Lessons from Magdeburg, Part 1

“The truth is not conquered by strength of arms. Military victory cannot change anything about what is true nor does it always accompany the truth.”

At Worms 500 years ago a single man made a confession at the risk of his own life. There is no denying the historical impact of that confession. Nor should we fail to learn from Luther’s example to put our confession of the true faith above our own life. But we are not Martin Luther. He is inimitable, the man of God his contemporaries labeled the third Elijah and identified with the angel of Revelation 14, the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel, the man God raised up to end the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. And we are not that. Every one of us has a more humble, localized role. Luther changed the world in a matter of years, because God gave this to him to do through call and through circumstance. We have our own calls, our own circumstances, and it is our duty to make our confession within these circumstances and according to our callings. We may dream for grand results, for changing the world, but we cannot make this our goal. Man makes the plans; God decides the outcome. Our goal is instead to follow Luther in being faithful, in making the true confession, and this in itself we must learn to consider our victory and our success, even if our eyes see something quite different, even if we witness the church declining in numbers and losing her standing in the world. Regardless of anything else, the church wins, she conquers, when she makes the true confession. What is it that has overcome the world, St. John asks, except our faith? (1 John 5:4)

I will be taking as the basis for considering the Church’s confession in our day the example not of Luther, but of the churches he inspired after his death. Luther’s confession at Worms is well known, the Augsburg Confession of 1530 is famous, but relatively unknown is the Magdeburg Confession of 1550. And it’s this confession that I think speaks most directly to our circumstances today. So first, we will go through the history of this Magdeburg Confession. Second, we will hit on four points the Magdeburg Confession teaches us about how the church confesses. And third, we will look into a number of practical applications of this in our day, with specific attention to the recent restrictions the governments of our country have attempted to impose on churches in the name of public safety.

In 1546, the blessed Martin Luther passed to heavenly glory. Philip Melanchthon, the obvious leader and spokesman for the Lutheran Church after Luther’s death, hailed Luther once again as an Elijah, speaking the words of Elisha as he saw his teacher rise in a whirlwind to heaven, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and her horsemen.” But Melanchthon was sadly no Elisha. God didn’t grant him the double portion of His Spirit. So when in the spring of 1547 Emperor Charles V, in alliance with the pope, invaded Lutheran lands, attacked and decisively crushed the Lutheran armies, captured the Lutheran princes, and forced the surrender of Lutheran cities, there was no Luther, no Elijah, no Elisha to lead the church. Melanchthon failed miserably. He played politics instead of fighting for the pure confession. The Emperor imposed on Lutheran lands the so-called Augsburg Interim, which ordered Lutherans to worship like Roman Catholics and, in many points of doctrine, including justification by works and the sacrifice of the mass, to confess like Roman Catholics. Melanchthon, along with many pastors, princes, and professors, instead of outright rejecting the Interim, made a compromise document called the Leipzig Interim, which said they would worship like Roman Catholics, but would not confess the Roman faith.

Meanwhile the faithful Lutheran pastors who refused to compromise were either killed or driven from their cities. Hundreds of them fled to the north. Most cities compromised and most pastors caved in. The most prominent city to refuse to compromise was Magdeburg. They would worship as Lutherans and confess as Lutherans, come hell or highwater. What came were thousands of imperial troops, which surrounded Magdeburg and put up a siege that lasted well over a year. The order was simple. Start worshipping like Roman Catholics, submit to the authority of your emperor, or we will take your city by force, capture your pastors, and convert your churches to the pope’s control.

It was in the face of this violent threat to their city, to their church, to their confession, that the church of Magdeburg wrote and issued their Confession in 1550. It was authored by Nicholas von Amsdorf, who had accompanied Luther at Worms 29 years previous. As the troops surrounded their city, the Magdeburgers refused to compromise in the least. They had learned from Luther’s example. They were obviously hoping and praying for success. They even called for assistance from other cities, told them that they were guilty of their blood if they failed to defend them in their time of need. But the Magdeburgers also knew, and confessed implicitly, that their Confession was a victory in itself. They were holding to the truth. So even if their city burned to the ground, even if they were all slaughtered, even if they were ravaged by plague (the great risk to besieged cities), even if their church steeples tumbled to the ground, the victory was theirs. As it happened, God crowned their confession also with military victory in the end. Not only did the Magdeburgers pick off thousands of imperial troops, but by 1551 the commander of the imperial troops switched sides and turned the same troops against the Emperor, which forced the Emperor to retreat from Lutheran lands. Magdeburg had won the day.

