Martin Luther said parents should not merely lavish honors and possessions on their children but should “enrich their souls with the arts, with study, with sound literature,” and especially “in the fear of God.” If this is done diligently, fathers and mothers will find that they have “plenty of opportunity” to practice godliness and good works in their own households without running around looking for something to do. Luther strongly believed in education. He required that Katie study the Bible, though she sometimes felt that she knew enough; he had his children tutored by older students, and his sons studied law, theology, and medicine.
Luther used catechisms to encourage household piety. In the Small Catechism, Luther directed the head of the household to teach his family the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, how to begin and end each day in prayer, and how to give thanks to God at meals. He also included a list of Scripture verses relevant to different kinds of people, including husbands (Col. 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7), wives (1 Peter 3:1, 6), parents (Eph. 6:4), and children (Eph. 6:1–3). Luther wanted to shift the focus of spirituality from the monastery to the home, turning each family into a house of prayer with every member instructed by the Word of Christ. In the preface to his Large Catechism, he wrote, “It is the duty of every head of household at least once a week to examine the children one after another” in their knowledge. They should be required to recite the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer every day “when they arise in the morning, when they go their meals, and when they go to bed at night.”
Luther said loving one’s children requires a regular use of “the rod and discipline” because of the foolishness of a child’s heart (Prov. 3:11; 23:13). Luther believed in corporal discipline, but a restrained and merciful use of it. Luther said: “One shouldn’t whip children too hard. My father once whipped me so severely that I ran away from him, and he was worried that he might not win me back again. I wouldn’t like to strike my little Hans [almost six years old at the time] very much, lest he should become shy and hate me.” Luther reminded his hearers that though God chastises His children, He is quick to rescue and raise up those who run to Him. Discipline must be joined with kindness: “One must punish in such a way that the rod is accompanied by the apple.” He warned that a harsh and stern father “makes his children either dispirited or hopeless,” and said, “Praise and punishment belong together.”
Luther called people to use “simple and playful methods” to “bring up young people in the fear and honor of God.” Mere corporal discipline will not build heart conviction but will only result in temporary conformity. Therefore, God’s people must teach children at their level, using “baby talk” that will “sink into their minds.” Luther concluded, “Therefore let all heads of a household remember that it is their duty, by God’s injunction and command, to teach their children or have them taught the things they ought to know.”
Luther summed up the godly parent’s legacy in his words to his one-year-old son when he put him to bed, perhaps sung as a lullaby: “Go now and be godly. No money will I leave you, but a rich God will I leave you. Only be godly.”
Luther grounded his teaching on family life upon earthy realism. He knew that Katie had her hands full. In 1532, she was nursing one child while pregnant with another. Later in 1540, she was incapacitated for two or three months after a miscarriage. Yet for all the burdens of motherhood, she was amazingly active. One biographer wrote, “Kate became gardener, fisher, brewer, fruit grower, cattle and horse breeder, cook, bee-keeper, provisioner, nurse, and vintner.” In 1542, for example, the Luthers had five cows, nine calves, one goat, two kids, eight pigs, two sows, and three piglets.
As a family man, Luther said celibacy is full of temptations, but he also admitted that marriage is full of busyness and annoyances. He said, “We have become so infected with original sin that there’s no kind of life which, once undertaken, isn’t a matter of regret at times.” Yet, he said, “It seems to me that it is the pleasantest kind of life to have a moderate household, to live with an obedient wife, and to be content with little.”
Luther delighted in his children. He believed that “children are a gift of God and come solely through the blessing of God” (Ps. 127:3), a point overlooked by pagans who view children as the result of mere nature and accident. One day, Luther chatted with his seven-year-old son about his doll, and commented on the simplicity and natural playfulness of children, which Luther said makes them “the dearest jesters.” The Luther home was full of music, for Luther loved to sing in harmony with his family and guests.
Life was not without sorrow, however. On September 20, 1542, Luther’s daughter Magdalene died at age thirteen after a short illness. While the girl was dying, Luther tried to comfort his sobbing wife by saying, “Think where she’s going. She’ll get along all right.”
As Magdalene declined further, he prayed, “I love her very much. But if it is thy will to take her, dear God, I shall be glad to know that she is with thee.” He asked the young lady lying in her bed, “Dear Magdalene, my little daughter, you would be glad to stay here with me, your father. Are you also glad to go to your Father in heaven?” She said, “Yes, dear Father, as God wills.” Luther exclaimed, “You dear little girl!” and marveled that God had given him such great gifts. He got down on his knees and held his daughter, weeping and still praying for God to spare her, but then said, “Thy will be done.”
Magdalene died in his arms. Melanchthon stood by and marveled, “If the love of God for the human race is as great as the love of parents for their children, then it is truly great and ardent.” As they laid Magdalene in a coffin, Luther remarked, “It’s strange to know that she is surely at peace and that she is well off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much!” When they buried her, Luther said, “There is a resurrection of the flesh.”
Luther understood that marriage and child-rearing take place in a world deeply marred by sin and death. He said “bearing one’s cross” was one of the primary purposes of marriage. Yet, the believer does not shirk responsibilities such as changing diapers and nursing sick children, and he does not complain at the “bitterness and drudgery.” He sees parenting as pleasing to God, a divine service for which sinners are “not worthy.” When Christians parent their children by faith in Christ, “God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling.” Thus, Christian family life is part of our “cross-marked vocation,” as Gustaf Wingren wrote, where we experience our union with Christ in His crucifixion and resurrection in our ordinary callings. Luther believed that the stresses of family life offer one of the best environments in which to cultivate Christian discipleship.
This excerpt is taken from Joel Beeke’s contribution in The Legacy of Luther.
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