Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed
57 min read
57 min read
To the illustrious high born prince and lord, Lord John, Duke of Saxony, Landgrave of Thuringia Margrave of Meissen, my gracious lord.
Grace and peace in Christ. Again, illustrious, highborn prince, gracious lord, necessity is laid upon me, and the entreaties of many, and above all your Princely Grace’s wishes, impel me to write about temporal authority and the sword it bears, how to use it in a Christian manner, and to what extent men are obligated to obey it. You are perturbed over Christ’s injunction in Matthew 5:39, 25, 40, “Do not resist evil, but make friends with your accuser; and if any one should take your coat, let him have your cloak as well”; and Romans 12:19 , “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” These very texts were used long ago against St. Augustine by the prince Volusian, who charged that Christian teaching permits the wicked to do evil, and is incompatible with the temporal sword.
The sophists in the universities have also been perplexed by these texts, because they could not reconcile the two things. In order not to make heathen of the princes, they taught that Christ did not demand these things but merely offered them as advice or counsel to those who would be perfect. So Christ had to become a liar and be in error in order that the princes might come off with honor, for they could not exalt the princes without degrading Christ-wretched blind sophists that they are. And their poisonous error has spread thus to the whole world until everyone regards these teachings of Christ not as precepts binding on all Christians alike but as mere counsels for the perfect. It has gone so far that they have granted the imperfect estate of the sword and of the temporal authority not only to the estate of the bishops, but even to the pope, that most perfect estate of all; in fact, they have ascribed it to no one on earth so completely as to him! So thoroughly has the devil taken control of the sophists and the universities that they themselves do not know how they speak or teach.
I hope, however, that I may instruct the princes and the temporal authorities in such a way that they will remain Christians-and Christ will remain Lord-and yet Christ’s commands will not for their sake have to become mere counsels.
I do this as a humble service to your Princely Grace, for the benefit of everyone who may need it, and to the praise and glory of Christ our Lord. I commend your Princely Grace with all your kin to the grace of God. May he mercifully have you in his keeping.
At Wittenberg, New Year’s Day, 1523.
Your Princely Grace’s obedient servant,
Some time ago I addressed a little book to the German nobility, setting forth their Christian office and functions. How far they acted on my suggestions is only too evident. Hence, I must change my tactics and write them, this time, what they should omit and not do. I fear this new effort will have as little effect on them as the other, and that they will continue to be princes and never become Christians. For God the Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do-and order their subjects to do-whatever they please. And the subjects make the mistake of believing that they, in turn, are bound to obey their rulers in everything. It has gone so far that the rulers have begun ordering the people to get rid of certain books, and to believe and conform to what the rulers prescribe. They are thereby presumptuously setting themselves in God’s place, lording it over men’s consciences and faith, and schooling the Holy Spirit according to their own crackbrained ideas. Nevertheless, they let it be known that they are not to be contradicted, and are to be called gracious lords all the same.
They issue public proclamations, and say that this is the emperor’s command and that they want to be obedient Christian princes, just as if they really meant it and no one noticed the scoundrel behind the mask. If the emperor were to take a castle or a city from them or command some other injustice, we should then see how quickly they would find themselves obliged to resist the emperor and disobey him. But when it comes to fleecing the poor or venting their spite on the word of God, it becomes a matter of “obedience to the imperial command.” Such people were formerly called scoundrels; now they have to be called obedient Christian princes. Still they will not permit anyone to appear before them for a hearing or to defend himself, no matter how humbly he may petition. If the emperor or anyone else were to treat them this way, they would regard it as quite intolerable. Such are the princes who today rule the empire in the German lands. This is also why things are going so well in all the lands, as we see!
Because the raging of such fools tends toward the suppression of the Christian faith, the denying of the divine word, and the blaspheming of the Divine Majesty, I can and will no longer just look at my ungracious lords and angry nobles; I shall have to resist them, at least with words. And since I have not been in terror of their idol, the pope, who threatens to deprive me of soul and heaven, I must show that I am not in terror of his lackeys and bullies who threaten to deprive me of body and of earth. God grant that they may have the rage until the gray coats perish, and help us that we may not die of their threatenings. Amen.
First, we must provide a sound basis for the civil law and sword so no one will doubt that it is in the world by God’s will and ordinance. The passages which do this are the following: Romans 12, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Again, in I Peter 2:13-14 , “Be subject to every kind of human ordinance, whether it be to the king as supreme, or to governors, as those who have been sent by him to punish the wicked and to praise the righteous.”
The law of this temporal sword has existed from the beginning of the world. For when Cain slew his brother Abel, he was in such great terror of being killed in turn that God even placed a special prohibition on it and suspended the sword for his sake, so that no one was to slay him Gen. 4: 14-15. He would not have had this fear if he had not seen and heard from Adam that murderers are to be slain. Moreover, after the Flood, God reestablished and confirmed this in unmistakable terms when he said in Genesis 9: 6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This cannot be understood as a plague or punishment of God upon murderers, for many murderers who are punished in other ways or pardoned altogether continue to live, and eventually die by means other than the sword. Rather, it is said of the law of the sword, that a murderer is guilty of death and injustice is to be slain by the sword. Now if justice should be hindered or the sword have become negligent so that the murderer dies a natural death, Scripture in not on that account false when it says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The credit or blame belongs to men if this law instituted by God is not carried out; just as other commandments of God, too, are broken.
Afterward it was also confirmed by the law of Moses, Exodus 21:14 , “If a man willfully kills another, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” And again, in the same chapter, “A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a foot for a foot, a hand for a hand, a wound for a wound, a stripe for a stripe.” In addition, Christ also confirms it when he says to Peter in the garden, “He that takes the sword will perish by the sword” Matt. 26:52 , which is to be interpreted exactly like the Genesis 9:6 passage, “Whoever sheds the blood of man,” etc. Christ is undoubtedly referring in these words to that very passage which he thereby wishes to cite and confirm. John the Baptist also teaches the same thing. When the soldiers asked him what they should do, he answered, “Do neither violence nor injustice to any one, and be content with your wages” Luke 3:14 . If the sword were not a godly estate, he should have directed them to get out of it, since he was suppose to make the people perfect and instruct them in a proper Christian way. Hence, it is certain and clear enough that it is God’s will that the temporal sword and law be used for the punishment of the wicked and the protection of the upright.
Second. There appear to be powerful arguments to the contrary. Christ says in Matthew 5:38-41 , “You have heard that it was said to them of old: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist evil; but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let them have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” etc. Likewise Paul in Romans 12:19 , “Beloved, defend not yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay says the Lord.’” And in Matthew 5:44 , “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you.” And again in I Peter 2 3:9 , “Do not return evil for evil, or reviling for reviling,” etc. These and similar passages would certainly make it appear as though in the New Testament Christians were to have no temporal sword.
Hence, the sophists also say that Christ has thereby abolished the law of Moses. Of such commandments they make “counsels” for the perfect. They divide Christian teaching and Christians into two classes. One part they call the perfect, and assign to it such counsels. The other they call the imperfect, and assign to it the commandments. This they do out of sheer wantonness and caprice, without any scriptural basis. They fail to see that in the same passage Christ lays such stress on his teachings that he is unwilling to have the least word of it set aside, and condemns to hell those who do not love their enemies. Therefore, we must interpret these passages differently, so that Christ’s words may apply to everyone alike, be he perfect, or imperfect. For perfection and imperfection are do not consist in works, and do not establish any distinct external order among Christians. They exist in the heart, in faith and love, so that those who believe and love the most are the perfect ones, whether they be outwardly male or female, prince or peasant, monk or layman. For the love and faith produce no sects or outward differences.
Third. Here we must divide the children of Adam and all mankind into two classes, the first belonging to the kingdom of God, the second to the kingdom of the world. Those who belong to the kingdom of God are all true believers who are in Christ and under Christ, for Christ is King and Lords in the kingdom of God, as Psalm 2:6 and all of Scripture says. For this reason he came into the world, that he might begin God’s kingdom and establish it in the world. Therefore, he says before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of the world, but every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” John 18:36-37 . In the gospel he continually refers to the kingdom of God, and says, “Amend your ways, the kingdom of God and his righteousness” Matthew 6:33 . He also calls the gospel a gospel of the kingdom of God; because it teaches, governs, and upholds God’s kingdom.
