Luther’s Theology and Domestic Politics

Copyright © 1994, Word& World, Luther Seminary. Word & World, Supplement Series 2, pp. 108-122.
First published under the title “Domestic Politics” in Luther and Culture, ed. George Forell, Harold Grimm, and Theodore Hoelty-Nickel (Decorah, Iowa: Luther College Press, 1960) and delivered first as a lecture presented at the 1959 “Luther Lectures” at Luther College. Used with permission.

[1] The age in which Luther lived and worked was not only a period of far-reaching international conflicts but also vast domestic upheavals. This was especially true of Germany. In France or England the government of the country was in the hands of a king whose territory coincided with a region of considerable national and cultural homogeneity. In Germany, however, the effective rule was in the hands of princes whose territories were essentially the result of the accidents of inheritance. The frontiers of the territorial states of sixteenth-century Germany had little to do with language and culture or-at the beginning of the century-even with religion. They had come about by prudent marriages and sudden deaths and were more often the result of the fertility and resistance to disease of the ruling family than the economic and cultural interests of the people under its rule. Of the house of Habsburg, which had been particularly fertile and successful in its marital alliances it was said: Bella gerant alii, tu felice Austria nube!-Let the others fight wars, thou fortunate Austria get married! The purpose of the governments thus established, as far as the prince was concerned, was the maintenance and extension of his power. As far as the people were concerned a good government was one which guaranteed public safety and maintained law and order. None of these territorial princes represented the cultural and social reality of Germany. Thus the actual focus of political power in Luther’s Germany was not some German Reich but rather units like Saxony and Württemberg, Bavaria and Austria, Brandenburg and the Palatinate. It cannot surprise us that the princes who governed these territories would attempt to benefit politically from the reformation and would try to use it for the extension and strengthening of their territorial power.

[2] But while these territorial princes became increasingly the true power centers of the political life of Germany there remained other groups who did not want to recognize this development. Particularly the members of the lower nobility, the knights, felt that they had no political obligation towards the territorial princes. They dreamed nostalgically of the days of the Hohenstauffen emperors when the noble knights had been the support of the Holy Roman Empire. But the empire of the Hohenstauffen had vanished. The power of an emperor like Charles V rested on the fact of his own extensive territorial possessions. With the decline of the medieval empire the knights had become obsolete, without, however, fully realizing this fact. Unwilling to face the profound changes in their status they felt betrayed and in a mood of revolt. No wonder that they saw in the reformation with its revolt against the ecclesiastical status quo a movement which might be used for their political ends. It is not surprising that men like Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen supported the reformation for political reasons.

[3] A third group which had considerable political interests in the reformation were the free cities of Germany. Involved in a constant struggle for independence at first against the nobility, the robber barons who threatened the public safety necessary for successful trade, later against the territorial princes who jeopardized the political existence of the cities and attempted to incorporate them into their territories, they saw in the reformation a movement which might be used to support their claims for freedom. Among the burghers of these precariously free cities there were many adherents of Luther whose support was not entirely grounded in theology.

[4] A fourth group which placed political as well as religious hopes in the reformation were some of the craftspeople, the weavers and miners, who found insufficient protection in the ancient guild system and whose prosperity was subject to extreme fluctuations in a rising capitalist society. They, too, hoped for some improvement of their fate through the victory of the reformation.

[5] But the people who still made up the majority of Luther’s contemporaries were the peasants. Restless for more than a hundred years, expressing their grievances in sporadic and abortive revolts, they now pinned all their hopes on political changes which the reformation would bring about. They expected that Luther’s movement would free them from excessive taxes, end their serfdom, and give them all sorts of other rights ranging from the right to choose their own pastors to the right to fish and hunt.[1] All these hopes they connected with the open and free proclamation of the gospel. The reformation was for them as much a political as a religious movement.

