Justification and Justice: Luther on the Love of the Enemy as Criterion of Justice

[originally published in JLE August, 2015]

[1] The relationship between justification and justice in Luther´s theology pertains to his distinction of régimes, the so-called “two kingdoms doctrine.” The amount of literature on this “doctrine” produced between the 1930s and the 1970s is immense.1

However, at the theological core of this distinction lies Luther´s reading of the scriptures’ framing of the peculiarities of two central notions, faith and love. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) exemplifies the crux of this distinction offering two sets of injunctions, which we find throughout the bible, but in the Sermon are presented in a succinct form parallel to each other.  The first set is the beatitudes, the gift that is given and in faith received. The other set is the commandments for love to become tangible for the sake of justice. The two belong to different levels of discourse. The latter addresses the office; the beatitudes address the bare self, the self that is held in secrecy, in the bareness of the heart. The problem that the Sermon raises for Luther is the apparent causal relationship between the two for it seems to suggest that a loving act will buy God´s reward. “And your father who is in secret and sees in secret will reward you,” as the saying is repeated three times in chapter 6 of the Sermon on the Mount (6: 4, 6, 18), functioning as a mantra that one may know by heart as trustworthy even and because its meaning is not self-evident to our common earthly (rational) experience and the demands of justice.

[2] God is the one who sees in secret, who sees what humans cannot see. Yet for love to be real and not be mere sentimentality, it needs to be visible, to show. Secrecy is, however, required for this love not to become work righteousness.2 Love needs to be hidden as to its agent (the doer) but visible to be seen and received by the beloved. This is precisely the meaning of the saying in 5:16: “Let your light so shine before humanity, that they may see your good works.” Indeed the affirmation of visibility is emphatic. However, the decisive point is the ending of the verse in which those who see the good work “give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” It does not say, “so that they may thank you!” The secrecy by hiding the agent protects faith from entering the circular economy of reciprocity, and being thus annulled. This secrecy creates an emptiness that eludes the sight and thus offers itself as the receptacle of blessedness, as it also disguises a gesture of love by preventing it from being directly reciprocated.

[3] Luther works with the distinction between the realm of hearing (Hörreich) and the realm of seeing (Sehereich) that corresponds to the distinction of régimes.3 Faith comes by hearing is a statement that parallels love in the visible and tactile realm. This love grows out of, or is traceable to what is heard, but love has its vector toward the visible. Love needs to empty itself of the lofty assurances of faith’s blessedness in order to become love in its concrete and tangible expression in finite existence. But to be concrete or actual love, above all love of the enemy, it must be “shown” by its negative conditions of not being displayed as an act of the doer. Yet it is positive in its reception.

[4] Luther opens the preface to his homilies on the Sermon, which he himself wrote for publication 4 attacking the difference between praecepta legis and consilia evangelica, legal requirements and counsels so that the latter, seen “merely as advice to those who want to become perfect,”5 is rejected. The distinction is not the one between different classes or castes of people; it is a distinction within the person herself, between the heart and the deed. To use Luther’s expressions, between one’s own being in face of God (coram deo),and one’s being for others (coram hominibus/mundo). What bridges the two is kept out of sight, is kept in secret, for the eyes only of the one who sees in secret.

[5] Justice is addressed in the injunctions regarding law and love (5:17-6: 1) and most incisively on the love of the enemy. As in all the other injunctions love of the enemy starts with an appeal to the law or customs (“You have heard that it was said …, but I say…”). Luther is quick to note that this reference to the hatred of enemies is not found anywhere in the scriptures. Nevertheless, “scattered” references infer it. Stretching such inference by assuming its legitimacy is, for the Reformer, wrong. In order to get the intention of the law (aslex caritatis) it is carried to the extremity of loving one’s enemy. However this law, if prescribed without further ado, would turn out not only to be impossible to fulfill, but also irresponsible. And so he asks:

[6] What is to be said about the fact that the Scriptures often talk about holy men cursing their enemies, even about Christ and his disciples doing so? Would you call that blessing their enemies?  Or how can I love the pope when every day I rebuke and curse him—and with good reasons too?6

[7] Luther is applying these words to all Christians, for it is the Gospel, thus it is for all.7 He does not let anyone off the hook, while so many other passages he deemed not applicable to all.8 However, he recognizes that Christians are unable to fulfill Christ’s commandments, not due to moral weaknesses (even though those weaknesses apply), but because our calling to serve in the earthly régime aims at improving finite equity and reasonableness, not at perfection. But how can it be universal?

