The Lutheran Commitment to Conversation with Other Christians

[1] Lutherans are reborn talkers.  The children of God are chips off the old block, and like our Creator, who started everything by speaking in Genesis 1: they cannot stop talking.  Aristotle thought of the human being as an animal rationale.   Luther thought of the human creature as an animal dicens (speaking animal) and the Christian as an animal confitens (confessing animal).  Believers whose lives spring from fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things cannot help but confess the wonders of their Creator.  Therefore, Luther naturally said that he would go to Worms to explain to Emperor Charles V what he had found God saying in Scripture even if as many devils stood in his path as there were shingles on the houses of the city.  Even in the face of the threat of death as one excommunicated by the pope or outlawed by the emperor, he felt compelled to share his faith with the rulers of the German empire.[1]

[2] Some of these princes and municipal leaders felt the same compulsion nine years later at the diet in Augsburg.  On their behalf Philip Melanchthon and his colleagues not only prepared a written statement to give witness to their faith and the reforms that this faith compelled them to introduce into the life of the church.  They also conducted extensive conversations with representatives of the Old Faith in order to give witness to their teaching and to explain its impact on the way they conducted their lives and the public life of the church.  Like Luther and Melanchthon, we are called to speak out in public places for the good of society as well as the church.  An understanding of what the Wittenberg theologians did in Worms and Augsburg generates an eagerness to teach and to confess what we believe and to do so every chance God offers and arranges for us.  We have confidence in our message and in the Holy Spirit’s ability to create the impact it wishes, and so—certainly in situations far less threatening than Luther’s at Worms or even Melanchthon’s in Augsburg—we can join in speaking God’s truth in love.

[3] Before the emperor and the empire’s leaders in Worms, Luther appealed to Scripture and conscience.  For late medieval thinkers, “conscience” designated more than simply a moral voice—and certainly more than a moral voice informed by its own perceptions of right and wrong.  The church’s dicta formed and informed the entire worldview or orientation point of the individual.  Luther had already revealed at Leipzig in 1519 that Scripture provided for him the content of conscience.  And that conscience does not just sit back and comment on what evils surround it.  Conscience acts; it does what its person can do to combat the evils.

[4] For Luther, doubt of God’s Word and defiance of God’s lordship constituted the original sin in Eden and in the lives of sinners each day.  Therefore, witness to God’s address to humankind in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, true God, begotten of God the Father in eternity, and truly a human being, born of the Virgin Mary, stood at the heart of what Christians have to say to themselves and those outside the faith.  Where Jesus Christ is not confessed as Lord, Luther saw no compelling reason to live the truly human life, hearkening to him and reflecting his providential love in daily dealing with other creatures, human and others, even though he recognized that false believers can perform externally proper human care for others.  Nonetheless, all actions apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are sin (Rom. 14:23), Luther concluded.

[5] For Luther, living the godly life follows freely from the liberating loosening of the bonds of sin.  His programmatic treatment constructing a new piety, On Christian Freedom, followed his deconstruction of medieval piety in his Open Letter to the German Nobility and his On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  It built upon his plan for daily Christian living in On Good Works.[2]  All four treatises had appeared in 1520 and prepared him to stand before Charles V in Worms to give public testimony of what he believed and taught in his rather dramatic public confession and the conversations with representatives of the papal party that followed.

[6] That Luther closely connected trust in Christ with upright conduct of daily life is clear in his handbook for Christian living, his Small Catechism.  He sets forth his law-gospel framework for reading Scripture in the Decalogue and the Creed and then proceeds to detail the basis of Christian living in his description of the eschatological battle with the Evil One and every form of evil in the Lord’s Prayer and in the Word of God in sacramental forms.  Then he outlines the practice of that faith in the vertical dimension of human life through meditation and prayer mornings, evenings, and at mealtime.  He concludes his Small Catechism with his Table of Christian Callings, in which he brings the children of the faith to recognize the forms or places in which the godly life unfolds.[3]

[7] Luther regarded the living of the sanctified life as a natural outgrowth of the doctrine of justification by faith in the person of Jesus Christ and trust in his promise of forgiveness, of the absolving or loosening of the bonding nature of sin.  Those who believe God’s word of absolution, his pronouncement of their righteousness in his sight, believe him.  They accept his judgment that they are righteous.  Therefore, they strive to behave like the person God has pronounced them to be—a righteous human being, practicing true humanity as God designed it.  For Luther, Christian living grows naturally out of Christian believing in Christ: ethics is an extension of theological anthropology.  Luther constructed his ethics from a sense of 1) the structure of human in the Christ’s callings in home, occupation, society, and church, and 2) a sense of God’s design for human life as expressed in his commands.

