Luther’s Reformation of Marriage

“How I dread preaching on the estate of marriage! . . . but timidity is no help in an emergency; I must proceed. I must try to instruct poor bewildered consciences, and take up the matter boldly.”

Martin Luther’s 1522 The Estate of Marriage begins with an honest reflection regarding the difficulty of addressing such a topic. Nonetheless, he saw a dire situation in 16th-century Germany. He knew his words and counsel were needed, and so he boldly took up the pen. In doing so, he dismantled the medieval system of marriage and family and replaced it with a vision of the Christian home that flowed directly from his discovery of justification by faith.

Luther denied that justification by faith was limited to a theological exchange with no implications for how one lives in the world:

“Yes,” you say, “but does not faith justify without the works of the Law?” Yes, this is true. But where is faith? What happens to it? Where does it show itself? For it surely must not be such a sluggish, useless, deaf, or dead thing; it must be a living, productive tree which yields fruit.

These were questions with which Luther was deeply concerned throughout his career: Where is faith? What happens to it? Where does it show itself? For Luther, one key space in which faith is seen is in the Christian home.

One of Luther’s lasting legacies is his insistence that all Christians—not only monks, nuns, and priests—had a divinely ordained calling and responsibility in the fray of the world. There was no clerical caste that enjoyed special privilege or access to God.

Rather, justification by faith leveled the vocational landscape and opened new avenues for everyday people to see their lives as an act of worship and service. Further, Luther applied this concept directly to marriage. As Carter Lindberg notes: “To the medieval person, vocation was limited to priests, nuns, and monks. The thought that persons could serve God in marriage was revolutionary.”

This revolutionary notion had an immense impact on the callings found within the home—that of husband, wife, father, and mother. These callings were opportunities to sincerely love one’s neighbor (unlike the monastery where, Luther thought, neighborly love was cheap and artificial). For Luther, it was in marriage, not the monastery, that one could best fulfill the Great Commandment and Great Commission.

Luther encouraged monks, nuns, and priests who embraced Reformation ideas to enjoy the gift of marriage and to view it through the lens of calling. Because many were abandoning the monasteries and seeking advice from Doctor Martinus, they learned how to be husbands and fathers by watching Luther’s marriage to Katherine and his relationship to his children. Indeed, this is why many Table Talk episodes explore issues of marriage and the home—Luther was tutoring young men in their callings as husbands and fathers. And he was adamant that marriage was a divine gift: “One should not regard any estate as better in the sight of God than the estate of marriage.” Believers, more than all, should “honor, uphold, cherish, and esteem the marriage estate.”

Throughout Luther’s writings, the home existed to make justification by faith tangible. Luther argued that in the home one’s faith was incarnate and beheld; it is where good works, expected of believers, are first embodied. It is where husbands go another mile in service to their wives. It is where parents teach children patience, generosity, and mercy.

The arena of the home was the prime example of Luther’s “doxology of the ordinary.” Though the normal rhythms of an average home may look unremarkable, they are drenched in divine import and approval. Luther saw the home as a spiritual Petri Dish in which faith, holiness, and neighbor-love grew and matured.

Though the home is fraught with trials, it is the most glorious of callings before God. It is where the fruit of the Spirit is tasted by others. “Good and faithful servants” practice not in distant monasteries, but in everyday living rooms. This is where love of neighbor thrives. It is where justification by faith is seen:

You ought to thank the almighty, eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you can boast of the ordinance of God and the holy estate of matrimony. Keep it and raise up your children in the name of God. You do not need to worry about whether you are condemned by God for it, nor will he judge you for the work’s sake; this I know for certain. Indeed, the fact that you are married, as long as you are a Christian, will be a great glory and honor to you on the last day. And now, and as long as you live, be confident in every hour that you are living in an estate which was instituted by God and is pleasing to him.

*This is an edited and adapted version of a paper for the Reformation PhD seminar presented at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in September, 2017.

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