Luther on Early Lutheran Degeneracy & Bad Witness

Luther on Early Lutheran Degeneracy & Bad Witness December 19, 2017


Documentation of Luther’s opinion of the early Lutherans, during the first period of Protestantism.

I think causes of historical events are always extraordinarily complex, just as causes of human behavior in general are. That has always been my position, as long as I can remember. I despise simplistic attempts of positing single causes for things as obviously complex as our topic of the social / theological situation of Germany in the 16th century.

All the cited words below are Luther’s own, from various translations. Sources are always non-Catholic ones unless specifically identified as “Catholic”. The blue highlighting is mine.


For we are all poor sinners, but in baptism, and afterwards in our whole life, if we turn unto Christ, He comforts us, and says: Give me your sins and take my righteousness and holiness; let your death be taken from you, and put on my life. This is, properly speaking, the Lord Jesus’ government. For all His office and work is this, that He daily takes away our sin and death, and clothes us with His righteousness and life.

This announcement we should indeed hear with great joy, and every one should thereby be bettered and made more holy. But alas, the contrary is true, and the world grows worse as it grows older, becoming the very Satan himself, as we see that the people are now more dissolute, avaricious, unmerciful, impure and wicked than previously under the papacy. What causes this? Nothing else than that the people disregard this preaching, do not use it aright for their own conversion and amendment, that is, for the comfort of their conscience, and thankfulness for the grace and benefit of God in Christ; but every one is more concerned for money and goods, or other worldly matters, than for this precious treasure which Christ brings us. For the most of us, when we do not feel our misery, the fear of sin and death, would rather, like the Jews, have such a king in Christ as would give us riches and ease here on earth, than that we should comfort ourselves in Him in the midst of poverty, crosses, wretchedness, fear and death. The world takes no delight in this, and because the gospel and Christ do not give it what it desires, it will have nothing to do with Christ and the gospel. Therefore our Lord in turn rebukes this world and says: Do you not rejoice in this, nor thank me, that through the sufferings and death of my only begotten Son, I take away your sins and death? Then I will give you sin and death enough, since you want it so; and where you were possessed of and tormented by only one devil, you shall now be tormented by seven that are worse. We see farmers, citizens and all orders, from the highest to the lowest, guilty of shameful avarice, inordinate life, impurity and other vices. Therefore let every one who would be a Christian be hereby warned as of God himself, joyfully and thankfully to hear and receive this announcement, and also pray to God to give him a strong faith, that he may hold fast this doctrine; then surely the fruit will follow, that he will daily become more humble, obedient, gentle, chaste and pious. For this doctrine is of a character to make godly, chaste, obedient, pious people. But those who will not gladly receive it, become seven times worse than they were before they heard it, as we see everywhere. And the hour will surely come when God will punish this unthankfulness. Then it will appear what the world has merited by it. Now, since the Jews would not obey the prophet, it is told to us that our King comes meek and lowly, in order that we may learn wisdom from their sad experience, and not be offended by His poverty, nor look for worldly pomp and riches, like the Jews; but learn that in Christ we have a King who is the Just One and Savior, and willing to help us from sin and eternal death. This announcement, I say, we should receive with joy, and with hearty thanks to God, else we must take the devil, with walling, weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(1533 sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Matthew 21:1-9], from Dr. Martin Luther’s House-Postil, or Sermons on the Gospels, Vol. 1, 2nd edition, Columbus, Ohio: J. A. Schulze, 1884, pp. 8-10; this sermon was translated by D. M. Martens sometime prior to 1869 and originally transcribed by Veit Dietrich)

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We must certainly receive this message eagerly and gratefully, by it becoming more pious and godly. Unfortunately there’s the opposite side, that by this teaching the world becomes more and more hostile, wicked, and malicious; yet not through the fault of the teaching but of the people, thanks to the pernicious devil and death. Today people are possessed by seven devils, whereas before it was only one. The devil now bulldozes the people so that even under the bright light of the gospel they become greedier, slyer, more covetous, crueler, lewder, more insolent and ill-tempered than before under the papacy. Why so? Not through fault of the teaching but because the message is not met with thankful acceptance; people cast it to the wind and pay more attention to money and goods than to the blessed treasure which our Lord Christ brings to us.

(from The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 5, edited by Eugene F. Klug, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000, pp. 25-30; sermon originally transcribed by Georg Roerer)

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For, since Satan keeps no holiday, but chiefly sows his tares among the wheat where he sees the good seed coming forth hopefully, it is no wonder that among those who possess God’s pure Word there are found so many disciples of Judas, that is, knaves and infidels.

