Luther’s Understanding of the Bound Conscience

[1] Much work has been done on Martin Luther’s use of the term “conscience”1 and how the meaning of this concept has developed over the years. Journal for Lutheran Ethics has participated in this conversation.2 Its studies have ranged in their approaches, some try to systematize Luther’s views, others look into his thematic uses of the term, while yet others attempt to see how Luther’s ideas have progressed on the topic. There have also been studies on Luther’s qualified understanding of conscience: the freed conscience, the burdened conscience, the good or evil conscience, etc. Yet with all of this research there is still debate, and at times confusion, around what the role of the conscience is within Luther’s thought and its continuing role within Lutheran theology.

[2] The most recent example of this confusion centers around the concept of the “bound conscience” as described in the ELCA’s social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.3 In both the social statement and its supporting documents the concept of the “bound conscience,” as well as the corollary concept of respect for the bound conscience, are described as recovered from the beginnings of Lutheran history and concepts that were understood and important for Luther and the early reformers.4 Of frustration to this author is that these references are almost always pointing past the language of the bound conscience as used by the reformers to the idea that modern interpreters say stood behind it. The purpose of this article is to look at Luther’s references to conscience5 to see how, if at all, he understood the conscience being bound.

Did Luther Talk about the Bound Conscience?
[3] The obvious and initial question that needs to be addressed is whether or not Luther actually talked about the conscience being bound. The quick answer is yes. The term conscience appears over five hundred times within Luther’s Works and in forty-eight of the fifty-four books.6 Of these references Luther talks about the conscience being bound twenty-five times in fourteen books.7 Luther’s occasions for discussing the conscience as bound range from personal conversations to lectures on the Old and New Testament to discussions of the Christian life and proper ministry. These references span from the beginning (early 1520s) to the end of his career (1540s).

[4] We can see in the raw data that Luther not only had an understanding of the conscience being bound, but that this understanding spans his thinking both chronologically and topically. Having established that Luther was familiar with the concept, we turn to how Luther understood the conscience as functioning and what bondage can do to this functioning. We must first pause, though, to describe Luther’s basic understanding of the conscience.

Luther’s Understanding of Conscience
[5] Luther’s major contribution to the discussion on conscience was his understanding of the conscience coram deo (literally “in the presence of God”). Considering the individual’s life as lived fully before God moved the conscience beyond being solely a faculty of morality and ethics that a person could use or not use at one’s leisure. It connected the conscience to all arenas of a person’s existence, the most striking being a person’s salvation, as seen in his 1532 commentary on Psalm 2:

For since Moses handed down many ceremonies, since the kings of the earth also have their laws and statutes this King [Christ] comes with another new decree, different from all the decrees of Moses and the other kings. Moreover, this must be so understood that it will annul all the laws, even of Moses himself, because they are not useful for obtaining eternal salvation. For when it comes to life eternal, the remission of sins, death, in short, to everything pertaining to the conscience, Moses is silent, the laws are silent, and all the kings are silent. But this Teacher and King alone should be heard.8

[6] Luther’s move to speak of the conscience coram deo was not to understand it as something different than the moral/ethical conscience, but instead to understand it as something greater than just morally/ethically oriented. In the words of Paul Tillich, it was to understand the conscience as transmoral.9 In this way it became not just an interesting topic for abstract conversation for the elite but a crucial topic needing to be understood by all (e.g., theologian, pastor, laity), so that each person could properly understand both his or her place before God and the true dangers of existence.

To What Is the Conscience Bound?
[7] Luther’s discussion of the conscience was driven by the need to describe both aspects of the conscience, its sense as coram deo and the dangers of existence that availed it. His statements about the conscience as bound center mainly on the latter. Of the twenty-five references to the conscience as bound Luther talks about it being bound in four ways and freed in one:

Bound to things human
• by human-made rules/traditions/statutes/doctrines/ordinances (10x)
• by external laws and powers (2x)
Bound by the devil [through human works] (3x)
Bound by false teachers/teachings
• by false teachers (1x)
• by false claims that works are necessary (1x)
Bound by the Word of God
• by the law/Law of Moses (2x)
• by Holy Scripture/commandment of God (3x)
Freed by the Word of God
• (bound) by nothing when in the Word/Godliness/Christ (3x)
[8] Of these references those concerning the conscience as bound by human-made laws, the devil and false teachers/teaching are negative in tone. The conscience being bound in these instances is a bad thing, something to be avoided. With the references to the conscience bound to the Word of God there is a split in tone. The two references to the conscience bound to the law or Law of Moses are negative while the three referencing the Holy Scripture or commandment of God are positive in tone. This seeming contradiction will be unpacked after a brief look at the last three references.

