Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 1, 2010

The Lutheran Confessions on Civil Government

In light of the Independance Day holiday this weekend, here is some food for thought on God’s “other kingdom,” the government, taken from the Lutheran Confessions.

From the Augsburg Confession, Article XVI:

1 Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. 2 They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage [Romans 13; 1 Corinthians 7:2].

3 Our churches condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these political offices to Christians. 4 They also condemn those who do not locate evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but place it in forsaking political offices. 5 For the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart (Romans 10:10). At the same time, it does not require the destruction of the civil state or the family. The Gospel very much requires that they be preserved as God’s ordinances and that love be practiced in such ordinances. 6 Therefore, it is necessary for Christians to be obedient to their rulers and laws. 7 The only exception is when they are commanded to sin. Then they ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XVI:

53 The adversaries accept Article XVI without exception. In it we have confessed that it is lawful for the Christian to hold public office, sit in judgment, determine matters by the imperial laws and other laws currently in force, set just punishments, engage in just wars, act as a soldier, make legal contracts, hold property, take an oath (when public officials require it), and contract marriage. Finally, we have confessed that legitimate public ordinances are good creations of God and divine ordinances, which a Christian can safely use. 54 This entire topic about the distinction between the spiritual kingdom of Christ and a political kingdom has been explained in the literature of our writers. Christ’s kingdom is spiritual [John 18:36]. This means that the knowledge of God, the fear of God and faith, eternal righteousness, and eternal life begin in the heart. Meanwhile, Christ’s kingdom allows us outwardly to use legitimate political ordinances of every nation in which we live, just as it allows us to use medicine or the art of building, or food, drink, and air. 55 Neither does the Gospel offer new laws about the public state, but commands that we obey present laws, whether they have been framed by heathens or by others. It commands that in this obedience we should exercise love. Carlstadt was crazy to impose on us Moses’ judicial laws. 56 Our theologians have written more fully about these subjects. They have done so because the monks spread many deadly opinions in the Church. They called holding property in common the governance of the Gospel. They said that not holding property, or not acquitting oneself at law, were evangelical counsels. These opinions greatly cloud over the Gospel and the spiritual kingdom and are dangerous to the commonwealth. 57 For the Gospel does not destroy the state or the family, but rather approves them and asks us to obey them as a divine ordinance, not only because of punishment, but also because of conscience. 

58 Julian the Apostate, Celsus, and very many others objected to Christians that the Gospel would tear states apart because it forbade legal remedy and taught certain other things ill-suited to political association. Origen, Nazianzus, and others wonderfully worked on these questions. However, they can be easily explained if we keep this in mind: The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers. Besides, the Gospel not only approves outward governments, but also subjects us to them (Romans 13:1). In a similar way we have been necessarily placed under the laws of seasons, the changes of winter and summer, as divine ordinances. 59 The Gospel forbids private remedy. Christ instills this often so that the apostles do not think they should seize the governments from those who held otherwise, just as the Jewish people dreamed about the kingdom of the Messiah. Christ did this so that the apostles might know they should teach that the spiritual kingdom does not change the public state. Therefore, private remedy is prohibited not by advice, but by a command (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:19). Public remedy, made through the office of the public official, is not condemned, but is commanded and is God’s work, according to Paul (Romans 13). Now the different kinds of public remedy are legal decisions, capital punishment, wars, and military service. 60 Clearly, many writers have thought wrongly about these matters. They were in the error that the Gospel is an outward, new, and monastic form of government. Also, they did not see that the Gospel brings eternal righteousness to hearts, while it outwardly approves the public state.

61 It is also a most empty myth that Christian perfection consists in not holding property. For Christian perfection does not consist in contempt for public ordinances, but in the inclinations of the heart, in great fear of God, and in great faith. Abraham, David, and Daniel, even in great wealth and while exercising public power, were no less perfect than any hermits. 62 But the monks have spread this outward hypocrisy before the eyes of the people. They have done this so that the things in which true perfection exists could not be seen. How they have praised holding property in common, as though it were evangelical! 63 But these praises are very dangerous, especially since they are very different than the Scriptures. Scripture does not command that we hold property in common. The Law of the Ten Commandments, when it says, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), distinguishes rights of ownership and commands each one to hold what is his own. Clearly Wycliffe was speaking madness when he said that priests were not allowed to hold property. 64 There are countless discussions about contracts. Good consciences can never be satisfied about them unless they know the rule that it is lawful for a Christian to make use of public ordinances and laws. This rule protects consciences. It teaches that contracts are lawful before God just to the extent that the public officials or laws approve them.

