June 29, 2018

I finally read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option:  a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.  It’s a good book, an important book, one that all Christians would do well to read.  I just have a few friendly criticisms.

First of all, he shoots down what he considers to be Christians’ illusions.  We are not going to transform the culture, at least in the foreseeable future.  We are not going to exercise any kind of meaningful political power or influence.  Christians will continue to be marginalized.  Hostility will increase.  Churches will shrink.

Rod (I know him slightly, so I’ll call him “Rod”) says that Christians have lost the culture wars.  The defining moment was when the state of Indiana passed a mild religious freedom bill that would allow for Christians not to participate in LGBT weddings and other actions in violation of their conscience.  As LGBT folks waxed indignant and promised boycotts, big business rallied to their support.  So Indiana, whose governor was our current Vice-President Mike Pence, caved in and revoked the law. This should teach us that America’s problems are spiritual, and political and legislative action will not address them.

When corporate America, which once at least gave the impression of being conservative, supports the LGBT cause, the battle is over.  Christians and other social conservatives who don’t approve of homosexuality are widely considered to be as evil as racists. In the near future, Rod says, conservative Christians can expect to be read out of polite society.  Because of their pro-life beliefs and positions on sexual morality, Christians will likely be excluded from professions in medicine, academia, and other influential fields.  We had better get used to working with our hands.

In that climate, what should Christians do?  Rod draws the parallel with the barbarian invasions that destroyed Rome and ushered in centuries of anarchy.  In those “dark ages,” St. Benedict founded his monastic order.  Christians separated from their disordered society and strengthened their relationship with God.  As they did so, the Benedictines kept education alive, preserved and transmitted the Greco-Roman heritage, and eventually converted the barbarians.

The Rule of St. Benedict, which the Benedictine monks followed and continue to follow today, sets forth an order to life, that countered the disordered world.  It is built around prayer and work (the Benedictine motto being ora et labora).  It includes spiritual discipline and asceticism (acts of self-denial).  It includes reading, particularly the devotional reading of Scripture known as the lectio divina.  Every day includes periods of silence.  Not that the Benedictines are totally separate from the world: they also help those in need and became famous for their hospitality.

Rod believes in cultivating such communities—taking us inside a modern-day monastery and also introducing us to similar communities of both Catholics and Protestants—but he believes that “the Rule” can also be adapted and applied among laypeople.

His main point is that in order to survive and to prevail against the contemporary cultural hostility, Christians need to grow closer to Christ, turn churches into actual communities of believers, and cultivate their differences with the secular world. Instead of waging futile culture wars, Christians should devote themselves to building up Christian culture.

Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they seek to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, it’s no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts. (p. 102)

To do so will require changes in our churches and a reinvigoration of our personal faith, an intentional cultivation of order, discipline, and community as an alternative to our culture’s current disorder, hedonism, and individual isolation. He writes,

If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop “being normal.” We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor. (p. 102)

This is the Benedict option.

Bracing stuff. Hard truths. Motivating exhortations. Inspiring examples.

Instead of the usual “church growth” formula of urging churches to change so that they are more like the non-Christian world, Rod urges churches to change so that they are less like the non-Christian world. And Rod is savvier and less naïve than most “church growth” experts, as he explores just how caustic our culture has become, not only spiritually and morally, but also in the basic elements of being human.

I especially commend to you his chapter on education, with his advocacy of not just Christian schools but Classical Christian Education (something that I am involved with), and his chapter on sex, in which he says that “it’s imperative that we raise our kids to know that children are a blessing without qualification and that fertility is not a disease” (p. 211).

And yet, as a Lutheran, I have some qualms about the Benedict option. I recall Luther’s critique of monasticism, that we are not supposed to retreat from the world in an effort to build up our own holiness. Rather, we are to live out our faith in the world, with all of the conflicts and crosses this will mean.

Our relationship to God is based on His works for us in Christ, which we receive by Word and Sacrament. Whereupon God calls us in vocation to love and serve our neighbors in the family, the workplace, the church, and the state.

Holiness is not something we achieve through our meditations or asceticism; rather, it is a gift of God. Not that we don’t need discipline, order, and even suffering. We do. That happens not in self-chosen mortifications, but precisely in the world.

