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500 Jahre Reformation- Luther und wie´s heutige Theologen sehen , part 1 (Englisch)

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Luther in English

The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35)


PICKWICK Publications • Eugene, Oregon

The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35)

Princeton Theological Monograph Series 142

Copyright © 2010 Michael S. Whiting. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Write: Permissions, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401.

Pickwick Publications
An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers
199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3
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ISBN 13: 978-1-60608-900-2

Cataloging-in-Publication data:

Whiting, Michael S.

Luther in English: the influence of his theology of law and gospel on early English evangelicals (1525–35) / Michael S. Whiting.

Princeton Theological Monograph Series 142

xviii + 360 p.; 23 cm. Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 13: 978-1-60608-900-2

1. Luther, Martin, 1483–1546—Theology. 2. England—Church history—16th century. 3. Reformation—Great Britain. 4. Tyndale, William, d. 1536. 5. Frith, John, 1503–1533. 6. Barnes, Robert, 1495–1540. 7. Wycliffe, John, d. 1384. 8. Lollards. I. Title. II. Series.

BR375 W50 2010

Princeton Theological Monograph Series
K. C. Hanson, Charles M. Collier, and D. Christopher Spinks
Series Editors

Dedicated to the memory of Professor Emeritus Nigel Yates, DD (1944–2009)

List of Abbreviations

INTRODUCTION: Luther and the English Evangelical Reformers in Retrospect

1 “Lex Sola Accusat”? Modern Appraisals of Law, Gospel, and the Tertius Usus Legis in the Theology of Luther

2 Law and Gospel in Luther’s “Breakthrough” Years and Early Lectures on the Bible (1515–1520)

3 Combating Legalism and Lawlessness: Law and Gospel in Luther’s Writings of the 1520s

4 Law and Gospel in Luther’s Later Years and His Dispute with the Antinomians (1530–1540)

5 After Lollardy and Humanism: Luther’s Writings in England and the Beginnings of “Evangelical” Reformation

6 Law and Gospel in the Theology of William Tyndale

7 Law and Gospel in the Theology of John Frith

8 Law and Gospel in the Theology of Dr. Robert Barnes

CONCLUSION: Reassessing the Influence of Luther’s Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals


THIS BOOK IS A REVISED VERSION OF MY DOCTORAL DISSERTATION, “Luther in English: Law and Gospel in the Theology of Early English Evangelicals (1525–1535),” written between 2004–2009 under the supervision of Dr. Eva De Visscher and the late Nigel Yates, Professor Emeritus of Ecclesiastical History, at the University of Wales, Lampeter.
While I do agree with recent scholars that the singular title of “Reformation” to describe the period of the sixteenth century tends to underemphasize the rich national diversity that characterized the historical reality, affirming the complex tapestry of theological emphases and political and social realities does not deny that there were various factors that knit that web together. Thus, the concern of this book is to trace theological influences through an international connectedness, in this case between Germany and England, that contributed to a certain solidarity meriting the title of the “Reformation.” Of course, there is also some ambiguity in establishing when the “Reformation” actually begins (and ends) that depends upon how “Reform” is being defined. Thus, as was the case in a course I taught on the Reformation at Wheaton College in the Spring semester of 2008, beginning a discussion of the Reformation well before the famous posting of the 95 theses in 1517 and extending it well into the seventeenth century has its merits. It acknowledges that “reform” did not begin with Luther but was in some form characteristic of the Church throughout the Middle Ages, and that the “new reforms” of the sixteenth century in all their diversity were still being worked out in Church, State, and European society well into the next century. However, this does not underestimate the critical importance of Luther.
It is my assumption that theological ideas as much as the forces of political, economic, and social-cultural dynamics shaped the story of the Reformation. On the other hand, I realize that theological ideas are themselves constructed within historical contexts. Therefore, this book incorporates a substantial amount of historical and biographical background, mainly for the purpose of establishing literary context as well as to identify the precise historical, cultural, and social conduits upon which writings and their influence were passed from one person (and nation) to another. Nevertheless, this is less of an historical narrative than a work of intellectual history and theological interpretation concerning the complex and much disputed issue of Law and Gospel in the Christian life.
Little did I realize when I first proposed my research topic in 2004 what a complex conversation and debate I was joining that has lasted for over a half a century. Early twentieth-century historians identified early English evangelical reformers of the 1520s and 30s as basically “Lutheran” in reforming outlook (of course, with the obvious exception that most rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist). Two works in the middle of the twentieth century, however, challenged this view with the conclusion that Luther had some influence but was surpassed (even contradicted) by the early English evangelicals in stressing the Law and good works in the Christian life. The most recent work by Carl Trueman, Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and the English Reformers (1995) has become widely accepted by the scholarly community and indeed offers an important revision of revisionist interpretations by at least stressing a greater implicit continuity with the theology of Luther. Nevertheless, the prevailing opinion, including that of Trueman, is that Luther had a very real, but quite measurably limited, influence on the developing theology of Early English evangelicals. Yet, an even more recent monograph on the theology of William Tyndale denies Luther even a limited role in favor of the influence of native English dissent in Lollardy. It is my conviction that Luther is still central to any discussion of the theology of early English evangelicals and that previous scholars have not devoted enough time and study to Luther himself. Therefore, these scholars have not proven beyond doubt the premise upon which their conclusions are based. Therefore, this is my attempt to build a more solid bridge between Luther studies and scholarship on the early English evangelicals.
Though not confessionally a Lutheran, I have for a long time been fascinated with the theology and personality of Luther, who I consider to be the most interesting figure to study in the entire history of Christianity other than Jesus Christ. Although many scholars now downplay any significant relationship between Luther’s “discovery” and the whole complex development of the Reformation, I am still amazed at the extent to which his anxious, some might even say narcissistic, quest for his own assurance of salvation did so dramatically impact religious thought and culture in Germany and beyond. Of course, it was Luther’s pastoral goal to provide all Christians with real assurance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but he was also very much aware of the dangers of an assurance that cheapens grace and muffles the call to repentance and to warfare against sin.