[8]  Luther recognized God as responsible as Creator and Provider for all things in his world and accountable to us on the basis of his promises.  In the cloister and in the university, Luther rejected the Ockhamistic teaching of his teacher’s teacher, Gabriel Biel, that God had made a covenant (pactum) with his human creatures that required their “doing what was in them”—their best effort—“out of purely natural powers” before they could receive grace.  He therefore only very sparingly used the word “covenant” (an exception being in regard to baptism).  Nonetheless, this concept helped shaped his use of “promise.” Luther’s concept of promise proceeds from his Ockhamistic sense of a world guaranteed by the pacta of God, including one for nature, one for human relationships.  (You can take the boy out of much of Ockham, but you cannot take the Ockham completely out of the boy.)  Ockham’s view of God as the absolutely almighty Creator of all things made sense to him, and he ascribed total responsibility for the continued functioning of creation to its Creator.  God’s covenanting nature makes God not only responsible for all but also accountable to the human creatures to whom he has made his promises or covenants.  At the same time, paradoxically, Luther holds human beings totally responsible for being the human beings God made them to be and totally accountable to their Creator.  God’s wrath falls upon them when they betray the gift of their humanity. Who is responsible for feeding the neighbor?  God is.  You and I are.  Both.  God gets off the hook partially on the accountability because Luther refused to venture into theodicy, but in prayer he told God that he had to heal Melanchthon and Spalatin.  For Luther, both God and we are fully responsible and accountable in providing for this world and addressing its needs.

[9] Therefore, he gave impassioned public witness both to the doctrine of Scripture and to the life that results from trusting the gospel that promises forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Christ’s liberation from sin and the presence of the Holy Spirit produce both faith in God’s declaration of righteousness and the obedience and good works that practice this righteousness in daily life.  Luther’s sermons frequently gave instruction for the practice of faith in Christ, both by sketching positively what God expects of his people in their actions and negatively what they were doing wrong.  In sermons and publications fierce criticism rained down upon princes and bankers—as well as of peasants who were cheating him in the marketplace and threatening public order and the common good with resort to violence.  Luther had only the sword of the Spirit, but he swung it determinedly at greed and exploitation as his family had experienced it from bankers that drove it toward bankruptcy and as he observed his prince’s courtiers oppressing and cheating their princes’ subjects.  He was an equal-opportunity critic of every level of society.  His Large Catechism explanation of the seventh commandment makes this clear.

[10] Therefore, taking Luther’s example seriously, as did his colleagues, including Philip Melanchthon, and their students, contemporary Lutherans must actively engage in the kind of winsome, clear conversation with other Christians (including other Lutherans) and those outside the faith to share our heritage of confident, bold declaration of God’s love for sinners as evidenced in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus and the justified life that it produces (Rom. 4:25, 6:1-11).


[1] Cf. Robert Kolb, Confessing the Faith, Reformers Define the Church, 1530-1580 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1991).

[2] Brett Muhlhan, Being Shaped by Freedom. An examination of Luther’s Development of Christian Liberty, 1520-1525 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012); Robert Kolb, Luther’s Treatise On Christian Freedom and Its Legacy (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic/Lexington, 2019).

[3] Charles P. Arand, That I may Be His Own. An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms (Saint Louis: Concordia, 2000); Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).

Robert A. Kolb

Dr. Robert A. Kolb is a professor emeritus of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He has authored many books, the most recent of which are Martin Luther as He Lived and Breathed and Luther's Treatise on Christian Freedom and its Legacy.