Luther's Christocentric Approach to Ethics By Naomichi Masaki

Ethical Thinking Yesterday and Today "I'm a spiritual person, just not religious." In North America today, while the mainline churches continue to decline in membership, spirituality, the impulse to seek communion with the Divine, is thriving. More people now ask how they may experience God in their lives rather than how much they should know about God. If they feel God within them then the important question is settled and the rest are details. People are seeking a religion that empowers them rather than a god who commands them.1

Among Eastern religions, such an endeavor to feel a god within is not a new phenomenon. For example, Zen Buddhism, which does not require followers to forsake the world to live in seclusion as original Buddhism did, teaches that one should live as if he were already a Buddha rather than make an effort to become a Buddha through rigorous self-disciplines. In the process, the emphasis lies on the empowerment of one's heart.2

In Luther's sixteenth century battles, he faced three fronts that asserted that man has some effective role to play before God: works, mysticism, and reason, which he met in Rome, Karlstadt, and the Swiss.3 Adolf Köberle, in his analysis of the history of religion, similarly observed the trio of moralism/conduct (Stoics, Confucianism, Buddhism, Pharisees, Kant, Fichte, Ritschl, Roman Catholics, pietism), mysticism/emotions (Karlstadt, Münzer, Schleiermacher, Romanticism, Taoism, Neoplatonism, Schwenkfeld, Zinzendorf), and speculation/reason (rationalism, Thomism, German Idealism, Hegel, Kant) to be the options in man's quest for holiness before God.4 Oswald Bayer has assessed the three ways of modern theology as moral/ethical (ethics/doing, represented by the Kantian tradition), existential/motivational (religion/feeling, represented by the followers of Schleiermacher), and theoretical/conceptual (metaphysics/knowing, as represented by the followers of Hegel).5 What is in common among the trios identified by Luther, Köberle, and Bayer is their point of departure: they all begin with something in us, which is the same accent found in modern spirituality and Eastern religions.

Already before 1520, Luther had begun to attack Aristotle's ethical system because it offered the idea that people become good by doing good and acquiring skill, habits, and virtue.6 Medieval scholastics built on this foundation by including grace as the energy to empower such ethics. On the other hand, during the second half of the 1520s, Luther saw Greek thought behind the teachings of Rome, Karlstadt, and the Swiss; namely, that there are two opposing realms: an earthly/external one and a spiritual/internal one. They held that, since man is trapped in earthly and material things, he is to find salvation by rising above this material realm into the inward spiritual sphere. Such upward movement required spiritual exercises that were heavily emotional, for the upward movement was none other than the inward movement. The Sacramentarians had made Christ's presence spiritualistic and remote with their aberrant view of the Lord's Supper, but in Luther's Large Confession (1528), he responded to such thought by crying, "Jesus is not far, but near."

In any theological system built upon Aristotle's ethics or a Neoplatonic dichotomy, man will be said to contribute somehow to his own salvation and Christian life. This tends to isolate ethics to the Third Article in combination with human strength; the quest for holiness is seen primarily as an activity of the Holy Spirit in cooperation with man's efforts. For example, when the Baptist Rick Warren says, "God's ultimate goal for your life on earth is not comfort, but character development," he encourages readers to cultivate an inward spiritual life.7 Warren writes that a Christ-like character in a believer is "the Holy Spirit's job to produce," which takes place in daily life "through the choices we make" when "we choose to do the right thing in situations and then trust God's Spirit to give us His power, love, faith, and wisdom to do it."8 If Warren is representative of modern North American Christian spirituality, this indicates a continuation of or return to the old system of Aristotelian ethics that Luther diagnosed and rejected in medieval Roman Catholicism. The combination of a positive view of man's spiritual ability with the assistance of the free-floating Holy Spirit is still present today.


Luther's Second Article Confession of Ethics in His Large Confession (1528)

By contrast, Luther's approach to ethics is refreshing. Unlike the many who locate ethics primarily under the First or Third Articles, in his Large Confession (1528), Luther places ethics within the Second Article (WA 26: 499-509; AE 37: 360-72).

It may appear that such a placement is rather accidental. One could argue that Luther discusses Christian vocation within the Second Article only because he was speaking against the abuses of monasteries and religious foundations that had departed from their original purposes of teaching young people to serve in the church, family, and the government. The monastic orders Luther was criticizing had long obscured Christ's atonement by their emphasis on works righteousness (WA 26: 503, 35-505, 28; AE 37: 363-65).

