Holy Spirit: Gospel Sanctifies in Society (2 of 2)

Part 2 of a 2 part series. From Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics by William H. Lazareth, © 2001 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission. For the first part, click here.

Priesthood of the Baptized

[86] Luther’s theology of sanctifying love in vocation was further reinforced by the ethical doctrine of the church’s universal priesthood. This means that we are not our own priests but our neighbors’ priests, for the biblical church is essentially a baptized priesthood that also has an ordained ministry. Hence, the laity’s primary duty is not worship leadership but societal service, that is, not as cultic but as ethical priests. In conscious opposition to the clericalism of late medieval Rome, the Reformer stressed the holy calling (vocatio) of every baptized Christian to become her or his neighbors’ priest, mediating to them the life-giving love of God. In doing so, however, Luther had first to counter centuries of developed tradition on the church’s clericalized priesthood, as based on his own evangelical reading of the Holy Scriptures that is now briefly summarized here.

[87] In the Old Testament, the word for “priest” means seer, truth-sayer, a mediator between God and humanity. The priest was first to receive the Word of God for believers and then to offer the sacrificial response from believers to God. Despite continual heathen corruptions of this ideal, the Old Testament priesthood was meant to incorporate its divinely ordained cultus within the covenant relationship that existed between Israel and its God (Exodus 24 and 25).

[88] In early Israel, fathers and elder sons were often involved in leading the domestic worship of their households and local clans (cf. Judges 6:26; 13:19; 17:5). By the end of the period of the Judges, however, the Levites had established themselves as the recognized cultic specialists. In post-exilic times, an official Jewish priesthood gradually emerged; it was composed of the high priest, ordinary priests, and the Levites. Membership was limited to those descended from Aaron, one of the descendants of Levi, who in turn, was one of the twelve sons of Jacob (Exod. 29:4ff.).

[89] With the rise of this professional clergy came also a division of labor. The proclaiming of the will of God was left to the prophets (and later codified into law by the scribes), while priests confined themselves to the cultic sacrificial system (cf. Leviticus, Numbers). Rites and ceremonies were greatly multiplied and elaborated, especially after the post-exilic temple at Jerusalem became accepted as the only proper place for sacrifices to be made. Here the high priest was given the greatest honor as the anointed successor of the pre-exilic kings of Israel. As the priesthood culminated in the high priest, the temple culminated in the sacred sanctuary of the Holy of Holies. Moreover, as Moses once ascended Mount Sinai to mediate between God and Israel, the high priest ascended annually into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to make intercession for Israel and to receive the blessings of God in the renewal of his covenant (Lev. 16:1ff.).

[90] But delight in liturgical forms and practices for their own sake often degenerated into idolatry and ceremonial works-righteousness as the cultus became more and more separated from both the Word of God and the needs of the people. No lay persons were permitted inside the temple sanctuary; sacrifices were graded in the order of their value and sanctity; the ritual became mechanical and commercial. Whenever the priest encouraged such faithless perversion of divine worship, they were condemned by the prophets with the searing Word of God (for example, Amos 5:21-24).

[91] The New Testament both radically corrects and fulfills the Old Testament in its witness to Jesus Christ as the true High Priest and to all baptized Christians as his royal priesthood. Although he, too, is a king, Christ has emptied himself of his royal glory and has voluntarily taken on the form of a humble servant (John 18:33-37; Phil. 2:5 ff.). As the “Word becomes flesh” (John 1:14), true God and true human, Christ reveals both God’s saving action to humanity and its faithful response to God. Thus Hebrews declares Christ to be “the High Priest of the good things that have come,” the God-sent “mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:11,15).

[92] The atonement on the cross of Calvary was accomplished because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). No Jewish high priest was ever able to atone for sin (Heb. 10:4). But when the Son of God took upon himself the punishment for the sins of the world, he did so as the Holy One who had perfectly fulfilled the holy law of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Dying innocently on our behalf, therefore, Christ alone was able to atone for our sins. His saving righteousness can now be reckoned in grace to all those who truly believe that they have been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Moreover, this “one mediator between God and humankind, Jesus Christ” continues to intercede for us as our eternal High Priest in heaven (1 Tim.2:5; Heb. 7:23-25).

[93] Whereas the Jewish high priest had to reenter the Holy of Holies annually, the all-embracing self-sacrifice of Christ has taken place “once for all” (Heb. 9:12; 10:10). The very first result of Christ’s victory on the cross, therefore, was that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Matt. 27:51). This signifies that before God, no further meritorious sacrifices are either necessary or desired. In the New Covenant established by Christ, all baptized Christians are incorporated into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Exod. 19:5-6).

[94] Conformed to the shape of their divine Head, all members of the body of Christ are likewise declared themselves to be “kings and priests” who are called to offer themselves as “living sacrifices” in obedient faith toward God and in loving service to other persons (Rev. 5:10; 12:1-20). For some, this service as ordained pastors will take the form of a public ministry of Word and Sacrament in the church. Most Christians, however, will continue to exercise their callings in domestic pursuits and temporal occupations. Wherever they are called, the once-for-all sacrifice of the true High Priest at Calvary permits and empowers all baptized Christian priests to redirect their sacrifices outward in loving service to needy neighbors.