Michael S. Whiting, PhD
October 17, 2009

WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF MANY WONDERFUL PEOPLE IN MY LIFE NEITHER my PhD thesis nor this book would ever have seen the light of day. First of all, I want to thank my wife, Julia, for the incredible sacrifices she has endured since this journey began five years ago. Without her willingness to temporarily set aside her own calling so that I could pursue mine, none of this would have been possible. I am grateful to her for her faithful commitment and patience over the years even through times of rejection and uncertainty. Secondly, my parents have been incredibly generous and supportive over the years and I want to especially thank them for funding my numerous trips back and forth to England and Wales. I also want to thank my mom for all the time she has spent with her granddaughter so that I could escape away to the library or coffee shop for much needed study time. Jaylin, I want to thank you for providing Daddy with a playful escape from his obsession with Luther and the Reformation and the pressures and stresses of life as an academic. I am truly blessed by the bond we have developed over these last five years and I would not trade it for anything else in the world. To our new baby boy Chase Christopher, I look forward to beginning our own adventure, and I hope that you and your sister will one day understand something of my fascination with the history of Christianity.
I also want to thank Dr. Jeff Greenman, Dr. Kathryn Long, Dr. Dennis Okholm, and Dr. Tim Larsen for all their continued encouragement and support for my academic career over the years. I am extremely humbled and privileged to now call former professors my colleagues and friends and grateful to those who gave me the surreal opportunity to teach the history of Christianity and the Reformation as a guest adjunct professor at Wheaton College in the Spring semesters of 2007 and 2008.
I want to thank Richard Rex for kindly responding with his expertise to my many questions about Lollardy and the technicalities of citing early printed materials, Rev. Dr. Ralph Werrell for our few but valued email discussions on Tyndale, and Robert Kolb for reading my entire thesis and for his kind support and keen insight on Luther. Thanks to all those who have been so accommodating at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and the Bodleian Library, and Peterwell House. I am humbly grateful to my two learned doctoral examiners, Dr. Simon Oliver and Dr. George Newlands, for their overwhelming affirmation of my PhD thesis and gracious support to see it published. Many thanks to Christian Admonson and Dr. K. C. Hanson at Wipf and Stock Publishers for guiding the editorial process and providing me with the opportunity to publish my thesis. Finally, the thesis on which this book is based would not have been possible without the encouragement and insightful guidance of my two erudite advisors, Dr. Eva De Visscher and the late Professor Nigel Yates, who sadly passed away just a few months after my doctoral defense and before my graduation. This book is dedicated in his memory. As is commonly said in works of this kind, I take full credit for the flaws that remain.


A&M [1563] Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes touching matters of the Church, wherein ar comprehended and decribed the great persecutions [and] horrible troubles, that haue bene wrought and practised by the Romishe prelates, speciallye in this realme of England and Scotlande, from the yeare of our Lorde a thousande, vnto the tyme nowe present. Gathered and collected according to the true copies [and] wrytinges certificatorie, as wel of the parties them selues that suffered, as also out of the bishops registers, which wer the doers therof, by Iohn Foxe., Imprinted at London: By Iohn Day, dwellyng ouer Aldersgate. Cum priuilegio Regi[a]e Maiestatis, [1563 (20 March)]. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

A&M [1570] John Foxe. The first volume of the ecclesiasticall history contaynyng the actes and monumentes of thynges passed in euery kynges tyme in this realme, especially in the Church of England principally to be noted: with a full discourse of such persecutions, horrible troubles, the sufferyng of martyrs, and other thinges incident, touchyng aswel the sayd Church of England as also Scotland, and all other foreine nations, from the primitiue tyme till the reigne of K. Henry VIII., At London: Printed by Iohn Daye, dwellyng ouer Aldersgate, these bookes are to be sold at hys shop vnder the gate. 1570. Harvard University Library.

BSLK Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche: Herausgegeben im Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930. Zwolfte Auflage. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998.

CR Corpus Reformatorum [microform]. Philippi Melancthonis. Opera quae supersunt omnia. Volumes 1–28. Edited by C. G. Bretschneider and H. E. Bindsell. Halle, 1834–1860; Ioannis Calvini. Opera quae supersunt omnia. Vols. 29–87. Edited by Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss, et al. Braunchsweig—Berlin, 1863–1900.

DNB Dictionary of National Biography. 22 vols. Founded by George Smith. Edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1885–1901; reprint, 1917.

EM Ecclesiastical memorials, relating chiefly to religion, and the Reformation of it, and the emergencies of the Church of England, under King Henry VIII. King Edward VI. And Queen Mary I.: with large appendixes, containing original papers, records, &c. 4 volumes. Edited by John Strype. Oxford: Clarendon, 1822.

Ep Epitome of the Formula of Concord

Kolb and Wengert The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

Institutes John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 volumes. Library of Christian Classics 20. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated and Indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

LC Large Catechism

L&P Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, preserved in the Public Record Office, the British Museum, and elsewhere. Second edition. Revised and greatly enlarged by R. H. Brodie. 21 volumes. London, 1920; Vaduz Kraus reprint, 1965.

LW Luther’s Works: American Edition. [CD-ROM]. 55 vols. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955–1986.

ODNB Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 60 vols. In Association with the British Academy. From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Preus Philipp Melancthon. Loci Communes 1543. Translated and Edited by J. A. O. Preus. St Louis: Concordia, 1992.

SC Small Catechism

SD Solid Declaration of the of Concord

Tappert The Book of Concord. Edited by Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959.

WA D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 63 volumes. Weimar, 1883–1987; Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger Weimar, 2001.

WA Br Briefwechsel volumes of WA

WA DB Die Deutsche Bibel volumes of WA

WA Tr Tischreden volumes of WA

Whole Works John Foxe. The vvhole workes of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith, and Doct. Barnes, three worthy martyrs, and principall teachers of this churche of England collected and compiled in one tome togither, beyng before scattered, [and] now in print here exhibited to the church. To the prayse of God, and profite of all good Christian readers. At London: Printed by Iohn Daye, and are to be sold at his shop vnder Aldersgate, An. 1573. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery.


