Luther in english part 5 -Combating Legalism and Lawlessness Law and Gospel in Luther’s Writings of the 1520s – by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Luther in english
-Combating Legalism and Lawlessness
Law and Gospel in Luther’s Writings of the 1520s –
by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Law and Gospel in Luther’s Later Years and His Dispute with the Antinomians (1530–1540)
AFTER THE FAILURE TO OBTAIN LEGAL RECOGNITION OF THE AUGSBURG Confession in 1530, the Lutheran territories were put on guard against the threat of an offensive war from Charles V to remake Catholic Christendom. The Protestants began banding together in 1531 to form a defensive military alliance known as the Schmalkaldic League led by Electoral Saxony and Hesse. Yet, in light of new attacks from the East by Turks, Charles again, for the sake of garnering support from the imperial lands, held off on his conquest of the Protestants in the Nuremberg Standstill of 1532. For more than a decade after this, Lutheran reform continued to expand and consolidate, incorporating newer territories and imperial cities into the League. During the relative calm of this decade, Luther continued to lecture, preach, debate, and write, working both to stoke and to confine the fires of reformation.
One of the most important works for understanding Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel in the 1530s is his revised lectures on Galatians, delivered from July to November of 1531 and published as a commentary from the transcript notes of George Rörer in 1535. Although not entirely rejecting his earlier lectures published in 1519, Luther looks back upon them as merely the first dawn of his evangelical breakthrough on the Gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone now requiring greater clarity for a new generation. In the new Galatians lectures, Luther describes justification and grace with an even sharper emphasis on the imputation of righteousness in Christ through faith alone. At the same time, Luther revises his earlier emphasis against the righteousness of works in late medieval theology with even greater stress now on the necessity of repentance and obligation to the Law in the light of the antinomian tendencies discovered in the recent parish visitations.
Luther describes the book of Galatians as “his Katie,” a term of endearment and an obvious reference to his wife Katherine von Bora whom he married in 1525 as a vivid testimony to his own preaching of freedom from ecclesiastical laws and vows of celibacy in favor of the sanctity of married life. The commentary, much like his first lectures, speaks so profoundly of Christian freedom from the Law, but Luther also speaks positively of the Law and its importance in the life of the Christian. At the very outset of the lectures Luther states profoundly that, “Therefore the highest art and wisdom of Christians is not to know the Law, to ignore works and all active righteousness, just as outside the people of God the highest wisdom is to know and study the Law, works, and active righteousness.” However, Luther goes on to explain that such disparagement of the Law has to do with living “before God” (coram Deo) as if divine acceptance was attainable by works, which is contrary to the Gospel promise that justification is available through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Luther goes on to state: “works and the performance of the Law must be demanded in this world as though there were no promise or grace. This is because of the stubborn, proud, and hard hearted, before whose eyes nothing must be set except the Law, in order that they may be terrified and humbled. For the Law was given to terrify and kill the stubborn and to exercise the old man.” This statement clearly excludes the position of the antinomians. It occurs years before his open dispute with Agricola in 1537, yet it obviously bears the imprint of his involvement in the parish visitation controversies of 1527–1528. For Luther, the issue at hand is a confusion of “two kinds of righteousness” (duas iustitias), the “active” (activam) righteousness of works with relation to others and the “passive” (passivam) righteousness of grace before God through Christ. As stated by Luther much earlier in his biblical lectures on Romans and Galatians and all throughout the 1520s, the Law in its Mosaic ministry needs to be preached for the sake of the wicked and the not justified. In the life of the Christian, the Law and works have a role to play with regard to the flesh. Thus, “as long as we live here, both remain,” that is, both Law and Gospel: “that in a Christian the Law must not exceed its limits but should have its dominion only over the flesh, which is subjected to it and remains under it … But if it wants to ascend into the conscience and exert its rule there, see to it that you are a good dialectician and that you make the correct distinction.”
The proper place of the Gospel is in the conscience before God to assure it of the promises of His complete grace and favor apart from all works, whereas the proper place of the Law is then to rule over the flesh in obedience to God. The distinction must be maintained, for whereas failure to uphold the latter will lead to a license to sin, failure to uphold the former will lead to despair and bondage under the Law in sin: “Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian. I myself do not know how to do this as I should.” The distinction between Law and Gospel is compared to that of heaven and earth, light and darkness, or day and night, and yet it would be better “If we could only put an even greater distance between them.” Luther describes the proper distinction of Law and Gospel as the “summary of all Christian doctrine … There is a time to hear the Law and a time to despise the Law. There is a time to hear the Gospel and a time to know nothing about the Gospel … in a matter apart from conscience, when outward duties must be performed, then, whether you are a preacher, a magistrate, a husband, a teacher, a pupil, etc. this is no time to listen to the Gospel. You must listen to the Law and follow your vocation. Thus the Law remains in the valley with the ass, and the Gospel remains with Isaac on the mountain.” This echoes the point Luther had made years before in his A Freedom of A Christian (1520), wherein he stated that the Christian is paradoxically both a totally freeman before God and yet a slave with regard to his calling and obligation to mortify the flesh in service to others.
