“We admit we are not all strong, but it is also true that were there no weakness in our ranks, we would have no need of prayer, perseverance, exhortation and daily preaching. In condemning the Gospel because of our admitted weakness, something we ourselves confess, our enemies are themselves judged before God by their judging us. It is possible for me to be truly in the kingdom of grace and at the same time outwardly weak enough to be regarded of men as a knave. My faith is not apparent to men, but God sees it and I am myself sensible of it. You meantime erroneously judge me by my outward conduct, thus bringing judgment upon yourself. We are aware of, and also lament, our weakness and imperfection. Hence we cry and groan, and pray to God to grant us strength and power.”
Luther from his sermon on Ephesians 3:13-21 for
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
18…It is not enough merely to accept the Gospel, or even to preach it. Acceptance must be followed by that spiritual power which renders faith firm and manifests steadfastness in conflicts and temptations; for “the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power,” as Paul says, 1 Corinthians 4:20. There must be a motive force consisting of the inner belief of the heart and the outward proofs of faith: not mere speaking, but doing: not mere talking, but living. Conditions must be such that the Word does not simply remain on the tongue and in the ears, but becomes operative and accomplishes something. In the Old Testament dispensation, Moses preached much indeed, and the people practiced little; but here Paul desires that much be done and little said. He would not have the Gospel preached in vain, but desires that it accomplish the object of its revelation.
19. Note how Paul devotes himself to the welfare of the Christian community. He sets an example, to us ministers in particular, of how to effect the good of the people. But we do not rightly heed his example. We imagine it sufficient to hear the Gospel and be able to discourse about it; we stop at the mere knowledge of it; we never avail ourselves of the Gospel’s power in the struggles of life. Unquestionably, the trouble is, we do not earnestly pray. We ought constantly to come to God with great longing, entreating him day and night to give the Word power to move men’s hearts. David says (Psalm 68:33), “Lo, he uttereth his voice, a mighty voice.”
20. Not only preachers, but all Christians, should constantly entreat the God who grants knowledge to grant also efficacy; should beseech him that the Word may not pass with the utterance, but may manifest itself in power. The prevailing complaint at present is that much preaching obtains, but no practice; that the people are shamefully rude, cold and indolent, and less active than ever, while at the same time they enjoy the strong, clear light of revelation concerning all right and wrong in the world. Well may we pray, then, as Paul does here. He says, in effect: “You are well supplied: the Word is richly proclaimed to you — abundantly poured out upon you. But I bend my knees to God, praying that he may add his blessing to the Word and grant you to behold his honor and praise and to be firmly established, that the Word may grow in you and yield fruit.”
21. Feelingly does Paul speak of praying for his followers. He seems to say: “I must lie here imprisoned, not privileged to be with you or to aid you in any way but by bending my knees — that is, entreating and imploring God earnestly and in deep humility — to the end that God may grant you, may effect in you, what neither myself nor any other human being can accomplish — what I could not do even were I free and ever present with you…”
34 …Thus Paul himself acknowledges the Ephesians were weak. He complains of the same weakness in other Epistles and especially in those to the Corinthians. Everywhere he urges them to do and live as they had been taught. The only reason Paul advocates this is that he saw, as we now see, that everywhere they fail, and things are not as they should be.
In spite of the fact that not everyone’s conduct is satisfactory, some do mend their ways; and the happy condition obtains that many consciences are assured and many former evils are now avoided. If the two sides of the question were carefully compared, we would see much advantage with us not now noticed. Again, even though we are somewhat weak, is that any reason for saying all is lost? Further, there is naught else but filth and corruption in the ranks of our enemies, which they would gladly adorn with our weakness even. But they must look upon their way as excellent and ours as odious.
35. Let them go on with their judging. We admit we are not all strong, but it is also true that were there no weakness in our ranks, we would have no need of prayer, perseverance, exhortation and daily preaching. In condemning the Gospel because of our admitted weakness, something we ourselves confess, our enemies are themselves judged before God by their judging us. It is possible for me to be truly in the kingdom of grace and at the same time outwardly weak enough to be regarded of men as a knave. My faith is not apparent to men, but God sees it and I am myself sensible of it. You meantime erroneously judge me by my outward conduct, thus bringing judgment upon yourself. We are aware of, and also lament, our weakness and imperfection. Hence we cry and groan, and pray to God to grant us strength and power.
…WORLD SEES NOT INNER MARKS OF CHRISTIANS.
