This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
When the earliest Lutherans reformed the practices of medieval Christianity, they did it with one goal in mind: to remove any obstacles to rightly understanding the gospel that Christ saves us through faith in him and what he has done for us. It’s not that Luther and his colleagues found the medieval liturgy boring or unmeaningful. It’s not that they wanted the church to adapt to the times. It’s not that they were trying to reach a changing culture, let alone trying to change culture itself. It’s not even that they believed worship had to be biblical in the sense of adhering to what was specifically prescribed in Scripture—that was the position of their Reformed Protestant opponents. Simply put, they wanted the practices of the church to be more biblically and theologically sound, so as not to mislead Christians in a way that was harmful to their faith. Instead, they would be instructed through Christian worship to understand the faith rightly, and in turn that would lead them to practicing their Christianity rightly and believing in Christ rightly. Everything those Lutherans changed about the life of the church—whether that was new liturgies, new hymns, new catechisms, the way they preached or sang or prayed—had to do with what those practices communicated about the faith.
In his 1521 sermon, “The Three Kinds of the Good Life for the Instruction of Christian Consciences,” Martin Luther shows that the proper end of all Christian life is a right saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and what he has done. That, in turn, should shape what Christians do. Of course, the premise for the sermon is the ancient philosopher Aristotle’s description of the “good life.” The purpose, end, goal, or “telos,” of human life for Aristotle was “eudaimonia”—“happiness,” but in our terms something more like true fulfillment of human potential. In Aristotelian ethics, that meant learning and improving so that one might act and live virtuously. For Luther and other critics of medieval Christianity, much of the Christian life had become simply adhering to certain rules—attending Mass, saying prayers, fasting from certain foods, taking certain vows—rather than reaching the true apex of Christianity: the knowledge of Christ and his promise of salvation. Rather than external principles for how one should live, thinkers like Luther wanted Christians to move beyond the typical medieval customs to a more fervent faith in Christ, and that would come only with proper instruction in what they were to believe.
Luther uses “The Three Kinds of the Good Life” to provide that proper instruction, yet he does so in a way that might not resonate with those of us who are unfamiliar with medieval Christianity. Luther lays out the three kinds of good life through an analogy to church architecture: the churchyard, the nave, and the sanctuary. The churchyard symbolizes the externals of medieval Christianity, things like the Mass, fasting, vows, etc. For Luther, these practices are built on an improper view of justification by faith, so you have to leave the churchyard and move into the nave in order to get past this misunderstanding. The nave symbolizes the true good works of the Christian life. While medieval practices were built upon wrong assumptions, these true good works are derived from Scripture itself. He doesn’t confuse works with righteousness before God, but rightly understands works as biblical virtues that God himself prescribes for the believer: “humility, meekness, gentleness, peace, fidelity, love, propriety, purity, and the like” (LW 44:239). Yet the Christian must not remain in the nave; the goal is to reach the sanctuary, the “holy of holies.” The sanctuary represents the heart of saving faith in the gospel: “Here he has set Christ before us and promised that he who believes in him and calls on his name shall at once receive the Holy Spirit” (LW 44:241). The sanctuary holds the ultimate goal of the good Christian life, for it offers everlasting salvation.
What we must not miss in Luther’s argument, though, is that that all three of these relate to the good life: externals, good works, and faith in Christ. The churchyard, the nave, and the sanctuary are all part of the church, even if there is a clear order of importance. Given the context, Luther has very little positive to say about externals, chiefly because so many abuses of his day had come to detract from the gospel. He wants to encourage virtuous living according to Holy Scripture rather than works based upon our “own choice,” as the Formula of Concord puts it when it defends the third use of the law (Solid Declaration 7.20; Kolb/Wengert, 590). Even more significant than obeying God’s law is to arrive at a knowledge of Christ and his forgiveness which the Holy Spirit inspires in our hearts—though Luther cautions us against contrasting the two: “A preacher should not try to separate the two, although he should push faith to the fore” (LW 44:242). Ultimately, all three—externals, good works and faith in Christ—are fundamental parts of what it means to live out the good life as a Christian, just as the churchyard, the nave, and the sanctuary are fundamental parts of the church. The goal is that we understand them correctly and put them in a right relation to each other.