However, a further examination of the third section of the Large Confession indicates that Luther intentionally located ethics under the Second Article. For several reasons, it is clear that he wrote and organized his thought very carefully in this Large Confession. He was writing this confession coram Deo and coram mundo (WA 26: 499, 19-21; AE 37: 360). It was his theological legacy (WA 26: 499, 21-23; AE 37: 360). He put his life into it and considered it a confession to die with. He says that he has "most diligently traced all these articles through the Scriptures" and "examined them again and again in the light thereof" (WA 26: 499, 26-500, 20; AE 37: 360). This he did in full awareness that Satan is at work in the errors of enthusiasts concerning baptism and the Lord's Supper (WA 26: 499, 15-19; AE 37: 360).

Further support for the thesis that Luther intentionally located ethics under the Second Article is found in the fact that, for Luther, Jesus always occupied the central place of his confession. The Large Confession is not an exception, as the structure of its third part indicates. While Luther devotes about the same amount of space to confessing the divine majesty and the Holy Spirit, he uses ten times more to confess Jesus (WA 26: 500, 33-505, 28; AE 37: 361-65). Luther presents three subtopics under the Second Article: free will, original sin, and the holy orders of the church, family, and civil government.

In the Large Confession, after having briefly confessed the majesty of God in the Holy Trinity (WA 26: 500, 27-32; AE 37: 361), Luther moves from Jesus as a man to Jesus as God; then onto his passion, death, and burial for our redemption from sin, death, and the eternal wrath of God; and to his resurrection, ascension, and session to be our Lord and Bishop (WA 26: 500, 33-502, 34; AE 37: 361-62). The confession of the Holy Spirit follows, but it is as brief as the confession of the Holy Trinity. In short, the Holy Spirit gives us faith, resurrects our bodies, frees us from sin, and bestows a joyful heart and a sure conscience (WA 26: 505, 29-37; AE 37: 365-66).

After confessing the divine majesty of the Holy Trinity, the office and works of the Son, and the service of the Holy Spirit, Luther gives a summary of the works of the Triune God in terms of His giving:

The Father gives Himself to us, with heaven and earth and all the creatures, in order that they may serve us and benefit us...The Son Himself subsequently gave Himself and bestowed all His works, sufferings, wisdom, and righteousness...The Holy Spirit comes and gives Himself to us also, wholly and completely. He teaches us to understand this deed of Christ...He does this both inwardly and outwardly-inwardly through faith and other spiritual gifts, outwardly, however, through the Gospel, through baptism and the sacrament of the altar, through which as through three means or ways he comes to us and inculcates the sufferings of Christ to bring the benefit of salvation. (WA 26: 505, 38-506, 12; AE 37: 366; modified translation and emphasis mine)

[NI]His confession of baptism, the Lord's Supper, the church, holy absolution, etc. follows (WA 26: 506, 13-509, 28; AE 37: 366-72).

Overall, the heart of Luther's Large Confession concerns the works of Christ on the cross and how the fruits of the cross are to be delivered through the means of grace in the church. His confession is not about a static god devised by the human heart, but about the God who rejoices in giving. At the center of this giving is Christ and his office as the Savior.

Luther's Christocentric Large Confession may be appreciated further when it is compared with the confessions that were drafted chiefly by Melanchthon. The Schwabach Articles (Article V), the Marburg Articles (Article V-VII), and the Augsburg Confession (Article IV) all emphasize our faith for justification: "This faith is our righteousness."9 In contrast, Luther in his Large Confession writes that we are saved "through the one righteousness which our Savior Jesus Christ is and has bestowed upon us...We are saved through Christ alone" (WA 26: 502, 25, 505, 18-19, 506, 1; AE 37: 362, 364, 365, 366; emphasis mine). In fact, Luther does not give a formula for the doctrine of justification in the Large Confession. Rather, he confesses our salvation from the point of view of Christ in his accomplishment and delivery rather than from our human point of view in reception of the benefits of Christ's work through faith. The focal point in the Large Confession is not a faith event or spiritual event, but the Christ event.


"All heresy strikes at this dear article of Jesus Christ"

In Luther's extended section concerning the Son in the Large Confession, he extols Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Ebed Yahweh (WA 26: 502, 18-34; AE 37: 362). He rejects all doctrine that erroneously praises our free will as "diametrically contrary to the help and grace of our Savior Jesus Christ" (WA 26: 502, 36-503, 19; AE 37: 363). This Luther does because "outside of Christ" we are powerless to "prepare ourselves" for righteousness and life (WA 26: 503, 19-22; AE 37: 363). He then condemns all who deny original sin (WA 26: 503, 25-34; AE 37: 363).

