Without Luther, there would be no Bach: How the Reformation influenced faith and work today

October 31, 2018

Martin Luther never met Johann Sebastian Bach. The two Germans were born more than 200 years apart. But without Luther, there would be no Bach.

At 48 years old, when Bach received a copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible, he made extensive notes in its margins, allowing it to shape his theology of music. Near 1 Chronicles 25, a listing of David’s musicians, he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” By 2 Chronicles 5:11–14, which speaks of temple musicians worshiping God, he wrote, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Embodying a Lutheran theology of work, Bach viewed all of his music—whether sacred hymns or secular cantatas—as a calling from God. He believed his work had two purposes: “The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than (1) the glorification of God and (2) the refreshment of the spirit.” Thus, he signed all of his church music and most of his secular music with the letters “S.D.G.”—Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone.

Without Luther, Bach wouldn’t have understood the dignity of all work—both sacred and secular—nor the idea of work as a means to love one’s neighbor.

But how did Luther come to understand these things?

Those with a ‘calling’

Luther was born into a church culture that celebrated religious work above all else. In the late middle ages, only priests and other church workers had “callings” and “vocations.” They were part of the “spiritual estate.” Everyone else—from farmers to lawyers to kings—had necessary but worldly occupations.

The rise of monastic spirituality, which called religious workers out of the everyday world and into the desert or the monastery, only reinforced this perspective. The laity was second-class. Life was divided into the “sacred” and the “secular.” And the priesthood of all believers was marginalized. This problem was not lost on Luther.

Love grows by works of love

Luther wanted to connect faith and everyday life. All of us, he reasoned, are priests—no matter how ordinary our lives:

It is pure [fiction] that the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. . . . We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Apocalypse says: “Thou hast made us to be kings and priests by thy blood” (Rev. 5:9–10).

“Vocation,” then, included religious work as well as nonreligious—domestic duties, civic engagement, and ordinary employment. What made work “Christian” wasn’t the type of work being done but the faith of the one doing it. Luther writes in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but all works are measured before God by faith alone.

Such faith, he believed, was evidenced by our everyday work. “Love grows by works of love,” Luther posted to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg (Thesis 44). For him, work was one of the best ways to love one’s neighbor. As Tim Keller summarizes in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Word,

When we work, we are, as those in the Lutheran tradition often put it, the ‘fingers of God,’ the agents of his providential love for others. This understanding elevates the purpose of work from making a living to loving our neighbor.

Labor of various kinds

John Calvin and those in the Calvinist tradition, like Abraham Kuyper, further enriched our understanding of work. Not only is it as a means to love one’s neighbor, it’s also a means to love and glorify God. In light of the narrative arc of Scripture as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, every Christian has a calling to create and bring forth the wonders of the created order. Keller explains in Every Good Endeavor:

Yes, we must love our neighbor, but Christianity gives us very specific teachings about human nature and what makes human beings flourish. We must ensure that our work is done in line with these understandings. Faithful work, then, is to operate out of a Christian ‘worldview.’

In other words, our faith informs how we approach our work itself—not merely how we approach our neighbor. It is an arena in which we can love and glorify God himself, offering our work by faith to him (Col. 3:23). Practicing law, for example, isn’t merely a way to love one’s neighbor; it is also a way to advance biblical justice in our communities. Put another way, God doesn’t just care about lawyers; he also cares about the law (Prov. 8:15; 11:1).

Tools in a toolkit

Although some pit Luther and Calvin against each other in their views on faith and work, the two reformers are closer than we might imagine. Both championed the dignity of all work and denied distinctions between the “sacred” and the “secular.” They both clung to the priesthood of all believers, celebrating the ordinary work done by all people. Where Luther focused on work as a means of neighbor love, though, Calvin focused on work as a means of loving and glorifying God. As Greg Forster helpfully explained to me:

Luther strongly resisted any direct connection between our work and God, fearing that would be works righteousness. God put a calling on our works, Luther reasoned, because he wants us to serve our neighbors, not because he wants us to serve him. As Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” And he meant it. But Calvin insisted our daily work must love and serve and glorify God himself, directly, in addition to loving our neighbors.

Although this is a sharp point of contrast between the two, the ideas aren’t opposed to one another. We might think of them as tools in a toolkit—useful in different contexts.

In places where work is more static—where people stay in their jobs for many years or do the same activity day after day (often so-called “blue collar” work)—the Lutheran idea of work as a means of neighbor love can be life-sustaining. Indeed, it encourages all of us to be faithful in our everyday jobs—even when we can’t see everything God is accomplishing through our labor.

People in different vocational seasons, too, may find endurance in Luther’s idea of work as neighbor love. For example, when I was turning 40 and asking existential questions about whether my work mattered, Luther’s theology sustained me. Even on the days I felt most disconnected from any larger effect of my work, I knew I was loving my neighbors—my readers, my students, my colleagues—through my everyday work.

But in places where work is more dynamic—where people change jobs and pursue various expressions of calling (often so-called “white collar” work)—Calvin’s emphasis on work as a means of loving and glorifying God is life-giving. It can help those who wonder how their faith affects their work in, say, acting or advertising. Calling Christians in such workplaces to search the Scriptures for applicable principles is a necessary part of discipleship and sanctification.

Offered by faith

Of course, Luther, Calvin and the other reformers touched on many other aspects of faith and work, which we continue to discuss and debate today. Yet the life and work of Bach can teach us what the Reformation so beautifully captured—that our jobs can both love neighbor and glorify God. Through them we can embody the great commandments (Matt. 22:36–40). May we, therefore, offer our work to God by faith.  

Bethany Jenkins

Bethany L. Jenkins is the Director of The Gospel Coalition’s Every Square Inch, the Director of Vocational & Career Development at The King’s College, and the Founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24