by Rev. A. Brian Flamme

Reading NewspaperHow would Luther watch and read the news? Of course that begs another couple of questions, would the news matter to Luther and should it matter to the theological heirs of the Reformation? Ask yourself. Should it matter to the Christian that human embryos are being tested and discarded? Is it worth filtering through barrage of election cycle noise while being mindful of the Scriptures? Is it appropriate to let your religious convictions play a role in your perceptions of public life?

Wrestling with these questions is important because it resists the temptation to compartmentalize the human experience into sacred and secular spheres that have nothing to do with one another. Though it might be tempting to interpret Luther’s theology of the Two Kingdoms this way, realize that both the kingdoms stand under the authority of God’s Word. The Kingdom of the Left, the world, stands under the Law while the Kingdom of the Right, the church, has the righteousness of Christ that’s apprehended by faith, the Gospel.[1]

Either way, God says something to both the world and church. “For this reason one must carefully distinguish between these two governments. Both must be permitted to remain; the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds. Neither one is sufficient without the other.”[2]

The fact that God speaks with clarity concerning sin and righteousness through the Scriptures has been rejected by today’s world. Its evidence has been deemed inadmissible in the court of public opinion. You know that it’s safer to keep your religious convictions out of sight as family and civil life are being radically redefined. As the sexual and ethical revolutions pick up steam, the world demands that the previous distinction between church and state must become an insurmountable wall of separation. The Scriptures, through the church, is no longer allowed to have a voice over against the wider world. In other words, the church’s voice has been relegated to the confines of an individual’s heart. The point is for the church to keep quiet. As a result, the expectation for you, as a member of the church, is to keep silent so you don’t have to risk losing friends or your job.

But being a Christian means more than having a private spiritual life. It’s a faith that finds expression in love toward God and love toward your neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39). Jesus doesn’t give us the option of despising the world, because it’s there that you find your neighbor. Wouldn’t it be easier if your neighbors were just the members of your church? Of course. Then you might be justified to just focus on a community with which you have the solidarity of shared convictions. But Jesus teaches the opposite (Luke 10:25-37)! It turns out that when God speaks, especially to his saints in the Divine Service, his Word pertains to every expanse and corner of human life.

ref-reformationrememberedAs theological heirs of the Reformation, we have the treasure of Luther’s Catechisms which triangulate Christian life in the world on the basis of the Ten Commandments. Very practically Luther tells the Christian, “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments.”[3] Through these commandments God establishes his name, kingdom and Word (1st Table of the Law). These are the boundaries of the Holy Christian Church. He then shows us the great gift of temporal authorities, bodily life, marriage, property, reputation, and contentedness (2nd Table of the Law). Everything you need to know about vocation, where God has called and placed you in this life, is right here. This is how you know what love toward your neighbor in the world should look like.

Luther writes in the Preface to the Large Catechism, “This much is certain: those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters. They are qualified to be a judge over all doctrines, walks of life, spirits, legal matters, and everything else in the world.”[4]

This is great for figuring out your individual place in life, but what happens when you want a bird’s eye view of what’s going on? How did Luther look at events in the world with regard God’s Word? (See we’re finally getting back to how Luther might watch the news!) This is when Luther would examine actors on the world stage in view of the three estates; the family, state, and church. Though it sounds similar to Luther’s earlier articulation of the Two Kingdoms, the subtle differences might help to sharpen a Christian critique of the attacks against God’s ordering of the world.

Consider this example. As the Turkish armies advanced upon Europe’s eastern frontiers, Luther was persuaded to write about the danger of the Turk’s religion, Islam, in 1528 in his tract On War Against the Turk. According to Luther’s analysis, Islam attacked the church with false doctrine, the state with sanctioned murder, and the family through polygamy. Islam is especially dangerous in that it attacks not just one estate, but all three which are necessary for a God-pleasing life.

Luther explains, “Lies destroy the spiritual estate; murder, the temporal; disregard of marriage, the estate of matrimony. Now if you take out of the world veram religionem, veram politiam, veram oeconomiam, that is, true spiritual life, true temporal government, and true home life, what is left in the world but flesh, world, and devil?”[5]

Near the end of his life in On the Councils and the Church, Luther positively articulates the estates in this way: “The First government is that of the home, from which the people come; the second is that of the city, meaning the country, the people, princes, and lords, which we call the secular government. These embrace everything – children, property, money, animals, etc. The home must produce, whereas the city must guard, protect, and defend. Then follows the third, God’s own home and city, that is, the church, which must obtain people from the home and protection and defense from the city.”[6]

Luther’s description of the three estates is remarkably distinct from the medieval understanding of the tripartite society consisting of those who pray, those who fight, and those who labor. Luther understood that everyone should be able to see his life as participating in each of the estates. Also, all three of the estates cannot exist independently from the others.