36. A third answer to our enemies is: We are certain that wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, the fruits of the same must exist. We have the Word of God, and therefore the Spirit of God must be with us. And where the Spirit is, faith must obtain, however weak it may be. Though visible evidence may be lacking, yet inevitably there must be some among us who daily pray, while we may not be aware of it. It is reasonably to be expected that our enemies should judge erroneously, because they look for outward evidences of Christianity, which are not forthcoming.
The Word is too sublime to pass under our judgment; it is the province of the Word to judge us. The world, however, while unwilling to be judged and convicted by us, essays to judge and convict the Word of God. Here God steps in. It would be a pity for the worldly to see a godly Christian, so God blinds them and they miss his kingdom. As Isaiah says (Isaiah 26:10): “In the land of uprightness will he deal wrongfully, and will not behold the majesty of Jehovah.” For this reason, few real Christians come under the observation of cavilers; the latter, in general, observe fools and fanatics, at whom they maliciously stumble and take offense. They are unworthy to behold God’s honor in a godly Christian upon whom the Lord has poured out himself in fullness of blessing.
37. Let the real Christian come into the presence of the caviler, stand before his very eyes, and the caviler will not see him. Let the fault-finder hear that one leads an irreproachable life and he will say: “Heretics have behaved similarly, but under a good appearance concealed poison.” Let one be refractory and reckless, and he must be a knave. Whatever we do, they are not satisfied. If we pipe, they will not dance; if we mourn, they will not lament. Neither sweet nor sour appeals to them. Wisdom must permit herself to be schooled and governed by these cavilers, as Christ says in Matthew 11:19. Thus God confounds and shames the world; while all the time tolerating its judgment of himself, he is ever careful to have the Gospel inculcated, even though the worldly burst with rage. I say these things to teach us to be careful not to join the caviler in judging presumptuously the work and Word of God. Notwithstanding our weakness, we are yet certain the kingdom of God is in our midst so long as we have his Word and daily pray for its efficacy and for an increase of our faith, as the following words recommend:
“That ye may be strengthened with power
through his Spirit in the inward man…”
39. Paul’s meaning, then, is: “I desire for you, and pray God to grant you, that bold, dauntless courage and that strong, cheerful spirit which will not be terrified by poverty, shame, sin, the devil or death, but is confident that nothing can harm us and we will never be in need.” The courage of the world — the spirit of the world — holds out only until exhaustion of the stores whereon it relies. As the saying is, “Wealth gives temporal boldness, but the soul must rely on God alone.” The boldness resulting from riches and worldly power is haughty and makes its boast in earthly things. But the soul has no hoarded treasure. In God alone it braves every evil; it has a courage and heart very different from that of the world.
This is the strength for which Paul prays on behalf of his converts, a strength not inherent in flesh and blood. The possessor thereof does not rely and build on his own powers and riches, nor upon any human help and support. This strength dwells in the inner man. It is the trust of the dauntless, cheerful heart in God’s grace and assistance, and in these alone. The heart which so trusts has no fear. It possesses by faith abundance of riches and pleasures — God himself with all his blessings. At the same time, to human sight only want, weakness and terror may be apparent.
“That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
40. The Holy Spirit brings Christ into the heart and teaches it to know him. He imparts warmth and courage through faith in Christ. Paul everywhere intimates that no man should presume to approach God otherwise than through Christ, the one Mediator. Now, if Christ dwells in my heart and regulates my entire life, it matters not though my faith be weak. Christ is not mere bone but also flesh. Yes, he has blisters and boils and sins of which he is not ashamed, notwithstanding the eminent saints may hold their noses thereat. And where he dwells all fullness is, let the individual be weak or strong as God permits.
49. Much has been written about the way we are to become godlike. Some have constructed ladders whereby we are to ascend to heaven, and others similar things. But this is all patchwork. In this passage is designated the truest way to attain godlikeness. It is to become filled to the utmost with God, lacking in no particular; to be completely permeated with him until every word, thought and deed, the whole life in fact, be utterly godly.
50. But let none imagine such fullness can be attained in this life. We may indeed desire it and pray for it, like Paul here, but we will not find a man thus perfect. We stand, however, upon the fact that we desire such perfection and groan after it. So long as we live in the flesh, we are filled with the fullness of Adam. Hence it is necessary for us continually to pray God to replace our weakness with courage, and to put into our hearts his Spirit to fill us with grace and strength and rule and work in us absolutely. We ought all to desire this state for one another. To this end may God grant us grace. Amen.
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