Luther reaffirms this proper balancing of Law and Gospel in a series of sermons on the Gospel of John preached on Saturdays from 1530–32 in the absence of Bugenhagen. Whereas Luther early on in his career stressed the preaching of the Gospel to counteract a theology of works-righteousness, in these sermons He urges the preaching of the Law to counteract presumption and moral complacency. To keep from creating lazy Christians through the preaching of the Gospel, the Law is urged upon the alten Adam: “Refrain from sin! Be pious! Desist from this, and do that!” Yet, at the instant the conscience begins to feel burdened by the accusations of the Law as if the righteousness of justification was by obedience in works, the Law must yield to the promise of the Gospel. In a conversation recorded by Veit Dietrich in 1533, Luther states that such a proper distinction of the Gospel in relationship to the Law is a mighty rebuke against the torments of the Devil who troubles consciences by confusing the Gospel with Law and righteousness with works.
Righteousness before God belongs to Christians through passive trust in the promise of the Gospel, but moral action is the obligation of Christians in their duty to the Law and to the battle against the flesh: “as long as the body is alive, the flesh must be disciplined by laws and vexed by the requirements and punishments of laws, as I have often admonished. But the inner man, who owes nothing to the Law but is free of it, is a living, righteous, and holy person …” The Christian with regard to faith is entirely free from the demands and torments of the Law and is fully righteous before God but the “flesh” remains at enmity with the work of the Spirit and must still be controlled by the Law.
In a very key passage in the new Galatians lectures, Luther gives his first formal definition of a “double use of the law” (duplicem esse legis usum). The first use of the Law is its “civic” (civilis) use, which God uses to restrain the wicked and not justified by coercing them into outward obedience by the means of the civil sword and temporal threats and punishments: “This is why God has ordained magistrates, parents, teachers, laws, shackles, and all civic ordinances, so that, if they cannot do anymore they will at least bind the hands of the devil and keep him from raging at will.” God uses the Law in this way to maintain public peace and social order so that the wicked do not utterly destroy one another and so that the Gospel can be free to do its work unhindered “by the tumults and seditions of wild men.”13
The most important and primary use of the Law for Luther, however, is its “theological or spiritual one” (Theologicus seu Spiritualis). This use of the Law reveals to unconverted consciences “sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God.” Instead of the Law having the ability to make people good or acceptable to God, this use breaks down all presumption and self-righteousness and shows people how bad they really are at the core of their being. When confronted with the impossible demands of the Law and the threat of eternal judgment for disobedience, the first reaction is to hate the Law and to hate God, wishing that neither existed. In this way the Law actually increases sins, but with the purpose that God will use such knowledge to convert sinners in their desperation to desire and believe the mercy promised in the Gospel. This use of the Law is the most important for Luther because it is a prelude to justifying faith and the gift of eternal life: “Therefore the Law is a minister and a preparation for grace.” These statements again reaffirm Luther’s agreement with Melancthon (and vice versa) against Agricola in the Instructions for the Visitors (1528).
To drive the sinner to Christ for justification is the primary function of the Law for Luther, “so when the Law is being used correctly, it does nothing but reveal sin, work wrath, accuse, terrify, and reduce the minds of men to the point of despair. And that is as far as the Law goes.” Influential scholars such as Ragnar Bring argue that statements like this indicate that Luther never conceived, either explicitly or implicitly, of a “third use of the Law” for the Christian life. Rather, the Law continues to function in the life of the Christian in terms of the first and second uses, which are not a “third use.” One problem with this interpretation is that the second, or theological, use of the Law always drives the sinner to faith in Christ in the mind of Luther, but Luther also believed that the commandments of the New Testament, which are kindlier interpretations and explanations of the Law, are taught to Christians in the very light of the Gospel promise in order to exhort them who believe to obedience on account of the flesh. Furthermore, it is important to observe that, for Luther, the formal definition of the “second use of the Law” is to terrify, accuse, and condemn the consciences of the not justified of the eternal wrath of God. It is the Mosaic preaching of the Law with threats and warnings that is nullified through faith in Christ,16 but that does not mean that the Christian has no need to use the Law against the flesh in obedience to God.