[6] It was against this background of complex political pressures which threatened to engulf the reformation that Luther was forced to develop and express his political views. He did this all during his life, but with particular clarity in his book Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed of 1523;[2] his writings in the Peasant War of 1525,[3] and the book Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved of 1526.[4] In all these writings he operates consistently with the distinction of the two ways of ruling which God has ordained, “the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ,” and the secular, “which restrains the un‑Christians and wicked so that-no thanks to them-they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.”[5] Politics is obviously the realm of the law. It is the area in which God creates order through the sword. Even if people do not want to do what is right, and Luther was singularly free from illusions concerning the innate goodness of human beings, they are forced to it even against their will by the restraining arm of the law. Of course Luther knew as well as anybody that such law, even if rigidly enforced, does not make people good. He denounced all claims that through obedience to the law people could become Christians and be saved. But this did not mean that in the political life of the state such laws could not be of great usefulness. Even if people abstained from murder, raping, and robbing only because they were afraid of punishment, the ensuing situation was politically, if not morally, better than if people were allowed to show their hostility and agreed to their heart’s content. We know that when we drive along the highway at considerable speed and a police car enters the stream of traffic we usually drive more slowly and with greater concern for the traffic laws. To be sure, the arrival of the police car has not made us morally better; nevertheless it has made our behavior safer both for ourselves and all other drivers on the road. It was this distinction between politically safer and morally better behavior which Luther saw so very clearly.

[7] It is the task of political government to concern itself with order and law rather than with faith and salvation. While it is well equipped to attain a moderate success in achieving the former for its citizens, it is bound to fail utterly in the effort to secure faith and salvation for them.

[8] Luther said,

If anyone attempted to rule the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and sword on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that, according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or sword-or need for either-pray tell me, friend, what would he be doing? He would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle creatures.[6]
[9] And a little later he continued:

It is out of the question that there should be a common Christian government over the whole world, or indeed over a single country or any considerable body of people, for the wicked always outnumber the good. Hence, a man who would venture to govern an entire country or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should put together in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep, and let them mingle freely with one another, saying, “Help yourselves, and be good and peaceful toward one another. The fold is open, there is plenty of food. You need have no fear of dogs and clubs.” The sheep would doubtless keep the peace and allow themselves to be fed and governed peacefully, but they would not live long, nor would one beast survive another.[7]

[10] Luther, therefore, is convinced that the secular government must be retained until the end of this world. In this world, “Christ’s government does not extend over all men.”[8] The great majority of people can only be kept in line by sanctions. Yet it is evident that

where temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is in­evitable, even though the commandments be God’s very own. For without the Holy Spirit in the heart no one becomes truly righteous, no matter how fine the work he does. On the other hand, where the spiritual government alone prevails over land and people, there wickedness is given free rein and the door is open for all manner of rascality, for the world as a whole cannot receive or comprehend it.[9]

[11] Since the majority of people are not servants of Christ but rather serve the devil, even the very commandments of God will only serve to widen the gulf between them and their creator. Yet, even though these commandments will have no saving value for the unbeliever they will contribute to political order and peace. It is for the unbelievers that political rule is established. Christians, insofar as they are sinners and under the law, will also be under the restraining force of the political authorities. But insofar as they are Christians and under the gospel they do not need it. Nevertheless they will support and uphold government in order to aid those who depend upon it. Christians should do everything in their power to uphold the government, and this is as true for the Christian prince as for the Christian subject. To the ruler, Luther said:

A prince’s duty is fourfold: First, toward God there must be true confidence and earnest prayer; second, toward his subjects there must be love and Christian service; third, with respect to his counselors and officials he must maintain an untrammeled reason and unfettered judgment; fourth, with respect to evildoers he must manifest a restrained severity and firmness.[10]

[12] If a prince does his duty in this manner his life and work will be pleasing to God and to his subjects. But Luther does not promise the ruler that such obedience to God’s will produces peace of mind and an easy life. On the contrary, it is the good ruler who “will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a prince.”[11]

[13] But what about the political duties of the subject? To them Luther said,

You are under obligation to serve and assist the sword by whatever means you can, with body, goods, honor, and soul….Therefore, if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the position, that the essential governmental authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. The world cannot and dare not dispense with it.[12]
[14] To those Christians who wanted to shirk their political responsibilities because Christ and the apostles did apparently not engage in political activities Luther said: “You tell me, why did Christ not take a wife, or become a cobbler or a tailor? If an office or vocation were to be regarded as disreputable on the ground that Christ did not pursue it himself, what would become of all the offices and vocations other the ministry, the one occupation he did follow?”[13] Politics is a legitimate occupation in which good people are needed. Luther was so keenly aware of the need for the most competent people available to serve God in politics that he said to the parents of gifted children:

