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By T.S.Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, February 2017




For Luther, we find ourselves on a cross-road between two directions, and in our situation—before we take one of them—we are still innocent (yet not sinless). We have the commands and the promises; we have the history, the origin from which we have sprouted out, and the future to which we are destined to move on. One of the roads in front of us is righteousness, salvation. The other is unrighteousness, damnation. We didn't choose these two roads, nor we have built them, and we don't have the chance to take a third one, or to create one by ourselves.1 It is not our free will that has brought us there; yet we are born for decision. In Luther's mind, as we find from reading his Two Kinds of Righteousness, our task, the chief task in human life, is to decide which road to take; to take it not physically, through works and toil and effort, but spiritually, in a moment of revelation, of answer to a call. The decision is ours, yet the call is God's. The chief event in man's life is what man will choose to like, or desire. The right choice is made only under the power of Spirit.2 As Augustine, Luther's teacher, would say: in life man should find his proper object of love and devotion.3 This is the most crucial act that man, once born, will be called to perform. On the response to God's call, not on man's effort or free will, his existence will depend, his dignity and fate. Then, what is the good road? What is the right choice, the object that has worth? How this choice shapes human life? How it brings man from the innocence of primal "ignorance"4 (or inherited sin, if you like) to the goodness of righteousness?

            There are two kinds of righteousness, Luther says, two "wheels" on the path of salvation and blessedness. One "alien,"5 that comes from without, and one personal that comes from within. The alien righteousness is the righteousness that we find in the message of the Gospel, in the example of self-sacrificial love. We have the fortune to hear the story of a good man, of a truly good man, who died for us, promising us salvation from the burdens of temporal life. The seed of this knowledge, of this story, falls in the soil of our soul and either grows or dies there (Mark 4:8, Matt. 13:8, Luke 8:15). We either respond to this call or not. Here, in this moment of attention and response, we make a decision. "I know your doings—you are neither cold nor hot [...] Behold, I stand at the door and knock..." (Rev. 3:15-20) We, Luther preaches, are presented with a case of an "alien righteousness" and we are asked to judge and proclaim, to take a side. We are asked to pronounce a verdict, but not as judges who decide the fate of others, but as free men, who judge for themselves (Luke 12:57): should we believe or not, would we recognize the good and the truth in the trial of God, would we recognize the greatness of this "alien" for the sinner righteousness, would we recognize the seriousness of the "casus," or would look at it sceptically, as if we are hearing a fictitious story for children. (cf. Matt. 18:3)

            Luther is convinced that he who trusts Christ's promise, who is blessed to accept His gift of grace, he, who believes in the message of the Gospel, in the seriousness of the call, starts to "exist in Christ," and his inherited sin, his human weakness and origin, does not matter anymore. He takes the road, the good road, with the same "flesh," the same limbs, body, and eyes, but with a different mind. The believing man is still sinful, still weak, and in his "flesh," he will always be a "sinner," but once God's "alien righteousness" is recognized, the right object chosen, all his good or bad work on earth becomes useless for the achievement of his salvation. What matters is that man has taken the road. In his "pilgrimage" on the road to Good, his body wears out, his mistakes and faults grow in number, his sufferings increase, but his mind renews, his soul ascends, his conviction in the rightness of his decision strengthens, and along with all this his (his!) own righteousness expands.

            Now, we have introduced the source and the meaning of the "second righteousness" in Luther's formula. The "second righteousness" is our own righteousness, the fruit of our faith in Christ's goodness and example. "This [second] righteousness follows the example of Christ" and we are "transformed into his likeness."6 But we are not proud of it. We do good and we continue to sin, but we are neither proud of our goodness, nor ashamed of our weakness. In fact, we do not care for ourselves; we are free from all concern about what we have inherited as children of Adam and Eve and what we will win as children of God. Indeed, in the moment of recognition of God's righteousness, we have already won and were justified, forgiven, and our present concern is neither salvation, nor damnation, but the other, our neighbour to whom we turn our sight and affection. The faith in Christ, Christ's righteousness that is the sublime example of generosity and self-giving love, makes us calm, free from our own selves. Like Christ, we empty ourselves, forgetting our "honour, health, and power,"7 our fears, dreams, and illusions. Our souls, free from both guilt and pride, "seek only the welfare of others,"8 of those who still don't know the blessing of a life free from anxiety and competition. In fact, if we follow Luther's logic, we can reach the conclusion that man, once taking the decision to live without thinking of past and future, sin and reward, becomes truly existent, truly present within the world; in losing himself in Christ, man finds his true being. "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." (Matt. 10:3) Man, therefore, is not anymore part of history, nor part of future; he becomes "I am," "transformed" in the image of Christ, of God.