[8] Blessedness belongs to “receptive life” (vita passiva); it does not posit anything insofar as it is the receptacle of grace; it is pure receptivity in faith. Love, to the contrary, posits something. Love expresses itself objectively in action and work; it belongs to “active life” (vita activa). But then, what about love as a command in general and love of the enemy in particular as its radical expression? How can it be issued as a positive command when its conditions of possibility are to be kept secret? Can there be love without faith or vice-versa? In other words, the problem that Luther faces is to explain how faith and love relate and what this relation is. How can faith that is purely receptive and the source of all blessedness yield love that is active without destroying itself in work righteousness? How is love at all necessary for faith? Kierkegaard writing about duty in general phrased the problem with precision: “The duty becomes duty by being traced back to God, but in the duty itself I do not enter into relation to God.”9 If there is a relationship, it is a one-way street. This also means that the issuing of the love command is divine, but its execution does not bring us closer to God. Phrasing it more precisely, the fulfillment of the law takes us into the world. Yet, this move into the world, into materiality is to encounter God under its opposite (sub contraria specie).

[9] Foremost Luther is addressing the beatitudes at the inception of the Sermon. It starts with the description of the blessed and only then continues with the interpretation of the law culminating in the love of the enemy. This is the ultimate expression of love to the living universalizes it. However the concrete form in which this love is manifested limits and makes its employment restricted to particular expressions or gestures. Inconspicuous as these gestures might be, they are concrete in their manifestation even as limited to the constraints of the earthly régime where love displays itself. It is confined and conforms to the size of the masks we wear, adapted to the instruments we employ. Masks and instruments are figurative expressions Luther uses to describe human interaction (coram mundo) in the three publics that comprise the earthly régime, the church (ecclesia), the household/economy (oeconomia) and politics (politia).

[10]  This is how love of the enemy needs to proceed. It is a secret love of the bare heart that dispenses mercies without necessarily ceasing the outward hostility. Love appears here as a disruption in the circular economy of exchange. The exchange becomes asymmetric. The gift bestowed by the secret love disrupts the economy and yields no compensation, except by the one who sees in secret and to whom alone glory is due. Only those who refuse to use their love as a bargaining chip truly love. Against this backdrop, we can make sense of the injunction of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 14: 26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and his wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Only in this hatred can true altruistic, unselfish love manifest itself. “This is a hard saying,” as Kierkegaard remarked, but true in keeping both, faith and love, without confusing them and thus betraying both.10

[11]  The small act of merely forgiving an enemy, a merciful gesture toward a foe, above all if it is kept secret, is love. This frail gesture touches the whole as in a synecdoche (where the part represents the whole to which it belongs), Luther’s most esteemed figure of speech,11 and is expressed by the incarnation (Jesus is the synecdoche for the whole of creation). One extraordinary gesture of kindness, be it almost insignificant, fulfills the commandment of universal love. A meek gesture of love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8). The synecdoche gives expression to this while respecting the limits of the flesh, as it also remains an endless duty. This is how love in its concrete particularity assumes universal significance.

[12]  What the Reformer was trying to express is akin to the reminder by Carl Schmitt that “enemy” (echthrosin Matthew) is not “adversary” (polemios in Greek), or inimicushostis in Latin.12 Following Matthew, the reference here is to enemies in a private and not public or political sense. For Luther, however, the distinction that Schmitt makes so adamantly is blurred in the fluidity of the rhetorical use of figurative language. One’s vocation calls for political craftiness. The enemy is not reduced to an adversary that can be “loved” in a stoic detachment that for Schmitt would make politics possible. The enemy remains as enemy, while a gesture of love disturbs the logic of hatred without legislating itself as a new politics.

