Copyright © 1994, Word& World, Luther Seminary.
Word & World, Supplement Series 2, pp. 108-122.
First published under the title "Domestic Politics" in Luther and
Culture, ed. George Forell, Harold Grimm, and Theodore
Hoelty-Nickel (Decorah, Iowa: Luther College Press, 1960) and
delivered first as a lecture presented at the 1959 "Luther
Lectures" at Luther College. Used with permission.
 The age in which Luther lived and worked was not only a
period of far-reaching international conflicts but also vast
domestic upheavals. This was especially true of Germany. In France
or England the government of the country was in the hands of a king
whose territory coincided with a region of considerable national
and cultural homogeneity. In Germany, however, the effective rule
was in the hands of princes whose territories were essentially the
result of the accidents of inheritance. The frontiers of the
territorial states of sixteenth-century Germany had little to do
with language and culture or-at the beginning of the century-even
with religion. They had come about by prudent marriages and sudden
deaths and were more often the result of the fertility and
resistance to disease of the ruling family than the economic and
cultural interests of the people under its rule. Of the house of
Habsburg, which had been particularly fertile and successful in its
marital alliances it was said: Bella gerant alii, tu felice Austria
nube!-Let the others fight wars, thou fortunate Austria get
married! The purpose of the governments thus established, as far as
the prince was concerned, was the maintenance and extension of his
power. As far as the people were concerned a good government was
one which guaranteed public safety and maintained law and order.
None of these territorial princes represented the cultural and
social reality of Germany. Thus the actual focus of political power
in Luther's Germany was not some German Reich but rather units like
Saxony and Württemberg, Bavaria and Austria, Brandenburg and
the Palatinate. It cannot surprise us that the princes who governed
these territories would attempt to benefit politically from the
reformation and would try to use it for the extension and
strengthening of their territorial power.
 But while these territorial princes became increasingly the
true power centers of the political life of Germany there remained
other groups who did not want to recognize this development.
Particularly the members of the lower nobility, the knights, felt
that they had no political obligation towards the territorial
princes. They dreamed nostalgically of the days of the
Hohenstauffen emperors when the noble knights had been the support
of the Holy Roman Empire. But the empire of the Hohenstauffen had
vanished. The power of an emperor like Charles V rested on the fact
of his own extensive territorial possessions. With the decline of
the medieval empire the knights had become obsolete, without,
however, fully realizing this fact. Unwilling to face the profound
changes in their status they felt betrayed and in a mood of revolt.
No wonder that they saw in the reformation with its revolt against
the ecclesiastical status quo a movement which might be used for
their political ends. It is not surprising that men like Ulrich von
Hutten and Franz von Sickingen supported the reformation for
 A third group which had considerable political interests in
the reformation were the free cities of Germany. Involved in a
constant struggle for independence at first against the nobility,
the robber barons who threatened the public safety necessary for
successful trade, later against the territorial princes who
jeopardized the political existence of the cities and attempted to
incorporate them into their territories, they saw in the
reformation a movement which might be used to support their claims
for freedom. Among the burghers of these precariously free cities
there were many adherents of Luther whose support was not entirely
grounded in theology.
 A fourth group which placed political as well as religious
hopes in the reformation were some of the craftspeople, the weavers
and miners, who found insufficient protection in the ancient guild
system and whose prosperity was subject to extreme fluctuations in
a rising capitalist society. They, too, hoped for some improvement
of their fate through the victory of the reformation.
