The Reformation Brings “Good Works” to the Marriage Bed

By Scott Keith

*This week, I have given my spot over to my good friend and mentor Johan Hinderlie. Besides putting up with me as a friend, Johan has served as a radio preacher, Bible camp director, parish pastor, and tour leader. But he gets most of his fun pretending he is Martin Luther. Sometimes his wife acts alongside him as Katy von Bora. They live in Minnesota enjoying their three married sons and six grandchildren. Enjoy!*

Being against good works has often identified people as Lutheran, but this is not Martin Luther’s teaching. In fact, he believed that the sexual life of a married couple is a good work for God. Read on to find out how he came to this discovery.

Luther’s training provided that good works were used to get God’s attention. If you do something good, God will do something good for you. He became a monk to do good works for God.

The Church had created the celibate, monastic life as the ideal way to please God and fulfill God’s will. It was an ascetic way of life. Monastic life insisted on lots of self-denial. As a monk or a nun, the more miserable your life was, the more pleased God would be with you.

After Luther had discovered the power of God’s grace in the Gospel, his understanding changed. He then realized good works are a normal part of a believer’s life, but good works flow from faith. They are not done to get God’s attention.

Here is how he phrased his conviction in his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.

“Faith is a living, daring confidence so that without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace.”

He continues this thinking with a great metaphor using the connection between light and fire.

“It is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”

Now Luther declared that faith produces “good works.” Who needs to receive these good works? He wrote to his friend George Spalatin that it is the people who live around us.

“If Christ had desired to live only among good people and to die only for his friends, for whom, I ask you, would he have died or with whom would he ever have lived?”

So, Luther continues by writing that we need to pour out our blessing on our neighbor.

“If you firmly believe this as you ought… Help your erring brothers. Patiently help them. Make their sins yours, and, if you have any goodness, let it be theirs.”

Jesus does this for us. He pours out His blessings on our lives. Luther uses marriage to explain this understanding of how we are justified by Christ’s good work in his little book The Freedom of a Christian.

“Here we have this rich and divine bridegroom who is our Christ. He marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. That is us. Our sins cannot now destroy us, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And we have our righteousness in Christ, our husband. Everything he has we can boast of as our own.”

Christ’s marriage to us transfers our sin to Him, and in exchange, He gives us His holiness. As Jesus pours out blessing upon blessing upon us, we pour this same blessed holiness on our neighbors, especially our spouses.

In fact, Luther discovered that good works for God are found in the home, and more specifically in the marriage bed. He based his insight on the Bible’s teaching in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and take dominion over the earth.” And again, in creation, God made everything, and God said, “It was good.” Luther realized that enjoying sexual fulfillment with one’s spouse fulfilled God’s created purpose for marriage.

The Church’s teaching stated that the marriage bed fulfilled God’s will only insofar as it created children. Children justified sexual union in one’s marriage. There was even a boast in the celibate thinking contrasted to marriage. Luther reflects this in his commentary on Genesis 2. “They (the church leaders) declared the life of married people detestable in comparison with their celibacy.”

Luther rejected this thinking because of the Gospel. He knew that God created the married life of sexual pleasure to be good. If God says it is good, it is good. Due to the Reformation, the married couple’s bed was the place of God’s blessing. As Luther said, “I am glad to be living at a time when I can come home from work and play with my children, eat my sausages, enjoy my music and make love to my wife, all to the glory of God.” To which his wife Katy responded, “Every day dear doctor? How much glory can a former nun take?”

The Reformation made it possible for people to believe that the sexual intimacy they had with their spouse was a gift from God in Jesus.

Of course, for us sinners, problems arise in this gift of marriage. Every good gift from God we turn to our advantage. Luther wrote how God wants a married sinner to live content with one’s spouse (Genesis 2).

“It is not enough for the Holy Spirit to state: ‘Adam knew Eve’, but He also adds ‘his wife.’ For He does not approve of dissolute licentiousness and promiscuous cohabitation. He wants each one to live content with his own wife.”

God desires contentment between spouses. In addition to our sinful self, the source of discontentment comes from the voice of our enemy, Satan. Satan’s voice in the Garden reminded Adam and Eve of what was missing in their married life. That voice still can make us doubt God’s gift of our spouse in marriage.

Martin and Katy found power to fight this temptation in their daily prayer life, where they could give and receive forgiveness from God and for one another. In prayer, they practiced a simple way to express their vulnerability to their Lord. And from this vulnerable position, they found the deepest intimacy they could have together. Their fig leaves were removed. They could rest in the consolation and comfort of each other.

Out of their spiritual intimacy came renewal for the joy of sexual intimacy. Since they were forgiven and were not ashamed, they received each other over and over as a gift of God. They enjoyed one another with their physical expression of sexual love in marriage. They discovered their sexual relationship as a “good work” for God.

In the context of the twenty-first century, Lutherans have a calling to hold marriage in honor, and that includes the sexual relationship, however confusing and entwined it has become due to sin. Luther adds these thoughts from Genesis 2.

“One should, therefore, guard against those doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1) and learn to hold matrimony in honor and to speak with respect of this way of life.”

“For we see that God instituted it, and we hear it praised in the Ten Commandments… Marriage should be treated with honor; from it, we all originate, because it is a nursery not only for the state but also for the church and the kingdom of Christ until the end of the world.”

Luther birthed a real reformation for the understanding of marriage and family. There was a saying in Germany, “When it is warm in the parsonage bed, it is warm in the whole village.” Martin and Katy were examples of this influence. Lutherans in the Reformation knew the joy of sexual intimacy in the home as a good work for God.

So, as Lutherans celebrating 500 years of the Reformation, keep up the good work!