            But many do not understand faith and righteousness in this way. Many, according to Luther, are still under the bondage of pride and anxiety. They think that their object is Christ, their road is salvation, and their righteousness valid, but their hope is not in Him, it is rather in their work, in their own, autonomous righteousness. They make the mistake to put the "stream" before the "source," to make the "primary" secondary. They think, "Through our righteousness we reach the righteousness of Christ," they believe that their freedom, will, and deeds will make them truthful, and forget that Christ, only Christ "the Truth," "shall make them free."9 (John 8:32) And they measure their advance, their righteousness, not with the measure of the Gospel, as Barth would say,10 but with the "scales" of human judgement. Their excellence in virtue is their proof, their medicine from the sickness of guilt. If they grow in excellence, in virtue, if they surpass others in goodness and deeds, they think, as the Pharisees did before them, that they are worthy of salvation. They don't understand that in the recognition of Christ's righteousness that sets man on the road of goodness, there is no competition, no virtue, nor excellence or exaltation. They forget the words of Jesus that "blessed" are the "poor in spirit," the "meek," the "mourning," the "poor" and the "hungry." (Matt 5:5) Salvation, in Luther's theology, is a gift: you believe, you fall in love with the object of your faith, and the "kingdom" is yours. "[A]ll of us who believe in Christ," he says, "are priests and kings in Christ."11 That is why Luther compares to marriage the miracle of salvation, righteousness, and justification; Christ comes to us through the Word (John 1:1), as the Word, and says, "I am yours," we hear and reply, "I am yours."12 There is no need for any effort to win God's love and attention; and there is no reason to "boast" with them after we have them. Because the freedom and the true "excellence" that we receive from God are gifts, not prizes in a game of competition with others.

            We see, Luther's theology is a kind of a theology of freedom—freedom from pride, works, and anxiety, from competition, worldly passions and toils. And precisely because it is a theology of freedom, it is also a revolutionary teaching. But Luther's revolution is not political, it is not like Rousseau's revolution, for example, who began his "socio-political gospel" with the words "Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains."13 Luther's vision of man's freedom is not pessimistic, or as political theory would call it, "negative"; it does not start with a concept of freedom transformed into bondage. It is not also teleology of gradual liberation from the "chains" of external oppression. The freedom of the Christian, in Luther's thought, the Christian's path to liberty, is not a recovery of a lost paradise that must be re-conquered through a revolt and disobedience; it is not a war against an oppressor. It is rather an awakening of the mind for the truth that there is no oppressor, that we have been born free and that we have always been free. To use Isaiah Berlin's now classical differentiation,14 Christian freedom in Luther's theology is not so much from something, i.e. against something, but for something. It is not liberty from bondage; it is rather liberty (and power) to do what your will wants to be done. This is the reason why Luther's revolution is not political in the way that political revolutions from modern age are. It is a revolution of mind, it happens in man's inner world. It is a spiritual revolution.

            Luther writes, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none," and then adds, "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." 15 This second sentence reveals for what is the Christian freedom, to do what. It is for the neighbor. We must emphasize here, the freedom of the Christian is not from his neighbor's tyranny, as we usually understand freedom, it is for his, not for Christian's, but for his neighbor's good and well-being. This freedom is for others, for those who need Christian's generosity, who profit from the wealth of his kingdom, the kingdom that he has received in Christ. In Luther's theology, the Christian, therefore, does not fight against servitude, against anyone and anything, in order to keep or win his liberty; on the contrary, in his freedom, that is spiritual, he serves everyone. His freedom, his righteousness that comes as a gift from the "alien" source of God, as we have explained, makes him a "dutiful servant." In his service, he is completely free, because, as Aristotle would say, "he does nothing against his will."16 So in Luther we have a concept of freedom that is obedience without contradiction, we have a "collapse" of the simple human notion that freedom is always the opposite of submission.17 In Luther, we have freedom resulting in obedience; in his theology, in his revolution, there is no fight against coercion. On the contrary, for him the Christian freedom is unthinkable without obedience; obedience is freedom's actual expression, its practical effect, it is the sign for the existence of liberty.