 But the people who still made up the majority of Luther's
contemporaries were the peasants. Restless for more than a hundred
years, expressing their grievances in sporadic and abortive
revolts, they now pinned all their hopes on political changes which
the reformation would bring about. They expected that Luther's
movement would free them from excessive taxes, end their serfdom,
and give them all sorts of other rights ranging from the right to
choose their own pastors to the right to fish and
hunt. All these hopes they
connected with the open and free proclamation of the gospel. The
reformation was for them as much a political as a religious
 It was against this background of complex political
pressures which threatened to engulf the reformation that Luther
was forced to develop and express his political views. He did this
all during his life, but with particular clarity in his book
Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed of
1523; his writings in the Peasant
War of 1525, and the book Whether
Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved of 1526. In all
these writings he operates consistently with the distinction of the
two ways of ruling which God has ordained, "the spiritual, by which
the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under
Christ," and the secular, "which restrains the un‑Christians
and wicked so that-no thanks to them-they are obliged to keep still
and to maintain an outward peace." Politics
is obviously the realm of the law. It is the area in which God
creates order through the sword. Even if people do not want to do
what is right, and Luther was singularly free from illusions
concerning the innate goodness of human beings, they are forced to
it even against their will by the restraining arm of the law. Of
course Luther knew as well as anybody that such law, even if
rigidly enforced, does not make people good. He denounced all
claims that through obedience to the law people could become
Christians and be saved. But this did not mean that in the
political life of the state such laws could not be of great
usefulness. Even if people abstained from murder, raping, and
robbing only because they were afraid of punishment, the ensuing
situation was politically, if not morally, better than if people
were allowed to show their hostility and agreed to their heart's
content. We know that when we drive along the highway at
considerable speed and a police car enters the stream of traffic we
usually drive more slowly and with greater concern for the traffic
laws. To be sure, the arrival of the police car has not made us
morally better; nevertheless it has made our behavior safer both
for ourselves and all other drivers on the road. It was this
distinction between politically safer and morally better behavior
which Luther saw so very clearly.
 It is the task of political government to concern itself
with order and law rather than with faith and salvation. While it
is well equipped to attain a moderate success in achieving the
former for its citizens, it is bound to fail utterly in the effort
to secure faith and salvation for them.
 Luther said,
If anyone attempted to rule
the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and sword
on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that,
according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or
sword-or need for either-pray tell me, friend, what would he be
doing? He would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild
beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile
insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle
 And a little later he continued:
It is out of the question that there should be a common
Christian government over the whole world, or indeed over a single
country or any considerable body of people, for the wicked always
outnumber the good. Hence, a man who would venture to govern an
entire country or the world with the gospel would be like a
shepherd who should put together in one fold wolves, lions, eagles,
and sheep, and let them mingle freely with one another, saying,
"Help yourselves, and be good and peaceful toward one another. The
fold is open, there is plenty of food. You need have no fear of
dogs and clubs." The sheep would doubtless keep the peace and allow
themselves to be fed and governed peacefully, but they would not
live long, nor would one beast survive another.
 Luther, therefore, is convinced that the secular government
must be retained until the end of this world. In this world,
"Christ's government does not extend over all men." The great majority of
people can only be kept in line by sanctions. Yet it is evident
where temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer
hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God's
very own. For without the Holy Spirit in the heart no one becomes
truly righteous, no matter how fine the work he does. On the other
hand, where the spiritual government alone prevails over land and
people, there wickedness is given free rein and the door is open
for all manner of rascality, for the world as a whole cannot
receive or comprehend it.
 Since the majority of people are not servants of Christ but
rather serve the devil, even the very commandments of God will only
serve to widen the gulf between them and their creator. Yet, even
though these commandments will have no saving value for the
unbeliever they will contribute to political order and peace. It is
for the unbelievers that political rule is established. Christians,
insofar as they are sinners and under the law, will also be under
the restraining force of the political authorities. But insofar as
they are Christians and under the gospel they do not need it.
Nevertheless they will support and uphold government in order to
aid those who depend upon it. Christians should do everything in
their power to uphold the government, and this is as true for the
Christian prince as for the Christian subject. To the ruler, Luther
A prince's duty is fourfold: First, toward God there must be
true confidence and earnest prayer; second, toward his subjects
there must be love and Christian service; third, with respect to
his counselors and officials he must maintain an untrammeled reason
and unfettered judgment; fourth, with respect to evildoers he must
manifest a restrained severity and firmness.
 If a prince does his duty in this manner his life and work
will be pleasing to God and to his subjects. But Luther does not
promise the ruler that such obedience to God's will produces peace
of mind and an easy life. On the contrary, it is the good ruler who
"will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the
cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a
 But what about the political duties of the subject? To them
You are under obligation to
serve and assist the sword by whatever means you can, with body,
goods, honor, and soul....Therefore, if you see that there is a
lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you
find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and
seek the position, that the essential governmental authority may
not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. The world cannot
and dare not dispense with it.
 To those Christians who wanted to shirk their political
responsibilities because Christ and the apostles did apparently not
engage in political activities Luther said: "You tell me, why did
Christ not take a wife, or become a cobbler or a tailor? If an
office or vocation were to be regarded as disreputable on the
ground that Christ did not pursue it himself, what would become of
all the offices and vocations other the ministry, the one
occupation he did follow?"