Now observe, these people need no temporal law or sword. If all the world were composed of real Christians, that is, true believers, there would be no need for benefits from prince, king, lord, sword, or law. They would serve no purpose, since Christians have in their heart the Holy Spirit, who both teaches and makes them to do injustice to no one, to love everyone, and to suffer injustice and even death willingly and cheerfully at the hands of anyone. Where there is nothing but the unadulterated doing of right and bearing of wrong, there is no need for any suit, litigation, court, judge, penalty, law, or sword. For this reason it is impossible that the temporal sword and law should find any work to do among Christians, since they do of their own accord much more than all the laws and teachings can demand, just as Paul says in I Timothy 1:9 , “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless.”
Why is this? It is because the righteous man of his own accord does all and more than the law demands. But the unrighteous do nothing that the law demands; therefore, they need the law to instruct, constrain, and compel them to do good. A good tree needs no instruction or law to bear good fruit; its nature causes it to bear according to its kind without any law or instruction. I would take to be quite a fool any man who would make a book full of laws and statutes for an apple tree telling it how to bear apples and not thorns, when the tree is able by its own nature to do this better than the man with all his books can describe and demand. Just so, by the Spirit and by faith all Christians are so thoroughly disposed and conditioned in their very nature that they do right and keep the law better than one can teach them with all manner of statutes; so far as they themselves are concerned, no statutes or laws are needed.
You ask: Why, then, did God give so many commandments to all mankind, and why does Christ prescribe in the gospel so many things for us to do? Of this I have written at length in the Postils and elsewhere. To put it here as briefly as possible, Paul says that the law has been laid down for the sake of the lawless I Timothy 1:9, that is, so that those who are not Christians may through the law be restrained outwardly from evil deeds, as we shall later. Now since no one is by nature Christians or righteous, but altogether sinful and wicked, God through the law puts them all under restraint so they dare not willfully implement their wickedness in actual deeds. In addition, Paul ascribes to the law another function in Romans 7 and Galatians 2, that of teaching men to recognize sin in order that it may make them humble unto grace and unto faith in Christ. Christ does the same thing here in Matthew 5:39, where he teaches that we should not resist evil; by this he is interpreting the law and teaching what ought to be and must be the state and temper of a true Christian, as we shall hear further later on.
Fourth. All who are not Christians belong to the kingdom of the world and are under the law. There are few true believers, and still fewer who live a Christian life, who do not resist evil and indeed themselves do no evil. For this reason God has provided for them a different government beyond the Christian estate and kingdom of God. He has subjected them to the sword so that, even though they would like to, they are unable to practice their wickedness, and if they do practice it they cannot do so without their wickedness, and if they do practice it they cannot do so without fear or with success and impunity. In the same way a savage wild beast is bound with chains and ropes so that is cannot bite and tear as it would normally do, even though it would like to; whereas a tame and gentle animal needs no restraint, but is harmless despite the lack of chains and ropes.
If this were not so, men would devour one another, seeing that the whole world is evil and that among thousands there is scarcely a single true Christian. No one could support wife and child, feed himself, and serve God. The world would be reduced to chaos. For this reason God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal, which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that-no thanks to them-they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace. Thus does St. Paul interpret the temporal sword in Romans 13:3 , when he says it is not a terror to good conduct but to bad. And Peter says it is for the punishment of the wicked I Peter 2:14 .
If anyone attempted to rule the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and sword on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that, according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or sword-or need for either-pray tell me, friend, what would he be doing? He would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle creatures; but I would have the proof in my wounds. Just so would the wicked under the name of Christian abuse evangelical freedom, carrying on their rascality, and insist that they were Christians subject neither to the law not sword, as some are already raving and ranting.
To such a one we must say: Certainly it is true that Christians, so far as they themselves are concerned, are subject neither to law nor sword, have need of either. But take heed and first fill the world with real Christian before you attempt to rule it in a Christian or evangelical manner. This you will never accomplish; for the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in names. Christians are few and far between (as they say is). Therefore, it is out of the question that there should be a common Christian government over the whole world, or indeed over a single country or any considerable body of the people, for the wicked always outnumber the good. Hence, a man who would venture to govern an entire country or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should put together in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep, and let them mingle freely with one another, saying, “Help yourselves, and be good and peaceful toward one another. The fold is open, there is plenty of food. You need have no fear of dogs and clubs.” The sheep would doubtless keep the peace and allow themselves to be fed and governed peacefully, but they would not live long, nor would one beast survive another.
For this reason one must carefully distinguish between these two governments. Both must be permitted to remain; the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds. Neither one is sufficient in the world without the other. No one can become righteous in the sight of God by means of the temporal government, without Christ’s spiritual government. Christ’s government does not extend over all men; rather, Christians are always a minority in the midst of non-Christians. Now where temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God’s own. For without the Holy Spirit in the heart no one becomes truly righteous, no matter how fine the works he does. On the other hand, where the spiritual government alone prevails over land and people, there wickedness is given free rein and the door is open for all manner of rascality, for the world as a whole cannot receive or comprehend it.
Now you see the intent of Christ’s words which we quoted above from Matthew 5, that Christians should not go to law or use the temporal sword among themselves. Actually, he says this only to his beloved Christians, those who alone accept it and act accordingly, who do not make “counsels” out of it as the sophists do, but in their heart are so disposed and conditioned genaturt by the Spirit that they do evil to no one and willingly endure evil at the hands of others. If now the whole world were Christian in this sense, then these words would apply to all, and all would act accordingly. Since the world in un-Christian, however, these words do not apply to all; and all do not act accordingly, but are under another government in which those who are not Christian are kept under external constraint and compelled to keep the peace and do what is good.
This is also why Christ did not wield the sword, or give it a place in his kingdom. For he is a king over Christians and rulers by his Holy Spirit alone, without law. Although he sanctions the sword, he did not make use of it, for it serves no purpose in his kingdom, in which there are none but the upright. Hence, David of old was not permitted to build the temple II Sam. 7:4-13 , because he had wielded the sword and had shed much blood. Not that he had done wrong thereby, but because he could not be a type of Christ, who without the sword was to have a kingdom of peace. It had to be built instead by Solomon, whose name in German means “Frederich” or “peaceful”; he had a peaceful kingdom, by which the truly peaceful kingdom of Christ, the real Frederich and Solomon, could be represented. Again, “during the entire building of the temple no tool of iron was heard,” as the text says I Kings 6:7 ; all for this reason, that Christ, without constraint and force, without law and sword, was to have a people who would serve him willingly.
That it is what the prophets mean in Psalm 110:3 , “Your people will act of their own free volition”; and in Isaiah 11:9 , “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”; and again in Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and no one shall lift up the sword against another, neither shall they put their efforts into war anymore,” etc. Whoever would extend the application of these and similar passages to wherever Christ’s name is mentioned, would entirely pervert the Scripture; rather, they are spoken only of true Christians, who really do this among themselves.
Fifth, But you say: if Christians then do not need the temporal sword or law, why does Paul say to all Christians in Romans 13:1 , “Let all souls be subject to the governing authority,” and St. Peter, “Be subject to every human ordinance” I Pet. 2:13 , etc., as quoted? Answer: I have just said that Christians, among themselves, need no law or sword, since it is neither necessary nor useful for them. 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 it is needful and useful 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, serves, helps, and does all he can to assist the governing authority, that it may continue to function and be held in honor and fear. 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, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 .
Just as he performs all other works of love which he himself does not need – he does not visit the sick in order that he himself might be made well, or feed others because he himself needs food-so he serves the governing authority not because he needs it but for the sake of others, that they may be protected and that the wicked may not become worse. He loses nothing by this; such service in no way harms him, yet it is of great benefit to the world. If he did not serve he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love; he would also be setting a bad example to others who in like manner would not submit to authority, even though they were not Christians. In this way the gospel would be brought into disrepute, as though it taught insurrection and produced self-willed people unwilling to benefit or serve others, when in fact it make a Christian the servant of all. Thus in Matthew 17:27 Christ paid the half-shelked tax that he might not offend them, although he had no need to do so.
