January 27, 2021

Luther on the Marks of the Church

'Luther Place Memorial Church and Martin Luther statue' photo (c) 2008, Josh - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/By Chaplain Mike

For, thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.

• Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, III.12

In order to deal with the religious controversies that had emerged between Rome and the Protestants, Martin Luther and others regularly appealed that a council of the Church be held. However, in 1536, when Pope Paul III ordered a council at Mantua in May of 1537, he did so for the express purpose of “the utter extirpation of the poisonous, pestilential Lutheran heresy.”

Thus, it became apparent that there would be no free, general council which would include the Reformers. In light of the situation, Luther drew up The Smalcald Articles as a summary of the Protestant position:

I have accordingly compiled these articles and presented them to our side. They have also been accepted and unanimously confessed by our side, and it has been resolved that, in case the Pope with his adherents should ever be so bold as seriously and in good faith, without lying and cheating, to hold a truly free Christian Council (as, indeed, he would be in duty bound to do), they be publicly delivered in order to set forth the Confession of our Faith. (SA, Preface)

Luther followed this uncompromising statement in 1539 with his treatise, On the Councils and the Church. It consists of three parts:

  • Part I: Luther argues that the church cannot put its hope for reformation in the councils of the church or the church fathers, but only in the Word of God.
  • Part II: Luther discusses the apostolic council in Acts 15 and the first four ecumenical councils: (1) Nicaea in 325, (2) Constantinople in 381, (3) Ephesus in 431, and (4) Chalcedon in 451. He concludes that the purpose of councils is to “defend…the ancient faith and the ancient good works in conformity with Scripture” against innovation, and not to establish new articles of faith or good works without or outside of Scripture.
  • Part III: Luther leaves the matter of councils and turns to a positive exposition of the true marks of the Church according to God’s Word.

It is this third section that we will discuss today.

'Schlosskirche Wittenberg' photo (c) 2010, Harald Henkel - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/DEFINITION: The Church is a holy people who believe in Christ.

Luther starts with a definition of “church” as a community of people who are in Christ by faith and in whom the Holy Spirit is at work to make them holy.

“If the words, ‘I believe that there is a holy Christian people,’ had been used in the Children’s Creed, all the misery connected with this meaningless and obscure word (“church”) might easily have been avoided,” he writes.

The German word “kirche” did not carry this idea as clearly as Luther would have liked, and so he clarifies:

Ecclesia, however, should mean the holy Christian people, not only of the days of the apostles, who are long since dead, but to the end of the world, so that there is always a holy Christian people on earth, in whom Christ lives, works, and rules, per redemptionem, ‘through grace and remission of sin,’ and the Holy Spirit, per vivificationem et sanctificationem, ‘through daily purging of sin and renewal of life,’ so that we do not remain in sin but are enabled and obliged to lead a new life, abounding in all kinds of good works, as the Ten Commandments or the two tables of Moses’ law command, and not in old, evil works.”

In the course of his presentation, Luther stresses the “common holiness” of God’s people. By this he means that the Holy Spirit “renews heart, soul, body, work, and conduct,” in contrast to Catholicism’s emphasis on a “special, higher, different, better holiness” that they “invented” through extraordinary religious works of merit. “Just throw a surplice over your head and you are holy in accordance with the Roman church’s holiness,” he sardonically observes. The true common holiness of Christ is seen rather in true faith (the first table of the law) and in faithful living in our ordinary human relationships and responsibilities (the second table of the law).

From this definitional basis, Luther lists the marks of these “Christian, holy people.”

'Lutherstadt Wittenberg Casa de Lutero Museo de Libros 06' photo (c) 2011, Rafael - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/MARK I: These Christian, holy people possess the Word of God.

“This is the principal item, and the holiest of holy possessions…” Wherever this word is “preached, believed, professed, and lived,” we should not doubt, said Luther, that the true church is there. If there were only one sign, this would be it.

MARK II: These Christian, holy people are recognized by Baptism.