Indeed, there is need in this office for abler people than are needed in the office of preaching, so it is necessary to get the best boys for this work; for in the preaching office Christ does the whole thing, by his Spirit, but in the worldly kingdom men must act on the basis of reason-wherein the laws also have their origin-for God has subjected temporal rule and all of physical life to reason (Genesis 2 [:15]). He has not sent the Holy Spirit from heaven for this purpose.[14]

[15] To the parents who refuse to give their youngsters an education which would qualify them for government service Luther says,

You would have to be a gross, ungrateful clod, worthy of being numbered among the beasts, if you should see that your son could become a man to help the emperor preserve his empire, sword, and crown; to help protect so many men’s bodies, wives, children, property, and honor-and yet would not risk enough on it to let him study and come to such a position.[15]

[16] Again Luther’s political realism is obvious. Sound government is the result of competent, well-trained people in key positions. Luther had as little patience with inspired enthusiasts in politics as in theology. What politics needs is expertly trained people who know what they are doing. Commenting on Deut 1:13 ff. he said,

You see, therefore, that in divine Law no account is taken of the rich, powerful, noble, strong, and friendly, for handling public office, as is the custom of the world; but of the wise, understanding, and experienced, even if they are poor, lowly, weak, etc.[16]

[17] He quoted the Emperor Maximilian with approval who when his nobles complained that he used so many commoners as negotiators in international affairs, said, “What else can I do? You [lords] cannot be used, so I have to take writers.” And the same emperor said, according to Luther, “I can make knights, but I can’t make doctors.”[17]

[18] Because the art of government demands experts Luther advocated careful education for those who would assume political responsibility. He praised a nobleman who had once said to him, “I want my son to study. It takes no great skill to hang two legs over a horse and become a knight; in fact I taught him that myself already.”[18] Yet even if occasionally a nobleman might feel like that, Luther was sure that in the long run the effective administration of government would be in the hands of the poor and the commoners, for they alone would furnish the trained people to fill these offices.[19] He arrived at this conclusion not because he believed in the superiority of this particular class of human beings but because his analysis of the situation led him to believe that the rich were too much interested in wealth to give their children the necessary education to qualify them for a profession in which there was little financial reward. It was not the hope for a revolution of the lower classes but his realism concerning human nature which led him to the prediction that the common people would eventually rule.

[19] Indeed, nothing could be further from Luther’s thought than the advocacy of any kind of revolution. Even before he had some depressing first-hand experiences with the nature of revolution during the Peasant War he rejected the notion that a revolution could ever be justified. In 1522 he wrote A Sincere Admonition to All Christians, to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion.[20] Here he said that insurrection

is still an unprofitable method of procedure. It never brings about the desired result. For insurrection lacks discernment; it generally harms the innocent more than the guilty. Hence, no insurrection is ever right, no matter how right the cause it seeks to promote. It always results in more damage than improvement, and verifies the saying, “Things go from bad to worse.”[21]

[20] This is perhaps the most widely advertised aspect of Luther’s political thought, and it is certainly incontrovertible that he was rigid in his rejection of any kind of political rebellion. The reasons which he gave were many.

[21] First, and according to Luther, sufficient reason for all Christians, government is divinely ordained. He repeatedly quoted Rom 13:1 ff. and 1 Pet 2:13 to make it very clear that, “The authority (Gewalt) which everywhere exists has been ordained by God. He then who resists the governing authority resists the ordinance of God.”[22] But while Luther felt that this divine command should be sufficient reason for Christians to obey the government and to cooperate with it to the best of their ability, he also realized that if a government was tyrannical and the ruler a truly evil person, the subjects might feel justified in revolting on the grounds of reason and natural law. But Luther grants this right to revolt only in one case. He says,

It is only right that if a prince, king, or lord becomes insane, he should be deposed and put under restraint, for he is not to be considered a man since his reason is gone. “That is true,” you say, “and a raving tyrant is also insane; he is to be considered as even worse than an insane man, for he does much more harm.” It will be a little difficult for me to respond to that statement, for that argument seems very impressive and seems to be in agreement with justice and equity. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that madmen and tyrants are not the same. A madman can neither do nor tolerate anything reasonable, and there is no hope for him because the light of reason has gone out. A tyrant, however, may do things that are far worse than the insane man does, but he still knows that he is doing wrong. He still has a conscience and his faculties. There is also hope that he may improve and permit someone to talk to him and instruct him and follow this advice. We can never hope that an insane man will do this for he is like a clod or a stone.[23]

