I continue to remain simply baffled by persons who can read Luther on the 10 Commandments in the Catechisms and not see that, regardless of what he may say elsewhere, he here uses the law pedagogically, i.e., to indicate the kinds of actions that we should and should not do. His critique of monasticism and such activities as pilgrimages turns on his insistence that God has told us what actions are pleasing to him. Take this passage from the Large Catechism on the 4th Commandment (honor your father and mother; 10 Commandments, paras. 116-120; Kolb/Wengert, pp. 402-3):
If God’s Word and will are placed first and are observed, nothing ought to be considered more important than the will and word of our parents, provided that these, too, are subordinated to God and are not set in opposition to the preceding commandments.
For this reason you should rejoice from the bottom of your heart and give thanks to God that he has chosen and made you worthy to perform works so precious and pleasing to him. You should regard it as great and precious – even though it may be looked at as the most trivial and contemptible thing – not because of our worthiness but because it has its place and setting within that jewel and holy shrine, the Word and commandment of God. Oh, what a price would all the Carthusians, both monks and nuns, pay if in all their spiritual exercises they could present to God a single work done in accordance with his commandment and could say with a joyful heart in his presence: Now I know that this work is well-pleasing to you.? What will become of these poor wretched people when, standing in the presence of God and the whole world, they will blush with shame before a little child who has lived according to this commandment and will confess that with their entire lives they are not worthy to offer that child a drink of water? That they must torture themselves in vain with their self-devised works serves them right for their devilish perversity in trampling God?s commandment under foot – for this they have only scorn and trouble for their reward.
Should not the heart leap and overflow with joy when it can go to work and do what is commanded of it, saying, “See, this is better than the holiness of all the Carthusians, even if they fast to death and never stop praying on their knees?” For here you have a sure text and a divine testimony that God has enjoined this but has not commanded a single word concerning those other works.
Luther’s interpretation of the commandment may or may not be correct, but he clearly thinks that it tells us the kind of actions we should do.
Note added: March 2: An excellent discussion of the issues involved here can be found in Martin Chemnitz’s Loci Theologici, Locus 14, Good Works, pp. 603-608 in Preus’ translation. where he asks: “Must the Law be presented to the regenerate in such a way that it is the norm and rule for the good works in which God wills that we carry out our obedience to Him?” Chemnitz answers: “The Law must be set before the regenerate in order that it may teach certain works in which God wills that we carry out obedience to him. . . . For what is simpler, what is plainer, what is more useful than this doctrine that the Law or the teaching of the Decalog must be set forth in the church of the regenerate, in order that there may be a definite norm to show what the works are in which God wills that the regenerate demonstrate their obedience.” (p. 603)