[95] Luther was convinced that late medieval Rome’s “theology of glory” had completely distorted these teachings that he had rediscovered at the heart of the New Testament theology of the cross. On the one hand, Rome contended that the Jewish high priest in the Old Covenant was fulfilled in the New by St. Peter (and his successors) as the vicar of Christ to whom personally had been granted the keys of the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, the priesthood of the Old Covenant has been fulfilled in the New by the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church who, unlike the inferior laity, have received an “indelible character” in the sacrament of ordination that qualifies them to repeat the meritorious sacrifice of Calvary every time they offer the Eucharist in the celebration of the Mass.

[96] The Reformer protested against both these false doctrines as injurious to the Christian faith. “Christ alone” (solus Christus) was his answer to the religious pretensions of the current Roman papacy. He denied that the papacy was anything more than a human administrative arrangement (de jure humano) since the “keys of the kingdom” had been given to the Christ-confessing Peter on behalf of the whole Christian community (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). Moreover, Scripture itself continually asserts that Christ–and Christ alone–is the sole Head of his body, the church, as the spiritual Lord of a spiritual kingdom (cf. Eph. 4:15ff.). The incarnate Son of God is declared to be the true High Priest of the new Israel as the heavenly fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy: “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:17).

[97] With the once-and-for-all self-sacrifice of Christ restored to the center of the Christian message, Luther then attacked the late medieval Roman doctrine of the ordained priesthood as being incompatible with the biblical teaching on the “universal priesthood of baptized believers (1 Pet. 2:9).” Already in 1519, Luther’s Treatise on the Sacrament of Penance argued that the ordained clergy have no exclusive monopoly on the declaration of absolution. God alone forgives sin, and in God’s name “every Christian, even a woman or child,” may privately (not publicly) declare the forgiveness of sin to a repentant brother or sister.1 In the following year, his Treatise on the New Testament (1520) roundly condemned the medieval Roman notion of a meritorious sacramental sacrifice, declaring, “We do not offer Christ as a sacrifice, but Christ offers us.” The only sacrifice Luther permits as legitimate for an evangelical Christian is the Spirit-worked response of “prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and of ourselves” in obedient gratitude for God’s propitiatory act in Christ. “Therefore all Christians are priests. . . . Here there is no difference unless faith be unequal.”2

[98] The doctrine of the priesthood of all the baptized also comes to decisive expression in the three great Reformation treatises of 1520. In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther asserts vigorously that the Roman glorification of the clergy does violence to the true nature of the church as a communion of saints. “We are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. But the priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us who do all that they do in our name.”3 In like fashion, the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility is addressed to the nobles of an officially Christian society as the leading lay priests of the German church. He insists that it is proper for them to help reform the church because the ordained ministry is one among many other offices of Christian priestly service. It is not, as claims medieval Rome, a superior order of men invested with an “indelible character” whose unique service is “spiritual” while that of the ordinary laity is merely “temporal.” On the contrary, “Through Baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood . . . and there is no difference to all but that of office.” Indeed, Luther asserts boldly, “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant–each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priest and bishop.”4 In summary, as Luther put it in his powerful conclusion to The Freedom of a Christian, “I will give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”5

[99] In his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7 (1523), Luther attempted to put Paul’s theological ethic into vocational practice. His special interest is on the blessings of marriage and on the freedom of Christians to marry or not marry (some six years after his posting of the Ninety-five Theses and two years before his own 1525 marriage). It was intended as a kind of “wedding present” for a friend, Hans von Loeser, at whose marriage ceremony Luther had earlier officiated and who afterward was himself a sponsor at the baptism of one of Luther’s sons, Paul. It is a song of praise to God for the human blessings of marriage and family life mandated by God (Gen. 1:28), against the unbiblical vows of obligatory celibacy in religious “orders.”

[100] Totally consistent in spirit but more thematically developed are Luther’s comments on the Christian’s priestly calling (vocation) in Paul’s exhortation, “Only, let everyone lead the life in which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. . . . So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor. 7:17-24). This text provides the biblical point of departure for Luther’s use of the term “vocation” (klesis). The theological ethical orientation is based on the fundamental affirmation of the goodness of God’s preserved creation as the God-pleasing arena for Christian discipleship. “To a Christian, therefore, the entire world is holiness, purity, utility and piety. . . . Why is this? Because the pure, that is, the believers, can use (uti) all things in a holy and blessed way to sanctify and purify themselves. But the unholy and the unbelievers sin, profane, and pollute themselves incessantly in all things.”6

