Martin Luther and the Joy of Children
March 28, 2016 Scott Corbin
Since I became a Christian, I have been fascinated by church history. Since “the past is a foreign country,” I have enjoyed studying how saints of old viewed the world in which they lived, knowing that Augustine’s Hippo or Calvin’s Geneva doesn’t exactly have a one-to-one correspondence to our modern American evangelical milieu. That being the case, it is always fascinating to see that many things, even several hundred years ago, can feel quite contemporary.
I felt that sense of contemporaneity whenever I came across Martin Luther’s 1519 tract, “A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage.” Luther had nailed his 95 theses only two years previous, but you can begin to see many of the major themes he would develop throughout his life in seedling form. In particular, one gets an acute taste of Luther’s wit and pastoral charm.
In this sermon, Luther first outlines how and why Adam and Eve were made, the unique capacities of the man and woman, and the different kinds of love. In the latter portion, Luther explains three “good and useful things” which “the doctors of the church have found”: first, that it—marriage—is a sacrament; second, that it is a covenant of fidelity; and third, that marriage is for the production of offspring.
While the entire sermon is worth reading, for the sake of this post I want to focus on his last point for a purely selfish reason: my wife and I are expecting our first child at the end of this month.
“There is Nothing More Valuable for God, for Christendom!”
Luther begins the final section of the sermon by noting that children “are the end and chief purpose of marriage.” In fact, married people “can do no better work and do nothing more valuable either for God, for Christendom, for all the world, for themselves, and for their children than to bring up their children well.” The gift of raising children is better than pilgrimages, building churches, or whatever assortment of good works one accumulates for oneself. “For bringing up children properly is [the parents’] shortest road to heaven. In fact, heaven itself could not be made nearer or achieved more easily than by doing this work.” Raising children is one of the highest callings of parents, and the joy that comes from this task is inexpressible.
Yet, in like manner, there is no easier way to find oneself condemned than by letting one’s children of the hooks to live as they please. “There is no greater tragedy in Christendom than spoiling children. If we want to help Christendom, we most certainly have to start with eh children, as happened in earlier times.” This last point is significant: for Luther, if one wants to change the world, they ought to start with evening devotions and bedtime stories. Since healthy societies need virtuous citizens, the family operates as a central institution for the cultivation of virtuous men and women who will pursue callings that contribute to the common good. Governments (“Christendom”) have a vested interest in the family for precisely this reason.
Caring for Their Souls
Luther then proceeds to argue for parents, especially fathers, to tend to the souls of their children—seeking to be diligent for their salvation.
“It is of the greatest importance for every married man to pay closer, more thorough, and continuous attention to the health of his child’s soul than to the body which he has begotten, and to regard his child as nothing else but an eternal treasure God has commanded him to protect, and so prevent the world, the flesh, and the devil from stealing the child away and bringing him to destruction.”
Parents can do no more loving thing than seek to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Loving parents seek to teach their children day and night about the faithfulness and loving-kindness of the covenant keeping God (Deut. 6:2). Parents love their children well by teaching them to love wisdom, hate wickedness, and find rest in the finished work of the Lord Jesus. Parents, and especially fathers, do this because they know that they will one day have to stand before the Lord and give an account for their labors in raising their children: a sobering reality, but a joyful calling.
The Gift of Marriage, the Blessing of Children
“O what a truly noble, important, and blessed condition the estate of marriage is if it is properly regarded! O what a truly pitiable, horrible, and dangerous condition it is if it is not properly regarded!”
The marital estate is a gift created by a loving Father who delights to give good gifts to his children. And if that generosity weren’t full and rich enough, he gives parents the high calling of raising children: little image bearers who are a heritage from God himself. In raising our children, we begin to understand the love the Father has for the Son in the Spirit. In raising children, we help lay the foundation for future societies and civilizations to flourish. Little children who will one day grow up to be oaks of righteousness breathe their first breaths in our home as little saplings. They are the chief end and purpose of the marital union—a gift to be stewarded by mothers and fathers.
“Finally, if you really want to atone for all your sins, if you want to obtain the fullest remission of them on earth as well as in heaven, if you want to see many generations of your children, then look but at this point [raising children] with all the seriousness you can muster and bring up your children properly. If you cannot do so, seek out other people who can and ask them to do it. Spare yourself neigh money nor expense, neither trouble nor effort, for your children are the churches, the altar, the testament, the vigils and masses for the dead for which you make provision in your will. It is they who will lighten you in your hour of death, and to your journey’s end.”