It is said that Luther transferred the disciplines of the monasteries—think of the Benedictine motto, “to pray and to work”—and brought them into the secular vocations. Fathers and mothers must pray and work as they carry out their parenthood. The farmer prays and works in the fields. The citizen prays and works in the nation. The pastor prays and works for his congregation.

Now this is largely what Rod is driving at, bringing the Rule of St. Benedict into the sphere of the laity. But he sometimes sounds as if lay people too should be separated from the sinful world in the same way that the monks were attempting. Earlier in the last century, evangelicals and fundamentalists tried that, with their refusal to get involved in the “dirty” world of politics, their parallel “Christian” entertainment industry, and their “Christian Yellow Pages” encouraging doing business only with fellow-Christians. But that kind of cultural retreat was not necessarily wise. For one thing, Christian withdrawal from the culture contributed to the de-Christianization of the culture. And the parallel Christian institutions and artifacts often became just as commercialized and shallow as their secularist counter-parts.

Christians would do well not to seek utopia in this temporal world that will pass away, whether in the prospect of building a perfect society or a perfect church. We will die soon enough, and then we will find that perfection forever.

I think that the separation that Rod is seeking, as well as the Christian influence that he still hopes for, can be found not so much in the monastic model as in the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Yes, Christians are to be distinct from this world in God’s spiritual kingdom, refusing to conform to the culture and to the deceptions of the devil. At the same time, Christians are to be citizens of God’s temporal kingdom, through whom God works in vocation to care for His creation.

A key insight of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is that God is actively present, though in a hidden way, in the so-called secular order. And He is already ruling, even among those who do not know Him. He gives daily bread, grants children, provides protection, and exercises His love in the secular world in all of its secularity.

Which makes me wonder if Rod’s dire analysis completely holds true. As Charles Taylor, whom Rod quotes, has shown, the “secular hypothesis”—that modernity is accompanied by the decline of religion—is not correct. We learn that even supposed secularists have more religious beliefs than we have realized. As we blogged about, LGBT folks, for all of their conflict with Christians, are surprisingly religious, with most of them professing Christianity, though sometimes, ironically, in a closeted way. Even the Nones tend to believe in God and pray. Over 80% of Americans profess Christianity, with most of the rest holding to Judaism, Islam, or some other traditional faith. Only 3% of Americans are atheists.

How is that secularism? To be sure, Rod’s criticisms of Christians not knowing much about their faith and failing to live it out consistently are valid, and rightly apply throughout society.

Can it be that the secularism and the hostility to faith is confined to a tiny culture-making elite? Our ruling class, which dominates the media, academia, and the entertainment industry, but which is out of touch with most Americans? Might this attenuated ruling class eventually collapse of its own internal contradictions?

Already journalism, though it has a loud voice, is in trouble, with the decline in readers and the financial problems of newspapers. Hollywood’s own sexual permissiveness is bringing about its ruin with the #MeToo movement. The prestige of communications technology and social media is tarnished by hacking scandals and the proliferation of fake news. As for academia, the universities have adopted a type of self-destructive Stalinism that shuts down intellectual discourse and undermines learning.

And how long can we really go against nature, as in our infertile sexual practices and the belief that we can change our sex at will?  Nature always, eventually, asserts itself.

Rod’s book came out last year, when the Christian baker was being punished for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, and he warns that anti-discrimination statutes will shut down religious liberty. But now the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the baker. Other religious liberty cases have been decided that protect Christians exercising their faith in public. And there is the prospect of more conservative justices joining the court. Such developments might mitigate at least some of Rod’s pessimistic predictions.

One of my favorite sections of The Benedict Option is Rod’s discussion of the dissident movement in communist Czechoslovakia, as Václav Havel and Václav Benda created a “parallel polis” of humanity and integrity, in opposition to the inhumanity and corruption of communism. Rod quotes them as saying that they had no idea that their dissident activity would actually bring about any kind of change to communist totalitarianism, at least not in their lifetime, and they were surprised when communism suddenly collapsed. Could something like that collapse happen with the American ruling class and their anti-Christian ideology?

