Martin Luther and the Sabbath
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
As we come upon the day commonly called “Reformation Day”, we are reminded to consider the life of Martin Luther. He defied abuses within the largest religious institution in Europe and won; he risked his life to do so. Many people are not aware that Martin Luther was also confronted with the issue of the Sabbath. In fact, at the same time Luther’s reformation movement began there was also a movement to return to the seventh-day Sabbath (CLICK HERE to read a two-part series about Sabbath keepers in 16th century Germany).
In 1483, Martin Luther was born into a poor family of peasants. His father entered him into formal learning at a young age. He eventually went to school for law, obtaining a bachelor and master’s degree. Not long after this, he decided to become a monk in the Roman Catholic Church.
Upon his entrance into the Erfurt convent, he began to study rigorously. The great question to which he devoted these early years was how he could save his own soul. He fasted, whipped himself, and subjected himself to other forms of penance. In Roman Catholic theology, penance is part of receiving God’s forgiveness and coming back into His grace. In Luther’s eyes, God was a judge who watched every moment and waited to strike you down for the slightest transgression. This was his idea of God’s relationship with man.
In the early Christianity, certain sins were publicly confessed and the remorse of the confessor was accepted as genuine repentance (see I Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13, 2 Cor. 2:1-8; 2 Thess. 3:14-15, Titus 3:9-11). Later, private confession was adopted in the Roman Church. The believer confessed in private to a clergy member, who would then pronounce penance for the believer. In Catholic theology, penance involves performance of certain actions for the person to be able to receive God’s grace. The penance might last a short time or even several years and involve fasting, whipping, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or other actions. Perhaps as early as the sixth century, the Roman Church allowed a person to pay so much money as an offering to commute a penance. These were later named indulgences and by the 1500s they were very common.
After some years of study, the idea of indulgences outraged Luther. He nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg on October 31st 1517 (some sources say Nov. 1). Community letters and other important announcements were routinely nailed to this door, so this behavior was not out of the ordinary. WHAT Luther nailed to that door was out of the ordinary!
In the 95 Thesis, he stated that there was no need for indulgences and that forgiveness comes from God alone. This bold pronunciation had a chain reaction. The sale of indulgences decreased; there was also a corresponding decrease of revenue for the Roman Church. This catapulted Luther’s beliefs to the forefront of German politics, a nation ripe for religious change. The nation was truly divided over the issue. Some of the princes of Germany were very loyal to the papacy, whereas others were weary of Rome and desired change.
In the midst of this attempt to reform the Roman Church, Luther was confronted regarding the Sabbath question. Luther had a close friend named Andreas Karlstadt; they disagreed with each other in two key areas. Karlstadt believed Luther should accept 1) condemning of idols and images as the second commandment decrees and 2) the Sabbath. We have two quotes from him below:
“God laid out before us all commandments and prohibitions to make us aware of our inner image and likeness, and to understand how God created us in his image to become as God is, i.e., holy, tranquil, good, just, wise, strong, truthful, kind, merciful, etc. All commandments of God demand of us to be godlike; in fact, they have been given us so that we might be conformed to God” (Karlstadt, Regarding The Sabbath and other Statutory Holy Days, Section 2).
“If servants have worked for six days, they are to have the seventh day off God says without distinction, ‘Remember to celebrate the seventh day.’ He does not say that we must keep Sunday or Saturday as the seventh day. It is no secret that human beings instituted Sunday. As for Saturday, the matter is still being debated” (ibid, Section 10).
In the first statement, Karlstadt discussed the commandments of God and their importance in conforming us in God’s image. In the second statement, he wrote about the importance of keeping the Sabbath, though he is undecided about the specific day. Karlstadt admitted that human beings instituted Sunday – not God. He was unsure about Saturday being the Sabbath, but he did believe the fourth commandment needed further study in the reformation.
Luther’s response to Karlstadt was less than favorable!
