Is There a Relationship Between Luther and Seventh-day Adventists?

Is There a Relationship Between Luther and Seventh-day Adventists?

Part II of this series.

DANIEL WALTHER, Professor of Church History, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

The Sabbath

While Luther repeatedly asserted that the commandments were not repealed by Christ, yet he thought that there was no need of observing the seventh-day Sabbath. He considered the Sabbath as pertaining to the Mosaic ceremonial law. When somebody asked him, "But did not Jesus Himself say that not a jot or a tittle of the law shall pass away?" Luther retorted:

"Jesus was not speaking of the ceremonial law but of the moral law, which was in existence long before Moses and the patriarchs. It is, in fact, the universal law of humanity, though Moses gave the clearest expression to it. Similarly, the Sabbath or rest day is a universal law in order that the people may assemble for the worship of God. But that they should assemble on the seventh day applies only in the case of the Jews, and the observance of this day is not incumbent on other peoples."'

He argued repeatedly that those who kept the "Jewish Sabbath" should also practice cir­cumcision. He said, "If Carlstadt writes more about the Sabbath, Sunday must give way and the Sabbath—that is, Saturday—must be kept holy. He would really in all things make Jews out of us and require circumcision." Luther quoted in this connection Galatians 5:3, "For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law."

Luther believed that the Sabbath must be kept, but that Christians were free to observe any day as the Sabbath. It is difficult to assert precisely what Carlstadt's beliefs and practices were. "We do not know whether Carlstadt ever took a positive stand for the seventh-day Sab­bath. But we do know that many groups of Sabbath keepers were in existence in various places of Central Europe after he began to write on Sabbath observance." 2 There were Christians who kept the seventh-day Sabbath in Luther's time, and he referred to them on several occasions. In discussing them, he was so convinced that the seventh-day Sabbath was not the true day of rest that he went so far as to say that even the patriarchs did not keep the Sabbath.' Concerning the Sabbathkeepers, or "Sabbathers," Luther said this:

"We find in our day in Moravia a foolish rabble folk that call themselves the Sabbathers. They con­tend that we must, according to the Jewish regula­tions and customs, keep the Sabbath; and perhaps they will yet in time lay a similar requirement for circumcision.

"There are in Austria and Moravia, as it is re­ported to me, people at this time that in Jewish manner keep the Sabbath and compel circumcision. If these people come in contact with people that are not properly instructed in God's Word, they will do great damage." 4

The Augsburg Confession of 1530, the most authoritative statement of Lutheran belief—al­though Luther was not personally present at Augsburg—deals in Article 28 with the question of the Lord's day:

"Those who judge that by the authority of the church the observance of the Lord's day instead of the Sabbath day was ordained as a thing necessary, do greatly err. Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath day; for it teaches that since the gospel has been revealed, all the ceremonies of the old law can be omitted. And yet, because it was necessary to appoint a certain day that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears that the church [the apostles] designated the Lord's day for this purpose; and this day seems to have been chosen all the more for this additional reason, that mess might have an example of Christian liberty and might know that the keeping neither of the Sabbath nor of any other day is necessary."'

Seventh-day Adventists are obviously disap­pointed to find this interpretation in Luther's teachings. It should be noticed that on the one hand he affirms the eternal value of the law of God, and on the other he dissociates from the Decalogue the fourth commandment (in Luther's catechism it was the third). The Sab­bath is in the heart of the eternal law of God, and its observance is one of the fruits that ap­pear when a man is justified by faith.

On the other hand, Seventh-day Adventists may catch from Luther the spirit of true Sab­bath observance. He insisted that the Lord's day should be kept holy as a sacred act of worship. He was very outspoken on this point and vehemently criticized those who trans­gressed the Sabbath.

"He who makes the Lord's day an occasion for gluttony, carousing, gambling, dancing, lounging about or whoring;

"He who is given to idleness and he who sleeps when he should be at divine service; also he who gads about or gossips instead of attending worship;

"He who works or trades without necessity;

"He who does not pray and meditate upon the sufferings of Christ, nor repent of his sin and plead for grace, celebrating the day solely by dressing, eating and a formal observance;

"He who amid his toils and tribulations is not resigned to the dispensations of Providence;

"He who is rather a help than an obstacle to others in living contrary to this commandment.

