R. Albert Mohler, Jr. | For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore
The town sign of Eilenburg, Germanyapn Photo/Matthias Rietschel
Martin Rinkart was a pastor during the Lutheran Reformation, and his arrival as minister in the Saxon town of Eilenburg came as the Thirty Years War was ravaging Europe. The merciless war was no stranger to his town or to his church members, and the town walls of Eilenburg were seen as a refuge by many seeking protection from war and persecution. Before long, the town was overrun with pilgrims and refugees, and what they brought with them was even worse than the deadly scourge of war.
They brought the plague.
Historians believe the deadliest period of the plague in Eilenburg came in the years 1636 and 1637. Eventually, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor alive in the town. At one point, he was conducting fifty funeral services a day. In the year 1637, he presided over at least 4,000 funerals. One of those funerals was for his own wife.
Few know the name of Martin Rinkart today, but his name appears in hundreds of hymn books. His most familiar hymn is known to us today as “Now Thank We All Our God,” written in 1636. The most striking point is that Martin Rinkart wrote that hymn as death and pestilence surrounded him, and as the ravages of war and plague killed by the day.
At the height of this misery, Pastor Rinkart was thanking God? He was writing a hymn of thankfulness and leading his congregation to sing of their thankfulness?
Indeed he was. What can explain this thankfulness in the face of death, war, plague, suffering? Only the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only the grace and mercy of God can justify such brazen thankfulness. In the face of death and against the temptation of despair, Pastor Rinkart declared:
“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices.” He continued, “Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
If we are honest, such words of thankfulness seem right and natural to Christians. We know that we are called to thankfulness and that a lack of gratitude is the very heart of sin. We are warned by the words of the Apostle Paul, who tells us that the inception of sin is found in refusing to honor God, or give thanks (Romans 1:21).
“Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving,” commands the Psalmist [Psalm 147:7]. But in a time of plague? In the face of 4,000 funerals?
A clue is found in the second verse of the hymn, where Rinkart makes a profound request of the Lord. As we sing the hymn, we ask God to “guide us when perplexed.”
When perplexed? Martin Rinkart did not have easy answers to the suffering and death he saw all around him. He did not seek a superficial escape in the face of such agony and he did not deny the pain. He felt the pain.
Instead, he admitted perplexity. Why now? Why Eilenburg? Why death on such a scale? Rinkart did not know the answers to these questions, but he admitted to being perplexed.
And yet, this faithful pastor did not abandon himself to despair. Instead, he asked God to guide us when we are perplexed. Then he taught his congregation to sing, “and free us from all ills of this world in the next.”
By the power of Christ, in the world to come there will be no more pain, no more war, no more death. As Paul declares, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)
Yes! Thanks be to God—for he has given us victory over sin and death and plague and the curse through our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is not wrong for Christians in the United States to look back to 1621 for the first thanksgiving celebration of our national memory. It is not wrong to think of the Pilgrims and their thankfulness to God for seeing them across the story seas and through an unimaginably hard winter, in which they had known their own share of death and sorrow.
We are right to look back, but we must look back further than the Pilgrims in 1621, or Pastor Martin Rinkart in 1636. We must look all the way back to the thankfulness to which we are called from the opening of Genesis to the close of the Book of Revelation. Ultimately, we look back in thankfulness to the saving work of God in the atonement accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Pilgrims knew that, and they gave thanks. Pastor Martin Rinkart knew that, and he taught his congregation to sing thankfulness to God in the face of death and plague.
May you and your family celebrate a most wonderful and grateful Thanksgiving.
The last word belongs to Martin Rinkart, from the final verse of his hymn:
“All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest, who reign in highest heaven.
The one eternal God, whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”
Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions.