Sanctification and Lutheran Ethics

[1] What is the place of sanctification in Lutheran ethics? One way of answering this question is to make a comparison with a confession in which sanctification plays a different role. One obvious candidate is Methodism, which was a discussion partner at this year’s Lutheran Ethicists Gathering.1 Before going into the subject I find it necessary to say a few words about the background context of my discussion.

The Danish Context

[2] I teach ethics as a theologian at a state university in a country that can be called Lutheran in the sense that about 80% of the Danish population are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which according to our constitution has the status as “the Danish People’s Church”, which – still according to the constitution – is supported by the state. Not only is the Lutheran church supported by the state – it is actually governed by the state. The church does not have a governing body of its own; rather, church legislation is passed by the Danish parliament and the highest formal leader is the church minister. Actually, one could claim that the Danish Lutheran church is now the last European Lutheran church that basically has kept the traditional prince-church structure, although in a democratic variant.2

[3] As a consequence of this church-state relation, Lutheranism has both influenced Danish society since the reformation and still plays an important role in public life and debate. Thus in the most recent government platform the three coalition-forming parties, after mentioning “our values of democracy, equality and opportunities” and “our community,” make the following statement:

Denmark is a Christian country, and the Evangelical-Lutheran church holds a special status as the people’s church. This status the government wants to maintain.

In a way, Lutheran ethics is already built into Danish society, rather than having to be actively put forward by the church and its representatives. As we do not have a wall of separation between church and state, the church is not a separate entity and agent in ethical matters. This is a clear difference from, say, the situation in Germany, where the Lutheran churches play a rather active role in public life.

Wesley On Sanctification

[4] To the Danish context also belongs the fact that in contrast to the Evangelical Lutheran Church the Methodist church is a tiny, so-called free church, comprising only 2,000 members. Accordingly, my knowledge of Methodism is rather sparse. On its homepage, the Danish Methodist Church states:

We emphasize that life with God is a process of growth. We believe it is possible for God to make us better humans in the sense that His love can obtain more space and influence and become the motivating force in our life.3

The statement confirms the standard picture of Methodism as preaching sanctification in the sense of moral growth. In order to test and maybe specify the picture I want to cast a glance at the Wesley brothers’ formulation of the doctrine of sanctification.

[5] According to John Wesley it is of course the Holy Ghost, who gives the “sanctifying graces,” sanctification meaning “to be renewed in the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness.” Importantly, holiness is identical with Christian perfection. Perfection means that true Christians justified by faith and gradually freed of sin, not only “outward sin, but also from the sins of their hearts; from evil thoughts and from evil tempers”. Among other things the latter concretely means that a Christian is “purified” from pride, self-will, desire and anger.4

[6] According to Wesley, Christian perfection is not just an ideal goal, but it is actually “attainable in this life” or, in any case, before death. Perfection is not necessarily an instantaneous gift, but rather “a believer daily grows in grace, comes nearer and nearer to perfection”. The latter thought is connected to the belief that there are “several stages in Christian life” corresponding to the various phases of life, from child(ish) to mature. 5

[7] As a consequence of his understanding of Christian perfection Wesley interprets the New Testament concept of the Kingdom of Heaven as “that kingdom of God on earth whereunto all true believers in Christ, all real Christians, belong.” In his dealing with possible objections, Wesley discusses the claim that “[e]ven a just man sinneth seven times a day”. To Lutheran ears that claim sounds interesting as it reminds one of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator. However, Wesley’s stance is clear: “No. The Scripture says no such thing”. He arrives at the following conclusion:

It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. 6

In a hymn that John Wesley includes in his Sermon 40, Charles Wesley summarizes his brother’s view on Christian perfection thus:

Cause me to walk in Christ my Way,
And I thy statutes shall fulfill;
In every point thy law obey.
And perfectly perform thy will.

The terminology of statutes, law and will makes clear that Christian perfection is also a question of Christian ethics.

Sanctification in Luther’s Ethics

[8] When it comes to a Lutheran understanding of sanctification, I choose to deal with the subject in a rather comprehensive way, i.e. not only focusing on sanctification as a complementary concept to justification, but rather dealing with the role of the Holy Spirit in Lutheran ethics. I shall start by first outlining the basic features of Luther’s ethics; then I will specify the role of the Spirit in his ethics.

[9] I choose the concept of law as my starting point. Many moral philosophers would characterize the Tora ethics of the Hebrew Bible as a kind of “Divine command theory.” But that is not Luther’s position. In the preface to his German translation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he says:

God’s law demands the ground of the heart. Law is not to be understood in the human sense, as a doctrine about which acts should be done or refrained from in the way it happens in human laws, where the law is fulfilled with acts, even if the heart is not involved. God judges after the ground of the heart, and therefore his law demands the ground of the heart and he is not satisfied with acts. No, on the contrary he punishes acts done without the ground of the heart as hypocrisy and lies.7

For Luther, God does not so much demand, but rather expects humans to act in certain way. What God expects is, so to speak, a spontaneous, joyful exercise of beneficence. In his commentary to the “First Article of Faith” in the Large Catechism, Luther makes clear that such spontaneous action should follow from gratitude towards the Creator:

From this the conclusion follows by itself that when all we own and all that is in heaven and on earth is daily given, sustained and maintained by God, then we truly in return owe him, incessantly to love, praise and thank him and in brief in all respects serve him therewith as he has demanded and commanded.8

However, because of sin humans display the opposite to gratitude:

Because of original sin our nature is so deeply incurved (incurvatus) in itself that it not only attributes to itself God’s good gifts and makes capital of it (…) – even uses God to obtain these gifts -, but furthermore is ignorant of the very fact that it, in an unreasonable, unfair and depraved way, seeks everything, even God, exclusively for its own sake.9

[10] Hence, Luther argues in the Preface to Romans:

Therefore all humans are called liars, because no one obeys God’s law out of the ground of the heart, and no one is able to thus obey it. For everybody finds in themselves aversion against the good, and delight with evil. Now, where there is not a free delight with the good, there the ground of the heart is not with God’s law and there is certainly sin so that God’s anger is deserved, even if there externally is an appearance of many good works and an honorable life.10

[11] It is under those circumstances (i.e., the condition of sin, that the law actually appears as commandment, and Luther famously distinguishes between two functions or uses of the law-as-commandment:

The law is given because of the unrighteous, i.e. that those who are not Christians are externally forced by the law from doing evil (…)

Besides, the law is given another office, viz. that of teaching us to recognize sin, so that it humbles us humans to grace and faith in Christ.11

The second use, the so-called theological use, is important. Here the law shows itself to be impossible to be fulfilled, because what it really demands is spontaneous, unconditional beneficence. The unfulfillability of the law exposes human sin as its cause (of why we humans cannot fulfill the law) and points us towards the Gospel of Christ as savior or redeemer as the solution.

[12] Therefore, according to Luther, then Christian ethics is not an ethics of the law. Rather, the core of his theological ethics is the claim that neighbor love follows from humans’ receiving the Gospel in faith. His description of the essential relationship between faith and love goes like this:

It is [faith] that performs and drives good works through love. That is to say: he [or she] who wants to be a true Christian or to be in the kingdom of Christ must have real faith. He does not truly have faith, however, if love does not follow faith.12

We notice that Luther’s wording is reminiscent of John Wesley’s idea mentioned above. Notice in particular that Luther speaks of a true Christian and of his or her being in the kingdom of Christ. In order to evaluate this apparent parallel, we need to look at the Two Kingdoms doctrine, which I will do below, but first, we must ask: How does love follow from faith?

[13] In his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther offers the following answer: “[A]s God has helped us for nothing through Christ, the same way we should not do otherwise than, by our body and its works, help our neighbor”.13 This faith-love structure is normally called the “happy exchange,” but I find it more helpful to name it the “double role exchange.” Faith not only means receiving the gift Christ gives, but more specifically letting Christ put himself in your place. In an analogous way, love means to put oneself – out of abundance or plenitude – in the position of the other and do to the other as one would want the other to do to you. Luther teases out the structure of role exchange more precisely in his exposition of the Philippians’ hymn in the Sermon on Double Justice:

[He] made himself (…) the servant of all, and did not act in a way different from the case that all our evils were his. Therefore, he took our sins and punishments upon him-self and used his power to conquer them, as if it were for himself, although he defeated them for us.14

Here too, the way Luther represents the justifying act that faith receives can better be described as role-exchange, rather than as gift-giving. Of course an exchange of ‘something’ takes place: Christ takes upon himself the evils of humans and gives them in turn his own justice. But that is not all; a different exchange takes place, not of ‘something’, but of persons and situations. A similar exchange should take place when the believer relates to his or her neighbor: “[Everybody] should act toward his neighbor with a mind as if the neighbor’s weakness, sin and stupidity were his own”.15 Again, we see that give-and-take is not all; following the example of Christ implies putting oneself in the position of the other. Thus, we have to distinguish between the reciprocity of gift-giving versus the reciprocity of role-exchange.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine

[14] The two kingdoms doctrine is a distinction between two entirely different ways in which God “reigns over” human beings; that is, two ways in which he determines the conditions for their lives and still works in order to fulfill its aims. Concerning common, created human life, God reigns as creator through political government – secular authority (weltlicheObrigkeit) – with the aim of suppressing the evil caused by sin and thereby creating the conditions for peaceful existence.

[15] By contrast, the spiritual kingdom (geistliches Regiment) does not aim at the maintenance of created human life, but rather at the salvation of human beings. Here God is working through the Gospel, that is God’s word about Christ and His justifying work. In contrast to the worldly realm, human exercise of power is inadmissible in the spiritual sphere.

[16] Seen from the viewpoint of humans, this distinction between God’s two ‘regiments’ means that profane life has gained a certain independence in relation to religion and the church – and vice versa, political power is to be kept apart from anything having to do with the preaching of the Gospel.

[17] Does Christian love have anything to do with politics? Is it not Christian love the love Jesus depicts in the Sermon on the Mount, in, for example, the recommendation to turn the other cheek and give the other one’s cloak? And isn’t this practice of love the direct opposite of political action? This is the problem with which Luther opens the argument of On Secular Authority. And here it is relevant to look at the seeming parallels between Luther and Wesley.

[18] It is precisely in his discussion on the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount that Luther discusses the concept of “perfection.” He rejects the Catholic interpretation of the demands as ‘counsels’ for the perfect, in contrast to the precepts that pertain to ‘ordinary’ Christians. Luther argues that:

The Words of Christ must remain common to everybody, whether he or she is “perfect” or “imperfect.” For perfection and imperfection does not lie in works, and does not create a special external status among Christians, but lies in the heart, in faith, and love, so that he who has more faith and loves more, is perfect, whether (s)he is man or woman, prince or peasant, monk or layman.16

But, being a realist, Luther emphasizes that not all humans are perfect Christians. Actually, true Christians constitute a tiny minority of humankind, and therefore the Kingdom of Christ in the sense of an actual community amounts to no more than an imagined entity. Christians live their lives in the worldly Kingdom! Thanks to their faith Christians belong to the spiritual Kingdom, but love, so to speak, transfers them back to the worldly realm.

[19] That last point, however, raises the question: how can love be practiced in the worldly realm, which is the sphere of sin and evil? One important aspect to the solution Luther offers to this dilemma is to be found in the fact that neighbor love does not just mean turning the other cheek. In general terms, Christian love is not just one thing but a complex phenomenon. Without going into details I just want to note that Luther distinguishes between two kinds of neighbor love that I would call “love as sacrifice” and “love as beneficence,” respectively. When Christian neighbor love is practiced in the worldly realm, it assumes the shape of beneficence. Luther makes this clear in On Secular Authority:

But because a true Christian on earth neither lives for nor serves himself but rather his neighbor, therefore he out of his kind spirit does what he does not need, but what is useful and of need for his neighbor. But now the sword is a great necessity for all the world, in that peace is kept, sin punished and evildoers warded off – therefore [the Christian] most willingly submits to the regiment of the sword, pays taxes, honors the authorities, serves, helps and does all he can that furthers its power.17

This passage is remarkable as it expresses a syllogism. I emphasize two arguments that Luther makes:

  1. Christian love has the same aim as the institution of government, namely to meet the needs of people; therefore, “beneficence love” is (also) “political” neighbor love.
  2. Obedience or submission is not an end in itself, but is a means of reaching the goal of neighbor love. It is also important to notice that beneficent neighbor love is the ethical basis for the politics of Christians, whether they are the subjects or the rulers.