This “holy bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), if “taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s ordinance,” is a “public sign and a precious holy possession by which God’s people are sanctified.” This sign surely indicates the presence of a genuine Christian, holy people.

MARK III: These Christian, holy people are recognized by the holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Again, Luther stresses that the Lord’s Supper must be “rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution.” As with baptism, he asserts that it “belongs to him who receives it, not to him who administers it,” therefore, one need not worry about being properly dressed to receive it or whether you are male or female or young or old. Nor does one need to be overly concerned about the holiness of the one giving it. Communion is God’s sacrament, benefiting those whose receive it with faith in Christ.

MARK IV: These Christian, holy people are recognized by the Office of the Keys exercised publicly.

The office of the keys (Matt 18:15-20) involves the confession and forgiveness of sins—“if a Christian sins, he should be reproved; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and cast out.” The keys must be used differently, both publicly and privately, according to the needs of the penitent. “Now where you see sins forgiven or reproved in some persons, be it publicly or privately, you may know that God’s people are there.”

MARK V: These Christian, holy people are recognized by the fact that they consecrate Ministers.

God has so arranged the church that it has officers. That is, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4, though all the church is the Body of Christ, he has instituted that “competent and chosen” people should be entrusted with administering the Word, Sacraments, and Keys. (Luther specifically exempts women from this function, and in the rest of this point he goes on a rant about Rome’s requirement for celibacy.)

MARK VI: These Christian, holy people are recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God.

Here Luther advocates for congregational worship in which all who gather may participate and learn: “However, we are now speaking of prayers and songs which are intelligible and from which we can learn and by means of which we can mend our ways. The clamor or monks and nuns and priests is not prayer, nor is it praise to God; for they do not understand it, nor do they learn anything from it…”

MARK VII: These Christian, holy people are recognized by “the holy possession of the sacred cross” (suffering).

“They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.” Here we see Luther’s emphasis on the way of the cross vs. the way of glory as marking the path of Christian, holy people. “This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.”

• • •

Luther Preaches Using His Bible Translation while Imprisoned at Wartburg, Vogel

In addition to these seven marks, Luther goes back to the matter of sanctification and allows that a holy life and growth in sanctification is also meant to mark Christian people out as belonging to Christ. Nevertheless, he does not include this with the other marks, for the following reason: “However, these signs [of sanctification] cannot be regarded as reliable as those noted before since some heathen too practice these works and indeed at times appear holier than Christians…”

After setting forth the seven marks of the Christian, holy people who constitute the genuine Church, Luther proceeds to critique two opposite errors regarding the external signs that testify to the presence of God’s ecclesial community.

  • First, he sets his sites on Rome and criticizes them for taking the fact that God uses outward things to sanctify his people as a reason for multiplying manmade sacraments and outward rituals for people to rely on. “With this aping tomfoolery he estranges men from faith in Christ and causes the word and the sacraments of Christ to be despised and almost unrecognizable because it is easier to perceive such things than to blot out sin…”
  • Second, he rejects the pietistic approach of Müntzer and the Anabaptists, who in many cases rejected outward signs altogether in favor of the inward work of the Spirit alone.

Finally, Luther takes up matters which may been called, “adiaphora.” These are “ceremonies and church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but are introduced into the Church with a good intention, for the sake of good order and propriety, or otherwise to maintain Christian discipline” (The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, X).

Luther’s counsel regarding such matters is, “Thus here too everything must be conducted peacefully and in order, and yet there must be freedom if time, person, or other reasons demand a change; then the masses will also follow harmoniously, since (as was said) no Christian is thereby made any more or less holy.”

Martin Luther concludes On the Councils and the Church with an encouragement that schools also be maintained in order to provide educated clergy as well as people who can serve well in various occupations throughout the world. He also reminds his readers of the importance of keeping good order in the “three hierarchies ordained by God”—the home, the civil government, and the church.