[101] Luther wishes to affirm Paul’s insistence that “faith and the Christian life are so free in essence that they are bound to no particular order or estate in society.”7 Faith is to be practiced throughout all of life and one need not separate from society (for example, in monasteries or convents) in order to be saved. On the contrary, our mandated vocational sanctification takes place in centers of responsibility within which our evangelical call to salvation may normally be proleptically actualized in obedient love. “Faith alone justifies you, and it alone fulfills the commandment,” without adding on any other such nonessential works of the law regarding marriage, circumcision, and slavery.8 “Briefly, all the laws in the book of Moses were given until Christ should come; when He came, He was to teach and bring faith and love. Where these are, there all the commandments are fulfilled and annulled and set free, so that after the coming of Christ, no more commandments (mandata) are needed except those of faith and love.”9

[102] Luther’s concrete pastoral application here of replacing the law of Moses with the restored love command of Christ is that wives should remain obedient to their husbands, and serfs should remain subject to their masters, unless they were “forced away from faith” or “compelled to associate with an evil life.” “In that case,” counsels Luther, “it is time to leave him and run away.”

[103] We would rather personally argue in principled hindsight (as Luther himself also does elsewhere) that there is a basic distinction to be respected between theological and social ethics. Our present reaffirmation of one’s temporal calling as providing the societal context for living out Christian faith in love and justice far transcends the culture-bound concrete applications of that position amidst the changing marital, economic, or political conditions of the ancient or late medieval worlds of either Paul or Luther. Today we sanctified Christians are still ethically bound to obey Christ’s universal and normative command of love within the Creator’s mandates of preservation, but surely not necessarily in the same specific and sin-corrupted forms of regulative justice that were also then pastorally endorsed, or at least unchallenged, in the compromised social ethics of our doctrinal mentors in previous ages. Our evangelical call as Christians (coram Deo) does not automatically endorse, and may at any given time even prophetically challenge, the unjust secular standards set in the temporal callings of civil righteousness by any given society (coram hominibus). Sin presupposed, it is not fatalistically to a calling, but providentially in a calling, that we are called by God the Spirit (vocante Deo) to live in holiness of life.

[104] Nevertheless, Luther does conclude commendably with Paul’s theological ethical reaffirmation of Christian freedom regarding “outward things that are optimal or free before God.” It is a welcome invitation for the baptized Christian priests’ societal service and community participation: “In sum: We owe nobody anything but to love (Rom. 13:8) and to serve our neighbor through love. Where love is present, there it is accomplished that no eating, drinking, clothing, or living in a particular way endangers the conscience or is a sin before God, except where it is detrimental to one’s neighbor. In such things one cannot sin against God but only against one’s neighbor.”10

[105] Luther is so intent on the Christian’s societal responsibility, despite the sins, compromises, and “lessers of evil” inevitably involved in traversing the shoals of daily life, that he even risks another dangerous formulation that is ethically defensible only in opposing prissy, moralistic perfectionism. He asks rhetorically, “But what if the Gospel calls me in a state of sin, should I remain in that? Answer: If you have entered into faith and love, that is, if you are in the call of the Gospel, then sin as much as you please.”11 Taken out of context, Luther’s statement is as subject to cavalier misinterpretation as the frustrated advice he once also gave to his “pussy footing” theological colleague, Philip Melanchthon: “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still” (Pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo). This counsel is grounded in Luther’s firm conviction that “God saves no one but sinners, . . . not those who merely imagine themselves to be such but those who really . . . admit it.”12

[106] What Luther means to say here is that some sin is inevitable in a fallen world. Moreover, in any morally ambiguous situation, perfectionistic sins of omission may well be as bad as opportunistic sins of commission, and Christ’s forgiving love will be needed to cover either in any case. On balance, Christians should remain responsibly and realistically in the service of needy neighbors through the least-worst of vocational sanctification available within the Creator’s sin-conditioned mandates of societal preservation. Not to act may itself turn out to be an implicit action in support of a greater evil in an unjust status quo.

[107] Indeed, the precarious character of all moral participation in a fallen and sinful world cannot be better exemplified than in Paul’s concluding admonition here to the troubled Christians in first-century Corinth. It serves to substantiate our own earlier position that theological ethics (in principle) must be strongly distinguished from social ethics (in practice). Conscientious Christians today may well endorse the theological ethics of an apostle (Paul) or a reformer (Luther) in Christian righteousness, and yet also ethically reject or modify some of these leaders’ own pastoral or political applications of such doctrinal foundations in civil righteousness amid current moral dilemmas (for example, appropriate forms of societal justice for Jews, slaves, women, children, racial minorities, gay and lesbian persons, revolutionaries, and so forth). What is finally governing is their own faithfully endorsed “mind of Christ” (Phil. 2:5) in forming and nurturing God’s structured mandates in human community life.

[108] For example, Paul’s admonishing concession, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9), is hardly attuned to either Gen. 1:26-28 or Eph. 5: 31-32, and is surely at least partly conditioned by his mistaken anticipation of the imminent end of the world.

