A Fire and a Hammer

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“Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make My people forget My name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has My Word speak My Word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not My Word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:23-29).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The prophet Jeremiah lived in an era not too unlike our own since there was an immense amount of pressure to preach pleasing things to foster peace and goodwill toward all. However, the many false prophets had almost completely driven God’s people away from Him with their lying words of comfort, peace, and prosperity. So, the Lord assigned Jeremiah the task of calling them to account, a task he did not take lightly. Jeremiah knew firsthand about the cost of being a prophet. He knew the burden and the awesome responsibility of one who speaks in the name of the Lord. For it is to the Lord that each prophet must give an account.

Jeremiah described these false prophets as adulterers. They had left the Lord for false gods and practiced the temple prostitution common to Canaanite worship. They had embraced Baal worship, even allowing it in the Lord’s temple. And all these pagan practices had sad consequences. For one thing, the Lord had cursed the land. What had been productive and alive has become parched and withered, even the grass most toughened to the heat dried up to a crisp. But the worst thing they had done was to empty the Lord’s Word of its meaning. They had allowed anyone to make his own convenient interpretation, an interpretation suited to cover his own self-chosen, sinful actions. The result was that no one heard or heeded God’s call to repentance and ungodliness had spread over the whole land. Such failure to fulfill their high calling merited the severest judgment.

   The Lord’s advice was direct and simple, still the best advice when one is confronted by dubious spiritual messengers and their counsel — “Do not listen [to them].” The prophets in Judah were not preaching messages from the Lord. What they were saying contradicted everything the Lord had said in the rest of His Word. The false prophets gave false hope to those who despised and refused to believe the Lord’s Word. They dismissed God’s threatened judgment with the words “it shall be well with you.” They gave false hope because they left the impenitent with the impression that sin is no big deal and does not matter.

Had these prophets been close to or stood in the council of the Lord, then they surely would have grasped the heart of the Lord’s message, the center of all Scripture: Repent! The Lord means what He says, “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Salvation and righteousness are found in the Lord alone and in the Word that brings His forgiveness.

The prophets occupied a central place in the Lord’s blueprint for ancient Israel; it was through their preaching that souls were saved or damned. They therefore bore a special measure of responsibility. The Lord would not spare those who had perverted His Word, for that Word is life. If it is obscured and its message is distorted, then the only means God has given to save sinners is lost. The Lord therefore solemnly pledged that His anger would not stop until the false prophets have paid the full measure of punishment. Let their judgment serve as a warning to all who treat the Word or any part of it as though it does not matter.

God challenged the false prophets’ assertions: “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and omnipresent. Nothing and no one escaped His notice and His judgment. God calls everyone to account for His life.

The Lord rejected the attempts of the false prophets to put their dreams on a par with His Word. “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” they cried (Jeremiah 23:25), attributing to God whatever thoughts had arisen from the fevered hotbed of their own imaginations. They believed that if they just kept repeating the message, by sheer volume they could move God’s people away from Him.

Yet there is no comparison between the word of the false prophet and the Lord’s Word. It’s like comparing the value of chaff—the husks and the straw—to grain—the food. So let the dreamer dream; let the prophet of the Lord speak God’s Word faithfully, counting on that Word to do the work the Lord intends. That Word is powerful. It is fire to consume the fragile tissue of our own righteousness; it is fire to purify us for the Lord. It is a hammer to shatter even the hardest hearts so that they might be created anew.

Like Jeremiah’s day, there are so many competing voices claiming to be true, it’s hard to know what is true. This applies to all manner of things from science to politics, but it gets especially dangerous when we’re talking theology and matters of faith. There are a lot of voices saying what people want to hear. And many of these voices are outright liars, false prophets. Beware of them! Do not listen to them but listen to the truth of God’s Word—the hammer and fire of His Law and the sweet grace of His Gospel.