We turn now to the four lessons this Magdeburg Confession teaches us.

First

First, to confess is itself the victory of the church. The Magdeburg Confession states it plainly, “The truth is not conquered by strength of arms. Military victory cannot change anything about what is true nor does it always accompany the truth.” It may look like the church is losing. It may look like she is losing precisely because she is confessing. But the confession of the truth is victory, it is the goal, and that means that if we are confessing and standing uncompromisingly on the truth of God’s Word, we have every reason to be optimistic, to be confident. There has been, since the last election in the United States, a gloom of depression and pessimism hanging over the church in our country. It is unsettling to see the so-called Equality Act passed by the House of Representatives, a bill that openly opposes Christ’s commandments and threatens the persecution of institutions that confess the truth about man and woman. It has been astounding to see the government overreach into churches in our country during the Corona crisis and tragic to see so many Christians and churches abandon gathering together for fear of death and a misguided, unqualified obedience to the government. This pessimism that has infected us in the face of this persecution and in light of this cowardice is from the devil. We need to knock it off. 

The Magdeburgers were not pessimistic. The confession of the church is never pessimistic. We are the church militant, so we fight. But we fight with the outcome of the battle already determined, that the head of the serpent is crushed, and that every knee will bow to our Lord in heaven and on earth and below the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. So the Magdeburgers, as military defeat seemed to loom over them and they’d been abandoned by the other cities and had every earthly reason to be pessimistic, the Magdeburgers write, “The enemy’s recent victory should not give them occasion to condemn Luther’s cause or to be overly haughty, nor should it lead the pious to be overly distressed. The cause of the prophets, of Christ, and of the apostles first truly began to come to light in their oppression, and they themselves began to be more glorious after their death. For this purpose, in fact, God appointed His prophets and apostles, that they might go forth and bear fruit, and that their fruit may remain, that He himself might work power from their weakness, life from their death, glory from their shame, and planting from their being uprooted. And so Luther himself also, though dead, lives to eternity, and the fruit of his work, like the dead man himself, as it were, lives, will live, and will shine to all ages, among still more nations.” That was written while troops surrounded their city and defeat seemed a foregone conclusion. And it smacks of optimism grounded on the reality of God’s Word.

Nor did the Magdeburgers see the cowardice of the other cities and the compromising Lutheran churches to be a reason for despair. Instead, it was another reason for them to confess, to call out the cowardice, call out the compromise, and recall their former brothers to the faith and the fight. After condemning the compromise of other Lutheran states and churches in no uncertain terms (they call it apostasy and fornication with the Antichrist), they warn them with these words: “We…warn all the godly of all churches, both magistrates and subjects, and we…point out not only how great a crime they have committed who have brought aid against us and to the persecutors of this doctrine and church, but also how they too are not without fault who have failed to lend us their aid, and how each of these offenses, the attack against us as well as the desertion of us, will be perilous to their temporal wellbeing and to their eternal salvation, as well as to all their posterity.” This boldness and confidence and naked optimism is really refreshing. Again, the Magdeburgers are surrounded by troops. They’re alone. By every earthly measurement they’re going to lose. But they still call out the compromisers, and not only this, but they tell them that if they continue to compromise, they risk their temporal wellbeing and their eternal salvation, which will extend down to their children and grandchildren. Here are the people whose city is literally being besieged and they warn others who are living in earthly peace about their temporal welfare. Why? Because they actually believe in God. They actually believe that He is in charge and that He will reward those who stand on His Word and He will judge those who compromise it. They believe the words of the Psalmist, “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a native green tree. Yet he passed away, and behold, he was no more. Indeed I sought him, but he could not be found” (Ps. 37:35). This is the optimism of the Church’s confession, and it’s an optimism that must reign among us today. So long as we make the good confession, the victory is ours and the future is bright for us and for our children.