Luther and the English Evangelical Reformers in Retrospect
ACCORDING TO ONE WELL KNOWN BRITISH HISTORIAN, “WITHOUT Luther, we can be reasonably certain that there would have been no Reformation, or not the same Reformation.” While some scholars might concede this point with respect to the Reformation in German lands,2 its inclusiveness of all European nations is no longer taken for granted, and the extent and originality of Luther’s actual impact continues to be a contested issue in Reformation historiography. This is especially true with regard to his influence on early English evangelical reformers living during the Henrician period of the English Reformation in the 1520s and 30s.
Although mindful of the heroic importance of Luther, historical chroniclers beginning with John Foxe in the middle of the sixteenth century rooted the Elizabethan Reformation in an earlier tradition of native English dissent going back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was not until the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries that historians even began to take a more intent look at the actual extent of the continental legacy, first and foremost in its Lutheran forms, leading one historian to describe the English Protestant Reformation as an essentially “Lutheran Reformation.”5 More recently, the emphasis has shifted to broaden the study of influences beyond that of Luther and the Lutherans in Germany, but most scholars do agree that England was significantly influenced by continental currents of reform, an example of how truly international the Reformation was and how it all “remained recognizably part of the same movement.” Diarmaid MacCulloch goes so far to argue that the English context contributed nothing theologically unique to the Reformation, and that “to chronicle the theological story of the English Reformation” involves mostly observing how English theologians reacted to continental developments.7
Many historians indeed now acknowledge an increasing awareness of the “European dimension” and “international-mindedness” of “pre-Elizabethan Protestantism.” E. G. Rupp even encouraged nationally conscious English Protestants to not be “ashamed or afraid to acknowledge the full indebtedness of the English reformers to their brethren on the Continent.” Elsewhere, however, he qualifies this by also stating that “the history of the English Protestant tradition cannot be explained according to Continental categories. In England we have gone our own way, in religion and in theology as in our political history.”9 G. R. Elton adopted a moderate approach as well, arguing that England “culturally and intellectually … was, to all appearance, very much a part of Europe,” while at the same time stressing that Henry VIII’s break with the papacy allowed for the creation of something unique in English religion and politics. More recently, Christopher Haigh argues that the traditional use of the singular term “Reformation” itself undermines not only the recognition of the various stages of “reformation” within the English story itself (as indicated by the title of his work) but the reality of geographical diversity despite obvious international connectedness between “reformations.” With regard to the English context in particular, he stresses that undue exaggeration on this interconnectedness wrongly relegates English religious history to mere imitation of continental happenings.11 Whether one prefers to use the term “Reformation” or “Reformations,” then, seems to largely depend upon whether the interconnectedness or diversity is being emphasized.
This broader question of the relationship between national reformations relates more narrowly to ongoing debates surrounding the particular influence of Martin Luther’s theology upon the career of three leading English evangelical reformers who lived during the 1520s and 30s in the Henrician period of the early English Reformation. Where Luther was once a central figure in any study of Reformation theology in general, recent works have redefined the extent of his pan-European influence with respect to other, perhaps even lesser known, personalities.13 As it relates to the English context and the period leading up to the “Act of Supremacy” (1534) and the official course of the early English Reformation, Luther’s influence on the theology of early English evangelicals, especially William Tyndale, has even been somewhat diminished as of late in favor of humanist, Reformed, and even Lollard legacies. One recent scholar goes so far to say that “Anyone who reads Tyndale’s writings theologically realises that Luther had virtually no influence on Tyndale’s theology.”
The particular influence of Martin Luther on English evangelical reformers of the early sixteenth century has certainly received a fair share of attention by scholars in the past, especially with regard to Tyndale. For the last few decades, however, most historians of the English Reformation have focused on the complex years following the Elizabethan Settlement and the Protestantization of the English people. Thus, as some historians have noted, there has been a comparable absence of scholarly studies interpreting the life and work of the early generation of evangelical reformers.
That Martin Luther had some degree of influence on early English Reformation theology is agreed upon by most scholars. Renowned historian G. R. Elton states that “the English Reformation and its advancements cannot be entirely understood without Luther and his influence.” Carl Trueman, in his recent and widely acclaimed work on the English reformers, also claims that it is impossible to understand the English Reformation without some reference to him. However, Trueman also aptly points out that the precise nature and extent of Luther’s influence is what has stimulated the most vigorous debate.17
Tyndale’s earliest major biographer, Robert Demaus, described Tyndale in 1871 as a scholar capable of independent thought but still largely a theological follower of Luther. According to Henry Jacobs pioneering work, The Lutheran Movement in England (1890), Tyndale remained “thoroughly a Lutheran.” This opinion was echoed later in the writings of E. G. Rupp in the 1940s and 1950s and by J. E. McGoldrick in the 1970s. These scholars all basically describe the first generation of English evangelical reformers, such as William Tyndale and Robert Barnes, as generally “Lutheran,” although openly acknowledging the former’s wholesale objection to Luther’s doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Rupp states with regard to Tyndale that, although he was not a “complete devotee, and certainly no mere mechanic snapper-up of another’s considered trifles,” he was nevertheless “concerned to make known the teaching of Luther in an English dress.” As for Robert Barnes, he is commonly perceived as the one most fully aligned with the opinions of Luther, including his doctrine of the Eucharist.21
Groundbreaking and influential studies appeared in the 1960s by W. A. Clebsch and L. J. Trinterud. The most prominent claim arising from Clebsch and Trinterud was that the English evangelicals laid a far greater and more positive stress on the Law and good works in the life of the Christian. Although Trinterud’s opinions have tended to be most accepted by scholars, both he and Clebsch were quick to identify Tyndale as an indigenous progenitor of later English Puritan moralism.
In England’s Earliest Protestants, Clebsch argues that Tyndale started out his reforming career in more agreement with Luther’s supposed emphasis on faith alone in the doctrine of justification, but later departed from him in the 1530s, developing a covenantal theology of salvation and a “works-righteousness” description of the Christian life. Even McGoldrick’s study, which is among the more favorable to Luther’s influence, admits that Tyndale plainly emphasizes the fulfillment of the Law as the goal of a Christian more than Luther, but prefers to interpret this development as a “logical extension of Luther’s position” rather than a complete break from it.24
Trinterud’s essay, however, has been more widely accepted by scholars, and even the more recent, penetrating, and enlightening study by Carl Trueman qualifies the legacy of Luther in the light of Trinterud’s conclusions. In his essay, Trinterud argues that Tyndale from the very beginning of his career emphasized good works and the Law in the Christian life more positively and significantly than Luther, which shows that he never really embraced Luther’s theology centered on faith but only manipulated Luther’s writings for his own moralistic purposes. In Trinterud’s opinion, Tyndale appears to have been shaped more by Humanism and thus has more in common with Swiss and Rhineland reformers such as Calvin or Bucer than with Luther. This debt to Humanism has been explored in most detail by John K. Yost, who argues in an unpublished dissertation that Tyndale’s “principal concern” was to reform Tudor England according to a “restoration of the law of Christ” and that this reveals him to be more humanist than Lutheran.26 On the basis of Trinterud’s essay, another unpublished dissertation by Paul Alan Laughlin argues that Tyndale adopted a theology of covenant in the 1530s because it expressed his original concern for good works more accurately than Luther’s dialectical opposition of Law and Gospel. Donald Smeeton and Ralph Werrell also fall in line with Trinterud, but argue that Tyndale’s theology is rooted heavily in the theology of Wyclif and Lollardy rather than the Reformed tradition. Werrell, in particular, is quite insistent that Tyndale was not influenced in any significant way by Luther. Werrell’s work is of importance since it is the most recent work on the theology of Tyndale, is endorsed with a foreword by the current Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and is really the first systematic treatment of the theology of Tyndale ever published.28
In his monumental history of the doctrine, McGrath likewise distances the early English reformers from Luther with regard to justification by faith:

the doctrines of justification circulating in English reforming circles in the 1520s and early 1530s were quite distinct from those of the mainstream continental Reformation … it is clear that few of [Luther’s] distinctive ideas became generally accepted in England … that essentially Augustinian doctrines of justification were in circulation in England independently of the influence of Luther … the English Reformers appear to have worked with a doctrine of justification in which man was understood to be made righteous by fayth onely, with good works being the natural consequence of justifying faith.