I do appreciate the changes that Rod calls for in American Christianity and its churches. He calls for liturgical worship. He advocates creeds and sacraments. He says that Christians need to recover the sense that God connects Himself to the physical world. Again, all of this can already be found in Lutheran Christianity. In fact, much of what he calls for can be found in the book that I wrote with Trevor Sutton, Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to the Postmodern World.

To be sure, Lutherans also need to recover their theological and spiritual heritage. What Rod says about complacent and culturally-conforming Christians applies to Lutherans, as well as to everyone else. But Lutherans, who have arguably avoided political entanglements in their churches—while still promoting pro-life and religious liberty causes—may be in a good position to embody what Rod is calling for. But in terms of vocation rather than monasticism.


April 9, 2015

The outrage from big business (even Walmart!), the media, and the culture at large over Indiana’s Religious Freedom bill has many Christians thinking that America is a lost cause.  The dominant culture is so fixated on gay marriage and sexual permissiveness that it will not tolerate dissenters.  Even religious liberty, in the court of public opinion and likely legal opinion, will have to give way, and conservative believers will increasingly be demonized and punished.

Whether we are actually at that point or not, a number of thinkers–mostly of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox persuasion–are raising the possibility of what they call  The Benedict Option.

After Rome fell to moral chaos and then to the barbarians, St. Benedict formed distinct Christian communities where believers could practice their faith separated from the world.  Similarly, mainstream American culture may become so hostile to Christianity, so the reasoning goes, that Christians must form alternative communities, carrying on an alternative culture, until, as with Benedict, the barbarians are converted.

Rick Strickert posted some powerful quotations on this subject on Lutheran Forum, which I give after the jump.  And then I want to pose a question:  Can there be a Lutheran version of the Benedict Option, and, if so, how would it be different from the Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist versions? (more…)

August 23, 2013

More evidence of Luther’s point about Roman Catholics and Protestant “enthusiasts” being basically the same in thinking God speaks to them directly and experientially, apart from His Word:

“God told me to do it,” the 86-year-old former pontiff told a friend, six months after his decision to step down shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. (more…)

January 3, 2020


First, Pope Francis was quoted as saying “There is no Hell.”  Later, he reportedly denied the deity of Christ, saying that while Jesus lived on earth he was a virtuous man but “not at all a God.”  Then, the Pope reportedly said that His death, Christ appeared as a spirit, as opposed to the bodily resurrection of Christ.  Now he has said that those who try to “proselytize” an unbeliever are “not a disciple of Jesus.”

The other times the man who is said to be the custodian of the Christian faith reportedly said something that seemed to deny a central tenet of Christianity were in the context of a discussion with his atheist friend, the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. The Vatican insisted that the journalist was not accurate in his reporting.  This time Pope Francis was talking to a group of high school students in Rome, responding to a question about how to deal with atheists and people of other religions.

Here is what he said:

 In front of an unbeliever the last thing I have to do is try to convince him. Never. The last thing I have to do is speak. I have to live consistent with my faith. And it will be my testimony to awaken the curiosity of the other who says: “But why do you do this?” And yes, I can speak then. But listen: Never, never bring the gospel by proselytizing. If someone says they are a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, they are not a disciple of Jesus. Proselytism is not done, the church does not grow by proselytism. Pope Benedict had said it, it grows by attraction, by testimony. Football teams proselytize, this can be done. Political parties, can be done there. But with faith there is no proselytism. And if someone says to me: “But why?” Read, read, read the Gospel, this is my faith. But without pressure.

To be sure, “proselytize” has the connotation of evangelizing in the wrong way–high pressure, canned presentations, being manipulative, etc.–though simply telling people about Jesus is often branded as proselytizing.  This is how it is taken in the growing number of countries with anti-proselytizing laws, which are often being used today to persecute Christians, something the Pope should be sensitive to.

But setting that aside, the Pope’s answer suggests what might be a useful tactic in evangelism:  Wait to be asked.  Instead of trying to convince your Muslim, Jewish, and atheist friends to become Christians–which might create big trouble for a  contemporary European teenager–live out your faith so that they become curious and ask you about it.  Then you can speak.