Second

Second, the Magdeburg Confession teaches us that the church and her members are called to make certain confessions at certain times. Obviously we confess the creed every Sunday. Obviously we confess throughout the Church year the incarnation of our Lord, His death and resurrection, His ascension into heaven, the sending of the Spirit, the reign of the holy Trinity over His Church. This is simply our life. But circumstance forces specific confessions. Luther, for instance, was called before the Emperor and told to recant his writings, and he made the good confession and refused to withdraw a word. St. Peter was brought before the Sanhedrin and told to stop preaching Jesus, and he said, “We ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). The Magdeburgers were told to worship like Roman Catholics and they answered by burning everything outside their city, locking their gates, and putting up armed resistance to the Emperor, together with their great Confession published during the siege. 

So we too make our confession not only constantly and generally as we teach the faith at home and at church, but also according to circumstance, when confession is called or forced from us. So, for instance, when the Supreme Court of the United States calls perverted homosexual contracts “marriages” and forces them on the states, the church should respond with definite confession that this is wrong. To be silent, to ignore it, would be to give the impression that this is of little concern to the church or that God’s Word leaves such things up to the individual conscience. More recently, we all experienced the government telling churches whether they could worship, how they could worship, what they should wear when worshipping, and even how to distribute the body and blood of Jesus. And the answer of the churches, whether it was to acquiesce or to disregard and reject these mandates, was a confession, whether we wrote it down or not. And we’ll be taking up that issue here shortly. The point right now is simply to emphasize that sometimes the church has no choice. It must confess a very specific issue, must take a stand one way or another. And silence, as the Madgeburgers make very clear, silence is itself a confession. The Magdeburgers, in fact, considered it their duty to make the confession they made, precisely because the circumstance required it. The Confession states, “[T]here remains still a poor remnant of states, however weak they may be…who also hold to the articles of doctrine handed down to us by the ministry of Luther, and thereby confess Christ, like the thief on the cross. Since among these is also our magistracy and our Church, the Church of this city, so that, in fact, the enemies themselves brag that in attacking us they are attacking the last of this Confession, we have decided that it belongs to our office, since we seem by the singular kindness of God to have a voice still free to speak for the whole Church, that we publicly set forth something for the purpose of vindicating in some way the revealed doctrine of the Gospel against this unjust oppression.”

Third

Third, every confession we make has to do with the entire Word of God and therefore with Christ and His Gospel, which is the material, the stuff, of God’s Word. The Magdeburgers could have simply had their pastors start wearing chasubles, start observing certain holy days, start enforcing a fast during Lent, start elevating the host during communion. This is what the Emperor really wanted: outward conformity. They could have pretended to be in compliance, could have compromised on some practices, and they would have been able to teach the truth otherwise. That, at least, was Melanchthon’s argument and his tack in Wittenberg. But the Magdeburgers correctly noted that if they compromised in one area, it would bleed into the rest; it would in the end compromise their confession of Jesus Christ Himself. And this they argued not simply as a slippery slope, that once you cave on one thing you’re bound to cave on another, though that is true, but because when you cave on a single article of Christian doctrine or its practice you are compromising the body of doctrine. And so, and this is simply beautiful, even though the Emperor had not challenged every single article of the faith directly, the Magdeburg Confession sets forth the entire Christian faith, article by article, from God and creation all the way through Christ and the Church and to the power of the government, in order to show that this, all of it, the entire body of doctrine, was at stake, and this is what they would not give up. You tell me I must sacrifice the mass, or even give the impression that I am sacrificing the mass, and you have just brought into question everything the Bible teaches, which centers in the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

And so it is in our day. The issues we must confess and address may not seem to directly touch on the Gospel (though in the end they do). The so-called social issues—homosexuality, transgenderism, abortion, divorce, feminism—these are front and center in our culture. These are questions of the law of God, of God’s creation, His order in the world. But to dissociate them from the Gospel is an impossibility. The Son of God took into His person created human flesh, He came to fulfill this law, restore order in the world, to redeem marriage, man and woman, family from sin in order for us to live according to His law by His Spirit. You strike at the law, at morality, at marriage, at the difference between man and woman, you erase it or part of it, and you are striking at the eternal will of the God who became our Bridegroom and laid down His life to sanctify His Church by His blood. Marriage itself, after all, is a God-given picture of Christ’s redemption and union with His Church.

Read “Lessons from Magdeburg, Part 2

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Christian Preus

Rev. Dr. Christian Preus is Senior Pastor at Mount Hope Lutheran Church in Casper, WY and holds a PhD in Classics.

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