            Nothing can beat or suppress this Christian freedom because it comes as a gift, i.e. without a price or responsibilities attached, and because it does not depend on material or temporal things. Once kindled in the soul and the mind of man, it is unalienable. The only care that the Christian must have, according to Luther, is to expand it, to make it greater; this, however, is a "light burden," ("For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," Matt. 11:30) because the expansion of liberty happens not through works but, as we have said, through faith. Luther says, "[...] it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works and increasingly to straighten faith alone and through faith to grow in the knowledge"18 and freedom.

            The commands in the Old Testament, Luther says, "teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability."19 The Old Testament commands, therefore, reveal two things: that we cannot reach the standard of goodness through our own effort, i.e. through works, our "carnal" body does not permit this, and second, that the standard of goodness would not really matter, if our attention and hope were directed to God's promise. God's promise is fully revealed in the New Testament, and there we find the two commandments on which all the law hangs on. The achievement of these two commandments is within our reach, because, again, we do not need the effort of our carnal body to perform them. How so?, one would ask.

            Luther's answer is simple. First and foremost we must be ready to accept the First Commandment, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27) The First Commandment is a spiritual one. It does not ask us to do this or that action in order to keep it. It speaks about "heart," "soul," "strength" (or will), and "mind." It does not require any external act. God is not pleased by sacrifices. (Psalm 51:16) According to Luther, the First Commandment is performed when we recognize with our heart, soul, will, and mind, God's righteousness. If we don't do this, he says, we "make God liar,"20 we despise his promise, and refuse the gift of freedom. The awakening of the mind to freedom, the opening of our eyes, so to say, happens through this inner acceptance and trust in the reality of God's promise. The First Commandment asks from us only one thing—to believe, to have faith in God's Word and love, not to be anxious for our lives, what shall we eat, drink, or wear, (Matt. 6:31) not to worry for tomorrow, (6:34) but to live today, in this very moment, with "heart that is glad" and "tongue that rejoices" (Psalm 16:9). As we have said, it makes us "I am," truly present, truly immanent in the image of a transcendent God.21 Faith gives us the power of conviction, Luther says, that all works for our good, it gives us the courage to say, "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?"22 (I Cor. 15:55)  "You see," Luther says, "that the First Commandment [...] is fulfilled by faith alone."23

            The Second Commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself," is spiritual and moral (i.e. practical). In the Second Commandment, the inner man reveals himself outwardly. Like with the "two kinds of righteousness," the First Commandment bears an actual fruit in our willingness to perform, in practice, the Second Commandment. We cannot do anything for God, but we can do everything for our neighbor. And we cannot love our neighbor and yet do nothing for his well-being. In other words, the inner freedom that we receive through faith results naturally in an outer obedience in the form of deeds. "This is the place," Luther says, "to assert [...] that a Christian is the servant of all and made subject to all. Insofar as he is free he does not works, but in so far as he is a servant he does all kind of works."24 Faith without works is nothing, and Luther had never argued against the virtue of works. If faith does not produce works, deeds, this means that it is nonexistent. If the first righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, does not result in man's individual (second) righteousness, then either Christ's righteousness is fictitious or man's faith in it is not sincere.