[22] Luther claims that as long as a legitimate ruler is essentially a human being, which he defines as those who know the difference between right and wrong, even if they actually do wrong, revolution is not a proper remedy against tyranny. And in addition to this basic theological reason for rejecting revolution he offers a number of non-theological considerations. Once we grant the right of tyrannicide, he says, who is going to decide who is a tyrant? Human beings tend to call anybody who does not please them a tyrant. Does that mean that we can kill any ruler we do not like? The history of the Roman Empire furnishes Luther with numerous illustrations for the debilitating effects of such political murder. It shows that the Romans “killed many a fine emperor simply because they did not like him or he did not do what they wanted, that is, let them be lords and make him their fool.”[24]

If injustice is to be suffered, then it is better for subjects to suffer it from their rulers than for the rulers to suffer it from their subjects. The mob neither has any moderation nor even knows what moderation is. And every person in it has more than five tyrants hiding in him. Now it is better to suffer wrong from one tyrant, that is, from the ruler, than from unnumbered tyrants, that is, from the mob.[25]

[23] Luther does not deny that revolts against rulers have been successful in the past. He says,

I know well enough…of subjects deposing and exiling or killing their rulers. The Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans all did this and God permitted it and even let these nations grow and prosper in spite of it. However, the final outcome was always tragic….I feel there can be no stable government unless a nation respects and honors its rulers.[26]

[24] If rulers are tyrannical-and Luther is convinced that they usually are unfair and unjust-the punishment rests in God’s hand. No punishment human beings devise can possibly equal God’s punishment.[27] God can kill an evil ruler in an instant, if that is his will: “He has fire, water, iron, stone, and countless ways of killing. How quickly he can kill a tyrant!”[28] If he chooses not to do it, Luther claims, that may be because of our sins. Quoting Job 4:30, he says, “‘He permits a knave to rule because of the people’s sins.’ We have no trouble seeing that a scoundrel is ruling. However, no one wants to see that he is ruling not because he is a scoundrel, but because of the people’s sin.”[29] Indeed, Luther is prepared to grant that God may even use a revolution to overthrow and punish a ruler. But while such a revolution may actually accomplish God’s purpose, those who engage in it are personally disobeying God. Yet Luther warns that rulers should not rest at ease in their tyrannical ways because of his teaching. It is not Luther’s teaching but only God’s will which still upholds them. “The lords are just as secure because of our teaching,” he says, “as they are without it…since most of the crowd does not listen to us. The preservation of the rulers whom God has appointed is a matter that rests with God and in his hands alone.”[30]

[25] Nothing, perhaps, illustrates Luther’s matter-of-fact conservatism towards government better than a story which he tells in his book Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.

We read of a widow who stood and prayed for her tyrant most devoutly, asking God to give him long life, etc. The tyrant heard it and was astonished because he knew very well that he had done her much harm, and that this was not the usual prayer for tyrants. People do not ordinarily pray such prayers for tyrants, so he asked her why she prayed thus for him. She answered, “I had ten cows when your grandfather lived and ruled. He took two of them and I prayed that he might die and that your father might become lord. This is what happened, and your father took three cows. I prayed again that you might become lord, and that your father might die. Now you have taken four cows, and so I am praying for you, for now I am afraid that your successor will take the last cow and everything I have.”[31]

[26] This is not an ideological conservatism which praises the good old days. Neither the old days nor the new days are good in themselves. Luther is politically conservative because he is sure that change does not imply improvement. Things can get worse as well as better. His own political experience tempted him to believe that changes promoted by enthusiastic political dreamers will make things worse rather than better. What he had seen in the Peasant War had convinced him that nothing could cause more damage in the political life of a people than the wild ranting of agitators of the type of Thomas Müntzer. Not only had they spilled much blood, but when it was all over the situation of the people whose interests these revolutionaries claimed to promote was much worse than it had ever been before. While blasphemously claiming the sword of Gideon for their cause they had not led their followers into any promised land but rather into a captivity from which they were not to escape for centuries.

