Save for a few major topics like justification and his distinction between law and gospel, it’s quite difficult to pin down Martin Luther. Unlike John Calvin, for example, Luther was not a systematic writer and, although a rigorous scholar, he shifted his positions during a long career, often veering in different directions, even at times coming close to contradiction. This is further complicated by his works being decidedly “occasional” (written for specific purposes). In other words, Martin Luther was a real, flesh and blood person. And because Luther shifts and moves about (unlike more systematic theologians), to really understand the Wittenberg reformer, the reader often has to take a big step back and look at the whole course of Luther’s writings. A very good example is his ecclesiology, specifically Luther’s approach to the relationship between the gospel message and the Church. For Luther, there is a beautiful ambiguity, a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, even a tension, in which the Church is ever being created and recreated by its gospel proclamation.[1] I suspect, though, that this beautiful tension is sometimes missed by attempts to resolve it.

First, for Luther, what does the Church look like? Augustine was always a safe touchstone for Luther, and that preeminent Latin father had taught that the Church has four principle characteristics: oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. These are the notae ecclesiae, the marks of the Church by which it can be recognized. This was a baseline for Luther, but at various points in his long and decidedly occasional writing-preaching-teaching career he provided different lists for the notae ecclesiae.

In his 1528 lectures on Isaiah, Luther said rather starkly that “the only perpetual and infallible mark of the church was always the Word.”[2] We should understand that, for Luther, the Word meant not simply the text, but the Word preached, the message of Christ’s grace being delivered from a living messenger to a living audience. In this sense, the Word is always alive.[3] The Holy Spirit then uses the Word instrumentally to penetrate the hearts of the listeners, implanting in them “the priceless Christ and all his blessings.”[4] So yes, indeed, the Word is certainly the indispensable mark of the Church — but this is not simply that there is orthodox preaching and lively Bible studies; the idea is much larger than that.

In his 1520 treatise, On the Papacy in Rome, Luther gave a more tangible list of three marks: “baptism, the sacrament [the Eucharist], and the gospel are the signs by which the existence of the church in the world can be noticed externally.”[5] Just shy of 20 years later, Luther gave another list in On the Councils and the Church (1539), now expanded from three to seven: (1) the Word of God, (2) the sacrament of Baptism, (3) the Sacrament of the Altar, (4) the power of the keys, (5) the calling and ordaining of pastors and bishops, (6) prayer, praise, and thanks to God, and (7) enduring the cross and inner conflict.[6] Two years later, he gave yet another list in his treatise Against Hanswurst (1541): (1) Holy Baptism, (2) the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, (3) the keys, (4) the office of preaching and God’s Word, (5) the apostolic confession of faith, (6) the Our Father, (7) honor due to the temporal power, (8) praise of the marriage estate, (9) the suffering of the true Church, (10) the renouncing of revenge for persecution.[7]


Now, one could look at these varying lists and argue that Luther is all over the place; the old man drank too much; he was bipolar. However, there is a certain consistency in which the Word still reigns preeminent: it communicates grace and give us new hearts. This is the raison d’être for the Church. So again we can see how, even though Luther provides different lists and says different things, such a wildly occasional and decidedly non-systematic theologian as Luther is probably best understood by looking at the sweep of his career rather than one moment.

So, what is the relationship between the gospel (the message of Christ’s grace for sinners) and the Church in the thinking of Martin Luther? With an earthshaking voice, Luther wrote in his Resolutions following the 1519 Leipzig Disputation that the Church is a creature of the gospel. This means a message goes out — a message that convicts, converts, and consecrates. And that message, the evaggelion, causes a body of believers to come into existence. Here Luther seems to be saying that the Church is secondary to the message, or, put differently, the Church is one of the fruits of the message.[8] This would seem to imply that the Church is incidental to the proclamation of an idea. In the Large Catechism (1529), Luther wrote: “Where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church.”[9] Can we say that the Church is a human association (I hazard to add merely human for dramatic emphasis) of like-minded individuals, an association that can shift, rise, fall, mutate, and even disperse? Is the Church a collective that passively depends on its constituents (members) appropriating the message? While some have said as much, I suspect that’s really a partial view of Luther.