Thus you observe in the words of Christ quoted above from Matthew 5 that he clearly teaches that Christians among themselves should have no temporal sword or law. He does not, however, forbid one to serve and be subject to those who do have the secular sword or law. Rather, since you do not need it and should not have it, you are to serve all the more those who have not to such heights as you and who therefore do still need it. Although you do not need to have your enemy punished, your afflicted neighbor does. You should help him that he may have peace and that his enemy might be curbed, but this is not possible unless the governing authority is honored and feared. Christ does not say, “You shall not serve the governing authority or be subject to it,” but rather, “Do not resist evil” Matt. 5:39 , as much to say, “Behave in such a way that you bear everything, so that you may not need the governing authority to help you and serve you or be beneficial or essential for you, but that you in turn may help and serve it, being beneficial and essential to it. I would have you be too exalted and far too noble to have any need of it; it should rather have need of you.”
Sixth. You ask whether a Christian too may bear the temporal sword and punish the wicked, since Christ’s words, “Do not resist evil,” are so clear and definite that the sophists have had to make of them a “counsel.” Answer: You have now heard two propositions. One is that the sword can have no place among Christians; therefore, you cannot bear it among Christians or hold it over them, for they do not need it. The question, therefore, must be referred to the other group, the non-Christians, whether you may bear it there in a Christian manner. Here the other proposition applies, that you are under obligation to serve and assist the sword by whatever means you can, with body, goods, honor, and soul. For it is something which you do not need, but which is very beneficial and essential for the whole world and for your neighbor. Therefore, if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you find that you are qualified , you should offer your services and seek the position, that the essential government authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. The world cannot and dare not dispense with it.
Here is the reason why you should do this: In such a case you should be entering entirely into the service and work of others, which would be of advantage neither to yourself nor your property or honor, but only to your neighbor and to others. You would be doing it not with the purpose of avenging yourself or returning evil for evil, but for the good of your neighbor and for the maintenance of the safety and peace of others. For yourself, you would abide by the gospel and govern yourself according to Christ’s word Matt. 5:39-40 , gladly turning the other cheek and letting the cloak go with the coat when the matter concerned you and your cause.
In this way two propositions are brought into harmony with one another: at one and the same time you satisfy God’s kingdom inwardly and the kingdom of the world outwardly. You suffer evil and injustice, and yet at the same time you punish evil and injustice; you do not resist evil, and yet at the same time, you do resist it. In the one case, you consider yourself and what is yours; in the other, you consider your neighbor and what is his. In what concerns you and yours, you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice toward yourself as a true Christian; in what concerns the person or property of others, you govern yourself according to love and tolerate no injustice toward your neighbor. The gospel does not forbid this; in fact, in other places it actually commands it.
From the beginning of the world all the saints have wielded the sword in this way: Adam and his descendants; Abraham when he rescued Lot, his brother’s son, and routed the four kings as related in Genesis 14:8-16 , although he was a thoroughly evangelical man. Thus did Samuel, the holy prophet, slay King Agag, as we read in I Samuel 15:33 ; and Elijah slew the prophets of Baal, I Kings 18:40 . So too did Moses, Joshua, the children of Israel, Samson, David, and all the kings and princes in the Old Testament wield the sword; also Daniel and his associates, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, in Babylon; and Joseph in Egypt, and so on.
Should anyone contend that the Old Testament is abrogated and no longer in effect, and that therefore such examples cannot be set before Christians, I answer: That is not so. St. Paul says in I Corinthians 10:3-4 , ” they ate the same spiritual food as we, and drank the same spiritual drink from the Rock, which is Christ.” That is, they had the same Spirit and faith in Christ as we have, and were just as much Christians as we are. Therefore, wherein they did right, all Christians do right, from the beginning of the world unto the end. For time and external circumstances make no difference among Christians. Neither is it true that the Old Testament was abrogated in such a way that it must not be kept, or that whoever kept it fully would be doing wrong, as St. Jerome and many others mistakenly held. Rather, it is abrogated in the sense that we are free to keep it or not to keep it, and it is no longer necessary to keep it on penalty of losing one’s soul, as was the case at that time.
Paul says in I Corinthians 7:19 and Galatians 6:15 that neither uncircumcision nor circumcision counts for anything, but only a new creature in Christ. That is, it is not sin to be uncircumcised, as the Jews thought, nor is it sin to be circumcised, as the Gentiles thought. Either is right and permissible for him who does not think he will thereby become righteous or be saved. The same is true of all other parts of the Old Testament; it is not wrong to ignore them and it is not wrong to abide by them, but it is permissible to and proper either to follow them or to omit them. Indeed, if it were necessary or profitable for the salvation of one’s neighbor, it would be necessary to keep all of them. For everyone is under obligation to do what is for his neighbor’s good, be it Old Testament or New, Jewish or Gentile, as Paul teaches in I Corinthians 12. For love pervades all and transcends all; it considers only what is necessary and beneficial to others, and does not ask whether it is old or new. Hence, the precedents for the use of the sword also are matters of freedom, and you may follow them or not. But where you see that your neighbor needs it, there love constrains you to do as a matter of necessity that which would otherwise be optional and not necessary for you either to do or to leave undone. Only so not suppose that you will thereby become righteous or be saved-as the Jews presumed to be saved by their works-but leave this to faith, which without works makes you a new creature.
To prove our position also by the New Testament , the testimony of John the Baptist in Luke 3:14 stands unshaken on this point. There can be no doubt that it was his task to point to Christ, witness for him, and teach about him; that is to say, the teaching of the man who was to lead a truly perfected people to Christ had of necessity to be purely New Testament and evangelical. John confirms the soldiers’ calling, saying they should be content with their wages. Now if it had been un-Christian to bear the sword, he ought to have censured them for it and told them to abandon both wages and sword, else he would not have been teaching Christianity aright. So likewise, when St. Peter in Acts 10:33-34 preached Christ to Cornelius, he did not tell him to abandon his profession, which he would have had to do if it had prevented Cornelius from being a Christian. Moreover, before he was baptized the Holy Spirit came upon him Acts 10:44-48 .
St. Luke also praises him as an upright man prior to St. Peter’s sermon, and does not criticize him for being a soldier, the centurion of a pagan emperor Acts 10:1-2 . It is only right that what the Holy Spirit permitted to remain and did not censure in the case of Cornelius, we too should permit and not censure.
A similar case is that of the Ethiopian captain, the eunuch in Acts 8:27-39 , whom Philip the evangelist converted and baptized and permitted to return home and remain in office, although without the sword he could not possibly have been so high an official under the queen of Ethiopia. It was the same too with the proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, in Acts 13:7-12 ; St. Paul converted him, and yet permitted him to remain proconsul over and among the heathen. The same policy was followed by many holy martyrs who continued obedient to pagan Roman emperors, went into battle under them, and undoubtedly slew people for the sake of preserving peace, as it is written of St. Maurice, St. Acacius, St. Gereon, and many others under the emperor Julian. Moreover, we have the clear and compelling text of St. Paul in Romans 13:1 , where he says, “The governing authority has been ordained by God”; and further, “The governing authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant for your good, an avenger upon him who does evil” Rom. 13:4 . Be not so wicked, my friend, as to say, “A christian may not do that which is God’s own peculiar work, ordinance, and creation.” Else you must also say, “A Christian must not eat, drink, or be married,” for these are also God’s work and ordinance. If it is God’s work and creation, then it is good, so good that everyone can use it in a Christian and salutary way, as Paul and says in II Timothy 4 I Tim. 4:4,3 , “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected by those who believe and know the truth.” Under “everything created by God’ you must include not simply food and drink, clothing and shoes, but also authority and subjection, protection and punishment.
In short, since Paul says here that the governing authority is God’s servant, we must allow it to be exercised not only by the heathen but by all men. What can be the meaning of the phrase, “It is God’s servant,” except that the governing authority is by its very nature such that through it one may serve God? Now it would be quite un-Christian to say that there is any service of God in which a Christian should not or must not take part, when service of God is actually more characteristic of Christians than of anyone else. It would even be fine and fitting if all princes were good, true Christians. For the sword and authority, as a particular service of God, belong more appropriately to Christians than to any other men on earth. Therefore, you should esteem the sword or governmental authority as highly as the state of marriage, or husbandry, or any other calling which God has instituted. Just as one can serve God in the estate of marriage, or in farming or a trade, for the benefit of others-and must so serve if his neighbor needs it-so one can serve God in government, and should there serve if the needs of his neighbor demand it. For those who punish evil and protect the good are God’s servants and workmen. Only, one should also be set free not to do it if there is no need for it, just as we are free not to marry or farm where there is no need for them.
