Luther’s Economic Ethic of Neighbor-love and Its Implications for Economic Life Today – A Gift to the World

[1] Dear colleagues and friends, the focus for this gathering is vitally important. Addressing harsh economic inequity and seeking to identify and undo the factors that cause it is – I will argue – critical to Christian witness, and therefore is at the heart of what it means to be church in the heritage of Martin Luther.

[2] Since this group spent yesterday evening examining realities of economic inequity, I will not begin there except to emphasize that for many people, extreme poverty – especially in the midst of wealth – is brutal, often deadly.  “Poverty,” declared Gandhi “is the worst form of violence.”  The data about the expanding wealth gap in the United States and around the globe is soul-searing.[1]


PART ONE: Practicing Economic Violence Obscures Proclamation of the Gospel

[3] Let us step back for a moment to the end of the 20th century and then back further to the 16th century. Do you recall the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999? During those protests, I was reading Luther and his economic ethics. I was stunned to hear that his words denouncing the emerging exploitative economy of his day were almost identical to the protesters’ words. “Well,” I thought, “maybe I am just imagining this congruence.” So I tested it during a talk I was giving at Augustana College. I read words from Luther and from the WTO protesters and asked people to vote on which was which. They could not tell the difference!

[4] “Why?” I asked myself. Why did Martin Luther so fervently denounce economic norms that were the beginning of what, centuries later, assumed the name of capitalism?  Pursuing this question, I found that Luther—like the protestors—called people to defy the emerging exploitative economy of his day because it accumulated wealth for the rich by hurting the poor.

[5] For Luther, Jesus’ call to love neighbor placed demands on economic life. The economic implications of neighbor-love were based on a presupposition about the nature of neighbor-love as a biblical norm, a presupposition inherent in Luther. It was that “love” as a biblical norm is NOT primarily an emotional feeling of good will or affection. It is a steadfast commitment to serve the well-being of neighbor, and neighbor is whomever one’s life impacts.

[6] Today, two factors dramatically complexify neighbor-love. First, our economic impact on others is not primarily through personal interactions, but rather is through economic systems of which we are integral parts. Secondly, the economic systems of which we are a part that bring vast over-consumption and material goods to many United States citizens also bring devastating poverty or even death to neighbors whom we are called to love. Said differently, my economic practices – buying, consuming, investing – are dangerous or deadly for many people the world over.[2]  Of course, the examples are literally endless and they are tremendously painful to admit.  I have been listening to voices of this truth since it was introduced to me by my Luther League group when I was about 14. We can talk much more about that event later but, for now, listen in on just three of those voices:

  • One is Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino talking with a delegation of U.S. religious leaders that I was co-leading in El Salvador.   For many people, Sobrino explained, “poverty means death.” He went on to explain that in El Salvador people are not poor by chance, they are poor because the systems that make some people rich – in both Salvador and the United States – make others poor.
  • Another is Methodist Bishop Bernardino Mandlate of Mozambique who was part of a small World Council of Churches team on which I also served. The team was engaged in a project at the United Nations. He introduced himself to the rest of the team with the words: “I am a debt warrior.” (The Bishop was speaking of the millions of dollars in capital and interest transferred yearly from the world’s poorest nations to foreign banks, governments, and international finance institutions that are controlled largely by the world’s leading industrialized nations.) Later that week, when asked to address a United Nations meeting concerning the causes of poverty in Africa, Bishop Mandlate identified the external debt as a primary cause. The debt, he declared, is “covered with the blood of African children. African children die so that North American children may overeat.”[3]
  • The third is a Mexican strawberry picker who spoke with a delegation of local elected officials from the U.S.  Our children, she declared, go hungry, because this land, which ought to grow corn and beans for them, instead grows strawberries for your tables.

[7] The links between wealth and poverty are not limited to international; they are, of course, hauntingly real within the Unites States. How much of what I own was sold by stores that kept their retail prices low by paying their workers less than a living wage and by not offering health insurance?  How many of those workers now are homeless? I recall a woman living in the transition home for homeless women at my church in Seattle. She quietly explained that she had become homeless because her fulltime job did not pay enough for her to pay rent.

[8] This relationship between wealth and poverty leads to my main point in this Part One. Practicing economic ways that kill people or drive them further into poverty – if we could do otherwise – obscures our proclamation of the gospel. For me to say, “God loves you,” while I also am destroying you does not work.