"Also sluggishness in matters pertaining to God's service comes under this head." 8

While Luther misses the beauty and the bless­ing that come with the true observance of the Biblical seventh-day Sabbath as a sign of crea­tion, redemption, and sanctification, he soundly insists on the proper observance of the Lord's day. He was wrong as to the day, but right regarding the spirit of its observance. Would that Seventh-day Adventists, who have the true light on this teaching, observed the day of rest as fervently and honestly as Luther wanted the "Lord's day" to be observed!

Luther played his part magnificently and with courage. But it was for the remnant people later to bring about a reformation correcting the day to be observed.


Luther lived in a stormy age, seething with new ideas and revolutionary concepts and groaning with the agonies of a laborious re­birth (renaissance). Luther stood in the midst of the tempest that resulted in many ideological and armed conflicts. But the cause of the great­est anxiety to his age, especially 1528-30, was the constant menace of the Mohammedan on­slaught. This threat had been hovering over the West ever since the Mohammedans suc­ceeded, in 711, in entering Europe by the west­ern gate of Spain. The situation became alarm­ing when later the seemingly irresistible pres­sure from the East placed Europe in a huge pincer that threatened to crush it. As the Turks approached Vienna the mounting anxiety was reflected in Luther's writings and talks. He preached a crusade against the Turks,' applying the terms "Gog and Magog" to them.

Luther was so impressed by the precarious­ness of the times in 1528 that he expected the end to come before he completed the transla­tion of the Old Testament. For this reason he purposed to translate the book of Daniel, so that it might be brought as quickly as possible to "the poor Christians" of these "last times" before everything perished. The imminence of the end was indeed uppermost in his mind: "Things are going toward their end." And he added, "I hope the last day will not be long delayed, not over a hundred years." Later, in discussing the time of the end, he was impressed that the day of judgment was not far off and that the world could not last "three hundred years longer." Luther was so impressed by the impending doom that he opined that the end might even come in the midst of the sixth millennium. According to Luther's computa­tion, the world was 5,500 years old in the year 1540, which was to be about the right time for the end of all things to occur." While Luther rejected the tendency to set a definite date, he was convinced that there were too many in­dications in his own time to harbor any doubt as to the approximate time of the end.

"Now that the end of the world is approach­ing," he wrote in his "Preface to the Prophet Jeremiah," "the people rage and rave most horribly against God, and blaspheme and damn God's Word," and he concluded:

"If the last day were not close at hand it would be small wonder if heaven and earth were to fall at such blasphemy. The fact that God can tolerate such a thing as this is a sign that the Day is not far off." 

He saw yet another sign in the excessive tendency of a pleasure-loving generation, over­indulging in eating and drinking.

Luther also thought the gospel was spread­ing as never before, in fulfillment of Matthew 24:14. The translation of the Bible into the vernacular, which is Luther's most endearing contribution, hastened, of course, the spreading of the gospel and confirmed him in his belief. He was convinced that before the end, the whole world would become Christian.

The distress among nations Luther saw as a sign of the end. He said, "Wars at the present time are of such a character as to make former wars appear as a mere child's play." As an­other sign he mentions unprecedented storms. "There are such storms and tempests and waters rolling as have never before been seen or heard."

State of the Dead

As on many other teachings, Martin Luther expressed contradictory opinions on the state of the dead. We can find in his sermons the main opinions as they were current in his time. In his works he refers 125 times to death as being a sleep; but in 32 other passages he states on the contrary that death is a conscious state; 7 times he says that the dead live but are unconscious; and elsewhere he writes that the dead are sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious."

Luther declares on one hand that the dead are living and knowing, that the righteous do not die ever, as do the animals, which are with­out understanding.' Those who have the faith will never die but always live. In fact, the dead have entered into real life though they have never died. Part of Luther's belief was based on Matthew 16:28. "It is true," Luther stated, "that souls here perceive and see after death; but how it is done we do not understand. . • God is the God of the living.""

