Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Christian Passivity?

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Just WarTo this point it seems that using Bornkamm’s understanding of Luther’s doctrine would allow for little passivity from the Christian when their neighbor was confronted with evil. On the breadth of secular authority, Luther’s concern was that temporal authority must not endeavor to control the prescription of laws for the soul, for to do so would encroach upon Christ’s government, which would mislead and destroy souls.[56] Luther speaks against both those leaders of God’s kingdom who have sought to control temporal matters such as land and animals, as well as those rulers of the temporal kingdom who have abandoned their just duties concerning land and property and have rushed into the insanity of attempting to exercise spiritual control over souls.[57] Luther, citing St. Paul, St. Peter, King David, and Christ,[58] argues that temporal authorities only have control over the physical body and outward actions,[59] whereas bishops and leaders of the kingdom of God must live in a manner consistent with Christ’s standards of justice and use their office to serve their fellow Christians.[60] Thus, in the understanding of how far temporal authority may reach, Luther both limits the use of temporal force in the kingdom of Christ, and proceeds to argue for greater temporal power in matters not directly under the control of the kingdom of the world.

Luther allows for defensive warfare, [61] saying that even for Christian princes a just and defensive war may be “an act of love.”[62] Luther only tolerates civil disobedience to higher authorities when a prince or ruler fails to follow God, and even under such circumstances (which Luther does not carefully elaborate upon), “No surer law can be found in this matter than the law of love.”[63] These modifications to his overall construction should not be understood as a total withdrawal of Christian concerns from the temporal sphere, but instead Luther defining the purposes of each kingdom within their spheres of ordination and the proper behavior of Christians within those spheres. Luther’s overall understanding of the proper relationship of the Christian to civil government as outlined in Temporal Authority fundamentally focuses upon proper Christian action consistent with God’s wisdom and love of one’s neighbor that enables action from Christians in the kingdom of the world.

Luther’s later thought on the relationship between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world includes his writing against those involved in the Peasant Revolt of 1525. For Luther those who had rebelled against their temporal leaders committed the sin of identifying their cause with that of the Gospel of Christ, in which they had incorrectly mixed the purposes of the two kingdoms. Porter explains Luther’s position by saying that, “There are two kingdoms, and the Christian’s duty is to suffer and pray in this world; it is not to take the sword against temporal authority.”[64] In writing against the peasants, Luther consistently cited the divine ordination of the temporal, and admonishes all to obey their leaders. “He [Luther] is constantly opposed to rebellion and offensive warfare: he opposed the rebellion of the knights in the Sickingen War of 1522, he opposed the Peasants’ War of 1525, and he opposed an offensive crusade against the Turks in 1529.”[65]

Older Luther
Older Luther

Later in Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to His Dear German People, Luther argues that defensive warfare may be acceptable within the parameters of the two kingdoms model, though `with several qualifications. Luther here does not want to “incite or spur anyone on to such self-defense, or to justify it,” for he believes that can be done by lawyers and jurists.[66] Lastly, Luther argues that “active self-defense would not be a rebellion in the precise sense because Protestants do keep peace and would not overthrow authority while the papists refuse to keep the peace and would start the war.”[67] Some have argued that such a system means that, “Insurrection, to be sure, is still forbidden to the Christian; but defensive action in protection of the gospel—even if military means be used, and even if these be directed against the emperor—is not to be counted as insurrection. The use of force in such circumstances may be justified, as in the case of a ‘just war’ according to the classic doctrine, if the end is just, the means appropriate, and if all peaceful means of settlement have failed.”[68]


[56] On Temporal Authority, 106. [57] Ibid., 109. [58] Romans 13:7, 1 Peter 2:13, Psalm 113, and Matthew 22:21, respectively. [59] Ibid., 110-1. [60] Ibid., 116-7. [61] Ibid., 125. [62] Ibid., 125. [63] Ibid., 127. [64] J.M. Porter. Luther: Selected Political Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974. 14. [65] Ibid., 14. [66] Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to His Dear German People. Ref. Porter, 14-6. [67] Ibid., 16. [68] Frank Sherman, “Introduction,” Luther’s Works, vol. 47, The Christian in Society, IV, trans. Martin H. Bertam. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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