You ask: Why did not Christ and the apostles bear the sword? Answer: You tell me, why did Christ not take a wife, or become a cobbler or a tailor. If an office or vocation were to be regarded as disreputable on the ground that Christ did not pursue it himself, what would become of all the offices and vocations other than the ministry, the one occupation he did follow? Christ pursued his own office and vocation, but he did not thereby reject any other. It was not incumbent upon him to bear the sword, for he was to exercise only that function by which his kingdom is governed and which properly serves his kingdom. Now, it is not essential to his kingdom that he be a married man, a cobbler, tailor, farmer, prince, hangman, or constable; neither is the temporal sword or law essential to it , but only God’s Word and Spirit. It is by these that his people are ruled inwardly. This is the office which he also exercised then and still exercises now, always bestowing God’s Word and Spirit. And in this office the apostles and all spiritual rulers had to follow him. For in order to do their job right they are so busily occupied with the spiritual sword, the Word of God, that they must perforce neglect the temporal sword and leave it to others who do not have to preach, although it is not contrary to their calling to use it, as I have said. For each one must attend to the duties of his own calling.
Therefore, although Christ did not bear or prescribe the sword, it is sufficient that he did not forbid or abolish it, but actually confirmed it; just as it is sufficient that he did not abolish the state of marriage but confirmed it, though without himself taking a wife or setting forth a teaching concerning it. He had to manifest himself wholly in connection with that estate and calling which alone expressly served his kingdom, lest from his example there should be deduced the justification or necessity of teaching or believing that the kingdom of God could not exist without matrimony and the sword and similar externals (since Christ’s example is necessarily binding), when in fact it exists solely by God’s Word and Spirit. This was and had to be Christ’s peculiar function as the Supreme King in this kingdom. Since not all Christians have this same function (although they are entitled to it), it is fitting that they should have some other external office by which God may also be served.
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 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 should, 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.
Be certain too that this teaching of Christ is not a counsel for those who would be perfect, as our sophists blasphemously and falsely say, but a universally obligatory command for all Christians. Then you will realize that all those who avenge themselves or go to law and wrangle in the courts over their property and honor are nothing but heathen masquerading under the name of Christians. It cannot be otherwise, I tell you. Do not be dissuaded by the multitude and common practice; for there are few Christians on earth-have no doubt about it-and God’s word is something very different from the common practice.
Here you see that Christ is not abrogating the law when he says, “You have heard that it was said to them of old, ‘An eye for an eye’; but I say to you: Do not resist evil,” etc. Matt. 5:38-39 . On the contrary, he is expounding the meaning of the law as it is to be understood, as if he were to say, “You Jews think that it is right and proper in the sight of God to recover by law what is yours. You rely on what Moses said, ‘an eye for an eye,’ etc. But I say to you that Moses set this law over the wicked, who do not belong to God’s kingdom, in order that they might not avenge themselves or worse but be compelled by such outward law to desist from evil, in order that by outward law and rule they might be kept subordinate to the governing authority. You, however, should so conduct yourselves that you neither need nor resort to such law. Although the temporal authority must have such a law by which to judge unbelievers, and although you yourselves may also use it for judging others, still you should not invoke or use it for yourselves and in you own affairs. You have the kingdom of heaven; therefore, you should leave the kingdom of earth to anyone who wants to take it.”
There you see that Christ does not interpret his words to mean that he is abrogating the law of Moses or prohibiting temporal authority. He is rather making an exception of his own people. They are not to use the secular authority for themselves but to leave it to the unbelievers. Yet they may also serve these unbelievers, even with their own law, since they are not Christians and no one can be forced into Christianity. That Christ’s words apply only to his own is evident from the fact that later on he says they should love their enemies and be perfect like their heavenly Father Matt. 5:44, 48 . But he who loves his enemies and is perfect leaves the law alone and does not use it to demand and eye for an eye. Neither does he restrain the non-Christians, however, who do not love their enemies and who do wish to make use of the law; indeed, he lends his help that these laws may hinder the wicked from doing worse.
Thus the word of Christ is now reconciled, I believe, with the passages which establish the sword, and the meaning is this: No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself and his cause. In behalf of another, however, he may and should wield it and invoke it to restrain wickedness and to defend godliness. Even as the Lord says in the same chapter Matt. 5:34-37 , “A Christian should not swear, but his word should be Yes, yes; No, no.” That is, for himself and of his own volition and desire, he should not swear. When it is needful or necessary, however, and salvation or the honor of God demands it, he should swear. Thus, he uses the forbidden oath to serve another. Christ and Paul often swore in order to make their teaching and testimony valuable and credible to others, as men do and have the right to do in covenants and compacts, etc., of which Psalms 63:11 says, “They shall be praised who swear by his name.”
Here you inquire further, whether constables, hangmen, jurists, lawyers, and others of similar function can also be Christians and in a state of salvation. Answer: If the governing authority and its sword are a divine service, as was proved above, then everything that is essential for the authority’s bearing of the sword must also be divine service. There must be those who arrest, prosecute, execute, and destroy the wicked, and who protect, acquit, defend, and save the good. Therefore, when they perform their duties, not with the intention of seeking their own ends but only of helping the law and the governing authority function to coerce the wicked, there is no peril in that; they may use their office like anybody else would use his trade, as a means of livelihood. For, as has been said, love of neighbor is not concerned about its own; it considers not how great or humble, but how profitable and needful the works are for neighbor or community.
You may ask, “Why may I not use the sword for myself and for my own cause, so long as it is my intention not to seek my own advantage but to punish evil?” Answer: Such a miracle is not impossible, but very rare and hazardous. Where the Spirit is so richly present it may well happen. For we read thus of Samson in Judges 15:11, that he said, “As they did to me, so have I done to them,” even though Proverbs 24:29 says to the contrary, “Do not say, I will do to him as he has done to me,” and Proverbs 20:22 adds, “Do not say, I will repay him his evil.” Samson was called of God to harass the Philistines and deliver the children of Israel. Although he used them as an occasion to further his own cause, still he did not do so in order to avenge himself or to seek his own interests, but to serve others and to punish the Philistines Judges 14:4 . No one but a true Christian, filled with the Spirit, will follow this example. Where reason too tries to do likewise, it will probably contend that it is not trying to seek its own, but this will be basically untrue, for it cannot be done without grace. Therefore first become like Samson, and then you can also do as Samson did.
We come now to the main part of this treatise. Having learned that there must be temporal authority on earth, and how it is to be exercised in a Christian and salutary manner, we must now learn how far its arm extends and how widely its hand stretches, lest it extent too far and encroach upon God’s kingdom and government. It is essential for us to know this, for where it is given too wide a scope, intolerable and terrible injury follows; on the other hand, injury is also inevitable where it is restricted too narrowly. In the former case, the temporal authority punishes too much; in the latter case, it punishes too little. To err in this direction, however, and punish too little is more tolerable, for it is always better to let a scoundrel live than to put a godly man to death. The world has plenty of scoundrels anyway and must continue to have them, but godly men are scarce.
It is to be noted that the two classes of Adam’s children-the one in God’s kingdom under Christ and the other in the kingdom of the world under governing authority, as was said above-have two kinds of law. For every kingdom must have its own laws and statutes: without law no kingdom or government can survive, as everyday experience amply shows. The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul. Therefore, where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them. We want to make this so clear that everyone will grasp it, and that our fine gentlemen, the princes and bishops, will see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing this or that.
When a man-made law is imposed upon the soul to make it believe this or that as its human author may prescribe, there is certainly no word of God for it. If there is no word of God for it, then we cannot be sure whether God wishes to have it so, for we cannot be certain that something which he does not command is pleasing to him. Indeed, we are sure that it does not please him, for he desires that our faith be based simply and entirely on his divine word alone. He says in Matthew 18 16:18 , “On this rock I will build my church.”; and in John 10:27,14,5 , “My sheep hear my voice and know me; however, they will not hear the voice of a stranger, but flee from him.” From this is follows that with such a wicked command the temporal power is driving souls to eternal death. For it compels them to believe as right and certainly pleasing to God that which is in fact uncertain, indeed, certain to be displeasing to him since there is no clear word of God for it. Whoever believes something to be right which is wrong or uncertain is denying that truth, which is God himself. He is believing in lies and errors, and counting as right that which is wrong.