When the world sees such deeds it quickly passes judgment upon them. Thus we are often compelled to hear how our adversaries of the present day lay all the blame for such offences upon the doctrine, and say: If the doctrine were correct it would also produce good fruit, but since there are so many more offences in the world now than there were formerly, it must follow that the doctrine is false.

True, the Insurrection of the Peasants, in the year 1525, occurred after the Gospel had been brought to light. Then followed the Sacramentarians, Anabaptists, and other sects, the like of which no one heard nor saw before the Gospel came to us. But does it, therefore, follow that the doctrine is bad, and that such offences were produced by the doctrine? We shall find the answer to this if we examine that villain, Judas . . .

Why do you blame and blaspheme the Holy Gospel for that which wicked men and Satan have committed? . . .

We should rather argue as follows: Satan hates the Gospel; men are by nature corrupt and inclined to evil; therefore Satan and the evil world have caused these offences, so that the good seed, which is the pure, wholesome doctrine, might be despised by men. . . .

Even at this day, as we see, this scandal prevails, that avarice and usury, lasciviousness and gluttony, and other vices are more common among those who boast of the Gospel than they were formerly under the papacy. Whence comes this filth? Is it learned from the Gospel? Are the preachers to blame? No, such thoughts be far from us! . . . we must blame the very devil . . . he comes with his seed of wickedness, and scatters tares over the whole field. . . .

We see that most men are under the impression that they can lead a lewd life, practice covetousness and usury, lie and deceive, and still be in no danger, and be good Christians all the while. . . .

O, do not make light of this; do not think in your heart: I can do so and so, and still be a Christian, — I will make amends some day, &c. The devil is too cunning for you; when he has once spun his web about you, it will not be easy for you to tear yourself away.

(Second Passion-Sermon: The Seizure of Christ in the Garden [Matthew 26:47-50], translated by J. T. Iseusee, pp. 45-60 in Sermons on the Passion of Christ By Dr. Martin Luther, Rock Island, Illinois: Lutheran Augustana Book Concern, 1871)

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Moses is thus a fine teacher; he has well expounded the first commandment, and led the people to a knowledge of themselves, and humbled the proud and arrogant spirits, besides which he upbraided them with all kinds of vices, so that they had merited anything but the promised land. If we do not abide by our beloved Gospel, we deserve to see those who profess it, our Gospellers, become seven times worse than they were before. For, after having become acquainted with the Gospel, we steal, lie, cheat, we eat, drink, and are drunken, and practise all sorts of iniquity. As one devil has been driven out of us, seven others, more wicked, have entered in; as may be seen at the present time with princes, noblemen, lords, citizens, and peasants, how they act, without shame and in spite of God and His threatenings.

(from Luther Vindicated, Charles Hastings Collette, London: Bernard Quaritch, 1884, pp. 120-121); Collette also cites an alternate translation by Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould, that he proceeds to oppose: “There is not,’ says he,—‘one of our Evangelicals who is not seven times worse than he was before he belonged, to us,—stealing, lying, deceiving, eating, and getting drunk, and giving himself up to all kinds of vices. If we have driven out one devil, seven others worse than the first have come in his place”. Several sources searchable on Google have the terminology, “Our evangelicals are seven times worse . . . ” The passage comes from Luther’s Commentary on Deuteronomy, and is found in the Walch edition, Vol. III, 2727)

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Moreover, this doctrine concerning mutual love, which we must maintain and exercise one towards another, cannot be beaten into the heads of carnal men, nor sink into their hearts. The Christians do gladly receive and obey this doctrine. Others, as soon as liberty is preached, by and by do thus infer: If I be free, then may I do what I list . . . seeing we obtain not salvation by our good works, why should we give any thing to the poor? Thus do they most carelessly shake off the yoke and bondage of the flesh, and turn the liberty of the Spirit into wantonness and fleshly liberty. But we will tell such careless contemners . . . that they be not free, brag they never so much of their liberty, but have lost Christ and Christian liberty, are become bondslaves of the devil, and are seven times worse under the name of Christian liberty, than they were before under the tyranny of the pope.

(Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, New York: Robert Carter, 1848, pp. 492-493; comment on Galatians 5:13; see also an alternate URL from a 2004 reprint of the same work)

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The more the Gospel is preached, the worse things become . . . Those who become evangelicals become more corrupt than they were before. Every day we unhappily experience that the men who live under our Gospel are more uncharitable, more irascible, more greedy, more avaricious than they were before as papists. [Walch edition, Vol. XIII, 2193]

I have often had the thought of giving up the Gospels, for so far it has but served to make people more and more cunning and more perverse. [Walch edition, Vol. VII, 2467]

[O]ut of 1500 to 2000 students, the most of them being theological candidates, who were at the University of Wittenberg, there were hardly two or three men worthy of recommendation! [spoken to a friend, Spangenberg, in 1543; cited by Johann Dollinger, The Reformation, Vol. I, 288]

(in Alfred Baudrillart [Catholic], The Catholic Church, the Renaissance, and Protestantism, translated by Mrs. Philip Gibbs, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1907, pp. 244-246)

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[See also a host of similar documented sentiments in the Catholic work, Luther: An Historical Portrait, by J. Verres, London: Burns and Oates / New York: Catholic Publication Society, 1884, Chapter XX,: “Fruits of the reformation,” pp. 295-311; the author often provides the original Latin in footnotes, too]


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I testify on my part that I regard Zwingli as un-Christian, with all his teachings, for he holds and teaches no part of the Christian faith rightly. He is seven times worse than when he was a papist. . . . I make this testimony in order that I may stand blameless before God and the world as one who never partook of Zwingli’s teaching, nor will I ever do so.

(cited in Mark U. Edwards, Luther and the False Brethren, Stanford University Press, 1975, p. 103. Edwards notes on p. 101 that “Zwingli maintained that Luther and the papists were essentially of one mind”. Further primary source information is unavailable in the Google Reader edition, but Edwards is a major Luther scholar and can be trusted as to sources)

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The last time shall be a dangerous time, a time of wrath, so that also the world shall be filled with heresy, and the elect shall almost be deceived. . . . there is hardly any more faith in the country or the church, with all the ceremonies and outward display, with so many sects, etc. It is no wonder that many go astray. The wonder is that all do not go astray. At present, thank God, it is yet the golden time, because we have the light of the word. . . . But the world is secure and unthankful, despises all the promises and threatenings of God, is full of all kinds of sin, and becomes worse and more obstinate from day to day. . . .

On the one side the enemies persecute the gospel truth in the most bitter and horrible manner; and on the other side not only is the ingratitude of friends very great, but also the great multitude begins to be tired of the dear word. Since the world will not have the light, it is struck with greater blindness than formerly under the papacy . . .

(Luther’s Explanatory Notes on the Gospels, edited by E. Mueller, translated by P. Anstadt, York, Pennsylvania: P. Anstadt & Sons, 1899; commentary on Luke 18:8, p. 246)

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11. It seems as though he meant hereby to show that many Christians, after receiving the preaching of the Gospel, of the forgiveness of sins and grace through Christ, become even worse than the heathen. For he also says in Mat. 19, 30, “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” Thus it will also be at the end of the world; those who should be honest Christians, because they heard the Gospel, are much worse and more unmerciful than they were before, as we see too many examples of this even now.

Aforetime when we were to do good works under the seduction and false worship of the Papacy, every one was ready and willing; a prince, for example, or a city, could give more alms and a greater endowment than now all the kings and emperors are able to give. But now all the world seems to be learning nothing else than how to estimate values, to rake and scrape, to rob and steal by lying, deceiving, usury, overcharging, overrating, and the like; and every man treats his neighbor, not as though he were his friend, much less as his brother in Christ, but as his mortal enemy, and as though he intended to snatch all things to himself and begrudge everything to others.

12. This goes on daily, is constantly increasing, is a very common practice and custom, among all classes of people, among princes, the nobility, burghers, peasants, in all courts, cities, villages, yes in almost every home. Tell me, what city is now so strong and pious as to be able to raise an amount sufficient to support a schoolmaster or a preacher? Yes, if we did not already have the liberal alms and endowments of our forefathers, the Gospel would long ago have disappeared in the cities on account of the burghers, and in the country because of the nobility and peasants, and poor preachers would have nothing to eat nor to drink. For we do not love to give, but would rather take even by force what others have given and endowed. Therefore it is no credit to us that a single pulpit or school is still maintained. Yea, how many there are among the great, the powerful, and the rich, especially in the Papacy, who would like to see nothing better than all preachers, schools, and arts exterminated.