With regard to “God’s own home and city,” the church, the community of “Christian, holy people,” the reformer says, “If the Holy Spirit reigns there, Christ calls it a comforting, sweet, and light burden; if not, it is not only a heavy, severe, and terrible task, but also an impossible one…”


  1. As someone who has been a Christian for closing in on a quarter-century, but whom for the last few years has been on the outside of the institutional church (and not always looking in), this is going to be an interesting week for me.

    The quotes on the Bulletin Board (as of 8/6) are illustrative. On the one hand, I could not agree more with Vance Havner; I have visited dozens of congregations in recent years, and not only have found none that resemble the church of the New Testament (though most claim to), I have found none that are even making an attempt to. But at the same time, I can’t reject out of hand what Luke Timothy Johnson says — despite the massive flaws in what I often call “The System” of institutional Christianity in America, God still chooses to work in and through it, and the majority of His people here take part in it on some level.

    And so here I am — finding little in institutional congregations that help me draw close to God and much that distracts me from Him, with more opportunity to minister to others outside the walls than inside them … and yet I feel the lack of not having a “place to call home” within the visible congregational setup, of not having that spot on the schedule reserved for a specific time and place where I am with God’s people (though chances to interact with them be severely limited). For all my breezy references to Hebrews 13:13 and being “outside the camp,” it’s not an easy place to be, and there is still much that needs to be reconciled.

    Again, it should be an interesting week …

    • You’re not alone. My wife and I have been outside the institutional church for a couple of years now. Issues are almost identical to what you outline. I don’t know the answer other than to try to follow God where I am. I think there are more people in similar situations than most suspect.

      • If only there were a way we could all get together … I’ve looked into house congregations, but I haven’t found any in a 40-mile radius.

    • Do you think you would have been happy as a member of the church in Corinth in 60 a.d.? If you saw the hypocrisy and failures of those folks, would you have stayed? If you started getting letters from some guy who calls himself an Apostle (Paul) who isn’t on site any more – or his appointee – Timothy or Titus, who is now bossing you around? Would you have stayed in a church where folks are using vaguely non-trinitarian language with statements like “Jesus and his God”. Would you have liked a church where half the New Testament was not agreed upon or could not be read by an illiterate congregation?

      Realistically, I believe the Early Church was probably a lot more messy than we like to think it was.

      • I don’t know if I’d be happy there, joe, but:
        a) my happiness isn’t my top priority in this case.
        b) I’ve never had the opportunity to be in a congregation like that.

        I’d like to give it a shot, though — a messy church would at least be a change from most of the ones I’ve been in, where if Jesus wanted to do something new, He’d need to schedule it with the staff at least a month in advance. Provided they approved it at all.

  2. But Luther said Councils and popes have both erred, so the first four so-called “ecumenical Councils could very well have erred. We can have little confidence in them according to Luther’s principles.

    Luther didn’t think baptism was adiaphora–quite the opposite–and he held strongly to baptismal regeneration, a doctrine almost universally rejected among Protestants today. So the question is raised again of why he should be looked at as trustworthy by other Protestants.

    Once we reduce the Church to “the invisible collection of all believers,” things that in the past were clear become murky. Who are the rightful leaders of “the Church?” Who can be excommunicated from “the Church,” and what does that even mean since it is purely invisible anyway?

    Just some thoughts.

    • Let me answer your points, and see if I’m getting what you are saying, Devin.

      1. Yes, councils can err. That is why Luther said they must be secondary in authority to Scripture. He did not dismiss them out of hand. And in historical context, he had little hope that any council called by the Pope in his own day would help bring reformation to the church.

      2. I don’t think I said Luther considered baptism adiaphora. I agree wholeheartedly with you here. So why should Protestants look to him? Because there are plenty of other areas, at least in Luther mythology, that Protestants claim him for, i.e., the primacy of the Word, salvation by grace through faith alone. We tend to be more generous with people who lived 500 years ago than with people with whom we disagree today!