According to Luther, however, the Christian does live in a paradox of times, the “time of Law” and the “time of grace.” The time of the Law did end in a sense when Christ fulfilled the Law and abolished the Old Covenant, yet it ends “personally and spiritually every day in any Christian, in whom are found the time of Law and the time of grace in constant alternation.” The Christian sins, though “not coarse sins like murder, adultery or theft,” but “feelings of impatience, grumbling, hatred, and blasphemy against God.” Therefore, the Christian remains under the “time of the Law” as it “disciplines, vexes, and saddens me, when it brings me to a knowledge of sin and increases this” [that is, it increases the knowledge of sin]. Ironically, the oscillation between the knowledge of sin and trust in the Gospel is vital to abiding in Christ so that repentance and faith continue and increase throughout the Christian life, being properly synthesized against the extremes of despair and presumption. Luther recognizes that the Law will never cease in bringing to mind the knowledge of sin throughout the Christian life and even the condemnation that it deserves, but reassurance of the favor of God promised in the Gospel also never ceases.
When Luther speaks of the continuing role of the Law in revealing sins, however, he is not simply equating this with the formal “theological” or “spiritual use,” which troubles and terrorizes the consciences of those “who are to be justified” (iustificandi). Even Ebeling recognizes the fact that many scholars have overlooked the different mode of the usus theologicus in the pii compared with the impii, although he is not willing on this account to associate this with a “third use.” Luther states, however, that those “who are to be justified” are: “disciplined by the theological use of the Law for a time; for it does not last forever, as the civic use does, but it looks forward to the coming of faith, and when Christ comes, it is finished. From this it is abundantly clear that all the passages in which Paul treats the spiritual use of the Law must be understood about those who are to be justified, not about those who have already been justified.” Althaus also recognizes that the ongoing theological use of the Law in revealing sins and evoking contrition in the life of the Christian for the renewal of repentance and the battle with sin is to be clearly distinguished from the theological use of the Law to terrorize the consciences of the not yet justified who stand condemned under the Law.20
Much like his earlier Galatians lectures, Luther interprets Paul’s description of the Law as a “schoolmaster” in Galatians 3:24–25 as referring to the complete freedom of the Christian from the Law with regard to faith in Christ through the Spirit. Just as the office of the hired tutor was never meant to be permanent, so in a similar manner the office of the Law to rule by compulsion and terrors is finished with the coming of faith in Christ, in whom there is freedom from the slavery, harassment, and tyranny of the Law. However, Luther is quick to acknowledge that the justified do not “take hold of” Christ perfectly and, later on, that “the flesh, the world, and the devil do not permit faith to be perfect.” Thus, as long as Christians remain sinners and their faith imperfect, the Law will return to harass and trouble them again and again, yet they must also grasp the Gospel in faith with the assurance “that according to our conscience we are completely free of the Law. Therefore, this custodian must not rule in our conscience, that is, must not menace it with his terrors, threats, and captivity.” A healthy understanding of the role of the Law in the Christian life is to allow it to have “dominion over the flesh and the old self; let this be under the Law; let this permit the burden to be laid upon it; let this permit itself to be disciplined and vexed by the Law; let the Law prescribe to this what it should do and accomplish, and how it should deal with other men. But let the Law not pollute the chamber in which Christ alone should take His rest and sleep.” Elsewhere, he says that “the Law of the Decalog has no right to accuse and terrify the conscience in which Christ reigns through grace, for Christ has made this right obsolete.”22 As a help to Christians to convince them of this truth, Luther explains in his Commentary on Psalm 45, originally part of a larger series of lectures on the Psalms delivered in the early 1530s, that the Mosaic ministry of the Law has even been removed symbolically in the historical event of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD: “Not only has the divine worship ceased, but the temple and Jerusalem have been destroyed, and the Jews have been dispersed throughout the entire world—and justly.”
The Christian life is for Luther really a growth in the apprehension of Christ and the promise of His grace. For Luther, Christian maturity is always defined in terms of growth in faith. Whereas the Law will never cease in this life to convict Christians of their being still sinners, Christ in the Gospel continually comforts and reassures them of His grace: “Thus the conscience takes hold of Christ more perfectly day by day; and day by day the law of flesh and sin, the fear of death, and whatever other evils the law bring with it are diminishing. For as long as we live in a flesh that is not free of sin, so long the Law keeps coming back and performing its function, more in one person and less in another, not to harm but to save. This discipline of the Law is the daily mortification of the flesh, the reason, and our powers, and the renewal of our mind.”