65 This entire topic about public affairs has been clearly set forth by our theologians. Very many good people working in the state and in business have declared that they have been greatly benefited by it. Before, troubled by the opinion of the monks, they doubted whether the Gospel allowed these public offices and business. As a result, we have repeated these things so that outsiders may also understand that the doctrine we follow does not wreck the authority of magistrates and the dignity of all public ordinances. Rather, they are strengthened even more. Previously the importance of these matters was greatly clouded over by those silly monastic opinions. They preferred the hypocrisy of poverty and humility to the state and the family. The latter have God’s command, while this Platonic community ‹monasticism› does not.

From the Large Catechism, Fourth Commandment

150 The same should also be said about obedience to civil government. This (as we have said) is all included in the place of fatherhood and extends farthest of all relations. Here “father” is not one person from a single family, but it means the many people the father has as tenants, citizens, or subjects. Through them, as through our parents, God gives to us food, house and home, protection, and security. They bear such name and title with all honor as their highest dignity that it is our duty to honor them and to value them greatly as the dearest treasure and the most precious jewel upon earth.

151 The person who is obedient in this is willing and ready to serve. He cheerfully does all that deals with honor. He knows that he is pleasing God and that he will receive joy and happiness for his reward. If he will not do this in love, but despises and resists authority or rebels, let him also know that he shall have no favor or blessing. Where he thinks he will gain a florin, he will lose ten times as much elsewhere. Or he will become a victim to the hangman, perish by war, pestilence, or famine. He will experience no good in his children and be obliged to suffer injury, injustice, and violence at the hands of his servants, neighbors, or strangers and tyrants. For what we seek and deserve is paid back and comes home to us [Galatians 6:7].

152 If we would ever allow ourselves to be persuaded that such works are pleasing to God and have so rich a reward, we would be completely established in abundant possessions and have what our heart desires [Psalm 37:4]. But because God’s Word and command are so lightly esteemed, as though some peddler had spoken it, let us see whether you are the person to oppose Him. How difficult, do you think, it will be for God to pay you back! 153 You would certainly live much better with divine favor, peace, and happiness than with His displeasure and misfortune. 154 Why do you think the world is now so full of unfaithfulness, disgrace, calamity, and murder? It is because everyone desires to be his own master and free from the emperor, to care nothing for anyone, and to do what pleases him. Therefore, God punishes one knave by another, so that, when you defraud and despise your master, another comes and deals in the same way with you. Yes, in your household you must suffer ten times more from wife, children, or servants.

155 We feel our misfortune, we murmur and complain of unfaithfulness, violence, and injustice. But we refuse to see that we ourselves are knaves who have fully deserved this punishment. And even by this we are not reformed. We will have no favor and happiness. Therefore, it is only fair that we have nothing but misfortune without mercy. 156 There must still be somewhere upon earth some godly people, because God continues to grant us so much good! On our own account, we should not have a farthing in the house nor a straw in the field. 157 All this I have been obliged to urge with so many words, in the hope that someone may take it to heart. Then we may be relieved of the blindness and misery in which we are stuck so deeply. Then we may truly understand God’s Word and will, and seriously accept it. We would learn how we could have joy, happiness, and salvation enough, both now and eternally.

158 So we have two kinds of fathers presented in this commandment: fathers in blood and fathers in office. Or, those who have the care of the family and those who have the care of the country. …

164 But those who keep God’s will and commandment in sight have this promise: everything they give to temporal and spiritual fathers, and whatever they do to honor them, shall be richly repaid to them. They will not have bread, clothing, and money for a year or two, but will have long life, support, and peace. They shall be eternally rich and blessed. 165 So just do what is your duty. Let God manage how He will support you and provide enough for you. Since He has promised it and has never lied yet, He will not be found lying to you [Titus 1:2].

166 This ought to encourage us and give us hearts that would melt in pleasure and love for those to whom we owe honor. We ought to raise our hands [1 Timothy 2:8] and joyfully thank God, who has given us such promises. For such promises we ought to run to the ends of the world‹, to the remotest parts of India›. For although the whole world should work together, it could not add an hour to our life [Matthew 6:27] or give us a single grain from the earth. But God wishes to give you everything exceedingly and abundantly according to your heart’s desire [Psalm 37:4]. He who despises and casts this promise to the winds is not worthy ever to hear a word about God. More than enough has now been stated for all who belong under this commandment.

Excerpts from the CPH 2005 translation of the Book of Concord

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