Distinguishing Between Doctrine and Life


“Doctrine and life must be distinguished. Life is bad among us, as it is among the papists, but we don’t fight about life and condemn the papists on that account.” (LW 54:110)

Dr. Luther spoke these words at his table conversations with his students and friends in 1533. He pointed out how John Wycliffe and John Huss had attacked the papacy in the late Middle Ages because of its corruption and immorality. The papacy’s doctrine, not individual popes’ morality, is the central issue for Luther. He believed it was his calling to refute false doctrine and teach true doctrine. Why? Luther states:

When the Word remains pure, then the life (even if there is something lacking in it) can be molded properly. Everything depends on the Word, and the pope has abolished the Word and created another one. With this I have won nothing else than that I teach aright. It’s the teaching that breaks the pope’s neck. (LW 54:110) [Emphasis added]

Do these statements mean that Luther did not care about how Christians lived? Simply put, no. However, Luther understood that true doctrine (the Word) will correct faulty living. Luther understood the weaknesses with which even believers continue to struggle. He also knew that only the right teaching of God’s Word could overcome those struggles.

In a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany on Colossians 3:12-17 Dr. Luther addressed the relationship of doctrine and life. He exhorted Christians to demonstrate their compassion to all people. True Christians associate with sinners and demonstrate God’s love. God does not deal with sinners according to the strictness of the Law and neither should Christians. Those who require absolute perfection in Christians are hypocrites who do not understand God’s love and compassion. However, Luther asserts that Christian love should not tolerate false teachers or their doctrine. Therefore, he concludes, “A defective life does not destroy Christianity; it exercises it. But defective doctrine—false belief—destroys all good.” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Trans. Nicholas Lenker, Vol. 2, p. 80.)

Luther spoke similarly regarding kindness. This virtue should mold the entire life of a Christian. Those who possess kindness defer to others and attract all people with gentleness and sympathy. However, kindness has its limits in relation to false doctrine. Luther stated forcefully:

But the liberality of kindness is not to be extended to false doctrine. Only relative to conduct and works is it to be exercised. As oft before stated, love with all its works and fruits has no place in the matter of unsound doctrine. I must love my neighbor and show him kindness whatever the imperfections of life. But if he refuses to believe or to teach sound doctrine, I cannot, I dare not, love him or show him kindness. According to Paul (Gal. 1:8-9), I must hold him excommunicated and accursed, even though he be an angel from heaven.” (Lenker, Vol. 2, p. 81)

This statement clearly demonstrates Luther’s understanding of how Christians should oppose false teachers. Christians must demonstrate kindness, forgiveness, and meekness toward sinners and bear with one another’s faults. However, Christians must never abide false teaching because tolerating it in the church is not true love at all.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Distinguishing Between Doctrine and Life — 9 Comments

  1. Probably something worth looking at in its full context. I think I may have these volumes at home and will do so tonight. One could almost get from the statement by itself that we should not have anything like friendly relations with any non-confessional Lutherans or any non-confessional LCMS Lutherans for that matter….

  2. Dr. Phillips, Excellent article. Thank you.

    @Brandon Jones #1

    I agree completely. False teachers are great at raising a ruckus while condemning any and all who attempt to call them out. On the other hand, there is a great resistance by the Church as a whole to correct (or advise for the politically minded folks) those who stray. Same old story though. Nothing will be done by the majority of LCMS leadership and the ship will continue to sink.

  3. @Nathan #2


    I think that there are two issues in play (probably many more as well). First, we are all called to point out error and attempt to bring a lost shepherd or sheep back. I know that I want somebody to work to bring me back if I stray, and stray we do. There is no reason that shouldn’t always be done, at least until the one who strays refuses to listen. That brings up my second point. The Church polity is quite dysfunctional. One needs to look no further than the DRP to see that. It seems to me like, as Brandon pointed out above, the whole process is upside down. In fact, we are to offer a false teacher seemingly endless platforms and mechanisms to speak their mind while the rest are hushed. In effect, we facilitate the false teacher.

    In my case I couldn’t even get a DP or member of the praesidium/SP to even send me hate mail stating that I was completely wrong in issues I attempted to bring up. I was completely disregarded. Don’t you think the LCMS leadership owed me a response, and perhaps even correction if necessary? If I am wrong I want to know, and I want to know why. I suppose that if they had responded to my concerns (that I won’t go into here) they would have likely simply stated that I should “HUSH.” It’s absurd that a sheep can be chased up the big “purple hill” by a ravenous wolf, only to be ignored or kicked back down the hill by the shepherd. Colossal failure of our “so called” leaders.

  4. @Nathan #2

    The context makes these statements seem more forceful and strict than these quotes do.

    Luther is absolutely stating that Christians should not allow false doctrine in their midst. Remember in Luther’s time the prince and city governments had the responsibility to make sure that true doctrine would be preached and taught. So Luther calls upon the proper authorities to deal with false teaching in the Church.

    However, his main point is that right teaching of the Word is more important than people’s daily faults and sins. These can be forgiven easily, but the effects of false teaching last much longer and spread more easily.

    (*i will comment no further here.)

  5. A new translation of the Sermon for the Epistle for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany (Col. 3:12-17) is in Luther’s Works, vol. 76, pp. 289-302.

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