      3. I’m not sure I understand who “reduce[s] the church to ‘the invisible collection of all believers.'” Luther certainly did not say that. Are you saying we do today? In Michael Spencer’s post that we ran Saturday, he said this:

      “These examples just touch on the undeniable conclusion that the universal church is normally expressed in local, visible gatherings of Christians. There is no Biblical case for a universal church that ignores or optionally by-passes the local church. While they are not identical, they “overlap” in ways that cannot be separated in normal Christian experience.”

      • Chaplain Mike,

        Thanks for your response. I was shooting out several ideas there that were connected to the post, though not all were explicit statements in it.

        Luther’s position on councils and popes did raise the question: if we can’t trust councils and popes, who can we trust? Should we trust Luther’s opinion? Though he did say “look to Scripture,” he also realized that most people couldn’t read it and come to the “true” interpretation, so he provided his catechisms to educate people on his opinion of what Scripture meant, reserving the reading of Scripture only to the most advanced students in his school.

        The invisible Church thing would take more time to draw out. I would suggest people read the CalledToCommunion.com article on Christ Founded a Visible Church if interested in why local gatherings of Christians, while “visible”, do not make the universal Church visible (http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/06/christ-founded-a-visible-church/).

        The Church did institute much needed reforms in her practices. This came too late for Luther. I wonder if cooler heads had prevailed back then, whether Luther would have agreed with the Catholic position on justification that “faith alone” is acceptable, so long as it does not exclude agape (Galatians 5:6, faith made alive by love)?

        • What do you think of the Council of Trent’s pronouncement on all those who believe in justification by faith alone, and not of works?

          • Hi Steve,

            I agree with Trent on everything, however(!), none of the anathemas from Trent apply to present-day Protestants, and the canonical discipline of “anathema” has been done away with entirely as of last century. You can read a Jimmy Akin article on it: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2000/0004chap.asp

            Trent has to be read with a Catholic understanding of terminology. So Trent says that one’s initial justification (which Protestants call simply “justification”) is by faith and that works play NO part whatsoever in it.

            But then it also says that one’s ongoing justification is contributed to by works done in God’s grace, e.g. faith working in love (Ephesians 2:10 etc.).

            Trent also condemns the monergistic view that man has no choice in responding to grace. Instead, it espouses the Catholic view that God offers grace but that He gave us free will to reject it.

            Finally, the key reason “faith alone” was rejected was because faith has to be informed by agape (love), otherwise it is dead. The Catholic definitions of faith, hope, and love are specific and detailed. Protestantism’s idea of faith tends to be a combination of faith and hope. There are articles on this that explain it–suffice it to say that, as long as Protestants don’t claim that love is not necessary in justification, Catholics can agree with it. But if they claim love is not needed (contra 1 Cor. 13 and Galatians 5:6), then Catholics cannot agree.

            Does that help?

          • Thanks, Devon.

            I think that the Roman Catholic view is semi-Pelagian (even though they would never admit it and have expressly condemned Pelagianism).

            I also believe that most Protestants believe the same thing. ‘God has done His part, now I must do my part.’

            That pretty much sums it up, I believe.

            Fortunately, the Scriptures tell us in many places that God has done it all, and that there is nothing we can add to it. When St. Paul informs us that “we are saved by grace through faith, not of works…”, he is telling us that nothing is necessary on our part.

            I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

            Thanks, Devon.

          • Steve,

            Thanks for your rejoinder. I would suggest this article noodling whether Catholicism is (semi-)Pelagian or not: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/08/is-the-catholic-church-semi-pelagian/

            Regarding God doing everything so we can do nothing…if that is true, then we should not even have to have faith, since that would be doing something, right? Unless faith is the one thing that we “do” which is not really doing something.

            It is hard to understand to some degree, because Catholics and Protestants both agree that faith is a theological virtue–a gift that only God can give us–and not something we manufacture for ourselves, but at the same time not everyone has faith, not everyone accepts this gift, so it seems that God does allow us free will to make the choice to believe in Him or not, to accept the free grace He offers or not.

            Just some thoughts.

    • Luther was spot on about baptismal regeneration, even if the Catholics believed it too.