On the other hand Luther asserts that the soul sleeps in peace unconscious of anguish and pain.

"When man dies the body is buried and wastes away, lies in the earth and knows nothing; but when the first man rises up in the last day, he will think that he has lain there scarcely an hour, while he will look about himself and become assured that so many people were born of him and have come after him and of whom he had no knowledge at all. . .. We Christians who have been redeemed should train and accustom ourselves in faith to despise death and regard it as a deep, strong, sweet sleep." 16

While at times he said that a dead Christian knows and sees, he said on other occasions that on the contrary "in death the saints will feel nothing, understand nothing, see nothing."" Not only is the Christian's death a sleep, but "we shall rest sweetly and gently for a brief moment as on a sofa until a time when He shall call and awaken us together with all His dear children to His eternal glory and joy." "

"For just as one who falls asleep and reaches morning unexpectedly when he awakes, without knowing what has happened to him, so we shall suddenly rise on the last day without knowing how we have come into death and through death.""

"We shall sleep, until He comes and knocks on the little grave and says, Doctor Martin, get up! Then I shall rise in a moment and be happy with Him forever.""


Lastly, let us mention Luther's idea of Anti­christ, whose "raging was a definite sign of the end." Who was Antichrist in Luther's mind? Interestingly, the Antichrist is applied by him to both the pope and the Turk!

"The person of the Antichrist is at the same time the Pope and the Turk. Every person consists of a body and a soul. So the spirit of the Antichrist is the Pope, his flesh is the Turk. The one has infested-the Church spiritually, the other bodily. However, both come from the same Lord, even the devil.""

Luther's views on Antichrist are well summed up by Leif Kr. Tobiassen in the conclusion of his Master's thesis:

"As Luther was challenged by papal authority, and as papal authority was made an issue by the papal apologists, Luther was led to a closer study of this point of Catholic doctrine. . . . When his papal opponents began to label him Antichrist, Luther was led to study the Antichrist concept more closely. At first, he applied the term to the papacy merely as an effective name. . . . Luther's further examination of the bases for papal assertions made him realize that the pope claimed authority to introduce doctrines independent of Scriptural foundation.

"This to Luther was to usurp Christ's rightful place as the real head of the church, ruling through His Word. Luther thus became certain that the papacy must be Antichrist, deceiving the ignorant and innocent children of God by posing as possess­ing such divine authority as rightfully belonged only to Christ Himself. . . . Therefore Luther felt convinced that the papacy was Antichrist.

"After some less comprehensive expositions of his views on the subject, Luther achieved the clear­est expression of his antichristology in his Responsio against Catharinus, written 1521. . . . For the re­maining twenty-five years of his life Luther never deviated from the positions outlined in his Re­sponsio. With only one exception, no new feature was ever added to Luther's antichristology as ex­pressed in this work.

"In his later years, as the Moslem threat to Western Christendom loomed especially ominous, Luther included Islam in his Antichrist concept. He was led to this by his interpretation of the 'little horn' in Daniel 7 as the Mohammedan power. . . Not retreating from his original positions that the 'little horn' in Daniel 7 represented Islam and the 'little horn' in Daniel 8, as well as the Antichrist in John's and Paul's writings, represented the papacy, Luther could bring about a reconciliation -of these positions only by making the Turk some sort of a co-Antichrist with the pope.

"This, however, was an interlude which did not make Luther waver from his contention that the Antichrist of biblical prophecy was the papal system in the church, a position which he main­tained without interruption from 1519 to 1545."22

It is to be regretted that the Lutheran Ref­ormation slowed down and halted, steeped in formalism and dogmatism. As a people, Sev­enth-day Adventists are called upon to take up the torch of truth and carry it to the ends of the earth, with a flame that shines brighter, warmer, and truer than ever before.

