Law and Gospel in Martin Luther’s Pastoral Teachings as Seen in His Lecture Notes

Finding Guidance in Genesis and Galatians to Serve the Household of God

by AiHe Zheng (Author)
©2016 Thesis 230 Pages


The author presents a close reading of Martin Luther’s lectures on Galatians (1531) and Genesis (1535–1545). It reveals that Luther employed his unique understanding of Law and Gospel to inculcate in his students the understanding and desire to faithfully live out their callings in the vocations to which God had appointed them. He provided resources to do the same in the parishes they were to serve. Though in recent years the field of Luther studies has begun to appreciate the invaluable pastoral insights of this experienced master of pastors, the research has focused primarily on Luther’s early works. Moreover, little attention has been given to exploring Luther’s message as he cultivated an upcoming generation of pastors in his classroom. This work seeks to address this lacuna.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Foreword
  • 1. Introduction
  • The Scope of the Research and Review of the Literature
  • The Aims and Method of Our Study
  • 2. The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel as seen in Luther’s Galatians Lectures (1531)
  • Historical Background
  • Visitation
  • Luther’s Dear Galatians
  • Development of the Distinction between Law and Gospel
  • The Controversy on Law and Gospel
  • The First Phase
  • The Second Phase
  • The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel in Luther’s Galatians Lectures
  • The Law Kills
  • The Functions of the Law
  • The Gospel
  • 3. The Proper Distinction and the Doctrine of Vocation
  • Interpretations of Luther on Vocation
  • Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation
  • Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation in his Genesis Lectures
  • The Circumcision is only for Abraham’s family
  • Each Vocation Honors God
  • Faith in the Promise is the Key
  • The God who Grants Vocation is Much More Important than the Vocation Itself
  • Three Hierarchies—Three Functions
  • Conclusion
  • 4. The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel in the Civil Realm
  • Historical Background
  • Two Kingdoms or Cura Religionis
  • The Functions of the Civic Realm
  • Guardians of the Church
  • First Use of the Law
  • Christian Freedom and Civil Duties
  • Conclusion
  • 5. The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel in the Order of Marriage and Household
  • Introduction
  • The Vow of Celibacy
  • Two Tables of the Commandments
  • Luther’s Teaching on Christian Marriage
  • The Christian Household Is God’s Household
  • Parental Discipline
  • A Family of Worship and Prayer
  • Conclusion
  • 6. The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel in the Priestly Office
  • Introduction
  • The Minister of the Word and the Universal Priesthood
  • The Word Calls Ministers
  • Preaching
  • The Sacramental Word
  • Conclusion
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Index
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources

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To be perfectly honest, I have hardly read “Acknowledgment” sections before, mainly because I thought the treasure lies in the content, not here. How wrong I was! Now, after walking through the journey myself, I am convinced that this section reveals the very reason why the following pages could come alive. In that spirit, I desire to profess my deepest gratitude to God, the Lord of history. Not only does God graciously write my life story with His mercy’s pen and call me to serve in His household, but He also has sustained me all these years through the channels I list below.

My late father, Zhuen Zheng, and my mother, Cifu Zhou, have modelled for me what obedient children of God are. Their unwavering faith in God impacts me as I follow God sojourning through my life.

It is fair to say that my parents have taught me how to be a Christian, while my committee members, particularly Dr. Scott Manetsch and Dr. Robert Kolb, have guided me to be a Christian scholar. They have instructed me through their words and deeds as to how faith in God is meant to dictate scholarly research. Both of them have always been there for me from the beginning to this point. In every moment of struggle, they immediately put aside their projects at hand to help me. Dr. Douglas Sweeney, in more ways than one, has deepened my understanding of Luther during my years at TEDS.