[20] What has become of the other form of Christian love, the one recommended in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Here we need to be aware of another important distinction in the Two Kingdoms doctrine, namely the distinction between the Christian acting on behalf of the other and the Christian acting on behalf of him or her self (fürsichselbst). If a Christian acts on behalf of others, (s)he must show love in the form of beneficence, but if (s)he acts on behalf of him or herself, then (s)he must refrain from acting and instead must show renunciation.18

[21] In a way, a Christian prince can also show unselfish neighbor love in the exercise of his calling. In his description of this fact, Luther again points at the connection between faith and love:

“Christ, the highest prince has come to serve me (…); he looked at my misery and did everything so that I received power, goods and honour because of him and through him. I will do likewise: not seek my own with my subjects, but seek what is theirs, and I will serve them by my office (…) and reign in such a way that it is for their best and not mine. (…) For thus Christ has done to us, and those are the genuine works of Christian love.19

In short: the Christian ruler is one who uses power for the sake of the citizens. In contrast, the tyrant uses power for his own interest.

[22] The distinction between spiritual and worldly does not equal a ”separation of religion from politics.” In the case of Christianity, religion – as we have seen – encompasses more than faith, it includes also neighbor love. And neighbor love, based on justification, sends the Christian believer back into worldly reality where (s)he has to work for the best of their fellow human beings, either by directly exercising political-legal power as ruler, or by supporting the political order as subject, depending on one’s office or calling.

[23] It is very important to notice that Luther did not retain his clear distinction between spiritual and worldly. As is well-known, in connection with the organization of evangelical churches he was forced to make use of the princes and other worldly authorities as “emergency bishops”. And, by what I regard as an irony of history, this emergency regime became the prevailing form of church government in Lutheran churches, including in Denmark as mentioned above. The theological-legal rationale for this is the thesis about the princes as “primary members of the church” (praecipuamembra ecclesiae).

Natural Law

[24] One last word about Luther’s doctrine of the law. A Christian ruler must also enforce the law, more precisely: as judge he must enforce the law of love (Recht der Liebe), which refrains from punishing evil-doers too rigorously and compensates those who have been injured. Not all sides of a lawsuit are willing to accept this kind of adjudication. When confronted with such stubborn parties the Christian prince-judge should make the following appeal:

[N]ature teaches as love acts: that I shall do unto others as I want done to me. Therefore, I cannot strip somebody in such a way, whatever my right may be, because I myself do not want to be thus stripped; rather, as I want the other to conceal his rights towards me (…) likewise I should refrain from my right.15

Thus, Luther endorses the traditional theological doctrine about natural law as an ethical and legal normativity that on one hand is founded in divine creation, but on the other hand is universally known to all humans as rational beings, and summarized in the Golden Rule. The above quotation expresses an interesting relation between Christian neighbor love and acting in accordance with the Golden Rule, a relation I would describe not as full convergence, but rather as overlap.

[25] Luther expounds his understanding of natural law theory in two treatises about the way Christians should behave in relation to Mosaic law.[21] His main point is that the many precepts of the Hebrew Bible basically are to be regarded as positive law – as “the Saxon code of law for the Jews” (der JudenSachsenspiegel) -, but that some of the Mosaic norms, primarily those of the Decalogue, are universally valid, because they express natural law, the best summary of which is the Golden Rule. In his analysis of the Golden Rule as natural law Luther emphasizes that every human being has a basic knowledge about right acting in him/her self so that one does not need written rules or authorities. There is, so to speak, a moral conscience inherent in human self-relation. As to the very content of the rule, Luther rejects an understanding of it as a rule of reciprocity. He claims that the rule does not say that if the other does this or that, I ought to repay him or her. The meaning is the opposite: when I act towards the other, I ought to do what I would wish done to me, if I were in the other’s position. In other words: Luther understands the Golden Rule as a rule of role-exchange.