[9] Luther’s economic ethic – as an ethic of neighbor-love – offers vital resources for facing this untenable situation.  Consider two aspects of his economic ethic:

  • Its grounding in his moral anthropology and in justification.
  • The implications of neighbor-love for how we are to practice economic life as church today.

These will be Parts Two and Three of my comments.



PART TWO: Threefold Moral Anthropology: Beloved, Broken, and Body of God’s Love

[10] Luther holds that we are, at one time, three things. First and foremost, before all else, we are beloved. This we cannot change by anything we do or fail to do. Neither individual sin, nor our participation in social sin – even the most heinous – can change this.  We are, therefore, freed to hear and tell the truth about our engagement in collective economic sin because we know that it will not diminish God’s love for us or negate God’s saving us.  Recall the words of the bishop from Mozambique. To this day, I could not take seriously the implications of that testimony and infinite others like it, unless I knew in the core of my being that my role in systems that impoverish countless people would not lessen God’s love for me or endanger my salvation. God’s love for us will not cease or dim.

[11] Secondly, we are broken. We are and always will be – on this side of death – broken by sin, both individual sin and collective or systemic sin such as systemic economic violence. Knowing this, we are freed from an expectation of perfection in the quest for economic justice. This is vitally important. It means that we need not be discouraged or stopped in our efforts to build more just economic practices by the fact that we can never fully avoid all forms of exploitation caused by the economic systems in which we are players.

[12] Thirdly, through God’s action in Christ, we are body of God’s love on Earth. God, Luther explains, gives two kinds of righteousness. The first places us in a radically different and right relationship with God; we are totally forgiven. As a “fruit and consequence” of this first gift, we are placed in a radically different relationship with people by the “second kind of righteousness.”  It, he writes, is a manner of life spent in “good works” that serve the wellbeing of neighbor.[4]  Luther holds that justification is transformative. Justified sinners gradually are changed through the indwelling presence of Christ, into people more attuned to seeking the well-being of others. The startling implications for economic life will become evident shortly.

[13] Let us be clear. This does not mean moral perfection; we are never – this side of death – fully freed from the human proclivity to serve self at the expense of others. We remain, in Luther’s honest words, God’s “rusty tools.”[5]

[14] Of course, Luther’s understanding of what happens to people when we are made righteous by God coheres with his central conviction that works do not and cannot cause salvation. They follow from salvation.  Luther rattled the world with his astounding claim that God, NOT human works, make us righteous. However, unlike some later forms of Lutheranism, Luther also insisted that works are a vital part of life for people who are justified by Christ.[6] “Faith,” he writes, “is followed by works as a body is followed by its shadow.”[7]  “Faith in Christ does not free us from works,” he writes, “but from false opinions concerning works, that is from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.”[8]

[15] The form of “works” relevant here are the works that embody “love to our neighbor.” Luther preaches: ”God makes love to our neighbor an obligation equal to love to himself.”[9] He identifies “two principles of Christian doctrine.” The first principle is that Christ gave himself that we may be saved, and we are saved by no effort of our own. The second “is love … as he gives himself for us … so we too are to give ourselves with might and main for our neighbor.” [16] Luther insists on the inseparability of the two: they are “inscribed together as on a tablet which is always before our eyes and which we use daily.”[10]

[17] In short, God gives forgiveness as gift, regardless of how broken we may be, and then sends us forth to be God’s hands and feet while remaining faulty and imperfect in doing so. According to Luther, our shortcomings in fulfilling this calling are vast. Vaster yet is God’s unfailing forgiveness of them and love for us despite them.

[18] Thus we find a brilliant and morally empowering moral anthropology. For Luther we humans are at one time three things: beloved by a love that will not dim or cease, broken by sin, and body of God’s love on Earth. As body of God’s love (in ELCA terms: God’s work, our hands), we are guided in all by one paramount norm. It is neighbor-love – seeking the wellbeing of neighbor – while meeting the needs of self and household.

PART THREE:  Implications for Economic Life

[19] According to Luther, that norm of neighbor-love pertains to every aspect of life for Christians, including economic life. According to him, economic activity is intrinsically an act in relationship to neighbor. For this reason, economic practices that undermine the wellbeing of the neighbor (especially of the vulnerable) were to be rejected and replaced with alternatives. About this, Luther was vehement and specific.