I also wish to take this chance to thank some of my dear friends who have accompanied me all these years. The church members of CCUC-N in Chicago USA and of Mainz Christian fellowship community in Germany have provided unceasing support to me, both materially and spiritually. Among them, Rev. Yaming Huang’s family, Antai Cen’s family, Ray Tang’s family, Bruce Ji’s family, and Di Li’s family have sheltered and supported me when I was in need and encouraged me when I was weary. I can rely on the assistance from the Rev. Douglas Asbury, Dr. K. James Stein, and Mrs. Loretta Stein, even in the midst of their busy lives. I owe my sincere gratitude to Dr. Irene Dingel, Dr. Gillian Bepler, and Dr. Johannes Wischmeyer for their inspiration and timely support. I also give thanks to God for Dr. Cecil Wang and Dr. Emily Yeh’s constant help and care. Last but definitely not least, I am very grateful for my loving wife, Weishan (Sasha) Chen. ← 13 | 14 →

The generous helping hands of the Blessings Cultural Mission Fellowship in Los Angeles, the Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz, Herzog-Ernst-Stipendium der Fritz Thyssen Stiftung in Gotha, Rolf und Ursula Schneider-Stiftung in Wolfenbüttel, DAAD Research Grant Scholarship, and many individuals made it financially possible for me to conduct my research.

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Martin Luther transformed the understanding of what it means to be Christian. Abandoning the view of both scholastic theology and monastic piety, as well as the popular religion of the laity in the late fifteenth century, Luther rejected the idea that at the center of Christian living is the human approach to God, perhaps indeed with the aid of grace, but with particularly sacred good works or religious activities as the key to completing human righteousness in God’s sight. In his study of Scripture, as he prepared for his lectures to university students in the 1510s, Luther found that being Christian finds its origin and its sustenance in God’s approach to human beings. God comes to sinners in his Word – his Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as the several oral, written, and sacramental forms of God’s address to human beings – and he does so without condition, purely out of love and mercy. Luther developed his understanding of the justification of sinners – their restoration to righteousness in God’s sight – out of his wrestling with the Psalms and then Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews in his first lecture courses at the University of Wittenberg in the years 1513–1519. He discovered that God had become human to die and rise in order to bury the sins of sinners in his own tomb and to raise them up to be his children. This gift of righteousness or a new identity in relationship to God, Luther presumed from the very beginning, bore fruit in new obedience, the good works of love for the neighbor that fulfill the humanity God has restored to his people through forgiveness and salvation wrought by Christ. Trusting Christ liberates sinners to risk all in bringing God’s care and concern to others.

Luther distinguished “passive righteousness” – the gift of this new identity as God’s child – from “active righteousness” – the child’s fulfillment of parental expectations in righteous, godly, attitudes and actions. This key insight into Luther’s anthropology is central to the argument which this new study by Ai He Zheng contributes to our knowledge of how the Wittenberg reformer’s theology functioned.

Luther voiced this view of living as a person of faith in the wide range of genres he marshalled in order to convey his message to his hearing and reading audiences. Early programmatic writings, particularly On Good Works and The Freedom of a Christian of 1520, set this doctrine of Christian righteousness or identity in both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of life. It formed a vital part of the reformer’s instruction in daily trust and conduct in his prayerbooks and other devotional works as well as in his catechisms. Those who heard his sermons repeatedly were reminded of how faith produces works. Zheng’s research probed how his ← 17 | 18 → fundamental principle of Luther’s thinking emerged in his instruction for those on their way to ministry as preachers and teachers in church and civil society.

Zheng focuses on the professor’s mature exegetical lectures, on Galatians (1531) and Genesis (1535–1545). He analyzes how Luther combined a sensitive reading of God’s commands in Scripture with the medieval social theory that saw God’s design for human life in three “estates” – better than our usual translation of this medieval term might be “situations” or “walks of life” – with the responsibilities they create for human beings. In the Middle Ages the term vocatio had been used only for the “calling” of individuals into one of the sacred activities designed by the church, those of priest, monk, or nun. Luther transformed the term into a description of what God does for all people as he gives them responsibilities in life’s several situations. All people fell and fit themselves into these responsibilities in home and occupation, civil society and religious associations. Christians recognize that these responsibilities are, according to Luther, “callings,” “vocations.”

Zheng traces Luther’s application of his insights on the basis of the biblical texts to the world into which his students were going, directing their thinking toward making God’s Word come alive in the lives of their future hearers. The fundamental situation of human life, called the oeconomia in medieval Latin, embraced both the situation of the family and the economic activities of its member. The politia continued in its medieval sense, with a focus on governmental leadership, but expanded in Luther’s usage into wider social implications for Aristotle’s polis, the civil community. Vital, too, for the Christian life was for Luther the ecclesia, the community of believers who gather to receive God’s Word of gift and command, law and gospel, and who join together in prayer and praise to him and thus in service to each other. Luther’s exegetical treatment for his students never limited itself to the theoretical. Zheng shows how the practical, pastoral concerns that were going to confront the future pastors and teachers before the professor shaped his comments on the text.