Luther’s “Spirit Ethics”

[26] In On the Councils and the Church Luther emphasizes the importance of sanctification, against the antinomians:

They are fine Easter preachers, but infamous Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach anything (…) about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Rather, only about Christ’s redeeming, but Christ (…) is Christ, has acquired redemption from sin and death in order for the Holy Spirit to make us new humans from the old Adam, so that we, dead to sin, live for righteousness as S. Paul teaches, beginning here on earth, growing and complete there.22

In order to fully understand Luther’s concept of sanctification I find it necessary to place it within the broader context of his doctrine of the Spirit (Pneumatology) in general. Thus in what follows I will look at Luther’s understanding of the Spirit, specifically as laid out in the Large Catechism.

[27] In the Large Catechism Luther starts by emphasizing that only God’s spirit is a holy spirit, which means that his spirit “has sanctified us and still sanctifies us.” The German verb is “heiligen”, the basic meaning of which is: “to sanctify is nothing else but to bring to Christ in order to receive such a good, which we could not approach by ourselves”. 23The sanctifying activity of the Spirit is to make Christ present so that humans can partake in his redemptive work.

[28] Luther describes the church as a holy community constituted by the Spirit and as a medium through which the spirit does its sanctifying work. The church is:

[T]he mother who procreates and holds every Christian through God’s word, which he [the Spirit] reveals and carries, illuminates and ignites the hearts, so that they grasp it, embrace it, cling to it and stay with it.24

Here, the church is not the external institution or group, but the community where the word of God is proclaimed. As a “holy lot (…) under the one head , Christ” the church seems to be identical with the spiritual kingdom.25 I find Luther’s emphasis on the heart important, with the two verbs “illuminate” and “ignite” (erleuchten anzünden). They show that the embracement of the word of God has both a cognitive and an emotional aspect. Both are ethically relevant.

[29] Forgiveness of sin – the next part of the third article of faith – is also an aspect of sanctification:

The Holy Spirit brings about that, even if we have sin, it cannot harm us, because we are in Christianity, where there is forgiveness of sin, both God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiving, holding and supporting each other.26

Sin, according to Luther, is connected with flesh or bodyliness. This leads to the significance of the next parts of the confession: ”resurrection of the body, and eternal life”:

Because holiness has begun and is daily increasing, we expect that our flesh will be executed and buried with all filth, but will gloriously appear and rise to total holiness in a new eternal life. For now we stay half and half clean and holy, so that the Holy Spirit always works on us through the Word, and daily deals out forgiveness of sin until that life where forgiveness will be no more, but rather totally clean and holy humans full of piety and justice, free of sin, death and all calamity in a new immortal and glorified body. See, all this is the office and work of the Holy Spirit: it begins holiness and augments it daily through the two pieces: the Christian church and forgiveness of sin; but when we decay, he totally and in one moment completes and sustains [it] eternally through the last two [resurrection and eternal life].27

[30] It is obvious that according to Luther a Christian believer is not saved once-and-for-all. Rather, because of the condition of being simul iustus et peccator, a life-long repetition of forgiveness is necessary. And, because sin is somehow particularly connected with the body, there is an eschatological dimension to sanctification: it will only be completed in the hereafter. A crucial question then is: does sanctification mean that in this life there is progress, or growth in holiness? And, ethically speaking, what would such growth mean? I shall try to answer this question in discussing a classic in Luther studies, namely, Regin Prenter’s Spiritus Creator.28

[31] Prenter summarizes Luther’s understanding of the Spirit in the following way:

The Spirit is God himself in insoluble unity with the Father and the Son of the Trinity. Where the work of the Spirit is done, there God is present in the unbroken unity of his saving historico-eschatological act of agape. In this unity man’s whole existence has eschatological character. Justification and sanctification are an insoluble unity of which the end is the resurrection of the body.29