[109] I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none; and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

[110] Fortunately, Luther does not dwell here on the ethical consequences of the inaccurate chronology of the early Paul’s radical apocalypticism. Indeed, in a few years Luther would virtually repeat that same error himself in the midst of his own frantic despair and indefensible overreaction to the societal chaos visited upon eastern Germany by the utopian-driven leaders of the 1525 Peasants’ Rebellion: “Let everyone who can, smite, play and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog.” In the same class as Luther’s Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525) was his similarly horrific anti-Judaic tirade, On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), for which later twentieth-century Lutheran churches have since abjectly apologized in official repudiation.13

[111] Instead, Luther concludes Paul’s social ethical discussion with the pastoral principle that Christians “should rather behave like guests on earth, using everything for a short time because of need and not for pleasure.”14 This is the eschatological spirit of Luther’s biblically based theological ethic at its repentant best. Resounding with ultimate Christian hope, despite inevitable persistent failures of imperfect application in need of daily forgiveness and renewal, it is also perhaps best reflected in the famous saying traditionally (but unverifiably) attributed to the ruthlessly realistic Reformer, “If the world would come to an end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today!”

Gospel’s Parenetic Function

[112] Only the gospel’s salvific function can provide the gracious foundation of faith in the risen and indwelling Christ for the regenerated Christian’s new obedience. It goes without saying that the law’s sin-related theological and political functions also apply to imperfect Christians insofar as they still remain sinful. However, insofar as they are already righteous, it is rather the gospel’s parenetic or ethical function, under the indwelling Holy Spirit’s governance, to empower and guide the joyful fulfillment of God’s pre-fall and perennial command of dominion-sharing love by God’s renewed Christian workers serving as responsible members of church and society.

[113] For Luther as for Paul, “faith alone” is the way of salvation and “love alone” is the way of service. Salvation is accomplished by God the Son’s sacrificial work for us (pro nobis); service is enabled by the accompanying gifts of God the Spirit also dynamically at work in and through us for the common good (in nobis). Therefore, in both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of our reintegrated new life in Christ, God’s strange work through the law has been graciously fulfilled by God’s proper work through the gospel. For Luther’s theological ethics, our sinful and conditional works of the law are replaced by God’s loving and unconditional fruit of the Spirit. In the history of salvation, God’s interim law (post-fall and pre-Christ) intentionally bows to God’s primal and permanent command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . . Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. Gen. 1:26-28; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19, 22, 39; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8).

[114] Having firmly established God’s eschatological command of love alone as normative, however, Luther can then (but only then!) also gratefully acknowledge the frequent attempts in Holy Scripture, preeminently in the Mosaic Decalogue, to practice and approximate God’s love command more concretely in regulative standards of morality (Exod. 20:1-17). He asserts, “Now Paul shows beautifully on the basis of the Decalogue what it means to be a servant through love. . . . All the admonitions of the prophets in the Old Testament, as well as of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament, concerning a godly life, are excellent sermons on and expositions of the Ten Commandments.”15

[115] Following Paul, Luther rejects the law (nomos, Gesetz) only as a religious substitute for love but not in the ethical service of love (mandatum, Gebot). For Christians, natural law can still regulatively demonstrate what love alone normatively motivates. Love reveals “why and how” to be; law shows “what and what not” to do. Love generates piety and character (“fear, love and trust in God . . . and your neighbor as yourself”); law decrees morality and conduct in concrete life situations (blasphemy, disobedience, killing, adultery, stealing, perjury, and so forth). For fallen humankind, God’s moral will is incomparably summarized in the (de-Judaized) Ten Commandments. Universally, they are to be “obeyed” according to the letter in the enlightened self-interest of civil righteousness (iustitia civilis). Only in faith and love, however, can they be “fulfilled” through the gracious assistance of the Holy Spirit in the piety of Christian righteousness (iustitia Christiana). All this illustrates Luther’s foundational distinction between God’s pre-fall “proper command” (mandatum) and post-fall “strange curse” (nomos) in shaping the content and context of the Mosaic, prophetic, Christic, and apostolic expansions and applications (“excellent sermons and expositions”) of the Ten Commandments in the light of God’s primal command of love (cf. chapter 3).

[116] In the sixteenth century, Luther added his own post-biblical “admonitions on a godly life” by providing baptized Christians with a Christocentric rendering of the Mosaic Decalogue (as God’s natural law summary) in three major works on Christian ethics, namely, his Treatise on Good Works (1520), The Small Catechism (1529), and The Large Catechism (1529).

[117] In the earliest of these presentations, despite his accompanying polemics against late medieval Rome’s alleged works-righteousness, Luther still turns freely to the Ten Commandments for universally shaping faith-activated love and justice in the ethical life of Christians. His Christocentric biblical rationale is asserted at the very onset:

See for yourself what a difference there is between the fulfillment of the first commandment with outward works and its fulfillment with inner trust.

