The shortest road to heaven

Luther’s sermon on the estate of marriage

by Matthew Barrett

In the year 1519 Luther was in the middle of a storm. Luther’s protest against Rome’s indulgence system was loud and clear, resulting in the wrath of Rome’s best theologians. Luther’s own thought on justification was maturing with each passing month, as Luther was pushed by the apostle Paul into a forensic notion of justification. And the closer Luther came to 1520 and 1521, the more he understood that where one placed authority made all the difference. Rome continued to elevate tradition as an infallible, even revelatory source of authority, but for Luther final authority was to be found in the scriptures alone.

With the formal and material principles of the Reformation under debate, one might easily miss the whole of Luther’s reforming agenda. That agenda included the “estate of marriage” as he called it. In 1519 Luther preached a sermon from John 2:1-11, a text describing the wedding at Cana (see LW 44:7-14). Frustrated that the sermon was published without his approval (Luther understood that preaching a sermon and writing one for publication were two very different skills), months later Luther would revise the sermon, preparing a much-improved version: “A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage.”

Such a sermon, especially in light of the wide readership Luther was gaining, was an opportunity to address marriage itself. Had Rome misunderstood marriage as it had biblical authority, justification, and other Christian doctrines? If so, what is God’s view of marriage and what is its importance in the church and society? Still, the sermon Luther preached had just as much to say about children as it did about matrimony. What was but a small address at such an early stage in the Reformation conflict, sheds invaluable light on what reformers like Luther believed about the family. What is assumed by godly Christians today, Luther found revolutionary in his day, completely redefining the family as an institution. The newlyweds, the seasoned couple, or the parents of four children, for example, must have listened eagerly as Luther preached. What would this reformer on the edifice of martyrdom say that would bring biblical insight, even new light, to the institution that had been demoted to secondary importance?

A weighty matter in the sight of God

Luther begins his sermon expounding Genesis 2:18-24, that well-known passage where God does not find a suitable companion for Adam among the animals but instead creates a helper from Adam’s own flesh. Note, says Luther, that God is the one who takes the initiative, providing for Adam a wife. A “wife is given by God alone,” Luther says, having Proverbs 19:14 in mind. The world understands the God-ordained nature of marriage very little, for youths crave opportunities to lust, not a spouse to be devoted to in life and in death. They think nothing of marriage and do not see it as a gift from God nor God’s design for man and woman. Yet marriage “is a weighty matter in the sight of God.” “For it was not by accident that Almighty God instituted the estate of matrimony only for man and above all animals, and gave such forethought and consideration to marriage.” Marriage, in other words, is special; God has knitted man and woman together, a union nothing else in creation knows or enjoys.

The greatest, purest of all loves

Luther readily acknowledges that the purpose of marriage is to bear children, a point he will return to shortly. He interprets the reference to Eve as a “companionable helpmeet” to mean, in part, the bearing of children. Luther, however, does not view marriage as merely a contract for the purpose of producing offspring. When the two come together, the wife becomes a companion to her husband. “The love of a man and woman is (or should be) the greatest and purest of all loves.” Love is involved, and not just any kind of love (for there are various kinds), but the most unique type of all. The proof of love’s purity in marriage is found in Genesis 2:24; the man’s devotion to his new wife runs so deep he is to leave the parents who have raised him and “cleave to his wife.”

Luther is careful to distinguish the type of love husband and wife share. It is not a “false love,” namely, “that which seeks its own, as a man loves money, possessions, honor, and women taken outside of marriage and against God’s command.” Neither is it “natural love,” a love that is “between father and child, brother and sister, friend and relative.” Rather, it is “married love, that is, a bride’s love, which glows like a fire and desires nothing but the husband.” What does this type of love look like for the wife? “She says, ‘It is you I want, not what is yours: I want neither your silver nor your gold; I want neither. I want only you. I want you in your entirety, or not at all.’” Surely, this is a possessive, jealous love, desiring her husband for who he truly is, not merely (and selfishly) for what he possesses.

The sacrament of marriage and the hypostatic union

At this point in Luther’s career (and it is early; 1519), Luther still calls marriage a “sacrament.” What is a sacrament? “A sacrament is a sacred sign of something spiritual, holy, heavenly, and eternal, just as the water of baptism, when the priest pours it over the child, means the holy, divine, eternal grace is poured into the soul and body of that child at the same time, and cleanses him from his original sin.” Like baptism, Luther is content in 1519 to call marriage a sacrament, but his reason for doing so may surprise.

Luther believes marriage is sacramental because it reflects the hypostatic union. It is “an outward and spiritual sign of the greatest, holiest, worthiest, and noblest thing that has ever existed or ever will exist: the union of the divine and human natures in Christ.” Here is a theological maneuver rarely seen since Luther’s day. Luther explains the parallel: “The holy apostle Paul says that as man and wife united in the estate of matrimony are two in one flesh, so God and man are united in the one person Christ, and so Christ and Christendom are one body.”

Luther is referring to Ephesians 5:32, where Paul grounds the husband’s love for his wife in Christ’s love for his church. Luther, in an inimitable exegetical move, goes a step further, believing the union of husband and wife pictures the union between Christ’s human and divine natures in his one person. However, the hypostatic union is not an end in itself. The hypostatic union is meant to point us to the way God gave himself to us, for in this way a husband is to give himself to his wife. Such sacrificial giving, says Luther, is a “wonderful thing.”

A covenant of fidelity

When the husband gives himself to his wife, exemplifying the love Christ has for his church, such a bond in marriage counters the “wicked lust of the flesh.” The “holy manhood of God,” says Luther, “covers the shame of the wicked lust of the flesh.” The man should, therefore, “have regard for such a sacrament, honor it as sacred, and behave properly in marital obligations, so that those things which originate in the lust of the flesh do not occur [among us] as they do in the world of brute beasts.”