Fair enough.  The problem, though, is that the Pope puts his prohibition about not trying to convince unbelievers and not proselytizing so strongly.  Those who do so are not just well-intentioned but ineffective, or wrong-headed and naive.  “They are not a disciple of Jesus.”  Is he saying that if you try to convert someone to Christianity, you yourself are not a Christian?

Evangelical Christians are well-known for evangelizing, for “witnessing” to others about their faith, giving their “testimony” about their own coming to faith in the course of “sharing the Gospel.”  In their recent ecumenical zeal, Catholics have finally accepted Protestants as Christians, though as “separated brethren.”  But does the Pope believe that evangelicals and Pentecostals who try to win others to their faith “are not disciples of Jesus”?

But here is the biggest problem.  On the first Pentecost, St. Peter faced a diverse, multicultural Jewish audience “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).  He preached to them about Jesus, called on them to repent and be baptized, and “with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them” (Acts 2: 40).  As a result, “about three thousand souls” became Christians (Acts 2:41).  Later, St. Peter won converts by preaching to the crowd at Solomon’s  Portico (Acts 3).  Still later, St. Peter presided over the conversion of a Roman centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10).

How does this align with what Pope Francis said?  “In front of an unbeliever the last thing I have to do is try to convince him. Never. The last thing I have to do is speak.”  Didn’t St. Peter speak first and try to convince his audience?   These people already had a religion, whether Judaism or Roman paganism.  So wasn’t St. Peter trying to get them to change their religion?  Couldn’t this be seen as proselytizing?  The Pope said, “Never, never bring the gospel by proselytizing. If someone says they are a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, they are not a disciple of Jesus.”  Would the Pope say that St. Peter, whose office he claims to hold, is “not a disciple of Jesus”?  But St. Peter was, literally, a disciple of Jesus.

St. Peter and the other Twelve Disciples, along with other Apostles like St. Paul, spread Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman world, from India to Spain.  None of them seem to have followed the contemporary ecumenical approach, sometimes expressed by Pope Francis, that “If you follow your own religion faithfully–whether you worship Zeus, Jupiter, or any other deity represented in the Roman Pantheon–you will be saved.”  Instead, they said things like, put away your idols and turn to the living God (cf. Acts 14:15).

The subsequent generations of the Early Church also convinced multitudes of unbelievers from still more religions.  A large number of the saints venerated in the Catholic Church were missionaries, apologists, and martyr witnesses.  And some, arguably, were proselytizers.  Does the Pope really believe that  these saints of the church are not disciples of Christ?  If so, is he going to de-canonize them?

I know quite a few people who have become Catholics.  They say that the Catholic Church gives them certainty, that having a living oracle from God in the papacy protects the church from change and from liberal theology, ensuring a living tradition that is continuous from century to century.  Recent popes, like St. John Paul II and Benedict VI, played that role.  But Pope Francis does not.

That he is continually undermining not just historic Catholicism but historic Christianity in favor of beliefs that interest him more, such as environmentalism and ecumenism, undermines the office of the papacy itself.  Orthodox Catholics, whose conservative theology has always manifested itself in allegiance to the Pope, are put in the position of having to resist what the Pope teaches.  For non-Catholics, the papacy and thus the church that he rules lose all credibility.

To be sure, Pope Francis is still pro-life, though remarkably tolerant of Catholic politicians who are not.  He still believes in the supernatural, unlike some liberal theologians, to the point of recognizing demonic possession and promoting exorcisms.  And maybe all of these controversial statements are just misunderstandings or mistranslations.

For Lutherans, the Popes of history have not, contrary to the claim, been the custodians of historic Christianity.  Rather, they have been a means of making changes in Christianity, adding innovations such as Purgatory, indulgences, saint worship, relic veneration, ritualism, legalism, and the consequent effacing of the Gospel itself.   Pope Francis makes clearer what Lutherans have always professed about the office of the papacy, that it is not of Christ but Antichrist, not as the dispensationalist end times bogeyman but as a usurper of Christ within the church (2 Thess 2:3-4).  If you want an objective guardian of the faith that never changes, look to God’s Word, not to a fallible human being who claims to be infallible.


Photo by Tânia Rêgo/ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)] via Wikipedia Commons

December 4, 2019

Faith and reason need each other.  Faith without reason can degenerate into superstition and fanaticism.  Reason without faith can degenerate into tyranny and meaninglessness.