The most widely accepted work on the theology of the early English evangelical reformers to appear since the 1960s is Carl Trueman’s Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and the English Reformers (1994). Trueman agrees that referring to the early reformers as “Lutheran” is indeed a misleading oversimplification that ignores the extent to which other influences, such as Augustine, Humanism, and the Reformed tradition, shaped the theology of English reformers such as Tyndale. In fact, he admits that the title of his book is even a bit misleading given that: “my basic argument is that Luther’s thought is considerably modified by the theologians of the English Reformation. My intention in using such a title was to underline the fact that, while Tyndale and his fellow Reformers were not Luther and had differing concerns and emphases from him, it was nevertheless contact with Luther’s work which radicalized their thinking and changed them from Catholic Humanists to Protestant Reformers.”
Trueman agrees that Tyndale develops in the second half of his career an even stronger notion of the ethical dimension of the Gospel, but contrary to Clebsch convincingly argues that this is more accurately interpreted as a change in emphasis rather than a change in the substance of his theological convictions. Trueman falls in line with Trinterud and Laughlin by acknowledging differences in emphases between Luther and Tyndale on the subject of good works and the Law in the Christian life from the very beginning. Yet, in distinction to both Trinterud and Clebsch, Trueman stresses that Tyndale’s much stronger emphasis on good works and the Law in the life of the Christian is a theologically consistent extension of his doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Along with McGrath, Trueman argues that there are important differences between Luther and Tyndale on the very nature of justification, which impacts their distinctive approaches to Law and good works in the Christian life. Luther defines “justification” and “justified” in terms of the reckoning or imputation of righteousness in Christ apart from the Law and works and Tyndale in the more Augustinian sense of the renewal or regeneration of the will through the grace of the Spirit in love toward the Law and good works. In a more recent essay, Jeffrey Leininger agrees with Trueman that Tyndale’s theology of justification is more Augustinian but that this also reflects Luther’s own theology in 1515–1516 and to some degree his theology in transition during the 1520s. Leininger closely follows the work of Lowell C. Green who establishes a definite dichotomy between the early Luther on justification and his more “mature” thought of the 1530s influenced by the forensic-imputation theology of Melancthon.
John Frith was another significant early evangelical reformer, though he has received far less attention than either Tyndale or Barnes. N. T. Wright, whose work on Frith over thirty years ago remains the most comprehensive and authoritative thus far, essentially underlines Luther’s influence with regard to justification by faith and the obedience of the Christian. Nevertheless, Clebsch earlier had argued that Frith also drifted away from Luther by laying greater positive stress on the Christian fulfillment of the Law through good works.35 Other scholars have gone even further and argue that Frith developed a concept of “double justification” by faith before God but by works before others, which supposedly places Frith closer to Martin Bucer than to Martin Luther. Carl Trueman distinguishes Frith from Luther mostly on matters pertaining to the nature of justification, as does McGrath, but he does not perceive Frith to have developed any significant emphasis on works or the Law in the Christian life comparable to that of Tyndale’s theology of covenant.37
Of all the early English evangelical reformers, Robert Barnes is described as the most “Lutheran,” and this is because he alone among them adopted Luther’s doctrine of the Real Presence. However, Clebsch also pits Barnes against Luther with regard to his more positive emphasis on fulfillment of the Law and good works as the fruit and evidence of justifying faith in the life of a Christian, and that this was most visible in Barnes’ embrace of the canonicity of the New Testament book of James.39 Trueman acknowledges some imprint of Luther on Barnes’ theology as it relates to Law and Gospel, but argues that this is tempered by the influences of Augustine and Humanism to the point that Barnes stresses more than Luther the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling the Christian to fulfill the Law.
In light of all the work that has been done on the theology of the early English evangelical reformers so far, what is perhaps most surprising is the complete and utter omission of any substantial, contextual, and original interaction with Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel that spanned a reforming career of nearly thirty-five years. It is largely assumed by all previous scholars that Luther significantly deemphasizes a positive role for the moral Law in the Christian life of obedience and good works, which also happens to be the interpretation of many, but not all, modern Luther scholars. Despite his acknowledgment of the legacy Luther bequeathed to the theology of the English Reformation, Trueman, writing from the perspective of a Reformed theologian, likewise states that “If Luther teaches a third use of the Law, it is in a very mild and very inconsistent manner” and accuses Luther of being ambivalent toward the Law.42 Instead, Lollardy, Humanism, Augustine, and Swiss Reformed theology are considered as alternative sources by scholars such as Trueman for this emphasis in their thinking. Yet none of these scholars has seriously reevaluated or challenged the very premise upon which their conclusions are based by a rigorous, thorough, and original analysis of Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel in its developing historical context. This important foundation is missing in all previous studies of early English evangelical theology.
There is no doubt that Luther understood the moral Law to be indispensable to the ordering of creation and redemption. The very concept of the “uses of the Law” (usus legis) in Lutheran theology arguably originated with him. Though more formally defined in his new Lectures on Galatians (1531–1535), and later adopted by Philipp Melancthon and the Lutheran confessions, these uses are also evident in substance in his earliest writings as well. Put simply, Luther used the formal concept of the usus legis to refer, first, to the moral Law as an instrument of God’s providence to restrain the wickedness of the unregenerate by means of coercion, threats, and temporal and civil punishments (the usus civilis or politicus) for the sake of upholding social and civic order. Secondly, God uses the Law to accuse consciences of sin and damnation so that reconciliation with God is found by faith alone in the promise of forgiveness in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (the usus theologicus).
What many scholars still do not agree concerning, however, is whether there is any emphasis or even a place in Luther’s thought for an implicit “third use of the Law,” or the Law serving as a normative moral standard and goal guiding the justified Christian in obedience and the exercise of good works. It has become widely accepted that Philipp Melancthon, who first coined the phrase tertius usus legis in 1535, was responsible for introducing this use in any such form into Lutheran theology. Contemporaries of Luther, including both Catholics as well as other German reformers like Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, criticized his emphasis on justification as the forgiveness of sins apart from the Law while appearing too soft with regard to regeneration and the need for moral obedience to the Law in the Christian life. Much like the German antinomians of the later 1520s and 1530s, English antinomians of the 1640s enlisted isolated statements from Luther’s writings to champion the simple preaching of the Gospel, grace, and freedom in opposition to pieties that also stressed the need for preaching the Law and for moral effort and discipline in the Christian life. The famous evangelical revivalist preacher John Wesley was converted by Luther’s preface to the epistle of Paul to the Romans, but, after reading Luther’s commentary on Galatians in 1741, blamed Luther for the moral passivity he witnessed in Moravian pietism: “Again, how blasphemously does he speak of good works and of the Law of God; constantly coupling the Law with sin, death, hell, or the devil; and teaching, that Christ delivers us from them all alike. Whereas, it can no more be proved by Scripture that Christ delivers us from the Law of God, than that he delivers us from holiness or from heaven. Here (I apprehend) is the real spring of the grand error of the Moravians. They follow Luther, for better or worse.”
No other book thus far on the theology of the early English evangelical reformers has seriously acknowledged or addressed the lack of scholarly consensus that still persists to this day with regard to the Law and the Christian life in Luther’s theology nor provided any original contribution to the conversation through a personal reevaluation of Luther’s larger theological corpus in its historical context. What is needed, then, is a complete historical-contextual treatment of Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel that spans over twenty-five years of reform, polemic, and pastoral ministry, something that is both entirely and surprisingly lacking in the English-speaking world.
