[Article XV(VIII):] Of Human Ordinances in the Church

Written in Latin by Philip Melanchthon (1531)

Translated from the Latin into German by Justus Jonas (1531)

English Translation by Ambrose and Socrates Henkel (1851), Revised by W. F. Lehmann (1854)

Link to Bente/Dau Translation from Latin (1921)

[1] Our adversaries agree to the first part of the fifteenth article, in which we say, that the ceremonies and ordinances which can be kept conscientiously, without sin, and promote order and tranquility, should be observed in the church. The other part they condemn, in which we assert, that the ordinances established to reconcile God and to obtain the remission of sins, are directly opposed to the Gospel. [2] Although in our Confession, in regard to diversity of meats, we have said a great deal respecting ordinances, yet we must here briefly repeat it.

[3] True, we supposed that our adversaries would seek by other arguments, to sustain these human ordinances, but we hardly thought that they would condemn this article, namely, that human traditions cannot merit the remission of sins. But, as this whole article is insolently condemned by them, we shall find no difficulty in replying. [4] For this is evidently a Jewish principle; it is, in fact, a suppression of the Gospel by the doctrine of the devil. For the holy Scriptures, and Paul especially, call such ordinances the genuine doctrine of the devil, when men extol them as means to obtain the remission of sins. For in this light, they are as directly opposed to Christ and to the Gospel, as fire and water are opposed to each other.

[5] The Gospel teaches that through faith in Christ, without merit, we obtain the forgiveness of sins, and are reconciled to God; but our adversaries set up another mediator, namely, human laws. By these they would obtain the remission of sins, and by these appease the wrath of God; but Christ clearly says: "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," Matt. 15:9.

[6] We have abundantly shown above, that we are justified before God by faith, when we believe that God is merciful to us, not through our works, but through Christ. Now, there can be no doubt that this is the pure doctrine of the Gospel; for Paul expressly says, Eph. 2:8-9, "By grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works." [7] But our adversaries say, that men merit the remission of sins by these human ordinances and works. What is this but substituting another mediator and reconciler for Christ?

[8] Paul says, Gal. 5:4: "Whosoever of you are justified by the law: ye are fallen from grace;" that is, if you believe that you are justified before God, by the law, Christ is of no benefit to you. For what need of Christ the Mediator have those, who expect to reconcile God by the works of the law? [9] God has offered Christ, because he would be gracious unto us for the sake of his mediation, and not on account of our righteousness. But they maintain, that their works and these traditions secure the mercy of God. In this manner they rob Christ of his honor; [10] and there is no difference between the ceremonies of the Law of Moses and such traditions, so far as this matter is concerned. Paul rejects the ceremonies of Moses for the same reason that he rejects the commandments of men; namely, because the Jews held them to be works meriting the remission of sins; for thus Christ was suppressed. He, therefore, rejects alike the works of the law and human commandments, and contends that the remission of sins is promised, not on account of our works, but for the sake of Christ, without merit; yet so, as that we receive it by faith, because the promises cannot be received otherwise than by faith.

[11] Now, if by faith, we obtain forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God for Christ's sake, it is a gross error and blasphemy to suppose, that we obtain the remission of sins by such ordinances.

[12] If they should say, that we do not obtain the remission of sins by such works, but that, after we have received forgiveness through faith, we must by such works merit the grace of God, this would be opposed to Paul's declaration, Gal. 2:17: "But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin?" Again, Gal. 3:15: "Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth or addeth thereto." Therefore, no one should add anything to the covenant of God, in which he promises to be gracious unto us for Christ's sake; nor attach to it the error, that we first merit the grace of God by these works.

[14] Now, if we should establish or select such works, to appease God, and to merit the remission of sins, how could we be certain that these works are acceptable to God, without their being enjoined of God? How could we assure men of their true relation to God, or that these works are pleasing to him, when there is no divine commandment to this effect?

The prophets everywhere forbid the institution of self-devised particular services to God, without his Word or command. Ezek. 20:18-19: "Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them." [15] If men have authority to institute services to God, in order to compensate for our sins, and to justify us in the sight of God, all the services of the heathen, and all the idolatry of every impious king of Israel, of Jeroboam, and others, are commendable; for there can be no difference. If men are authorized to establish services unto God, meriting salvation, why should the self-elected religious services of the heathens and Israelites, be unholy? [16] These services were rejected, because they believed them to be pleasing to God, and knew nothing of his highest service, which is faith.

[17] Again, how do we know that such services and works, unauthorized by the Word of God, justify us in his sight, as no man is able to ascertain or know the will of God, except through his Word? What if God despises and abominates such services! How dare our adversaries say, that they justify man in the sight of God? Without the Word of God, no one can assert this. Paul says to the Romans 14:23: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." Inasmuch, then, as these services have no divine authority, our hearts must remain in doubt whether they are acceptable to God.