Politics is a legitimate occupation in which good people are
needed. Luther was so keenly aware of the need for the most
competent people available to serve God in politics that he said to
the parents of gifted children:
Indeed, there is need in this office for abler people than are
needed in the office of preaching, so it is necessary to get the
best boys for this work; for in the preaching office Christ does
the whole thing, by his Spirit, but in the worldly kingdom men must
act on the basis of reason-wherein the laws also have their
origin-for God has subjected temporal rule and all of physical life
to reason (Genesis 2 [:15]). He has not sent the Holy Spirit from
heaven for this purpose.
 To the parents who refuse to give their youngsters an
education which would qualify them for government service Luther
You would have to be a gross, ungrateful clod, worthy of being
numbered among the beasts, if you should see that your son could
become a man to help the emperor preserve his empire, sword, and
crown; to help protect so many men's bodies, wives, children,
property, and honor-and yet would not risk enough on it to let him
study and come to such a position.
 Again Luther's political realism is obvious. Sound
government is the result of competent, well-trained people in key
positions. Luther had as little patience with inspired enthusiasts
in politics as in theology. What politics needs is expertly trained
people who know what they are doing. Commenting on Deut 1:13 ff. he
You see, therefore, that in divine Law no account is taken of
the rich, powerful, noble, strong, and friendly, for handling
public office, as is the custom of the world; but of the wise,
understanding, and experienced, even if they are poor, lowly, weak,
 He quoted the Emperor Maximilian with approval who when his
nobles complained that he used so many commoners as negotiators in
international affairs, said, "What else can I do? You [lords]
cannot be used, so I have to take writers." And the same emperor
said, according to Luther, "I can make knights, but I can't make
 Because the art of government demands experts Luther
advocated careful education for those who would assume political
responsibility. He praised a nobleman who had once said to him, "I
want my son to study. It takes no great skill to hang two legs over
a horse and become a knight; in fact I taught him that myself
already." Yet even if occasionally
a nobleman might feel like that, Luther was sure that in the long
run the effective administration of government would be in the
hands of the poor and the commoners, for they alone would furnish
the trained people to fill these offices. He arrived at this
conclusion not because he believed in the superiority of this
particular class of human beings but because his analysis of the
situation led him to believe that the rich were too much interested
in wealth to give their children the necessary education to qualify
them for a profession in which there was little financial reward.
It was not the hope for a revolution of the lower classes but his
realism concerning human nature which led him to the prediction
that the common people would eventually rule.
 Indeed, nothing could be further from Luther's thought than
the advocacy of any kind of revolution. Even before he had some
depressing first-hand experiences with the nature of revolution
during the Peasant War he rejected the notion that a revolution
could ever be justified. In 1522 he wrote A Sincere Admonition to
All Christians, to Guard against Insurrection and
Rebellion. Here he said that
is still an unprofitable method of procedure. It never brings
about the desired result. For insurrection lacks discernment; it
generally harms the innocent more than the guilty. Hence, no
insurrection is ever right, no matter how right the cause it seeks
to promote. It always results in more damage than improvement, and
verifies the saying, "Things go from bad to worse."
 This is perhaps the most widely advertised aspect of
Luther's political thought, and it is certainly incontrovertible
that he was rigid in his rejection of any kind of political
rebellion. The reasons which he gave were many.
 First, and according to Luther, sufficient reason for all
Christians, government is divinely ordained. He repeatedly quoted
Rom 13:1 ff. and 1 Pet 2:13 to make it very clear that, "The
authority (Gewalt) which everywhere exists has been ordained by
God. He then who resists the governing authority resists the
ordinance of God." But
while Luther felt that this divine command should be sufficient
reason for Christians to obey the government and to cooperate with
it to the best of their ability, he also realized that if a
government was tyrannical and the ruler a truly evil person, the
subjects might feel justified in revolting on the grounds of reason
and natural law. But Luther grants this right to revolt only in one
case. He says,
It is only right that if a prince, king, or lord becomes insane,
he should be deposed and put under restraint, for he is not to be
considered a man since his reason is gone. "That is true," you say,
"and a raving tyrant is also insane; he is to be considered as even
worse than an insane man, for he does much more harm." It will be a
little difficult for me to respond to that statement, for that
argument seems very impressive and seems to be in agreement with
justice and equity. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that madmen and
tyrants are not the same. A madman can neither do nor tolerate
anything reasonable, and there is no hope for him because the light
of reason has gone out. A tyrant, however, may do things that are
far worse than the insane man does, but he still knows that he is
doing wrong. He still has a conscience and his faculties. There is
also hope that he may improve and permit someone to talk to him and
instruct him and follow this advice. We can never hope that an
insane man will do this for he is like a clod or a
 Luther claims that as long as a legitimate ruler is
essentially a human being, which he defines as those who know the
difference between right and wrong, even if they actually do wrong,
revolution is not a proper remedy against tyranny. And in addition
to this basic theological reason for rejecting revolution he offers
a number of non-theological considerations. Once we grant the right
of tyrannicide, he says, who is going to decide who is a tyrant?