The Augsburg Confession places original sin and justification into a logical relationship with each other and puts the articles on original sin and free will in two separate locations (AC II, AC XVIII). In contrast, Luther does not relate the doctrine of original sin to justification, but to Christ, and confesses the doctrines of free will and original sin side by side. He rejects all monastic orders and religious foundations because the works invented by men have replaced the office and work of Christ. As in the doctrine of free will and original sin, Luther evaluates the doctrine of vocation through the criteria of the office and works of Christ. We recall the words of Luther in The Three Symbols (1538): "All heresy strikes at this dear article of Jesus Christ" (WA 50: 267, 18; AE 34: 208; translation mine).

The confession of Christ alongside the rejection of heresies is also found in the Smalcald Articles, Luther's later confessional legacy of 1537. Again, Luther does not present a separate major article on justification, except for a brief one toward the end (SA III, XIII). What he called "the chief article" in Part II, Article I, has to do more with "the office and work of Christ," rather than justification by faith (BSLK, 415; Kolb-Wengert, 300). In SA II, I, Luther employs an approach also used in his Catechisms in their sections concerning baptism and the Lord's Supper; namely, he simply gives the words of the Lord instead of presenting well-thought-through theological formulations. Luther evaluates all other ecclesiastical practices such as the mass, pilgrimages, monasteries, relics, indulgences, the invocation of saints, and papacy itself, in terms of this chief article of Christ (SA II, II-IV). Among them, the Roman mass was "the greatest and most terrible abomination" of the chief article, because the benefits from the cross are not delivered in the mass (SA II, II, 1). For Luther, the confession of the office and works of Christ is never complete without confessing how the forgiveness won on Calvary is given out.


Free Will, Original Sin, and the Doctrine of Vocation

As noted above, for Luther, free will, original sin, and the doctrine of vocation are each confessed in relation to the office of Christ as the Lamb of God, the Ebed Yahweh. That the discussion of ethics is placed together with the doctrine of free will and original sin helps explain why Luther put ethics under the Second Article.

Luther must have been aware that when free will is affirmed and original sin is denied, then Christian vocation is also ruined. When Christ's office as Savior is replaced by something in the Christian (see LC V, 7), that something would seek to play a key role not only in the Christian's salvation but also in the Christian's daily walk in the world. The classical "three ladders" identified by Luther, Köberle, and Bayer are nothing other than expositions of "our own preparation, thoughts, and works" that Augustana V rejects. The externum verbum way of gift-bestowing Gospel is applicable to man not only before he is baptized but throughout the baptismal life. Luther has a means of grace doctrine of ethics. Theodor Kliefoth of the nineteenth century captured this thought rightly when he observed concerning the liturgy that nothing is more against the Lutheran way than that the sacrificium stands independently from the sacramentum.10

Since all humans, even those who are baptized, regard themselves as the center of the world, then for even the baptized to assume that they have control over how to use the law of God to walk a God-pleasing life is at best an illusion. Luther knew that Satan can use the best efforts of Christians to destroy them, just as he can accuse them for their unethical behaviors. Before men, Christians are measured by their performance, but coram Deo it must be confessed that outward service to the neighbor may be mingled with inward desire for human recognition and enhancement of personal status.

Luther's placement of ethics under the Second Article, and his confession of ethics together with the doctrines of free will and original sin, indicate that he sees the life of the baptized against the serious backdrop of the sinful flesh, the world, and the devil. Luther never loses sight of the Christian's sinful condition,11 so the forgiveness that Christ won on Calvary for Christians and delivers to them in the means of grace is never diminished to the sideline. Forgiveness is never taken for granted when Luther confesses Christian vocation.


Ethics and the Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel

Such a recognition leads one to confess that ethics is bound together with the doctrine of the proper distinction between law and gospel. Luther in his Great Galatians Lectures (1531) observed that since the devil ceaselessly attempts to take away the pure doctrine of faith and substitute for it the doctrine of works and human tradition, the doctrine of law and gospel can never be discussed and taught enough. In a Christian's life, he says, the gospel is "a rare guest" but the law is "a constant guest" in the conscience (WA 40 I: 209, 20-22; AE 26: 117).12 "As soon as reason and the law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity" (WA 40 I: 204, 17-18; AE 26: 113).13 Thus, if the doctrine of the proper distinction between law and gospel is lost, all doctrine and life are lost. But if it flourishes, everything flourishes, including the life of the baptized in the world (WA 40 I: 39, 25-26; AE 26: 3).

