Martin Luther on John 1:29

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in John 1:29


1) Behold, the Lamb of God.

This is an excellent and splendid testimony of John regarding the introduction of the new rule and kingdom of Christ. It is a powerful statement. The words are clear and lucid; they tell us what one should think of Christ. John’s earlier words (John 1:17), “The Law was given through Moses,” can hardly be called praise of Moses. But in this passage John virtually chides him, as if he were saying: “You Jews sacrifice a lamb every Passover, as Moses commanded you. In addition you butcher two lambs daily, which are sacrificed and burned each morning and evening. It is a lamb, to be sure. But you Jews make such a display of it, you praise these sacrifices and boast of them so much, that you eclipse the glory of God, push God into the background, and deprive Him of His honor. Compare the true Lamb with the lamb which the Law of Moses commands you to butcher and eat.” One is a lamb procured from shepherds. The other, however, is an entirely different Lamb; it is the Lamb of God. For It has been ordained to bear on Its back the sins of the world. Compared with this Lamb, all the lambs you butcher in the temple, roast, and eat count for nothing.

“The paschal lamb of the Law was, indeed, splendid child’s play, as well as a ceremony instituted to remind you of the true Lamb of God. But you exaggerate its significance and assume that such butchering and sacrificing were done to remove your sins. Don’t give way to that illusion! Your lambs will never accomplish that. Only the Son of God will. Those lambs in the Law were merely to be the people’s toys, to remind them of the true Paschal Lamb, which was to be sacrificed at some future time.” But they had nothing but contempt for all this and supposed that a lamb slaughtered at Passover sufficed. Therefore John, as it were, juxtaposes Moses’ lamb and Christ, the true Lamb. The Law was not to extend beyond Christ. John wishes to say: “Your lamb was taken from men, as Moses commanded in the Law of God (Ex. 12:3–5). But this is God’s Lamb. The Easter lamb is a Lamb from God, not a lamb selected from the wethers. The lamb of the Law was a shepherds lamb or a man’s lamb.” John wants to say: “This is the true Lamb, which takes away the sin of the people. With your other lambs, sacrificed on the Passover festival, you did try to remove your sin; but you never succeeded. In this Lamb, born of a virgin, you will. It is not a natural lamb or wether referred to in the Law, and yet It is a lamb.” For God prescribed that it was to be a Lamb that should be sacrificed and roasted on the cross for our sins. In other respects He was a man like all other human beings; but God made Him a Lamb which should bear the sins of all the world.

This is an extraordinarily free and comforting sermon on Christ, our Savior. Neither our thoughts nor our words can do the subject full justice, but in the life beyond it will redound to our eternal joy and bliss that the Son of God abased Himself so and burdened Himself with my sins. Yes, He assumes not only my sins but also those of the whole world, from Adam down to the very last mortal. These sins He takes upon Himself; for these He is willing to suffer and die that our sins may be expunged and we may attain eternal life and blessedness. But who can ever give adequate thought or expression to this theme? The entire world with all its holiness, rectitude, power, and glory is under the dominion of sin and completely discredited before God. Anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb! Therefore John points this Lamb out to his disciples, saying: “Do you want to know where the sins of the world are placed for forgiveness? Then don’t resort to the Law of Moses or betake yourselves to the devil; there, to be sure, you will find sins, but sins to terrify you and damn you. But if you really want to find a place where the sins of the world are exterminated and deleted, then cast your gaze upon the cross. The Lord placed all our sins on the back of this Lamb. As the prophet Isaiah declares (53:6): “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way,” the one hither, the other yon. One sought God in this manner, another in a different way; there were countless modes of looking for God.”

And as it happens when one loses the right way, and, for instance, turns in the wrong direction at a crossroad, one false decision leads to a hundred others. Thus the one chose the rule of St. Francis for help, the other the order of St. Benedict. And pope and Turk, each according to his own judgment, fabricated his own means of penance for sin. But it is written: “They have all gone astray.” But now, which is the right way, the way that guards against going astray? The farther one strays from the right road, the more confused one grows. Isaiah says that the right way is this: “God placed all our sins upon Him and smote Him for the sins of the people; when we all went astray, God put all our sins on the back of His Lamb, and upon no other. He ordained the Lamb to bear the sins of the entire world.”

