Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 5)

Though insightful and historically faithful, the final chapter of Wright’s book is easily the weakest.  This really is too bad, as it would seem to be the appropriate time to get into the specifics of how Luther applied the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in particular (some interaction with Torvend, for example).  Wright mostly sticks with theory though, even as he titles the chapter “The Reformer Applies the Two Kingdoms to the Christian Life.”  Wright does, to be sure, assert that Luther applies the doctrine to the Christian life, and he explains why and what Luther means, but he does not give us particular examples here.

Wright does say that, according to Luther, “the Christian was responsible for his spiritual life before God, as well as his physical life before the world.  Luther applied the gospel to the Christian person before God.  He applied God’s law to all people in their offices and stations before the world, that is, in all institutional life” (147).  This is good, and I suspect that some modern proponents of the Two Kingdoms would shy away from affirming that “God’s law” is applicable to all “offices and stations” in the world.  Perhaps they would appeal to natural law at this point, but as we’ve said before, natural law is God’s.  What is helpful to note here is that Satan battles against natural law.  Wright states:

The devil, or Satan, held an important place in Luther’s understanding of reality because he tried with all his might to undermine the Word, which, as preached by God’s preachers, was the means God used to save individual people from sin, death, and the devil.  In addition, God also fought or encountered the devil through the creation… The devil hated God’s ordinance, His institutions for spiritual, political, and daily-life (oeconomia) purposes, and he hated order itself.


This sort of explanation would seem to baffle both modern proponents of the Two Kingdoms theology and critics of it.  The laws of this world, though not “gospel” in the proper sense, do still serve the purpose of God’s war against Satan.  It is an interesting perspective to consider.  The Gospel would require us to forgive sins, whereas the law would require us to put sinners to death.  Obviously the majority position of Reformers and Roman Catholics would want to retain a criminal penalty against murder.  And, it would seem to make sense to say, both would also affirm that Christian magistrates have a mandate to suppress evil.  But how is “law” (and not “gospel”) to do this?  The only answer is that the “kingdom of this world” is not fully ruled by the devil, but by God, and God sets up law and magistrates to rule His kingdom in true justice.  This sort of rhetoric comes out fairly clearly in Luther’s writing against the peasants.  He says that they are actually serving the devil and that even non-Christian magistrates would be doing God’s will in punishing them.

Luther still has his overall pessimism regarding this world, and Wright does not attempt to mask this.  Of the canonical book of Ecclesiastes, Wright says, “Luther declared that it should be called ‘the Politics and Economics of Solomon'” (150).  Life “under the sun” was life in the worldly kingdom.  This being Ecclesiastes, though, one can imagine that such a life is consistently frustrated.  There are bright spots, however.  “The creation was good and a gift of God.  Ecclesiastes advised one to drink the wine and eat the bread God had provided and enjoy it.”

This pessimism did have a role to play in the Christian’s spiritual life, of course.  The law intentionally drove a person to despair in order to show him his need for the other kingdom and the other righteousness.  Smug unbelievers needed to be “broken” and “crushed” by the law, while ordinary believers should be taught that “what they interpret as desertion is acceptance and the surest proof of God’s grace” (157).

As I have said, it would have been nice to see some specific applications in the Christian life.  Wright has earlier mentioned that Luther believed the natural law required communal schools financed by the local princes.  Humanitarian efforts would also be interesting to explore.  For this book, however, we will need to settle for some fundamental reassurances that Luther indeed believed in the application of God’s law to society:

Luther called upon Christians to reject the teaching of those who claimed that the law did not need to be taught to Christians. (161)

The Christian must listen to the law and take it seriously.  One had to be ready to reject the teaching of those who taught that the law did not apply to them or that it was no longer applicable after the coming of Christ, because the Christian was “sanctificati sanctificamur adhuc” (simultaneously sanctified and being sanctified). (162)

God wanted people to take advantage of all the opportunities that they had, because “He wants you to accomplish the things that He has ordained.”  To summarize, people must perform all of the things that go with the common daily life in which they find themselves.” (168)

Abraham was displaying the “heroic virtues of faith, hope and love” in this story.  Abraham embodied the idea that the ‘true saints live in the world and carry on civil activities,” wrote Luther.  “They are respectful, humane, circumspect, and cautious; and they ahve an understanding of all civil obligations.” (169)

Here ends my survey of Wright’s work, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms.  I highly recommend this, and in the future I would like to post more personal reflections on Luther’s thought.

This entry was posted in godly prince, Martin Luther by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

3 thoughts on “Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 5)

  1. steven, I read your series on Luther´s Two Kingdoms with interest.

    As a Lutheran , a couple of points stood out for me.

    1) Even Lutherans seem to see the two kingdoms as being the churchly estate vs the civil estate. I agree with the author that this was precisely the view that Luther opposed with his two kingdoms doctrine. Luther´s view here is based in a reading of Romans 8 that is radically opposed to that of the scholastics. Luther reads flesh vs spirit not as a movement from vice to Virtue, but rather as a move from Virtue, or a real and God pleasing external righteousness, to alone invisible Faith alone in Christ alone.

    2) So my second point , and one that I cannot see that the author really realizes, and is fundamental, is that for Luther, the two Kingdoms is really just another way of expressing what Lutherans claim to be the key to understanding all of scripture. It is called the Distinction between Law and Gospel. So the earthly kingdom is the kingdom of the Law and Reason and all we can see and do in our bodies. Luther stresses that word “all”. Why? It is so that we can see that the Heavenly Kingdom, or what makes us Christians and saves us, is alone faith alone in Christ. This cannot include anything we can see or do in our bodies. how could it? those things are all included in the other Earthly Kingdom.

    3) finally, what the author also misses is the Lutheran concept of “in, with and under”. Luther and the Lutherans after him, located everything spiritual and of Christ as being located and found always and ONLY “in , with, and under” earthly material things in the Earthly Kingdom. This is what allows Luther to locate the actual body and blood of Christ “in , with and under ” the bread and wine of the Holy Supper in a way Calvin and zwingli, still following aristotelian categories etc could not. This “in, with and under” is also essential to see how Luther says that earthly laws cannot be separated from God´s Word. This is why Luther says that even changing a diaper should be seen by a christian to be as holy a work as any church worker or missionary could do.

    Here is a Luther sermon that is referred to by the Lutheran Formula of Concord that I think is the very best example of how Luther works out the two kingdoms, and also the related ideas of law and gospel and the two kinds of righteousness that belong respectively to each kingdom.

    I could point you to many other places in the Lutheran Confessions that tease out this idea of the two kingdoms as well.

  2. Pingback: Wedgeworth Reviews Wright on Luther | RearViewMirror

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