[13]  In his “Confession Concerning the Lord’s Supper” from 1528, Luther makes the distinction between being blessed (selig sein) and being holy (heilig sein), which ought not to be forgotten because it applies precisely to the problem we are addressing:  “For to be holy [heilig] and to be saved [selig/blessed] are two entirely different things. We are saved [selig] through Christ alone; but we become holy both through this faith and through these divine foundations and orders.”13 As a Christian one is not excused from participating in any or all the divinely instituted orders as Luther states in the “Confession”: “But the holy orders and true religious institutions established by God are these three: the office of priest, the estate of marriage, the civil government. All who are engaged in … these are engaged in works which are all together holy in God sight.”14

[14]  This brings us back to the question about the connection between the two – the holy and the blessed, justice and justification. Simply put, can one be blessed and saved (justified) without being holy or saintly in pursuance of justice? Or the reverse, can one be holy without being blessed, righteous in earthly affairs without being justified? Luther admitted that “even the godless may have much about them that is holy without being saved [selig] thereby.”15 There is some form of causal relationship implied here. But if there is holiness without confessing faith in Christ (as Luther admitted), this would break down the union of natures (unio hypostatica), which applies squarely to the faith-love union in distinction. The same would be the case if there were the possibility of being blessed without producing holy works. There is enough in Luther’s writings to corroborate these possibilities as the emphasis in the sola fide and the invectives against works and law. These seem indeed to corroborate this breaking down of the union, which is only mildly assuaged by the metaphor of the tree and its fruits. But even this analogy breaks down because one might conceive of a tree without a fruit, but never the fruit without a tree. Hence we need to read Luther against Luther for consistency’s sake.

[15]  Christology is the over-determining factor; it pertains to Luther’s understanding of the relationship of Christ’s two natures, without separation or mixture, i.e., his understanding of the communication of properties (communicatio idiomatum) between the divine and the human. As Christ, so are Christians, as “little Christs,” simultaneously and totally in the flesh and in matter, and, by grace they are partakers of the divine. The reality is one, as the finite is capable of the infinite, but the perspective by which we look at it differs as different are the images projected in the facets of a crystal and yet it is the same crystal, to use Luther’s simile.16

[16]  The beatitudes describe those whose situation is one that goes against the ways of the world or who resist to its ways by not following them: the poor, the weak, those who mourn a loss, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peaceful, the persecuted, all those characterized by negative features. These characteristics do not apply to the orders of creation characterized by positive features as having nourishment, reproductive rights, protection, rest, and cultic space. The household or the economy has to feed the people and not let them hunger; the government has to defend the weak; and the church’s calling is to enrich the people spiritually by preserving the dignity of the Shabbat providing space for learning the Word preached and for leisure, to be at ease receiving God’s grace present in love.

[17]  Luther makes a surprising move right after identifying the orders as the spaces in which to exercise holiness. Instead of remaining close to the expression of love as it is shown within the instituted orders or publics, he adds a vague reference to the “order of Christian love.” This “order” is not a public with attributes like those Luther used to describe the three classical orders he adopted from medieval times and ultimately from Aristotle’s distinction of human faculties in the Metaphysics.17 What is this order that is not covered by the established institutions in which holiness inscribes itself? Luther goes on to say:

Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc. Behold, all of those are called good and holy works. However none of these orders is a means of salvation (seligkeit).18

[18]  In medieval theology there were “seven acts of mercy,” consisting of those six listed in Matthew 25: 35-36 (feeding the hungry, giving to drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and the prisoner) plus the burying of the dead. But “forgiving enemies” or “suffering all kinds of evil” was not among them. Luther does not use these acts as extra ingredients that are added to improve our chances of salvation, but as an excess in the sanctifying régime. Faith remains the unconditional gift. Tenuous as it might seem, there is a link that connects faith and love, blessedness and holiness, justification and justice, which the eyes cannot behold, yet the ears hear. It is the tale of a secret love, the love of the enemy. That was God’s love, secret, absconditus in the cross for us, enemies who crucified God.

