A Free Conscience
Wednesday after Reformation
2 November 2016
Early in his career as reformer of the church, Martin Luther, like many educated people of his day, changed his name by Grecianizing it. For example, his colleague Philip Melanchthon's real name was Philip Schwartzerdt, which meant "Black Earth." He was of peasant farmer stock. Melanchthon just sounded better; more sophisticated. Luther changed his name, signing it as "Martinus Eleutheros," meaning "Martin-the-Free." How had he come upon such freedom, freedom so powerful that it caused him to change his name? The gospel lesson for Reformation gives us the answer, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (Jn 8:36).

In the spring of 1520, Luther was being trundled along the bad roads of late medieval Germany on a horse cart. He was trying to make good use of the time while he was traveling by reading, having carried some books with him. He wanted to take his mind off the threat that stood over him. He had been given safe conduct to appear before the Imperial diet, the German Parliament, presided over by Emperor Charles V of Spain, the most powerful man in the world at the time. Luther was painfully aware of the fact that about 100 years previously another reformer had been given the same "safe conduct." Jan Hus, the Czech reformer, had been stripped of his rights and unceremoniously burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415. Luther knew what an Imperial safe conduct was worth; not even the paper it was written on. But still he went. Why? He went to confess the divine truth before kings and princes confident of God's vindication of his cause.

Luther stood before the arrayed principalities and powers of his day. He was presented with a pile of his books and he was asked to recant (reject and condemn) the content of those books. Luther demurred, asking for a day to consider how he should respond in the presence of the Emperor to this question. He was afraid; afraid for his life. He wrestled and struggled that night in a cell of the Augustinian Friary in Worms. The next day, with a much more calm and courageous demeanor Luther stood before the Emperor. He defended his work by pointing out that much in his writings was simply a repetition of the gospel truth, which had been praised, not only by his own party, but even by the Roman Catholics. But when push came to shove Luther responded, "Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen." Scripture had captivated his conscience. He was free from the fear of earthly powers. Luther here strikes a blow that resounded through the centuries right down to our own present day. It echoes through the US Constitution's first amendment, giving us freedom of worship and speech.

The founders of our republic recognized what Luther had said here, that earthly power has no right to control the human spirit and conscience. On the floor of the diet of Worms in April 1521, Luther asserted the freedom of the conscience from external coercion. The word of God was alone to rule the conscience. Matthew Harrison, the president of our church body has said, "Luther, in a big way, for the first time, held forth the idea that the government has no right to coerce the religious conscience. None." And that is the teaching of our church. Against all comers; whether they are from the right or the left. We are free to believe and confess as we see fit no matter what our government or the Supreme Court says. Luther's Reformation and the freedom of conscience which it staked out in the face of all earthly authority is still a gift that we Lutheran Christians should honor, confess, and celebrate today. "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Do not be enslaved again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal 5:1). Already Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has warned us with these ominous words, "I assume that those who cling to old beliefs (he's talking about you Lutherans) will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their own homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools" (Obergefell v. Hodges [Dissenting]).

This is not the freedom for which Martin Luther struck the first blow at the Diet of Worms in 1521. But this is the freedom we have from God. It is not a freedom that can be guaranteed by governments, judges, or bureaucracies. Once humans guarantee our freedoms, we are no longer a free people. This is the first freedom of our Lutheran Reformation, a conscience free from government oppression. Pray God we keep it.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Martin Luther
"Every kingdom must have its own laws and statutes; without law no kingdom or government can survive, as everyday experience amply shows. The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul. Therefore, where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads souls and destroys them. We want to make this so clear that everyone will grasp it, and that our fine gentlemen, the princes and bishops, will see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing this or that.

"When a man-made law is imposed upon the soul to make it believe this or that as its human author may prescribe, there is certainly no word of God for it. If there is no word of God for it, then we cannot be sure whether God wishes to have it so, for we cannot be certain that something which he does not command is pleasing to him. Indeed, we are sure that it does not please him, for he desires that our faith be based simply and entirely on his divine word alone. He says, "On this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18); and in John 10, "My sheep hear my voice and know me; however, they will not hear the voice of a stranger, but flee from him" (Jn 10:27, 14, 5). From this it follows that with such a wicked command the temporal power is driving souls to eternal death. For it compels them to believe as right and certainly pleasing to God that which is in fact uncertain, indeed, certain to be displeasing to him since there is no clear word of God for it. Whoever believes something to be right which is wrong or uncertain is denying the truth, which is God Himself. He is believing in lies and errors, and counting as right that which is wrong."

Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed
Psalm 9

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
When my enemies turn back, they stumble and perish before your presence. For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne, giving righteous judgment.

You have rebuked the nations; you have made the wicked perish; you have blotted out their name forever and ever. The enemy came to an end in everlasting ruins; their cities you rooted out; the very memory of them has perished.

But the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness.

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds! For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

Be gracious to me, O LORD! See my affliction from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gates of death, that I may recount all your praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion I may rejoice in your salvation.

The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught. The LORD has made himself known; he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God. For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.

Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail; let the nations be judged before you! Put them in fear, O LORD! Let the nations know that they are but men! (ESV)
Eternal Lord, ruler of all, graciously regard those who have been set in positions of authority among us that, guided by Your Spirit, they may be high in purpose, wise in counsel, firm in good resolution, and unwavering in duty, that under them we may be governed quietly and peaceably and that freedom of conscience would be respected; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

For Ellen Brda, who will be undergoing surgery, that the Lord Jesus would be with her

For Judge Ruth Neely of Wyoming, who is being persecuted for expressing her faith that marriage is between one man and one woman, that she would be strengthened in her confession and faith

For all public safety officers, that they would be kept safe in their labors in protecting life and property

For the electors as they go the polls to choose a president, that they would vote with wisdom and that the freedom of conscience would be respected among us
Art: Wartburg Castle
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2016
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
Sent by smurray@mlchouston.org in collaboration with
Constant Contact