Prenter emphasizes Luther’s claim that it is the Spirit who creates faith in a person in that it makes Christ present by taking “the crucified and risen Christ out of the remoteness of history and heavenly glory” and placing him “as a living and redeeming reality in the midst of our life with its suffering, inner conflict, and death”.30

[32] In view of Luther’s emphasis on the connection between faith and love, it is clear that the latter – love – too is originated by the Spirit. And, actually, the real agent is Christ himself: “The movement of love is Christ’s own work in the sinner, which because of his wretchedness has taken refuge in him”.31 Love is the fulfillment of the law, the spontaneous caring for one’s neighbor out of a joyful heart. In contrast, the law itself consists of mere words and signs without spirit. It can describe the life we should live, but does not have the power to realize the life described. As merely written the law does not say more than that law which is already inscribed in the heart of all humans, i.e. natural law. Natural law basically is the law of love, but it is a word without spirit. However, even though Prenter emphasizes the essential contrast between spirit-driven love and the letter of the law, he claims that the acts performed under the two conditions do not differ: “The works themselves are no different. Seen from without they are the same as those of the unbelievers. It is the method used which is different”.32

[33] I think that Prenter’s understanding of the acts of love is closely connected to his view on the transformation that takes place in the believer. On the one hand Prenter emphasizes that faith necessarily must be regarded as a psychological experience (oplevelse). But on the other hand he claims that the experience of faith, given by the Spirit, is unlike all other experiences. This of course raises the question: What kind of experience is faith? The unclarity about the concept of experience recurs so to speak in Prenter’s interpretation of the concept of sanctification in the narrow sense, i.e. the question of progress in faith. I give some key formulations that express his view:

When Luther speaks of the progress of sanctification, he thinks of (…) the fact that man on the way between baptism and resurrection constantly and anew takes leave of himself to take refuge in Christ’s alien righteousness (…) [S]anctification is a constant progress, a growing mastery of the Spirit over the flesh. But this progress is not the same as the increase of empirical piety. For empirical piety is ambiguous.33

Thus, according to Prenter there is a contrast between spiritual progress and ”empirical piety”. How then to describe the progress? Prenter explains:

Our faith and love as a progress in sanctification are hidden and are never identical with the known psychological progress of empirical piety. The progress – and its aim in fulfillment – is an object of hope, something which awaits us. It is not an object of substantiation.34

[34] The terminology of hiddenness could make sense, if it means that faith and love are hidden to others. And that does seem to be Prenter’s claim. The progress is only an object of hope, something that awaits us. It does not seem to make sense, according to Prenter’s interpretation, to think of progress as a real chain of events in present time. Rather, the progress of sanctification is something eschatological. This can be clearly seen in the following passage:

Here we find sanctification understood not as a gradually increasing real righteousness but, because of the forgiveness of sin, as the constantly repeated putting to death of self and being raised with Christ, as a liberation from the bondage of one’s own efforts to reach perfection, and as an admission into the all-embracing act of agape of God. 35

The mentioning of “real righteousness” indicates the ethical aspect of Prenter’s view on sanctification: the renewal of the old Adam does not issue in a new kind of action. Surprisingly, Prenter again and again emphasizes the realism in Luther’s understanding of the Spirit and its work. This, he claims, is also true of Luther’s understanding of the new life as the fruit of the Spirit. Nevertheless, he states that: “This does not mean that an empirical righteousness has sprung up within us which is now able to manifest itself in new works”.36 The real progress of sanctification seems to be a progress in God’s action with a human being from baptism to resurrection. And even if this divine action is an action on a real human being, the progress does not have a counterpart in the concrete life of that human being. In real human life sanctification does not so much seem to be a progress, but rather a repetition of a movement from the condition of sin (flesh) to justification.