[118] The first thing to know is that there are no good works except those works God has commanded, just as there is no sin except that which God has forbidden. Therefore, whoever wants to know what good works are as well as doing them needs to know nothing more than God’s commandments. Thus in Matt. 19:17 Christ says, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” And when the young man in Matt. 19:16-22 asks what he should do to inherit eternal life, Christ sets before him nothing else but the Ten Commandments.16

[119] In Luther’s Large Catechism, the “Christian difference” is also dialectically demonstrated between the negative you-shall-nots of the Decalogue text as such and his own positive explications of the Ten Commandments for Spirit-empowered baptized Christians. Thereby baptized Christian catechumens, at once sinful and righteous, are both goaded by apodictic demands insofar as they are still sinful and guided by their evangelical explications insofar as they are already righteous.

[120] That is, in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, sanctified Christians may find in the Decalogue’s summary of God’s natural law of love “the true fountain from which all good works must spring, the true channel through which all good works must flow.” Following Paul’s dialectic in Rom. 7:22-23 between the Christian’s warring “two laws”: (1) the persisting “old man” in Adam (nomos), and (2) the reborn “new man” in Christ (mandatum), Luther advocates his own post-Easter version of the psalmist’s Torah piety. Insofar as one is regenerated with the sure confidence that “the Holy Spirit is present,” a loving Christian may “occupy one’s self with God’s Word” as encountered throughout the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer (commands, precepts, promises, exhortations, and prayers) in the way that Ps. 1:2 calls those Old Testament saints “blessed” who delight in and “meditate on God’s law day and night” (dilectio legis Dei). This climaxes Luther’s view of theological ethics in sanctified fidelity to the law-free gospel of the church’s final Adam in the New Testament’s transformed “paradise regained.”17

[121] Likewise in the Small Catechism, inclusive of the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the repeated motivational refrain “We are to fear and love God, so . . .” always introduces a theological ethic of grace in Luther’s explanations of each of the last nine Commandments of the Decalogue in total dependence on his governing first one: “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”18

[122] In a fallen creation–seen fully only on this side of the cross–idolatry is our identity. So in the face of our infidelity, God is “jealous.” The First Commandment says it all, and then goes on in nine other Commandments to illustrate it universally before God and throughout society: “You shall have no other gods” (Exod. 20:3). Luther explains in the Large Catechism (1529):

A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends I say, that is really your God. . . .

[123] This is exactly the meaning and right interpretation of the first and chief Commandment, from which all the others proceed. This word, “You shall have no other gods,” means simply, “You shall fear, love, and trust me as your one true God.” For where your heart has such an attitude toward God, you have fulfilled this Commandment and all the others.19

[124] The theological problem then always arises: What is the role of the law for a Christian, insofar as that baptized saint in Christ is already righteous before God? More concretely, are the you-shall-nots of the Ten Commandments binding upon the Christian? Luther’s startling response is typically dialectical: as Mosaic law–no, but as natural law–yes!

[125] This profound view is developed most cogently in a decisive section of the work Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525). Luther has just concluded a defense of the freedom of evangelical Christians. They could either keep or destroy former Roman church images, depending on their state of faith and the state of local conditions. To answer Andrew Karlstadt’s charge that such Christian freedom regarding images violates the letter of the Mosaic law, Luther replies vigorously that this does not concern him in the least! The reason: Christians who are under the dispensation of the New Testament gospel are not bound by the Old Testament dispensation of the Mosaic law. Christ has liberated us from the law–all of the law–from the minutest ceremonial nicety to the Decalogue itself. Says Luther, “For Moses is given to the Jewish people alone, and does not concern us Gentiles and Christians. We have our Gospel and the New Testament.”20

[126] Luther concludes that insofar as the Ten Commandments provide us with a concise statement of the Creator God’s universal natural law governing all of sinful humankind (“to honor parents, not to kill, not to commit adultery, to serve God, etc.”), they are to be obeyed absolutely. But insofar as they include special matters above and beyond the universal natural law that are historically peculiar to the Judaic theocracy (“legislation about images and the Sabbath, etc.”), they may be regarded as time-bound statutes of the Jewish law code that are not binding upon Christians. Luther writes:

It is as when an emperor or a king makes special laws and ordinances in his territory, as the law code of Saxony (Sachsenspiegel) and yet common natural laws such as to honor parents, not to kill, not to commit adultery, to serve God, etc., prevail and remain in all lands. Therefore one is to let Moses be the Sachsenspiegel of the Jews and not to confuse us Gentiles with it, just as the Sachsenspiegel is not observed in France, though the natural law there is in agreement with it.21

[127] The church instructs its members in the Ten Commandments, therefore, because “the natural laws were never so orderly and well written as by Moses.”22 In no instance should this practice be used to justify the reintroduction of any Judaic legalism in Christian daily living. Insofar as a Christian still remains sinful, one is bound only by that part of the Decalogue that coincides with the natural law (civil righteousness). Consequently, insofar as they are already righteous, Christians will find it continually necessary “to make new Decalogues (Imo novus Decalogue faciemus) as did Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul” in responding faithfully to the Holy Spirit of the living God.23

[128] Luther himself models this Christian liberty “to make new Decalogues” by his pastoral provision in the Holy Spirit of ethical meanings of the Ten Commandments (Gesetz) in the spirit of God’s “single command” of love (Gebot). Therefore, on the one hand, he intentionally does not include the historical prologue (“I am the Lord . . . who led you out of Egypt”) within the First Commandment, and then he repeats the epilogue after both the First and Tenth Commandments, in order to proclaim a God whose holy and loving will both “[visits] the sins of the fathers upon the children” and “shows mercy” at once to those who hate and love their Lord (Exod. 20:2,5).