Since the nineteenth century, when Chinese educational theorists found – quite apart from his theology – that Martin Luther was a voice with something to say centuries after his death and several thousand kilometers from his Wittenberg, Chinese scholars have been digesting Luther’s writings for a variety of purposes. In the past half century new research into Luther’s way of thinking has emerged and continues to emerge with Chinese accents and perspectives. The twenty-first century will see ever-increasing engagement with the thought of Martin Luther offering points of view from Asia, Africa, and Latin America that have eluded European, North American, and Australian readers of his works. These new perspectives are a most welcome addition to the expanding conversation between sixteenth-century ← 18 | 19 → Wittenberg and our cultures and societies. Building such bridges between thought worlds, especially when the state of scholarship requires the three-way conversation between Luther’s “then” and the “now” of both the Majority World and the West, is challenging. This adds to the excitement inherent in any case when we engage the fertile theological creativity that makes Luther a conversation partner five hundred years after he lived. We are in Ai He Zheng’s debt for his contribution to his scholarly adventure.

Robert Kolb

Saint Louis

Oculi 2016

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1. Introduction

The Scope of the Research and Review of the Literature

In 2017, Luther scholars around the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Over this past half millennium, thanks to the consistent contributions of those untiring pens of the Reformation scholars, Luther has become the second most studied historical personage after Jesus.1 Indeed, through scholars’ efforts, Luther has stepped into fields that he himself never would have dreamed of occupying while he was alive.2 More than a popular name among multiple disciplines, the reputation of Luther also has expanded internationally.3 Given such a fact,s one could reasonably inquire whether anything new and noteworthy could be added to the existing multitudes of works. When Luther Handbuch,4 one of the most recent comprehensive works on Luther, was published in 2005, one reviewer’s comment pointedly reinforced such concern: “[I]t seems, as if there has been nothing forgotten in this volume—but … new impulses, unexpected advancement and stimulating perspectives are rarely found.”5 In a way, this remark summarizes both the book and the state of research in Luther studies today. However, precisely because such wide-ranging research has been ← 21 | 22 → extensively done, some new, or rather overlooked, perspectives for the study of Luther have been opened. Among them, there are two aspects of research on Luther that fused to form the viewpoint underlying my own investigation.

First of all, Luther’s pastoral activity has been a popular topic in recent Luther study. Traditionally, Luther has been portrayed as either a courageous reformer or a polemical theologian. However, in the past decades studies on the young Luther’s spirituality and his intention in posting his Ninety-Five Theses have led to a far better understanding of his deep and long-lasting pastoral concern.6 Hence, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that when Luther posted his Theses, he acted chiefly as a pastor who cared about the spiritual welfare of his flock.7 Thus, Johann Mathesius (1504–1565), Luther’s first important biographer, already portrayed him in particular as Seelsorger.8 Luther himself also testified in 1532, “God and the whole world bear me testimony that I entered this work publicly and by virtue of my office as teacher and preacher, and have carried it on hitherto by the grace and help of God.”9 For reasons as such, Robert Kolb’s description of Martin Luther as a “Master Pastor” or “Pastor of God’s people” is most fitting.10

If Luther’s primary intention was pastoral, then the questions that beg to be asked are: what were the pastoral norms that led him to attack the prevailing preaching on indulgences? What was the alternative and constructive solution he offered in caring for the souls of his flock? How did he implant his evangelical beliefs and doctrines into his students’ minds? How did he bridge the theological insights with the everyday Christian life? And where can we find the answers for these questions? ← 22 | 23 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Pastoral Theology Practical Theology Luther's lectures Reformations
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 230 pp.

Biographical notes

AiHe Zheng (Author)

Aihe Zheng received his Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received a research grant from the Rolf und Ursula Schneider Stiftung, the DAAD Graduate Scholarship, the Herzog-Ernst-Stipendium der Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, as well as grants from the Institut für Europäische Geschichte Mainz. Currently he is an Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Systematic Theology at the International Chinese Biblical Seminary in Europe.


Title: Law and Gospel in Martin Luther’s Pastoral Teachings as Seen in His Lecture Notes
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232 pages