[20] Luther’s was a time of “economic revolution gradually transforming Germany from a nation of peasant agriculturalists into a society with at least the beginnings of a capitalist economy.”[11] Consequences included high prices, growing disparity of wealth, and increasing poverty, especially of those with low or fixed income. How familiar does this sound?  The poor “were a cheap labor pool for an expanding profit economy.” “Poverty was a growing social problem.”[12] Increasingly, large-scale international trade required capital which sought profitable investment. Thus, the ethics of capital transactions were in public discussion.

[21] In this context, Luther not only helped to establish a local social welfare system that created jobs and provided interest-free loans and health care to impoverished people.  He also denounced theologically certain aspects of the emerging economy that exploited the poor—including the freedom of capital from political constraints—and admonished preachers to do the same.[13] Hear Luther in his comments on the tenth commandment in the Large Catechism: Speaking of the “free public market,” he writes, “Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his goods as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism.”

[22] Luther taught that widely accepted economic practices that undermined the well-being of poor people ought to be eschewed by Christians. As alternatives, he established norms for everyday economic life that prioritized meeting human needs over maximizing profit. To illustrate: Christians, according to Luther, must refuse to charge what the market will bear when selling products if so doing jeopardizes the well-being of impoverished people.[14] Likewise, Christians may not buy an essential commodity when its price is low and sell when it is high, for so doing endangers the poor.[15] (Imagine that principle guiding life in the contemporary capitalist market economy, grounded as it is buying low and selling high.) Economic activity, Luther argued, should be subject to regulation. He extols, “Selling ought not be an act that is entirely within your own power and discretion, without law or limit.” Civil authorities ought to establish “rules and regulations,” including “ceilings” on prices.[16]

[23] Finally, Luther admonishes pastors regarding their roles and obligations in the face of economic practices that exploit the vulnerable. Pastors are to unmask hidden injustice.[17] “Christ has instructed us preachers not to withhold the truth from the lords but to exhort and chide them in their injustice….[saying] ‘to keep still and let it appear that you do right when you do wrong, that we cannot and will not do’ ….for one should not remain silent about injustice….”[18]

[24] In short, according to Luther, neighbor-love, as the norm for economic life, has at least three dimensions and demands:

* love manifest in charitable sharing;

* love manifest in disclosing and theologically denouncing exploitation of those who are vulnerable; and

* love manifest in ways of living that counter prevailing economic practices where they exploit the vulnerable or defy God in some other way.

[25] Loving in these forms, we are whom God has made us in justification:  beloved creatures of God freed to embody Christ’s love on earth, and doing this imperfectly indeed. As such, the church today is called to disclose, denounce, and counter economic policies, practices, and assumptions that harm economically vulnerable neighbors whom we are called to love.  To illustrate: The second kind of righteousness—with neighbor-love at its heart—would not allow Christians to profit at the expense of impoverished people. Thus, Christians could not condone inadequate wages in the quest of higher corporate gains. We would make every effort not to buy products made cheap by companies’ failure to provide a living wage and health care benefits.[19] We could not fall asleep while tax policy benefits the rich and penalizes the poor. Neighbor-love would demand Christians to speak out against extractive industries that destroy indigenous people’s lands and livelihoods in the US or in Ecuador, India, and around the world in order to benefit shareholders.

[26] The examples are endless. But they are summed up in the beautiful conclusion that God’s work in Christ to give us two kinds of righteousness frees the church to bring faith to bear in both resisting the demands of advanced global capitalism and building the new economy.[20] This term — new economy – connotes the emerging worldwide movement to forge more equitable, ecological and democratic economic policies, practices, and worldviews.   This is a life-giving, healing, liberating dimension of Christian vocation in the world.

[27] We do not have time to go into the question of wherein lies the moral-spiritul power to embody neighbor love when it includes rejecting the opportunity to maximize profit at the expense of the poor. However, I have argued elsewhere that for Luther, this moral power was sustained by the presence of Christ dwelling within the Christian community, mediated by its practices. Christians as objects of Christ’s love become subjects of that love because it abides within them.[21]

In Closing

[28] The extractive fossil fuel economy – global and national – will not endure long into the future. This is a physical fact. Earth cannot continue to provide what it requires and presupposes. Whether the future economy increases wealth concentration and inequity or decreases them will be determined by human decisions and actions.  Lutherans have been given by God powerful resources for helping to move the economy toward economic justice.

