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Hitler's Cross

The Third Reich Crushes Opposition: Did The Gates Of Hades Prevail?

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 30, 1994

Selected highlights from this sermon

Christ has promised that the Gates of Hades would not prevail against the Church. Under Adolf Hitler’s reign, the church divided and scattered—it was virtually killed off and the Gospel was squelched, and though it may look Hades prevailed, God didn’t lose—even then.

God’s victory is based on eternity, not on time. In the end, whether we believed in Christ or not, all of humanity will bow before the King of kings. 

A wonderful biblical truth! God is in control.

And in keeping with that theme I would like you to take your Bibles and turn to the sixteenth chapter of the book of Matthew (Matthew chapter 16) where Jesus is giving some words to His disciples who began to wonder whether God was in control. And in the midst of their disappointment, the fact that Jesus Christ did not set up the kingdom, He said these words in Matthew 16, verse 18: “And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

Notice a couple of observations. First of all, the church belongs to Christ. It is His church. And whenever we begin to use the church for our own purposes, or use it as a platform to display our gifts and do our thing, we forget that the church belongs to Christ. The people of God belong to God.

Secondly, notice that Jesus Christ builds the church. He builds it because He saves people and He gifts them and develops them that they might become a part of the body. Christ builds the church. But notice also that Christ defends the church. “The gates of Hades,” He says, “will not prevail against it.” It may look at times as if the church is being squished out. It may look as if the church, as if the light has blown out, but at the end of the day, the gates of Hades will not prevail, and God’s purpose will move forward. 

Today I’d like to tell you a story, and then after I have told you this story, we will return to this passage of Scripture, and we will see how God always wins, even when it looks as if He might be losing. God always wins. He is in control.

It’s a story that takes place, of course, in Nazi Germany. As many of you know I’ve been giving a series of messages on looking at the Third Reich through the lens of Scripture, and we continue that series today. When Adolf Hitler came to power, at first he courted the church. Then he romanced the church. Then he seduced it, and eventually he destroyed it, and I want to tell you how that happened. And in order to help us to understand it, I want to quickly go through three different stages in the relationship of the church during those dark days when Nazi terror ruled in Germany.

First of all, you’ll notice according to your notes, that the church was divided. The church was divided. You had, at that time in Germany, many German Christians that rose to the surface, and they believed that there could be a synthesis between the German culture and its aspirations as a nation, and Christianity. They were known as the German Christians and they were in step with Hitler’s agenda.

Now interestingly, Adolf Hitler chose a leader for those people, and he wanted this leader to be the Reich’s bishop, the bishop that would be over all the protestants in Germany, and the man’s name was Ludwig Müller. Almost sounds German, doesn’t it? A young theologian by the name of Bonhoeffer campaigned against Ludwig Müller and all the other Hitler delegates to the synod. Bonhoeffer gave a very famous sermon in Berlin, in which he said to the church, “Be the church. Confess! Confess! Confess!” He said, “Confess Christ and remain strong.” But nevertheless Ludwig Müller was elected because of the pressure of Hitler, and the synod took place in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the very one where Luther put the Ninety-five Theses so many centuries before.

There was a second synod that was held that was known as the Brown Synod, and it was called that because many of the clergy came in Nazi uniforms and they did the Nazi salute. And it was there that they adopted the Aryan clause, which says that no one of Jewish blood can ever speak from a pulpit in Germany. And the church ratified it.

It was at that time that young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young theologian, and Martin Niemöller decided to get together and to form what was known as the “Pastor’s Emergency League.” They sent a letter to all of the pastors in which they said, “We want to stand up for Scripture. We have to resist those who attack Scripture. We have to help those who are persecuted, and finally we must repudiate the Aryan clause.” They got about two-thousand pastors to sign on, and after that, several thousand others began to sign on in an attempt to oppose what was happening to their churches. In November of the same year (1933) there was a huge gathering of the Protestant church in the Sports Palace in Berlin, in which one of the leaders stood up now, speaking for the whole denomination which had, of course, been captured to some extent by Hitler’s agenda, and he said, “The Old Testament must be abandoned with its tales of cattle merchants and pimps, and the New Testament and the words of Christ must be revised to fall in line with national socialism.” That was even a bit much for some of the German Christians, and many of them began to oppose what the regime was trying to do.