Human beings tend to call anybody who does not please them a
tyrant. Does that mean that we can kill any ruler we do not like?
The history of the Roman Empire furnishes Luther with numerous
illustrations for the debilitating effects of such political
murder. It shows that the Romans "killed many a fine emperor simply
because they did not like him or he did not do what they wanted,
that is, let them be lords and make him their fool."
If injustice is to be suffered, then it is better for subjects
to suffer it from their rulers than for the rulers to suffer it
from their subjects. The mob neither has any moderation nor even
knows what moderation is. And every person in it has more than five
tyrants hiding in him. Now it is better to suffer wrong from one
tyrant, that is, from the ruler, than from unnumbered tyrants, that
is, from the mob.
 Luther does not deny that revolts against rulers have been
successful in the past. He says,
I know well enough...of subjects deposing and exiling or killing
their rulers. The Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans all did this and
God permitted it and even let these nations grow and prosper in
spite of it. However, the final outcome was always tragic....I feel
there can be no stable government unless a nation respects and
honors its rulers.
 If rulers are tyrannical-and Luther is convinced that they
usually are unfair and unjust-the punishment rests in God's hand.
No punishment human beings devise can possibly equal God's
punishment. God can kill an evil
ruler in an instant, if that is his will: "He has fire, water,
iron, stone, and countless ways of killing. How quickly he can kill
a tyrant!" If he chooses not to do
it, Luther claims, that may be because of our sins. Quoting Job
4:30, he says, "'He permits a knave to rule because of the people's
sins.' We have no trouble seeing that a scoundrel is ruling.
However, no one wants to see that he is ruling not because he is a
scoundrel, but because of the people's sin." Indeed, Luther is
prepared to grant that God may even use a revolution to overthrow
and punish a ruler. But while such a revolution may actually
accomplish God's purpose, those who engage in it are personally
disobeying God. Yet Luther warns that rulers should not rest at
ease in their tyrannical ways because of his teaching. It is not
Luther's teaching but only God's will which still upholds them.
"The lords are just as secure because of our teaching," he says,
"as they are without it...since most of the crowd does not listen
to us. The preservation of the rulers whom God has appointed is a
matter that rests with God and in his hands alone."
 Nothing, perhaps, illustrates Luther's matter-of-fact
conservatism towards government better than a story which he tells
in his book Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.
We read of a widow who stood and prayed for her tyrant most
devoutly, asking God to give him long life, etc. The tyrant heard
it and was astonished because he knew very well that he had done
her much harm, and that this was not the usual prayer for tyrants.
People do not ordinarily pray such prayers for tyrants, so he asked
her why she prayed thus for him. She answered, "I had ten cows when
your grandfather lived and ruled. He took two of them and I prayed
that he might die and that your father might become lord. This is
what happened, and your father took three cows. I prayed again that
you might become lord, and that your father might die. Now you have
taken four cows, and so I am praying for you, for now I am afraid
that your successor will take the last cow and everything I
 This is not an ideological conservatism which praises the
good old days. Neither the old days nor the new days are good in
themselves. Luther is politically conservative because he is sure
that change does not imply improvement. Things can get worse as
well as better. His own political experience tempted him to believe
that changes promoted by enthusiastic political dreamers will make
things worse rather than better. What he had seen in the Peasant
War had convinced him that nothing could cause more damage in the
political life of a people than the wild ranting of agitators of
the type of Thomas Müntzer. Not only had they spilled much
blood, but when it was all over the situation of the people whose
interests these revolutionaries claimed to promote was much worse
than it had ever been before. While blasphemously claiming the
sword of Gideon for their cause they had not led their followers
into any promised land but rather into a captivity from which they
were not to escape for centuries.
