Was Martin Luther an Antinomian?

Martin Luther's commentary on First Peter shows a deep sensitivity for the necessity of good works in the Christian life. He believed that faith without works was dead.

Introduction

At the church I pastor I have been preaching consecutively through 1 Peter. In order to gain greater depth of insight into the epistle, I have been reading a wide array of sources, including Martin Luther’s commentary which can be purchased here. All the page references in this article  come from this copy of Luther’s work. 

What has struck me most about Luther’s exposition of the epistle is the incisive way he advocates for faith-filled obedience to God. In short, the faith that justifies is never alone.

Luther clearly delineates between true and false faith, writing, “Therefore they deceive themselves who say they have faith and think that is enough and there is no danger, though at the time they are fulfilling the lusts of the flesh. Wherever faith is true and pure, it must attack the body and hold it, as it were, with a bridle, so that it does not do according to its lusts” (62). Later in the commentary, he writes, “For where there is a righteous faith it brings the body under subjection to it and controls the lusts of the flesh; and although it does indeed not put to death the body, it brings it into obedience to the Spirit and holds it with a bridle” (75). Noting the carnal life of pre-conversion, Luther says, “We have already done too much, before we believed, in passing our lives so shamefully after the manner of the heathen in lasciviousness, lusts, winebibbings, revelings, carousing, and abominable idolatries…Where such vices reign among the people, be they called as they may [i.e. even if they profess faith in Christ], it is a sign that they fear not God, and that they have no true faith, nor love, nor patience” (176). 

Luther consistently says the same thing as James, even though Luther famously attacked James as an epistle of straw. Nevertheless, the marrow that runs through Luther’s writing is, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). 

True faith is active, according to Luther: “It must not be a lazy and sleepy faith or dream, but a living and active thing, so that we enter into faith with our whole heart and cling to the Word” (63). In other words, the faith that actively rests in Christ and God’s promises turns from sin and to service of neighbor. 

In 1 Peter 1:14, Peter calls his readers to not conform themselves according to their former lusts. On this verse, Luther writes, “Then you were idolatrous, you lived in unbelief, unchastity, gluttony, drinking, avarice, wrath, jealousy and hatred; that was a wicked, heathenish state from which you have departed. Like the blind, you did not know what you did. These evil lusts now put away” (66).  It is unfitting for Christians to live in the sin that once characterized their pre-converted state. Luther is clear: Christians must mortify sin. 

Luther goes on to critique “blockheads” who “stumble and turn the very essence of Christianity into the liberty of the flesh—thinking they may do whatever they wish” (67). When a person thinks they can claim Christ’s name and yet live like the world, it is a textbook example of antinomianism. Instead, Luther says, Christians are to “live for the good of [our] neighbor, to serve and help him. The greatest work that follows faith is that I confess Christ with my mouth, bear witness, also with my blood, and spend my life where I may do the most good” (68). In fact, Luther writes that “true Christian freedom requires [us] to do good to [our] neighbor with cheerfulness” (121). 

In highlighting good works, Luther is echoing one of the key themes of 1 Peter (c.f. 2:20; 3:6, 16; 4:19). These works proceed from faith. Luther says that “faith and good works are yoked together, so that the sum total of the whole Christian life consists in these two parts; not that good works contribute anything to our justification before God, but that faith without good works does not exist, or it is not true faith” (69). Luther even writes, “God will not judge according to whether you are called a Christian or are baptized, but he will ask you: Are you a Christian? Then tell me where are the good works by which you can prove your faith” (70). A mere verbal profession of Christianity is not enough. The proof of faith is in the pudding of a life of service (c.f. Matthew 25:31-46). 

How Does Faith Work Itself Out? 

How might faith work itself out in relation to our neighbors? Luther says, “But we Christians […] should behave uprightly and with pure hearts toward men as toward God, acting fairly and justly, so that no one take the advantage of another in selling, in buying, or in our solemn vows, and the like” (86). 

How might faith work itself out in relation to lingering lusts of flesh? Luther says, “Thus we are to fast, pray and labor to weaken and suppress lust. Since flesh and blood continue as long as sin remains; therefore we are to constantly war against it. Whoever has not learned this by his own experience must not boast that he is a Christian” (113). Those who do not know by experience the irreconcilable war between flesh and spirit raging within are not truly Christians. 

How might faith work itself out in relation to civil authority? Luther writes, “…since ye have done all that was necessary to attain to true faith and you hold your body in subjection, let this now be your first business, to obey the civil authorities” (116). Christians are not free from obligation to the state, but must be subject to it on account of their faith in Christ. 

How might faith work itself out in relation to the church? Luther writes, “But brotherly love is that we Christians love one another as brethren and communicate one to another [i.e. show generosity toward each other], since we all alike have our blessings from God. This is the love Peter here particularly requires” (123). Note that Luther says Christian love is a necessity. Luther contrasts “fool-works” like building churches, founding masses, being priests, and vowing chastity, with what truly pleases God—things like compassion, brotherly affection, kindness, and courtesy. “These are truly precious, golden deeds, precious stones and pearls, well pleasing to God” (148). These are the things Christians must pursue. 

In relation to persecution, Christians must “govern their tongue and lips so as not to curse back, but do good to their enemies and bless them, that the Lord may not turn his countenance from them, as if he were angry with them” (154). Luther highlights the necessity of responding to suffering like Christ did. Persecution is actually beneficial to Christians that they might not sin against God. “Therefore,” Luther says, “the holy cross is profitable, that sin may thereby be subdued; if it appeals to you thus, then lust, envy, hate, and other wickedness vanish. Therefore God has imported the holy cross upon us that he might use and constrain us to believe, and to extend the hand of kindness to one another” (174). 

Conclusion

In light of the above quotations, it is impossible to conclude that Martin Luther was an antinomian. He cared deeply about the life of discipleship, believed that Christian obedience was a necessary fruit of faith, and called out those who continued to indulge in sin without repentance for what they were—hypocritical unbelievers. 

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