"I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club." So observed Luther on March 11th, 1522, in a sermon to Wittenberg parishioners. Though his point was rather obvious, Luther felt compelled to make it because in his absence from Wittenberg during the preceding ten months, certain persons had grown impatient with the progress of reformation in the city and had resorted to means of legal compulsion and/or violence to bring about the changes in doctrine and worship they desired.
Luther had, in fact, made the same point in a sermon to the same audience the preceding day. Having insisted in no uncertain terms upon the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, from which faith love for God and others as well as pure worship necessarily springs, Luther emphasized in that earlier sermon that such faith itself properly springs from the proclamation of God's promises, not from the use of force: "I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith." Indeed, the use of force is ultimately, in Luther's estimation, unnecessary and unfruitful for the successful expansion of God's kingdom, because the divine word of promise -- first as it is encountered in Scripture and then as it is proclaimed by God's ordained ministers -- accomplishes that very task. "The Word created heaven and earth and all things; the Word must do this thing [i.e., achieve the conversion of men], and not we poor sinners." For our part "we should give free course to the Word and not add our works" -- that is, our means of coercion -- "to it." "We should," that is, "preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God's good pleasure."
Luther discovered a perfect example of the Word's ability to grow God's kingdom sans a baton or baseball bat in his own experience of the preceding years. "I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends..., the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything."
It's questionable whether Luther retained his position on the exclusive prerogative of the Word to accomplish the growth of Christ's kingdom in later years. Increasingly alarmed over time by the extreme efforts of Anabaptists to implement their own version of a spiritual/civil kingdom by force (which means, thankfully, they never possessed in sufficient measure), Luther grew ever more tolerant of the use of reciprocal force to keep the Anabaptists in line, civilly and (perhaps) religiously. One could, maybe, argue that his position remained consistent, and that the force against the Anabaptists he eventually endorsed was purely towards the end of political restraint rather than religious uniformity.
Regardless, the willingness Luther showed even in the 1520s to see civil offenders repressed by military/legal means reminds us that his doctrine of the Word's power was specifically a theological point about how Christ's kingdom is sustained and increased, not a generic endorsement of persuasion vis-à-vis coercion in every conceivable context. A strong hand is sometimes required to keep wayward citizens -- or, for that matter, wayward children -- in line. Only the Word, however, can produce genuine faith, hope, and love directed towards God within a man, woman, or child.
Luther found a biblical example of the Word's exclusive power to bring about renewal and reform in the Acts 17 account of Paul's missionary work in Athens. "When Paul came to Athens, a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord."
Luther might, had he wished, have found a further illustration of his point in church history, from a consideration of how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries. The first three centuries of Christians spread the gospel exclusively by means of proclamation. Indeed, they had little choice. Because their newfound religion was deemed illegal, they were consistently marginalized from positions of political, social, or military influence, and were at least occasionally made the victims of intense persecution. They witnessed to the reality that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself with their lips and, on occasion, with their lives. By the very nature of their situation, they were prevented from promoting Christ's kingdom by establishing "Christian" nations or by commandeering the legislative or judicial machinery of existing states. Significantly, it was the greatest period of growth the Christian church has ever experienced, even in the absence of the factor of Wittenberg beer.
The early expansion of Christianity stands in marked contrast to the early expansion of Islam in this regard. From early on, Mohammed and his followers employed whatever military means they could muster to further the spread of their religion. Within a decade of Mohammed's death, Muslims had spread from their base in the Arabian Peninsula to conquer Palestine. Within little more than a century of Mohammed's death, Islam had conquered Syria, Persia, Northern Africa, and much of the Iberian Peninsula. All of this, of course, was by force, even if forced "conversions" as such grew thinner (being less politically expedient) the farther Islam stretched from its geographical home base. Such military accomplishments were remarkable, but not unprecedented (think, for example, of Alexander the Great), and thus no sure sign of divine favor. The rapid expansion of Christianity without means of force (indeed, in the presence of much persecution), by way of contrast, is remarkable, and arguably points to a providential kindness towards the doctrine championed by the earliest Christians.
Christians have rather often been a bit slow to learn the lesson that Luther, Scripture, and church history jointly teach us in this regard. The temptation to trust in force -- whether personal, financial, or political in kind -- for the expansion of Christ's kingdom, even when force is not actually employed, is constant. It is the flip-side of the temptation not to believe that God's Word can actually, in God's perfect timing, bring sinners into his Kingdom, or bring that Kingdom to its eschatological realization. One gauge of where our confidence for the success of the gospel actually lies might be the optimism/pessimism we feel over the outcome of political elections or particular pieces of government legislation. There is, of course, every reason to participate in political processes to bring about the best conceivable civil state for ourselves and our neighbors, believing and unbelieving alike. There is, equally, every reason not to get too worked up over either our successes or failures in such efforts; we are, after all, heirs of a kingdom which will not be achieved by political process, but will flourish through the proclamation of God's promise and the power of that proclamation to generate true (that is, justified, sanctified, and eventually glorified) citizens of the same.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.