Therefore a Christian must cling simply to this verse and let no one rob him of it. For there is no other comfort either in heaven or on earth to fortify us against all attacks and temptations, especially in the agony of death. And whoever believes that this Lamb bears the sins of all the world must regard pope and Turk as the Antichrist. For the pope has taught that the Christian must be concerned with bearing his own sin, atoning for it with alms and the like. This is his shameless lie even to the present day. But if what he teaches is true, then I, not Christ, am yoked and burdened with my sin. And then I would necessarily be lost and damned. But Christ does bear the sin–not only mine and yours or that of any other individual, or only of one kingdom or country, but the sin of the entire world. And you, too, are a part of the world.

John’s memory has been cherished, to be sure. In the papacy many murals depict St. John. Pictures of him and of the Lamb were carved in wood and stone or fashioned in gold and silver. Once annually his day was celebrated. His fingers were painted pointing to the Lamb. But all of this was external and never took possession of the heart. No one understood the true significance of the painting and the figure. The papists are still blind, foolish, and absurd. They have paintings and carvings and sculptures of St. John, and they prize portrait and statue; but their doctrine and their life run counter to all this. For they call upon St. Francis or Benedict, St. Catherine or Barbara, and other saints for aid. Is this not blindness? Were we not foolish and mad? Not only did we have the doctrine informing us that this is the Lamb which bears the sin of the world, but we also viewed the picture of St. John pointing his finger at Christ and carrying Christ on his left arm. We celebrated great festivals commemorating all this. And yet our vision was faulty; we did not understand its meaning, nor did we know why John was showing us the Lamb.

This is the basis of all Christian doctrine. Whoever believes it, is a Christian; whoever does not, is no Christian, and will get what he has coming to him. The statement is clear enough: “This is the Lamb of God, who bears the sin of the world.” Moreover, this text is the Word of God, not our word. Nor is it our invention that the Lamb was sacrificed by God and that, in obedience to the Father, this Lamb took upon Himself the sin of the whole world. But the world refuses to believe this; it does not want to concede the honor to this dear Lamb that our salvation depends entirely on His bearing our sin. The world insists on playing a role in this too. But the more it aspires to do in atonement for sin, the worse it fares. For there is no atoner but this Lamb; God recognizes no other. Would it not be reasonable and right to take these words into our hearts that we might become aware of our sin?

Now note here that the Law of Moses, indeed, apprises you of your sin and tells you how you should obey God and man. It also informs me that I am hostile to God, that I blaspheme Him, and that I do not regulate my life properly according to the precepts of the Ten Commandments. In brief, the Law shows me what I am; it reveals sin and burdens me with it. This is its proper function. Then I become frightened and would like to be rid of it. But the Law says: “I cannot aid you in this.” Then we run to the saints, and we invoke the assistance of the Virgin Mary, saying: “Intercede for me before your Son; show Him your breasts!” Another calls on St. Christopher, although he never existed on this earth. Another hies himself to St. Barbara for her intercession. Others enter monastic orders, thereby aspiring to becoming holy themselves and their own saviors. Indeed, each one of us beholds his sins and promises to mend his sinful life from day to day, saying: “O Christ, grant me a respite and stay the time of my death, and I shall become pious and atone for my sin!” But is this not a hideous and terrible blindness? Sin is at your throat; it drives you and lies heavy on you. Reason knows of no other counsel and advice. As soon as reason sees that it has sinned, it declares: “I will reform and become pious!” But now St. John intervenes and declares that the entire world is polluted with sin. He shows us through the Law that we are saddled with this sin, and that we must not let it rest where the Law has deposited it, namely, in our bosom. For if sin remains there, you are damned and doomed. At the same time you are too feeble to remove it; you cannot overcome sin.