[9] In these final instances Luther talks about the conscience as bound to nothing, its being free, as the proper state of the conscience. He connects this freedom of conscience to God’s Word in Christ. This state of the conscience as free is for Luther an ideal and necessary condition for salvation. So we are now presented with what appears to be not just a seeming but an obvious contradiction: Luther seems to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth when talking about the conscience and the Word of God. Is the binding of the conscience to the Word good or bad? And is the conscience bound or free in the Word?

Conscience in God’s Word: Bound or Free?
[10] The proper, albeit confusing, Lutheran answer to these questions is both/and. Luther is not being situational in his theology when discussing the conscience as both bound and free in God’s Word. He is instead describing a dialectical tension of reality. Luther understood that the conscience by its very nature will be bound and that this binding is an inevitability of existence, for without being bound the conscience cannot function. He shows in his discussions of the conscience being bound that there is always an authority binding the conscience, determining how it functions. We can see also in his discussion of the mind and the conscience that the conscience is not a tool of dictation (one with authority) but of translation (one who responds to authority):

Thus their mind, he says, is impure, and therefore their conscience is also. The mind is the judgment about things, as 1 Cor. 14:19 says, “with my mind rather than in a tongue.” It refers to the mind or the spirit, the cognitive power in a man, which accepts instruction. Their thinking, mind, and opinion are corrupt; therefore an impure conscience also follows, because as the mind judges, so the conscience dictates…. The conscience always draws the conclusion, but the mind sets for the major premise.10

[11] So the conscience is in need of some authority and therefore an unbound conscience is always seeking an authority to which it can be bound. For Luther this search is neither negative nor positive; it just is. The negative or positive is in what the conscience ends up being bound to:

A good theologian teaches as follows: the common people are to be restrained by the external power of the sword when they behave wickedly, as Paul teaches in Romans 13[:4]; but their consciences are not to be ensnared with false laws, so that they are burdened with sins where God has not willed that there should be sins. For consciences are bound only by a commandment of God, so that the interfering tyranny of the popes, which falsely terrifies and kills souls inwardly and vainly wearies the body outwardly, has simply no place in our midst.11

[12] Luther is saying that the conscience is only properly bound when it is bound to the commandment of God. The initial reason for this is so that the conscience will not be bound by other authorities which will eventually kill the soul. Different types of authority are mutually exclusive:

So if you do not know it, I tell you again: Human statutes cannot be observed together with the Word of God, because they bind consciences, while the Word sets them free. The two are as mutually incompatible as water and fire, unless the human statutes are kept freely, that is, as not being binding – a thing that the pope will not and cannot allow, unless he wants his kingdom ruined and brought to an end, since it is only maintained by the ensnaring and binding of consciences which the gospel asserts to be free. Therefore the authority of the Fathers is neither here nor there, and statutes wrongly enacted (as are all which are not in accordance with the Word of God) ought to be torn up and thrown away, for Christ ranks higher than the authority of the Fathers.12

[13] We see that this Word that at first binds the conscience also sets it free. This can be understood as the conscience first being bound by God’s Law (Law of Moses/Commandment) and then freed by God’s Promise (Gospel/Christ). What moves the conscience between the two is the Spirit imbuing one with faith:

So our conscience is bound to the law, under the old man of sin; when he is slain by the Spirit, then the conscience is free, and the one is released from the other. Not that the conscience is to do nothing, but rather that it is now for the first time really free to hold fast to Christ, the second husband, and bring forth the fruit of life.13

But the rain on Sinai, the Law of Moses, produces enslaved hearts, chained to various external works and practices. And thus it does not bestow a free and happy conscience, but weak, restless and unwilling consciences. The Gospel, on the other hand, does achieve happy, willing and free consciences; for in it everything is free.14