So says Samuel Gregg in his book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.  He argues that Christianity solved this problem in a unique way, one that would prove to be foundational to Western civilization, making possible its greatest achievements.  Christianity takes the Logos of the philosophers–which refers to the rational order built into existence and is the root of the word “logic”–and identifies it with God Himself, incarnate in Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and the Word [Logos] was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .

And the Word [Logos] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-5, 14)

Thus, says Gregg, faith and reason–revelation and logic, the spiritual and the material, the divine and the human–are reconciled and put into relationship with each other.  Which, in turn, made possible the West’s legacy of freedom, science, and enlightenment.

Rachel Lu explains further in her review of Gregg’s book in Law & Liberty entitled Reuniting Faith and Reason:

To help his readers grasp this point, Gregg goes back to the beginning, explaining how remarkable it is that the Judeo-Christian tradition was able to identify the God of Israel with the logos of the philosophers. Far from being evident, this identification is in many ways deeply counter-intuitive. Across the ages, the religiously devout have always recognized that humans, in their pursuit of natural excellence, may find themselves competing with the divine, pridefully grasping at power that is not rightfully theirs, in an effort to further their own ends. While the prophets fret about this problem, the philosophers tend to have the opposite concern. In their anxiousness to explore human potential, they are wary of the possibility that a jealous God or gods may punish human excellence, as part of a bid for absolute sovereignty. Ancient, mythical deities (like Zeus) were sometimes inclined to punish over-ambitious underlings whose excellence threatened their own divine rule. The obvious way to avoid this danger is by jettisoning God entirely, and declaring man an end unto himself. If God is dead, men will be free to develop their rational potential to the highest possible degree.

Insisting that Israel’s God simply is the logos, Christians argued that this conflict is illusory. The God who made us is Truth itself, and our capacity to reason is what most clearly marks us as bearers of His divine image. Faith can help us to unfold our natural abilities. Meanwhile, developing the gift of reason is a fitting way to honor the Creator who bestowed it.

On paper, this may look like a mere philosopher’s trick. Gregg shows that it is not. This idea has tremendous consequences; socially and politically it is transformative. Gregg illustrates this by discussing the consequences both of faithless reason, and of ungrounded faith. Without reason, he explains, faith descends into fundamentalism. The slavish missionaries of an opaque deity may end up committing atrocities “in God’s name,” as part of a desperate effort to force the created world into their preferred narrative arc. This is potentially terrifying, but faithless reason can be just as destructive. Without its natural partner, reason lacks the transcendent horizon that allows human beings to unfold their real potential. It turns back on itself, becoming tyrannical in its own way as it fruitlessly seeks fulfillment on a natural plane.

Misreading Our Opponents

It’s critically important to understand both of these hazards. It can be hard for us to remember that, since we live in an age when the religiously devout are regularly skirmishing with the militantly secular. We want to choose sides, and countless books, articles, and popular media creations have indulged this impulse, explaining how the evils of modern life can be traced back either to fundamentalism or to a warped secularism that has made itself into a godless faith.

Deftly walking this fault line, Gregg keeps faith with his subject by offering robust analysis of both categories of error.

[Keep reading. . .]

This is an intriguing analysis.  But does it overstate the theological role of reason in Christianity at the expense of faith?

Gregg begins with a discussion of Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture at Regensburg, Germany, “Faith, Reason, and the University,” in which he stirred up controversy by contrasting Christianity’s integration of reason with Islam’s repudiation of reason, as manifested in jihadist terrorism.  The scholastic theology of Roman Catholicism, grounded as it is in Aristotelian philosophy, does indeed integrate faith and reason, but how about the Reformation critics of that theology who insisted instead on “faith alone”?

I think Luther does affirm both faith and reason, in Gregg’s sense, but he also explains how they should be related to each other.  Our citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom comes by faith in Christ alone.  But in our citizenship in God’s temporal kingdom we are to employ reason.  Thus, Luther calls reason “the devil’s whore” when human beings make it their spiritual authority at the expense of God’s Word (that is, God’s Logos, as opposed to man’s logic).  And yet, in his explanation of Creation in the Small Catechism, Luther describes reason as a gift of God, who “has given me. . . my reason and all my senses.”

