Circumstances in my early days of ministry led me to write a book of prayers based on the sermons of Martin Luther. I’d been a Lutheran for fifty-five years, but by reading his sermons and writing these prayers, Martin Luther changed my theology about God and my understanding of what he stood for. Christians tend to forget one of the key lessons of the Reformation — the church should always be reforming itself. The bottom line is that we are to be agents for change in the world, not for doing things the way they’ve always been done. And the change is always toward caring for the well-being of our neighbor rather than obeying laws, whether divine or manmade.
In his sermon on Matt. 22:34-46, one of Luther’s themes was the law. He said the law was given to serve love, founding it on Romans 13:10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Let me give you a few quotes from his sermon:
11. We are also to notice here that all the works of the law are not commanded merely for the purpose that we simply just perform them; no, no; for if God had given even more commandments, he would not want us to keep them to the injury and destruction of love. Yea, if these commandments oppose the love of our neighbor, he wants us to renounce and annul them.
13. Therefore, when the law impels one against love, it ceases and should no longer be a law; but where no obstacle is in the way, the keeping of the law is a proof of love, which lies hidden in the heart. Therefore ye have need of the law, that love may be manifested; but if it cannot be kept without injury to our neighbor, God wants us to suspend and ignore the law.
17. … From this you are to conclude, all works are nothing that do not originate in love or are against love. No commandments should be in force, except those in which the law of love can be exercised.
20. [Christ] teaches them what the law is, namely: that love is the law.
This wasn’t Luther’s only sermon where he focused on a Christian’s freedom to ignore specific church or biblical laws. He also used Luke 14:1-11 to help people discern which laws they should follow and which laws they could eliminate:
8. Therefore we conclude that all law, divine and human, treating of outward conduct, should not bind any further than love goes. Love is to be the interpreter of law. Where there is no love, these things are meaningless, and law begins to do harm… This is in brief spoken of divine and human laws. The reason for enacting all laws and ordinances is only to establish love, as Paul says, Rom. 13:10: “Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.”
9. Since then all law exists to promote love, law must soon cease where it is in conflict with love. Therefore, everything depends upon a good leader or ruler to direct and interpret the law in accordance with love. (p. 161)
10. And thus we should apply every law, even as love suggests, that it be executed where it is helpful to a fellow-man, and dispensed with where it does harm.
17. As Christ here treats of the law relating to the Sabbath and makes it subserve the needs of man, so we should treat laws of that kind and keep them only so far as they accord with love. If laws do not serve love, they may be annulled at once, be they God’s or man’s commands.
20. If you are a Christian you have power to dispense with all commandments so far as they hinder you in the practice of love.
28. The sum of this Gospel then is: Love and necessity control all law; and there should be no law that cannot be enforced and applied in love. If it cannot, then let it be done away with, even though an angel from heaven had promulgated it.
Here are two other sources showing his guidance in discerning laws:
Sermon on John 10:1-11
19. Christians are now free from the curse and the tyranny of the Law, and may keep the Law or not, according as they see that the love and need of their neighbor requires. Vol. 3:381
Martin Luther (Preface to the Old Testament)
“For since all laws aim at faith and love, none of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith and love.”
How do we decide what laws to keep, who and what helps us decide? There’s no better authority for Martin Luther than the Holy Spirit, as he says in a sermon from John 14:23-31:
14. … You see very clearly that the Holy Spirit’s office is not to write books nor to make laws, but freely to abrogate [repeal, revoke, annul, abolish] them; and that he is a God who writes only in the heart, who makes it burn, and creates new courage, so that man grows happy before God, filled with love toward him, and with a happy heart serves the people. When the office of the Holy Spirit is thus represented, it is rightly preached … when he [HS] comes in this manner he abolishes the letter of the Law and desires to liberate the people from their sins and from the Law; the latter is no more needed, for he, himself, rules inwardly in the heart. (p. 278)
I often wonder why I was never taught these things in my religious training, formal or informal. They would help to reduce the division in every Protestant denomination.
“The church should always be reforming itself.”
Maybe you can use these quotes to become an agent for change, to help the church continue to reform itself in the next 500 years, so that it actually begins to look like Christ, a church focused on pointing to a God who is good all the time, who brings comfort, peace, and healing for the world rather than a set of laws to follow.
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On another note, I am releasing a new book that explains the REAL meaning of aionios zoa, which has been translated as “eternal life.” Jesus wasn’t speaking about Paradise when he spoke of aionios zoa, and this is good news! It’s available for preorder here. It will be delivered to your Kindle app on October 31.