Then the confessing church. You see, out of the “Pastors Emergency League” there now came the confessing church because Bonhoeffer said, “Confess, confess, confess!” They met together in the next year in a place called Barmen, and they came up with a declaration which says, “We reject the false doctrine that there are realms of our life which belong not to Jesus Christ but to other masters and realms.” We reject the idea that we need not to be justified and sanctified by Him in all realms. In other words, what they were saying was that Jesus Christ belongs to everything, and we reject the idea of the two spheres, that we can worship God on Sunday, and then we can be politically active during the week even though our regime has become filled with war and atrocities. And they proclaimed the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

But here’s my point. The church is now divided. On the one hand you have the mainstream church which was falling in line with the agenda. And then you have the confessing church which began to break away, saying that it had the responsibility to follow Christ no matter what. And both factions of the church were claiming legitimacy and legal lines of authority. And then you have the church scattered. You have the church that is scattered, and the next synod of the confessing church largely avoided many of the issues because by now repression and persecution had broken out. Once again Bonhoeffer and Niemöller sent a letter to all of the pastors saying that the decision to not stand firm was like a curse over the confessing church. It said, “Let us not be oppressed by the fact that the church’s future appears to rest in what our eyes seems to be impenetrable darkness, but let it be not for us to know that we know what we are commanded to do.”

Yes, there was darkness, but “Let us do right despite the darkness,” they said. But their letter had a very small effect and only a few responded. There was much dishonorable silence during those days.

In 1936, Bonhoeffer spoke to the Confessing Church for the last time, pleading to stand up for Christ and to resist Hitler. But even some of his own students disagreed, and there were people who said, “We will continue to compromise. We will sign the Aryan clause and we will even give our allegiance to Hitler, and then we’ll go on preaching the Gospel anyway.” And so the power of the church began to dissipate.

Thirdly, the church is finally crushed. It’s crushed. In 1936, they sent a memo to Hitler. The Confessing Church did. It was a very courageous document. They asked the Führer whether the movement to de-Christianize Germany was actually official policy. And then they contrasted Christianity with his doctrines, and said, “Where Aryan man is glorified, God’s Word, in contrast, testifies to the fallenness of all man. Where antisemitism is forced upon the Christian and he is obligated to hate the Jews, this is contrary to the love of one’s neighbor.” And then they ended by saying, “Even an exalted cause must in the end lead the nation to ruin if it sets itself up against the revealed will of God.”

Hitler had to respond because the memo was leaked to the foreign press, and so great repression and persecution broke out. Shortly thereafter about eight hundred pastors were put into concentration camps, and God was with them during those difficult days. And some of the pastors were killed, but they were martyrs for Christ and they died for a worthy cause. And in 1937, Niemöller preached his last sermon in the Third Reich to his congregation in Berlin, and said, “No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s request when God commands us to speak. We are not ready to do that for we must obey God rather than man.” And he was tried for abuse of pulpit, and sentenced to the concentration camps where he spent seven years. And then finally in 1938, the Confessing Church met for the last time, and what they decided to do was to totally avoid all these issues, and they said to themselves that now it is up to individual pastors to decide whether they will sign the Aryan clause, and whether or not they were willing to give their personal allegiance to Adolf Hitler, which was now requested and demanded, or else they would leave their pulpits (they would lose their pulpits). As a result of that decision, since the church was not unified, they did not take a complete stand, but they said, “Leave it up to every pastor to decide.” The Gestapo was able to look up all the pastors who were not falling in line, and for all practical purposes, the light of the church was extinguished. The Gospel no longer was preached from the pulpits because most of the pastors, even those who had belonged to the Confessing Church, fell in line and they began to give their allegiance to Adolf Hitler, and swore their commitment to him alone.

What was Hitler’s real agenda for the church? Well, during the war, a document was published which laid out thirty different things that he would like to see happen. I’ll read three or four of them to you. First of all, “The National Reich Church of Germany categorically claims the exclusive right and the exclusive power to control all the churches within the borders of the Reich; it declares these to be national churches of the German Reich. The National Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests, but National Reich orators are to speak in the churches. We demand the immediate cessation of the publishing and the dissemination of the Bible in Germany. The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Führer’s, (that is Hitler’s book) Mein Kampf, is the greatest of all documents. It not only contains the greatest, but it embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and the future life of our nation. Therefore, the National Church will clear away from its altars, all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf to the German nation, and therefore to God the most sacred book, and to the left of the altar a sword. And on the day when it will be founded, when this transformation will be completed, the cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals, and chapels, and must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.” And that was the agenda.

Now it’s easy for us to say, “Well, why didn’t all the pastors go to the concentration camps and die?” And it would be wonderful for us to think, “You know, if we were living in those days, why indeed we would have been among those who died heroically for Jesus Christ.” But I want us to look at that picture realistically and understand that their very survival was at stake.

It’s one thing for a pastor or for church leaders to say, “I will die for Jesus Christ,” but when you are told, as many of them were, that if they were not willing to fall in line, their families would be tortured, persecuted, and put to death along with their children, then the decision to follow Jesus becomes more difficult. And for many of them it was simply too much to bear. Many of them, as I mentioned, did die heroically, and God will take that into account when He rewards them in the Day of Judgment. And in a future message, I am going to talk about a theology of martyrdom that has been in the church really from the beginning.