Hence, it is the height of folly when they command that one shall believe the Church, the fathers, and the councils, though there be no word of God for it. It is not the church but the devil’s apostles who command such things, for the church commands nothing unless it knows for certain that it is God’s word. As St. Peter puts it, “Whoever speaks, let him speak as the word of God” I Pet. 4:11 . It will be a long time, however, before they can ever prove that the decrees of the councils are God’s word. Still more foolish is it when the assert that kings, princes, and the mass of mankind believe thus and so. My dear man, we are not baptized into kings, or princes, or even into the mass of mankind, but into Christ and God himself. Neither are we called kings, princes, or common folk, but Christians. No one shall or can command the soul unless he is able to show it the way to heaven; but this no man can do, only God alone. Therefore, in matters which concern the salvation of souls nothing but God’s word shall be taught and accepted.
Again, consummate fools though they are, they must confess that they have no power over souls. For no human being can kill a soul or give it life, or conduct it to heaven or hell. If they will not take our word for it, Christ himself will attend to it strongly enough where he says in the tenth chapter of Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing that they can do; rather fear him who after he has killed the body, has power to condemn to hell.” I think it is clear enough here that the soul is taken out of all human hands and is placed under the authority of God alone.
Now tell me: How much wit must there be in the head of a person who imposes commands in an area where he has no authority whatsoever? Would you not judge the person insane who commanded the moon to shine whenever he wanted to? How well would it go if Leipzigers were to impose laws on us Wittenbergers, or if, conversely, we in Wittenberg were to legislate for the people of Leipzig! They would certainly send the lawmakers a thank-offering of hellebore to purge their brains and cure their sniffles. Yet our emperor and clever princes are doing just that today. They are allowing pope, bishop, and sophists to lead them on-one blind man leading the other-to command their subjects to believe, without God’s word, whatever they please. And still they would be known as Christian princes, God forbid!
Besides, we cannot conceive how an authority could or should act in a situation except where it can see, know, judge, condemn, change, and modify. What would I think of a judge who should blindly decide cases which he neither hears nor sees? Tell me then: How can a mere man see, know, judge, condemn, and change hearts? That is reserved for God alone, as Psalm 7:9 says, “God tries the hearts and reins”; and v.8 , “The Lord judges the peoples.” And acts 10 says, “God knows the hearts”; and Jeremiah 1 17:9-10 , “Wicked and unsearchable is the human heart; who can understand it? I the Lord, who search the heart and reins.” A court should and must be quite certain and clear about everything if it is to render judgment. But the thoughts and inclinations of the soul can be known to no one but God. Therefore, it is futile and impossible to command or compel anyone by force to believe this or that. The matter must be approached in a different way. Force will not accomplish it. And I am surprised at the big fools, for they themselves all say: De occultis non Ecclesia, the church does not judge secret matters. If the spiritual rule of the church governs only public matters, how dare the mad temporal authority judge and control such a secret, spiritual, hidden matter as faith?
Furthermore, every man runs his own risk in believing as he does, and he must see to it himself that he believes rightly. As nobody else can go to heaven or hell for me, so nobody else can believe or disbelieve for me; as nobody else can open or close heaven or hell for me, so nobody else can drive me to belief or unbelief. How he believes or disbelieves is a matter for the conscience of each individual, and since this takes nothing away from the temporal authority the latter should be content to attend to its own affairs and let men believe this or that as they are able and willing, and constrain no one by force. For faith is a free act, to which no one can be forced. Indeed, it is a work of God in the spirit, not something which outward authority should compel or create. Hence arises the common saying, found also in Augustine, “No one can or ought to be forced to believe.” Moreover, the blind, wretched fellows fail to see how utterly hopeless and impossible a thing they are attempting. For no matter how harshly they lay down the law, or how violently they rage, they can do no more than force an outward compliance of the mouth and the hand; the heart they cannot compel, though they work themselves to a frazzle. For the proverb is true: Thoughts are tax free.” Why do they persist in trying to force people to believe from the heart when they see that it is impossible? In so doing they only compel weak consciences to lie, to disavow, and to utter what is not in their hearts. They thereby load themselves down with dreadful alien sins, for all the lies and false confessions which such weak consciences utter fall back upon him who compels them. Even if their subjects were in error, it would be much easier simply to let them err than to compel them to lie and to utter what is not in their hearts. In addition, it is not right to prevent evil by something even worse.
Would you like to know why God ordains that the temporal princes must offend so frightfully? I will tell you. God has given them to a base mind Romans 1:28 and will make an end of them just as he does of the spiritual nobility. For my ungracious lords, the pope and the bishops, are supposed to be bishops and preach God’s word. This they leave undone, and have become temporal princes who govern with laws which concern only life and property. How completely they have turned things topsy-turvy! They are supposed to be ruling souls inwardly by God’s word; so they rule castles, cities, lands, and people outwardly, torturing, souls with unspeakable outrages.
Similarly, the temporal lords are suppose to govern lands and people outwardly. This they leave undone. They can do no more than strip and fleece, heap tax upon tax and tribute upon tribute, letting loose here a bear and there a wolf. Besides this, there is no justice, integrity, or truth to be found among them. They behave worse than any thief or scoundrel, and their temporal rule has sunk quite as low as that of the spiritual tyrants. For this reason God so perverts their minds also, that they rush on into the absurdity of trying to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, just as their counterparts try to establish temporal rule. They blithely heap alien sins upon themselves and incur the hatred of God and man, one scoundrel with the other. Then they lay all the blame on the gospel, and instead of confessing their sin they blaspheme God and say that our preaching has brought about that which their perverse wickedness has deserved-and still unceasingly serves-just as the Romans did when they were destroyed. Here then you have God’s decree concerning the high and mighty. They are not to believe it, however, lest this stern decree of God be hindered by their repentance.
But, you say: Paul said in Romans 13:1 that every soul seele should be subject to the governing authority; and Peter says that we should be subject to every human ordinance I Peter 2:13 . Answer: Now you are on the right track, for these passages are in my favor. St. Paul is speaking of the governing authority. Now you have just heard that no one but God can have authority over souls. Hence, St. Paul cannot possibly be speaking of any obedience except where there can be corresponding authority. From this it follows that he is not speaking of faith, to the effect that temporal authority should have the right to command faith. He is speaking rather of external things, that they should be ordered and governed on earth. His words too make this perfectly clear, where he prescribes limits for both authority and obedience, saying, “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, honor to whom honor is due, respect to whom respect is due” Romans 13:7 , Temporal obedience and authority, you see, apply only to taxes revenue, honor, and respect. Again, where he says, “The governing authority is not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” Romans 13:3, he again so limits the governing authority that it is not to have the mastery over faith or the word of God, but over evil works.
This is also what St. Peter means by the phrase, “Human ordinance” I Peter 2: 13. A human ordinance cannot possibly extend its authority into heaven and over souls; it is limited to the earth, to external dealings men have with one another, where they can see, know, judge, evaluate, punish, and acquit.
Christ himself made this distinction, and summed it all up very nicely when he said in Matthew 22:21 , “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Now, if the imperial power extended into God’s kingdom and authority, and were not something separate, Christ would not have made this distinction. For, as has been the said, the soul is not under the authority of Caesar; he can neither teach it nor guide it, neither kill it nor give it life, neither bind it or loose it, neither judge nor condemn it, neither hold it fast nor release it. All this he would have to do, had he the authority to command it and to impose laws upon it. But with respect to body, property, and honor he has indeed to do these things, for such matters are under his authority. David too summarized all this long ago in an excellent brief passage, when he said in Psalm 113 115:16 , “He has given heaven to the Lord of heaven, but the earth he has given to the sons of men.” That is, over what is on earth and belongs to the temporal, earthly kingdom, man has authority from God; but whatever belongs to heaven and to the eternal kingdom is exclusively under the Lord of heaven. Neither did Moses forget this when he said in Genesis 1:26 , “God said, ‘Let us make man to have dominion over the beasts of the earth, the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air.’” There only external dominion is ascribed to man. In short, this is the meaning as St. Peter says in Acts 4 5:29 , “We must obey God rather than men.” Thereby, he clearly sets a limit to the temporal authority, for if we had to do everything that the temporal authority wanted there would have been no point in saying, “We must obey God rather than men.”