Luther continues, “These are the three hierarchies ordained by God, and we need no more; indeed, we have enough and more than enough to do in living aright and resisting the devil in these three. Just look only at the home and at the duties it alone imposes: parents and landlords must be obeyed; children and servants must be nourished, trained, ruled, and provided for in a godly spirit. The rule of the home alone would give us enough to do, even if there were nothing else. Then the city, that is, the secular government, also gives us enough to do if we show ourselves really obedient, and conversely, if we are to judge, protect, and promote land and people. The devil keeps us busy enough, and with him God gave us the sweat of our brow, thorns and thistles in abundance [Gen. 3:18–19], so that we have more than enough to learn, to live, to do, and to suffer in these two governments. Then there is the third rule and government. If the Holy Spirit reigns there, Christ calls it a comforting, sweet, and light burden [Matt. 11:30]; if not, it is not only a heavy, severe, and terrible task, but also an impossible one, as St. Paul says in Romans 8 [:3], “What the law could not do,” and elsewhere, “The letter kills” [II Cor. 3:6].”[7]

For Teachers - Lutheran ReformationFar from being a holdover of antiquated thought, Luther identifies these estates as creations of God’s Word.[8] This is easy for us to see in Holy Scripture. God gives us families by joining a man and woman together in marriage (Gen. 2:24). He creates authorities who bear the sword through the command to honor parents (Ex. 20:12). So also he commands his Apostles and pastors to preach the Gospel which establishes the Church (John 20:21). Anything in the world that detracts from these estates disorders and confuses the best life that God wants us to have.

Lest we think that Luther alone thought of human life this way, the Confessions also uphold all three estates as essential parts of human life. “In the meantime the gospel does not overthrow secular government, public order, and marriage but instead intends that a person keep all this as a true order of God and demonstrate in these walks of life Christiaan love and true good works according to each person’s calling.”[9]

Let’s return to the questions at hand. Should we be paying attention to the news? In as much as we can articulate our lives according to the civil and familial estates, of course. The question is, how do we make the right distinctions to see how the news worthy stories in the world are helpful for a godly life or what things detract from it?

First, start with the Commandments. Ask if this trend, event, or person(s) in society openly teach against the Ten Commandments or if they uphold them. Given that the Lord creates human life in the womb (Ps. 139:13), what does the above mentioned story about experimentation on human embryos say about our society’s understanding of the 5th commandment?

Second, ask if what’s being presented confuses or helps keep the distinction between the kingdom of God’s right and left hands. Are members of the state trying to play the part of ministers of the gospel, perhaps by preaching a false gospel apart from forgiveness for Christ’s sake, or are preachers confusing the functions of their office with civil matters?

The Motto of the Reformation: VDMAFinally, and perhaps most helpfully, learn from Luther’s example and ask if these things happening in the world support or undermine the family, civil society, and the preaching of the gospel, which is the church. Much of our criticism of the sexual revolution should be framed, I think, from this perspective. We have to be able to articulate that an attack on God’s institution of the family will always undermine God’s words for the state and church as well.

Far from being helpless to understand our place in this world and the events of this world, the Lord gives us his Word. In the Scriptures we find those things that are profitable for faith and good works and serious warnings against the flesh, devil, and world that have set themselves against God’s Word. God grant us diligence to meditate on his instituting words to give us clarity with regard our station in life and our most precious vocation as Christian which we have gained freely though Baptism.


The Rev. A. Brian Flamme is a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO.


[1] Though it could be argued that people who have never heard the Scriptures have a sense of civil righteousness, Luther would agree as St. Paul explains (Rom. 2:15). However, since the beginning of the world it was the Word of God that clarified and gave the best expression of what we can discern about good and evil from experience and conscience. Luther expounds upon this in his famous 1523 tract called Temporal Authority: To What Extend It Should Be Obeyed (LW 45:86ff). Luther himself directs his readers to this source often as well as his later tract

[2] LW 45:92

[3] Small Catechism, V

[4] Large Catechism, Preface (Kolb-Wengert, 382).

[5] LW 46:182

[6] LW 41:177

[7] LW 41:177

[8] I once heard someone say that Luther’s theology developed along the lines of finding God’s instituting words in Holy Scripture. I think that’s true, especially if you are familiar with Luther’s catechisms. The Lord institutes the state through the Fourth Commandment which not only requires parents to be honored, but also other authorities. The instituting words of the Church should can be found where Christ commands his Gospel to be preached and the keys administered. Finally, during Luther’s lifetime often his Marriage Booklet was included with texts of the Small Catechism (Kolb-Wengert, 367ff).

[9] AC XVI (Kolb-Wengert, 49-50).