[27] It cannot be denied that Luther’s experience in the Peasant War played an important part in the final shape of his political thinking. Furthermore, Luther’s political thought has often been interpreted exclusively in the light of his utterances in connection with this revolutionary upheaval. Thus no examination of his views on domestic politics would be complete without an examination of his position in this greatest political crisis of his lifetime. It appears that in the three successive periods of this conflict Luther tried to apply his political principles with admirable consistency. He spoke to the peasants before the hostilities really began.[32] He spoke again while the conflict seemed to go the peasants’ way and threatened to bring about the complete destruction of the established order.[33] And he spoke once more when the revolt had suddenly and utterly collapsed and the peasants were suffering cruel and inhuman punishment from their victorious lords.[34]

[28] From the beginning Luther objected strenuously to the claim of the peasants that they were fighting for the freedom of the gospel. He insisted that they were confusing God’s kingdom and their own doubtful utopia. Against their article, “There shall be no serfs, for Christ has made all men free,” Luther wrote,

That is making Christian freedom a completely physical matter….A slave can be a Christian, and have Christian freedom, in the same way that a prisoner or a sick man is a Christian and yet not free. This article would make all men equal, and turn the spiritual kingdom of Christ into a worldly, external kingdom; and that is impossible.[35]

[29] He warned them even then,

You speak in this article as though you were already lords in the land and had taken all the property of the rulers for your own and would be no one’s subjects, and would give nothing. This shows what your intention really is. Stop it, dear sirs, stop it! It will not be you who puts an end to it! The chapters of Scripture which your lying preacher and false prophet has smeared on the margin do not help you at all; they are against you.[36]

[30] But this warning probably did not even reach the peasants. The printing presses of the sixteenth century could not keep up with the rush of revolutionary events. On a journey from Eisleben Luther came in personal contact with the rebellion and became convinced that unless the government would act with authority complete chaos and anarchy would destroy all political order. This reaction of Luther becomes understandable if one remembers the almost complete loss of nerve on the part of most of the political authorities. The rulers were in a state of shock. Especially Luther’s own prince, Frederick the Wise, suggested shortly before his death that negotiations with the peasants would be the only possible solution. Many were thinking of yielding to the increasing size of the peasant armies. Leonhard von Eck, a Bavarian counselor, observed that the peasants might indeed succeed because of the complete despondency of the forces of law and order. In April of 1525 he wrote: “So far I have seen nothing more terrifying than the unbelievable faint-heartedness of all authorities.”[37] It was into this situation that Luther wrote his call to arms Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. This is no longer an admonition to peace, it is a call to the government to use its God-given sword. The revolting peasants are perjurers who have broken their oath of loyalty, they are rebels, and rebellion is the worst of all crimes.

For rebellion is not just simple murder; it is like a great fire, which attacks and devastates a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land filled with murder and bloodshed; it makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the worst disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, 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; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.[38]

[31] And what is worst these peasants blaspheme Christ.

They cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the gospel….Thus, they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name. Under the outward appearance of the gospel, they honor and serve the devil, thus deserving death in body and soul ten times over.[39]

[32] Luther had little hope that his call would be heard. He knew that should the rebellious peasants be victorious he would have to pay for his book with his life. On May 4, 1525, he wrote to John Rühel, the counselor of Count Albert of Mansfeld, from Seeburg, while on the way back from Eisleben to Wittenberg,

Well, if I get home I shall prepare for death with God’s help, and await my new lords, the murderers and robbers, who tell me they will not harm anyone. They are like the highway robber who said to the good coachman: “I shall do you no harm, but give me all you have and drive where I tell you; and if you don’t you will die!” Beautiful innocence! How magnificently the devil decorates himself and his murderers! But I would rather lose my neck a hundred times than approve of and justify the peasants’ actions; may God help me with his grace to do this….I am writing this so that you may be comforted and can comfort others, especially my gracious lord, Count Albrecht. Encourage His Grace to continue courageously, to entrust this matter to God, and to act according to God’s divine command in using the sword for as long as he can. For the conscience is on firm ground in this case, even if one has to perish for it. On the other hand, even if the peasants served God’s wrath in punishing and destroying the sovereigns, God would nevertheless reward them with the fire of hell.[40]