If your prince or temporal ruler commands you to side with the pope, to believe thus and so, or to get rid of certain books, you should say, “It is not fitting that Lucifer should sit at the side of God. Gracious sir, I owe you obedience in body and property; command me within the limits of your authority on earth, and I will obey. But if you command me to believe or to get rid of certain books, I will not obey; for then you are a tyrant and overreach yourself, commanding where you have neither the right or the authority,” etc. Should he seize your property on account of this and punish such disobedience, then blessed are you; thank God that you are worthy to suffer for the sake of the divine word. Let him rage, fool that he is; he will meet his judge. For I tell you, if you fail to withstand him, if you give in to him and let him take away your faith and your books, you have truly denied God.
Let me illustrate. In Meissen, Bavaria, the Mark, and other places, the tyrants have issued an order that all copies of the New Testament are everywhere to be turned in to the officials. This should not turn in a single page, not even a letter, on pain of losing their salvation. Whoever does so is delivering Christ up into the hands of Herod, for these tyrants act as murderers of Christ just like Herod. If their homes are ordered searched and books or property taken by force, they suffer it to be done. Outrage is not to be resisted but endured; yet we should not sanction it, or lift a little finger to conform, or obey. For such tyrants are acting as worldly princes are supposed to act, and worldly princes they surely are. But the world is God’s enemy; hence, they too have to do what is antagonistic to God and agreeable to the world, that they may not be bereft of honor, but remain worldly princes. Do not wonder, therefore, that they rage and mock at the gospel; they have to live up to their name and title.
You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince ever rarer. They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls. They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace. Our God is a great lord and ruler; this is why he must also have such noble, highborn, and rich hangmen and constables. He desires that everyone shall copiously accord them to riches, honor, and fear in abundance. It pleases his divine will that we call his hangmen gracious lords, fall at their feet, and be subject to them in all humility, so long as they do not ply their trade too far and try to become shepherds instead of hangmen. If a prince should happen to be wise, upright, or a Christian, that is one of the great miracles, the most precious token of divine grace upon that land. Ordinarily the course of events is in accordance with the passage from Isaiah 3: 4, “I will make boys their princes and gaping fools shall rule over them”; and in Hosea 13: 11, “I will give you a king in my anger, and take him away in my wrath.” The world is too wicked, and does not deserve to have many wise and upright princes. Frogs must have their storks.
Again, you say, “The temporal power is not forcing men to believe; it is simply seeing to it externally that no one deceives the people by false doctrine; how could heretics otherwise be restrained?” Answer: This the bishops should do; it is a function entrusted to them and not to the princes. Heresy can never be restrained by force. One will have to tackle the problem in some other way, for heresy must be opposed and dealt with otherwise than with the sword. Here God’s word must do the fighting. If it does not succeed, certainly the temporal power will not succeed either, even if it were to drench the world in blood. Heresy is a spiritual matter which you cannot hack to pieces with iron, consume with fire, or drown in water. God’s word alone avails here, as Paul says in II Corinthians 10:4-5 , “our weapons are not carnal, but mighty in God to destroy every argument and proud obstacle that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and to take every thought captive in the service of Christ.”
Moreover, faith and heresy are never so strong as when men oppose them by sheer force, without God’s word. For men count it certain that such force is for a wrong cause and is directed against the right, since it proceeds without God’s word and knows not how to further its cause except by naked force, as brute beasts do. Even in temporal affairs force can be used only after the wrong has been legally condemned. How much less possible it is to act with force, without justice and God’s word, in these lofty spiritual matters! See, therefore, what fine, clever nobles they are! They would drive out heresy, but set about it in such a way that they only strengthen the opposition, rousing suspicion against themselves and justifying the heretics. My friend, if you wish to drive out heresy, you must find some way to tear it first of all from the heart and completely turn men’s wills away from it. With force you will not stop it, but only strengthen it. What do you gain by strengthening heresy in the heart, while weakening only its outward expression and forcing the tongue to lie? God’s word, however, enlightens the heart, and so all heresies and errors vanish from the heart of their own accord.
This way of destroying heresy was proclaimed by Isaiah in his eleventh chapter where he says, “He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” There you see that if the wicked are to be slain and converted, it will be accomplished with the mouth. In short, these princes and tyrants do not realize that to fight against heresy is to fight against the devil, who fills men’s hearts with error, as Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 , “We are no contending against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness, against the principalities which rule this present darkness,” etc. Therefore, so long as the devil is not repelled and driven from the heart, it is agreeable to him that I destroy his vessels with fire of sword; it’s as if I were to fight lightning with a straw. Job bore abundant witness to this when in his forty-first chapter he said that the devil counts iron as straw, and fears no power on earth. We learn it is also from experience, for even if all Jews and heretics were forcibly burned no one ever has been or will be convinced or converted thereby.
Nevertheless, such a world as this deserves such princes, none of whom attends to his duties. The bishops are to leave God’s word alone and not use it to rule souls; instead they are to turn over to the worldly princes the job of ruling souls with the sword. The worldly princes, in turn, are to permit usury, robbery, adultery, murder, and other evil deeds, and even commit these offenses themselves, and then allow the bishops to punish with letters of excommunication. Thus, they neatly put the shoe on the wrong foot: they rule the souls with iron and the bodies with letters, so that worldly princes rule in a spiritual way, and spiritual princes rule in a worldly way. What else does the devil have to do on earth than to masquerade and play the fool with his people? These are our Christian princes, who defend the faith and devour the Turk! Fine fellows, indeed, whom we may well trust to accomplish something by such refined wisdom, namely, to break their necks and plunge land and people into misery and want.
I would in all good faith advise these blind fellows to take heed to a little phrase that occurs in Psalm 107: “Effundit contemptum super principes.” (“He pours contempt upon princes.”) I swear to you by God that if you fail to see that this little text is applicable to you, then you are lost, even though each one of you be as mighty as the Turk; and your fuming and raging will avail you nothing. A goodly part of it has already come true. For there are very few princes who are not regarded as fools or scoundrels; that is because they show themselves to be so. The common man is learning to think, and the scourge of princes (that which God calls contemptum) is gathering force among the mob and with the common man. I fear there will be no way to avert it, unless the princes conduct themselves in a princely manner and begin again to rule decently and reasonably. Men will not, men cannot, men refuse to endure your tyranny and wantonness much longer. Dear princes and lords be wise and guide yourselves accordingly. God will no longer tolerate it. The world is no longer what it once was, when you hunted and drove people like game. Abandon therefore your wicked use of force, give thought to dealing justly, and let God’s word have its way, as it will anyway and must and shall; you cannot prevent it. If there is heresy somewhere, let it be overcome, as is proper, with God’s word. But if you can continue to brandish the sword, take heed lest someone come and compel you to sheathe it-and not in God’s name!
But you might say, “Since There is to be no temporal sword among Christians, how then are they to be ruled outwardly? There certainly must be authority even among Christians.” Answer: Among Christians there shall and can be no authority; rather all are alike subject to one another, as Paul says in Romans 12: “Each shall consider the other his superior”; and Peter says in I Peter 5:5 , “All of you be subject to one another.” This is also what Christ means in Luke 14:10 , “When you are invited to a wedding, go and sit in the lowest place.” Among Christians there is no superior but Christ himself, and him alone. What kind of authority can there be where all are equal and have the same right, power, possessions, and honor, and where no one desires to be the other’s superior, but each the other’s subordinate? Where there are such people, one could not establish authority even if he wanted to, since in the nature of things it is impossible to have superiors where no one is willing to be a superior. Where there are no such people, however, there are no real Christians either. What, then, are the priests and bishop? Answer: The government is not a matter of authority or power, but a service and an office, for they are neither higher nor better than other Christians.
