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.

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