 It cannot be denied that Luther's experience in the Peasant
War played an important part in the final shape of his political
thinking. Furthermore, Luther's political thought has often been
interpreted exclusively in the light of his utterances in
connection with this revolutionary upheaval. Thus no examination of
his views on domestic politics would be complete without an
examination of his position in this greatest political crisis of
his lifetime. It appears that in the three successive periods of
this conflict Luther tried to apply his political principles with
admirable consistency. He spoke to the peasants before the
hostilities really began. He
spoke again while the conflict seemed to go the peasants' way and
threatened to bring about the complete destruction of the
established order. And
he spoke once more when the revolt had suddenly and utterly
collapsed and the peasants were suffering cruel and inhuman
punishment from their victorious lords.
 From the beginning Luther objected strenuously to the claim
of the peasants that they were fighting for the freedom of the
gospel. He insisted that they were confusing God's kingdom and
their own doubtful utopia. Against their article, "There shall be
no serfs, for Christ has made all men free," Luther wrote,
That is making Christian freedom a completely physical
matter....A slave can be a Christian, and have Christian freedom,
in the same way that a prisoner or a sick man is a Christian and
yet not free. This article would make all men equal, and turn the
spiritual kingdom of Christ into a worldly, external kingdom; and
that is impossible.
 He warned them even then,
You speak in this article as though you were already lords in
the land and had taken all the property of the rulers for your own
and would be no one's subjects, and would give nothing. This shows
what your intention really is. Stop it, dear sirs, stop it! It will
not be you who puts an end to it! The chapters of Scripture which
your lying preacher and false prophet has smeared on the margin do
not help you at all; they are against you.
 But this warning probably did not even reach the peasants.
The printing presses of the sixteenth century could not keep up
with the rush of revolutionary events. On a journey from Eisleben
Luther came in personal contact with the rebellion and became
convinced that unless the government would act with authority
complete chaos and anarchy would destroy all political order. This
reaction of Luther becomes understandable if one remembers the
almost complete loss of nerve on the part of most of the political
authorities. The rulers were in a state of shock. Especially
Luther's own prince, Frederick the Wise, suggested shortly before
his death that negotiations with the peasants would be the only
possible solution. Many were thinking of yielding to the increasing
size of the peasant armies. Leonhard von Eck, a Bavarian counselor,
observed that the peasants might indeed succeed because of the
complete despondency of the forces of law and order. In April of
1525 he wrote: "So far I have seen nothing more terrifying than the
unbelievable faint-heartedness of all authorities." It was into this
situation that Luther wrote his call to arms Against the Robbing
and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. This is no longer an admonition
to peace, it is a call to the government to use its God-given
sword. The revolting peasants are perjurers who have broken their
oath of loyalty, they are rebels, and rebellion is the worst of all
For rebellion is not just simple murder; it is like a great
fire, which attacks and devastates a whole land. Thus rebellion
brings with it a land filled with murder and bloodshed; it makes
widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the
worst disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and
stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more
poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when
one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike
you, and a whole land with you.
 And what is worst these peasants blaspheme Christ.
They cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the
gospel....Thus, they become the worst blasphemers of God and
slanderers of his holy name. Under the outward appearance of the
gospel, they honor and serve the devil, thus deserving death in
body and soul ten times over.
 Luther had little hope that his call would be heard. He
knew that should the rebellious peasants be victorious he would
have to pay for his book with his life. On May 4, 1525, he wrote to
John Rühel, the counselor of Count Albert of Mansfeld, from
Seeburg, while on the way back from Eisleben to Wittenberg,
Well, if I get home I shall prepare for death with God's help,
and await my new lords, the murderers and robbers, who tell me they
will not harm anyone. They are like the highway robber who said to
the good coachman: "I shall do you no harm, but give me all you
have and drive where I tell you; and if you don't you will die!"
Beautiful innocence! How magnificently the devil decorates himself
and his murderers! But I would rather lose my neck a hundred times
than approve of and justify the peasants' actions; may God help me
with his grace to do this....I am writing this so that you may be
comforted and can comfort others, especially my gracious lord,
Count Albrecht. Encourage His Grace to continue courageously, to
entrust this matter to God, and to act according to God's divine
command in using the sword for as long as he can. For the
conscience is on firm ground in this case, even if one has to
perish for it. On the other hand, even if the peasants served God's
wrath in punishing and destroying the sovereigns, God would
nevertheless reward them with the fire of hell.