Bring rightly argues that Luther describes Christian conversion as a daily and ongoing experience rather than a single past event or moment of existential crisis. He argues that misinterpretations of Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel result precisely from the influence of Pietism on modern Protestant evangelicalism in its emphasis on an identifiable conversion experience (die Bekeherten) of being “born-again” (widergeborenen). In Luther, however, Bring says the emphasis in regeneration and conversion is a daily process continuing throughout the entire life of the Christian. Therefore, the Law continues its old ways because the Christian life is a daily cycle from repentance under the Law to a renewal of faith in the Gospel.
Bring is certainly right to an extent to interpret Luther in this way, but it is important to keep in mind that perseverance through this process describes the experience of the justified. Even weak faith is justifying from the moment of its first inception. Such a young or immature Christian with weaker faith may indeed suffer much more under the vexations of the Law, but the Law has just as much right to condemn him or her as it does a person of much stronger faith. Luther describes the one who has the beginnings of faith and the first fruits of the Spirit in terms of a lump of dough not yet fully leavened. The leaven represents the miniscule, even imperceptible, redeeming presence of Christ in faith, whereas the lump that hides the leaven is characterized by feelings of “greed, sexual desire, anger, pride, the terror of death, sadness, fear, hate, grumbling, and impatience with God.” It is impossible for these attributes to be completely eradicated in the Christian life this side of the resurrection, yet they do not result in condemnation even for those who would “fulfill” them in weakness because they do not give full consent to them with indifference. It is with regard to sinful promptings, frequent stumblings, and so that faith might not become presumption through the flesh that: “there is still need for a custodian to discipline and torment the flesh, that powerful jackass, so that by this discipline sins may be diminished and the way prepared for Christ … so He comes to us spiritually without interruption and continually smothers and kills these things in us.” This amounts to an ongoing, even increasing, experience of repentance in the life of the Christian, which results in the increase of faith and the daily mortification of sin. As this relates to the action of the Law in the life of the justified Christian, this appears to be something developed more explicitly by Luther in his theology of the 1530s and probably resulted from his involvement in the recent parish visitation controversies over the doctrine of repentance.
Yet when it comes to the matter of being justified before God, the Law cannot be downgraded enough: “we cannot speak of it in sufficiently vile and odious terms either. For here the conscience should consider and know nothing except Christ alone.” When it concerns moral action, however, the Law should be spoken of with the highest regard: “Apart from our conscience we should make a god of it, but in our conscience it is truly a devil …” As Luther made clear in his earlier The Freedom of A Christian (1520), a Christian relates to God entirely on the basis of faith in Christ alone while relating to others through obedience to the Law and good works. All truly good works are directed, not to God to merit His favor in justification, but to others for “the peace of the world, gratitude toward God, and a good example by which others are invited to believe the Gospel.” For Luther, faith toward God, who has no need of works, and moral action on behalf of others, who have no need of faith, is the very sum of the Christian life.29
Near the middle of 1535 and on into the decade of the 1540s Luther lectured on the book of Genesis. The lectures were interrupted once in July 1535 by an outbreak of the plague in Wittenberg and were resumed at the beginning of 1536. By 1538–1539, Luther had only reached chapter twenty. As was the case with many other published sermons and lectures of Luther, these are not from his pen nor are they even an unedited transcript of his actual lectures. An anachronistic reference to the death of Robert Barnes (d. 1540), the uniform accuracy of classical quotations, and even a positive reference to astrology, reinforces the opinion of some scholars that the theology presented in these lectures may have been adulterated to conform to the concerns of the second generation of Lutheran reformers. Yet, Jaroslav Pelikan argues that the lectures, while clearly edited by Veit Dietrich, are still basically Luther’s voice and must be compared with even more reliable works of the later 1530s and not just with his earlier writings.
In these lectures, Luther distinguishes between the giving of the Law before the Fall, after the Fall, and in the context of the New Covenant of faith and grace. To Adam, despite his innocence and righteousness, God gave a Law, “that he might have an outward form of worship by which to show his obedience and gratitude toward God.” In a similar sense, even the “guiltless” angels are given commandments and instructions to follow in service to the will of God.