Contrary to many who came before Luther and considered marriage less holy than celibacy due to its sexual nature, Luther considers sex a means to display the Christian nature of marriage. Virtues like faithfulness are at work as the husband gives himself to his wife and his wife alone—now there is a sola you’ve never heard. Luther calls marriage a “covenant of fidelity.”

By binding themselves to each other, and surrendering themselves to each other, the way is barred to the body of anyone else, and they content themselves in the marriage bed with their one companion. In this way God sees to it that the flesh is subdued so as not to rage wherever and however it pleases, and, within this plighted troth, permits even more occasion than is necessary for the begetting of children.

Luther seems to pull the husband aside, so to speak, in order to be frank: Don’t make a “filthy sow’s sty” of your marriage, shouts Luther!

Bringing up children properly is the shortest road to heaven

With such a physical bond characterizing the covenant of marriage, it naturally follows that God intended marriage to produce children. Luther goes so far as to say children are the “chief purpose” of the union. Luther rebukes those who rush into marriage, not thinking ahead of time whether they are prepared themselves for training children in the way of the Lord. Luther laments:

But unfortunately it seldom happens that we bring up children to serve God, to praise and honor him, and want nothing else of them. People seek only heirs in their children, or pleasure in them; the serving of God finds what place it can. You also see people rush into marriage and become mothers and fathers before they know what the commandments are or can pray.

A husband and wife should consider what a significant obligation they have upon their shoulders before they embark upon raising children. “They can do no better work and do nothing more valuable either for God, for Christendom, for all the world, for themselves, and for their children than to bring up their children well.” The medieval assumption that family life was far less holy than the life of the celibate priest or monk makes Luther’s words all the more shocking. Nothing is more valuable for Christendom than raising children the way God intended. Luther is convinced it is the “shortest road to heaven”:

In comparison with this one work, that married people should bring up their children properly, there is nothing at all in pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem, or Compostella, nothing at all in building churches, endowing masses, or whatever good works could be named. For bringing up their children properly is their shortest road to heaven.

In a day when Rome considered pilgrimages to Rome the way to merit God’s favor and achieve paradise, Luther flips Rome’s logic on its head. Raising children is superior, a quicker way into heaven’s gates than any journey to venerate lifeless relics. Luther is not trading one form of works-righteousness for another. He is contrasting the way of merit with the way of faith. Indulgences, pilgrimages, and masses are what Rome considers “sacred,” the way by which one works his or her way into heaven. Luther, by contrast, turns the believer to the ordinary, the life of the family. Here is where true faith is formed. Rather than heading off on the next pilgrimage, the true believer stays home where he teaches his children what it means to trust in Christ for salvation and live the day ahead, with all its mundane demands, out of faith in God. Parents who understand this not, Luther warns, have everything backward. They are “like fire that will not burn or water that is not wet.” They neither understand their purpose in life nor the reason why God has blessed them with little ones.

Just how weighty is the responsibility of parenting? Hell, Luther says with fear in his voice, “is no more easily earned than with respect to one’s own children.” Perhaps Luther comes off harsh, but pay attention to what is at stake. The careless parent, the one who cares not for the soul of his or her children, does nothing to train little ones in the fear of the Lord but lets them go the way of the world. “You could do no more disastrous work than to spoil the children, let them curse and swear, let them learn profane words and vulgar songs, and just let them do as they please.”

What is more, some parents use enticements to be more alluring to meet the dictates of the world of fashion, so that they may please only the world, get ahead, and become rich, all the time giving more attention to the care of the body than to the due care of the soul. There is no greater tragedy in Christendom than spoiling children. If we want to help Christendom, we most certainly have to start with the children, as happened in earlier times.

Luther believes that true parenthood requires looking beyond the worldly, beyond even those needs of the body, to the necessities of the soul. What many parents forget is that which is most important: the care of their child’s soul. In an effort to love, parents love all the wrong ways. “False natural love blinds parents so that they have more regard for the bodies of their children than they have for their souls.” Quoting Proverbs 13:24, Luther advises parents, if they are wise, not to withhold discipline. Discipline, as Proverbs 23:14 says, will drive folly from a child. Discipline, says Proverbs 23:14, will save one’s child from hell itself.

Therefore, it is of the greatest importance for every married man to pay closer, more thorough, and continuous attention to the health of his child’s soul than to the body which he has begotten, and to regard his child as nothing else but an eternal treasure God has commanded him to protect, and so prevent the world, the flesh, and the devil from stealing the child away and bringing him to destruction. For at his death and on the day of judgment he will be asked about his child and will have to give a most solemn account.

Eternal treasures

We live in a day when discipline is considered unloving. Luther, as Luther does so well, exposes the error in such a mindset. To fail to discipline, Luther warns, is to hate one’s children. To discipline is to show the child that you care too much about them to let them go the way of hell. Parents must have the child’s soul in mind, first and foremost. Children are gifts from God, “eternal treasures” as Luther calls them. The parent’s duty is to protect them so that the world, the flesh, and the devil do not steal their very souls. Parents are not merely supervisors but guardians, protectors of the jewels God have entrusted to our care. One day each parent will stand before God and answer for the way he/she has cared for the eternal treasures God has given.

With such accountability in mind, should not the parent do anything and everything to ensure his child’s destiny? And is there not reward in the end for the parent? “Spare yourself neither money nor expense, neither trouble nor effort, for your children are the churches, the altar, the testament, the vigils and masses for the dead for which you make provision in your will. It is they who will lighten you in your hour of death, and to your journey’s end.”

Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo MagazineHe is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Owen on the Christian Life, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, and Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. He is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at MatthewMBarrett.com.