[129] On the other hand, Luther takes the Ten Commandments for baptized Christians and freely normatizes the First (“fear, love, and trust God”), and in that obedience of faith freely offers parenetic guidance in the remaining nine commandments: that is, “not to curse or swear” along with “pray and praise” in the Second, “not to endanger or harm” but rather “help and befriend” in the Fifth, “not to rob but protect” in the Seventh, and so forth. In Christian freedom, he also treats the Sixth purely positively (“chaste and pure”), freely expands the Fourth (“parents and superiors”) to include religious and civil leaders (patres patriae), and totally replaces the Third (Sunday for Sabbath worship).

[130] Singularly illustrative of Luther’s Christocentric freedom in subjugating Mosaic law to the Spirit’s universal love is his ethical reinterpretation of the Third of the Ten Commandments, “You are to hallow the day of rest.”24 Sabbath observance on the last day of the week is deemed a distinctively Mosaic addition to the universal natural law of love that is regulatively embodied in the other nine Commandments. “Therefore, according to its outward meaning, this Commandment does not concern us Christians. It is an entirely external matter, like the other regulations of the Old Testament associated with particular customs, persons, times, and places, from all of which we are now set free through Christ.”25

[131] Luther then universalizes the root meaning of the Third Commandment in natural law for non-Jews (Gentiles) by shifting its obedience from observing the Sabbath to ceasing from labor on a day of rest. This side of Easter, teaches Luther, Christians can then also celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week by dedicating this universal rest time to worship God together and “to occupy ourselves daily with God’s Word . . . and deal especially with the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and thus regulate our entire life and being in accordance with God’s word.”26

[132] It is clear how deftly Luther fulfills a double concern in his evangelical interpretation of the law of God: (1) he makes no religious compromises with Judaic law on the law-free gospel (coram Deo) while, simultaneously, (2) he makes common cause ethically with both Jews and all other human beings on whose hearts the essentials of God’s natural law of love are still universally written, in however sin-corrupted a form (coram hominibus). It is the continuous reapplication of the Lord’s primal command of love to ever new situations, and thereby righteously “making it new,” that distinguishes Luther’s contextual and non-legalistic approach to the natural law embedded in the Decalogue:

All the commandments of the law are summed up in the law of love; that is, if they are not performed in love, they are against God and worthless. You must act accordingly. No matter what the work; your eyes should always remain centered on love. Laws may even be broken, if necessary, in order to alleviate a neighbor’s troubles and suffering. For our deeds should exhibit the kind of love Christ assigns to our lives. . . . The love of the neighbor is like unto the first Commandment of the love of God.27

[133] Luther’s basic position, as we developed earlier in chapter 6, is that God’s eschatological command of love is universally inscribed on the hearts of all human creatures made in God’s image (Rom. 2:14-15). It is epitomized in the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) and likewise constitutes the “law of nature” (lex naturae), which is “the foundation of human law and all good works.” With reason’s corruption by original sin, however, it became necessary for the Mosaic Decalogue to clarify, summarize, and re-articulate essential dimensions of the natural law’s witness to God’s eschatological command of love within the human heart. As love provides law with its essential content, so law serves love with its societal forms.

[134] Indeed, in his Second Disputation against the Antinomians (1538), Luther in later life reemphasizes that the Spirit-illumined Decalogue (as natural law summary) should continually be taught to remind Christians of the loving way of life that God intended for humans before the fall of Adam and still now intends for Christians after the cross of Christ (ante lapsum Adae fuerimus et quid olim in Christo futuri sumus).28 What godly admonitions and exhortations still accuse sinful legalists and antinomians as law (Gesetz) can now also guide Christians in the Spirit as natural law expressions of God’s eschatological command of love (Gebot). This is because the gospel transforms the hearts of justified Christians, and the Holy Spirit mollifies for them the various historical demands and threats of the law into mild expressions of friendly persuasion and winsome advice (Lex est iam valde mitigata per justificationem). Similarly, as Luther elsewhere commented on the decision of the Jerusalem Council not to impose the Jewish dietary laws on gentile Christians (Acts 15:28-29), “When a burden is no longer a burden, it is good to bear; and when a law is no longer law, it is good to keep, like the Ten Commandments.”

[135] When Christ comes, the law ceases. The Ten Commandments also cease, not in the sense that they are no longer to be kept or fulfilled, but in the sense that the office of Moses in them ceases; it no longer increases sin (Rom. 5:20) by the Ten Commandments, and sin is no longer the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:56). For through Christ sin is forgiven, God is reconciled, and man’s heart has begun to feel kindly toward the law.

