Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

2 Jul 2012

Luther on Social Reform and the Human Heart

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I recently came across an interesting quote from Martin Luther about the prospect of social reform. He wrote,

To be sure, the world sees evil acts, nay, it is amazed at them and complains about the great wickedness of people; but it does not know how it happens. It does see the water flow and the foliage and fruit coming out of the bad tree everywhere, but where the spring is and where the root is anchored it does not know. And so it undertakes to remedy matters, to check the wickedness, and to make pious with laws and the infliction of punishment. But even if this continues for a long while, it does not help. This method may check the water, but the spring is thereby not checked; it may cut away the sprouts, but the root remains intact.

Now this is lost labor. It does no good to check, improve, and remedy without, while the trunk, the root, and the spring of the evil remain within. Above all things, the spring must be stopped and the root taken from the tree; otherwise it will break and force its way through at ten places while you are stopping and checking it at one. The cure must be effected at the source; otherwise you may forever apply and lay on poultices and plasters, and the sore will continue to fester and matter and only become worse. In a word, experience teaches, and the world must confess, that it is unable to check even the external gross vices and evil practices even though it opposes and punishes them with all diligence, as, indeed, it should. Far less is it able to remove the sin rooted within human nature and (unknown to it) the real, the chief sin (Luther, quoted in Plass, What Luther Says, sec. 4266).

For Luther, of course, the chief sin was unbelief. He saw unbelief as the first sin committed in the garden and as the fundamental sin from which all other sins flow. Luther was not unconcerned about social problems, but he rightly recognized that even society’s best efforts to stanch the flow of wickedness from the human heart were only stopgap measures that failed to get to the root of the problem: man’s unwillingness to believe in Christ.