But what I’d like to do today is to ask you a question. Did God win? Does God win even when His church appears to lose? And, of course, the answer is yes. God always wins. Jesus said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church. That expression the gates of Hades really refers to death. Christ is saying, “Even though I will die, the gates of hell will not quench what God is determined to do.”

And so to encourage us and to help us to understand the theological dimensions, what I’d like to do is to take the next two moments to explain to you how and why God always wins.

First of all, God does not have to win numerically in order to win spiritually. He doesn’t have to win numerically. Do you know that it was never God’s plans that the church was going to conquer the world in terms of people? God always knew that the church was going to be small. Jesus said that the way to destruction is broad, and many there be which go in through it, but the way which leads to life is narrow, and few there be that find it.

One day when Christ was on Earth, He said to the disciples, “Fear not little flock for it is to you that I give the kingdom.” Jesus said, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves,” and there are probably far more wolves than there are sheep. But I want you to rejoice today that the purposes of God are never thwarted even when His people remain unfaithful. The Bible says God remains faithful because He cannot deny Himself.

Take your Bibles and turn to Romans chapter 9 for just a moment. One of the questions that the people in the church of Rome had is this. They were thinking very logically. They said, “You know, if Jesus is the Messiah, if He is the fulfillment of God’s promises, in light of the fact that the Jews do not accept the Messiah but rejected Him, doesn’t this mean that the Word of God and the purposes of God are thrown off kilter?” Paul confronts this directly in Romans chapter 9, verse 6. He says, “But it is not as though the Word of God has failed.” I love that expression. Do you know what it means in Greek? It says, “It’s not as if the Word of God is off course” (It’s a nautical term, that is to say, it has to do with ships sailing in the water.) It’s not as if God’s ship of providence is off course. He says, “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” And he launches into a discussion of the sovereignty of God and he says, “All that God elected to be saved are going to be saved. There’s nothing that the unbelief of man can do to thwart the purposes of God.” And that’s the whole reason for that ninth chapter, which for many of us is so difficult because it talks about God’s sovereignty. He says, “Even though Israel as a nation disobeyed and they were shut up in unbelief, the will and the purpose of God is still accomplished anyway.”

For example, turn to the book of Revelation, chapter 5, verse 9. We have the opportunity of turning to the end of the book and seeing how it will all end up. Revelation, chapter 5, verse 9. It says, “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art thou to take the book and to break its seals for thou was slain and did purchase for God with thy blood men from every tribe, and tongue and people and nation.’” What a confirmation of the success of God’s program! The fact that, at the end of the day, God purchased for Himself men and women from every tribe, and people and nation, and the will of God was accomplished, and it was not thrown off course. Even though the church sometimes fails, God’s purposes do not. And so remember it is not necessary for God to win numerically in order for Him to win spiritually. Keep that in mind.

Secondly, it is not necessary for God to win in time in order for Him to win in eternity. Remember that all of the results are not in. We see what Niemöller referred to as that impenetrable darkness. We see defeat. We look at the church in Germany. We look at the church in America, and we have nothing to criticize the German church about when we see our own sins and our own needs. And we look about us and we think, “Why can’t we be all that we should be?” And we should be all that we should be, but I want you to know that all of the results are not yet in. At the end of the day, it is God who wins, and it is the book of Revelation that reminds us of that.

And then God doesn’t have to have the allegiance of all of the beings that He created. All that He needs is their acknowledgment that He is king and Lord. God will never win over Satan’s heart. He has no intention to. He has no desire to. There’s no plan of salvation to save the devil. God will never win over the hearts of all those who are with Satan in hell because of their rebellion and their hardness of heart. He will never have their affection. He will never have their allegiance in any kind of a voluntary sense. But at the end of the day, He does have their acknowledgment that He is King and He is Lord, and that He is God. And because of that, we can rest assured that whenever we are on God’s side, we are on the winning side because everyone will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Two practical lessons. First of all, a lesson regarding church unity. A lesson regarding church unity. You see, we are so much stronger together than we are individually and separately. And it would be interesting for us to speculate what might have happened if all of the Protestant churches and all of the Catholic churches in Germany together would have systematically and in a unified way stood against the Third Reich. They could have certainly jammed the spokes of the wheel. They could have made it more difficult. They may have had such a great effect that the agenda (the evil agenda) would not have been able to progress very far at all. But because they were not unified, and because they decided at the end of the day that these decisions were up to every individual congregation, there was really no muscle in their plan to withstand the Third Reich.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the evangelical churches in America were unified on some issues? We can think immediately of issues such as abortion and pornography. Yes, but what if all of us were unified with a commitment to live righteously, a desire to be free from the world and not allow the world’s values to grip our hearts, that we might be united in holiness, to be united in prayer, to be united with a common purpose. Think of how strong the church of Jesus Christ would become. Jesus Christ prayed for such unity, and when we are unified we can fight battles together and win.

