Martin Luther on the Proper Good of Fasting— yes, you read that right.

“Christ in the Desert,” Ivan Kramskoi; oil on canvas; 1872; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ewald Plass’s What Luther Says anthology has been described to me by heavyweight Luther scholars as a sort of “bronze-age” resource. Infer from that what you will. Maybe your opinion is the same, maybe you don’t have an opinion on the matter. In any event, last year I acquired the three-volume set, and while I grant that’s it’s not a serious scholarly compendium (there usually is no context for the selections given other than the volume and page number), it has its uses. For one, the quotations are alphabetically arranged by topic, so it makes for fun browsing. Do you wonder what Luther has to say about “Germans & Germany”? Well, then: tolle lege Volume 2, and you’ll soon find out. How about “Talebearing”? Volume 3 has the goods.

As for me, I was wondering what Luther had to say about fasting. Being the strictly textual preacher that he was, Luther didn’t really address the topic of fasting per se in his Fastenpostille, or Lenten sermons, so those are no good…for learning about fasting (they’re very good, otherwise). In other places, though, Luther has a lot to say about fasting. If you look up “fasting” in the Index to the American Edition of Luther’s Works (Vol. 55), you’ll find that the majority of his comments on the subject consist of him inveighing against the self-righteous attempts of the papists to curry God’s favor. However, when he considers the matter abstractly, outside the context of Romish abuses, he strikes a different, even commendatory, tone.

The following comments by Luther on fasting come from Vol. 2 of Plass’s compendium, pp. 517-519:


 

This expression or verdict must be clearly grasped; for it is powerful and forcefully overthrows all teaching, custom, and manner of life that distinguishes among foods; and it sets consciences everywhere free from all laws concerning food and drink. Therefore It is permissible to eat milk, butter, eggs. cheese, and meat every day, be it Sunday or Friday, Lent or Advent. . . . From this it follows that it is a lie when they say that St. Peter instituted the fast days and that the commandment of the church has made it a mortal sin to eat. eggs. butter, milk, and meat on these days. For neither St. Peter nor the church institutes anything contrary to Christ; and if they did, we should not follow them. . . . Secondly, it follows that it is pure rascality on the part of the devil for the pope to sell letters and grant permission to eat butter, meat, etc.; for in this word Christ has already made such eating it matter of liberty and has permitted it. (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, St. Louis Edition [hereafter “SL”] 19, 601)


Of fasting I say this: It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work. (SL 19, 1017)


No commandment of the Church, no law of any order, can enhance the value of fasting, watching, and labor as means of re- pressing or mortifying the flesh and its lusts. . . . For the body is not given us for us to kill its natural life and work but merely to kill its wantonness. . . . On the other hand, care must be taken lest a lazy indifference to such suppression of the flesh grow out of this freedom; for the roguish Adam is exceedingly tricky in pleading the ruin of body and mind (as a reason for indulging his wanton desires). (SL 10, 1353f)


St. Peter requires nothing more than that we should be sober, that is, mortify the body as long as we feel that it still is too wanton. He fixes no definite time, how long we are to fast, as the pope has done, but leaves it to the individual so to fast as always to remain sober and not burden the body with gluttony, that he may remain in possession of reason and reflection and determine how much he must do to keep his body under control. For it is utterly idle to impose one command about this on a whole group and congregation, since we are so unlike one another: one strong, another weak in body, so that one must mortify the body more, another less, if it is to remain sound and fit for good service. . . .

 

It is good to fast. But only that can be called true fasting when we give the body no more food than it needs to retain its health. Let the body work and be wary, lest the old ass become too wanton and, going on the ice to dance, break a bone. The body should be curbed and should follow the spirit; it should not act like those who, when they are about to fast, at one sitting fill themselves so full of fish and the best wine that their bellies are bloated. (SL 9, 986)


There are two kinds of fasts that are good and commendable. One could be called a secular or civil fast; it is ordered by the government as any other governmental ordinance or command is, and it is not required as a good work or as a divine service. I would like to see something like this, and I would lend it my counsel and support if the emperor or the princes issued an order that for one or two days a week there should be no eating or selling of meat. This would be a good and useful ordinance for the country, so that everything is not gobbled up as it is now, until finally hard times come and nothing is available. I would also be glad if at certain times, once a week or as often as might seem best, there were no evening meal, except a piece of bread and something to drink, to keep everything from being used up with the kind of incessant guzzling and gobbling that we Germans do, and to teach people to live a little more moderately, especially those who are young, sturdy, and strong. But this should be a completely secular arrangement, subject to the authority of the government.

 

In addition to this fast there should also be a general spiritual fast for us Christians to observe. It would be a good arrangement to observe a general fast for a few days before Easter, before Pentecost, and before Christmas, to distribute the fasts over the year. But on no account dare it be done for the purpose of making it an act of worship or a means of meriting something and reconciling God. (SL 7, 523)


Scripture places before us two kinds of fasting that are good. The first kind one accepts willingly for the purpose of checking the flesh by the spirit. Concerning this Saint Paul says: ‘. . . in labors, in watchings, in fastings . . .’ (2 Cor. 6:5). The second is the kind one must endure and yet accept willingly. Concerning this St. Paul says: ‘Even unto this present hour we both hunger and thirst’ (1 Cor. 4:11). And Christ says of it: ‘When the bridegroom shall be taken from them . . . then they shall fast’ (Matt. 9215). (SL 11, 534)


The following is a selection from Luther’s Candlemas sermon, in which he addresses the topic of fasting:

St. Luke says that Anna served God day and night with fasting and prayer. At this point the works of faith follow: first, she must be Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, married for seven years, a widow for eighty-four years never departing from the temple; only then are fasting and praying right; only then is Abel’s sacrifice acceptable; only then is God served with fasting and prayer day and night.