            The whole point in Luther's spiritual revolution is the (re-)discovery of the right order of things, of the "natural order" in God's creation. The knowledge of the "right order"—this is the essence of Luther's reformation. Luther succeeds to communicate convincingly a perspective of "reversed" teleology where the end, the good or the happiness, the chief concern of the classical and modern political and social philosophy, is achieved through faith. He argues against the conviction of the entire Aristotelian and, from here, Western tradition that virtues, deeds, and actions, are not means for the achievement of the end, but the end's wonderful effects. Once the end, that is the existence of man's unalienable freedom and salvation, is grasped, accepted as a fact, once we believe that the Kingdom is at "hand," (Mark 1:15; Matt. 3:2; 10:7) then and only then, according to Luther, man has the power to act truly virtuously. In other words, Luther points out what the right beginning is, what the right order of things is: that nothing begins with the visible, the matter, the flesh, or with political and practical; the beginning of everything is in the Spirit, which is invisible. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." (Rev. 22:13) Human spirit can be renewed only through faith; the works are temporal, the matter in flux, it cannot serve, as the Marxists, the utilitarians, and other political reformers believed, as a basis, as a starting point for happiness, or salvation.

            The understanding of the proper order of things is important not only for the individual persons, but for the society as well. In order to make a society good a reform of its constitution and institutions is not enough. And yet, all social reformers, all political revolutionaries begin the implementation of their vision exactly with modification of the external. They change the regime, the political form, but they certainly fail to transform the essence, the "soul" of the collective body, of society. They believe, and this is precisely Rousseau's political project, that if they change the social and political environment, the "rules of the game," so to say, they will make the society just and the people good as they are by nature. This is an illusion, and this is one of the reasons why Luther did not trust political reformers and radicals. He was convinced that the reform would happen naturally only if it starts with a "Christianization" of the rulers and the people. Luther's political theology leads us to the conclusion that any positive "outward" change must first begin with an "inward" reformation of the "collective mind," of the moi commun (the "common self"), to use Rousseau's terminology,25 towards good. As Luther says, "Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works [...]. Consequently it is always necessary a person to be good before there can be any good works."26 The same with society: not the good and fair institutions make a society just, but the goodness of the collective spirit of society produces good and fair institutions; consequently, it is always necessary the people and their leaders to be good before they can create any good (or just) political and social order.


            We entered the ground of politics, and this is the right moment to turn towards our second question, namely how justice is love.

            Luther was an Augustinian monk and his thought, inevitably, was shaped by Augustinian theologico-political concepts. As we have seen, Luther is a dualist, a "dialectical" thinker, but of a special kind. In his dialectics, there are no contraries or opposites. It is a typical Christian dialectics, as we have said at the beginning of this essay, where the parts do not contradict each other but rather complement each other. Thus, discussing the outer world, the world of politics and human action, Luther divides social order into two realms, one spiritual, and one earthly. In an Augustinian manner, he argues that the spiritual realm depends entirely on the end, on the object of love, of those who belong to it. And in a rather less Augustinian way, he makes the "worldly kingdom" a kind of a servant of the spiritual realm. I say "less Augustinian," because Augustine also accepts the idea that the state officials, the magistrates, while performing their duties, can belong to the heavenly kingdom; their participation in temporal power does not make them citizens of the kingdom of Man as far as their object of love is God. But in Augustine this idea of the Christian magistrate, of the ruler who belongs to the heavenly kingdom, is more obscure and undefined than it is in Luther. In Luther, we find a much more systematic and positive vision of the function of state power. According to his politico-theological theory the "temporal sword" promotes the well-being of community, yet not through an active fostering of the virtues of the citizens (as it is explicitly suggested in the work of Aristotle or Calvin), but simply through punishing the wrongdoers (as it is in Augustine's political theology).

            Therefore, we discover in Luther's political theology some "paradoxes" and complexities. First, for Luther the earthly kingdom is not necessarily opposite to the spiritual kingdom, it is not an antipode of the kingdom of God. The temporal power is simply a different kind of realm with its proper and necessary functions. Secondly, the earthly kingdom is beneficial for the promotion of citizens' virtues, but not in the same way as the spiritual kingdom is; i.e. the "temporal sword," the state, has an indisputably positive function.27 And thirdly, according to Luther's vision, the state performs its positive function in a clearly negative manner—not through education and rewarding man's good conduct, for example, but first and foremost through punishing and coercing those who do not belong to the spiritual realm. In Luther's understanding, the "worldly kingdom" does not reward virtue and does not have the duty to educate, because the virtuous citizens, i.e. the Christians, as we have said, are already rewarded through their faith, and already educated through their knowledge of the commands and promises in the Holy Scriptures. Or as Luther says, those who belong to the kingdom of God, "need no temporal law or sword."28 They "are subject of the governing authorities" and are "ready to do every good work, not that they shall in this way be justified, since they already are righteous through faith, but that in the liberty of Spirit" they "serve others and the authorities [...] and obey their will freely and out of love."29

