Martin Luther on the Meaning of Christ’s Victory Over Sin, Death and Hell
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
A blessed Easter to you all. Here are some thoughts from Martin Luther on the meaning of Christ’s victory over Satan, death and hell, from his 1523 commentary on 1 Corinthians, specifically on 1 Cor. 15:54–55.
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” is a common saying. St. Paul is able to speak about this article at such length because his heart is filled with it and he is so convinced of it that he regards all else as nothing by comparison. If his heart were not filled to overflowing with such thoughts, these words would never occur to him. Therefore they sound so hazy and strange and incomprehensible to others who do not occupy themselves with such thoughts. But whoever concerns himself with these matters and reflects on another life will, I am sure, comprehend and understand them; for Paul speaks of this subject as though he were already face to face with it. And because Christ is risen and gives us His resurrection against our sin, death, and hell, we must advance to where we also learn to say: “O death, where is thy sting? etc.,” although we at present see only the reverse, namely, that we have nothing but the perishable hanging about our neck, that we lead a wretched filthy life, that we are subject to all sorts of distress and danger, and that nothing but death awaits us in the end.
But the faith that clings to Christ is able to engender far different thoughts. It can envisage a new existence. It can form an image and gain sight of a condition where this perishable, wretched form is erased entirely and replaced by a pure and celestial essence. For since faith is certain of this doctrine that Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, it must follow that this resurrection is just as effective in us as it was for Him—except that He is a different person, namely, true God. And faith must bring it about that this body’s frail and mortal being is discarded and removed and a different, immortal being is put on, with a body that can no longer be touched by filth, sickness, mishap, misery, or death but is perfectly pure, healthy, strong, and beautiful, so that not even the point of a needle can injure it. That will be the power and the effect, or, as St. Pauls says here, the victory gained by Christ, which will completely do away with and purge our sin and death with its attendant frailties, perils, and sufferings of the body.
Note how St. Paul speaks about this life and existence. He views it not as man himself but as a dress that he must wear now but discards later and replaces with another. He makes no more of death and grave than he does of taking off an old torn garment and casting it away. To him the resurrection is like putting on a beautiful new garment called immortalitas, incorruptibility or immortality. It is spun and woven by Christ’s victory. For the victory of Christ, who overcame all in Himself, was wrought for the purpose of clothing you with it and of cleansing you from your sin and death, so that nothing of your corruptible body remains or of anything that the devil infused in you or that derives from him, all sorts of misfortunes and frailties, error and folly, everything except your natural and true body as created by God. For God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live. But the devil inflicted so much shameful filth and so many blemishes on nature that man must bear so much sickness, stench, and misfortune about his neck because he sinned. But now that sin is removed through Christ, we shall be rid of all of that too. All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on earth. However, this is not brought about in any other way than that we first shed this old, evil garment through death. We must be divested of it entirely, and it must turn into dust.
When that comes to pass, Paul says, this will be fulfilled; now we say: Scriptum est, but then we shall say: Factum est. The time will come when that which is now always preached and spoken about will actually happen and be carried out. And what is that? It is the fact recorded in the words: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” St. Paul states that these words are found in Scripture; I really do not know where in Scripture. They seem to be taken from the prophet Hosea, chapter 13:14, where we read: “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, I will be your poison. O Sheol, I will be your plague (or pestilence).” That is to say: “I will kill you and do away with you.” For in Scripture poison and pestilence are regarded as a deadly evil, which quickly destroys and kills a person, for instance, when he is stung by the most venomous adders or when he gets a high, virulent fever or contracts the pestilence. It is natural also for the bite of a snake to bring about a fever. St. Paul may have had that in mind and paraphrased it with a few words.
However, I believe that St. Paul’s eyes ranged further and that he wished to include, in addition to Hosea’s statement, all similar ones contained in Scripture; for instance, above all the chief verse from which many others are derived, Gen. 3:15, where God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” In the Hebrew we find the same word for both zertreten and stechen.61 That word really means to bite as a serpent bites as it shoots the venom in. It means to say that the serpent will bite Christ’s heel, but He, in turn, will bite its head, that He will be a mortal venom and a pestilence for it, as Hosea interprets from this text. And this verse now prompts this proclamation of St. Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” For our Lord Christ brought it about that the venom and the bites of the devil were deadened and completely swallowed up by Him, who crushed his head, that is, who stripped him of all his might and power. In this way we can relate all similar verses found throughout the prophets to this one. They all flow from this one and into this one, so that all of them comprise but one text. For according to His rich Spirit He melts many verses into one and molds a text from these which is supplied by all of Scripture and expresses the meaning of all of Scripture.
Thus Paul now wants to say: “After Christ has accomplished the purpose of His resurrection, then all that is recorded of the victory will be fulfilled, namely, that by means of it both death and hell will be swallowed up and exist no longer.” Then one may say: “Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your spear?” Then this will no longer be proclaimed or heard and believed, but we ourselves will feel and experience it. Then the word will no longer be Fiat but Factum est. Then we will be face to face with what is now presented to us in words. In the meantime we must cling to this verse and know that what it says will surely come to pass.