[18] But why need we waste many words on a point so clear? If our opponents defend these services as works meriting the remission of sins and salvation, they clearly establish the doctrine and kingdom of Antichrist, for his kingdom really is a new service of this kind, devised by men, and suppressing Christ; like the Mahometan religion with its self-elected services and human works, by which its followers suppose they become holy and pious before God, not believing that man is justified by faith alone in Christ.

Thus, Popery also becomes a part of the kingdom of Antichrist, when it teaches, that we obtain the forgiveness of sins, and are reconciled with God, through human ordinances; for Christ is deprived of his honor, when they teach, that we are not justified through Christ, without merit, by faith, but through such services; and especially when they tell us that such self-appointed services are not only useful but necessary; as they maintain in the eighth article above, where they condemn our assertion, that the true unity of the church does not require human ordinances to be everywhere uniform.

[19] Thus, Daniel describes the kingdom of the Antichrist, showing that such new services, established by men, will be its politia, its true form and character; for says he: "But in his estate shall he honor the God of forces; and a god whom his fathers knew not shall he honor with gold and silver, and with precious stones, and pleasant things," Dan. 11:38. Here he describes these new services; for he is speaking of a god of whom the fathers knew nothing.

[20] Although the holy Fathers also had ceremonies and ordinances, yet they did not believe that these were useful and necessary to salvation, nor suppress Christ by them; but they taught that God is gracious to us for Christ's sake, and not on account of these services. But they observed these ordinances to exercise the body, for instance, the festivals, in order that the people might know when to come together, that everything might be done orderly and decently in the churches, as a good example, and that the multitude might be kept under good parental discipline. For such particular seasons, and various services, are calculated to keep the people in good discipline, and to remind them of the gospel history. [21] For these reasons the Fathers observed human regulations.

Thus are we also in favor of observing good customs; but we are truly surprised that our adversaries teach, contrary to all the writings of the Apostles, and contrary to the Old and New Testaments, that through such services we are to obtain the remission of sins and eternal salvation. For what is this but, as Daniel says, honoring God with gold, silver, and precious stones? That is, to believe that God is propitiated through various church ornaments, banners, and tapers; of which there are an infinite variety among these human ordinances.

[22] Paul writes to the Colossians 2:23, that such ordinances have a show of wisdom. And, indeed, they have a strong semblance of holiness; for disorder is unseemly, and good parental discipline is useful in the church. But inasmuch as human reason does not know what faith is, those judging according to their reason, at once conclude that such discipline secures heaven for us, and reconciles us to God.

[23] Thus did errors and the evils of idolatry insinuate themselves among the Israelites; hence they established numberless services, as in our day altars and churches are so rapidly increasing.

[24] Thus human reason judges also of other bodily exercises, such as fasting, etc.; for they tend to restrain the old Adamic nature. But reason soon conceives that they reconcile us to God; as Thomas says: "Fasting is efficacious in removing our guilt before God, and afterward preventing it." These are the very words of Thomas. Thus these very plausible services make a great display, and have a strong semblance of holiness before the people. And they encourage this error by referring to the examples of the saints, when they say: "Francis wore a cap," etc. In these things, they regard only the external exercise; not the heart and faith.

[25] Now, when the people are deceived by this great and pompous display of holiness, the consequence is unspeakable danger and evil; the knowledge of Christ and the Gospel is neglected, and their whole confidence is placed on such works. Moreover, the really good works, which God requires in the Ten Commandments, are (it grieves us to say,) wholly suppressed by such hypocritical acts; for it seems that these alone are called spiritual, holy, and perfect life, and are preferred far above the genuine, holy, good works which each one is bound, by the law of God, to perform, as for example, the fulfillment of our vocation, the faithful and diligent administration of government, Christian discipline in our family and domestic relations. [26] These are not regarded as divine, but worldly works; and consequently many have been greatly troubled in their conscience; for it is known, that some have abandoned their principalities, and others wedlock, to enter into cloisters, for the purpose of becoming holy and spiritual.

[27] Besides, the evil is connected with this error, that when men imagine that such ordinances are necessary to salvation, their consciences are continually harassed with disquietude and torment, because they have not strictly observed the rules of their orders, their monastic rites, and the works imposed upon them; for who is able to state all these ordinances? There are books without number, in which not a word is said of Christ, of faith, or of truly good works enjoined of God, and which each one is bound to do by his calling; but they confine their remarks to such ordinances as, forty days fasting, the hearing of Masses, canonical seasons for prayer, etc.; indeed there is no end to their interpretations and dispensations.