Since the early English evangelicals William Tyndale and John Frith died in the early to mid-1530s, and Robert Barnes in 1540, Luther’s writings beyond the early 1530s theoretically apply only, if at all, to Robert Barnes, and those beyond the year 1540 are obviously irrelevant as far as any discussion of influence is concerned. Luther’s published works from 1517 to the mid-1530s, and especially those of the 1520s, are the most relevant for assessing his influence on the thought of the English evangelical reformers. Nevertheless, it is important to see these works against the backdrop of Luther’s pivotal lectures on the book of Romans (1515–1516), which, though not published until the twentieth century, are the capstone of a theological shift in his understanding of the role of Law and Gospel in justification and the Christian life. Furthermore, since Luther’s discussion of the “uses of the Law” becomes most fully developed in controversy with antinomians in the 1530s, and although the Lutheran formula of “usus legis” itself post-dates the careers of Tyndale and Frith, the study of his writings dating to this decade shows how elements that perhaps took more definitive shape and emphasis later on were already latent in his thought of the late 1510s and throughout the 1520s.
William Tyndale, John Frith, and Robert Barnes are fitting to any study of the evangelical theology of the early English Reformation, who together Trueman aptly describes as constituting “the first significant English expressions of Reformation theology and … the focal point of any study of English soteriology during this time.” John Foxe, in his “Epistle or Preface to the Christian Reader” introducing the first edition of their collected works printed by John Daye in 1573, also describes them as the “chiefe ryngleaders in these latter tymes of thys Church of England” who: “in one cause, and about one tyme, sustayned the first brunt, in this our latter age, and gaue the first onset agaynst the enemies: as also for the speciall giftes of fruitfull erudition, and plentifull knowledge wrought in them by God, and so by them left vs in their writings.” Tyndale has naturally received the bulk of attention over the centuries due to the literary prolificacy of his reforming career and, more recently, because of the amount of controversy generated by his adoption of a theology of covenant in the 1530s.
Referring to Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes as “evangelical” rather than “Lutheran” or “Protestant” reformers is also purposeful and important. After 1520, the derogatory title of “Lutheran” was being used without qualification to scorn anyone with a perceived connection to the ideas of the recently condemned heretic. Yet how should historians properly speak of those who show a genuine sympathy toward Luther in the 1520s and 30s but perhaps do not agree with him on every point? As many have argued, only Robert Barnes could be rightly labeled a “Lutheran” since he alone affirmed the doctrine of the Real Presence. Nevertheless, as already discussed, even the extent of Barnes’ debt to Luther has not gone unchallenged in recent years. Furthermore, the word “Lutheran” only began to take on its more formal confessional meaning in the later 1530s and 40s.
Similar problems abound in using the word “Protestant” to refer to an English reformer of the 1520s, the word itself having originated out of the Diet of Speyer (1529) after German princes “protested” the imperial revocation of religious freedoms granted to them under the previous Diet (1526). Andrew Hope argues that the word “Protestant” was not adopted outside of a German context before the reign of Edward VI, and Alec Ryrie observes that the word was used in England in the 1540s but only with reference to those on the Continent who had embraced Luther’s doctrines and allied together against Emperor Charles V. According to Ryrie, it was only after Henry’s death in 1547 that the word “Protestant” was applied at all to religious reformers in England: “by the 1540s no generally accepted term had yet been coined to refer to the emerging religious factions.” In order to avoid anachronism, then, many historians are reluctant to use the term “Protestant” in reference to any English reformer prior to the official demarcations of the later 1540s, so that “we can only talk of Protestants in England after a fully reformed set of dogmas had been promulgated and accepted under Edward VI.” If so, then the word “Protestant” should be avoided with regard to Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes, who were all deceased by 1540. Henry VIII’s own ground-breaking separation from papal jurisdiction in 1534 did not make England an officially Protestant nation. If anything, it contributed to a doctrinal imprecision that historian Richard Rex argues characterized the entire Henrician period, such as with regard to supporters of the “Act of Supremacy” against papal power who remained Catholic otherwise in doctrine.
Such complexity, states Ryrie, only serves in reflecting “the reality that religious divisions and religious communities themselves were vague and ill-defined during this early period of the Reformation.” To what degree did the early English evangelical reformers even perceive themselves to be an organized movement in solidarity separate from the national Church? Due to such complexity and in order not to sacrifice historical accuracy even for the sake of simplicity and generalization, “evangelicals” is a far more appropriate term to identify Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes (although Barnes could also arguably be tagged a “Lutheran”). The word “evangelical” is general enough to incorporate both continuities and discontinuities and yet specific enough to distinguish these reformers from “humanists” or “Lollards.” In modern phenomenology, it has become common to associate “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” with a form of Protestantism that emerged out of the trans-Atlantic revivals of the early eighteenth century and emphasized the instantaneous experience of conversion and assurance of salvation. There is some dispute as to whether sixteenth and eighteenth century Protestants had more or less in common on this subject, but the fact stands that the words “evangelical” and “gospeller” were already in use in the 1520s and 30s as a way of identifying those who confessed the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone with the perception that Scripture alone possesses ultimate doctrinal authority.
In studying theological influences from a consciously historical perspective, it is never enough to simply identify conceptual and linguistic similarities between individuals. This is true in the case of Luther and the early English evangelicals. Trueman has astutely stated that “similarity does not necessarily prove influence,” a temptation that troubles every historian who traces theological influences. To argue for influence solely on the basis of chronological precedence and theological similarity is to succumb to the logical fallacy of post ergo propter hoc. It is also necessary to establish some direct historical connection by locating individuals in their contexts and identifying a conscious use of others’ theological material. This is provable with particular ease in the case of Tyndale and Frith’s use of Luther’s writings, although this does not necessarily prove that they remained entirely faithful to his line of thinking.
Furthermore, though good works and the Law in the Christian life has dominated the most vigorous debate thus far among historians, this issue cannot be adequately understood without looking at wider theological factors requiring a broad treatment of Law and Gospel and other associated themes, including interpretation of the Old Testament, the nature of repentance, theological anthropology, the role of the Holy Spirit, assurance of salvation, and the nature of justification by faith.
No standard, critical work of the complete writings of these three evangelical reformers has yet appeared in print. The original sixteenth century printings and editions held mostly by the British Library and the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge University (see also Early English Books Online) remain the best for the serious historian. The writings of Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes were first published together in Foxe’s Whole Works printed by John Daye in London in 1573. Despite the quantitative scope of the writings included, this collection is not at all suitable for a historical analysis of first and consecutive editions. In the early nineteenth century, the works of the three reformers appeared together again, although only the article on justification was included from Barnes’ Supplication of 1534. The works of Tyndale and Frith were also printed in a separate edition,59 and the writings of Tyndale were published independently for the Parker Society. Select passages compiled from Tyndale’s writings were edited in the twentieth century, modern spelling editions of his Old and New Testament translations appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and now a critical series of his works is just beginning to be published.63 With regard to John Frith, N. T. Wright published a critical edition thirty years ago, and a critical edition of Barnes’ 1534 Supplication has recently been published by Douglas Parker.
The importance of these three reformers as significant players in the religious history of early sixteenth century England makes a regular revisitation of their life and writings a supremely worthwhile enterprise. Their relationship to Luther, however, remains controversial, as does the nature and extent of Luther’s contribution to the English Reformation as a whole. Without a rigorous study of Luther’s own theology of Law and Gospel in his own context, however, there is simply no justification for so swiftly diminishing or even disregarding his influence on this subject matter as many scholars have done in the recent past, and there is sufficient evidence to establish that Luther indeed remained a principal influence on early English evangelical understandings of Law and Gospel and as it pertained to critical matters of reconciliation with God and the life of Christian obedience. This is why it is necessary to start this book with Luther himself and then to establish the historical context in which his writings first made their impact upon English theology before embarking on an individual appraisal of his influence on the first generation of English evangelicals.