Therefore, they should impose no law or decree on others without their will and consent. Their ruling is rather nothing more than the inculcating of God’s word, by which they guide Christians and overcome heresy. As we have said, Christians can be ruled in faith, not with outward works. Faith, however, can come through no word of man, but only through the word of God, as Paul says in Romans 10:17 , “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of God.” Those who do not believe are not Christians; they do not belong to Christ’s kingdom, but to the worldly kingdom where they are constrained and governed by the sword and by outward rule. Christians do every good thing of their own accord and without constraint, and find God’s word alone sufficient for them. Of this I have written frequently and at length elsewhere.
Now that we know the limits of temporal authority, it is time to inquire also how a prince should use it. We do this for the sake of those very few who would also like very much to be Christian princes and lords, who desire to enter into the life in heaven. Christ himself describes the nature of worldly princes in Luke 22:25 , where he says, “The princes of this world exercise lordship, and those that are in authority proceed with force.” For if they are lords by birth or by election they think it only right that they should be served and should rule by force. For cursed and condemned is every sort of life lived and sought for the benefit and good of self; cursed are all works not done in love. They are done in love, however, when they are directed wholeheartedly toward the benefit, honor, and salvation of others, and not toward the pleasure, benefit, honor, comfort, and salvation of self.
I will say nothing here of the temporal dealings and laws of the governing authority. That is a large subject, and there are too many lawbooks already, although if a prince is himself no wiser than his jurist and knows no more than what is in the lawbooks, he will surely rule according to the saying in Proverbs 28: “A prince who lacks understanding will oppress many with injustice.” For no matter how good and equitable the laws are, they all make an exception in the case of necessity, in the face of which they cannot insist upon being strictly enforced. Therefore, a prince must have the law as firmly in hand as the sword, and determine in his own mind when and where the law is to be applied strictly or with moderation, so that law may prevail at all times and in all cases, and reason may be the highest law and the master of all administration of law. To take an analogy, the head of a family fixes both the time and the amount when it comes to matters of work and of food for his servants and children; still, he must reserve the right to modify or suspend these regulations if his servants happen to be ill, imprisoned, detained, deceived, or otherwise hindered; he must not deal as severely with the sick as with the well. I say this in order that men may not think it sufficiently praiseworthy merely to follow the written law or the opinions of the jurists. There is more to it than that.
What, then, is a prince to do if he lacks the requisite wisdom and has to be guided by the jurists and the lawbooks? Answer: This is why I said that the princely estate is a perilous one. If he be not wise enough himself to master both his laws and his advisers, then the maxim of Solomon applies, “Woe to the land whose prince is a child” Ecclesiastes 10:16 . Solomon recognized this too. This is why he despaired of all law-even of that which Moses through God had prescribed for him-and of all his princes and counselors. He turned to God himself and besought him for an understanding heart to govern the people I Kings 3:9 . A prince must follow this example and proceed in fear; he must depend neither upon the dead books nor living heads, but cling solely to God, and be at him constantly, praying for a right understanding, beyond that of all books and teachers, to rule his subjects wisely. For this reason I know of no law to prescribe for a prince; instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be toward all laws, counsels, judgments, and actions. If he governs himself accordingly, God will surely grant him the ability to carry out all laws, counsels, and actions in a proper and godly way.
First. He must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every thought to making himself useful and beneficial to them; when instead of thinking, “The land and people belong to me, I will do what best pleases me,” he thinks rather, “I belong to the land and the people, I shall do what is useful and good for them. My concern will not be how to lord it over them and dominate them, but how to protect and maintain them in peace and plenty.” He should picture Christ to himself, and say, “Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler. Came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor form him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs. I will use my office to serve and protect them, listen to their problems and defend them, and govern to the sole end that they, not I, may benefit and profit from my rule.” In such manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ is to us Philippians 2:7; and these are the proper works of Christian love.
Now you will say, “Who would then want to be a prince? That would make the princely estate the worst on earth, full of trouble, labor, and sorrow. What would become of the princely amusements-dancing, hunting, racing, gaming, and similar worldly pleasures?” I answer: We are not here teaching how a temporal prince is to live, but how a temporal prince is to be a Christian, such that he may also reach heaven. Who is not aware that a prince is a rare prize in heaven? I do not speak with any hope that temporal princes will give heed, but on the chance that there might be one who would also like to be Christian, and to know how he should act. Of this I am certain, that God’s word will neither turn nor bend for princes, but princes must bend themselves to God’s word.
I am satisfied simply to point out that it is not impossible for a prince to be a Christian, although it is a rare thing and beset with difficulties. If they would so manage that their dancing, hunting, and racing were done without injury to their subjects, and if they would otherwise conduct their office in love toward them, God would not be so harsh as to begrudge them their dancing and hunting and racing. But they would soon find out for themselves that if they gave their subjects the care and attention required by their office, many a fine dance, hunt, race, and game would have to be missed. Second. He must beware of the high and mighty and of his counselors, and so conduct himself toward them that he despises none, but also trusts none enough to leave everything to him. God cannot tolerate either course. He once spoke through the mouth of an ass Num. 22:28 ; therefore, no man is to be despised, however humble he may be. On the other hand, he permitted the highest angel to fall from heaven; therefore, no man is to be trusted, no matter how wise, holy, or great he may be. One should rather give a hearing to all, and wait to see through which one of them God will speak and act. The greatest harm is done at court when the prince gives his mind into the captivity of the high and mighty and of the flatterers, and does not look into things himself. When a prince fails and plays the fool, not just one person is affected, but land and people must bear the result of such foolishness.
Therefore, a prince should trust his officials and allow them to act, but only in such a way that he will still keep the reins of government in his own hands. He must not be overconfident but keep his eyes open and attend to things, and (like Jehoshaphat did II Chron. 19:4-7 ) ride through the land and observe everywhere how the government and the law are being administered. In this way he will learn for himself that one cannot place complete trust in any man. You have no right to assume that somebody else will take as deep and interest in you and your land as you do yourself, unless he be a good Christian filled with the Spirit. The natural man will not. And since you cannot know whether he is a Christian or how long he will remain one, you cannot safely depend upon him. Beware especially of those who say, “Oh, gracious lord, does your grace not have greater confidence in me? Who is so willing to serve your grace?” etc. Such a person is certainly not guileless; he wants to be lord in the land and make a monkey of you. If he were a true and devout Christian he would be glad that you entrust nothing to him, and would praise and approve you for keeping such a close watch on him. Since he acts in accord with God’s will, he is willing and content to have his actions brought to light by you or anyone else. As Christ says in John 8 3:21 , “He who does what is good comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” The former, however, would blind your eyes, and act under cover of darkness; as Christ also says in the same place, “He who does evil shuns the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” John 3:20 . Therefore, beware of him. And if he complains about it, say to him, “Friend, I do you no wrong; God is unwilling that I trust myself or any other man. Find fault with Him because He will have it so, or because He has not made you something more than a man. But even if you were an angel, I still would not fully trust you-Lucifer was not to be trusted-for we should trust God alone.”
Let no prince think that he will fare better than David, who is an example to all princes. He had so wise a counselor, Ahithophel by name, that the text says: The counsel which Ahithophel gave was as if one had consulted God himself II Sam. 16:23 . Yet Ahithophel fell, and sank so low that he tried to betray, slay, and destroy David, his own lord II Sam. 17:1-23 . Thus did David at that time have to learn that no man is to be trusted. Why do you suppose God permitted such a horrible incident to occur and be recorded? It could only be in order to warn princes and lords against putting their trust in any man, which is the most perilous misfortune that could befall them. For it is most deplorable when flatterers reign at court, or when the prince relies upon others and puts himself in their hands, and lets everyone do as he will.
Now you will say, “If no one is to be trusted, how can land and people be governed?” Answer: You are to take the risk of entrusting matters to others, but you are yourself to trust and rely upon God alone. You will certainly have to entrust duties to somebody else and take a chance on him, but you must continue to watch with unceasing vigilance. A coachman has confidence in the horses and wagon he drives; yet he does not let them proceed on their own, but holds rein and lash in his hands and keeps his eyes open. Remember the old proverbs-which are the sure fruit of experience-“The master’s eye makes the horse fat”; and, “The master’s footprints fertilize the soil best.” That is, if the master does not look after things himself but depends on advisers and servants, things never go right. God also wills it that way and causes it to be so in order that the lords may be driven of necessity to care for their office themselves, just as everyone has to fulfill his own calling and every creature do its own work. Otherwise, the lords will become fatted pigs and worthless fellows, or benefit to no one but themselves.