[136] The church is God’s holy people on earth, in whom Christ lives, works, and rules through the Holy Spirit (per vivificationem et sanctificationem), so that we do not remain in sin but are enabled and obliged to lead a new life, abounding in all kinds of good works, as the Ten Commandments or the two tables of Moses’ law command, and not in old, evil works. That is St. Paul’s teaching.29

[137] For Christians, as righteous, there is also a “joyful delight” in God’s law (dilectio legis), which in the Spirit is experienced no longer as threatening law (Gesetz), but is viewed rather as the applied renewal of God’s primal command of love (Gebot). Luther testified that he himself learned God’s will “as the Holy Spirit comes into my heart” during the study of God’s Word.

[138] It was in this sanctified sense that Christ made clear to his faith-liberated disciples that they were still to remain obedient not to Moses as such, but to God’s eschatological command of love and to assume this “easy yoke” willingly (Matt. 11:30). Luther was convinced that this ethical message was also loyally transmitted by Paul as well, as the pastor preached on Paul’s loving exhortations (1 Timothy 3­7) to his own congregation on March 17, 1525: “The law should not be brought in where it does not belong. For its proper use, you must clearly distinguish between the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man,’ as Paul did. The ‘new man’ should not be subjected to laws, while the ‘old man’ needs them continually. Then you have used the law rightly.”30

[139] So it is ultimately the law’s salvific misuse, not its essential ethical or parenetic content, that is the enemy of the gospel of grace. Thus when Paul admonishes Christians in both Rome and Galatia that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14), he is witnessing to the God-pleasing inner coherence between the Spirit’s gifts of faith and love, which no derivative human-made legislation (state or church) should be allowed to corrupt. Luther comments: “All this shows that love is much to be preferred to all laws and ceremonies. . . . Christ testifies to this when He says [of the Great Commandment] (Matt. 22:39): ‘And a second is like it.'”31

[140] Moreover, the “neighbor” whom we are called to love need not deserve it, any more than we deserved God’s initiating love to us in Christ. Nor is “neighbor” limited to my fellow-Jew, as in post-exilic Judaic law. He or she (singular or plural) is “any human being, especially one who needs our help, as Christ interprets it in Luke 10:30-37.”32 Concretely, that “help needed” is most effectively provided in our vocational sanctification through “works performed by believers in any area of life. Thus someone who is a magistrate, a householder, a servant, a teacher, a pupil, etc. should remain in his calling and do his duty there, properly and faithfully, without concerning himself about what lies outside his own vocation. . . . Everyone should know that his work, regardless of the station of life in which he is, is a divine work, because it is the work of a divine calling and has the command of God.”33

[141] The Holy Spirit governs Christians being made holy and faithful by the gospel to become the cooperating “hands, tools and instruments” of God, the willing “vessels” or joyful “channels” of God’s sanctifying love. With a “joyful heart” (hilare corde) they each receive God’s love “from above” and pass it on “from below” to their neighbors in need. What is forced from unbelievers is freely transmitted by the faithful in the Spirit’s “voluntary captivity.” As Luther has tried to persuade Erasmus, persons in the Spirit who could never cooperate with God in Christ religiously for their once-for-all justification in heaven (in coelo coram Deo) are now empowered by their dominion-sharing God in the Spirit to cooperate ethically in their ongoing sanctification here on earth (super terram coram hominibus).

[142] When God operates without regard to the grace of the Spirit, He works all in all, even the ungodly, inasmuch as He alone moves, actuates, and carries along by the notion of His omnipotence of all things. . . . Then, when He acts by the Spirit of grace in those whom He has justified, that is, in His Kingdom, He actuates and moves them in a similar way, and they, inasmuch as they are His new creation, follow and cooperate, or rather, as Paul says, they are led (Rom. 8:14).34

[143] Hence, while we often think anthropocentrically of persons apart from God, Luther always depicts them theocentrically, as being either the unwilling (sinful) or willing (righteous) human co-partners created in God’s image. God’s twofold rule in law and gospel is exercised through socially active women and men who are co-opted as “the workshops in which God works.” We are daily commanded to love even if it is “lost” in the world through the continuous corruption of Satan (verlorene Liebe). Since our creation is bi-dimensionally set in loving relation with both God and neighbors, so is our sanctification. God serves us through others and others through us, as the God-worked coworkers of God (cooperatio, synergia).

[144] For God rules us in such a way that He does not want us to be idle. He gives us food and clothing, but in such a way that we should plow, sow, reap, and cook. In addition, he gives offspring, which is born and grows because of the blessing of God, and must nevertheless be cherished, cared for, brought up, and instructed for life by the parents. . . .

