Luther on Heresy

Luther on Heresy August 25, 2023

This is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s treatise, Secular Authority [aka Temporal Authority]:  To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, which is a landmark in the history of freedom.  By showing that there is an “extent” to earthly authority, it put limits on the scope of the state.  And by showing that beliefs cannot and so should not be coerced by force, it carved out a space for intellectual and religious liberty.

In honor of that anniversary, we have been posting and discussing excerpts from that work.  Here Luther answers the question of whether the temporal authorities should punish heresies:

Heresy can never be prevented by force. That must be taken hold of in a different way, and must be opposed and dealt with otherwise than with the sword. Here God’s Word must strive; if that does not accomplish the end it will remain unaccomplished through secular power, though it fill the world with blood. Heresy is a spiritual matter, which no iron can strike, no fire burn, no water drown. God’s Word alone avails here. . . .

Moreover, faith and heresy are never so strong as when men oppose them by sheer force, without God’s Word. For men count it certain that such force is for a wrong cause and is directed against the right, since it proceeds without God’s Word, and does not know how to further its cause except by force, just as the brute beasts do. For even in secular affairs force can be used only after the wrong has been legally condemned. How much less possible is it to act with force, without justice and God’s Word, in these high, spiritual matters!  . . .

Friend, would you drive out heresy, then you must find a plan to tear it first of all from the heart and altogether to turn men’s wills away from it; force will not accomplish this, but only strengthen the heresy. What avails it to strengthen heresy in the heart and to weaken only its outward expression, and to force the tongue to lie? God’s Word, however, enlightens the hearts; and so all heresies and errors perish of themselves from the heart.  (257)

From Luther’s treatise, “Secular Authority:  To What Extent Should It Be Obeyed,” from Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman and Castle Press, 1930).  Via Concordia Theological Seminary, Media Resources:

Notice that he says that both faith and heresy are strengthened when they are opposed by force.  “For men count it certain that such force is for a wrong cause and is directed against the right, since it. . . does not know how to further its cause except by force.”

At any rate, using force to punish wrong beliefs and to compel people to hold the right beliefs never works.  As Luther discusses throughout the treatise, external pressure cannot touch the inner sanctum of an individual’s mind.  At most, external force can create external compliance and external words of agreement.  But such conformity is mere lies and hypocrisy if in the privacy of one’s heart, the person believes something else. Luther says of rulers dealing with heretics, “lt were far better, if their subjects erred, simply to let them err, than that they should constrain them to lie and to say what is not in their hearts.”

The only way to deal with heresy is to change the heart of the heretic.  That can only be done by proclaiming the Word of God, by means of which the Holy Spirit can create a true faith in Jesus Christ.

I am told that later in his life, Luther conceded that the temporal authorities could and should put external constraints on heretics–not letting them preach in churches, forbidding the publication of their books, etc.  Luther was not advocating religious liberty in our sense.  But even then, the state was limited to external actions and could not compel what the heretic had to believe.

This was a major step forward from the medieval inquisitions, in which the church scrutinized the inner convictions of suspected heretics, and if those were not acceptable, demanded that the accused change what they believed, and, if they were unwilling to do so, delivered them over to the “secular arm” for execution.

Luther’s position helped establish the principle of the freedom of conscience, which would later bear fruit in a broader freedom of religion.

Meanwhile, 500 years later, some governments and other jurisdictions are still trying to compel people towards various kinds of belief and unbelief.


Illustration:  Templars Being Burned [for heresy] by Anonymous – Bibliothèque Municipale, Besançon, France. Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY. Public Domain,


Browse Our Archives