      He didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That so many Protestants believe that God does nothing in baptism, even though He himself commanded it. boggles my mind. And Scripture clearly backs up the fact that God is the One who does the baptizing when it clearly tells us that the Holy Spirit is given in baptism (Acts 2:38) and also in 1st Peter we are told that “baptism now saves us…”. And in Galatians 4 where Paul tells us that “all who have been baptized have put on Christ.”

      It’s no wonder that so many Evangelicals are on the big religious, spiritual ladder climbing project. They have no external, tangible act of God (baptism) where they can look for assurance. So then it all revolves, and reverts back to…’themselves’.

      I’ll stick with Luther on that score…and many, many others.


  3. Could you possibly share your insight concerning women in the church? It surprised me to read that Luther exempted women from being ministers of the word, sacrements and prayer. I’ve been running into this a lot lately and at the risk of being stubborn, I’d like to understand where this comes from. Any takers?

    • Luther held a conservative view about this, as many continue to do today. In our time it is called the “complementarian” view of gender roles. I discuss this and why I disagree with it in “Why I am an Egalitarian.” There are plenty of complementarian sites out there and you might look on the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) site for the particular viewpoint of Lutheranism.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        Just to clarify, the LCMS forbids female clergy, but the ELCA and its predecessor church bodies have been ordaining women for decades.

        As for Luther’s position, his opinions are not necessarily normative in Lutheranism. (How many Lutherans consider important the question of Mary’s perpetual virginity? Then there is Luther’s unfortunate comments on the Jews.) For all that Luther was a reformer, he was really quite conservative when given the opportunity. Scripture clearly allows for females in leadership positions in the general case, but also allows for their exclusion in specific circumstances. Given how much else he had going, it is unsurprising that he didn’t want yet more controversy.

    • I’m sure someone can do better at this than I, but there are verses in the Bible (Paul speaking) that say that women should remain silent, and shouldn’t teach men.
      Some choose to focus on that.

      I choose to focus on how Jesus treated women, and that women do play some leadership roles in both Old and New Testament. I also see women that have God-given gifts for teaching and preaching.

    • “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female.”

      I think that it shows more trust in the Word when we are not so concerned about the physical aspects of the individual proclaiming it.

      I think Luther was awesome. But I in no way agree with everything that he said or did.

      • I think I forgot “slave nor free” in that quote above.

      • David Cornwell says

        We need to hear more about this passage in today’s Church. It impacts so many aspects of our world, culture, and attitudes. Some of the things that I still overhear about racial differences and the aliens among us make me cringe. And the ones I’ve heard most recently come from church people. One of the things I heard was something like “They should have been glad to be slaves, they had it so much better.” It wasn’t a good place to start a non-productive discussion, so I clamped my mouth shut and left the room. Add that to a recent comment about a new local doctor who is married to a black man.

    • The ministry is Christ’s, and he gave it to men. Christ trained the disciples for 3 years to be Apostles, but no women. But it has nothing to do with roles, abilities, or talents, only Christ’s choice.

      As we noted earlier, ministry is a male prerogative because Adam was given the Word of God and Eve was not. Christ takes on the true role of Adam and surrendered himself for his bride the Church. Adam did not confront the serpent who tempted his bride (Gen 3:6) and the universal ruin of humanity ensued. By contrast, Christ himself confronted Satan and surrendered himself to redeem his bride the Church. By recognizing the role Christ’s masculinity plays in redemption, we also thereby meet the Feminist concern regarding oppressive patriarchy. As exemplar, Christ’s masculinity does not promote male oppression, but self-surrender.

      More at the link: (link removed)

      • If one says that Christ gave the ministry only to men, then one can also say he gave it only to Jewish men. So perhaps all ministers should be Jewish men!

        Eve was deceived by the serpent, whereas Adam was not deceived, and so sinned knowingly. Which is worse?

        Before Eve was created the word used for Adam does not imply a gender, it means simply earth creatures. So when the one earth creature was divided into male and female, which inherited the image of God?

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