The proper office of the law is to kill (WA 40 I: 517, 26; AE 26: 335).14 It makes people guilty and humbles them, leading them down to hell (WA 40 I: 529, 11-12; AE 26: 345).15 When the law has done its job, every mouth is stopped and silenced before God. There is nothing more one can say to him. The law strikes people dumb. While the law does not make a sinner, it seeks the sinner, and without fail it finds, judges, and kills the sinner it seeks.16 It strips the self-righteous, self-excusing sinner of every credential and covering. One's possibility of having a ground of confidence located within has been wiped out by the law. The Lord would destroy in humans everything that blocks him off from them. In his Lecture on Psalm 51 Luther pointed out: "A lawyer speaks of man as an owner and master of property, and a physician speaks of man as healthy or sick. But a theologian discusses man as a SINNER (PECCATORE)" (WA 40 II: 327, 19-21; AE 12: 310; emphasis mine, reflecting the Latin).17

While the proper office of the law is to kill, and increase sin by exposing it, the proper office of the gospel is the preaching of the forgiveness of sins.18 "It is the proper office of Christ alone to justify the sinner" (WA 40 I: 406, 24-25; AE 26: 259).19 The gospel makes man alive; it vivifies. Sinful man, exposed by the law, is now clothed by the gospel. The gospel does not seek the saint. It creates the saint it seeks. The gospel does not look for saving faith. It creates and sustains saving faith.20

The gospel deals with sinners in a way opposite that of the law, which uses coercion. Reason says, "It is unjust for God to damn a person." If this were true, then it would be even more vastly unjust for him to forgive people because someone took damnation in their place. Luther confessed, "Against my sin, which accuses and devours me, I find there another sin. But this other sin, namely, that which is in the flesh of Christ, takes away the sin of the world" (WA 40 I: 273, 18-21; AE 26: 159).21 Christ preaches through the mouth of his sent-one, the pastor, that sin is now located on the Lamb of God. What he does has no reason in humans, no ethical necessity, no emotional necessity, and no logical necessity. Jesus puts himself in the place of fallen sinners, which is the reverse of them putting themselves in his place. This is the way of Calvary. Christ became "the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer" (WA 40 I: 433, 26-28; AE 26: 277).22

The gospel comes through resistible gifts. It comes in a gift-giving way and in "more than one way" (SA III, IV): through the waters of holy baptism, through the living voice of the gospel in preaching and absolution, and in the body and blood of the Lord's Supper.

Gifted by him, Christ's holy people live their lives enveloped in Christ's gifts and forgiveness, serving their neighbor in word and deed. Yet there are always temptations in the world that seek to diminish Jesus. Luther warns, "Therefore Satan continually mounts a new battle against us" (WA 40 I: 318, 12; AE 26: 193).23 The devil "often suggests a false Christ to me" (WA 40 I: 321, 32-33; AE 26: 196).24 Since Christians are powerless before Satan, their daily life of vocation is a daily return to baptism.

Luther presents the life of Christians in their daily callings as a life that is lived within the forgiveness of sins. Ethics may not be detached from the body and blood of Jesus that the baptized receive. This is where the forgiveness is bestowed (WA 18: 203, 39-204, 9; AE 40: 214). Bodied together and blooded together, the communicants are enlivened to serve one another in word and deed, not only in the church but in the world.


Ethics as the Gift of the Lord

Luther's location of ethics under the Second Article does not mean that this doctrine has nothing to do with the Third Article. Luther does not speak of the works of a free-floating Holy Spirit which are supposed to assist the Christian's efforts in faith and life. But it is precisely because the Holy Spirit teaches the work of Christ that Christian vocation is seen Christocentrically (WA 26: 506, 4-12; AE 37: 366). When the Holy Spirit has done his job, the Christian sees only Jesus. And when the sinner is thus reconciled with the Father through Christ, he is brought back to the world and receives the creation as his First Article gift (WA 26: 505, 40-506, 3; AE 37: 366).25 Creation is the sphere and arena of Christian vocation in church, family, and government. It is where the common order of Christian love is also exercised. In the Christian life, the order of the Holy Trinity moves from the Holy Spirit to the Son and to the Father.

All three Articles are fully confessed by Luther when the office and works of Christ remain central. The orders of church, family, and government, as well as the common order of Christian love, belong to the Second Article of the Creed, because the Lord Jesus continues to preserve the person who occupies these orders and offices as a forgiven person. In this way, Jesus keeps opening the way for the baptized to serve him. Orders established by human traditions, on the other hand, do away with saving faith.