 Luther considered the extirpation of the princes and his
own execution by the victorious peasants a distinct possibility. In
this situation he wrote his angry pamphlet. Not because it would
win him favor with the princes did he speak up, but because he
firmly believed that it was his duty to speak up even should it
cost him his life. It is the same Luther who stood against pope and
emperor, who when the power of the rebellious peasants was at its
peak defied them fearlessly. His language may have been overly
sharp, but so was his language in all other controversies. While we
may not agree with his sentiments and especially with the
aggressive way in which he expressed them, they were consistent
with everything he had said before and was to say afterwards. In
the light of what happened to the peasants later it is easy for us
to say that Luther should have known that the peasants never had a
chance. With his call to war against the peasants he was beating a
dead horse. Perhaps this is correct. Probably the peasants never
did have a real chance. But for the evaluation of Luther's part in
the Peasant War such an observation is irrelevant. He obviously
believed that the rebels might win and so did some of the best
informed politicians in Saxony. Because he believed this, Luther
made every effort to make sure that they would not. But before
Luther's angry appeal could be widely distributed the tide had
turned and the peasants were in full flight. In April the
revolutionary leader Thomas Müntzer had written to the members
of his former congregation in Allstedt, "Attack, Attack, Attack!
The time has come. The evildoers are cowed like dogs....Pay no
attention to the misery of the godless! Indeed they will humbly
plead and snivel and implore you like children. Show no mercy....Do
not let your swords grow cold!" On
May 14, he stood with about 8000 peasants at Frankenhausen. In a
few hours the peasants were utterly routed by a princely army of
about 1000 calvary and 3000 footsoldiers. After the battle
Müntzer was captured hiding in bed in the attic of a house in
Frankenhausen. A few days later he was dead. By the end of May 1525
the Peasant War in the neighborhood of Wittenberg was over. But the
bloodbath among the defeated peasants had only begun. As cowardly
as the nobility and the princes had been as long as the peasants
were armed, so courageous they became once they were defeated. They
made up in the cruelty of the punishment of their defenseless foes
what they had lacked in wisdom and foresight. In view of these
excesses of the rulers many of Luther's friends turned to him to
speak against this abuse of their victory. For Luther's sharp
attack against the peasants, written while the rebellion threatened
to succeed, was receiving wide circulation after the peasants were
defeated and helpless.
 Luther responded to these requests in his An Open Letter on
the Harsh Book Against the Peasants of 1525. Here he reiterates his
utter rejection of all rebellion. He does not apologize for what he
has previously written. "The peasants would not listen," he says;
"they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must
now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their
shoulders. Such pupils need such a rod." He attributes the entire
revolt and its tragic consequences to the confusion of law and
gospel, of the kingdom of wrath and severity and the kingdom of
grace and mercy.
Now he who would confuse
these two kingdoms-as our false fanatics do-would put wrath into
God's kingdom and mercy into the world's kingdom; and that is the
same as putting the devil in heaven and God in hell. These
sympathizers with the peasants would like to do both of these
things. First they wanted to go to work with the sword, fight for
the gospel as "Christian brethren," and kill other people, who were
supposed to be merciful and patient. Now that the kingdom of the
world has overcome them, they want to have mercy in
 Luther rejects this confusion of the two kingdoms
categorically. Indeed, he says, the severity of the world's kingdom
is one of God's blessings.
Suppose I have a wife and children, a house, servants, and
property, and a thief or murderer fell upon me, killed me in my own
house, ravished my wife and children, took all that I had, and went
unpunished so that he could do the same thing again, when he
wished. Tell me, who would be more in need of mercy in such a case,
I or the thief and murderer? Without doubt it would be I who would
need most that people should have mercy on me. But how can this
mercy be shown to me and my poor, miserable wife and children,
except by restraining such a scoundrel, and by protecting me and
maintaining my rights, or, if he will not be restrained and keeps
it up, by giving him what he deserves and punishing him, so that he
must stop it? What a fine mercy to me it would be, to have mercy on
the thief and murderer, and let him kill, abuse, and rob
 This story illustrates that Luther is concerned that a
false sentimentality in regard to the function of the political
order will prevent it from its primary responsibility, the
maintenance of law and order. Mercy to murderers is cruelty to
those they are about to murder. It will only lead to more crimes
and create chaos in the kingdom of this world.
