“Our Dear Lord Still Changes Water into Wine”: Luther on the Estate of Marriage

The appointed Gospel reading for this past Sunday was John 2:1-11, on the wedding at Cana. It is remarkable that Christ chose to work his first miracle at the celebration of a wedding, thus honoring and dignifying marriage and the domestic estate.

The high calling of, and therefore the importance of the protection of, the sanctity of marriage and family life is today often associated in conservative Christendom with Roman Catholicism. That association is due in part to the valiant efforts of Roman Catholics to defend marriage in the contemporary legal and political spheres; it is due in part to an optical illusion stemming from the greater public visibility of conservative Roman Catholic institutions and intellectuals, which is not unrelated to the previous clause; and in any event historically it has not been so.

Instead, such an emphasis–even in the present-day United States, for example–is a legacy of the Reformation’s emphasis on the goodness of the three estates (civil society or polity, the household, and the church) in concert with the Protestant doctrine of vocation, the notion that God has sanctified and is pleased with all lawful callings, both of which were forwarded in explicit opposition to Roman Catholic views of vocation and sanctity: being a monk or nun is not holier before God than being a father or mother; being a pastor or priest is not holier before God than being a servant. By Christ’s presence and blessing, ordinary duties become holy, good, and Christian. We need not look elsewhere for work to do that is pleasing to God.

We have a wonderful and beautiful illustration of this notion in Luther’s House Postil sermon for this past Sunday. The excerpt is long, but I promise that it is worth your time.[1]

Martin Luther on the Wedding at Cana

We have here a pertinent object lesson for use against all false practices, fanatical spirits, and sects, not only against those existing before our time–now mostly dead and gone–but also against those arising in the future, whose so-called piety has been characterized by little more than opposition to marriage and other civil duties, and wandering off into wilderness solitude. All heretics have denigrated matrimony and have sought for and begun some newfangled and bizarre way of life.

However, it was particularly under the papacy that matrimony came to be looked at with contempt, and only virginity and chastity were extolled. If you want to live in a state of holiness and serve God, the word was, then forsake the world, enter a monastery, and become a monk.


Therefore, let us learn here how greatly our Lord God esteems the fourth commandment.[2] For where people are married, there a household is constituted with father and mother, wife and children, hired hands and maidservants, cattle and fields, all laboring for daily bread. The Lord wants to teach us that this is a holy and blessed life, that we should not disdain marriage but esteem it very highly as created and ordained by God, even as Christ did.

Accordingly, this Gospel is a good sermon for young people since they need to learn how they can serve our Lord God in the home; also, how unnecessary it is to undertake something special, in the manner of that unctuous and tonsured monkish rabble. For a father who rules his home in the fear of God, who rears his children and servants in the fear and knowledge of God, has a good, blessed, and godly life. Likewise, a woman who provides her children with food and drink, and washes and bathes them, need not aspire to a holier and more godly vocation. Household servants and maids, who do what the master and mistress require, are also serving God; and if they believe in Christ, they please God much more by simply tidying up the room or cleaning shoes than by all the praying, fasting, saying of Masses, and whatever else the monks regard as constituting divine service.

For this reason one ought in no way regard domestic life with contempt, nor denigrate it, like the monks, as being a worldly, unholy estate. For we see here that our Lord himself attends a marriage. Indeed, this applies not only to the wedding but to the whole business of maintaining a family. God wants family life esteemed, just as the fourth commandment, which stands first in the second table, points out.

If you are a father or a mother, continue in your position and know that God is very pleased when you do what your station requires of you. If you are a servant, male or female, know that God is pleased with your vocation. God indeed blessed and honored matrimony, accepted the invitation to the wedding, and honored the marriage by his presence and by performing the first miracle of his pastoral office….He does not disdain the wedding which is the beginning of domestic life; instead he honors, extols, and upholds the functions of the estate, so that everybody ought to say in agreement, Since God has ordained that through marriage and the household I be a servant, a child, a husband, a wife and mother, I shall gladly do it and serve God in my position with joy. For I realize that the High Priest, my Lord and God, Christ Jesus, not only identifies himself with and esteems this estate highly, but also supports and sustains it.


[By the miracle at Cana, Christ] wanted to teach us that he is very pleased when people faithfully assist and serve in maintaining the home. For even though deficiencies may abound, you must not be dismayed. Just make sure you have Christ at your side and that you live a godly life. He will turn water to wine, and so bless your estate that you will always have enough and things will work out for you, even though you may be in want for a while. At the proper time, help and comfort will be forthcoming.

This is what experience teaches. When husband and wife live together as Christians, our Lord God sustains them so richly that they receive more than they ever imagined or believed possible. And I fully believe that, if you were to heap the total amount of money he could earn in a year in front of him on a table, a laborer, who is otherwise very diligent and fears God, would still not believe it was sufficient to support him and his family. But here’s where God’s secret blessing is at work: today you spend twenty pennies and tomorrow another twenty pennies, and thus day for day you experience God’s blessing as you quietly manage your household. Our dear Lord, you see, today still changes water into wine, in my home and in yours (if we are but godly and pious and let him do the caring). Again, it is his doing which multiplies one piece of bread into ten, and causes one coat to wear as long as three otherwise. If we would but open our eyes, we would be forced to say, Lord, it is by your will that our household is provided for; when we establish it, we do so in service to you; you have honored it and continue still to honor it with your blessing. For this reason I shall not disdain it, but make it my calling to look after it.

Trans. Eugene F.A. Klug, Erwin W. Koehlinger, James Lanning, Everette W. Meier, Dorothy Schoknecht, and Allen Schuldheiss

Today, one is more likely to find skittishness about attaching the label “Christian” to non-“churchy” things among Baptists and some types of Protestants worried about preserving the uniqueness of the church over against all other institutions and kinds of activity. See, for example, this recent comment by Baptist pastor Jonathan Leeman. He notes further down that the adjective “Christian” can be used in different senses, but–sensibly–suggests that Twitter is not the best place to hash that out. (Of course, if that is true, blanket statements such as the one at the first link are perhaps best avoided.)

That worry raises a series of questions: Can we talk about a “Christian marriage”? A “Christian family”? And so on. Some say “no,” because things like marriage and family are parts of ordinary, earthly life. But to make that observation dispositive of whether something is “Christian” or not is actually to regress to pre-Reformation views of the estates and of vocation–it is, in other words, a weird refraction of cis-Tiber concerns in trans-Tiber ecclesiastical worlds.

The surer path for Protestants is the one sketched out by Luther above, and by his heirs after him. Christ’s first miracle proves it.


1 I quote from Georg Rörer’s edition of the House Postils.
2 “Honor your father and your mother.”


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