[29] One of those resources is Luther’s economic ethic of neighbor-love, grounded in his moral anthropology of human beings as beloved, broken, and body of Christ’s love. This economic ethic of neighbor-love offers profound hope and guides the way!  It invites Lutherans to re-affirm our beliefs and open ourselves to the vast life-giving potential that they hold. We may, in communities of faith, prayerfully and daringly risk living into our calling for economic life. Jesus walked this terrain at great cost. Luther was a daring, faithful and fallible follower.

[30] Walking that path would honor Luther’s daring, risky, evangelical discoveries about what it means to be justified by God’s grace.  And it would weave us into the global movement to challenge systems that create economic inequity and build more socially just and ecologically sustainable economic policies, practices, and principles.

[31] In these faithful ventures and modes of living out our calling, we will be fallible, faulty, at times fearful, and encumbered by the incessant lure of self curved in on self—as was Luther. However, that we are “rusty” tools makes us no less precious tools in God’s sight and in God’s liberating healing work on Earth.



[1] One recent report indicates that the three richest people in US (Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos) own wealth equal to bottom half of the US population. See Rupert Neate, “Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet Are Wealthier Than Poorest Half of US,” Guardian, November 8, 2017, See also Oxfam International’s reports: “Reward Work Not Wealth,” and “An Economy for the 99%,”

[2] For much more extensive inquiry into the relationship between the material wealth of some and the poverty of others, and for exploration into a response to that relationship grounded in Christian faith, see Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[3] Bernardino Mandlate, in presentation to the United Nations PrepCom for the World Summit on Social Development Plus Ten, New York, February 1999.

[4] Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Works (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 157, 158.

[5] Martin Luther, D. Martin Luther‘s Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–  ), known as the Weimar Ausgabe (WA), 2.413.27, cited by George W. Forell, Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther’s Social Ethics, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1954), 92.

[6] In the “Heidelberg Disputation,” he argues: “Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works… grace and faith are infused without works. After they have been imparted the works follow… that he himself may be Christ’s action and instrument.” Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” in Lull, 46-47.

[7] Luther, “Lectures on Genesis, W.A., 44, 135, 2, cited by Forell, Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther’s Social Ethics, 56. See also: “We should not simply think, ‘All I have to do is to believe and everything is taken care of, I do not have to do any good works.’ No, we must not separate the two. You must do good works and help your neighbor so that faith may shine outwardly in life as it shines inwardly on the heart.” Luther, “Sermon on John 6:48,” cited by Forell, ibid.

[8] Luther, “Freedom of a Christian,” in Lull, 625.

[9] Luther, in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, John Nicholas Lenker, ed. Reprint edition (Baker Books, 2000), vol. 7: 68-69.

[10] Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ –Against Fanatics,” in Lull, 331.

[11] Walter I Brandt, “Introduction,” to “Trade and Usury,” Luther’s Works 45: 233.

[12] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996), 114, 111.

[13] See for example, Luther, “Admonition to the Clergy that They Preach against Usury,” Weimar Ausgabe 51.367, cited in Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action (Utrecht: International Books, 1995), 220-21.

[14] I use the term “impoverished people” rather than the more common term “the poor” at the suggestion of colleagues from the Global South who prefer the former term as a way of indicating that people are not poor by chance but rather are poor because systems that enrich some sectors of humanity impoverish others.

[15] Luther, “Trade and Usury,” Luthers Works 45: 261, 247-51.  See also the entirety of “Trade and Usury,” (LW 45: 244 –308) and Luther’s comments on the first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth/tenth commandments and on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism.

[16] Luther, “Trade and Usury,” 249-50.

[17] Heiko Oberman cited in Lindberg, European Reformations, 116. See for example, Luther, “Admonition to the Clergy that They Preach against Usury,” ibid.

[18] WA 28: 360-1; LW 69, 236-37 cited by Carter Lindberg, The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, 22.

[19] These statements are oversimplified to make the point.  A more complex rendition would acknowledge that this norm would not hold in all cases. To illustrate: In the case of Christians who themselves are experiencing dangerous poverty, the competing moral obligation of care for ones dependents or for oneself might make purchasing the inexpensive products the greater moral good.

[20] One moving example of this in the faith community is the decision by the Council of World Missions to ground mission in a critique of empire, including the imperial power of advanced global capitalism, and to embark on developing a curriculum of Theological Education for Economy of Life.

[21] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), Chapters Four and Five.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda holds a joint appointment in ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Church Divinity School of the Pacific.