 But what about the excesses of the princes? Here Luther
does not mince words either. If the princes are abusing their
power, "they have not learned it from me; and they will have their
reward. For the Supreme Judge, who is using them to punish the
self-willed peasants, has not forgotten them either, and they will
not escape Him." Luther asserted that he
had written his book against the peasants for princes who wanted to
be instructed concerning their God-given duties from the word of
God. They were to fight courageously as long as the rebellion was
going on. "Afterward, however, if they won, they were to show
grace, not only to those whom they considered innocent, but to the
guilty as well."
 And Luther shows the same toughness of mind towards the
victorious princes that he had shown towards the victorious
peasants. He says,
But these furious, raving, senseless tyrants, who even after the
battle cannot get their fill of blood, and in all their lives ask
scarcely a question about Christ-these I did not undertake to
instruct. It makes no difference to these bloody dogs whether they
slay the guilty or the innocent, whether they please God or the
devil....I had two fears. If the peasants became lords, the devil
would become abbot; but if these tyrants became lords, the devil's
mother would become abbess. Therefore, I wanted to do two things:
quiet the peasants, and instruct the pious lords. The peasants were
unwilling to listen, and now they have their reward; the lords,
too, will not hear, and they shall have their reward also. However,
it would have been a shame if they had been killed by the peasants;
that would have been too easy a punishment for them.
Hell‑fire, trembling, and gnashing of teeth in hell will be
their reward eternally, unless they repent.
 The attitude of Luther here expressed at the very moment
the princes had been victorious hardly qualifies him as a
sycophant. Neither does the remark which he made a year later when
overcome by the thought of the cruelty of some of the noble Junkers
against the defenseless peasants; he exclaimed bitterly, "We
Germans are and remain Germans, that is, swine and senseless
 Even in the great and bitter struggle of the Peasant War
Luther's political utterances were guided by his consistent
adherence to the distinction between the two ways of ruling which
God has ordained for the world, the spiritual, which under Christ
makes Christians, and the secular, which restrains the un-Christian
and evil people so that they are compelled to keep peace, even
against their will. To Luther the Peasant War illustrated the
disaster which must result when these two kingdoms are confounded.
Far from being the result of his preaching, as some of his enemies
claimed, he felt that the conflict was evidence how very few had
really listened to what he had to say.
 If we now try to ask what, if anything, in Luther's views
on domestic politics is of lasting significance, the answer is not
easy. The territorial princes, the noble knights, the wealthy
burghers, and the poor peasants to whom he spoke have long since
disappeared. We live in a democracy which is based on a successful
revolution and most of us are glad that "under God the people rule"
and that the revolution did succeed. What in Luther's political
teachings, addressed to an entirely different situation, can
possibly have any meaning for us?
 There are at least four such teachings which seem to speak
as clearly and accurately to our time as they did to
sixteenth-century Saxony. First of all, the proper concern of
government is the earthly welfare of all. We must insist, with
Luther, that the government trespasses demonically if it meddles
with a person's faith, whether that be in Spain, promoting one
particular form of Christianity, in the Soviet world, interfering
with all religion, or in the USA, encouraging a religion of
democracy in the schools of the land. Luther said, "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." In an age when the power
of government to influence the popular mind has reached proportions
unthinkable in Luther's time, it becomes even more essential that
every effort of political government to regulate the faith of its
citizens be immediately and radically opposed.
 Secondly, Christians as Christian citizens are called to
support the government in its proper work, the promotion of the
earthly welfare of all, to the best of their ability. Luther said,
"If you find that you are qualified, you should offer your
services...that the essential governmental authority may not be
despised and become enfeebled or perish. For the world cannot and
dare not dispense with it." If
this exhortation was justified in the patriarchal society of
Luther's time it is infinitely more urgent in a democracy. Unless
people who want to serve the neighbor through their participation
in the work of the government volunteer for such offices they will
of necessity fall into the hands of those who will use political
power for personal gain. Political participation is not optional
for Christians, it is their God-given duty. Not, to be sure, in
order to make the world Christian, but rather to serve the neighbor
in love. The neglect of the duty of active political participation
by so many Lutherans in America is not only a reflection on their
loyalty to Luther, but what is far more important, it is a sad
reflection on their loyalty to Christ. As it is the duty of
Christians to feed the hungry and to visit the sick, it is their
duty to do everything in their power to contribute to the earthly
welfare of all by political means. Especially in a democracy this
responsibility is obvious. And the Lord will hold us no less
responsible for our failure to use our political opportunities to
serve the neighbor than for our failures to serve him in the
neighbor in the more obvious forms of service mentioned in Matthew
25: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave
me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you
clothed me, I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you
came to me." This description covers practically every constructive
political activity in which we might engage. It implies concern
with slums and education, health and immigration, food surpluses
 Thirdly, in order to accomplish these ends the government
needs competent and well-educated people. Luther insisted that
Christians ought to see to it that their children receive the
education which will qualify them for competent government service.
