Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 5)

Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 5)

In the fourth sermon that Luther preached, he addressed the use of images and the eating of meats. Taking a slightly different tact to what the later Reformed churches would, Luther writes, ‘On the subject of images, in particular, we saw that they ought to be abolished when they are worshipped; otherwise not,—although because of the abuses they give rise to, I wish they were everywhere abolished.’  Luther thinks that there can be images that are beneficial provided they are not worshipped. Once an image is worshipped, the line has been crossed. Luther also admits that images count for nothing before God: ‘This cannot be denied. For whoever places an image in a church imagines he has performed a service to God and done a good work, which is downright idolatry.’ Yet Luther warns against the unthinking destruction of images because he wants people to be taught from Scripture that they are nothing, so that the authority of God’s Word would be the means by which they are rejected. Again, in this approach, Luther is seeking to prevent the institution of a legalism in reaction to a legalism of its opposite. In other words, Luther was concerned not to create a new law in the place of the old, rather he would preach the truth: ‘If they had heard this teaching that images count for nothing, they would have ceased of their own accord, and the images would have fallen without any uproar or tumult, as they are already beginning to do.’

What of Luther’s fondness for the crucifix then? ‘For I suppose there is nobody, or certainly very few, who do not understand that yonder crucifix is not my God, for my God is in heaven, but that this is simply a sign.’ Luther’s logic is this ‘…although it is true and no one can deny that the images are evil because they are abused, nevertheless we must not on that account reject them, nor condemn anything because it is abused. This would result in utter confusion.’ Luther illustrates this by reminding us that many people worship the sun and the stars – should we then rip the sun and stars from heaven? What of women and wine, he continues, both of which can cause much misery to man? Luther postulates with tongue in cheek: should we kill all the women and pour out all the wine? Driving his point home he then concludes that if this is the way we want to reform – by destroying our enemy – we will have to kill ourselves, because ‘we have no greater enemy than our own heart.’ But in the final analysis for Luther, preaching the Word of God is the means of reform, and the gospel is its power.

Luther also addresses the issue of meats: ‘It is true that we are free to eat any kind of food, meats, fish, eggs, or butter. This no one can deny.’ But, Luther adds, we must know when to use our Christian liberty. First, Luther says if you are sick you should eat meat as required irregardless of the offence caused. Second, ‘… if you should be pressed to eat fish instead of meat on Friday, and to eat fish and abstain from eggs and butter during Lent, etc., as the pope has done with his fool’s laws, then you must in no wise allow yourself to be drawn away from the liberty in which God has placed you, but do just the contrary to spite him, and say: Because you forbid me to eat meat and presume to turn my liberty into law, I will eat meat in spite of you. And thus you must do in all other things which are matters of liberty. To give you an example: if the pope, or anyone else were to force me to wear a cowl [a hooded robe worn my monks], just as he prescribes it, I would take off the cowl just to spite him. But since it is left to my own free choice, I wear it or take it off, according to my pleasure.’ Thirdly, there are the weak in the faith. ‘Toward such well-meaning people we must assume an entirely different attitude from that which we assume toward the stubborn. We must bear patiently with these people and not use our liberty; since it brings no peril or harm to body or soul; in fact, it is rather salutary, and we are doing our brothers and sisters a great service besides. But if we use our liberty unnecessarily, and deliberately cause offense to our neighbor, we drive away the very one who in time would come to our faith…Thus we, too, should order our lives and use our liberty at the proper time, so that Christian liberty may suffer no injury, and no offense be given to our weak brothers and sisters who are still without the knowledge of this liberty.’

To conclude, we should use our liberty (even defiantly) when our freedom has been threatened by those who would seek to make us slaves to something i.e. the Roman Catholic dietary laws. But when our liberty affects a weaker brother or sister this is when we must be willing to lovingly put our liberty aside.

LW 51:85-88

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