Luther and Reformatory Ideas: Ethics and Welfare

The Reformation’s view of morality was based on a clear distinction between the individual’s inner self and outer actions. Internally people were to combat their own egoism and lack of faith in God. At an outer level, they should perform good deeds for the good of their neighbours. The battle against inner sin could not be won alone. It could only be won with the help of God’s grace and absolution. And it was a battle that did not end until death. But when it came to outer actions, people could help their neighbour and thereby honour God.

The relationships people were in determined how they should live their lives. Everyone, regardless of whether they were the master of the house or a housewife, a farmhand or maid, a farmer, pastor or prince, had a vocation. Here they could do their best, but never attain perfection. The needs of one’s neighbour were the constant pivotal point for a Christian life, which is why Luther and Melanchthon criticised greed, high interest rates and extravagant lifestyles.

Luther believed that the Ten Commandments actually provided adequate guidelines for living a good, Christian life. The first three were about the love of God, and the last seven about loving others. Luther gave a new explanation of the Ten Commandments by which the prohibitions they contained were seen as positive commands. The ban on stealing, for example, was explained as a command to protect the property of one’s neighbour.