            Here we should say something that we have missed to note clearly while explaining the dualism in Luther's political theology. There is another element in this conceptual division of earthly and spiritual realms. Mankind, according to Luther, is divided between spiritual and worldly men; the worldly ones are the "wicked" who do not believe in Christ, whose decision and object of love is the temporal, the transitory, (here we discover again Augustine's influence30) these are the people who make the state and the law a "necessity," as Aristotle would say.31 The state, the earthly kingdom, exists precisely because of them, to prevent them from sinning. Because, as Luther says, "if all the world was of real Christians, that is true believers, there will be no need for or benefits from prince, king, lord, sword, or law."32 On the contrary, the men who do not have the consciousness about the law in their hearts, who are still "blind" for the gift of freedom, need to be constrained from doing harm to themselves and to others. They need to be ruled. "The unrighteous," Luther says, "do nothing that the law demands; therefore they need the law to instruct, constrain, and compel them to do good."33 Theologically, Luther defends the rationale of secular power in this way, "God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal, which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that [...] they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace."34

            From this theological argument comes Luther's conviction that the attempts to "abolish all temporal law and sword" by those who consider themselves "spiritual," are dangerous; these "Christians," he thinks (having in mind the Anabaptists), "abuse" the "evangelical freedom."35 His recognition of the necessity and goodness of temporal power, of the state, reveals his political realism. Luther is a political realist, and because of that, he is sometimes labeled and criticized for being a social and political "conservative." He was convinced that we can never "accomplish" a "rule in a Christian and evangelical manner," i.e. a rule where the law is nullified and the sword left idle by the readiness of all citizens to serve each other generously in the Spirit of Christ.36 He was anti-utopian both as a political thinker, who does not believe in the effectiveness of institutional reforms unbacked by a spiritual reform of public mind, and as a Christian, who does not believe that the reform of public mind could ever be achieved in a complete and universal way. On one hand, Luther is against institutional reformers, on the other, he does not share the hope of Christians who expect to convert the world completely with their actions, preaching, and political strategies. He believes, as Augustine did before him, that the true renewal of humanity is in the power of God alone. He is convinced that forced separation of the earthly and heavenly kingdoms is not within man's power; moreover, it is not man's prerogative. In his view, mankind must exist as it is now: in a state of good and evil, material and spiritual, visible and invisible "mingled" in the whole of temporality. We should not expect, Luther says, that a "common Christian government over the whole world, or indeed over a single country or any considerable body of people" could ever be created; the "wicked," he is convinced, "will always outnumber the good."37 And he continues that we must accept the existence of two governments, "both must be permitted to remain: the one [the government of the Holy Spirit] to produce righteousness, the other [the temporal government] to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds."38 "Neither one is sufficient in the world without the other."39

            And here comes the question: if Christians are "dutiful servants" to all, including to the governing authorities, could they be part of the governing authority themselves? Should they only obey and serve? Or they are also permitted to rule over those whom they serve? Luther's answer is unambiguous: "The sword and authority, as a particular service of God, belong more appropriately to Christians than to any other man on earth."40 It is so, because the Christian ruler does not work for his "advantage," for "himself," nor for his "property or honor," but only for the good of his neighbor.41

