Reformation Relevance: ‘Only God rules over the soul’

In his “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed” from 1523, Luther distinguishes the two kingdoms of church and state and the types of law that govern each. In particular, he notes that when it comes to the salvation of souls, only the Word of God should be taught and accepted. — Editor

It is to be noted first that the two classes of Adam’s children — the one in God’s kingdom under Christ and the other in the kingdom of the world under the governing authority, as was said above — have two kinds of law. For every kingdom must have its own laws and statutes; without law no kingdom or government can survive, as everyday experience amply shows. The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul. Therefore, where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them. We want to make this so clear that everyone will grasp it, and that our fine gentlemen, the princes and bishops, will see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing this or that.

Martin Luther (portrait by Lucas Cranach)

Martin Luther (portrait by Lucas Cranach)

When a man-made law is imposed upon the soul to make it believe this or that as its human author may prescribe, there is certainly no word of God for it. If there is no word of God for it, then we cannot be sure whether God wishes to have it so, for we cannot be certain that something which he does not command is pleasing to him. Indeed, we are sure that it does not please him, for he desires that our faith be based simply and entirely on his divine word alone. He says in Matthew 18 [16:18], “On this rock I will build my church”; and in John 10 [:27, 14, 5], “My sheep hear my voice and know me; however, they will not hear the voice of a stranger, but flee from him.” From this it follows that with such a wicked command the temporal power is driving souls to eternal death. For it compels them to believe as right and certainly pleasing to God that which is in fact uncertain, indeed, certain to be displeasing to him since there is no clear word of God for it. Whoever believes something to be right which is wrong or uncertain is denying the truth, which is God himself. He is believing in lies and errors, and counting as right that which is wrong.

Hence, it is the height of folly when they command that one shall believe the church, the fathers, and the councils, though there be no word of God for it. It is not the church but the devil’s apostles who command such things, for the church commands nothing unless it knows for certain that it is God’s word. As St. Peter puts it, “Whoever speaks, let him speak as the word of God” [I Pet. 4:11]. It will be a long time, however, before they can ever prove that the decrees of the councils are God’s word. Still more foolish is it when they assert that kings, princes, and the mass of mankind believe thus and so. My dear man, we are not baptized into kings, or princes, or even into the mass of mankind, but into Christ and God himself. Neither are we called kings, princes, or common folk, but Christians. No one shall or can command the soul unless he is able to show it the way to heaven; but this no man can do, only God alone. Therefore, in matters which concern the salvation of souls nothing but God’s word shall be taught and accepted.

— Excerpted from Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, Vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 105-106. Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress.

Posted July 7, 2016

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