You have perhaps read or heard someone say that the life of a Christian looks exactly the same as the life of an unbeliever. Some even say that the life of pagans is often externally more righteous than that of Christians, since morality has to do with the Law, and the Gospel has nothing to do with morality. Under the guise of the freedom of the Gospel, any suggestion that the Christian life looks any different from the pagan life is dismissed as Pharisaism and legalism.
Luther has even been quoted on this matter, and indeed, he does write, “At times, pagans might even seem to be holier than Christians!” If one were to lift this out of context, it sure does seem to support the idea that the Gospel has nothing to do with morality.
If you look at the context of Luther’s writing, you will get the whole picture. This quotation is from A Christian Holy People (45), which is a primer of On the Councils and the Church. Our Lenten devotional and series are based on this work which is available as a free download from Lutheran Press.
Throughout the work, Luther does not suggest that Christians live like unbelievers or that the Gospel has nothing to do with morality. Quite the opposite. He asks, “Why is the church called a Christian holy people? The church has the Holy Spirit who daily makes it holy! The Holy Spirit makes Christians holy not only – as the Antinomians foolishly claim – through the forgiveness of sins, which Christ has purchased for them, but also by doing away with, purging, and killing sins. This is why the church is called a Christian holy people.” (10)
The Holy Spirit doesn’t give the forgiveness of sins for the purpose of leading the sinner back into sin like a dog returning to its own vomit or a sow returning to wallow in the mire (II Peter 2:22). Rather, “The Holy Spirit enlivens and sanctifies, that is, he daily purges sins and renews life. Why? So we do not remain in sins, but can and will lead a new life in all kinds of good works!” (11)
Luther continues, “Anyone who is not like the Christian holy people described… should not claim to be Christian. Such a person should also not be comforted as if he were a Christian.” (15)
Luther writes that those who are living in sin should not be strengthened and comforted to remain in sin. They should be terrified by the Law so that they would repent rather than remaining in sin without any renewal or improvement of life. Luther condemns those who would say that you can be an adulterer, fornicator, or routine pursuer of sinful activity and only believe and you will be saved. He says such preaching destroys Christ and such sinners who do not seek to avoid sin and lead a new life receive no benefit from Christ’s death (16).
The church is called a Christian holy people because they have received the Holy Spirit who makes them holy. The Holy Spirit does not sit idle in a Christian but produces fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22).
Luther thus adds obedience to the Second Table of the Law as an external mark by which the holy Christian church is recognized. The Holy Spirit aids us in doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong.
Not that the holy life is perfected here on earth, but only begun. The Ten Commandments continue to show us “how much we still lack, so that we might not become secure and think that we have done everything perfectly.” (44)
Here then comes Luther’s statement comparing the life of pagans and the life of Christians. He writes that we are constantly to grow in sanctification along the lines of the Ten Commandments, always becoming more and more a new creature in Christ. “However, such Second-Table marks are not to be regarded to be as certain as the above-mentioned First-Table marks. Why? Many pagans also do such Second-Table works. At times, pagans might even seem to be holier than Christians!” (44-45)
In other words, there are more certain marks of the church than obedience to the Second-Table Commandments (see A Christian Holy People – they are the possession of the Word of God, Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the public use of the Office of the Keys, the work of the Public Ministry, public prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and finally suffering). Obedience to the Second-Table is less certain as a mark of the Christian church, not because Christians live in open sin and vice, but because pagans can also appear externally to obey these Commandments. Luther’s not saying that Christians live in sin and remain in sin and thus appear worse than the pagans. The exact opposite. He is saying that pagans can also live externally righteous lives before man. Pagans can appear to have more good works than Christians.
There is an indissoluble connection between the Gospel and morality, between the Gospel and the keeping of the Law. Yes, first and foremost because the Gospel tells us that Christ has fulfilled all the moral requirements of the Law on our behalf. Secondarily, because through the Gospel we receive the Holy Spirit which gives us a new desire to follow the Law of God, meditate on it day and night, and increase in good works and morality, and improve in living a Christian life to the praise and honor of God’s holy name.