            Temporal sword, however, no matter whether it is in the hands of a Christian or of an unbeliever, must know its limits in order to bring justice as service and love. One of the areas where the sword of the magistrate has no legitimacy and becomes an evil is the realm of "human conscience." Temporal power, according to Luther, has the responsibility to punish the wicked and to care for the peace in society, but it should always abstain from "educating" or imposing beliefs on the people that are under its authority. Temporal power should be careful in punishment, generous in its judgments, and should never "prescribe laws for the soul," because in this way it "encroaches upon God's government and only misleads the souls and destroys them."42 Even the Church should abstain from joining the state in promoting Christian faith and values. Luther is convinced that temporal authorities, along or with the help of the Church, should not "impose commands in an area [namely, God's kingdom and human soul] where they have no authority whatsoever."43 Yet, he says, "our emperor and [...] princes are doing just that today." "They are allowing pope, bishop, and sophists to lead them on [...] to command their subjects to believe, without God's word, whatever they please."44 This is not only against God, against the truth; this is also imprudent, against reason. Luther's realism is revealed, once again, in the following statement, "It is futile and impossible," he says, "to command or compel anyone by force to believe this or that. How he believes or disbelieves is a matter for the conscience of each individual."45 And he explains that faith is "a free act to which no one can be forced [...] it is a work of God in the spirit, not something which outward authority should compel or create."46 To impose the knowledge of freedom onto a free man in a coercive way is an absurdity, a contradiction of terms. Freedom cannot be coercively promoted. We cannot violently twist the mind of others and expect good results. This, by the way, has often happened throughout history, when political liberators changed political regimes and systems, and then tried to impose their ideology of "liberation." Surely, a change of a regime can succeed through coercive action, but a change of mind can never happen through violence either physical or psychological. Luther knew this truth very well. And he knew it, because he was a Christian. The ultimate power of Christianity is not in the "sword;" it is in the power of the "Word," of the loving word.

            The duty of the magistrate, according to Luther, is performed when he complies with four requirements. First, the prince (or the governing authority) must be a man (or men) who takes seriously the First Commandment, who believes in God. Secondly, he must keep the Second Commandment, i.e., he must love and serve his people. Thirdly, "with respect to his councilors and officials he must maintain an untrammeled reason and unfettered judgment."47 And lastly, "with respect to evildoers, he must manifest a restrained severity and firmness."48

            Here, we are approaching the final part of our discussion. The magistrate is called to bring justice.49 For Luther, justice is the highest and most important function of "temporal sword." Justice, we must add here, is an act of intellect (or mind) and of will, and as such, it belongs to both the so-called forum internum and forum externum. It is an act of mind as far as it begins as judgment, i.e., before the deed the agent must discern intellectually between true and false, good and evil. And also an act of will as far as the agent has the power to pronounce, publicly and with consequences, a verdict. As an act of will, justice belongs to the forum externum. It belongs to the outer world not only because of the pronouncement of a verdict, but because the object of judgment is always another man. As Aristotle says, justice is the only virtue that is concerned with another's good,50 with our neighbor's good and interest, and as such, it is the "crown of virtues." Even if someone is punished by the judgment of the "temporal sword," he suffers the consequences from his actions and the burden of king's verdict for his own good, not only for the good of those who he wronged.

            Luther understands justice as a prerogative of public power because only the public power has the ability to apply effectively its decisions on all without discrimination. With this power of effective judgment, the "temporal sword" (and those who represent it) is entitled with a greater responsibility before God and men, and therefore the question of "conscience" is central for it. This is the reason why Luther starts his Whether Soldiers Too, Can be Saved with the question of conscience.51 When we speak about the conscience of magistrates and soldiers in Luther's political theology, we should not forget how he understands the role of temporal power—it is positive, bringing peace and order in a punitive or negative manner. Coercion often seems as taking the prerogatives of God's justice, but this is not always the case. If the temporal power judges questions of conscience, as we have seen, then it abuses its authority and thus "robs" God of His "majesty"; but if the magistrate judges the acts (not the thoughts) of the wicked, then he performs dutifully the task for which his office was created. Thus, the magistrate and the soldier must "fight" against the wicked "with a good and well-instructed conscience."52 Luther contends that rulers, soldiers, and public officials must appreciate the positive function of their profession. They should be aware of the "dignity" of their office, of their occupation, and they must perform their duties firmly, free of doubts. God Himself said to Joshua, the judge who was destined to bring Israel into the Promised Land, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9) Even when involved in war, magistrates and soldiers should not feel troubled by the thought that they have to kill people. Because, Luther says, "what else is war but the punishment of wrong and evil? Why does anyone go to war, except he desires peace and obedience?"53 This justification of war is definitely Augustinian.54 Luther's argument is that war is "only a very brief lack of peace that prevents an everlasting and immeasurable lack of peace, a small misfortune that prevents a great misfortune."55

