Commandment and Exhortations as God’s Benefits?

A friend shared the following Luther quotation with me over a year ago:

“The gospel is simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man. Among these benefits are those declarations of God’s commandments and the exhortations to keep them, which Christ made in Matthew 5, 6, and 7.” (Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows [1521], LW 44:256)

He writes:

In the section where the quote is found Luther is discussing the rule of St. Francis and some of the other issues he has with Francis’ “schismatic” limiting of the universal gospel, intended for all the faithful, which takes it and turns it into a “special rule for the few.” In fact Luther says, “when a Franciscan takes his vow he vows nothing more than that which he already vowed at the start in his baptism.” This struck me as an insight into Luther’s doctrine of vocation that provides a very different sense of our duties than we hear today. Nearly all who gather under the confessional banner describe vocation as the key to understanding the new obedience and good works, but what this often seems to boil down to is that Christians just go through a comfy, middle class, Western pursuit of the American Dream, and in faith all that worldliness is magically transformed into good works, and the neighbor is served and loved more or less automatically— unintentionally, even.


It seems, though, that Luther is offering an important, and very different, lens for considering our duties of service and love in the world in the foregoing quotation: the universal gospel transforms the life of all the baptized, so that the shape of their life is still to be conformed to the precepts of our Lord in the Beatitudes, conformed to the image of our Lord Himself, even though the shape of this conforming will necessarily vary depending on their stations in life and the concrete places where God has placed them.


Our Americanized-“Lutheran” view of vocation has been shaped by the spirit of the age and not by the Holy Spirit, and the idea that the Christian will look exactly like the average, respectable, reasonably prosperous, American heathen (or the average, degenerate, gnostic, languishing, American heathen, depending on your flavor of freedom), “except that he has faith,” is rampant and neuters the life of faith, in which all the baptized are to walk. Furthermore, and maybe even more insidiously, it prevents the body of Christ from living out its duties in the household of faith because we are all just atomized believers, “living out our vocations,” which comes to mean no responsibilities or service outside of 60 minutes on Sunday morning.


It seems the consequences or implications attendant to the eating and drinking of the sacrifice evaporate on both an individual and communal level. The reality of the inspiration of the Word of God, as it exists to equip the faithful for good works, becomes a theological position rather than a mysterious and beautiful reality. Word and Sacrament are effectively drained of any impact and are reduced to a catechetical bromide.

Wow. Astonishing and apt. Just ponder that selection from Luther for a bit. Do any of us Lutherans even believe that? Seems like the sort of thing that Werner Elert would have chocked up to rogue post hoc Philippist interpolation (see here; p. 135 footnote #2).

I have nothing to add to my friend’s reflections, though perhaps I will later.



One Comment

  1. Wow, this is very good. Makes me wonder who the author is.

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