Luther makes a similar point in a contemporaneous sermon series preached on the Gospel of John 14–16 in the spring of 1537. Caspar Cruciger (1504–1548), an in-law to Luther through the marriage of their children, recorded the sermons and edited them as a commentary in 1538–1539. Luther prized them above all his other works. According to the sermons, Luther observes that Christ in the Gospel of John gives commandments to His disciples in the context of fellowship with Him. In this regard, the commandments are quite similar to the commandments given to Adam in the Garden in that they are not given so that the favor of God, already possessed, might be merited, but with regard to showing gratitude through obedience. Christ teaches the disciples as one would speak lovingly to a friend and commands them to love one another as He has loved them. The instruction is not harsh as if burdening the conscience with works and threats of God’s wrath without providing any help to obey. The commandment is given precisely in the light of the promise of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. To lack the desire to obey this commandment shows that such a person has not yet accepted the gift of fellowship with God by faith in Christ.33 This comparison of the Mosaic ministry of the Law with the moral entreaties of Christ given in the context of fellowship with God by His grace is entirely consistent with what Luther has already expressed earlier in the 1520s.
During the years that Luther lectured on the book of Genesis, he also became more outspoken against the antinomianism of Agricola. In the Table Talk, from personal notes recorded by Anthony Lauterbach and Jerome Weller, Wittenberg students and frequent visitors in the Luther home, Luther criticizes Agricola for pitting the violatio legis against the violatio filii, as if the latter was the only true violation. Furthermore, the sufferings of Christ on the cross do inspire contrition or repentance, but in so doing they are acting as Law in the proper sense rather than the Gospel.
Recent scholarship argues that significant divergences between Agricola and Luther over the nature of Law and Gospel appear much earlier than the later 1530s. Kjeldgaard-Pederson argues that differences can be traced as far back as 1524 in Agricola’s earliest printed works. Wengert observes that Agricola’s works of 1525–1527 lack any acknowledgment of a function of the Law before faith and justification. For Agricola, the preaching of the Law can do nothing but create despair, which led him conclusively to a “de facto exclusion of the law before the gospel.”
Yet Luther did not enter into personal dispute with Agricola until late in the 1530s. Luther had apparently been ill during much of Melancthon’s debate with Agricola at Torgau in 1527 and was content with the compromise. As mentioned in the previous chapter, despite a public reconciliation, Melancthon wrote to Justus Jonas that he and Agricola continued debating over breakfast after the end of the formal debate.
Upon returning to Wittenberg from Eisleben in 1536, Agricola boarded with Luther in his home, even filling in for him as preacher and lecturer while Luther was away at a conference of Protestant allies in Schmalkalden in 1537. Luther had been asked by Elector John Frederick to propose theological articles to be considered by the members of the Schmalcaldic League identifying what concessions it could and could not make were it to send representatives to a council summoned by Pope Paul III in 1536. The articles, though not adopted officially by the League on account of their divisiveness, were published in 1538 with the addition of a preface and were adamant in affirming the importance of preaching the Law for repentance.40 Ironically, this was the very theological perspective that Agricola had long since come to reject. Other theologians in Wittenberg were not as welcoming of him, and it is possible that their opinions were instrumental in turning Luther against his former friend by the time he returned from Schmalkalden. At this time, a series of anonymous theses denouncing the preaching of the Law also began circulating in Wittenberg. Luther ascribed them to Agricola and published them along with his own refutations and a challenge to public disputation. In September of 1537 Luther preached sermons against Agricola, and the first disputation took place in December, though in Agricola’s absence. In a telling comment recorded by Lauterbach and Weller, Luther states: “I’ve had him at my table, he has laughed with me, and yet he opposes me behind my back … But to reject the law, without which neither church nor civil authority nor home nor any individual can exist, is to kick the bottom of the barrel. It’s time to resist. I can’t and won’t stand for it!”42
A second disputation took place in January of 1538, and this time Agricola publicly agreed to keep private his own opinions on the matter. However, Luther became frustrated when the insincerity of Agricola’s compliance soon became apparent. In September of 1538, a third public disputation was held in the hope that Agricola would finally recant, though Agricola again failed to show up. In the context of this third disputation, Luther explains why he now so adamantly defends the preaching of the Law in light of the fact that the urgency of his earliest writings was weighted significantly towards the preaching of the Gospel:
True it is that at the early stage of this movement we began strenuously to teach the gospel and made use of these words which the Antinomians now quote. But the circumstances of that time were very different from those of the present day. Then the world was terrorized enough when the pope or the visage of a single priest shook the whole of Olympus, not to mention earth and hell, over all which that man of sin had usurped the power to himself. To the consciences of men so oppressed, terrified, miserable, anxious, and afflicted, there was no need to inculcate the law. The clamant need then was to present the other part of the teaching of Christ in which he commands us to preach the remission of sin in his name, so that those who were already sufficiently terrified might learn not to despair, but to take refuge in the grace and mercy offered in Christ. Now, however, when the times are very dissimilar from those under the pope, our Antinomians—those suave theologians—retain our words, our doctrine, the joyful tidings concerning Christ, and wish to preach this alone, not observing that men are other than they were under that hangman, the pope, and have become secure, forward, wicked violators—yea, Epicureans who neither fear God nor men. Such men they confirm and comfort by their doctrine. In those days we were terrorized so that we trembled even at the fall of a leaf … But now our softly singing Antinomians, paying no attention to the change of the times, make men secure who are of themselves already so secure that they fall away from grace … Our view hitherto has been and ought to be this salutary one—if you see the afflicted and contrite, preach grace as much as you can. But not to the secure, the slothful, the harlots, adulterers, and blasphemers.
