Civil Authority as God’s Institution (Luther)

 I’ve been enjoying Martin Luther’s commentary on the Genesis Flood; it’s been interesting, helpful, and even encouraging in a Christian way.  Today as I was studying Genesis 9:1-17 I came across the following statements Luther made on what this text has to do with civil government. These comments are based on Luther’s exposition of Genesis 9:4-5 (But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood, I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed [NIV]).  Can you hear some echoes of Romans 13?

…Now God adds a commandment pertaining to civil government. Since it was no more a sin to kill an ox or a sheep for food than it was to pluck a flower or an herb growing in the field, there was some danger that men might misuse this God-given power over the beasts and go beyond it even to the shedding of human blood. Hence, he now adds a new law, that human blood must not be shed…

…Here, however, God bestows a share of his authority upon man, giving him the power of life and death, that thus he may be the avenger of bloodshed. Whosoever takes man’s life without due warrant, him God subjects not only to his own judgment, but also to the sword of man. Though God may use man as his instrument in punishing, he is himself still the avenger.

This is the source from which spring all civil laws and the laws of nations.

Heed, then, this passage. It establishes civil authority as God’s institution…

The importance of this text and its claim to attention consists in the fact that it records the establishment of civil authority by God with the sword as insignia of power, for the purpose that license may be curbed and anger and other sins inhibited from growing beyond all bounds. Had God not granted this power to man, what kind of lives, I ask you, would we lead? He foresaw that wickedness would ever flourish, and established this external remedy to prevent the indefinite spread of license. By this safeguard God protects life and property as by a fence and a wall.

Martin Luther, Luther on Sin and the Flood: Commentary on Genesis, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. II, The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1910), 277.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

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