It is not enough to know how to complain about the failures of
government; one must learn how to help. With the complexity of
modern government the need for qualified civil servants has greatly
increased. Government still needs lawyers and soldiers as in
Luther's time, but now in addition it needs thousands of other
specialists. Christians have the duty to help train and furnish
them. Good intentions and sincerity are not enough. People are
needed who have technical training and skill. We ought to do our
share to supply and to elect such people.
 Fourthly, Luther never tired of teaching the ultimate mercy
of strict law‑enforcement. Against all the sentimental drivel
which advocated easy-going law-enforcement as an especially
Christian attitude on the part of government Luther insisted that
such an approach will only lead to great bloodshed and eventual
 He felt that if the princes had enforced the law justly and
firmly at the very beginning of the Peasant War much suffering
could have been avoided and the situation of princes and peasants
would have been far better than it was after the disastrous revolt.
In the USA, where in some of our big cities law-enforcement has
become a cruel joke and gangsters help select judges and openly
consort with police officials, we should take Luther more
seriously. When a parole-board paroles habitual criminals, loses
track of them for months, and only recovers them after they have
been arrested for murder, then the alleged mercy of the
parole-board is a horrible kind of cruelty. Luther knew that fair
and firm law-enforcement is the basis of good government. In
American cities where people are afraid to go out after dark,
Luther's views have certainly not become obsolete. They should be
 And finally, Luther claimed that people tend to have the
government they deserve. Such a claim might have been debatable in
Luther's time, it is self-evident in our age. Every criticism of
our government should be understood as an implicit criticism of
ourselves. We have the government we deserve. God has a way of
punishing us through our own choices. This should teach us to begin
the critical national self-examination with ourselves and work our
way up, rather than to start with our leaders and never critically
examine ourselves. Luther said that God let the knave rule because
of the sins of the people. Especially in a democracy we can never
disassociate ourselves from political corruption, for in a very
real sense you and I are the basic cause of the corruption. Once we
have understood this, a great deal more realism will enter our
political thinking. Here, too, Luther is still a helpful guide.
 Luther once claimed that since the time of the apostles the
secular sword and secular government had never been so clearly
described or highly exalted as by him. Our examination has
tended to bear out this claim. In his political writings he did not
only speak to his time but also developed certain principles which
may help Christians in our time to come to a clearer understanding
of their political duties.
© January 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 1
 Cf. Admonition to Peace, A Reply to
the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia (1525), LW
 LW 45:81-129.
 LW 46:8-85.
 LW 46:93-137.
 Temporal Authority, LW 45:91.
 Ibid., 91-92.
 Ibid., 91-92.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 100.
 A Sermon on Keeping Children in
School (1530), LW 46:242.
 Ibid., 241.
 Lectures on Deuteronomy (1525),
 On Keeping Children in School
(1530), LW 46:249.
 Ibid., 251.
 LW 45:57-74.
 Ibid., 62
 Temporal Authority, LW
 Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be
Saved, LW 46:105.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 106-107.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 110
 Ibid., 111.
 Admonition to Peace (April 20
[?], 1525), LW 46:8-43.
 Against the Robbing and Murdering
Hordes of Peasants (May 4 [?], 1525), LW 46:49 (8209;55.).
 An Open Letter on the Harsh Book
against the Peasants (July, 1525), LW 46:63-85.
 Admonition to Peace, LW
 Ibid., 38.
 Karl Brandi, Deutsche Geschichte
im Zeitalter der Reformation und Gegenreformation, 2nd ed.
(Leipzig: Koehler and Amelang, 1941) l60f.
 LW 46:50.
 Ibid., 50-51.
 Luther to John Rühel (May 4,
1525), LW 49:111.
 Otto H. Brandt, Thomas
Müntzer, Sein Leben und seine Schriften (Jena, 1933) 74f.
 LW 46:65.
 Ibid., 69ff.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 74.
 Ibid., 84.
 Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be
Saved, LW 46:101.
 Temporal Authority, LW
 Ibid., 95.
 Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be
Saved, LW 46:95