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Luther on the Sermon on the Mount

July 6, 2010
Now, let’s turn to look at Martin Luther’s expositions of the Sermon on the Mount.  We find the first of these in his treatise Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, and the second in, unsurprisingly, The Sermon on the Mount.  The first, while troubled by a number of inconsistencies (some simply the result of Luther’s characteristic lack of rhetorical caution), offers a much more satisfactory account than the second.  I shall resist the temptation to dwell on the inconsistencies and will stick to the core argument.
In this treatise, Luther beings by rejecting the “counsels of perfection” idea.  We must, he says, find a way to make these words “apply to everyone alike, be he perfect or imperfect.”  
All Christians then are bound by the commands of the Sermon on the Mount, and for themselves have no need of “prince, king, lord, sword, or law.”  However, the majority of those who live here in the world are not Christians; they do not observe Christ’s commands, but are full of violence and evil.  We cannot insist on applying these commands across the board in a society that is not ready for them.  “Certainly it is true that Christians, so far as they themselves are concerned, are subject neither to law nor sword, and have need of neither.  But take heed and first fill the world with real Chrsitains before you attempt to rule it in a Christian and evangelical manner.”  And so it is necessary that for such people there be a temporal sword “to bring about peace and prevent evil deeds,” while the spiritual does its work of “producing righteousness.”
Now, at this point, the argument is looking quite unsatisfactory.  You are tempted to scribble in the margin (as I did), something along the lines of, “But Martin, Jesus knew that not everyone would do good when he gave the command to resist not evil; otherwise, there would have been no need for the command.  He’s presuming that we’re surrounded by violent men, but we’re supposed to overcome by love, not a sword.”  But then things become much clearer.  Luther says, 
“Since a true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor, he does by the very nature of his spirit even what he himself has no need of, but is needful and usefu to his neighbor.  Because the sword is most beneficial and necessary for the whole world in order to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked, the Christian submits most willingly to the rule of the sword, pays his taxes, honors those in authority, serves, helps, and does all he can to assist the governing authority... Although he has no need of these things for himself--to him they are not essential--nevertheless, he concerns himself about what is serviceable and of benefit to others.”  
In other words, Christ has forbidden his followers to use the sword to defend themselves, he has counselled them to give up their own cloaks when demanded, but he has never said that they cannot defend others, or track down and punish the thieves who take the cloaks of others.  He finally states this clearly a couple of pages later: 
“From all this we gain the true meaning of Christ’s words in Matthew 5:39, ‘Do not resist evil,’ etc.  It is this: A Christian should be so disposed that he will suffer every evil and injustice without avenging himself; neither will he seek legal redress in the courts but have utterly no need of temporal authority and law for his own sake.  On behalf of others, however, he may and should seek vengeance, justice, protection, and help, and do as much as he can to achieve it.  Likewise, the governing authority shoud, on its own initiative or through the instigation of others, help and protect him too, without any complaint, application, or instigation on his own part.  If it fails to do this, he should permit himself to be despoiled and slandered; he should not resist evil, as Christ’s words say.”  
Now this is quite interesting, and in fact, quite different from what he started out by saying.  You will see that as he reaches his conclusion, the two kingdoms schema he had begun with proves irrelevant.  For it is not that Christians don’t use the sword, and unbelievers do, or that Christians mustn’t use the sword against one another, but must against unbelievers who do, or even that Christians don’t use the sword for themsleves, but do use it for unbelievers.  Rather, it is quite simply, no Christian uses the sword for himself, or is anxious for his own rights and well-being, but all are anxious for the rights and well-being of others, Christians or worldlings, and will use the sword to protect them if necessary.  
This solution then qualifies, under the schema identified in the first part of this essay, as the fourth approach to dealing with the Sermon on the Mount.  It has the strength of having not added to or detracted from Christ’s words there--he means exactly what he says: “If you are attacked, turn the other cheek.  If you are stolen from, give to your enemy.”  However, Luther does not stick to this solution, as we will see in the next segment.

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