[19]  The novelty in this move is that the excess in the realm of holiness does not add to the realm of blessedness. In fact, the procedure is one of subtraction. By the simple fact of not enforcing the means of carrying out hatred and reacting to persecution, love makes its meager appearance and opens space for blessings to blossom. This is why for Luther love of the enemy comes together with prayer for those who persecute and oppress.

[20]  Blessedness belongs to the one who loves and forgives the enemy in the heart, even if the person remains a foe in the temporal sphere. It is through the synecdoche that the two denotations of enmity (echtros and polemios) are connected. So the Pope, the Turks, the enthusiasts, and the usurers, could be met with fantastic accusations of being the devil, and all the filthy language that Luther could think of (and not much did he miss from the scatological lexicon). The reason is his use of the synecdoche. But in the earthly régime they were secular, worldly adversaries to be met according to the rules of the ecclesial, the political, and the economic publics, respectively. This earthly régime has rules, duties, and laws that set demands for the sake of justice and peace. But to this minimal demand in the administration of the earthly spheres Luther calls also for a surplus that exceeds the demands of those spheres. This excess is the decisive element in Luther’s “political theology.” The love of the enemy is the cipher of this excess which is its victory even if no bigger than a mustard seed. Even if there is no positive causality between love and faith, love of the enemy releases (via negativa) a space of peacefulness for the word to be heard in the chambers of faith and finite justice to be attained in public spheres. For faith, love is not necessary (in the logical sense); it is more than necessary, both logically (it is an excess) and rhetorically (it goes without saying).


1 See Vítor Westhelle, “The Dark Room, the Labyrinth, and the Mirror: On Interpreting Luther’s Thought on Justification and Justice,” in By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, Joseph A. Burguess and Marc Kolden, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 316-331.

2 This is also the case for the love of God who hides in the frailty of the flesh and is to be found hidden in it. In the discussion concerning the genus tapeinoticum (the divine assumes human frailty) in the communicatio idiomatum, the dispute between the “kenotics” (Tübingen) and the “kriptics” (Giessen) pertained to this issue directly. Luther’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount seem to favor the “kriptic” position.

3 For this terminology and several other expressions used by Luther to address the distinction of régimes see  Gustaf Törnvall, Geistliches und weltliches Regiment bei Luther, (München: Kaiser, 1947) particularly 44, 94-95 where he lists some 38 expressions to point to the different régimes; see also David Löfgren, Die Theologie der Schöpfung bei Luther (Göttingen : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1960).

4 The sermon itself was transcribed by assistants.

5 LW 21: 3-4; WA 32, 299-301

6 LW 21: 119; WA 32, 21-25.

7 LW 35: 171; WA 16, 390, 21-23.

8 See his “How Christians should Regard Moses” LW 35: 170; WA 16, 389.

9 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: UP, 1983), 72.

10 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 68.

11 “Synecdoche, to be sure, is a most sweet and necessary figure of speech and a symbol of God’s love and mercy…” LW 32: 169f.

12 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), chapter 3.

13 LW 37: 365; WA 26, 505, 18-20.

14 LW 37: 365; WA 26, 504, 30ff.

15 LW 37: 365; WA 26, 504, 20f.

16 Luther loved this image of the crystal and played with the sound of the word when speaking about Christ. The idea is that the omnipresence of Christ is something we perceive only in one of its dimensions or facets at a time. See LW 37: 224; WA 26, 337, 9ff. See also Niels Henrik Gregersen, “Natural Events as Crystals of God—Luther’s Eucharistic Theology and the Question of Nature’s Sacramentality,” in Viggo Mortensen (ed.), Concern for Creation: Voices on the Theology of Creation (Uppsala: Tro & Tanke, 1995), 143–55.

 17 See Vitor ​Westhelle, “Power and Politics: Incursions in Luther’s Theology,” in The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, Christine Helmer, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 284-300.

18 LW 37: 366; WA 26, 505, 11-16.

Vítor Westhelle

Vítor Westhelle is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Thgeology at Chicago and holder of the Chair for Luther Research at Faculdades EST, Brazil.