[35] Before discussing Prenter’s interpretation I want to pause and indicate the crucial points in Luther’s ethics from what has been said so far, where we can speak of sanctification in the broad sense of the Holy Spirit being at work, namely:

  • The very formation of faith by receiving the redeeming work of Christ: justification.
  • The faith-based motivation to love one’s neighbor. And, more specifically
  • The participation in role-exchange, both in relation to Christ and in relation to the human.
  • The constitution of the kingdom of Christ; the Holy Spirit as the means by which Christian exercises the spiritual regiment, viz-a-viz:
  • Natural law as God’s law functioning without the Holy Spirit.

[36] I do not agree with Prenter that sanctification is basically a divine activity with no real counterpart in human experience.37As mentioned above, I want to emphasize Luther’s two verbs: “illuminate” and “ignite.” The Spirit illuminates in the sense that it gives the believer a new understanding of his or her life as a life in identification with Christ. The Spirit makes possible my identification and role exchange with the Jesus story. This means, among other things, that I am able to realize and accept the various kinds of suffering that necessarily belong to the human condition. And the spirit ignites my heart in the sense that it creates a capacity to emotionally identify with other human beings, and not least of all identify with his or her suffering – and a power to work for the remedy of his or her need. Calling this sanctification means that even if the understanding, emotion and acting are my own, they are at the same time brought about by an external power, linked to being confronted with the Jesus story.

[37] Obviously, according to Lutheran understanding ethics is not so much about making an effort to live up to moral rules. Rather it is about being motivated through faith to take care of other human beings. And faith necessarily has to do with feelings. It is no coincidence that Luther uses the word ‘heart’ so frequently. Prenter’s sharp distinction between God’s spiritual action with humans in an eschatological process, and what he calls real or empirical piety is too simple. We do not only have empirical knowledge of ourselves and other human beings. The 20th century has given us more sophisticated tools for understanding human experience. Particularly, continental philosophy in the form of Heidegger’s existential analysis and Gadamer’s and Ricoeur’s hermeneutics has given us theoretical tools for understanding humans as spiritual beings. But of course we should take into account more recent theories about human capacities like e.g. cognitive science.

[38] If sanctification has to do with experience, how can we express this experience? A given Christian context or tradition is also characterized by its hymns. In this respect there seems to be a clear kinship between Methodism and Lutheranism. And hymns are able to express emotional experience because they are poetry, at least if they are good hymns. I want to mention two examples from our Danish hymnbook.

[39] One is from the 17th century poet and bishop Thomas Kingo (1634-1703). In one of his Pentecost hymns Kingo writes – in my very poor and non-poetical translation:

O Holy Ghost, almighty God
Strengthen me so that I can endure
Heat me with the glow of your grace,
And let me be comforted in my death.38

I read – and sing – this as a concrete poetic expression of the igniting Spirit.

[40] The other example is from N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), the third great Danish 19th century theologian next to Søren Kierkegaard and Hans L. Martensen. Influenced by the Romantic movement and its nature poetry, Grundtvig depicted the holy Spirit as working in “the dust sighs heav’nly breathing” and in “the leaves wind’s gently heaving”.39 But Grundtvig also expresses the experience of sanctification, finding the Spirit at work in singing breath:

My soul, of all that is on earth,
of what in thought and tongue has birth,
most strongly you are winging,
and freest is the breath you take
when out of it a Hymn you make
that sends the heavens ringing.40


1 Part of my contribution to the gathering has been published as ”Human Enhancement and Moral Perfection”, in Responsibility and the Enhancement of Life. Essays in Honor of William Schweiker, edited by Günter Thomas and Heike Springhart (Leipzi: EvangelischeVerlagsanstalt, 2017).

2 For more information about the Danish situation, see Svend Andersen and Morten Kjaer, “The legal framework of Lutheran Churches – a Historical European Perspective,” in On Secular Governance: Lutheran Perspectives on Contemporary Legal Issues, Ron W. Duty and Marie A. Failinger, editors (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2016).

3 (Accessed May 15, 2017). Thanks to the Revd. Christina Preisler, The Danish Methodist Church for helpful information.