In view of this, St. John, by his testimony or sermon, shows us Another upon whom God the Father has laid our sins, namely, Christ the Lord. The Law lays them upon me, but God takes them from me and lays them upon this Lamb. There they fit very well, far better than on me. God wishes to say to us: “I see how the sin oppresses you. You would have to collapse under its heavy burden. But I shall relieve and rid you of the load–when the Law convicts you of, and condemns you for, your sin–and from sheer mercy I shall place the weight of your sin on this Lamb, which will bear them.”

May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins. It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent. But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.

Such benefactions of God might well provoke us to love and to laud God and to celebrate this service in song and sermon and speech. It should also induce us to die willingly and to remain cheerful in all suffering. For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin, yes, with the sin and the death of the entire world! He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.” No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God. And who would not gladly die for Christ’s sake? The Son of Man performs the basest and filthiest work. He does not don some beggars torn garment or old trousers, nor does He wash us as a mother washes a child; but He bears our sin, death, and hell, our misery of body and soul. Whenever the devil declares: “You are a sinner!” Christ interposes: “I will reverse the order; I will be a sinner, and you are to go scotfree.” Who can thank our God enough for this mercy?

Whoever can confidently believe that the sins of the world, also his own, were laid on Christ’s shoulders will not easily be deceived and deluded by the schismatic spirits, who are in the habit of quoting us verses that deal with good works and alms and give the impression that good work wipe out sins and acquire salvation. A Christian can refute any passages which the factious spirits may adduce about good works. This cardinal text still remains intact. It reads that I cannot bear my sin or render satisfaction for it, but that God has chosen a sacrifice which was slaughtered, roasted on the cross, and eaten. Upon this Lamb all sins were laid. A Christian will not permit himself to be cut adrift from this, nor will he be led away from a proper understanding of the Gospel. Let them teach or preach what they choose in the world. He will adhere to the plain and true faith and clear words, namely: “If I had been able to earn anything for myself, then it would not have been necessary for God’s Son to die for me.” John declares that it is solely the Lamb that bears the sin of the whole world; otherwise it would surely not be done at all. I, too, will find refuge in Him. You may do whatever you please!

The Law, to be sure, can command to do this and that; it can also prescribe rules of conduct for life. It says: “Do not covet your neighbors wife, his goods, his honor; do not kill; do not commit adultery, etc.; give alms.” And it is laudable and good to comply with these Commandments. By doing so we abstain from outward sin in the world. But it is futile to try to expunge sin before God through the Law. The one thing that is effective in this respect is spoken of here: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And in Is. 53:6 we read: “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” And again (Is. 53:8): “The Lord will strike Him for the transgression of my people.” Everything centers in Christ. Therefore a Christian must adhere to this verse with simplicity of heart and not let anyone rob him of it. Then he will be aware of the blindness of all heathen, of the papists, and of the godless, who themselves want to render satisfaction with pilgrimages and with good works. They make much of these and console themselves with purgatory. But they are blind. For Holy Scripture declares that the sin of the world does not lie on the world, or St. John’s sin on St. John, or St. Peter’s on Peter; for they are unable to bear it. The sin of the world lies on Christ, the Lamb of God. He steps forth and becomes a vile sinner, yea, sin itself (2 Cor. 5:21), just as if He Himself had committed all the sin of the world from its beginning to its end. This is to be the Lamb’s office, mission, and function.

And now if Holy Scripture contains verses which seem to intimate that one should atone for sin through good works, you should apply these to the inferior realm of domestic affairs or of temporal government; enjoin them upon fathers and mothers, and do not use them in an attempt to prove that good works could present satisfaction for your sins before God. Good works leave sins unborne and unpaid; the Lamb bears them all. Therefore ask yourself if it was not just of God to be angry with us and to punish us because we had strayed into the ranks of the pope’s and the Turk’s schismatic spirits. For the Lamb Itself preaches to us: “Behold, how I bear your sins!” However, no one will accept it. If we believed and accepted it, no one would be damned. What more is the Lamb to do? He says: “You are all condemned, but I will take your sins upon Myself. I have become the whole world. I have incorporated all people since Adam into My person.” Thus He wants to give us righteousness in exchange for the sins we have received from Adam. And I should reply: “I will believe that my dear, dear Lord, the Lamb of God, has taken all sins upon Himself.” Still the world will not believe and accept this. If it did, no one would be lost.

