The Lutheran Legacy of Resistance

The following is an excerpt from Wade Johnsons essay We Must Obey God Rather Than Men: The Lutheran Legacy of Resistance in One Lord, Two Hands? Essays on the Theology of the Two Kingdoms, a new anthology edited by LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison and Rev. Dr. John T Pless. 


Our focus addresses the assertion that the great reformer was “a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority.” Luther in reality did have a doctrine of resistance. It flowed from fundamental tenets of his teaching. He taught no unconditional obedience to political authority. From rather early on, the seeds for his doctrine of resistance were evident. This teaching then persisted within Lutheranism and was seized upon and developed by the Gnesio-Lutherans, led by Matthias Flacius, reaching its clearest articulation in the Magdeburg Confession of 1550, adopted de facto by the Formula of Concord through its approval of the Flacian principle (nihil est adiaphoron in statu confessionis et scandali).

Two Forms of Righteousness in Two Kingdoms

Lutherans recognize two kinds of righteousness, coram mundo and coram Deo, civic righteousness and divine righteousness that avails before God. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession reflected Luther’s doctrine well when it conceded in Article XVIII that the human will can “to some extent produce civil righteousness or the righteousness of works.” Even in this righteousness, however, mankind is found sadly wanting, as “not even the philosophers, who seemed to have aspired after this righteousness, attained it.” Further, Luther’s Lutheranism insists that these two kinds of righteousness, “philosophical teaching and the teaching of the Holy Spirit,” never be confused. Only divine righteousness avails before God. Civic righteousness can do nothing to improve our standing before God or reconcile us to Him. Through it God works for the good of society and our neighbor, but no man is saved. Good order is kept and peace preserved, but no one is reconciled to God. The exercise of civic righteousness is still important, though. It benefits the Christian Church as well as those who have a mere temporal orientation, affording opportunities to freely celebrate the divine service, evangelize, and carry out works of charity.

Luther taught that the Christian is simultaneously a citizen of two kingdoms—a second simul of sorts. Christ is God and man in one person. So also, the Christian is a citizen of the kingdom of the left and of the right. Failing to recognize this and distinguish the two kingdoms only harmed, in Luther’s view, the Christian’s person as a whole. It also confused the Christian’s service within his divine calling. The Christian had to live within the tension—a very Lutheran practice. While serving the kingdom of the left (the state), the Christian’s conscience was informed by the revelation of God, the foundation of the kingdom of the right. Faith guided the latter, reason the former, and yet Christian consciences were informed by faith, and Christian revelation did not fail to shape the natural law arguments Christian citizens made.

If those in authority are ordained by God, when might a Christian dare to disobey them, let alone resist them?

Luther was forced to wrestle with this when an imperial invasion seemed imminent after the Diet of Augsburg of 1530. Luther’s 1531 Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to His Dear German People proves critical, as David Whitford has made clear. Luther’s answer to when resistance is permissible was rather simple: when obedience to God demands it. In explaining this, though, Luther distinguished between rebellion and self- defense. The former he would not countenance. He offered pastoral counsel for those officially officed with the latter.

He wanted nothing to do with rebellion. God could use rebellion, but it was not the business of His people, and certainly not the “fruit of Lutheran teaching.” Luther wanted peace. His opponents were the ones who “want[ed] neither peace for themselves nor for others.” What Luther upheld was the natural right to self-defense. He was no advocate for war, because “it is not fitting for me, a preacher, vested with the spiritual office, to wage war or to counsel war or to incite it, but rather to dissuade from war and to direct to peace, as I have done until now with all diligence.”

He was realistic, though. He acknowledged the end that such a rush to war, against the truth, would bring. Those who warred against God’s faithful would meet their Maccabees. Princes shouldn’t be looking for war, but should it come, for just cause, Luther wrote, “I will not reprove those who defend themselves against the murderous and bloodthirsty papists, nor let anyone else rebuke them as being seditious. . . . I will direct them in this matter to the law and to the jurists.” Yes, “when the murderers and bloodhounds wish to wage war and to murder, it is in truth no insurrection to rise against them and defend oneself.” Luther wrote as a pastor, not a jurist: “I do not want to leave the conscience of the people burdened by the concern and worry that their self- defense might be rebellious. For such a term would be too evil and too harsh in such a case. It should be given a different name, which I am sure the jurists can find for it.”

If We Fight, It Is For The Gospel

Luther explicitly set forth why princes should disobey the emperor if he pressed for war, and that along religious lines. First: “You, as well as the emperor, vowed in baptism to preserve the gospel of Christ and not to persecute it or oppose it.” Second: “Even if our doctrine were false—although everyone knows it is not—you should still be deterred from fighting solely by the knowledge that by such fighting you are taking upon yourself a part of the guilt before God of all the abominations which have been committed and will be committed by the whole papacy.” Finally: “If you did otherwise you would not only burden yourself with all these abominations and help strengthen them, but you would also lend a hand in overthrowing and exterminating all the good which the dear gospel has again restored and established,” which he then describes for them. The threat was real. The church was not a mere bystander. Luther warned, “If this doctrine vanishes, the church vanishes.” He counseled, “Christ will not be afraid of you and will also (God willing) stand his ground against you. But if he does, you will have quite a battle on your hands.”

Blog post adapted from One Lord, Two Hands?: Essays on the Theology of the Two Kingdoms copyright © 2021 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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