13. Such are the thanks to the blessed Gospel, by which men have been freed from the bondage and plagues of the Pope, that they must become so shamefully wicked in these last times. They are now no more unmerciful, no more in a human, but in a satanic way; they are not satisfied with being allowed to enjoy the Gospel, and grow fat by robbing and stealing the revenues of the church, but they must also be scheming with all their power how they may completely starve out the Gospel. One can easily count upon his fingers, what they who enjoy the Gospel are doing and giving here and elsewhere; and were it only for us now living, there would long since have been, no preacher or student from whom our children and descendants might know what we had taught and believed.

14. In short, what do you think Christ will say on that day, seated on his judgment throne, to such unmerciful Christianity? “Dear sir, listen, you have also pretended to be a Christian and boasted of the Gospel; did you not also hear this sermon, that I myself preached, in which I told you what my verdict and decision would be: `Depart from me, ye cursed?’ I was hungry and thirsty, naked and sick, poor and in prison, and ye gave me no meat, no drink, clothed me not, took me not in, and visited me not. Why have ye neglected this, and have been more shameless and unmerciful toward your own brethren than the Turk or heathen?”

Will you excuse yourself by pleading: “Lord, when saw we thee hungry or thirsty?” etc. Then he will answer you again through your own conscience: Dear sir, were there no people who preached to you; or perhaps poor students who should have at the time been studying and learning God’s Word, or were there no poor, persecuted Christians whom you ought to have fed, clothed and visited?

15. We ought really to be ashamed of ourselves, having had the example of parents, ancestors, lords and kings, princes and others, who gave so liberally and charitably, even in profusion, to churches, ministers, schools, endowments, hospitals and the like; and by such liberal giving neither they nor their descendants were made poorer. What would they have done, had they had the light of the Gospel, that is given unto us? How did the Apostles and their followers in the beginning bring all they had -for their poor widows, or for those who had nothing, or who were banished and persecuted, in order that no one among them might suffer for the necessities of life! In this way poor Christians should at all times support one another. Otherwise, as I have said, the Gospel, the pulpit, churches and schools would already be completely exterminated, no matter how much the rest of the world did.

Were it not for the grace of God, by which he gives us here and there a pious prince, or godly government, which preserves the fragments still left, that all may not be destroyed by the graspers and vultures, thieves and robbers; were it not for this grace, I say, the poor pastors and preachers would not only be starved, but also murdered. Nor are there now any other poor people than those who serve, or are being trained to serve the church; and these can obtain no support elsewhere, and must leave their poor wives and children die of hunger because of an indifferent world; on the other hand the world is full of useless, unfaithful, wicked fellows among day-laborers, lazy mechanics, servants, maids, and idle, greedy beggars, who everywhere by lying, deceiving, robbing and stealing, take away the hard-earned bread and butter from those who are really poor, and yet go unpunished in the midst of their wantonness and insolence.

16. This I say, that we may see how Christ will upbraid the false liars and hypocrites among Christians, on the day of judgment, and having convicted them before all creatures will condemn them, because they have done none of the works which even the heathen do to their fellows; who did much more in their false and erroneous religion, and would have done it even more willingly had they known better.

17. Since now this terrible condemnation is justly pronounced over those who neglected these works, what will happen to those who have not only neglected the same, have given nothing to the poor Christians, nor served them; but robbed them of what they had, drove them to hunger, thirst and nakedness, furthermore persecuted, scattered, imprisoned, and murdered them? These are so unutterably wicked, so utterly condemned to the bottomless pit with the devil and his angels, that Christ will not think or speak of them. But he will assuredly not forget these robbers, tyrants, and bloodhounds any more than he will forget or pass over unrewarded those who have suffered hunger thirst, nakedness, persecution and the like, especially for his and his Word’s sake. He will not forget those to whom mercy has been shown, even though he speaks only to those who have shown mercy and have lent their aid; for he highly and nobly commends them, when he says. “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.”

