Martin Luther on Life

Rev. Joel Gerlach


(The following is taken from Pastor Joel Gerlach’s address at the second annual Christian Life Resources’ Convention.)

We are here today (at the convention) because a gracious God has kept us, his adopted children, for being engulfed and overwhelmed by the maddening crowd. We are here not only because as pro-lifers we share similar convictions, but also because as Lutherans for life. We are that because Luther was for life. And he was for life because he was for truth, God’s truth. You can’t be for the truth without being for life too. My proposal then is to let Luther speak to you today on a subject that is of particular concern to us.

Marriage and Family

Luther spoke and wrote at length about life’s beginning, its sacredness, about a Christian’s obligations with respect to life, and also about the obligations of the state to respect and protect life. Much of what Luther had to say about life was in the context of what he had to say about marriage and the family.

In 1525, eight years after posting the 95 Theses marking the beginning of the Reformation, Luther married ex-nun Catherine von Bora. Luther’s marriage to Catherine was important because of who they were and the attention of their marriage attracted. Their marriage became a model. So did their home.

Luther saw his relationship to his Katie as a partnership. He wrote: “Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool S though that father is acting . . . in Christian faith S my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling S not because the father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith” (LW 45:40)

Luther’s attitude toward his family is evident also in the grief he and Katie experienced first at the death of Elizabeth in 1528, their second child who lived less than a year, and again in 1542 when 13 year old Magdalena died in her father’s arms. At the time Luther wrote that he had something he knew no bishop had experienced for over a thousand years. Luther was referring to his family.

By written and spoken word as well as by his example, Luther helped elevate the family to the place of prominence it has occupied as the fundamental unit of society from the time of the reformation to the present. Essential to that view of the family is an understanding of the sacredness of life.

New Life – God’s Miracle

“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, He took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord made a woman from the rib” Genesis 2:21. After pointing out how “tenuous and almost useless” the philosophers’ theories about man’s origins are, Luther says, “… Here we are taught about the beginning of man that the first man did not come into existence by a process of generation, as reason has deceived Aristotle and the rest of the philosophers into imagining. The reproduction of his descendants takes place through procreation: but the first male was formed and created form a clod of the field, and first female from the rib of the sleeping male…”

“After this beginning was made, then there follows the no less wonderful propagation through the union of male and female, whereby the entire human race brought into being from a droplet of the human body… If, therefore, man is brought into existence from a droplet of blood, as the experience of all men on earth bears witness, surely this is no less miraculous than that the first man was created from a clod, and the female from a rib of the man” (LW 1:125:125).

No one who believes that the conception of new life in the womb is a marvel and a miracle could ever endorse arbitrarily and unilaterally undoing God’s miracle because the pregnancy happens to be an inconvenience. Later on, still commenting on this same verse, Luther says, “If we believe that God is the efficient and final cause, should we not wonder at His works, delight in them, and proclaim them always and everywhere?” (LW 1:127).

That tells you something about Luther’s mind-set. People then still felt a sense of awe and reverence for God. Abortion thrives only in a climate that has lost that sense of awe and reverence for God as the Creator and Author of life. First people lose their respect for God and his Word and only then do they subscribe to abortion as a person’s right.

If life originates with God, then life is sacred. Commenting on Genesis 3:20 Luther said, “The name which Adam gives his wife is a very pleasing and delightful name. For what is more precious, better, or more delightful than life?” (LW 1:220). It is precious because it is God given. And because it is God given, it is sacred.

The sacredness of life is inherently connected also with a biblical view of the purpose of life. Luther offers this clear and concise observation about life’s purpose: “What advantage is there in knowing how beautiful a creature man is if you are unaware of his purpose, namely that he was created to worship God and live eternally with God?” (LW 1:131). Surely to deprive a person, even before birth, of realizing the God-intended purpose of life has got to rank with the most devilish of crimes.

Negative attitudes toward life are really not new. Luther observed them in his day too, and denounced them in no uncertain terms. In his comments on the birth of Joseph to Jacob and Rachel, he notes, “For most married people do not desire offspring, indeed they turn away from it and consider it better to live without offspring.” Luther adds this scathing indictment of such an attitude: “Those who have no love for children are swine, stocks and logs unworthy of being called men and women; for they despise the blessing of God the Creator and Author of marriage” (LW 1:363).

But, you say, Luther’s concern in those quotes is about birth control. Our concern is about abortion. Did Luther have anything to say about that? Not expressly or directly, because abortion was not an infectious rot on the society of his day. But indirectly he did. How’s this for an unequivocal statement: “For those who pay no attention to pregnant women and do not spare the tender fetus become murderers and parricide” (LW 1:382). In this same connection he said, “Therefore there should be no joking (actually, trifling would be a better translation) with pregnant women, but they should receive careful attention because of the fetus” (LW 1:381).

Note that carefully. Luther was as concerned about the fetus as he was about the woman carrying the fetus. But did he really regard the fetus as a human being? You judge for yourself on the basis of this comment from the commentary on Genesis. Again, Luther is expounding the words “be fruitful and multiply.”

“Procreation is now hindered by a thousand diseases, and it happens that unborn children do not survive the period of gestation, or that at times marriages are altogether barren” (LW 1:133). Though they are unborn, yet they are children in Luther’s mind. He learned it from the Scriptures. Born or unborn, children are God’s creation, every one a miracle no less. And God gives no one the right to undo His doing.

What do you suppose Luther would have to say if he could address you here today? Knowing Luther’s penchant for strong language, it wouldn’t be sweet talk. And knowing how Luther loved to quote the fathers, he might begin by invoking St. Chrysostom who once said, “Whoever is not angry when there is cause for anger sins.” And, “American Christians,” Luther would say, “you’ve got just cause to be angry.”

Luther would probably say to us, “WELS Lutherans, if you’ve been reading my Large Catechism regularly like I encouraged you to do, then you will remember in my exposition of the 5th Commandment I said, ‘If you see anyone hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve. Likewise, if you see anyone condemned to death or in a similar peril and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of the service by which his life might have been saved.'”

I think Luther might also repeat what he said in his classic Treatise on Good Works. “Likewise, it is not right for the government to take a holiday and let sin rule and for us to say nothing… We must defend God’s honor and commandments, as well as prevent injury and injustice to our neighbor”(LW 44:103).

Did you notice that Luther is advocating two things here? For one thing, he is urging you to speak up. Let the world know what you think about its flaunting of God’s honor. Let your representatives in government hear about your concern for our national disregard of God’s commandment to protect life. But more than that Luther is also encouraging us to do something about this callous disregard for human life so prevalent today. Pregnancy counseling centers are doing something. Luther would be delighted to endorse what you are doing here in his name for God’s honor.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Luther were able to be here with you today, he would be. He would gladly endorse what you are endeavoring to do. He would support you in every way he could. He would do it out of fear and love for God and out of respect for life only God can create. I think he might even tie his support of your work to the Scriptures by paraphrasing the words of Jesus. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison and you came to visit me. I was about to be aborted and you came to my rescue.”

And now if I were to say on your behalf, “Luther, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” He’d say, “Don’t thank me. Thank God for Christian Life Resources.”

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