[33] Luther considered the extirpation of the princes and his own execution by the victorious peasants a distinct possibility. In this situation he wrote his angry pamphlet. Not because it would win him favor with the princes did he speak up, but because he firmly believed that it was his duty to speak up even should it cost him his life. It is the same Luther who stood against pope and emperor, who when the power of the rebellious peasants was at its peak defied them fearlessly. His language may have been overly sharp, but so was his language in all other controversies. While we may not agree with his sentiments and especially with the aggressive way in which he expressed them, they were consistent with everything he had said before and was to say afterwards. In the light of what happened to the peasants later it is easy for us to say that Luther should have known that the peasants never had a chance. With his call to war against the peasants he was beating a dead horse. Perhaps this is correct. Probably the peasants never did have a real chance. But for the evaluation of Luther’s part in the Peasant War such an observation is irrelevant. He obviously believed that the rebels might win and so did some of the best informed politicians in Saxony. Because he believed this, Luther made every effort to make sure that they would not. But before Luther’s angry appeal could be widely distributed the tide had turned and the peasants were in full flight. In April the revolutionary leader Thomas Müntzer had written to the members of his former congregation in Allstedt, “Attack, Attack, Attack! The time has come. The evildoers are cowed like dogs….Pay no attention to the misery of the godless! Indeed they will humbly plead and snivel and implore you like children. Show no mercy….Do not let your swords grow cold!”[41] On May 14, he stood with about 8000 peasants at Frankenhausen. In a few hours the peasants were utterly routed by a princely army of about 1000 calvary and 3000 footsoldiers. After the battle Müntzer was captured hiding in bed in the attic of a house in Frankenhausen. A few days later he was dead. By the end of May 1525 the Peasant War in the neighborhood of Wittenberg was over. But the bloodbath among the defeated peasants had only begun. As cowardly as the nobility and the princes had been as long as the peasants were armed, so courageous they became once they were defeated. They made up in the cruelty of the punishment of their defenseless foes what they had lacked in wisdom and foresight. In view of these excesses of the rulers many of Luther’s friends turned to him to speak against this abuse of their victory. For Luther’s sharp attack against the peasants, written while the rebellion threatened to succeed, was receiving wide circulation after the peasants were defeated and helpless.

[34] Luther responded to these requests in his An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants of 1525. Here he reiterates his utter rejection of all rebellion. He does not apologize for what he has previously written. “The peasants would not listen,” he says; “they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders. Such pupils need such a rod.”[42] He attributes the entire revolt and its tragic consequences to the confusion of law and gospel, of the kingdom of wrath and severity and the kingdom of grace and mercy.[43]

Now he who would confuse these two kingdoms-as our false fanatics do-would put wrath into God’s kingdom and mercy into the world’s kingdom; and that is the same as putting the devil in heaven and God in hell. These sympathizers with the peasants would like to do both of these things. First they wanted to go to work with the sword, fight for the gospel as “Christian brethren,” and kill other people, who were supposed to be merciful and patient. Now that the kingdom of the world has overcome them, they want to have mercy in it.[44]
[35] Luther rejects this confusion of the two kingdoms categorically. Indeed, he says, the severity of the world’s kingdom is one of God’s blessings.

Suppose I have a wife and children, a house, servants, and property, and a thief or murderer fell upon me, killed me in my own house, ravished my wife and children, took all that I had, and went unpunished so that he could do the same thing again, when he wished. Tell me, who would be more in need of mercy in such a case, I or the thief and murderer? Without doubt it would be I who would need most that people should have mercy on me. But how can this mercy be shown to me and my poor, miserable wife and children, except by restraining such a scoundrel, and by protecting me and maintaining my rights, or, if he will not be restrained and keeps it up, by giving him what he deserves and punishing him, so that he must stop it? What a fine mercy to me it would be, to have mercy on the thief and murderer, and let him kill, abuse, and rob me![45]

[36] This story illustrates that Luther is concerned that a false sentimentality in regard to the function of the political order will prevent it from its primary responsibility, the maintenance of law and order. Mercy to murderers is cruelty to those they are about to murder. It will only lead to more crimes and create chaos in the kingdom of this world.