“Lex Sola Accusat”?

Modern Appraisals of Law, Gospel, and the Tertius Usus Legis in the Theology of Luther
PREVIOUS SCHOLARSHIP HAS FOCUSED HEAVILY ON THE RELATIONSHIP of the Law to the Christian life in comparing the theology of Luther and the early English evangelicals. Yet the question of whether or not Luther himself ever even taught an implicit “third use of the Law” has been the subject of much controversy ever since the middle of the twentieth century. While the formal development of an explicit “third use of the Law” in Lutheran theology actually post-dates the reforming careers of Tyndale and Frith, addressing the issue with regard to Luther’s theology is extremely relevant and needs to be explored in the light of reassessing the influence of his theology of Law and Gospel on early English evangelicals. No other scholar of the early English evangelicals has so far seriously acknowledged or addressed the lack of consensus even among Lutherans concerning Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel nor integrated an assessment of the different sides of the debate into their argument. The premise of a single opinion has been largely taken for granted, yet not one of these scholars gives any impression of a firsthand, comprehensive understanding of Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel in its historical context.
It is important to state upfront that the evidence indicates that the explicit formula of a “third use of the Law” did not originate with Luther but rather with Melancthon in the mid-1530s. However, the question remains unsettled whether Melancthon’s numbering of a “third use” was consistent and even derivative of Luther’s own theology. To understand the nature of the debate with regard to Luther, it is important to first identify what came to be known as a “third use of the Law” in the theology of Melancthon as well as the later Lutheran Formula of Concord.
There does seem to be a consensus among many modern scholars that during the middle to late 1520s a shift occurred in Melancthon’s theology in which he emphasized in new and significant ways the relationship of the Law to good works in the life of the Christian. Ken Schurb points out that many scholars since the 1940s have argued that Melancthon’s formulation of a distinct “third use of the law” adopted by Lutheranism is actually an aberration from Luther’s faith and Gospel centered thought. Jeffrey K. Mann importantly identifies attempts made to “rescue Luther from Lutheranism,”3 which is reminiscent of debates within the Reformed tradition concerning the continuity between Calvin and the later Calvinists.
Some have attributed this shift to Melancthon’s background in Humanism, which was characterized by a strong emphasis on renewing Christian moral piety. Jeffrey K. Mann, however, has argued that it naturally emerged from his growing concern over moral apathy in the German churches in the late 1520s, and that abuse of the doctrines of sola fide and the forensic imputation of righteousness in justification by libertines “made it impossible that he would not explicate a use of the Law for redeemed sinners.”
It is incontestable that Melancthon was the first to speak explicitly of “three offices of the law” (Tertium officium legis) and a “third use” (tertius usus) in his Loci Communes of 1535, and later he refers to a “three-fold office of the Law” (triplex usus legis). According to Mann and Wengert, however, the substance of the doctrine of a “third use” actually originates earlier in Melancthon’s 1534 Scholia on the book of Colossians. Wengert adds that the roots of this use go back even further to Melancthon’s earliest insistence on the necessity of obedience in the life of the Christian, but that its more formal development emerged out of Melancthon’s stronger clarification of justification in 1532–34 as the forensic declaration of righteousness through faith in Christ. Ken Schurb believes Melancthon was consistent on his teaching of the “third use” even since 1521. According to Gerhard Ebeling, Melancthon’s first formal reference to a usus legis or a duplex usus legis probably did not occur until his Commentary on Romans in 1532, but he observes hints even of a “third use” as early as Melancthon’s Instructions for Visitors (1528) and the Augsburg Confession (1530). While it was Luther who coined the concept of the “usus legis” for the Lutheran tradition, Ebeling argues that it was Melancthon who eventually refashioned this into a more polished “scholastic schema of the triplex usus.” For Ebeling, the substance of the triplex usus legis is apparent in Melancthon in 1535, although this particular formula itself appears only much later in the Catechesis puerilis of 1540 and the Loci Communes of 1543.
Of course, disagreements about when Melancthon actually began teaching a “third use of the Law” hinge on how it is defined. An adequate place to look for such a definition is Melancthon’s own Loci Communes, which he personally favored among his other writings as a definitive expression of his theological convictions. Schurb argues that the outline of Melancthon’s Loci of 1543 is basically the same as that of the edition of 1535, and Osslund claims that there is little development of the Loci after 1535. With regard to Melancthon’s explicit teaching of a “third use,” this remained unchanged between its introduction in the Loci of 1535 and the final edition of 1559.
In the Loci Communes of 1543, Melancthon defines the Law as the “eternal and immovable rule of the divine mind and a judgment against sin.” Schurb argues that this definition is not explicit in the previous 1521 and 1535 editions of Melancthon’s Loci. In 1521, the emphasis is on the freedom of the Christian from the Law, whereas in 1535 the emphasis shifts to moral Law as a reflection of the universal natural Law. This will for humanity is revealed not only through Scripture but also through the natural Law written on every human heart. The laws of the Old Testament apply only to the Christian in so far as they agree with natural Law. Whereas the moral Law of the Decalogue reflects the eternal mind of God and is universally valid, the civil and ceremonial laws are not binding for any other nation other than Israel under the Old Covenant. Yet any Old Covenant civil law in harmony with natural moral Law remains equally valid, and Melancthon recommends that Gentile nations study the civil code of Israel for many useful laws.13
The moral Law of the Decalogue is restated throughout the whole of Scripture and reflects the natural moral Law given to the first humans. The moral Law given to Israel by Moses was really only a reiteration of the Law implanted within the hearts of the first humans by nature. As a consequence of the Fall, however, this moral Law was clouded by sin and is not readily embraced as are the natural laws of mathematics. Furthermore, moral laws of an outward social orientation, such as laws against murder, are more obvious to the natural person than is the commandment to love God from the heart and to worship Him alone.
According to Melancthon, the proper work of the Law is to be distinguished from the proper work of the Gospel. Law and Gospel form the “chief teaching of Scripture, to which all parts of Scripture must be wisely compared,” and their proper distinction is “a light to the entire Scripture.” This distinction between Law and Gospel is not equivalent to a distinction between the Old and New Testament canon, as if Law is only found in the former and Gospel only in the latter. The promise of the Gospel was preached immediately after the Fall, and the Law is found in the teachings of Christ. The promises of the Gospel must also be distinguished from promises of the Law. The material promises contained in the Law are conditioned by obedience, whereas the spiritual and eternal promises of the Gospel are free through faith in Christ alone. The Gospel broadly understood does contain the preaching of repentance and good works, but its primary purpose is the assurance of forgiveness through Christ. Melancthon does believe that the Old Covenant, understood in its “most proper sense,” was primarily characterized by the preaching of laws, while the New Covenant is “the proclamation of the remission of sins and eternal life.” Under the Old Covenant the Law was given to Israel to preserve the social order of a community carrying the promise of the Messiah, but God’s principal purpose for giving the Law was to reveal the need for the Messiah by declaring God’s eternal judgment upon all who failed to keep the Law.
