It is not uncommon to encounter the idea that Luther discarded the Ten Commandments. The idea is that he emphasised grace so much against works and gospel so much against law that he downplayed the believer’s use of the Ten Commandments. Alternatively it is suggested that he was worried people would return to works righteousness if they were taught the obligation of holy living by the Ten Commandments.
It is a strange idea because the Ten Commandments were a constant feature of Luther’s experience and preaching. He said that “every morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc”. He preached on them from 1516 onwards and published A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments in 1518. In the midst of the conflicts raging at this time he says: “each evening I expound to children and ordinary folk the Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer”. He felt that it was necessary to keep these together in order to have a right perspective on the Commandments.
No man can progress so far in sanctification as to keep even one of the Ten Commandments as it should be kept, but that the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer must come to our assistance, as we shall hear, through which we must continually seek, pray for, and obtain the power and strength to keep the Commandments
Luther had a high esteem for the Ten Commandments. “They are the true fountain from which all good works must flow”. “Only those things are good works which God has commanded, just as only that is a sin which God has forbidden. Therefore, he who wants to know and do good works need only know God’s Commandments… These Commandments of God must teach us how to distinguish among good works”.
Luther also expounded the Ten Commandments in his Large and Small Catechisms as well as composing a song by which they could be learned. Saving faith must evidence its real character in a changed life. “We must prove ourselves before the world. How? By keeping the other commandments as well: ‘You shall honor your father and mother’ ”
The idea that Luther rejected the Ten Commandments is in fact such an old notion that in 1648, Samuel Rutherford went to the extent of translating Luther’s treatise Against the Antinomians from the original German. The following is an updated extract from that book.
Luther’s Use of the Ten Commandments
And truly, I wonder exceedingly how it came to be imputed to me that I should reject the law or Ten Commandments. There are available so many of my own expositions (and those of several sorts) on the Commandments. They are also daily expounded and used in our churches – to say nothing of the Confession and Apology and other books of ours. Add to this the custom we have to sing the Commandments in two different tunes; and also children painting, printing, carving, and rehearsing them both morning, noon, and evening. I know no other way than what we have done except that we do not (alas!) as we ought, really express and delineate them in our lives and conversations. I myself (as old as I am) have it for my custom to recite them daily, as a child, word for word.
If any should have been mistaken about what I had written, he might (seeing how vehemently I urge these catechetical exercises) in reason have been persuaded to call on me and demand these or similar questions. What? Good Doctor Luther, do you press so eagerly the Ten Commandments and yet also teach that they must be rejected? They ought to have dealt thus with me and not secretly undermine me behind my back, and then wait for my death so they might afterwards make of me what they pleased. Well I forgive them, if they leave these courses.