1525 – Martin Luther
“Thus it is not true that there is no ceremonial or judicial law in the Ten Commandments. Such laws are in the decalogue, depend on it, and belong there. And to indicate this God himself has expressly introduced two ceremonial laws, namely, concerning images and the sabbath….Yes, if Karlstadt were to write more about the sabbath, even Sunday would have to give way, and the sabbath, that is, Saturday, would be celebrated. He would truly make us Jews in all things, so that we also would have to be circumcised, etc.” (Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets).
“Therefore also, whoever destroys images, or observes the sabbath (that is, whoever teaches that it must be kept), he also must let himself be circumcised and keep the whole Mosaic law” (ibid).
“It is not necessary to observe the sabbath or Sunday because of Moses’ commandment. Nature also shows and teaches that one must now and then rest a day, so that man and beast may be refreshed. This natural reason Moses also recognized in his sabbath law, for he places the sabbath under man, as also Christ does (Matt, 12 [:lff.] and Mark 3 [:]). For where it is kept for the sake of rest alone, it is clear that he who does not need rest may break the sabbath and rest on some other day, as nature allows. The sabbath is also to be kept for the purpose of preaching and hearing the Word of God” (ibid).
Luther considered the prohibition of images/idols and the Sabbath to be part of the ceremonial law, but considered the rest of the Ten Commandments to be God’s Law and morally binding. His statements are not always consistent and at times are confusing. Some of his statements clearly mocked Karlstadt’s point of view that the Sabbath still retained some importance. For some reason Luther attributed the Sabbath to Moses. This is not Scriptural as the Sabbath is never called the Sabbath of Moses or Jews. The seventh day is called the Sabbath of the Lord our God (Ex 20:8-11).
Luther’s rejection of Catholic dogma led to several public debates between the two sides. Often, the doctors of the Roman Catholic Church took advantage of Luther’s inconsistencies. One of the doctors who opposed Luther was named Johann Eck. Many people have heard of Luther’s 95 Thesis against the Roman Church, but very few know about the 404 Thesis that the Catholic Church sent to Luther. Johann Eck compiled the theses to point out errors with Luther’s theology from the Roman perspective. He wrote the following:
“There are some who think that the Sabbath ought still to be observed, since we have Scripture for this, and not for the Lord’s Day” (section 179. 404 Thesis of Johann Eck).
“Therefore it thus is clear that the Church is older than Scripture, and Scripture would not be authentic without the Church’s authority. . . . Scripture teaches: ‘Remember to hallow the Sabbath day; six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath day of the Lord your God.’ etc. Yet the Church has changed the Sabbath into Sunday on its own authority, on which you have no Scripture” (Eck, p 12).
One of Luther’s main theological precepts was sola scriptura, meaning Scripture alone. However, sola scriptura was inconsistently applied when it came to the Sabbath. While his opponents took advantage of this, they also acknowledged that Sunday observance was an invention of human authority.
Between 1532 and 1538, Martin Luther began teaching against a group of Christians that arose from relative obscurity in the 1520s. These Sabbatarians were very prominent in Bohemia and Moravia. In this time, the Roman Church made lists of groups considered heretical. The group ‘Sabbatarians’ are found in these lists and were usually enumerated just after Lutherans and Calvinists (Hasel, pp 101-106).
In 1532 and 1535, Luther denounced the Sabbatarian groups. In his lectures on Genesis he stated: “In our time there arose in Moravia a foolish kind of people, the Sabbatarians, who maintain that the Sabbath must be observed after the fashion of the Jews. Perhaps they will insist on circumcision too, for a like reason” (Luther’s Works, vol. 47, p 60).
In 1538, Luther dedicated an entire letter to denigrating them called “Against the Sabbatarians: Letter to a Good Friend.” It was a letter written to Count Graf Wolfgang Schlick zu Falkenau, who wrote about the Sabbath keeping tendencies in the region. I will summarize it below.
Most of the work is directed against Jewish people; he denigrates them. He claimed that their exile from Jerusalem and the troubles they faced since 70 AD came because of their sins (ibid, pp 67, 98). Due to this, he continued, they live under God’s wrath and that their punishment would last an indefinite time (ibid, pp 72, 75). He stated that they were punished worse than any heathen people (ibid, p 67). He concluded the letter by saying that they are forsaken by God and even compares them to the devil (ibid, pp 96-97).