[28] How greatly was the good and pious Gerson tormented by these things! How he labored and strained, to afford men true consolation, when he sought out grades and latitudes in the precepts, for the purpose of determining to what extent these commandments were binding! And yet he was unable to discover any certain limit, at which he could assure the heart of peace and security. He, therefore, complained most bitterly of the great danger to the conscience by requiring an observance of these ordinances, even in the case of mortal sin.

[29] But, against such hypocritical and delusive ordinances, by which many are unnecessarily misled and tormented, we should fortify and strengthen ourselves by the Word of God, and in the first place confidently trust, the remission of sins is not merited by such ordinances. [30] We have already quoted the Apostle to the Colossians: "Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy-day, or of the new-moon, or of the Sabbath-days," Col. 2:16. And the Apostle means the whole Law of Moses, together with these traditions; our adversaries, therefore, cannot as usual evade the force of this passage, by claiming that Paul spoke only of the Law of Moses. But he clearly shows that he also means human ordinances; our adversaries, however, do not know what they say. If the Gospel and Paul clearly state, that even the ceremonies and works of the Law of Moses are of no avail before God, human ordinances will be much less so.

[31] The bishops, therefore, have no authority or power to establish self-elected services to God to make men holy and righteous before God; for the Apostles, Acts 15:10, say: "Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciple?" etc. Here Peter calls it a great sin, by which men blaspheme and tempt God. [32] Hence the Apostles mean to say that the church should remain free in these matters,--that no ceremonies, either of the Law of Moses or other ordinances, shall be considered necessary services to God, as were certain ceremonies of the Law of Moses, for a time, under the Old Testament dispensation. We must, therefore, contend that the preaching of grace, of Christ, and of the remission of sins by grace alone, be not suppressed, and oppose the error that these ordinances are necessary to justify us in the sight of God.

[33] Gerson and many other pious and faithful men, being moved to compassion by the great danger into which the soul is thus placed, in vain sought, in this way, to give epieikeian, or relief to the conscience from the various tormenting influences of these traditions. [34] But the holy Scripture and the Apostles have made short work of it, and completely blotted out the whole with one stroke, plainly saying that in Christ we are free from all traditions, especially those through which men seek to obtain salvation and the remission of sins. The Apostles, therefore, teach us to resist this pernicious Pharisaic doctrine, by our teaching and example.

Hence we teach that such ordinances do not justify us in the sight of God, that they are not necessary to salvation, and that no one should establish or receive them, with a view to be justified by them before God. [35] But let those who wish to observe them, keep them as they do any civil custom, without expecting by them to be justified before God, just as those living in Germany or Italy dress according to the prevailing custom simply to comply with the custom of the country, but not to be saved by it.

[36] The Apostles, as the Gospel shows, boldly violated such ordinances, and Christ commended them for it. For it was necessary to show to the Pharisees, not only by doctrine and preaching, but also by actions, that such services to God are useless to salvation. [37] Our divines are therefore abundantly justified for omitting some traditions and ceremonies; for the bishops require them as necessary to salvation,--an error that cannot be tolerated.

[38] But the most ancient ordinances in the church, as, for instance, the three chief festivals, Sunday, and the like, which were established for the sake of order, union, and peace, we cheerfully observe. Our ministers also speak of them to the people, with great respect; declaring, however, that they do not justify man before God. [39] Hence the violent language of our adversaries, who do us gross injustice in the sight of God, by accusing us of abolishing and suppressing all good ceremonies and regulations in the church. For we can assert with truth, that the proper service of God is observed in our churches, in a more Christian and decent spirit, than among our adversaries. Pious, honorable, intelligent, and impartial men, who carefully examine this matter, know that the old canons and mens legis (the spirit of the law) are observed by us, more fully, purely, and diligently, than by our adversaries. [40] For our opponents shamelessly trample underfoot the most excellent canons, as well as Christ and the Gospel. In their convents, the priests and monks abuse the Mass in the most awful and abominable manner, holding Masses daily in great numbers, simply for the sake of money and base gratification. They sing Psalms in the convents, not for the sake of study, or of sincere prayer, (for the greater part do not understand a solitary verse in the Psalms,) but they attend to their matins and vespers as to hired services, for the sake of the income they afford. They cannot deny any of these things. Indeed, some honest men among them feel ashamed of this traffic, and say the clergy need a reformation.

Among us, the people willingly and freely partake of the holy Sacrament every Sunday, after being examined in Christian doctrine, in the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. The youth and the people also, regularly sing Latin and German Psalms, in order that they may become acquainted with the Scriptures, and learn to pray. [41] Among our adversaries there is no catechizing, although the canons require it. The canons, enjoining it upon pastors and ministers of the church publicly and privately to instruct the children and youth in the Word of God, are kept among us; and catechizing is not a childish thing like the bearing of banners and candles, but a very useful instruction.