In 1539, Luther published Against the Antinomians, which was basically a document of recantation prepared at Agricola’s request. At the beginning of the pamphlet, Luther rebukes the antinomians’ belief that the preaching of the Law should be excluded from the Church. That the temporal government has the power to exercise the civil use of the Law was not denied by Agricola, although it is not certain that the particular statement found in the anonymous theses indicating that the Decalogue belongs in courtrooms and not in churches was his own.46
Luther expresses surprise that the antinomians view him as their inspiration, since on more than one occasion he has exposited the use of the Law for the Church: “Furthermore, the commandments are sung in two versions as well as painted, printed, carved, and recited by the children morning, noon, and night.” Luther’s reference to singing the commandments probably refers to hymns he himself composed in 1524 praising the Ten Commandments, including “These are the Holy Ten Commands” and “Man, Wouldst Thou Live all Blissfully.”
Luther concedes to the antinomians that the sufferings of Christ are indeed a profound revelation of God’s wrath against sin and that he himself had described it this way. Yet Luther argues that the antinomians confuse the proper functions of Law and Gospel. For Luther, it was bad logic to reason that the sufferings of Christ make the preaching of the Law irrelevant. On the contrary, in Against the Antinomians, Luther argues that every part of Scripture is valuable in working repentance and not just the “sweet grace and suffering of Christ.” In fact, narrating the sufferings of Christ is simply one way of preaching the Law, albeit in its most powerful way: “For in the Son of God I behold the wrath of God in action, while the law of God shows it to me with words and with lesser deeds.” Nevertheless, for Luther, the preaching of the Law explains why Jesus had to die on the cross in the first place. For this reason, the Law should always be preached alongside the Gospel, and it is meaningless to do away with the word “Law” as the antinomians do, since the revelation of sin and God’s wrath in whatever form it takes performs the proper work of the Law.
Luther continued his tirade against the antinomians in his later lectures on Genesis and named them specifically: “Therefore we justly censure the antinomians, who assert that the threats of the Law have no place in the church.” Whereas the Gospel is the cure for a conscience troubled by sin and the fear of God, the “hammer of the Law” is there to crush the indolence of the smug, the hard-hearted, and the wicked. For Luther, to promise the Gospel to those who are smug and unrepentant is only to indulge and give license to their wickedness.50
The antinomians were known to have said that the sinner need not feel contrition or an impulse to turn from his or her sin before believing in God’s forgiveness. Luther criticizes the antinomians for failing to censure sins by the Law out of their fear that free grace be impugned.52 Luther states emphatically that “God is no antinomian” and that His Word offers the comforting promise of grace only to those whose consciences are burdened by guilt under the Law. Furthermore, to exclude the preaching of the Law excludes the fear of God from the Church along with all the works of God recorded by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament meant for all ages, such as His outpouring of wrath upon Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.