            Instead of being timid and hesitant in time when firm action is required, the rulers must remember that they are "guardians of justice," having responsibilities and duties given to them by God Himself for the sake of temporal peace. On the other hand, the magistrates, Luther says, should not forget that every man is "involved in justice and injustice" and that "God alone is lord over justice and injustice, and God alone passes judgment and administers justice."56 This means that rulers must know that they are part of a hierarchy, and their position in it, although high, is still under God's authority. Both the magistrates and the citizens should be aware of the existence and necessity of hierarchy and of their duties within the divinely ordained order. Without hierarchy and without everyone performing willingly his profession, calling, and service, there will be constant chaos and war. "The servant will strike his master, the maid her mistress, the children the parents, the pupils the teacher."57 For Luther, we are all subjects to someone or something no matter what is our rank or social status. Princes are subjects to God and their disobedience would be punished in the same way as they would punish the disobedience of their subjects. If they were timid at war that requires bravery and courage for the defense of their people, they would be defeated and deposed; if they were cruel and tyrannical, they would incite a rebellion or would finish, sooner or later, destroyed by an opposing force. "God has punished the rebellious lords and nobles," Luther says, giving an example, "through the rebellious peasants, one scoundrel with another."58

            Discussing war and justice, Luther is convinced that although having the right to wage a war, the prince should never provoke a conflict, should never begin an offensive without having a good reason or only led by suspicion.59 He says, "Whoever starts a war is wrong."60 And concludes that those "who have started wars have lost them, and those who fought in self-defense have only seldom been defeated."61 Luther, we may say without hesitation, is against rebellion in general; he is not only against the insurgence of people against their rulers, he does not also approve the disobedience of princes to God's law. He reminds that the "worldly government has not been instituted by God to break the peace and start war, but to maintain peace and avoid war."62 We must repeat once again, peace and justice, not only for Luther, but also for Augustine, Hobbes, and many other political thinkers, are the chief reasons for the existence of temporal power. So, Luther advises that in their judgment, the magistrates should make the "broadest possible distinction between what [they] want to do and what [they] ought to do, between desire and necessity, between lust for war and willingness to fight."63

            Finally, Luther says that no matter whether a man keeps an office or serves a master, he must always act according to God's commandments. He is convinced that in our service we must be humble as Christ was. We should never perform our duties for the approval and praises of people. If we do this, we lack faith; we search for something that we have not yet received. "Greed for money and greed for honor are both greed," says Luther, "the one is as wrong as the other."64 As we have said at the beginning, for him, pride is man's greatest sin; it is man's righteousness placed before the righteousness of God, man's work done before the work of Spirit. "Seeking one's own honor is one of the greatest sins," it is "nothing less than [...] robbery of the divine majesty."65 Luther says these words in his discourses on temporal power because he knows that the magistrate, the "guardian of justice," and his soldiers, are the ones most directly exposed to the temptation of pride. That is why the man in power must remember that justice as love, i.e. the true justice, is possible only for the humble ones. We may conclude this essay with Luther's appeal, "Let others, therefore, boast and seek honor; you [servant or/and prince] be obedient and quiet, and your honor will find you [...] for the Christian faith is not a joke, nor is a little thing, but as Christ says in the Gospel, "It can do all things'."66




1 In the The Bondage of the Will Luther writes: "There is not a third group of people somewhere in between believers and unbelievers: a group capable of saving themselves." (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Grace Publication Trust, 1984, p.3)

2 See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Grace Publication Trust, 1984)

3 See Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, XI, 15,20

4 "Every time people are converted, it is because God has come to them and overcome their ignorance by showing the Gospel to them." (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Grace Publication Trust, 1984, p.3)

5 Martin Luther, "Two Kinds of Righteousness," tr. L.J. Satre, Luther's Works (Condordia Publishing House, 1955-1986) Vol. 31 ed. Harold J. Grimm, pp. 297.