We learn that we have all been hurled into sin by the devil and that the Lamb alone extricates us. Refusal to believe this is not Christ’s fault; it is mine. If I do not believe this, I am doomed. It is for me to say simply that the Lamb of God has borne the sin of the world. I have been earnestly commanded to believe and to confess this, and then also to die in this faith.

You may say: “Who knows whether Christ also bore my sin? I have no doubt that He bore the sin of St. Peter, St. Paul, and other saints; these were pious people. Oh, that I were like St. Peter or St. Paul!” Don’t you hear what St. John says in our text: “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? And you cannot deny that you are also part of this world, for you were born of man and woman. You are not a cow or a pig. It follows that your sins must be included, as well as the sins of St. Peter or St. Paul. And just as you are unable to expiate your sins, so they have been unable to expiate theirs. There are no exceptions here. Therefore do not yield to your own thoughts, but cling to the words which guarantee you and all believers forgiveness of sin through the Lamb. Don’t you hear? There is nothing missing from the Lamb. He bears all the sins of the world from its inception; this implies that He also bears yours, and offers you grace.

If someone does not partake of and enjoy such grace and mercy, he has none to blame but himself and his refusal to believe and accept it. He says to himself: “This does not pertain to you, but only to St. Peter and St. Paul. I must become a monk, invoke the saints, and go on pilgrimages.” Go to the devil if you refuse to believe these words! For if you are in the world and your sins form a part of the sins of the world, then the text applies to you. All that the words “sin,” “world,” and “the sin of the world from its beginning until its end” denote–all this rests solely on the Lamb of God. And since you are an integral part of this world and remain in this world, the benefits mentioned in the text will, of course, also accrue to you.

It is extremely important that we know where our sins have been disposed of. The Law deposits them on our conscience and shoves them into our bosom. But God takes them from us and places them on the shoulders of the Lamb. If sin rested on me and on the world, we would be lost; for it is too strong and burdensome. God says: “I know that your sin is unbearable for you; therefore behold, I will lay it upon My Lamb and relieve you of it. Believe this! If you do, you are delivered of sin.” There are only two abodes for sin: it either resides with you, weighing you down; or it lies on Christ, the Lamb of God. If it is loaded on your back, you are lost; but if it rests on Christ, you are free and saved. Now make your choice! According to the Law, to be sure, sin should remain on you; but by grace sin was cast on Christ, the Lamb. Lacking this grace, we should be doomed in an accounting with God.

These are clear, plain, and powerful words, strengthened by that splendid and beautiful portrait of St. John pointing to the Lamb with his finger. I was always fond of such pictures; for instance, the one on which the Paschal Lamb is depicted carrying a little banner, or the picture of the crucifixion. But in the papacy we never understood their true significance. This is the message they really wanted to convey: “Behold, man! According to Law and justice, your sins should rest on you. But the Lamb which I exhibit here bears your sins by grace. This sin has been placed on the Lamb. Now you are holy, righteous, and free of sin; you have been saved for the sake of the Lamb. Therefore you have to know that you are not bearing your own sin. For then you would be lost; the Law would condemn and execute you. But behold, God has delivered you from your sins and has placed them on the Lamb. And thus you are saved, not for your own sake but for His.” Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4,” in Luther’s Works, John 1:29, 22:161-170.

2) So by means of this doctrine concerning the governing part of man, man will come to be exalted above Christ and the devil, or in other words, he will become Lord of lords and God of gods. What has now happened to that “probable opinion” which said that free choice could will nothing good? Yet here she contends that it is the principal part, and a sound and virtuous part, which does not even need Christ, but can do more than God himself and the devil can. I say this to let you see again how very perilous it is to venture into divine and sacred subjects without the Spirit of God and in the temerity of human reason. If Christ is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world [John 1:29], then it follows that the whole world is subject to sin, damnation, and the devil, and the distinction between principal and nonprincipal parts is of no use at all. For “world” means men, who savor of worldly things in all their parts. Martin Luther, “Bondage of the Will,” in Luther’s Works, 33:228.

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