 

He who starts with works, turns everything around and gains nothing. In the same way St. Paul after he had taught faith to the Romans, undertakes to teach them many good works saying that they should offer their body as a holy, living, agreeable sacrifice in the service of God. This takes place when one chastises the body with fasting, staying awake, getting dressed, and working. This is what Anna does. All the saints of old did the same. ‘Fasting’ refers to all chastisement and discipline of the body which, although the soul is justified and holy through faith, is still not entirely free of sin and evil inclinations. Thus it is necessary that the body become subdued and chastised and subservient to the soul, as St. Paul says of himself: ‘I chastise my body and bring it under control, so that I, who am teaching others, am not myself disqualified’ [I Cor. 9:27]. St. Peter, too, teaches the same thing in I Peter 2[:5]: ‘You are to offer spiritual sacrifices,’ not sheep and calves, as in the law of Moses, but your own body and yourselves through putting sin to death in the flesh and through the chastisement of the body. Nobody does this unless faith is there previously.

 

For this reason I have said frequently that the works that come after faith should have the sole purpose and intention of chastising the body and serving one’s neighbor; they are not intended for earning a lot of merit or for making someone pious, for that must be present prior to the works. This is the real service of God in the works, if these works come about quite freely, to honor God. Otherwise what use does he have for your fasting, unless you quell thereby the sin and the flesh which he wants quelled? Those who fast for certain saints and on special days and times, without regard to the chastisement of the body do not do this; they only turn their fasting into a sterile work. But Anna does not have certain special days. She does not fast on Saturdays and Fridays, nor on the eves of the days of the apostles or on the quarter-yeardays. Nor does she make a distinction between foods, but day and night, as St. Luke says, she fasts and thereby serves God. This means that without ceasing she chastises her body, not as if she were thereby performing a work, but in order to serve God and to blot out sin. St. Paul also teaches about fasting of this sort in II Corinthians 6[:5], stating among other things that in many fastings we should show ourselves as servants of God. But our foolish fasting, thought up by men, thinks it is doing something worthwhile if it does not eat meat or eggs, or butter, or milk for several days. It is not at all directed toward the chastisement of the body and of sin, that is, toward serving God; rather with this fasting we serve the pope and the papists— and the fishermen.” (Candlemas Sermon on Luke 2:33-40, LW 52:137-139)


So far Luther.

Those interested in following traditional Western Church fasting practices but unsure where to start might wish to consult this post, where I have reproduced the text of a tract entitled “On Christian Fasting,” published by Zion Lutheran Church in Detroit, MI.

Other relevant items:

 

+VDMA

3 Comments

  1. Do you know of any place that gives more details on what is translated as “watching” or here is also apparently called “staying awake”? I often see this listed with fasting, but have never read anything about it. Does this mean that one stays awake for part of the night and presumably prays or reads scripture? I’m curious if there are any detailed explanations of what all it entails?

    • A treatment I found helpful was in John Kleinig’s work, Grace Upon Grace.

      “St. Peter gives sound advice to us as disciples of Christ (1 Peter 5:8): ‘Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.’ There is then no virtue in spiritual naivetæ´. Unless we are clear-sighted and level headed, we will fall prey to spiritual deception and delusion. We need to recognize our enemy and his role as our adversary and prosecutor. Satan may masquerade as a nice angel of light with promises of spiritual fulfillment and power and glory. However, he is a nasty predator that is out to devour and feed on us.

      So the Christian life is not marked by blind passion and drunken ecstasy but by clear-sighted sobriety and careful vigilance. Our spiritual health depends on our ‘sound-mindedness,’ a state of mind that is characterized by the ‘self-control’ that comes from the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of sound-mindedness. If we are sound-minded, we will not just prize our spiritual sanity and health, we will practice spiritual vigilance in two ways.”

      Kleinig then discusses the practice of self-examination and a clean conscience and vigilance through the voluntary practice of fasting, which is “best coupled with meditation and prayer.”

      Citations are from pp. 241 ff

      • This also brought to mind Franzmann’s commentary on 1 Peter 4:7-5:11.

        “The approaching end of all things calls for a sober vigilance in prayer, a life of love and mutual ministry, to the glory of God through Jesus Christ, 4:7-11. It alerts Christians to see their suffering both a sharing in the suffering of Christ, and therefore a guarantee of their participation in His glory, and also the sign and dawn of the approaching judgement, 4:12-19. It calls for a sober and responsible congregational life: The elders are to exercise their shepherd’s office with a pure zeal, conscious of their responsibility to the Chief Shepherd who is about to be manifested. The church is to submit obediently to its elders. All are to be clothed in humility, 5:1-5. it calls upon all to submit to the governance of God and to trust in His care, to be vigilant and firm in resisting the devil, in the assurance that suffering is the normal lot of the people of God and that the God of grace will sustain them, 5:6-11.”

        This, as well as Luther’s comments above regarding a general spiritual fast, flies in the face of the common “Lutheran” concession that, yes, fasting may be a fine outward training, but it cannot be anything directed by the proper ecclesiastical authorities, done in a corporate way, or in any way not completely self-directed, individualized, and kept to oneself.

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