[42] Among our adversaries there is no preaching in many countries, (as in Italy, Spain, etc.,) during the whole year, except only in Lent. This gives them just cause for loud complaint; for this is at once subverting all divine worship. The most eminent, holy, useful, and exalted service, which God has required in the First and Second Commandments, is the preaching of his Word; for the office of the preacher is the highest in the church. How, then, can the knowledge of God, the doctrine of Christ, or the Gospel prevail, where this service is omitted? And even when they preach during Lent or at other times, they dwell only on human ordinances, the invocation of saints, holy water, and the like foolish works; and their people are in the habit, soon after the text of the Gospel is read, of going out of the churches; which practice perhaps originated from their unwillingness to hear the falsehoods which were to follow. Some few of them now begin to preach of good works; but of the knowledge of Christ, of faith, and of the consolation of the conscience, they cannot preach; on the contrary, they call this blessed doctrine, this precious holy Gospel, Lutheranism.

[43] But in our churches, our ministers assiduously inculcate the following important subjects: namely, true repentance, the fear of God, faith and its nature, the knowledge of Christ, and the righteousness which comes from faith. They teach also how we should seek consolation in anxiety and trials; how faith is to be exercised by all kinds of trials; what true prayer is, and how we should pray. They maintain, that the Christian should confidently trust that God in heaven hears his cries and prayers; they speak of the holy cross, of obedience to the government, and teach how each one in his station may live and act as a Christian; they enjoin obedience to the commands of rulers, to temporal order and law; they instruct the people how to distinguish between the spiritual kingdom of Christ and the civil governments of the world, show them the nature of matrimony and the Christian duties connected with it, enforce the Christian training of children, chastity, and the exercise of love to our neighbors. [44] This is the doctrinal and moral character of our church. Impartial men can easily perceive, that we do not abolish proper Christian ceremonies, but preserve them most faithfully.

[45] As to the mortification of the flesh, or of the old Adamic nature, we teach, as our Confession declares, that such mortification truly takes place, when God breaks our will, and sends crosses and afflictions upon us to teach us obedience to his will, as Paul says, Rom. 12:1: "Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God." This is in truth holy mortification, thus to learn to know, fear, and love God in our trials.

[46] Besides these tribulations, which are not subject to our will, there are also bodily exercises, to which Christ refers, saying: "Take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness," Luke 21:34. Paul says also: "I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection," etc., 1 Cor. 9:27. [47] These exercises should be performed, not as necessary services that justify us before God, but for the purpose of keeping our flesh under restraint, that we may not be "overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness," become secure and idle, and follow the allurements of the devil and the lusts of the flesh. This fasting and mortification should be attended to, not only at fixed times, but continually. [48] For God desires us always to live moderately and temperately; and, as experience shows, the prescribing of many fast days does not lead to this. For more extravagance and gluttony have been practiced with fish and various fast-meats, than out of the season of fasting. Nor did our adversaries themselves ever observe the fasts, as they are laid down in the canons.

[49] Many and difficult controversies and inquiries are connected with this article on human traditions or ordinances, and experience has shown but too plainly, that they are most severe fetters, and an awful torture to the soul. For, when the error prevails that they are necessary to salvation, they torment the soul beyond measure; as the pious know it to be, when they omit a part of the canonical exercises, or otherwise act contrary to them. But the propriety of inculcating absolute liberty in these things, is also a serious and difficult question, for the people at large need external discipline and instruction.

[50] But our adversaries themselves render this subject easy, and simple; for they condemn us, because we teach that we do not merit, by human ordinances, the remission of sins before God. Again, they want their ordinances to be observed (universally) in all the churches, as necessary, and put them in the place of Christ.

On this point we have a strong advocate, the apostle Paul, who everywhere maintains, that such ordinances do not justify us in the sight of God, and are not necessary to salvation.

[51] And our divines clearly and explicitly teach, that we should so use our Christian liberty in these things, that no offence be given to the weak who are not enlightened in these things, and that those, who abuse this liberty, may not deter weak brethren from the doctrine of the Gospel. Our preachers teach therefore, that without special and urgent cause, no change should be made in church usages, and that for the sake of peace and harmony we should observe the customs that are not in themselves sinful or oppressive. [52] And at the Diet of Augsburg we clearly stated that for the sake of love, we were willing, with others, to hold certain adiaphora (things indifferent); for we were well persuaded, that general union and peace, so far as they can be maintained without offence to the conscience, should be preferred to all minor things. But we shall, hereafter, speak more fully of all these things, when we come to treat of monastic vows and the power of the church.