The debate over counsels of perfection was a crucial aspect of the formation of political and ethical thought in the sixteenth century. It led both Protestants and Catholics to consider the status of law and to consider how far it obliged human beings, rather than simply permitting particular actions. From Luther onwards, Protestants came to see God's standards for human beings in absolute terms, rejecting any suggestion that there were good works which were merely counselled rather than commanded, and therefore not obligatory. This view of ethics underpinned the Protestant theological critique of Catholic doctrines of merit but it also shaped the distinctively Protestant account of natural law. It enabled Luther and his allies to defend magisterial control over the church, and it also formed a crucial element of Protestant resistance theory. By examining the Lutheran position on counsels, expressed in theological and political writings, and comparing it with contemporary Catholic accounts, this article offers a new perspective on Reformation theology and political thought.