On July 1, 1523, two Augustinian monks were burnt at the stake in Brussels for adhering to Martin Luther’s teachings.
Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes were the first Lutheran martyrs. They and their entire monastery in Antwerp had officially adopted Reformation doctrine in 1522. The monks were subsequently rounded up and imprisoned. Facing execution, most recanted and were released; Esch and Voes, however, refused.
On hearing of their deaths, Martin Luther composed his first hymn, recounting the story of their martyrdom. The first verse of John A. Messenger’s 1843 English paraphrase of the text reads as follows:
Flung to the heedless winds
Or on the waters cast,
The martyrs’ ashes, watched,
Shall gathered be at last.
And from that scattered dust,
Around us and abroad,
Shall spring a plenteous seed
Of witnesses for God.
Nearly 501 years after the beginning of the Reformation, the spiritual heirs of these Lutheran martyrs returned to Belgium once again. From September 25–28, 2018, church leaders representing more than fifty church bodies and 20 million Lutherans worldwide gathered in Antwerp for the 2018 World Conference of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). The ILC is an international association of churches dedicated to upholding historic, confessional Lutheranism.
Confessional Lutheranism has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the past few years as numerous Lutheran churches around the world begin to resist contemporary reinterpretations of Lutheranism in favor of a deeper connection to historic Lutheran teachings and practice (I highlighted this resistance in detail in a 2017 article for First Things). The ILC’s 2018 World Conference brings this phenomenon into sharper relief; In Antwerp, the International Lutheran Council accepted 17 new church bodies into membership, more than doubling the total number of Lutherans associated with the ILC worldwide.
This represents a seismic shift in the state of world Lutheranism. Other churches will follow; even before the conference ended, additional churches indicated they intended to seek membership in the ILC. The ILC is expanding its capacity, and providing new forms of support—especially for theological training—as it seeks to meet growing desire and interest in confessional Lutheranism across the globe.
I said it last year, and I say it again: “Mainline Lutheranism, with its lower view of the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, is not the natural endpoint of the Lutheran tradition. Confessional Lutheranism is not dead. It is very much alive, and it is growing.” This year we have seen some of that growth in action. “The martyrs’ ashes”—the faithful witness of confessional Lutheranism down through the centuries—is indeed bringing forth “a plenteous seed of witnesses for God.”
And while the news that millions of Lutherans around the world are seeking closer ties to the ILC is indeed reason to rejoice, it is not the number of witnesses that matters in and of itself; it is instead the message these witnesses proclaim. The good news the Scriptures teach, the good news for which Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes died, the good news that confessional Lutherans across the earth continue to proclaim remains the same as it ever has: that we poor sinners are saved through the death and resurrection of Christ alone—a gift received by grace through faith.
May God bless that faithful witness for generations to come, that the martyrs’ message would be forever proclaimed:
Still, still, though dead, they speak,
And trumpet-tongued, proclaim
To many a wakening land
The one availing Name.
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @mathewablock.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.