[37] But what about the excesses of the princes? Here Luther does not mince words either. If the princes are abusing their power, “they have not learned it from me; and they will have their reward. For the Supreme Judge, who is using them to punish the self-willed peasants, has not forgotten them either, and they will not escape Him.”[46] Luther asserted that he had written his book against the peasants for princes who wanted to be instructed concerning their God-given duties from the word of God. They were to fight courageously as long as the rebellion was going on. “Afterward, however, if they won, they were to show grace, not only to those whom they considered innocent, but to the guilty as well.”[47]

[38] And Luther shows the same toughness of mind towards the victorious princes that he had shown towards the victorious peasants. He says,

But these furious, raving, senseless tyrants, who even after the battle cannot get their fill of blood, and in all their lives ask scarcely a question about Christ-these I did not undertake to instruct. It makes no difference to these bloody dogs whether they slay the guilty or the innocent, whether they please God or the devil….I had two fears. If the peasants became lords, the devil would become abbot; but if these tyrants became lords, the devil’s mother would become abbess. Therefore, I wanted to do two things: quiet the peasants, and instruct the pious lords. The peasants were unwilling to listen, and now they have their reward; the lords, too, will not hear, and they shall have their reward also. However, it would have been a shame if they had been killed by the peasants; that would have been too easy a punishment for them. Hell‑fire, trembling, and gnashing of teeth in hell will be their reward eternally, unless they repent.[48]

[39] The attitude of Luther here expressed at the very moment the princes had been victorious hardly qualifies him as a sycophant. Neither does the remark which he made a year later when overcome by the thought of the cruelty of some of the noble Junkers against the defenseless peasants; he exclaimed bitterly, “We Germans are and remain Germans, that is, swine and senseless beasts.”[49]

[40] Even in the great and bitter struggle of the Peasant War Luther’s political utterances were guided by his consistent adherence to the distinction between the two ways of ruling which God has ordained for the world, the spiritual, which under Christ makes Christians, and the secular, which restrains the un-Christian and evil people so that they are compelled to keep peace, even against their will. To Luther the Peasant War illustrated the disaster which must result when these two kingdoms are confounded. Far from being the result of his preaching, as some of his enemies claimed, he felt that the conflict was evidence how very few had really listened to what he had to say.

[41] If we now try to ask what, if anything, in Luther’s views on domestic politics is of lasting significance, the answer is not easy. The territorial princes, the noble knights, the wealthy burghers, and the poor peasants to whom he spoke have long since disappeared. We live in a democracy which is based on a successful revolution and most of us are glad that “under God the people rule” and that the revolution did succeed. What in Luther’s political teachings, addressed to an entirely different situation, can possibly have any meaning for us?

[42] There are at least four such teachings which seem to speak as clearly and accurately to our time as they did to sixteenth-century Saxony. First of all, the proper concern of government is the earthly welfare of all. We must insist, with Luther, that the government trespasses demonically if it meddles with a person’s faith, whether that be in Spain, promoting one particular form of Christianity, in the Soviet world, interfering with all religion, or in the USA, encouraging a religion of democracy in the schools of the land. Luther said, “The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul.”[50] In an age when the power of government to influence the popular mind has reached proportions unthinkable in Luther’s time, it becomes even more essential that every effort of political government to regulate the faith of its citizens be immediately and radically opposed.

[43] Secondly, Christians as Christian citizens are called to support the government in its proper work, the promotion of the earthly welfare of all, to the best of their ability. Luther said, “If you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services…that the essential governmental authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. For the world cannot and dare not dispense with it.”[51] If this exhortation was justified in the patriarchal society of Luther’s time it is infinitely more urgent in a democracy. Unless people who want to serve the neighbor through their participation in the work of the government volunteer for such offices they will of necessity fall into the hands of those who will use political power for personal gain. Political participation is not optional for Christians, it is their God-given duty. Not, to be sure, in order to make the world Christian, but rather to serve the neighbor in love. The neglect of the duty of active political participation by so many Lutherans in America is not only a reflection on their loyalty to Luther, but what is far more important, it is a sad reflection on their loyalty to Christ. As it is the duty of Christians to feed the hungry and to visit the sick, it is their duty to do everything in their power to contribute to the earthly welfare of all by political means. Especially in a democracy this responsibility is obvious. And the Lord will hold us no less responsible for our failure to use our political opportunities to serve the neighbor than for our failures to serve him in the neighbor in the more obvious forms of service mentioned in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.” This description covers practically every constructive political activity in which we might engage. It implies concern with slums and education, health and immigration, food surpluses and prison-reform.