The preaching of the Law must always precede the preaching of the Gospel so that the promise of the Gospel is rightly appreciated. Once the promise of forgiveness is embraced in Christ, the Christian is now liberated from the condemnation of the Law to delight in the Law and to obey it freely in love rather than in fear: “the beginning of keeping the commandments is the acknowledgment of Christ.” The works of the other commandments are not even pleasing to God if not flowing from obedience to the First Commandment, which is to believe and worship the one true God. Even after justification by faith, and though obedience to God increases, the Christian still cannot fully satisfy the Law through good works for they remain imperfect and are only accepted by God on account of faith in Christ.
If the preaching of obedience to the Law does not imply that people have the natural power to fulfill it, and if justification is by faith alone in Christ, as Melancthon believed, then for what reason does God give the Law? To answer this common question posed to the evangelical reformers, Melancthon proceeds to define “three uses or duties for the Law” (tria esse Legis officia seu triplicem usum). Melancthon defines the first use of the Law as the “pedagogical” or “civil use” (paedegogicus seu politicus) found in 1 Timothy 1:9 (“the law is laid down for the unrighteous”). This describes the power of the Law to restrain the rebellion of the unbeliever for the sake of public peace and order. God administers temporal punishments for disobedience to His Law through governments, plagues, war, and famine. Not only do these restrain evil but they keep the moral conscience intact for the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel. Melancthon describes this discipline of the Law as a “schoolmaster to Christ” (paedagogia in Christum). According to Wengert, Melancthon restricts this pedagogical use of the Law to its civil use, whereas Luther also identified it with the theological, or second, use of the Law. Melancthon acknowledges that God even allows true Christians to experience sufferings, though these are “mitigated for the godly,” which keep them humble toward their sins.19
Melancthon then defines the second use of the Law as its power to “show our sin and to accuse, to terrify, and to condemn all men in this misuse of human nature.” This use of the Law, commonly known as the usus theologicus, spiritualis, or elenchticus, is what disposes the conscience toward the gift of the Gospel, for a knowledge of sin and the fear of God’s wrath is necessary for desiring the salvation promised in the Gospel. Melancthon considered this early on to be the Law’s primary use. He states that the Law is a “perpetual judgment which condemns sin in the entire human race” and that “there is no doubt that the voice of the law condemning sins must constantly be set forth and taught in the churches, and indeed it would be a monstrous crime to conceal God’s judgment and His voice which announces His wrath against sin.” This advice was obviously meant for the sake of unbelieving parishioners and follows the antinomian rejection of the preaching of the Law in the later 1520s. In his earlier Apology to the Augsburg Confession (1531), Melancthon stated that the “law works wrath; it only accuses; it only terrifies consciences.” Yet true Christians no longer stand under the condemnation of God’s wrath. Although the Law continues to reveal their imperfections, it no longer possesses authority to condemn them.24
Melancthon then defines “the third use of the law” (Tertio quaeritur de usu Legis) as applying only to the “regenerate” who are “free from the Law” and justified by faith. This freedom is from “the curse and condemnation” of the Law, but the Law is to still be preached to the Christian with the Gospel on account of the flesh for the increase of repentance and faith in the mercy of Christ. The Law also teaches Christians what kind of works God says are good so that they, influenced by the flesh, do not create works of idolatry.
According to Melancthon, the “third use of the Law” applies only to the justified and regenerate Christian, but only on account of his or her sinful nature. The “third use” in the life of the regenerate is distinct from the other two uses in the unregenerate since it only applies to those who have the Spirit of God, are free of the condemnation of the Law through faith, and have the earnest desire to fulfill it from the heart. In other words, the “third use” is not for the purpose of restraining the unbridled evil of the wicked nor is it concerned with disposing the unregenerate conscience towards repentance and faith for justification, but with preserving in an ever increasing manner a heart of repentance, faith, and earnestness to mortify sin in the life and spiritual battle of the Christian. In his Apology to the Augsburg Confession (1531), Melancthon even stated that “the keeping of the Law should begin in us and increase more and more.” Wengert also argues that what sets the third use apart is the active use of the Law by the believer to please God in obedience, whereas the former uses are passive and used by God upon the unbeliever.27 This is true in a sense, since only the justified Christian has the heart to truly keep the Law, yet it is important to stress that for Melancthon this very willing and walking is born of the Spirit of God by faith in the Gospel. Yet Melancthon also admitted that perfect obedience was not possible on account of the flesh. In the “third use,” then, God also continues to use the Law with regard to the weaknesses of the Christian for the renewal of repentance and faith and, through the Spirit, to light the path of godly obedience and resistance to sin on account of the opposition and corruptions of the flesh.
Next to the writings of Melancthon, the Formula of Concord (1577) is another critical place to look for a formal definition of a “third use of the Law” in Lutheran theology. However, there is actually some debate whether the Formula of Concord even teaches a “third use of the Law” in the same manner as Melancthon. The Formula of Concord emerged out of doctrinal divisions within Lutheranism in the 1550s as an effort to unify and consolidate the Lutheran churches in the face of both Catholic and Reformed theologies. A series of conferences led to the drafting of the Formula of Concord in 1577 made up of the shorter Epitome and longer Solid Declaration. Religious leaders in various German territories signed the Declaration, and in 1580 the Book of Concord containing the Formula of Concord and other major Lutheran confessional documents was available for distribution.
Werner Elert and Ragnar Bring argue that the Formula of Concord does not define a “third use of the Law” in a Melancthonian sense. According to Bring, the novelty of Melancthon’s introduction of a “third use of the Law” was its distinctive application to the Christian as “new man,” whereas the Formula of Concord defines the “third use” in terms of the first and second uses applied to the believer on account of the flesh, which he argues is actually more consistent with Luther’s theology. Ken Schurb, on the other hand, argues that the Formula of Concord is indeed “Melancthonian” on the issue of the “third use” but that it reflects a particular phase in his thought, namely the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Apology of 1531. Gerhard Forde believes the Formula of Concord to be largely ambiguous on the question of the “third use,” and Scott Bouman observes that such ambiguity opens it to interpretation. This lack of consensus, of course, results from differences in defining the “third use.”