Luther’s “The Three Kinds of the Good Life,” is, in a word, about doctrine. Indeed, that’s why the extended title is “The Three Kinds of the Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences.” Luther wants these ways of living and worshipping as Christians to be shaped by a biblical understanding of the faith. He isn’t rejecting externals any more than he is rejecting good works; he is rejecting externals that lead to a false works-righteousness, in the same way that he criticizes any false confidence that our good works themselves will justify us before God. The problem isn’t the externals, let alone the good works—the problem is the misunderstanding of the externals and the works. For Luther, a right understanding of the Christian faith as revealed in Holy Scripture, and above all the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, should shape all that we do in the church and how we live as Christians.
This is precisely how Luther will approach the reform of the liturgy during the Reformation. He doesn’t belittle worship as merely an “external.” He instead uses the liturgy to instruct the people in the faith by eliminating anything that obscures the gospel or is inconsistent with Scripture. In his very conservative 1523 reform of the Latin Mass, he simply removed elements that contradicted Scripture or justification by faith, such as the liturgy and prayers associated with consecrating the Sacrament of the Altar, known as the “Canon of the Mass.” Likewise, in his 1526 German Mass, though Luther went farther in terms of reforming the liturgy, he prefaced it by saying that what the German service needed first of all was a “plain and simple, fair and square catechism,” that is, a means of instruction in Christian doctrine so that the faithful will know the faith expressed in their corporate worship (LW 53:64). He then proceeds to lay out a service in the vernacular—in this case, German—so that the common person may better understand the worship and the Word taught throughout it. The Augsburg Confession and the Apology later pick up on this same tack. They do not reject or denigrate worship as useless external forms, but instead say they are of great benefit for, among other things, the purpose of instruction: “Ceremonies should be observed both so that people may learn the Scriptures and so that, admonished by the Word, they might experience faith and fear and finally even pray. For these are the purposes of the ceremonies” (Apology 24.3; Kolb/Wengert, 258). Note the order: first the external ceremonies, and then through the Word in the ceremonies comes faith, fear, and prayer—those things that relate to embracing the promise of Christ and his forgiveness. For Luther, as well as later Lutherans, externals such as worship were not disregarded, but were to be understood properly—that is, not as a means to please God or earn justification, but rather as a means through which God instructs his people in his Word, so that they might fear, trust, and love him rightly.
Is that how we view externals, especially corporate worship? Are they vehicles for God’s Word to come to us so that we might obey him with our lives and believe in his promises? Or have they become objects we manipulate to get the intended effect, the religious version of stage lighting on a speaker or mood music in a film? Do we use our worship to create a certain atmosphere (it makes no difference whether you do it with a choir and organ or with a praise band), to affect people emotionally or evoke a reaction? If so, we have wandered far from Luther’s understanding of externals and their relationship to living out consciously Christian lives. Worship, for Luther, for the confessions, and even for us, isn’t about personal experience or a sense of mystery or an emotional connection, nor is it about musical precision or stage performance. It isn’t even about long-established liturgical tradition. Most especially, it isn’t about us at all and what we seek to do through it. It is rather about what God does through it in his Word. It is about communicating biblical truth. It is about the Word of God coming to the people through Scripture and sermon and sacrament. It is about the Word preached and taught purely and the sacraments administered rightly, for through them—as through means—the Holy Spirit is at work among us, convicting sinners of their sins, granting sinners faith to believe in the gospel where there is no faith, and sustaining faith in the gospel where there is already saving faith (Augsburg Confession 5). Luther did not reject externals, for provided they were understood rightly, they became instruments for instruction of the faithful. They were rather one step leading toward the good life of the Christian, to the “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13-14).