Pulling It Together
[14] Luther connected the bound conscience to God’s work of salvation as a step in the process. The conscience is our standing before God, coram deo. As such it is always searching for that which it can be made subject to, the god to which it can bow. The conscience will always be bound, for it will always have its god. This is where the pastor and the church step in to present the conscience with God’s Word as the Law, to put the conscience under this authority. At first this binding of the conscience to God’s Word seems like a trap, since God’s Law will never be fulfilled. Enter here the Spirit with the gift of faith, which shows the conscience that it is not God’s Law but God’s Promise within the Gospel of Christ that has bearing on the conscience. In this moment the conscience is moved from its state of bondage into freedom, not from the world, sin and death but from their sting. With this new freed conscience we are in turn free to engage joyfully and without fear in our true purpose:

Christ will not have anyone restrict you with human traditions and bind your conscience. He wants you to believe only in Him, to love your neighbor, to bear patiently any cross that God may send you, and to hope for eternal salvation.15

The Bound, But Not Free, Conscience of the ELCA
[15] For Luther the bound conscience fits perfectly into his understanding of the Christian life, of our budding awareness in the Law that we are sinful, the drive of this realization toward the cross, our death in the crucified Christ and our resurrection with him to new life. The question that remains is how the ELCA’s use of the term does the same. Does it agree with Luther or disagree? In part or in full?

[16] Sadly, the answer is yes in part, which is the most dangerous answer. If it were a solid no, then we could reject the concept as understood by the ELCA and move on. If it were a solid yes, then we could safely continue to use it as a pillar of theological work in the church. By agreeing only in part we have our work cut out for us. To discard it completely would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To continue to use it as is invites potential misuse to the detriment of both individuals and the church as a whole.

[17] The crux of the problem of how the ELCA defines the bound conscience is two-fold. First, it conflates Luther’s, and Paul’s, understanding of the weak and the strong conscience into the bound conscience. This is evident in the two major references used to describe respect for the bound conscience: Paul’s discussion in Romans 14 and Luther’s “Invocavit Sermons” of 1522.16 These authors talk about the conscience as being either weak or strong and both describe these consciences as erring. The weak conscience believes incorrectly about God’s Word, confusing Law and Promise; the strong conscience is prideful, lacking true love for the neighbor and therefore also incorrectly understanding God’s Promise. Yet, a document supporting the ELCA’s policy creates ambiguity by calling the weak conscience benignly bound and ignoring the erring of the strong conscience:

Luther, as pastor in Wittenberg, defines consciences bound to a particular interpretation of Scripture as “weak.” In the present dispute over ordination in the ELCA, however, to designate one side or the other as “weak” may appear to be demeaning. Thus, the task force uses a more neutral term, the bound conscience, to define different sides in this debate, since people on various sides are conscience-bound in their beliefs about the interpretation of Scripture.17

[18] This ambiguity makes it impossible to address these potentially erring consciences effectively because the way one deals with an erring, weak conscience and an erring, strong conscience are completely different. In the words of Luther:

Amid these terrors of conscience, therefore, you must see to it that these terrified minds do not judge according to their nature and sense, since this would plunge them into despair. Just as sicknesses that are different in nature have different remedies, so those who are terrified should be strengthened with words of grace, while those who are hard should be smashed with a rod of iron.18

To approach a weak conscience as if it were a strong conscience would destroy it. To approach a strong conscience as if it were a weak conscience would be to allow it to continue in sin. By glazing over this distinction the ELCA’s understanding of bound conscience binds not the consciences but those who wield the power of the keys.19

[19] Secondly, ELCA policy does not speak of the movement of the conscience from bondage into freedom and in fact seems to speak against this movement. In its description of Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms the statement claims Luther was acting out of a bound and not a freed conscience:

This position was for Luther not an easy one to hold. It was not, as later historians often portrayed it, the first instance of a free, enlightened conscience shedding the shackles of medieval religion. Luther’s conscience was not free but bound to God’s Word, which assured him of God’s free and unconditional forgiveness in Christ.20

[20] Luther’s conscience at the Diet of Worms was indeed bound to the word of God but this binding is what led his conscience to be free in its response to the human authority that was calling him to recant. It was in his freed conscience that he was able to act, not in his conscience bound. The bound conscience will only stagnate action and response, for it cannot stand against false authority, the devil, sin, or death until it is freed. Respect for the bound conscience, as understood in ELCA policy, will trap the church and its members in a constant act of discernment as we more subtly understand and define our positions but are never moved into the freedom of conscience where we are empowered to act in the boldness of God’s love, experienced as wrath and grace, Law and Promise.

