The Reformation was an internal reform movement within the Catholic church. It was launched when Luther started to lecture about the Bible at the newly established Wittenberg University. He criticised the university theologians of his time for interpreting grace using the scientific knowledge and Aristotelian metaphysics. Luther’s ideas however, did not start to awaken a broader interest until he publicly began to examine the deficiencies of the Church’s practices.
From the perspective of ordinary christians, the most deeply felt problem was the practice of penance and particularly the sale of indulgences that was associated with it; a practice that had financed the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica at Rome. Priests also said a large number of private masses as repentance for the sins of those people who had fallen from grace. Payment was made to the priests for saying these masses. One way of repenting for sins was giving alms to the poor. However, individual help was arbitrary and the stimulus was the needs of the person giving alms. In October 1517, Luther opposed the sale of indulgences and misuse of the mass by publishing 95 theses against indulgences.
In his theses, Luther emphasised the role of God’s grace in the relation between God and a Christian. Forgiveness of sins through repentance is not based on the goodness of people nor on the credit earned through good works, but only through the sovereign goodwill of God. God forgives people their sins because his Son Jesus had taken them upon himself on the cross.
Even though the reformer emphasised God’s grace, he did not question the obligations of the Christian life. Forgiveness was followed by the attempt to live in accordance with God’s will. God has given people 10 commandments and the Christian must also obey them. The commandments require that we love God above all else and our neighbours as ourselves.
This describes the main outlines of Luther’s concept of grace. But what is its social significance? Before it is possible to answer this question, we must sketch out Luther’s concept of the nature of reality. God has not left the world He created to drift, but looks after it and continuously uses it to express His will. According to the reformer, God uses His power in the world in two different ways: through the worldly kingdom and through the spiritual kingdom.
In the worldly kingdom, God works through various structures developed by society and people. This world includes the temporal authority, various societal offices and roles as well as the judiciary and legislation. The characteristics of the worldly kingdom are obligations, stipulations and compulsion if necessary, as well as the punishments that follow from breaking the law.
In spite of the compulsion, the intention of the worldly kingdom is to implement God’s requirement that we love our neighbours. In the worldly kingdom the use of power is thus enforced love.
However, it cannot be allowed to result in arbitrariness. The morals of society and the individual must be built on the basis of what is referred to as natural law.
Classical natural law includes the use of common sense and human reflection. The power given to a king or parliament is thus to serve the best interests of society and its members. If it is not used in this way, then the wielder of power loses their right, their legitimacy. The same applies to the enacting of laws. As the world changes, laws must also be continuously renewed. This happens by putting yourself in to the situation of your neighbour and asking whether this law is for his/her benefit. The yardstick is thus the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). A good judge should also apply it when determining punishment. A judge takes the situation into consideration and is reasonable and reflective. The advantage of a natural moral law is that it can also form a common ethical base irrespective of conviction and provide a base to connect the supporters of different ideological and religious groups.
Secondly, God acts in the world through his spiritual kingdom. In this case, God’s instruments are the Church and its holy ordinances. The Gospel of Christ and the sacraments, such as baptism and communion, give rise to faith. Through faith, Christians participate in God’s goodness and are free from the forces that destroy life such as death, sin and having a bad conscience. The Church exists in the world so that God can show grace to broken and wounded sinners. In the Church, God also renews people so that he awakes love in them towards their neighbours. This makes the Christian forgo his or her own interests if necessary and give priority to their neighbour’s interests. This kind of love is unforced and voluntary. It cannot be commanded; just made attractive and encouraged. Faith and the love received as a gift from God mould Christians into a community which wants to take care of and help neighbours who are suffering.
The aim of these two kingdoms is one and the same: The realisation of God’s love in the world he created. However, the means are different. In the Church, God works through faith, grace and spiritual freedom; in the world, through laws, obligations and even punishments. If the kingdoms were mixed up and the attempt were to be made to administer society through grace, the result would be chaos. If compulsion were adopted by the Church in spiritual matters and we were forced to love, people would just fall into despair.
In practice the Reformation became both a spiritual and a social reform movement. That showed in many different ways. Social responsibility for the poor is still part of the Lutheran ethos. At the 1520s a common purse or chest was established in Wittenberg, so that care for the poor would not just be based on voluntary efforts. The common purse functioned as the social security of its day. Loans from the common purse could also be given to artisans when they set up their own businesses.
Communities inspired by Luther also adopted the respect Luther showed towards work. The aim of work was not to ensure reception of God’s grace, but to promote the well-being of the individual and the whole community. Luther stressed the importance of the people’s own language and literacy as well as the education of children and young people. This emphasis, in its time, had an important influence on national culture and the shaping of civil society, like the welfare state in Nordic countries.
When the societal impact of the Wittenberg reformation is evaluated, it must also be remembered that the justification of Luther’s project of reformation was ultimately related to religious life. This perspective should be borne in mind so that interpretation of the Reformation does not bypass and become detached from its origins. For example, the focus on children’s education was not just a question of civilising the people by teaching them to read. The intention was that children’s spiritual good should be achieved: they would be able to read the Word of God, understand the Gospel and believe in Christ. This religious motivation does not of course negate the job of civilising the people that is part of the work of the worldly kingdom.
Finally, a critical question should be posed: has the Lutheran concept of the two kingdoms sometimes resulted in Churches being too accommodating so that the societal dimension of grace has disappeared from the scene? The question is serious and relevant. Over the centuries, the interpretation of Luther’s teaching has often been one-sided, emphasising the difference between the two kingdoms. Then, as a result, church leaders and believers have stood quietly while wrong-doing was being done.
Luther himself, in spite of his warnings to mix the kingdoms, emphasised the connection between the kingdoms, and over the last few decades this aspect of his teaching has been more clearly taken into account. Understood correctly, grace opens up the role of the prophet to Christians and the Church in society, when it is needed. The Church and State are two different instruments for God’s work, but only through mutual dialogue can they best drive towards their common goal; realising the love of God in this world.
© Simo Peura