The rather obvious problem is that the message must be preached by a real person. There is no getting around that reality, and Luther rightly knew that the Gospel does not float in the ether as some disembodied concept. The only way any person is a Christian is because someone else — a friend, neighbor, grandmother, missionary — shared the message of Christ. A relationship, even a fleeting one, came first.[10] Supernatural grace was and remains operative in those relationships, to be sure, but a real, fleshy relationship was no less critical. The Bible, likewise, does not float in the ether. It is a material object that has been and continues to be (praise God) passed on by real, fleshy hands from person to person. The same, then, is true for how to read the biblical text — some person either directly or indirectly taught each one of us what we’re to do with the Bible. This, I hasten to interject, is the very meaning of tradition (cf. Yves Congar).

Luther, went on to say in the Large Catechism that outside the Church “no one can come to the Lord Christ.” Here is a full embrace of Cyprian’s formula that “outside the church there is no salvation.” Grasping Luther’s pneumatology is critical. The Holy Spirit uses Word and Sacrament as the instruments for communicating saving grace, applying the righteousness of Christ to the sinner. And, as Luther was clear in his opposition to the so-called enthusiasts or fanatics of the 1520s, the Spirit does not operate beyond these normative external instruments, the “means of grace” that are found solely within the Church. This is the order, Luther argued, that God himself has established.[11] In other words, the gospel is the priceless treasure of the Church (“property” likely conveys the wrong tone, but it is not that different). The corollary, for Luther, was that there is no such thing as a non-ecclesial Christian.

In his On Councils and the Church (1539), Luther spoke directly about this circular relationship between gospel and Church: “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”[12] I probably could have spared you, dear reader, this whole post and given you that quote alone, but that would have papered over how beautifully messy and visceral Luther can be. For the Wittenberg reformer, then, the gospel is always creating the Church anew; it is the priceless treasure that preachers are bound above all else to proclaim. But it is only from their lips — and we might extend that image to the lips of all baptized believers as constituent parts of the one body — that the justifying and vivifying Word goes out into the world to create the Church afresh.

Attempts have been made to resolve this circular pattern. Some examples would include (1) a charismatic notion of the Spirit operating beyond the means of grace and thus reducing the importance of the Church; (2) a certain kind of dry rationalism that reduces the importance of the Church by (ironically) reducing the gospel to an intellectual proposition that an individual mentally accepts and then joins the institution (rather like the Rotary Club); or (3) reducing the vivifying power of the gospel message by claiming for the Church the right to alter, amend, neglect, or even replace the preaching of the Word. All of these resolutions fail to catch a rather beautiful and mysterious relationship between Holy Gospel and Holy Church, a relationship at whose center stands the Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] Martin Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Fortress, 1999), pp. 232-239, 277-285.

[2] Luther’s Works, American Edition (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia), Vol. 16.  Hereafter LW.

[3] Stephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Eerdmans 2016), pp. 198-239; Fred Meuser, Luther the Preacher (Fortress, 1983); Idem, “Luther as Preacher of the Word of God,” in Donald McKim, ed., Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 136-148.

[4] LW, Vol. 77, pp. 325-30

[5] LW, Vol. pp. 39, 75.

[6] LW, Vol. 41, pp. 148-65.

[7] LW, Vol. 41, pp. 198.

[8] Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Böhlau, 1883), Vol. 2, p. 430.

[9] Included in the Book of Concord (1580).

[10] While I don’t think we can responsibly discount the possibility of miraculous dreams and Damascus Road encounters, I am suspicious of such prospects — Luther was even more so, trusting instead in the work of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament within the Church.

[11] LW, Vol. 21, 299; LW Vol. 40, p. 146.

[12] LW, Vol. 41, p. 150.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane has served in various ministry settings and is currently associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio.

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