Meditating on the Passion of Christ
by Martin Luther (translation by Paul T. McCain)
When we meditate on the Passion of Christ the right way, we see Christ and are terrified at the sight. Our conscience sinks in despair. This feeling of terror needs to happen so that we fully realize how great the wrath of God is against sin and sinners. We understand this when we see how God sets sinners free only because His dearly beloved Son—His only Son—paid such a costly ransom for us, as Isaiah 53:8 says, “He was stricken for the transgressions of my people.”
What happens to us when we see the dear Child of God struck down like this? We realize how inexpressible, even unbearable, is the Son’s total commitment to saving sinners. How else can we feel when we realize that a person so great as Christ went out to meet this fate, suffering and dying for sinners? If you truly and deeply reflect on the fact that God’s Son, the eternal Wisdom of God, suffers, you will be filled with terror. The more you reflect on it the deeper you will feel this way.
Your role in Christ’s suffering
You should deeply believe, and never doubt, that in fact you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to Him. When you look at the nails being driven through His hands, firmly believe that it is your work. Do you see His crown of thorns? Those thorns are your wicked thoughts.
Look! When one thorn pierces Christ, you need to know that more than a thousand should pierce you. They should pierce you for all eternity even more painfully than they ever pierced Christ. When you see nails driven through the hands and feet of Christ, know that you should be suffering this for all eternity, with even more painful nails. Everyone who looks on Christ’s sufferings and forgets about them, thinking they are of no worth, will suffer such a fate for all eternity. The Passion of Christ is a mirror of what is to come. This mirror is no lie and no joke. Whatever Jesus says will happen, completely.
You should deeply believe, and never doubt, that in fact you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to him.
Pray to God and ask Him to soften your heart now so you can meditate fruitfully on Christ’s passion. It is impossible for us to meditate on the sufferings of Christ by our own ability or power. God must plant these sufferings into our heart. This meditation on Christ’s suffering, as with all doctrine from God, is not given to you so that you can go off and do your own thing with it. No, you should always first search for God’s grace and long for it. On your own, you can’t do anything. Everything depends on God’s grace. People who never view the sufferings of Christ correctly are the people who never call upon God and ask him to help them. Instead, they try to consider Christ’s suffering on their own and end up regarding Christ’s sufferings in a purely human and unfruitful way.
Let me say this very clearly and openly for all to hear. Whoever meditates on Christ’s sufferings the right way for a day, an hour, even for fifteen minutes, is doing something far better than fasting for a whole year, praying all the Psalms every day, or listening to one hundred masses. The right kind of meditation on Christ’s suffering changes a person’s character. As in Baptism, a person is newly born again through such meditation. Then the sufferings of Christ are accomplishing their true, natural and noble work. They kill the Old Adam. They banish from us all lust, pleasure and security that we might think one of God’s creatures can give us, just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.
We need to realize that feeling born again is not something that is up to us. It may be that sometimes we will pray for it, but do not receive it just then. We should not despair, but keep on praying. At times it comes when we are not praying for it. God knows what we need. He will do what is best. It is free and unbound. It may be, when our consciences are causing us distress and we are deeply unhappy with our lives and what we have done we do not realize it, that the Passion of Christ is doing this to us.
Comfort in Christ’s suffering
Up to this point in our discussion, it is as if we have been in Passion Week and Good Friday. Now we come to Easter and Christ’s Resurrection. When a person, whose conscience has been filled with terror, understands his sins in this light, he needs to watch out that his sins do not remain in his conscience, for then nothing but pure doubt will result. Just as our sins flowed out of Christ and we became aware of them, so we should pour them back on Him again and set our conscience free.