Third. He must take care to deal justly with evildoers. Here he must be very wise and prudent, so he can inflict punishment without injury to others. Again, I know of no better example of this than David. He had a commander, Joab by name, who committed two underhanded crimes when he treacherously murdered two upright commanders II Sam. 3:27; 20:10 , whereby he justly merited death twice over. Yet David, during his own lifetime, did not have him put to death but commanded his son Solomon to do so without fail I Kings 2:5-6 , doubtless because he himself could not do it without causing even greater damage and tumult. A prince must punish the wicked in such a way that he does not step on the dish while picking up the spoon, and for the sake of one man’s head plunge country and people into want and fill the land with widows and orphans. Therefore, he must not follow the advice of those counselors and fire-eaters who would stir and incite him to start a war, saying, What, must we suffer such insult for the sake of a single castle would put the whole land in jeopardy.
In short, here one must go by the proverb, “He cannot govern who cannot wink at faults.” Let this be his rule: Where wrong cannot be punished without greater wrong, there let him waive his rights, however just they may be. He should not have regard to his own injury, but to the wrong others must suffer in consequence of the penalty he imposes. What have the many women and children done to deserve being made widows and orphans in order that you may avenge yourself on a worthless tongue or an evil hand which has injured you.
Here you will ask: “Is a prince then not to go to war, and are his subjects not to follow him into battle?” Answer: This is a far-reaching question, but let me answer it very briefly. To act here as a Christian, I say, a prince should not go to war against his overlord-king, emperor, or other liege lord-but let him who takes, take. For the governing authority must not be resisted by force, but only by confession of the truth. If it is influenced by this, well and good; if not, you are excused, you suffer wrong for God’s sake. If, however, the antagonist is your equal, your inferior, or of a foreign government, you should first offer him justice and peace, as Moses taught his children of Israel. If he refuses, then-mindful of what is best for you-defend yourself against force by force, as Moses so well describes it in Deuteronomy 20:10-12 . But in doing this you must not consider your personal interests and how you may remain lord, but those of your subjects to whom you owe help and protection, that such action may proceed in love. Since your entire land is in peril you must take the venture, so that with God’s help all may not be lost. If you cannot prevent some from becoming widows and orphans as a consequence, you must at least see that not everything goes to ruin until there is nothing left except widows and orphans.
In this matter subjects are not in duty bound to follow, and to devote their life and property, for in such a case one must risk his goods and himself for the sake of others. In a war of this sort it is both Christian and an act of love to kill the enemy without hesitation, to plunder and burn and inquire him by every method of warfare until he is conquered (except that one must beware of sin, and violate wives and virgins). And when victory has been achieved, one should offer mercy and peace to those who surrender and humble themselves. In such a case let the proverb apply, “God helps the strongest.” This is what Abraham did when he smote the four kings, Genesis 14; he certainly slaughtered many, and showed little mercy until he conquered them. Such a case must be regarded as sent by God as a means to cleanse the land for once and drive out the rascals.
What if a prince is in the wrong? Are his people bound to follow him then too? Answer: No, for it is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men acts 5:29 . What if the subjects do not know whether their prince is in the right or not? Answer: So long as they do not know, and cannot with all possible diligence find out, they may obey him without peril to their souls. For in such a case one must apply the law of Moses in Exodus 21, where he writes that a murderer who has unknowingly and unintentionally killed a man shall through flight to a city of refuge and by judgment of a court be declared acquitted. Whichever side then suffers defeat, whether it be in the right or in the wrong, must accept it as a punishment from God. Whichever side fights and wins in such ignorance, however, must regard its battle as though someone fell from a roof and killed another, and leave the matter to God. It is all the same to God whether he deprives you of life and property by a just or by an unjust lord. You are His creature and He can do with you as He wills, just so your conscience is clear. Thus in Genesis 20:2-7 God himself excuses Abimelech for taking Abraham’s wife; not because he had done right, but because he had not known that she was Abraham’s wife.
Fourth. Here we come to what should really have been placed first, and of which we spoke above. A prince must act in a Christian way toward his God also; that is, he must subject himself to him in an entire confidence and pray for wisdom to rule well, as Solomon did Kings 3:9 . But of faith and trust in God I have written so much that it is not necessary to say more here. Therefore, we will close with this brief summation, that a prince’s duty is fourfold: First, toward God there must be true confidence and earnest prayer; second, toward his subjects there must be love and Christian service; third, with respect to his counselors and officials he must maintain an untrammeled reason and unfettered judgment; fourth, with respect to evildoers he must manifest a restrained severity and firmness. Then the prince’s job will be done right, both outwardly and inwardly; it will be pleasing to God and to the people. But he will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a prince.
Finally, I must add an appendix in answer to those who raise questions about restitution, that is, about the return of goods wrongfully acquired. This is a matter about which the temporal sword is commonly concerned; much has been written about it, and many fantastically severe judgments have been sought in cases of this sort. I will put it all in a few words, however, and at one fell swoop dispose of all such laws and of the harsh judgments based upon them, thus: No surer law can be found in this matter than the law of love. In the first place, when a case of this sort is brought before you in which one is to make restitution to another, if they are both Christians the matter is soon settled; neither will withhold what belongs to the other, and neither will demand that it be returned. If only one of them is a Christian, namely, the one to whom restitution is due, it is again easy to settle, for he does not care whether restitution is ever made to him. The same is true if the one who is suppose to make restitution is a Christian, for he will do so.
But whether one be a Christian on not a Christian, you should decide the question of restitution as follows. If the debtor is poor and unable to make restitution as follows. If the debtor is poor and unable to make restitution, and the other party is not poor, then you should let the law of love prevail and acquit the debtor; for according to the law of love the other party is in any event obliged to relinquish the debt and, if necessary, to give him something besides. But if the debtor is not poor, then have him restore as much as he can, whether it be all, a half, a third, or a fourth of it, provided that you leave him enough to assure a house, food, and clothing for himself, his wife, and his children. This much you would owe him in any case, if you could afford it; so much the less ought you to take it away now, since you do not need it and he cannot get along without it.
If neither party is Christian, or if one of them is unwilling to be judged by the law of love, then you may have them call in some other judge, and tell the obstinate or that they are acting contrary to God and natural law, even if they obtain a strict judgment in terms of human law. For nature teaches-as does love-that I should do as I would be done by Luke 6:31. Therefore, I cannot strip another of his possessions, no matter how clear a right I have, so long as I am unwilling myself to be stripped of my goods. Rather, just as I would that another, in such circumstances, should relinquish his right in my favor, even so should I relinquish my rights.
Thus should one deal with all property unlawfully held, whether in public or in private, that love and natural law may always prevail. For when you judge according to love you will easily decide and adjust matters without any lawbooks. But when you ignore love and natural law you will never hit upon the solution that pleases God, though you may have devoured all the lawbooks and jurists. Instead, the more you depend on them, the further they will lead you astray. A good and just decision must not and cannot be pronounced out of books, but must come from a free mind, as though there were no books. Such a free decision is given, however, by love and by natural law, with which all reason is filled; out of the books come extravagant and untenable judgments. Let me give you an example of this.
This story is told of Duke Charles of Burgundy. A certain nobleman took an enemy prisoner. The prisoner’s wife came to ransom her husband. The nobleman promised to give back the husband on condition that she would lie with him. The woman was virtuous, yet wished to set her husband free; so she goes and asks her husband whether she should do this thing in order to set him free. The husband wished to be set free and to save his life, so he gives his wife permission. After the nobleman had lain with the wife, he had the husband beheaded the next day and gave him to her as a corpse. She laid the whole case before Duke Charles. He summoned the nobleman and commanded him to marry the woman. When the wedding day was over he had the nobleman beheaded, gave the woman possession of his property, and restored her to honor. Thus he punished the crime in a princely way.
Observe: No pope, no jurist, no lawbook could have given him such a decision. It sprang from untrammeled reason, above the law in all books, and is so excellent that everyone must approve of it and find the justice of it written in his own heart. St. Augustine relates a similar story in The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, we should keep written laws subject to reason, from which they originally welled forth as from the spring of justice. We should not make the spring dependent on its rivulets, or make reason a captive of letters.