[145] This is why God has given man reason, perception, and strength. Use these as means and gifts of God.35

[146] While sin-corrupted reason universally governs all human morality, its governance by renewing love and guiding natural law is the hallmark of Luther’s theological ethic for righteous Christians. It is Christ’s law-free gospel that inspires and empowers a lifestyle of spontaneous love in vocational service. This spontaneous love of others “bubbles over” (quellende Liebe) as God’s indwelling Holy Spirit encounters fewer inherent obstacles while working on, through, and despite us. Insofar as Christians are renewed by God’s dominion-sharing Spirit–and that necessarily involves lifelong growth in grace–they are continually blessed as new persons with new life characterized by new obedience. And against such “fruit of the Spirit,” insists Luther following Paul, “there is no Law” (Gal. 5:24), for “the Law was not laid down for the just” (1 Tim. 1:9).

[147] Thus a new creation is a work of the Holy Spirit, who implants a new intellect and will and confers the powers to curb the flesh and to flee the righteousness and wisdom of the world. This is not a sham or merely a new outward appearance, but something really happens.

[148] A new attitude and a new judgment, namely, a spiritual one, actually comes into being, and they now detest what they once admired . . . a renewal of the mind by the Holy Spirit.

[149] For the just man loves as though he had need of no Law to admonish, urge, and constrain him; but spontaneously, without any legal constraint, he does more than the Law requires. . . . It does not have the right to accuse them; for spontaneously they do what the Law requires, if not by means of perfectly holy works, then at least by means of the forgiveness of sins through faith.36

[150] For Luther, then, love is the primal “single command” of God (Gebot) that all persons are called to fulfill in the obedience of faith. Created, redeemed, and sanctified in the image of a holy and loving God, we are likewise pardoned and empowered to love one another realistically, whether personally or socially, civilly or ecclesially, directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly, within all of God’s mandated sectors of human existence. “Love your neighbor” takes on ethical form and concrete shape as the Holy Spirit sanctifies God’s baptized priests in the vocational service of participating in the structures and institutions of everyday life. Ethically, what God requires of us is simply what our neighbors need of us, no more but no less. Grounded in the gospel of grace, gifts of the Spirit enable us to progress in sanctification or, better, to allow the Spirit’s sanctification to progress in us. All this occurs as we serve others while carrying out our daily duties, either justly in equity or if need be even sacrificially in suffering. So Christians are called and sent into God’s world to co-participate boldly in current struggles for peace, justice, and freedom by meeting the varied needs of our interdependent neighbors within the Creator’s mandates of societal preservation.

[151] In sum, believers are a new creature, a new tree. It is not that a new man is required to serve his neighbor, any more than a tree is required to bloom, or three plus seven are required to equal ten, or the sun required to shine. We may trust the children of God with liberty. The result will be service to others.

[152] Work, and let God give the fruits thereof! Rule, and let Him prosper it! Battle and let Him give victory! Preach, and let Him make hearts devout! Marry, and let Him give you children! Eat and drink, and let Him give you health and strength! Then it will follow that whatever we do, He will effect everything through us; and to Him alone shall be the glory!37

[153] This completes our paradigmatic representation of Luther’s theological ethical analysis of God’s dynamic and dialectical twofold rule of Christians within the world’s two kingdoms. Just as the saving function of God’s gospel intersects the judging function of God’s law for our justification in heaven (coram Deo), so too the parenetic function of God’s gospel interpenetrates the political function of God’s law for our vocational sanctification in daily life (coram hominibus). For Christ’s sake and in Christ’s name, Christians are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to pray and work joyfully in critical cooperation with all persons of good will as God’s coworkers in society.

End Notes

1 LW 35:12 (1519).

2 LW 35:99-101 passim (1520).

3 LW 36:113 (1520).

4 LW 44:127-30 passim (1520).

5 LW 31:367 (1520).

6 LW 28:35 (1523).

7 LW 28:39 (1523).

8 LW 28:41 (1523).

9 LW 28:42 (1523).

10 LW 28:46 (1523).

11 Ibid.

12 LW 48:282 (1521); 25:418-19 (1516).

13 LW 46:50 (1525).

14 LW 28:52 (1523).

15 LW 27:51 (1535).

16 LW 44:23,33 (1520).

17 Kolb and Wengert, BC, 381,386,390,428-29 (1529).

18 Ibid., 351-54 (1529).

19 Ibid., 386,429-30 (1529).

20 LW 40:92 (1525).

21 LW 40:98 (1525).

22 Ibid.

23 WA 39/1:47 (1535).

24 Kolb and Wengert, BC, 396-400 (1529).

25 Ibid., 397 (1529).

26 Ibid., 398 (1529).

27 WA 10/3:343-44 (1522).

28 WA 39/1:454 (1538); LW 22:144 (1537).

29 LW 41:75,144 (1539); 35:244 (1545); WA 39/1:485 (1538).

30 WA 17/1:122 (1525).

31 LW 27:51-55 passim (1535).

32 LW 27:58 (1535).

33 LW 27:119-20 (1535).

34 LW 33:242 (1525).

35 LW 8:94-95 (1545); WA 10/1,1:100 (1522).

36 LW 27:96,140 (1535).

37 WATR 6:153 (1536); WA 31/1:436-37 (1532).