(Twenty Sixth Sunday After Trinity Sermon (Matthew 25:31-46), from The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther . The same sermon is also included in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther 3:1, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000, 379-395)

Those who ought to be good Christians because they have heard the gospel, are harder and more merciless than before; as is too plainly patent to all beholders. Of old, when under the guidance of the papacy and of a false worship, people were obliged to do good works, everybody was ready and willing. Now, on the contrary, the world has learnt nothing else than to flay, fleece, and openly rob and plunder by lying and cheating, by usury, forestalling and overcharging. And everyone acts against his neighbour, as though he did not regard him as a friend, still less as a brother in Christ, but as a murderous enemy, and only wanted to get everything for himself alone. This goes on daily and gains head without intermission, and is the most common practice and custom in all classes, among princes, nobles, burghers, peasants, in all courts, towns and villages, yea verily in all houses. Tell me, where is there a town however large that is pious enough to collect together as much as would maintain one schoolmaster or pastor? Yes indeed, if it had not been for the charitable alms and endowments of our forefathers, the burghers in our cities, the nobles and peasants in the country, would long ago have been deprived of the Evangel, and not a single poor preacher would have been fed and clothed. For we will not do it ourselves, but we take and seize by force what others have given and founded. ‘Thanks also to the dear Evangel, the people have become so abominably wicked, so inhuman, so diabolically cruel and merciless, that they are not content with profiting by the Evangel themselves, growing fat thereon through plunder and robbery of Church goods, but as far as others are concerned they starve the gospel completely out. You may count upon your fingers, here and elsewhere, all that they give and do for it, they who profit by it themselves, for ourselves, who are living now, there has long been no preacher, no scholar able to teach our children and descendants what we have taught or believed.’ ‘ Ought we not to be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves when we think of our parents and forefathers, kings and nobles, princes and others, who gave so liberally and so benevolently, even to superfluity, to churches, parsonages, schools, foundations, hospitals, &c., and by all which they and their descendants were not impoverished?’ (Collected Works, xiv 389-391).

‘I fear me,’ he said, preaching on the robbery of widows and orphans, ‘that we are in such wise trifling with the Evangel, that we are a greater offence to God than the papists. For if there is to be stealing it is better to steal from a rich man than from a poor beggar, or an orphan who has nothing but a morsel of bread. Sirach said: “Do not the widow’s tears run down her cheek, and her cry against him that causeth them to fall? For from the cheek they go up even to heaven, and the Lord that heareth will not be delighted with them.” God is not called in vain the Father of widows and orphans, for if they are forsaken by every man God still looks after them ! ‘He pronounced a woe: ‘Woe unto you peasants, burghers, nobles, who grab and scrape up everything for yourselves and pretend all the time to be good evangelicals.’

Because people were so charitable under the papacy God, in reward, gave them good times then. ‘Christ says: “Give and it shall be given unto you; good measure pressed down and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.” And this also is shown by the experience of numbers of pious people of all times, who before our day gave alms liberally for the office of preaching, for schools, for maintenance of the poor, and so forth, and to whom God in return gave good times, peace and rest; hence the proverb which has gone abroad among the people and which confirms what I have said: ‘Churchgiving does not hurt any one, almsgiving does not impoverish, ill-gotten goods do not profit.’ Hence we now see in the world the opposite of what was seen formerly: because such insatiable avarice and greed prevail, and nobody gives anything to God or man, but, on the contrary, they take for themselves what others have given, thus sucking the blood and the sweat of the poor. God gives us in reward scarcity, discontent and all sorts of misfortune, until at last we shall be reduced to eating one another up, rich and poor, great and small, all alike will be devoured by each other.’ (Collected Works, xliv. 356-357. = Collected Works, xiii. 224-225)

(Johannes Janssen [Catholic], History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, Volume 15, 466-468)


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Then it snowed down alms, donations and legacies; but under the evangelicals, nobody gives a penny. [Sammtliche Werke, 43, 164]

Under the papacy the people were generous and gave willingly; but now, under the Gospel, nobody gives anything, but one oppresses the other and each one desires to possess everything. And the longer the Gospel is preached, the more deeply are people drowned in avarice, pride and pomp. [Sammtliche Werke, 5, 264-265]

Under the papacy everybody was kind and generous; they gave cheerfully with both hands and with great piety. But now, though they ought to show themselves thankful for the Holy Gospel, nobody wants to give, but only to take. [Sammtliche Werke, 13, 123]

Tell me, what city is so strong or so pious as to collect enough to support a schoolmaster or a pastor? If we had not the charitable alms and donations of our ancestors, the Gospel would be destroyed in city and country, and no poor preacher could be supported. [Sammtliche Werke, 14, 389-390)

(William Stang [Catholic], Martin Luther: Compiled From Reliable Sources, 11th edition, New York: Fr. Pustet & Co., 1883, pp. 46-47)


(originally 3-2-10)

Photo credit: Martin Luther (1532), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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