For Luther, the visible Church is “never altogether pure; the greater part is always wicked …” Thus, the ministry of the Law must certainly continue in the Church for the sake of false Christians. Nevertheless, even the “true saints themselves, who are righteous through faith in the Son of God, have the sinful flesh, which must be mortified by constant chastening.” It is true that Luther’s contention with Agricola appears to be over the preaching of the Law in the Church for the sake of the not justified.55 Indeed, this was the same issue that split Melancthon and Agricola ten years earlier. However, Luther also acknowledges that the harsher preaching of the Law is still useful even for Christians on account of the flesh and for the sake of repentance: “for sins should be denounced, and God’s wrath should be exhibited for the sake of the unbelievers who are in the church, yes, also for the sake of the believers, lest they yield to sin, which still adheres to them, and to their natural weakness.” As mentioned before, this description of the Mosaic ministry of the Law as a service to the Christian seems to be something developed more explicitly in Luther’s theology in the 1530s in the light of the visitation controversies. Whereas Luther had always acknowledged that the life of a Christian is one of ongoing repentance, now he makes more explicit how the preaching of the Law in terms more akin to the Mosaic pedagogy relates to the Christian life of repentance. Of course, as mentioned already, Luther assumes there to be a significant difference between the preaching of the Law in this way for the justified and the not justified. The former do not need the preaching of the Law that they might become justified by faith, but nevertheless they still have the flesh and old man that remains powerfully opposed to faith and the Spirit. Therefore the Christian, to keep from becoming presumptuous and lazy, also has need of the preaching of the Law for a life of ongoing repentance and restoration through the Gospel for the battle against sin and the flesh.
In a conversation recorded in the table talk notes of Lauterbach and Weller, Luther comments at length that:
anybody who abolishes the law in an ecclesiastical context ceases to have a knowledge of sin. The gospel doesn’t expose sin except through the law, which is spiritual and which defines sin in opposition to God’s will. Away with him who claims that transgressors don’t sin against the law but only dishonor the Son of God … they teach everything confusedly and say things like this, ‘Love is the fulfillment of the law, and therefore we have no need of law.’ But those wretched fellows neglect the minor premise: that this fulfillment (namely, love) is weak in our flesh, that we must struggle daily against the flesh with the help of the Spirit, and this belongs under the Law.
Not only is the preaching of the Law necessary for the not justified to restrain the wickedness of them who do not have the Spirit and to properly lead them to Christ for forgiveness, it also restores repentance and the battle against the flesh in the life of the justified Christian. Although Luther can praise the antinomians for preaching that the grace of Christ in the Gospel is given apart from works, he believes they do this at the expense of the necessity of censuring sin and upholding obedience and good works by their neglect to also preach the Law. In his work On Councils and the Church (1539), written preemptively to undermine the authority claimed by a future Catholic council (Trent), Luther argues that preaching the Gospel of forgiveness without also preaching the Law is to exclude the need for repentance that leads through faith to obedience. This is like “granting the premise and denying the conclusion.” In fact, he goes on to state that: “they may be fine Easter preachers … they are very poor Pentecost preachers … he [Christ] has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men … so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation from sin …” In Luther’s opinion, the exclusive preaching of Gospel by the antinomians essentially encouraged the unrepentant to presume upon the mercy of God. The great challenge of pastoral ministry is to appropriately temper the preaching of both Law and Gospel so as to maintain the proper balance between despair under the Law and presumption upon the Gospel.59
In the light of their differences over Law and Gospel, Luther succeeded in keeping Agricola from being elected as dean of the arts faculty at the University of Wittenberg and even proposed that he be placed under the ban. Agricola responded by appealing to the university rector and the Electoral Prince to secure a public hearing, which Luther himself countered in his Against the Eislebener (1540). Count Albert suggested that Agricola be arrested, whose falling out with the leaders of Saxony motivated him to sneak out of Wittenberg in 1540. He fled to Berlin and later became court preacher to Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg. Agricola eventually submitted a retraction and was allowed the right to reenter Electoral Saxony without the fear of arrest, though Luther retained doubts about his sincerity and the two were never reconciled.
Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel remained quite consistent throughout the twenty years spanning the height of his reforming career. In so far as the New Testament commands taught by Christ to His disciples agree with natural Law and the Law of the Decalogue, Luther always acknowledged an important role for the Law in living the Christian life. This went beyond merely describing the life lived spontaneously by faith in Christ through the power of the Spirit, for the Christian always lives in conflict with sin and the flesh and, on that account, must actually heed written moral prescriptions.
Although a role for the Law in the Christian life was not new to his theology in the 1530s, what is new, or at least now made more explicit, is his emphasis that the revealing of sin by the preaching of the Law with threats and warnings is necessary even for the justified Christian with regard to the life of repentance. As Luther himself claims, this emphasis was a direct response to the reactionary overemphasis on the exclusive preaching of the Gospel witnessed in the parish visitations in the late 1520s.
Another significant development in these later years was Luther’s formal definition of the two-fold “usus legis” as it relates to the life of the not justified, although this was certainly nothing new to his theology. Luther had always acknowledged that the preaching of the Law in the Church is essential to establishing a functioning society and that it was only after being humbled by the Law that a person can receive the Gospel with true faith.