Take your sins and throw them on Christ. Believe with a joyful spirit that your sins are His wounds and sufferings. He carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Isaiah 53:6 says, “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” If we dwell too much on our sins, going over and over them in our conscience, keeping them close to our hearts, soon they will become too much for us to manage and they will live forever. But when we see our sins laid on Christ and see Him triumph over them by His Resurrection, and fearlessly believe this, our sins are dead and become nothing. Our sins don’t stay on Christ, but are swallowed up by His resurrection. That is why Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” In His sufferings Christ made our sins known and was crucified for them. By His resurrection He makes us righteous and frees from all sin. If you are not able to believe then pray to God for faith. This is entirely up to God. He gives faith at times very dramatically and openly, and at other times, secretly and quietly.
Take your sins and thrown them on Christ. Believe with a joyful spirit that your sins are His wounds and sufferings. He carries them and makes satisfaction for them.
Therefore, here is what you need to do. First, stop looking at Christ’s sufferings any longer. They have already done their work and have terrified you. Press forward through all difficulties and see His friendly heart. Look how full of love God’s heart is for you. It was this love that moved Him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and sin. If you do this, your heart will be sweetly loving toward Him. The assurance of your faith will be stronger.
Ascend higher through the heart of Christ to the heart of God and then you will see that Christ would not have been able to love you if God had not willed all this in His eternal love. Christ is obedient to this love, and so loves you. In the heart of God you will find a divine, good, fatherly heart. As Christ says, you will be drawn to the Father through Christ. Then you will understand what Christ meant when he said in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.” This is how we know God as He wants us to know Him. We know Him not by His power and wisdom, which terrify us, but by His goodness and love. There our faith and confidence stand unmovable. This is how a person is truly born again in God.
Strength in Christ’s suffering
When your heart is set on Christ, you are an enemy of sin, because of love, and not because you are afraid of being punished. Christ’s sufferings should be an example for your whole life. You should meditate on them in a different way. To this point we have considered Christ’s Passion as a sacrament that works in us. Now we want to consider the sufferings of Christ in a different way, in a way that is something that works in us when we suffer. When the day comes that sickness and sorrow weigh you down, think how little it matters compared to the thorns and nails of Christ. If you have to do something you don’t want, or can’t do something you want to do, think about how Christ was led about by others, tied up as a prisoner.
When your heart is set on Christ, you are an enemy of sin, because of love, and not because you are afraid of being punished.
Does pride attack you? Look at how your Lord was mocked and disgraced along with murderers. Do sexually impure thoughts and lust come your way, thrusting themselves on you? Think how bitter it was for Christ to have his tender flesh torn, pierced and beaten, again and again. Are hatred and envy at war within you, or are you seeking vengeance? Remember how Christ prayed for you, and all of his enemies, with many tears and cries. He had more reason than you to seek revenge! If any trouble or adversity trouble your body or soul, take heart! Say, “Why shouldn’t I also not suffer a little since my Lord sweat blood in the Garden because of his anxiety and grief? I would be a lazy, disgraceful servant if all I want to do is lie in bed while my Lord is forced to do battle with a painful death.”
This is how you find strength in Christ and are comforted when you struggle with all kinds of vice and bad habits. This is the right way to meditate on the Passion of Christ. This is the fruit of His suffering. People who make the life and name of Christ part of their own life are truly called Christians, as Paul says in Galatians 5:24: “Those who are in Christ have crucified the flesh with all its passions and lusts.” We need to meditate on Christ’s passion, not with lots of words or with a showy display, but put it to true use in our lives. Paul admonishes us in Hebrews 12:3, “Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Peter says in 1 Peter 4:1: “Since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”
Rev. Paul T. McCain is Publisher and Executive Director of the Editorial Division of Concordia Publishing House (CPH). He served as general editor of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, a reader’s edition.
This article is a selection from Martin Luther’s “Sermon Concerning Meditation on the Holy Sufferings of Christ.” The translation above is Rev. McCain’s adaptation of a 1906 translation, and appears here by kind permission of CPH. The full, uncut version of the sermon is available from CPH in a tract entitled “How to Meditate on the Passion of Christ.” © 2004 Concordia Publishing House, www.cph.org. Used with permission. All rights reserved.