Problems come, according to Luther, when God’s Two Kingdoms are confused and usurp each other.  Faith and reason each has its place.  Faith has to do with the spiritual realm, and reason has to do with the earthly realm.  Luther contended, in effect, that medieval Catholicism confused those realms:  It made reason the authority in the spiritual realm (enshrining Aristotle’s abstract deity over against the God of Scripture) and made faith the authority in the earthly realm (resulting in the superstitions of the relic trade and the fanaticism of the crusades).  In particular, Luther opposed theocracies, both the Pope’s claim to exercise political authority over temporal rulers and, on the Protestant side, the “enthusiasts'” various attempts to set up the Kingdom of God on earth as in the Peasants’ Rebellion.

We cannot reason our way to faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, created in us by Word [the Logos] and the Sacraments.  The same section of the Small Catechism, the explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, which says that reason is one of God’s gifts of creation, says in the article on Sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit:  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”  Whereupon God sends us back into the world, where we live out our faith in our multiple vocations in the family, the workplace, the church, and the society.  In those vocations, we love and service to our neighbors, among other ways, by exercising our reason.

For Luther, faith and reason are not integrated, as such.  That is a formula for confusing them, leading to some of the problems Gregg documents.  Rather, faith and reason complement each other, with each in its place, carrying out its God-given function.



Image via Wikimedia Commons

October 4, 2019

Christians have long struggled with the competing claims of faith and good works.  Luther cuts the Gordian knot by making a simple, but profound, distinction:  Faith must be directed to God, and good works must be directed to our neighbors.

Luther’ neighbor-centered ethic is foundational to his doctrine of vocation.  To summarize:  We are not saved by our good works, and works that we think we are doing for God–such as rituals, acts of asceticism, or other attempts to curry favor with Him–are not “good,” strictly speaking, at all, unless they actually help someone.  Our salvation is based solely on the grace and forgiveness of God, which we receive by faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice.  Whereupon God sends us into the world and calls us into our vocations, where our faith bears fruit in love and service to our neighbors.  In the words of the liturgy, which dismisses us after our faith is strengthened by God’s Word and Sacraments, we go out to live our lives “in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another.”

Luther explores these teachings, through a number of Biblical texts, in his sermons, particularly the ones collected in his Church Postils, sent throughout the Reformation churches for local pastors to preach themselves, thus spreading the teachings of the evangelical theology.  So what Luther teaches here about vocation, ethics, and other topics, had wide currency and became quite influential among ordinary Christians.

Here are some excerpts on this topic from a wonderful online source, Martin Luther’s Writings:  Sermons, Commentaries, & Other Writings.

God Does Not Need Your Works, but Your Neighbor Does

Here Luther develops his well-known distinction.  He does so in an exposition of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which he relates to the Gospel (how God forgives us) and to the Christian life (how Jesus sends those whom He has loved and forgiven to likewise love and forgive their neighbors).

From Martin Luther’s Sermons, TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY. [1st series] Text: Matthew 18:23-35.  [The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant]:

  1. This is what we have often said, that we Christians must break forth, and show by our deeds and before the people that we have the true faith.

God does not need your works, he has enough in your faith. Yet he wants you to work that you may show thereby your faith to yourself and all the world. For God indeed sees faith, but you and the people do not yet see it, therefore you should devote the works of faith to the benefit of your neighbor. Thus this servant is an example and picture of all those who should serve their neighbor through faith. . . .

  1. But you say: Do you still insist that God will have no regard for our good works, and on their account will save no one? Answer: He would have them done freely without any thought of remuneration; not that we thereby obtain something, but that we do them to our neighbor, and thereby show that we have the true faith; for what have you then that you gave him and by which you merit anything, that he should have mercy on you and forgive you all things that you have done against him? Or what profit has he by it? Nothing has he, but that you praise and thank him, and do as he has done, that God may be thanked in thee, then you are in his kingdom and have all things that you should have. This is the other part of the Christian life, which is called love, by which one goes out from God to his neighbor.