1. One of the best books I have found on the topic is Randall Zachman’s The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

2. See the Journal of Lutheran Ethics July 2005 issue, particularly the articles by Laurie A. Jungling and Rev. Dr. William R. Russell.

3. “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2009).

4. See “Remarks Concerning ‘Bound Conscience’,” presented by Rev. Dr. Timothy J. Wengert at the ELCA’s 2009 Churchwide Assembly, “Reflections on Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology,” “FAQs about Bound Conscience,” and footnote 26 in the ELCA social statement “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” These documents can be found on the ELCA website at

5. All references to Luther’s writings are from Luther’s Works (American Edition) and based on the index found in LW 55.

6. There are no references in Luther’s Works volumes 40 (Church & Ministry II), 42 (Devotional Writings I), 43 (Devotional Writings II), 47 (The Christian in Society IV), 49 (Letters II) and 53 (Liturgy & Hymns).

7. One reference in LW 9 (Lectures on Deuteronomy), one reference in LW 21 (The Sermon on the Mount & The Magnificat), one reference in LW 22 (Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chap. 1-4), one reference in LW 24 (Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chap. 14-16), four references in LW 26 (Lectures on Galatians [1535]: Chap. 1-4), two references in LW 29 (Lectures on Titus, Philemon and Hebrews), two references in LW 30 (The Catholic Epistles), one reference in LW 32 (Career of the Reformer II), three references in LW 33 (Career of the Reformer III), four references in LW 35 (Word & Sacrament I), one reference in LW 36 (Word & Sacrament II), two references in LW 41 (Church & Ministry III), one reference in LW 46 (Christian in Society III), one reference in LW 48 (Letters I).

8. Commentary on Psalm 2:7 in LW 12:43-44. For further examples see LW 12:270; LW 23:225; LW 24:296; LW 25:188; LW 26:29; LW 29:42; LW 33:50; LW 41:77, 338-339; LW 51:59.

9. Paul Tillich, Morality and Beyond (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 65-81.

10. LW 29:47. See also LW 22:150.

11. LW 33:49.

12. LW 33:58.

13. LW 35:376.

14. LW 13:10. For further examples of the Law and Gospel in relation to the conscience see LW 17:213; LW 23:58-59 and 270-271; LW 24:101-102; LW 26:114, 309 and 313; LW 35:141.

15. LW 22:258.

16. See “Reflections on Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology” (link in footnote 3) for extensive discussion on how the ELCA uses these two examples.

17. “Reflections on Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology,” footnote 16.

18. LW 12:316. See also LW 3:222 and LW 19:60.

19. One practical area of concern where this will become an issue is with candidacy committees, which oversee the approving or rejecting of candidates for ministry. The “bound conscience” has now become a valid justification for members to give or withhold their approval of candidates involved in monogamous, same-gender relationships. How is a bishop to lead this group forward if members’ “bound consciences” are in disagreement? What is the bishop’s proper use of the keys without offending/challenging someone’s “bound conscience”? How will the bishop know which conscience is to be “strengthened with a word of grace” and which is to be “smashed with a rod of iron”? By flattening the distinction of weak and strong into bound, the church has not given a clear teaching by which leaders can lead. This flies in the face of Luther’s understanding of God, for whom “there is nothing intermediate between righteousness and sin, no neutral ground, so to speak, which is neither righteousness nor sin. Otherwise, Paul’s whole argument would come to nothing, since it presupposes this division, namely, that whatever is done or devised among men is either righteousness or sin before God: righteousness if faith is present, sin if faith is absent.” (LW 33:264) How long can faith be present when opposing views are given equal footing in the church?

20. “Reflections on Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology,” 3. This can also be seen in the FAQs about Bound Conscience in its answer to the question “Where could I find references to the idea of ‘bound conscience’?”

Matt Ley

Matt Ley recently finished a summer internship in the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA researching the concept of "bound conscience." He is currently taking a break from his studies and his Master of Divinity degree program to do some writing and pursue other interests.