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SERMONS OF MARTIN LUTHER -
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This and the last sermon are one in some editions. Hence the paragraphs are numbered as one sermon. “Be not wise in your own conceits.”
64. The lesson as read in the Church ends here. We shall, therefore, notice but briefly the remaining portion. “Conceits,” as here used, signifies the obstinate attitude with regard to temporal things which is maintained by that individual who is unwilling to be instructed, who himself knows best in all things, who yields to no one and calls good whatever harmonizes with his ideas. The Christian should be more willing to make concession in temporal affairs. Let him not be contentious, but rather yielding, since the Word of God and faith are not involved, it being only a question of personal honor, of friends and of worldly things. “Render to no man evil for evil.”
65. In the counsel above (verse 14) to “curse not,” the writer of the epistle has in mind those unable to avenge themselves, or to return evil for evil.
These have no alternative but to curse, to invoke evil upon their oppressors. In this instance, however, the reference is to those who have equal power to render one another evil for evil, malice for malice, whether by acts committed or omitted — and usually they are omitted. But the Christian should render good for evil, and omit not. God suffers his sun to shine upon the evil and upon the good. Matthew 5:45. “Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men.”
65. This injunction is similar to that he gives the Thessalonians ( Thessalonians 5:22), “Abstain from all appearance of evil”; and the Philippians ( Philippians 4:8): “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The reference is purely to our outward conduct. Paul would not have the Christian think himself at liberty to do his own pleasure, regardless of others’ approbation. Only in the things of faith is such the Christian’s privilege. His outward conduct should be irreproachable, acceptable to all men; in keeping with the teaching of 1 Corinthians 10:32-33, to please all men, giving offense neither to Jews nor to Gentiles; and obedient to Peter’s advice ( 1 Peter 2:12), “Having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles.” “If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.”
67. Outward peace among men is here intended — peace with Christians and heathen, with the godly and the wicked, the high and the low. We must give no occasion for strife; rather, we are to endure every ill patiently, never permitting peace to be disturbed on our account. We must not return evil for evil, blow for blow; for he who so does, gives rise to contention.
Paul adds, “As much as in you lieth.” We are to avoid injuring any, lest we be the ones to occasion contention. We must extend friendliness to all men, even though they be not friendly to us. It is impossible to maintain peace at all times. The saying is, “I can continue in peace only so long as my neighbor is willing.” But it lies in our power to leave others at peace, friends and foes, and to endure the contentions of all. “Oh yes,” you say, “but where would we be then ?” Listen: “Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord.”
68. Note, in forbidding us to return blow for blow and to resort to vengeance, the apostle implies that our enjoyment of peace depends on our quiet endurance of others’ disturbance. He not only gives us assurance that we shall be avenged, but he intimidates us from usurping the office of God, to whom alone belong vengeance and retribution. Indeed, he rather deplores the fate of the Christian’s enemies, who expose themselves to God’s wrath; he would move us to pity them in view of the fact that we must give place to wrath and permit them to fall into the hands of God.
The vengeance and wrath of God are dispensed in various ways: through the instrumentality of political government; at the hands of the devil; by illness, hunger and pestilence; by fire and water; by war, enmity, disgrace; and by every possible kind of misfortune on earth. Every creature may serve as the rod and the weapon of God when he designs chastisement. As said in Wisdom of Solomon, Song of Solomon 5:17: “He shall . . . make the creature his weapon for the revenge of his enemies.”
69. So Paul says, “Give place unto wrath.” I have inserted the words “of God” to make clearer the meaning of the text; the wrath of God is intended, and not the wrath of man. The thought is not of giving place to the anger of our enemies. True, there may be occasion even for that, but Paul has not reference here to man’s anger. Evidently, he means misfortunes and plagues, which are regarded as expressions of God’s wrath. Possibly the apostle omitted the phrase to avoid giving the idea that only the final wrath of God is meant — his anger at the last day, when he will inflict punishment without instrumentality. Paul would include here all wrath, whether temporal or eternal, to which God gives expression in his chastisements. This is an Old Testament way of speaking. Phinehas says (Josiah 22:18), “To-morrow he will be wroth with... Israel.” And Moses in several places speaks of God’s anger being kindled. See Numbers 11:1, Numbers 10:33. I mention these things by way of teaching that when the political government wields the sword of punishment against its enemies, it should be regarded as an expression of God’s wrath; and that the statement in Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine,” does not refer solely to punishment inflicted of God direct, without instrumentality. “But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.”
70. This teaching endorses what I have already stated — that the Christian’s enemies are to be pitied in that they are subjected to the wrath of God. Consequently it is not Christian-like to injure them; rather, we should extend favors. Paul here introduces a quotation from Solomon. Proverbs 25:21-22. Heaping coals of fire on the head, to my thought, implies conferring favors upon the enemy. Being enkindled by our kindness, he ultimately becomes displeased with himself and more kindly disposed to us. Coals here are benefits, or favors. Coals in the censer likewise stand for the favors, or blessings, of God; they are a type of our prayers, which should rise with fervor. Some say that coals represent the Law and judgments of God (see Psalm 18:8, “Coals were kindled by it”), reasoning that in consequence of the Christian’s favors, his enemy is constrained to censure himself and to feel the weight of God’s Law and his judgments. I do not think a Christian should desire punishment to fall upon his enemy, though such explanation of the sentence is not inapt. In fact, it rather accords with the injunction, “Give place unto wrath”; that is, do good and then wrath — the coals — will readily fall upon the enemy. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
71. With this concluding counsel, it strikes me, Paul himself explains the phrase “coals of fire” in harmony with the first idea — that the malice of an enemy is to be overcome with good. Overcoming by force is equivalent to lending yourself to evil and wronging the enemy who wrongs you. By such a course your enemy overcomes you and you are made evil like himself.
But if you overcome him with good, he will be made righteous like you. A spiritual overcoming is here meant; the disposition, the heart, the soul — yes, the devil who instigates the evil — are overcome.
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