As a pastor returning to the mess that Karlstadt had begun – in trying to bring revolution – Luther explains the method he uses to decide whether something is to be considered ‘free’ or a ‘must’. Remember this is Luther’s third sermon having returned from Wittenberg from isolation in Wartburg Castle (although he probably didn’t have to wear a mask): ‘We have heard the things which are “musts,” which are necessary and must be done, things which must be so and not otherwise: the private masses must be abolished. For all works and things, which are either commanded or forbidden by God and thus have been instituted by the supreme Majesty, are “musts.” Nevertheless, no one should be dragged to them or away from them by the hair, for I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club. I said this plainly enough; I believe you have understood what I said…’
It seems that through Karlstadt’s influence some had sought to correct the forbidding of marriage by forcing Nuns and Monks to marry. This, Luther knew, was as wrong as the forbidding of marriage in the first place. How does Luther address this? ‘Now follow the things which are not necessary, but are left to our free choice by God and which we may keep or not, such as whether a person should marry or not, or whether monks and nuns should leave the cloisters. These things are matters of choice and must not be forbidden by any one, and if they are forbidden, the forbidding is wrong, since it is contrary to God’s ordinance. In the things that are free, such as being married or remaining single, you should take this attitude: if you can keep to it without burdensomeness, then keep it; but it must not be made a general law; everyone must rather be free. So if there is a priest, monk, or nun, who cannot abstain, let him take a wife and be a husband, in order that your conscience may be relieved; and see to it that you can stand before God and the world when you are assailed, especially when the devil attacks you in the hour of death. It is not enough to say: this man or that man did it, I followed the crowd, according to the preaching of the dean, Dr. Karlstadt, or Gabriel, or Michael. Not so; every one must stand on his own feet and be prepared to give battle to the devil. You must rest upon a strong and clear text of Scripture if you would stand the test. If you cannot do that, you will never withstand—the devil will pluck you like a parched leaf…Therefore I say, what God has made free shall remain free. If anybody forbids it, as the pope, the Antichrist, has done, you should not obey. He who can do so without harm and for love of his neighbor may wear a cowl or a tonsure, since it will not injure your faith. The cowl will not strangle you, if you are already wearing one...’
As an heir of the reformation I often look impatiently at Luther and wonder why he takes such a mediating role even though other reformers would later go further than Luther on some issues. This impatience, however, might even tempt me to run – not just fall – into the revolutionary trap of Karlstadt. But we have to remember that the reformation is in its early days. Luther himself is still in the process of reforming. However, I think the main reason for Luther’s ‘mediating’ tact here, is found in his recent discovery of justification by faith alone. What Luther did not want to do was to remove one erroneous ‘must’ (priests must not marry) only to replace it with another erroneous ‘must’ (priests must marry). Or, in other words, to remove one work and simply to replace it with another work. For both these attitudes contradict the theology of grace and justification by faith alone. This should help us to understand Luther at this point.
Now, the reformed churches would go onto modify this method of working out what is free and what is a must. In general, Luther would say what God has said is a must – is a must. But with what God has not said is a must – therein is freedom. The reformed tradition would generally agree with this if applied as a general principle. However, when it comes to worship, the reformers would understand ‘must’ and ‘free’ slightly differently. ‘Must’ and ‘free’ must be interpreted through the lense of what God has explicitly said and commanded, and only what God has commanded must be done in worship. If God is ‘silent’ on something, Luther might give the freedom to do it, whereas the later reformers—in view of worship in particular—where God is silent, so must we be (i.e. it does not automatically give us the right to practice it, for example like the lunacy of waving of flags in worship etc.). This is where the regulative principle of worship comes in. For example, if God hasn’t commanded us to wear a cowl in worship, the reformers would say we must not wear it. Whereas Luther would say it isn’t forbidden so it is free with regard to conscience. I do however, agree with the reformers here. How we worship our holy God has never been left up to us to decide for ourselves. The worship of God must follow only what God has commanded.
The regulative principle of worship can be justified to support a number of different things, so we should be careful how we come to our conclusions. But what we can learn from Luther here, is that we must not replace a law-work with another law-work, and that our conclusions must – to the best of our ability – be drawn from Scripture (or be deduced by good and necessary consequence) so that we stand on them in good conscience.