John Richardson remembers some wise words of Martin Luther
The recurring news items about people being threatened with fines for putting up posters about missing pets typifies that sense that ours is a society which has lost its moral compass.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther began a treatise on Holy Communion with these remarkable words: ‘Experience, all chronicles, and the Holy Scriptures as well, teach us this truth: the less law, the more justice; the fewer commandments, the more good works. No well-regulated community ever existed long, if at all, where there were many laws.’
An odd way, you might think, to begin discussing church services. But Luther’s understanding of religion went far beyond what is done inside the four walls of a church. At the heart of his message was a radical divide between what we are and what we ought to be.
What we are is disobedient creatures in rebellion against God and in conflict with our neighbours. Therefore we must have laws, magistrates, police and prisons (and finally, hell itself). What we ought to be is sons and daughters of God, whose pattern is Jesus and whose home is the Kingdom of Heaven where the only law is the law of love. And between these two states there is a constant tension.
Thus we must have laws, because without them there would be no control over criminal behaviour, injustice and oppression. But the law can never make us good, and therefore it can never bring
about justice. It can punish and limit wrongdoing, but it is always inefficient and ultimately ineffective. And therefore too much law is a bad thing.
The difference between Luther’s society and our own, however, is that in Luther’s day, and down to the mid-twentieth century, there was a general assumption that behind our laws lay a higher demand based on a greater authority. For Luther, this was God. And even when faith in God became diminished or distorted, the sense that laws should embody ‘justice’ remained.
But now there is no God, there are no moral absolutes, there is no ‘higher authority’. Hence we are ‘free’ to do as we want. Ironically, however, the result is not an increase, but a decrease of freedom.
Let us not put our hopes in the law, and let us never co-mingle the law with the Gospel.
This first appeared on