6 Ibid. p. 300

7 Ibid. p. 303

8 Ibid. p. 300

9 For more on the inversion of truth and freedom, i.e. what is primary and what secondary, see Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology, (T&T Clark, 2001) p.105. Also in relation to rights, D. Farrow, Desiring a Better Country: Forays in Political Theology (McGill & Queen's University Press, 2015) p.10, p.20

10 See Karl Barth's Commentary on Romans.

11 Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," ed. Timothy F.Lull, in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings  (Fortress Press, 1989), p.606

12 Martin Luther, "Two Kinds of Righteousness," tr. L.J. Satre, in Luther's Works (Condordia Publishing House, 1955-1986) Vol. 31 ed. Harold J. Grimm, p.300.

13 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract in The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, ed. Susan Dunn (Yale University Press, 2002) p.156. The quoted opening sentence of Rousseau's The Social Contract is directed mostly against the Aristotelian notion that some people are naturally born to be slaves. See Aristotle's Politics, 1253b-1255a.

14  See Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty” in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969)

15  Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian,", p.596

16  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1134a25

17 We have this classical Christian understanding in the work of Augustine as well. For example, he writes about the slaves in the City of God, XIX:15: "If their masters do not free them, they can make their servitude a form of freedom on their own, by serving with loyalty and love, rather than craven fear, till injustice pass away and every human principality and power be brought to nothing, so that God shall be all in all." 

18 Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," p.599

19 Ibid. p. 600

20 Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," p. 602

21 This is what Kierkegaard calls "infinite resignation" in his great work Fear and Trembling

22 Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," p.609

23 Ibid., p. 604

24 Ibid., p.610

25 See more on the "common self" or "common unity" Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or on Education, (Basic Books, 1979) pp.39-40

26 Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," p. 613

27 In book XIX of the City of God, Augustine writes, "So the heavenly city makes use of the earthly peace on its pilgrimage here; as far as true religion and piety allow, it supports and encourages the community of interest in resources for human mortal existence. It relates this earthly peace to that heavenly peace..."

28 Martin Luther, "Temporal Authority: to what extent it should be obeyed," tr. J.J.Schindel, in Luther's Works (Condordia Publishing House, 1955-1986) Vol. 35 ed. Walter Brandt, p. 89

29 Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," p.621

30 cf. Augustine, City of God, XIV:1

31 All societies, Aristotle says, that are "governed by law" are just, while all law "exists for men between whom there is injustice." (Aristotle, Nicomahean Ethics, 1134a25)

32 Luther, "Temporal Authority," p.89

33 Ibid. p.89

34 Ibid. p.91

35 Ibid.

36 We find similar realism in Augustine's words: "The wicked fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked. But good if they have reached perfect goodness, cannot fight among themselves." (Augustine, City of God, XV:6) In the first and the second case, all fight against one another; while in the third case there is peace that may exist among the members of small groups, or even among democracies, but as far as there is one "wicked man" (or one "rough" state) every earthly peace, even the peace of the "righteous," is provisional. 

37 Luther, "Temporal Authority," p.91

38 Ibid. p.92

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid. p.100

41 Ibid. p.96

42 Ibid. p.105

43 Ibid. p. 106

44 Ibid. p.107

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid. 108

47 Ibid. p. 126

48 Ibid.

49  See my essay, On Judgment

50 "[J]ustice," Aristotle says, "alone of the virtues, is thought to be 'another's good,' because it is related to our neighbor." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1130a5)

51 Martin Luther, "Whether Soldiers too can be Saved," tr. Charles Jacobs, Luther's Works (Condordia Publishing House, 1955-1986) Vol. 46 ed. R. C. Schultz, p.93

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid. p.95             

54 See, for example, Augustine's City of God, Book XIX:12

55 Martin Luther, "Whether Soldiers too can be Saved," p.96

56 Ibid. p. 114

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid. p. 116

59 Here we notice the influence of St. Thomas' concepts of judgment and justice. See, for example, Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologicae, the section dealing with judgment.

60 Martin Luther, "Whether Soldiers too can be Saved," p. 118

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid. Luther was criticized by Francesco de Vitoria as "heresy" in On the Law of War (Question 1. Article 1), but here we see that both de Vitoria and Luther have the same opinion on the fundamental principles of just war.

63 Martin Luther, "Whether Soldiers too can be Saved," 118

64 Ibid. p. 132

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid. p. 133, p. 136


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