"The Reformation is not ended yet. Every move­ment of reform in past days has been leading up to this last stand for God and His Holy Word, on the platform of the primitive faith of the New Testament. . . . The closing work of the judgment-hour in heaven and this advent movement and mes­sage on earth are God's answer to the great apostasy." 25

The Lord calls us to uphold Christ as Luther upheld Him. "O let us contemplate the amazing sacrifice that has been made for us!" "

"The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world's history. Luther had a great work to do in reflecting to others the light which God had permitted to shine upon him; yet he did not receive all the light which was to be given to the world. From that time to this, new light has been con­tinually shining upon the Scriptures, and new truths have been constantly unfolding," 26

Seventh-day Adventists have much in com­mon with Martin Luther, who was "called of God." Like him, we stress the fundamental evangelical principles of the gospel. But, after all, we are not Lutherans. We differ from Luther on several doctrines that were neglected in his time and that we are to present to the world in such a way that they will constitute indeed God's last warning message to mankind. Sev­enth-day Adventists have the worldwide re­sponsibility of re-opening the Scriptures, and if we could display the same courage, steadfast­ness of character, and vision as did Martin Luther, our cause would make even greater and more rapid progress the world over.

(End of Series)



1 James Mackinnon, History of the Reformation, vol. 4, p. 198.

2 R. W. Wentland, The Teachings of A. B. Carlstadt on the Seventh-day Sabbath (M.A. thesis, S.D.A. Theological Seminary, 1947), p. 49.

3 Ibid., P. 43.

4 Martin Luther, "Auslegung von 1. Mose" (Genesis), Schriften (Walch ed.), vol. 1, cols. 873, 1009-1010.

5 The Augsburg Confession, published by J. L. Neve, Article XXVIII, pp. 155-157.

6 Luther, Catechetical Writings, vol. 1, p. 196.

7 Luther, "Heerpredigt Wider den Tiirken," Werke (St. Louis ed.), vol. 20, pp. 2165, 2166.

8 Luther, "Colloquia oder Tischreden," Werke, vol. 22, p. 16. Table Talk (Hazlitt, ed.), p. 325. On the reliability of Luther's Table Talk as a source, see the critical study of President Smith, Luther's Table Talk (New York, 1907), pp. 43, 44, 76-81; Richard Viktor Vinglas, An Investigation Into the Eschatological Teaching of Martin Luther and John Calvin (M.A. thesis, S.D.A. Theological Seminary, 1948), pp. 38 ff.

9 H. Bell, trans., The Familiar Discourses of Dr. Martin Luther (London, 1818), p. 7.

10 Luther, "Chronikon oder Berechnung der Jahre der Welt," Werke (Walch ed.), vol. 14, p. 714.

11 Luther, Works (Holman ed.), vol. VI, p. 410.

12 Luther, "Kirchen Postille," Werke, vol. 13b, p. 1378.

13 See all references in Toivo Nikolai Ketola, A Study of Martin Luther's Teaching Concerning the State of the Dead (M.A. thesis, S.D.A. Theological Seminary, 1946), pp. 27-30.

14 Luther "Sermon on Genesis 3," Schriften (Missouri ed.), vol. 1, col, 1756.

15 Preserved Smith and H. P. Gallinger, eds., Conversa­tions With Luther, pp. 122 ff.

16 Luther, Commentary on Peter and Jude, pp. 312 ff.; Works of Luther (Holman ed.), vol. 6, pp. 287 ff.

17 Luther, "Kirchen-Postille," Schrif ten, vol. 2, 1069.

18 Luther, "Gospel Sermon," Works (Lenker ed.), vol. 14, pp. 35-39. See also H. T. Kerr, A Compend of Luther's Theology, p. 242.

19 Luther, Werke (Weimar ed.), 17, II, p. 235, cited in T. A. Kantonen, The Christian Hope, p. 37.

20 Ibid., 37, p. 151, cited Ibid.

21 Luther, Werke (Weimar ed.), vol. 3, p. 158; Vinglas, op. cit., p. 23.

22 Leif Kr. Tobiassen, An Investigation Into the Evolution of Martin Luther's Views Concerning Antichrist (M.A. thesis, S.D.A. Theological Seminary, 1948), pp. 78-81.

23 W. A. Spicer, The Hand of God in History, pp. 213, 214.

24 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 24. 26 White, The Great Controversy, p. 148.

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DANIEL WALTHER, Professor of Church History, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

July 1955

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