There are those who say that God is found in emotional experience. Those who say that salvation comes from one’s personal decision to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. Those who say that one is justified by “faith formed by love.” Those who say God is love and therefore is very accepting of all sorts of marriages that are based on “love.” Those who insist that all people will be saved because a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell. Those who say you can’t say their aberrant sexual practices are wrong “because God made me this way.” Those who say that it is a woman’s right to choose whether she kills her unborn baby through abortion. Those who say that gender is fluid, a matter of personal perception rather than biology. Those who would say there are multiple paths to heaven and/or God. Those who say there is nothing wrong with two people who are committed to one another cohabiting before marriage. Those who insist that Baptism is an empty religious ceremony with no power to bestow salvation. Those who deny Holy Absolution saying that only God can forgive sins. Those who say that Christ’s body and blood are only present symbolically in the Lord’s Supper.

To those who say that God is found in emotional experience, St. Paul reminds us of the power of God’s Word, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14–17).

To those who say that salvation comes from one’s personal decision to receive Christ as Lord and Savior, God’s Word declares, “[Christ] came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11–13). Jesus adds, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give it to you” (John 15:16).

To those who say that salvation is found in “faith formed by love,” God’s Word clearly says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

To those who insist God is love and therefore is very accepting of all sorts of marriage that are based on “love,” Jesus says, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4–5).

To those who say that all people will be saved because a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell, the Lord says of unbelievers on the Last Day, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). Jesus adds, “Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

To those who say you can’t say their aberrant sexual practices are wrong “because God made me this way,” God’s Word declares, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves… For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:24, 26–27).

To those who say that it is a woman’s right to choose whether she kills her unborn baby through abortion and that no one can tell her what to do with her own body, God’s Word declares “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19b–20). The Lord affirms the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5). The psalmist affirms God’s gift of life, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16).

 To those who say that gender is fluid, a matter of personal perception rather than biology, God’s Word says, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me;” or the thing formed say of Him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?” (Isaiah 29:16).

To those who would say there are multiple paths to heaven and/or God, Jesus says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

To those who say there is nothing wrong with two people who are committed to one another cohabiting before marriage, God’s Word says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).

To those who insist Baptism is an empty religious ceremony with no power to bestow salvation, God’s Word declares through the Apostle Paul, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5–7). 

To those who deny Holy Absolution saying that only God can forgive sins, Christ assures us that in the Absolution the pastor speaks with Christ’s authority and on His behalf: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

To those who say that Christ’s body and blood are only present symbolically in the Lord’s Supper, God’s Word tells us, “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26–28).

The new “revelations” of false prophets may be thrilling, but they ultimately drive those who follow them far away from God. They may seem novel and attractive, but they are dangerous. And so, we preach God’s Word in all its fullness—His Law and Gospel. As Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles:

[The Law]is God’s thunderbolt. By the Law He strikes down both obvious sinners and false saints. He declares no one to be in the right, but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer. As Jeremiah says, “Is not My Word like … a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (23:29). This is not active contrition or manufactured repentance. It is passive contrition, true sorrow of heart, suffering, and the sensation of death.

This is what true repentance means. Here a person needs to hear something like this, “You are all of no account, whether you are obvious sinners or saints ‹in your own opinions›. You have to become different from what you are now. You have to act differently than you are now acting, whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you can be. Here no one is godly.”

But to this office of the Law, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the Gospel. This must be believed. As Christ declares, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). That is, become different, act differently, and believe My promise… This is what Christ Himself says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [My] name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

Whenever the Law alone exercises its office, without the Gospel being added, there is nothing but death and hell, and one must despair, as Saul and Judas did [1 Samuel 31; Matthew 27:5]. St. Paul says, through sin the Law kills. [See Romans 7:10.] On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness. It does so not just in one way, but through the Word and the Sacraments… As Psalm 130:7 says against the dreadful captivity of sin, “with the Lord is … plentiful redemption.”[i]

Truly, our God is a loving God who wishes to draw near to us and to draws us to Himself. He does that in His grace and mercy through the faithful proclamation of His Word and the proper administration of the Sacraments here in this holy place. We, who have been afar off have been brought close by these means of grace so that we would be comforted and consoled with that which they bring and offer.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 272–273.

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