4 Given my limited familiarity with Wesleyan theology I will limit my analysis here to the following two texts: Chapter 5 of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection ( (accessed May 15, 2017), and The Sermons of John Wesley, Sermon 40, “Christian Perfection” ( (accessed May 15, 2017).

5 ( (accessed May 15, 2017).

6 ( (accessed May 15, 2017).

7 Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke, KritischeGesamtausgabe. Deutsche Bibel (Weimar: H. BöhlauNachfolger, 1883ff), 7. Band, 4f. Quotations are from the WeimarerAusgabe [WA] in my own translation. Deutsche Bibel (German Bible) is abbreviated WADB.

8 WA 30/I, 184.

9 Lecture on Romans 1515/16. WA 56, 304.

10 WADB 7, 5.

11 On Secular Authority. WA 11, 250.

12 Commentary on Galatians. WA 40/II, 37.

13 WA 7,36.

14 WA 2, 148.

15 Ibid.

16 WA 11, 249. Even though Luther rejects the idea of perfection as creating external differences among Christians he seems to presuppose a kind of differentiation or gradation as to the strength of faith and the validity of works of love. Thus, in On Good Works Luther distinguishes between the faithful and loving Christians, and those who have a “childish understanding of faith and spiritual life” (WA 6, 214). And in the Commentary on Galatians 1519 Luther distinguishes between four types of acts: those of sin, law, grace and peace. Interestingly, the latter acts he characterizes as “perfectly healthy” (pefectaesanitatis). Thus, the idea of Christian perfection is not foreign to Luther. Also, in the former classification he adds to the quality ‘childish:’ “until they become acquainted with faith.” So Luther recognizes growth, if not in faith, at least towards faith.

17 WA 11, 253.

18 WA 11,259f.

19 WA 11, 273.

20 On Secular Authority. WA 11, 250.

21 How Christians Should Regard Moses and Against the Heavenly Prophets.

22 WA 50, 599f.

23 WA 30/1, 187.

24 WA 30/I, 188.

25 WA 30/I, 190.

26 WA 30/I, 190.

27 WA 30/I, 190f.

28 Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator. Studier i Luthers Theologi (København: Universitetsforlaget i Aarhus. 1944). The Danish original with the subtitle Studies in Luther’s Theology differs significantly from the English translation in that many footnotes with quotations have been removed and the academic Danish has been translated into ”current and understandable English”.

29 Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator. Translated by John M. Jensen (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 2001), 278.

30 Spiritus, 54f.

31 Spiritus, 90.

32 Spiritus, 236. “Method used” is not the best translation: literally, Prenter speaks about the way the works are performed. His point sounds a bit like an echo from Kierkegaard’s distinction in Works of Love between the ‘what’ of the works and their ‘how’.

33Spiritus, 69f.

34Spiritus, 198.

35Spiritus, 245.

36Spiritus, 237.

37 Later, Prenter somewhat changed his interpretation of Luther’s doctrine of sanctification, acknowledging that sanctification means real ethical progress. However, he does not really spell out what that exactly means. See ReginPrenter, “LuthersLehre von der Heiligung” [Luther’s Doctrine of Sanctification], in Lutherforschungheute. Referate und Berichte des 1. Internationalen Lutherforschungskongresses Aarhus, 18.-23. August 1956, ed. Vilmos Vadja (Berlin 1958).


O Helligånd, almægtig Gud,
styrk mig, at jeg kan holde ud!
Opvarm mig med din nådes glød,
og gør mig trøstig i min død!

Quoted from the Danish hymnbook Den danske salmebog (København: Det Kgl. Vajsenhus’ Forlag. 2003), No. 281.

39 Easter flower! what would you here? Anthology of songs and hymns by N.F.S. Grundtvig. Translated into English by John Irons in cooperation with Klaus Høeck. Odense (University Press of Southern Denmark. 2014), 57.


Min sjæl, du har af alt på jord
i tanken og din tunges ord
de allerbedste vinger,
og friest er dit åndefang,
når dybt du drager det i sang,
så højt i sky det klinger. (Easter flower, 73).

Svend Andersen

Svend Andersen in professor at the Department of Theology in the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and he is an ordained pastor in the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church.