What place, then, did Luther have in his theology for a so-called “positive” or “third use of the Law”? Although Luther never names such a “third use,” his belief that the preaching of the Law in the life of the Christian sustains and renews repentance and faith and that the New Testament commandments, exhorting Christians on account of the flesh to obedience on the basis of the love of God in the Gospel, agree with the will of God in the Ten Commandments is commensurate with Melancthon’s more formal definition of the “third use of the Law.”
In a set of theses prepared for the doctoral examination of two Wittenberg graduates in 1535, Luther states that the Christian guided by the Spirit in faith and love can create “new decalogues” even as Jesus and the apostles did in applying the law of love to particular situations. While it is tempting to see in these words a rejection of a necessary external norm to guide the practical life of a Christian in good works, Luther immediately tempers this statement by insisting that the anointing of Jesus and the apostles was unique, and that, because “we are inconstant in spirit, it is necessary also on account of inconstant souls, to adhere to certain commands and writings of the apostles, lest the church be torn to pieces.” In wanting to avoid the errors of more radical reformers who claimed to be needfully controlled only by the inward rule of the Holy Spirit and faith, Luther emphasizes that the written application of the Law in the New Testament is necessary for guiding Christian behavior.
It is also significant to note that in 1537 Luther praised Melancthon’s teachings on the uses of the Law: “Would that we might pay heed to Master Philip! Philip teaches clearly and eloquently about the function of the law. I am inferior to him, although I have also treated this topic clearly in my Galatians.” Following this, the Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586), in his commentary published posthumously in 1591 on Melancthon’s Loci Communes, and in the section specifically devoted to the “third use of the Law,” has this to say: “Luther in a very learned way sought the foundations of this doctrine in the Epistle to the Galatians, and divided the use of the law into one aspect which was civil and one which was theological. Likewise in Galatians 5 there is one use of the Law in justification and another for those who have been justified. From this Luther constructed the threefold division of the uses of the Law.”
It is necessary to acknowledge that Chemnitz’s treatment of the uses of the Law is polemical, particularly as it relates to upholding the preaching of the Law against antinomians and with the purpose of demonstrating his alignment with Luther on the matter. Therefore, it is at least possible that Chemnitz’s interpretation was skewed by an apologetic and rhetorical agenda. Only a closer look at his actual interpretation of the “third use of the Law” will determine whether or not he captured the theological spirit of the first Martin.
As with Luther, Chemnitz opposes those who justify following their own subjective inclinations by appealing to their freedom through the Holy Spirit and faith. Rather, he states that the “apostles everywhere preach about the new obedience of the regenerate and clearly seek the description of this new obedience in the Decalog.” Thus, like Luther, Chemnitz equates the substance of the Decalogue with the commandments of the New Testament. Chemnitz then delineates three separate causes for the “third use of the Law” (Tertius usus) in the life of the Christian. First, he states that the Law of the Decalogue prescribes what good works please God. Secondly, the Law continues to reveal the imperfection of the Christian to counteract presumption and to preserve a sense of repenting dependence upon the mercy and grace of God. Though this has to do with the continuing function of the Law to revealing sin in the life of the Christian, Chemnitz, like Luther, also refrains from simply equating this with the formal “second use of the Law” (Secundus usus Legis), which he clearly associates with the justification of the unregenerate. Thirdly and lastly, the Law is important on account of the fact that the Christian is not yet fully spiritual, but is paradoxically both “old” and “new man.” It is precisely on account of the flesh and the fact that faith, though justifying, is not perfect that the Christian still benefits from compulsion: “For we experience that the new obedience is not so voluntary a thing as a good tree which brings forth its fruit without any command or exhortation.”65 These statements of Chemnitz are essentially the same as those found in the later Formula of Concord (1577) and agree with the theology of both Luther and Melancthon. With regard to Luther, however, the preaching of the Law in this regard is made more explicit in his thought in the 1530s.
Luther always praised the Ten Commandments rightly interpreted as the epitome of a truly Christian life. Yet such a Christian life lived independently from union with Christ by faith in the Gospel was inconceivable to Luther, Melancthon, and the Formula of Concord. The Law gives no power to do good works from the heart. Truly good works in complete fulfillment of the Law only and ever spring spontaneously through faith in Christ alone. Yet, on account of the imperfection of faith and the realistic limits of its rule in the life of Christians who are simul justus et peccator, the written and preached Law is needed both to summon and to guide the justified in obedience to God.
Whiting, M. S. (2010). Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35). (K. C. Hanson, C. M. Collier, & D. C. Spinks, Hrsg.) (S. 124–145). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.