Martin Luther became a historical figure for a set of academic theses, but most of his German contemporaries knew him for his pastoral writings. By the time he was excommunicated in 1520 he had already written 25 pastoral writings, most of them in German. According to historian Mark Edwards, his German pastoral writings were printed and sold much more often in the sixteenth century than the texts we often read today.
I find his pastoral works captivating because they show a different side of Luther, tender and forceful all at once. In his pastoral writings, Luther is clear about the reason for his protest: to protect vulnerable souls from the demands of late medieval piety.
He worried that the practices of late medieval Christianity—pilgrimages, processions, set prayers, penance, and, yes, indulgences—taught Christians that God’s favor could be earned and that good fortune could be negotiated with God. He worried that prescribing these devotions put Christians on the path to despair since they would always wonder if they had done enough. He also worried that all these practices took time, attention and resources away from loving one’s neighbor.
His pastoral writings show that the primary reason for his protest was pastoral; he thought the papacy was leading souls astray, not shepherding them. This was his initial and abiding objection to papal authority. Only when church officials asked him to defend traditional arguments on papal authority did he begin to explore and question those arguments.
Luther is known for his lively, pithy prose and his use of everyday German to make his point. This flair is on full display in his pastoral writings. For example, when encouraging readers to use shorter prayers, he wrote, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer. The more words, the worse the prayer. Few words and richness of meaning is Christian. Many words and lack of meaning is pagan.”
He was critical of the use of prayer books and prayer beads because he thought they allowed one to go through the motions of prayer even while the mind wandered and the heart was insincere. For Luther, true prayer is defined by its sincerity; it is “the lifting up of the mind and the heart to God.”
Luther saw late medieval modes of prayer as attempts to gain favor with God and to avoid God’s punishment. Luther cautioned that self-imposed works are not virtuous because they are a misguided attempt to redeem ourselves from sin. (Rejoice, all ye who dislike the practice of giving things up for Lent!)
In place of obviously pious works, Luther recommended good works that go unseen. In every devotional act, he saw a danger of insincerity, either out of boredom or out of a desire to look good in front of others. No work, however pious it appears, is free of this danger. This is one reason why Luther liked to recommend less visible works: if they are invisible and unpleasant, then they can only be done in sincere faith.
Instead of going on pilgrimages and the like, Luther insisted that we follow the Ten Commandments and serve others, however unglamorous. His explications of the Ten Commandments lay out a very demanding ideal of how to love neighbors—one that involves protecting their rights, their reputation, and their material needs. Again and again Luther pointed to these acts as truly Christian works. He condemned those who say they want to do good works, yet always chose more showy devotional acts over the very routine (and often unnoticed) acts of love toward the neighbor.
Luther’s pastoral works paint the life of faith in vivid, rich colors. In his vision, we can live out of deep conviction and commitment rather than narrow self-interest. We are animated by love and joy, not fear and shame. We serve others in the ways that help them most, not the ways that make us look good. We live without fear because we can trust God’s good promises.
As Luther put it in The Freedom of a Christian, “Who then can comprehend the riches and the glory of the Christian life? It can do all things and has all things and lacks nothing. It is lord over sin, death and hell, and it serves, ministers to and benefits all people.”