season. “Our dear Lord Christ comfort Your Grace with His incarnation. He became incarnate to comfort and show His good will to all men, as the dear angels sing today, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’” (Theodore Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1955, p. 98).
Mercy nestled in a manger
Christmas is not about evacuation from this world into some mythic sphere of imagination and fantasy. It is not about our ascent to God but God’s descending to us. From heaven above, as Luther’s hymn puts it, God comes to us. We need build no ladders to vainly try to climb into His heavenly presence.
He comes not as an awesome deity with a majestic presence that terrifies but with mercy nestled down in a manger. This God is not our enemy, but our Brother. He masks Himself with our humanity, dressing Himself in our flesh and blood. In this flesh and blood, He absorbs our sin and suffers and dies on the cross. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, in our sin and shame.
He is Immanuel in order that He might be God for us at Calvary. This Lord has not left the prince exiled in his holiday sadness. Luther puts the sermon of the first preachers of Christmas, the heavenly hosts who proclaimed the glad news of Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem’s shepherds, into Joachim’s mind: God shows His favor to human beings in the sending of His Son. God, Luther reasons, would not bend down to us in such a friendly way if He were our enemy, if He were out to destroy us with His wrath.
How God is toward us we know from Jesus. Luther insisted that if you try to find God apart from Jesus, you end up only with the devil. Oswald Bayer, a contemporary Luther scholar, observes that if we look for God within we find only ghosts! Luther does not direct Joachim to his own thoughts or feelings. Instead he draws the prince away from self-absorbed reflection. Who God is and how He is disposed toward him, he can know only from Mary’s little baby. This knowledge of God cannot be found in nature or human rationality. There no sentimental talk here of the presence of God in the cosmos everywhere available to seekers for the taking. It is not merely that God is present, for the presence of God without the cross and the Word of promise would terrify and destroy us.
Luther cuts to the chase, reminding Joachim of what he has been taught: “If we are satisfied with the creed and the doctrine, what does it matter even if hell and all the devils fall upon us? What can distress us— other, perhaps, than sin and a bad conscience? Yet Christ has taken these from us, even while we sin daily. Who can terrify us except the devil? But greater than the devil is He that is in us, weak though our faith may be” (Tappert, 98). The baby of Bethlehem and the man of Calvary is God’s Son. He came into the flesh to destroy the works of the devil. Our comfort is in the creed’s confession that God became man to suffer and die for sinners.
Our confidence is in the doctrine, for this doctrine is not some humanly devised theory but the truth that God is for us in every way. Yes, the old evil foe may assault the conscience, stirring up the dregs of sins confessed and forgiven; he may haunt us with the phantoms of pained memory and ghosts of our own making. Mock and taunt us as he will with our own weakness, Satan finally cannot harm us, for we have another Lord. We have a Savior who nurses at Mary’s breasts and hangs on a cross, bruised and bloody. He holds on to us even when it appears that we can no longer find the strength to hold on to Him. Faith may be weak and wobbly, but Christ is strong and sure!
“We must be weak, and are willing to be,” writes Luther, “in order that Christ’s strength may dwell in us; as Saint Paul says, ‘Christ’s strength is made perfect in weakness’” (Tappert, 98). There are no shallow encouragements to muster up strength or to develop a more positive attitude. There are no calls in Luther’sletter for Joachim to pull himself out of the despondence and get in tune with the spirit of the season. Joachim is not counseled to get some help with his self-esteem issues. Luther comforts him instead with the words of the Apostle. In weakness God puts His power to save on display.
From the lowliness of the manger to the humiliation of the cross right down to the pit of Joachim’s depression, God comes to save. God works in the depths. Luther once offended Erasmus by asserting that Christ Jesus is with us even in the sewer. Jesus is not ashamed to be found in the midst of barn flies and manure. He is not ashamed to be found in the company of weak sinners.
The comfort of Christmas
Good pastor that he was, Luther does not try to lift Joachim’s spirits with an appeal to the Law. “Don’t you know that you should be rejoicing. After all, it is Christmas, dear Prince.” There is none of that in Luther’s letter. Instead there is the comfort of Christmas. It is the consolation of a Christ who makes Himself to be a friend of sinners, joining Himself to them in their weakness and misery. This is the conviction that the later Lutheran hymn-writer, Paul Gerhardt, would echo in his Christmas hymn, “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is” (372 LSB):
Thou Christian heart, whoe’er thou art,
Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee!
For God’s own Child,
In mercy mild, joins thee to Him;
How greatly God must love thee! (stanza 4)
Luther fortifies Joachim to rest in the promises of this Christ, to let himself be weak so that Christ can be his strength: “Your Grace has not yet betrayed or crucified the dear Lord. Even if Your Grace had, Christ nevertheless remains gracious. He prayed even for those who crucified Him. Therefore, be of good cheer. In the strength of Christ resist the evil spirit, who can do no more than trouble, terrify, or slay” (Tappert, 98). Joachim is not to rely on his own reason or strength but on the strength of Christ Jesus who has called him by the Gospel to live in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Only in this Lord can demonic darkness of doubt be dispelled.
Luther’s Christmas letter to Prince Joachim remains a testimony to the Reformer’s pastoral theology. Luther demonstrates that doctrine is not dusty and dry, disconnected from the pathos of human life. Doctrine does make a difference. For the doctrine of Christ brings consolation to people like Joachim, who was tortured by his conscience and overshadowed by despair.
Luther shows us that the light and joy of Christmas are for those who know all too well the bondage of sin, the condemnation of the Law, and the sting of death. For Luther it is the Christian’s skill to learn Christ aright—that is, to know Jesus as the Savior born to redeem us from slavery to sin by His death. Luther knew that you cannot draw Christ too deeply into the flesh. It is this conviction that enables him to comfort Joachim with the Christmas Gospel. It is a word of comfort that continues to ring true for us as well.