[44] Thirdly, in order to accomplish these ends the government needs competent and well-educated people. Luther insisted that Christians ought to see to it that their children receive the education which will qualify them for competent government service. It is not enough to know how to complain about the failures of government; one must learn how to help. With the complexity of modern government the need for qualified civil servants has greatly increased. Government still needs lawyers and soldiers as in Luther’s time, but now in addition it needs thousands of other specialists. Christians have the duty to help train and furnish them. Good intentions and sincerity are not enough. People are needed who have technical training and skill. We ought to do our share to supply and to elect such people.

[45] Fourthly, Luther never tired of teaching the ultimate mercy of strict law‑enforcement. Against all the sentimental drivel which advocated easy-going law-enforcement as an especially Christian attitude on the part of government Luther insisted that such an approach will only lead to great bloodshed and eventual disaster.

[46] He felt that if the princes had enforced the law justly and firmly at the very beginning of the Peasant War much suffering could have been avoided and the situation of princes and peasants would have been far better than it was after the disastrous revolt. In the USA, where in some of our big cities law-enforcement has become a cruel joke and gangsters help select judges and openly consort with police officials, we should take Luther more seriously. When a parole-board paroles habitual criminals, loses track of them for months, and only recovers them after they have been arrested for murder, then the alleged mercy of the parole-board is a horrible kind of cruelty. Luther knew that fair and firm law-enforcement is the basis of good government. In American cities where people are afraid to go out after dark, Luther’s views have certainly not become obsolete. They should be taken seriously.

[47] And finally, Luther claimed that people tend to have the government they deserve. Such a claim might have been debatable in Luther’s time, it is self-evident in our age. Every criticism of our government should be understood as an implicit criticism of ourselves. We have the government we deserve. God has a way of punishing us through our own choices. This should teach us to begin the critical national self-examination with ourselves and work our way up, rather than to start with our leaders and never critically examine ourselves. Luther said that God let the knave rule because of the sins of the people. Especially in a democracy we can never disassociate ourselves from political corruption, for in a very real sense you and I are the basic cause of the corruption. Once we have understood this, a great deal more realism will enter our political thinking. Here, too, Luther is still a helpful guide.

[48] Luther once claimed that since the time of the apostles the secular sword and secular government had never been so clearly described or highly exalted as by him.[52] Our examination has tended to bear out this claim. In his political writings he did not only speak to his time but also developed certain principles which may help Christians in our time to come to a clearer understanding of their political duties.

[1] Cf. Admonition to Peace, A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia (1525), LW 46:8-43.

[2] LW 45:81-129.

[3] LW 46:8-85.

[4] LW 46:93-137.

[5] Temporal Authority, LW 45:91.

[6] Ibid., 91-92.

[7] Ibid., 91-92.

[8] Ibid., 92.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 126.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 100.

[13] Ibid., 100.

[14] A Sermon on Keeping Children in School (1530), LW 46:242.

[15] Ibid., 241.

[16] Lectures on Deuteronomy (1525), LW 9:19.

[17] On Keeping Children in School (1530), LW 46:249.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 251.

[20] LW 45:57-74.

[21] Ibid., 62

[22] Temporal Authority, LW 45:85-86.

[23] Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, LW 46:105.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 106.

[26] Ibid., 106-107.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 109.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 110

[31] Ibid., 111.

[32] Admonition to Peace (April 20 [?], 1525), LW 46:8-43.

[33] Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (May 4 [?], 1525), LW 46:49 (8209;55.).

[34] An Open Letter on the Harsh Book against the Peasants (July, 1525), LW 46:63-85.

[35] Admonition to Peace, LW 46:39.

[36] Ibid., 38.

[37] Karl Brandi, Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation und Gegenreformation, 2nd ed. (Leipzig: Koehler and Amelang, 1941) l60f.

[38] LW 46:50.

[39] Ibid., 50-51.

[40] Luther to John Rühel (May 4, 1525), LW 49:111.

[41] Otto H. Brandt, Thomas Müntzer, Sein Leben und seine Schriften (Jena, 1933) 74f.

[42] LW 46:65.

[43] Ibid., 69ff.

[44] Ibid., 70.

[45] Ibid., 71.

[46] Ibid., 74.

[47] Ibid., 84.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, LW 46:101.

[50] Temporal Authority, LW 45:105.

[51] Ibid., 95.

[52] Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, LW 46:95