For Luther, ethics is a means of grace doctrine, because only when the Lord's gifts that are given are received does his blessing then move Christians out into their callings, where his gifts have their fruition. The placement of ethics under the Second Article in the Large Confession (1528) provides an occasion for recalling that the One who delivers the forgiveness from Calvary to enliven Christians is Jesus Himself. Ethics in each Christian's callings is the arena where the Lord has his way with his people in the world.


By Naomichi Masaki, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This paper was presented at the 11th International Congress for Luther Research in July 2007 in Canoas, RS, Brazil.


1.              See  Jerry Adler, "In Search of the Spiritual,", September 5, 2005; Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold eds., The Study of Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Frank Senn ed., Protestant Spiritual Traditions (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986); James M. Kittelson, "Contemporary Spirituality's Challenge to Sola Gratia," Lutheran Quarterly 9 (Winter 1995): 367-90; Scott Hendrix, "Martin Luther's Reformation of Spirituality," Lutheran Quarterly 13 (Autumn 1999): 249-70; Bradley Hanson, A Graceful Life: Lutheran Spirituality for Today (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2000). John Pless gives an excellent Lutheran critique of contemporary trends in spirituality in his "The Triangular Shape of the Pastor's Devotional Life," in Lord Jesus Christ, Will You Not Stay: Essays in Honor of Ronald Feuerhahn on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday, eds. J. Bart Day, Jon D. Vieker, Albert B. Collver, Scott A. Bruzek, Kent J. Burreson, Martin E. Conkling, and Naomichi Masaki (Houston: The Feuerhahn Festschrift Committee, 2002), 317-31, particularly on pages 317-18.

2.             See Naomichi Masaki, "The Quest for Experiencing the Divine: The Rise and Effect of Eastern Religious," For the Life of the World 11 (January 2007): 8-10.

3.            Norman E. Nagel, "Luther's Understanding of Christ in Relation to His Doctrine of the Lord's Supper," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1961.

4.            Adolf Köberle, The Quest for Holiness: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Investigation, trans. John C. Mattes (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1936), 1-48. The original title is Rechtfertigung und Heiligung: eine biblische, theologiegeschichtliche und systematische Untersuchung.

5.             Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, ed. and trans. Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007): 93-171.

6.            Gerhard O. Forde, "Luther's ‘Ethics,'" in A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 137-41.

7.           Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 173.

8.          Ibid., 174.

9.            Robert Kolb and James A. Nestingen eds., Sources and Contexts of The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 85, 89-90; Kolb-Wengert, 40-41; BSLK, 56-57.

10.             Theodor Kliefoth, Die ursprüngliche Gottesdienstordnung in den deutschen Kirchen lutherischen Bekenntnisses, ihre Destruction und Reformation (Rostock and Schwerin: Stillerschen Hofbuchhandlung, 1847), 197.

11.            See WA 40 I: 84, 17-19; AE 26: 33. In his Great Galatian Lectures of 1531, Luther teaches that man is indifferent and regards sin as something trivial, a mere nothing. The sinner supposes that sin has so little weight and force that some little work or merit will remove it. That is why the hammer of God is needed (Jer 23:29; SA III, II, 4).

12.           Sed quando ad experientiam venit, tum invenis Evangelium rarum et e contra legem assiduum esse hospitem in conscientia.

13.          Quam primum autem Lex et ratio coniunguntur, statim virginitas fidei violate est.

14.         Legis ergo officium est tantum occidere.

15.          Quare legis proprium offficium est nos reos facere, humiliare, occidere, ad infernum deducere et omnia nobis auferre.

16.         See Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Thesis 23. WA 1: 354. 25-26; AE 31: 41.

17.        Sic Iureconsultus loquitur der homine possessore et domino suarum rerum, Medicus loquitur de homine sano et aegro, Theologus autem disputat de homine PECCATORE.

18.       Das egentliche Ampt des Evengelii, proprium officium evangelii is the preaching of the forgiveness of sins (SA III, IV).

19.         Iustificare peccatorem sit solius Christi proprium officium.

20.          See Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Thesis 28. WA 1: 354. 35-36; AE 31: 41.

21.         Ibi peccatum aliud invenio contra meum peccatum quod me accusat et devorat. Peccatum vero aliud, scilicet in carne Christi, quod tollit peccatum totius mundi, omnipotens est, damnat ac devorat peccatum meum.

22.        Et hoc viderunt omnes Prophetae, quod Christus futurus esset omnium maximus latro, homicida, adulter, fur, sacrilegus, blasphemus etc., quod nullus maior unquam in mundo fuerit.

23.       Quare subinde novam pugnam nobis movet Satan.

24.       Sed subinde suggerit mihi Diabolus falsum Christum.

25.        Also see SC II, 1-2; LC II, 9-24.