I can’t help but think in my own mind what if there had been thousands of pastors with the courage of a Bonhoeffer or a Niemöller? Or what if all of them together had said, “We will not surrender the truth of the Gospel and its proclamation. We will not swear our allegiance to Hitler, even if our lives are at stake.” What a difference that might have made. The tremendous lesson of unity!

But there’s another lesson that we must learn and that is the lesson of values. The lesson of values. I think one of the things that Jesus taught so plainly, and which is found in many texts of Scripture, is that only those who are willing to lose in this world really win in the next. Only those who are willing to lose in this world win in the next.

It’s easy to glorify martyrs, but it is true, is it not, that the ones who really won in Germany are the ones who stood true regardless of what the price was. Jesus made this statement: “Whoever will save his life must lose it.” Whoever saves his life, he is the one who ends up losing it. Do you realize that that is true to very minute detail? You know, it is easy for us to look into history and see the mistakes of those who have gone before us. But wouldn’t it be something if everyone of us was so committed to Jesus Christ that we are willing to give up anything, whether it involves our job, whether it involves a relationship, whether it involves some kind of a commitment that we should really get out of? We are willing to give up all these things for the cause of Christ because we have yielded ourselves to Him and to His authority, and we simply say, “Father, this is Yours.” We give it up to Him. We lose it in this life that we might gain it. Whether it is our lives or our careers, all of this is important to God.

Yesterday I thought of a story I used to hear that missionaries would tell about how monkeys were sometimes caught in primitive countries where monkeys still run wild. I’m told that they would take a pumpkin and hollow it (make it hollow) and then they would put in it seeds or whatever it is that monkeys really love. And then they would drill holes about the size of a fifty cent piece, and they’d just leave the pumpkin outside.

The monkey apparently would put his paw right through that hole, grasp what he would want, and then he would hang on to it. And you could come and you could catch him. And even though he would be terrified, he would never let his hand go. And because he wouldn’t let it go, he could not put his fist through the hole, and he was caught.

I need to ask you something today. What is it in your hand? What have you brought that is in your fist, so to speak, that you say, “This is mine and I will not give it up.” May I remind you today that it is what we give up for God that we eventually gain, and the things that we hang onto, the Scripture says, we eventually lose because God is in control, because God is sovereign, because God overrules, and because all things are in His hands. How much better it is for every one of us to say, “God, here is my most cherished sin, here is my most cherished manipulation, here is my most cherished anxiety that I turn over to You, believing that You indeed are in control.”

One of the reminders that comes from the text of Scripture that we began with, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” said Jesus, is the fact that, at the end of the day, the most important thing for God and the most important thing to Him are His people. And the most important thing is what is happening within, the battles that we are winning inside that eventually become translated in the way in which we live that we might be a credit to Him. Let us not miss opportunities to be all that we can be for His glory and for His honor, knowing that He is with us.

When the city of Rome was sacked and burned, do you remember Augustine felt very badly about it when he was told that that had happened? But then he made that famous statement. He said, “Whatever men build, men will destroy, but let us get on with the business of building the Kingdom of Heaven because,” he said, “the gates of Hades cannot prevail against it.”

Would I remind you of that, that the things that we see, the things that we earn, whatever men build, they will destroy, but God is building His church? And if you want to be a member of His church, you must believe in His Son and believe the Gospel that He has come to bring us.

Let us pray.

Our Father, we want to thank You today for the memory of those who have gone before us, people who were willing to lay down their lives for the cause of Christ. We think, Father, of the pastors thrown into the concentration camps. We think of those who were jailed and beaten, and hundreds of them remained true to You as a living witness that not everybody can be bought. And we pray today that they might inspire us.

We pray for those who are tempted to make small compromises, not knowing that those small compromises are really part of a bigger picture, and eventually lead to other compromises. We pray, Father, that as a church here in the city of Chicago that You might make us faithful to see the telltale signs of compromise that will sap our strength, drain our energy and leave us paralyzed in the midst of a society that desperately needs us.

We pray today for those who are here who need to find You, and we thank You that if they are looking for You, it is because You are already looking for them.

Now Lord, at this moment, we want to give ourselves to You without reservation or hesitation. We simply say, “Father, here we are. Do in our lives that which is well pleasing to You, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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