You Live to Carry in the Sick Man

In his sermon on those who brought the sick man to Jesus, Luther also develops the notion that an important way we love and serve our neighbors is to bring them to Jesus, so that they too will have faith.  This is what we do, Luther says, when we bring an infant to baptism.  Luther disagrees with those who teach that an infant is baptised on the basis of his parents’ faith or on a faith that the child will have in the future.  He teaches that infants can have faith of their own.  Baptism bestows that faith, which must be fed by God’s Word throughout the Christian’s life.  “So I do not baptize the child in my own faith or in the faith of Christendom. But my faith and Christendom bring the child to baptism, in order that by rightly bringing it God may give it a faith of its own, that it may believe as I believe and be preserved in the same Word that Christ has given me” (paragraph 27).

From Martin Luther’s Sermons, NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY. [1st series] Text: Matthew 9:1-8. [The healing of the man sick of the palsy]:

  1. But the kingdom of Christ consists in this and thereby grows, namely, that the conscience be comforted with the Word. What else takes place through works and laws, all pertains to our neighbor. For I need no works before God, and must only be careful rightly to confess my sins. Then I have forgiveness of sins and am one with God, all which the Holy Spirit works in me. Then I break forth with blessings toward my neighbor, as they did here who brought the man sick with the palsy to the Lord. Those were in the kingdom, or show who are in the kingdom, as the Evangelist says, that the Lord had respect unto their faith. For had they not had any faith, they would not have brought the sick to the Lord. Faith precedes works, works follow faith. Therefore, because they are in the kingdom by faith, they bring in the sick man and thus do the work.


  1. On this earth man lives not for the sake of works, in order that they may be profitable to him, for he is not in need of them. But if you do good works in order thereby to obtain and merit something from God, all is lost, and you have already fallen from this kingdom. But since you believe and continue to live you ought to know that you live for this very cause, namely, to carry in the sick man. God does not desire the Christian to live for himself. Yea, cursed is the life that lives for self. For all that one lives after he is a Christian, he lives for others. So these also do who bring in the sick man, they no longer live for themselves, but their lives serve others; yes, with their faith they win for the sick man a faith of his own. For this sick man had at first no faith, but after he heard the Word, Christ instills into him a faith of his own, and awakens him with the Gospel; as he is accustomed to instill faith by the Word.


Luther on the Benedict Option

I think highly of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, with some reservations, as I say in my review of that book.  While I agree about the depravity of contemporary culture and the need for Christians to offer something better, I have problems with Christians withdrawing from the world, following the model of monasticism.  In this sermon, Luther discusses Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, with an excursus on the papacy and the Last Days.  In doing so, he also refers to the fall of Rome and the rise of monasticism, St. Benedict style.  He maintains that Christians must not flee to the “wilderness” when tribulation comes, but should “move freely in public society.”  To flee to the wilderness, as the monastics do, is to undermine our vocations in the world, deprive the world of our witness, and suggest that some Christians are better than others.

From Martin Luther’s Sermons, TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY.  [2nd series] Text: Matthew 24:15-28.  [On the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Last Days]:

  1. At the time of the holy fathers, Anthony and others, shortly after the Apostles, the fallacy already arose, of which Christ is speaking here, although Anthony strove against it, that everybody was running to the wilderness by the thousands, and it gained such favor that later Jerome and Augustine almost worshipped custom, and did not know how sufficiently to praise it. Now when we look at it in the right light, this text powerfully opposes that movement, and there were also among them many heretics and many condemned persons, and although there were godly people among them who escaped the deception, nevertheless the example was dangerous and cannot be commended. Also St. Francis was a holy man, but his example and the order he established we are not to follow. But this no one, not even the saints, has recognized; so deeply and with such great display has it taken root. The Christian life is not confined to the wilderness, but moves freely in public society as Christ and the Apostles lived, that we come before and among the world, preach and admonish openly, to bring the people to Christ; but the people who run to the wilderness, do not want to remain in the world where they must suffer so much. They choose for themselves their own strict life, want thereby to be better Christians than others, as also the cloisters do.


HT:  Jackie


Illustration:  Detail from the Weimar Altarpiece by Lucas Cranach (John the Baptist, Cranach, and Luther) via Wikimedia Commons.




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