Luther and Reformatory Ideas: Good and Evil

For Luther and the other reformers, the individual was torn between good and evil - God and the Devil. The Devil was real as well as existential and metaphorical. Luther could, for example, say that without faith in Christ and God’s grace even God himself would become a devil. Because without the love of humanity God showed through Christ, only a fearful, punishing God would remain.

Luther spoke more about sin than evil. Sin was what made people turn away from God. Each individual has an inner battle, which he claimed was stronger in Christians than non-Christians. For Luther, people were born sinful, and the Reformation thus continued a long, Christian tradition of understanding people as being trapped in a state they are unable to escape. Luther believed that people were most interested in themselves and their own self-interest. They were incurvatus in se – curved in on themselves, as he graphically described it. This was not a state people could liberate themselves from. This did not mean that people should stop battling their own inner evil, but they should know that it was not a battle they could win alone. Ultimately, only the grace of God could triumph over human evil.

According to Luther, it is God’s grace that frees people to do good in the world. When people no longer perform good deeds for their own sake, they are more able to perform good deeds for others. Luther thus distinguished between being a good person in the eyes of God, and being good to your neighbour.

The Reformation’s understanding of sin and evil contributed to a changed view of the world. People were to live as Christians in their everyday lives not, for example, in a monastery or convent secluded from the world. People did not become better people by living celibate lives in seclusion – on the contrary. The family became the place where people could best live according to the will of God.

Because, through Christ, God shows himself as a loving God, the world can be seen as God’s gift to human beings, who have a responsibility to take care of it. The Northern European understanding of the common good has its roots in the Reformation, and paradoxically its radical understanding of people’s sinfulness contributes to a more positive view of everyday life.

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