Now note these words. Note how forcefully he speaks of death on the basis of Scripture. He pictures him as entirely swallowed up and devoured, with nothing remaining of him who himself devoured and swallowed up all men on earth. We hear furthermore that He Himself will be a poison to death and a pestilence to hell, which will consume all the poison with which the devil killed and destroyed people. For this poison is nothing else than the curse which has passed on to the whole world. It was blown and beaten into us by the devil, and we must all die from it. That is the drink he offered Adam and we all partook of with Adam when we were born. It has coursed through our body and all its members, and it also manifests itself externally by means of all sorts of distress and sorrow. However, Scripture discloses a salutary medicine and a precious antidote, given us by God in the Word, in which He assures us that He will kill death in return and that He also gives the devil a drink with which he will have to drink himself to death forever. He himself will have to devour his poison, curse, sin, hell, and death which he attached to nature, while we will be saved from these eternally by believing and adhering to the Seed.
“I Myself will do that,” He says; “I will be your death and your pestilence.” He applies these ugly words, death and pestilence, to Himself; and yet they are so immeasurably comforting. For note what and whom He refers to with these words. He is not a foe of nature. No, He shows that He wishes to help nature and subdue its enemy, death and devil. He has compassion with our misery, for He sees that we are now drowned by the devil’s poison and by death and are so submerged in it that we cannot extricate ourselves. He wants to wreak vengeance on him as on His own foe, who poisoned and spoiled His work. Therefore this is a real divine antidote, not taken from a physician’s pharmacy but prepared by heaven and given to us through Christ’s resurrection. It will be harmless for us, but it will kill and ruin only him who gave and served us this poison. And now, when we begin to believe the article of Christ, the potion is already mixed and drunk which eliminates the poison that he injected into my heart and conscience and also into my body. Now we are saved from the curse, and the same poison which we have in us is now poured out for the devil, so that he has to eat death by us. Thus we have drunk a salutary medicine in Baptism and the Sacrament, which expels and removes our poison. This does not kill me but the very enemy who intended to kill me with it. You see, that is why God employs such figurative language and calls Himself a poison, not a poison for us poor people who once were cumbered with death and pestilence, but a poison against the poison of death and hell. Now we who feel such poison and plague can take comfort from that, assured that God befriends us so greatly that He completely removes these from our body and soul and feeds these to devil and death, that his belly is rent by them.
Poison and pestilence are a death which does not kill suddenly and abruptly; but it kills nevertheless. It gradually makes its way through the whole body until it reaches the heart. That is the way God also treats us. He does not want to carry out the victory over death and devil all of a sudden, but He has this proclaimed for a while for the sake of the elect who are yet to be born. So He begins to mix and prepare the potion to be a purgatio or a medication for us, to refresh and to invigorate us but to be poison and death for the devil. This is comparable to a potion prescribed by a physician. This is conducive to a patient’s health, but it is poison to a fever. Thus He could well call His medicine or antidote a poison or a pestilence. Here, too, it is true that one poison expels another, that one pestilence kills the other.
This also applies to Christendom now, when Word, Baptism, and the Sacrament are administered and nothing is proclaimed but that Christ died and rose again. That is the only prescription or purgatio for our sin and death. That we must take daily and let it work, in order to drive the poison from our heart and take us from death and hell to eternal life. He promised us that; and He commanded us to proclaim it and to believe it. Thereby He brings it about in us daily that it penetrates like a leaven (as Christ says in Matt. 13:33). Then the heart grows and grows in faith and learns to despise and overcome this life and its hardships.
That is the victory by which death is to be swallowed up, so that we need fear death no longer or remain in it. For the heart is already saturated by the Gospel, which shall be poison and pestilence to death. It weakens death from day to day and deprives him of his strength, until he is submerged entirely and disappears. For although he is not yet entirely swallowed up in us, the victory gained by Christ is already present, and through Gospel, Baptism, and faith it has become our victory. On the Last Day, when we have taken off the old, terrestrial, perishable garment and put on a new celestial one, we can destroy him completely with this victory. Then we will remain in life forever; then we will behold and perceive life as we now behold and feel the reverse, namely, that death is in us and that we are stuck in death. The victory appears to be his alone, as he as the lord of the world devours and consumes one person after another up to the Last Day. But nevertheless we know from Scripture that victory was wrested from him by Christ, who began to swallow him up in Himself. And through Him we, too, are spiritually victorious over him. Later we will bury death also physically and do away with him entirely, so that nothing will be seen or known of him any longer. Instead, we will have nothing but life and bliss.
Then we will really begin to glory joyfully and defiantly and say and sing: “O death, where is thy sting? O hell, where is thy victory?” That is really snapping one’s fingers at death and hell and saying: “Dear death, do not bite me, but show your anger with me and kill me. I defy death and hell and challenge them to touch a hair on my head!63 Where are you now, you vile man-eaters?” Then there will be naught but making game of death, hell, and devil. And as they now boast and jeer at the whole world, saying, “We defy you to escape us!” tables will then be turned. Then we can vent our anger on them and defy them forever and say: “Now let us see what you are able to kill! Of course, you have been enjoined from killing. Now it is your turn to lie there ignominiously and be ridiculed in the bargain.” This has already begun through Christ on His own body. He sings this song of defiance against death and hell uninterruptedly: “Dear death, once upon a time you crucified and buried Me too; and you trampled Me underfoot. You assumed that you had gained the victory and had devoured Me. But where are you now? I defy you to pursue Me further!” For death has already been drowned and swallowed up entirely on His body, with not as much as a speck of death’s dust remaining on Him. Now we who believe in Him share in this when the hour comes in which we see and feel how death and hell are entirely swallowed up and exterminated. At present, however, we await the hour, assured that this will surely come to pass and that we can already defiantly rely on Christ by faith over against sin, death, and hell.
Luther, M. (1999, c1973). Vol. 28: Luther’s works, vol. 28 : 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (28:201). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.