Martin Luther: What does it mean to have a god?

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People talking today about the 10 commandments often loosely quote* the reformer Martin Luther saying, breaking any of the commandments is always a result of breaking the first – i.e. in other words, idolatry – or trusting in and worshiping someone or something other than the personal God who gave Israel the 10 commandments.

Background to the 10 Commandments

The first time the 10 commandments appear in the Bible is when God gave them to Moses. Israel had just dramatically escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The introduction to the first commandment mentions this, even though it is often left out.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – Exodus 20:2

The 10 commandments are not a list of morals foisted on children or society so they can become blessed by God in some way. God gave them to Israel AFTER he rescued them. The laws govern the relationship and identity of Israel AFTER their escape from slavery. You could say, first God rescues/saves someone, THEN he calls them to follow him as a student (the bible word used is “disciple’).

If you say breaking the 10 commandments is the reason someone is immoral or going to hell, or that keeping them gets you into heaven, you are getting things back to front in more ways than one.

Luther’s Comments on the First Commandment

Luther mentions a few things to unpack his idea that breaking any of the commandments is a result of breaking the first.

“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress … upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

In other words, Israel fled from the suffering of national slavery and exile because they wanted to freely enjoy and celebrate being identified with the God of their ancestors.

Luther goes on to explain how this idea of “god” works where we look for enjoyment, freedom and identity.

“… one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one.

… He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.

… whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor friendship, and honor has also a god, …

… the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.”

What does it mean to have a god?

According to Luther, it means the same thing for ancient Israel as it does now. What do you think gives you the freedom to enjoy and celebrate something?

Unless your “god” demands that you exclude everyone from your experience, you will probably influence others to share in the same experience. Maybe you do it via posting pictures of your version of happiness – family, beautiful scenery, favourite food, the ideal job.

Maybe you do it by telling everyone about your mad weekend at the club/resort/shopping centre/casino/stadium. Or if you’re a bit keen, maybe you do it by “sharing the good news” in some other way.

Luther said to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts. That defines how you understand things like safety, significance and success.

God is not known today by obeying 10 commandments. God is known in the historical person of Jesus. One of Jesus’ first followers connected that with the first commandment:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
~ 1 John 5:20-21


  • The origin of the loose quote is derived from Luther’s booklet, “A Treatise on Good Works” and his commentary on the Large Catechism. Both of these are available in public domain via the Project Wittenberg website.
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