He finally transitions in the letter to make the distinction between the Law of Moses and the Law of God, with the Law of God being the Ten Commandments (ibid, p 88). While he accepted that the first commandment applied to both Christians and Jewish people, he viewed the Sabbath differently (ibid, p 92). The Sabbath, which he called the third commandment, is “a commandment that applies to the whole world; but the form in which Moses frames it and adapts it to his people was imposed only on Jews…” (ibid, p 91).
He then allegorized the meaning of this commandment by saying “For the true meaning of the third commandment is that we on that day should teach and hear the word of God, thereby sanctifying both the day and ourselves…Wherever God’s word is preached it follows naturally that one must necessarily celebrate at the same hour or time and be quiet…But the sanctifying—that is, the teaching and preaching of God’s word, which is the true, genuine, and sole meaning of this commandment – has been from the beginning and pertains to all the world forever. Therefore the seventh day does not concern us Gentiles, nor did it concern the Jews beyond the advent of the Messiah, although by the very nature of things one must, as already said, rest, celebrate and keep the Sabbath on whatever day or at whatever hour God’s word is preached…” (ibid, pp 92-93).
On his interpretation of Isaiah 66:23, which is a future promise of Sabbath keeping, he said “For the sanctifying of the word of God will enjoy full scope daily and abundantly, and every day will be a Sabbath” (ibid, p 93). He said the Jews “shamefully distort and pervert the prophets.” Again, the anti-Jewish sentiment is obvious. He also went on to explain how parts of the fourth, ninth, and tenth commandments no longer apply (ibid, pp 94-95).
As stated earlier, Luther had a confusing and contradicting view of the Sabbath and the Ten Commandments. He allegorized the Sabbath as either being a time whenever the Word of God was preached/taught or eventually being every day. This is similar to early allegorical teachers from the late second and early third century (such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, which we have reviewed in previous articles – CLICK HERE to read about them).
Towards the end of his life, Luther’s disdain for the Jewish people increased. In 1543, he released his highly anti-Semitic work “On the Jews and their Lies.” In it, he condemned the Jewish people to damnation. He considered whether or not their synagogues should be burned down; he proposed that they be ignored and banished from the land altogether. The rhetoric contained in this document is quite sickening.
His hatred for Jewish people led him to also hate the Sabbath. Following the same line of reasoning from anti-Semitic teachers in the second century, Luther resorted to labeling the Sabbath as ‘Jewish’ and allegorized it away.
Despite Luther’s rejection of the Sabbath, the Sabbatarian Anabaptists still had a strong presence. Other German leaders at this same time in history, such as Desiderius Erasmus, also commented on Sabbath keepers in Germany (CLICK HERE to read his comments). Oswald Glait and Andreas Fischer were two contemporary leaders that spread the knowledge of the Sabbath. Using a consistent application of sola scriptura to the Ten Commandments, they convinced many Lutherans in Moravia to honor the Seventh Day Sabbath. At this time, the Sabbath keeping movement was vigorous and was prevalent enough to garner the attention of political and religious leaders.
Let us remember that two reformations happened simultaneously in the 1500s. One preached obedience to all Ten Commandments; the other did not.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Eck, Johann. Enchiridion, ed. & trans. F. L. Battles (Pittsburgh, 1976), p. 12.
Eck, Johann. 404 Thesis. Taken from the book of Concord. Accessed online: http://bookofconcord.org/eck404-theses.php
Hasel, Gerhard F. “Sabbatarian Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century: Part 1.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 5.2 (1967): 101-106.
Karlstadt, Adreas. Regarding The Sabbath and other Statutory Holy Days, Sections 2, 10.
Luther, Martin. A Letter To A Good Friend: Against the Sabbtarians. Luther’s Works, Volume 47, The Christian in Society IV, Franklin Sherman, ed. And Helmut T. Lehmann, gen ed. Fortress Press: PA, 1971. pp 60-95.
Luther, Martin. Against the Heavenly Prophets.