The Formula of Concord does agree with Melancthon in defining the proper tasks of Law and Gospel. According to “Article V,” the “Gospel” strictly defined is the promise of forgiveness in Christ, although understood more broadly incorporates “the entire doctrine of Christ which he proclaimed personally in his teaching ministry and which his apostles also set forth.” Understood in their proper senses, the Law accuses and condemns whereas the Gospel declares forgiveness. Yet the “Gospel” broadly understood also acts like Law in the sense that the sufferings of Christ are an “earnest and terrifying preaching and advertisement of God’s wrath.” In this instance, however, those sufferings are functioning as Law, which is the “alien work” of the Gospel broadly understood leading to its more proper task of promising comfort and forgiveness in those same sufferings. “Article V” of the Sold Declaration adds that the word “repentance” also possesses a dual meaning in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to “the entire conversion of man,” but when distinguished from faith refers simply to contrition for sin. Repentance in the second sense comes by the preaching of the Law or the Gospel broadly understood, but repentance in the first sense includes the preaching of both Law and Gospel in their proper senses, for without the promise of the Gospel there is only delusional self-righteousness or hopeless despair.
The “third use of the Law” is addressed in “Article VI.” The Epitome states that the reason for its inclusion is the result of disputes over “whether or not the law is to be urged upon reborn Christians.” The article states that the Law has been given by God for three reasons. The first agrees with Melancthon’s “usus civilis,” or the Law extorting outward obedience from unbelievers by means of prohibition, threats, and punishments. The second agrees with the “usus theologicus,” which is the accusation of the conscience on account of sin and the deserving of the wrath and condemnation of God leading toward repentance and justifying faith in the Gospel. The third reason is defined as the following: “after they are reborn, and although the flesh still inheres in them, to give them on that account a definite rule according to which they should pattern and regulate their entire life.”
The article explicitly affirms that the Christian is free from the condemnation and compulsion of the Law with regard to the new man but that the goal of redemption is the keeping of the Law. Even Adam and Eve in their innocence had the Law written on their hearts and the Christian who is justified by faith lives in the Law.
The Epitome clearly states that the Law is for believer and unbeliever alike. With regard to the believer, this is on account of the incomplete renewal of the Christian here and now and the desires of the flesh, “which clings to them until death,” which make it necessary “for the law of God constantly to light their way lest in their merely human devotion they undertake self-decreed and self-chosen acts of serving God.” Furthermore, the preaching of the Law is required because the “old Adam” (“alte Adam”) remains opposed to the new desires of the Spirit, makes the believer sluggish, and needs to be persuaded by threats and punishments to surrender to the Spirit in obedience to God. The Epitome distinguishes, however, between unbelievers and “the regenerated according to the flesh” since the latter, in so far as they possess faith and the Spirit, do have a new desire to obey “as if they knew of no command, threat, or reward.”
The Solid Declaration expands on this point in the Epitome by stressing that the Law makes demands but cannot provide the means for them to be fulfilled. Truly good works are only empowered by the renewing work of the Spirit who is received through faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the Spirit instructs Christians in the knowledge of the Law, He also rebukes them as often as they “stumble.” According to the Solid Declaration, reproof of sin is the “real function of the law,” and this is true for believers as well on account of their remaining weaknesses and imperfections.
Like the Epitome, the Solid Declaration defines “Law” as the “immutable will of God.” While the Christian delights inwardly in the Law and in the Spirit obeys willingly and freely, he or she is also at war with the old nature that remains at complete enmity with the Law. The coercion and force of the Law are needed, then, for the Christian only with regard to his or her old nature. The “alte Adam,” like an “unmanageable and recalcitrant donkey,” still needs the club of the Law through instructions, threats, punishments, and miseries. This is remarkably similar to a statement made by John Calvin with regard to the Law’s third use: “The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.”
The Solid Declaration reiterates that Christians also need the Law in order that they might not, under the deception of being led by the Spirit, establish rules of piety without the authority of Scripture. Furthermore, the teaching of the Law is needed to keep the Christian humble toward his or her own works, and the Law acts as “a mirror” revealing the impurities even of the believer’s works. Yet the believer is reminded in the Gospel that all his or her works are acceptable to God only through Christ and that God is pleased with the inward willingness to obey through the Spirit.
The Formula of Concord is mostly in agreement with Melancthon on the teaching of the “third use of the Law.” Both link the task of the “third use” to the justified Christian in terms of his or her “old Adam.” Where the Formula of Concord stands in more direct contrast with Melancthon is in its explicit rejection of good works as necessary for salvation. In his 1535 Loci Communes, Melancthon stated that good works in the Christian life are necessary for salvation. In the 1543 edition, however, he did change his wording to emphasize that good works are necessary for “retaining our faith,” stating that “the Holy Spirit is driven out and grieved when we permit sins against conscience … faith is cut off through sinful works.” Ken Schurb suggests that this modification was made to satisfy criticisms of Luther but only to make more explicit what he meant in 1535. Indeed Melancthon had became implicated in a controversy in the 1530s between Conrad Cordatus (1476?–1546?) and Caspar Cruciger (1504–1548) over the necessity of good works with regard to salvation. This debate flared up again as the subject of intra-Lutheran strife in the 1550s and provides the backdrop for the carefully worded statements of the Formula of Concord.
To Melancthon and the Formula of Concord, then, goes the credit for the formal definition of a “third use of the Law” in Lutheran theology. Yet it is quite important to note that Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586), a Lutheran theologian and principal author of the Formula of Concord, in a commentary published posthumously in 1591 on Melancthon’s Loci Communes, actually ascribes the origin of the threefold division of the Law to Luther in context of his discussion of the Law and the justified Christian in his Galatians commentary: “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.” This comment has been overlooked by modern scholars who dismiss the possibility that Luther himself was behind the origins of the “third use of the Law,” a use that is more readily associated with the Reformed tradition.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that Chemnitz’s treatment of the “third use of the Law” is polemically charged, particularly as it relates to defending the preaching of the Law against antinomians and with the purpose of wanting to demonstrate his faithfulness to Luther’s theology. Therefore, this comment cannot simply be taken at face value, for it is at least possible that his interpretation was skewed by an apologetic and rhetorical agenda. It must be compared with Melancthon, the Formula of Concord, and ultimately Luther.
Chemnitz opposes those who appeal to the freedom of faith and the Holy Spirit to justify their own subjective inclinations. 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.” Chemnitz then delineates three separate causes for the “third use of the Law” (Tertius usus) in the life of the believer. First, he states that the Law of the Decalogue adequately prescribes the good works that please God. Secondly, the Law continues to humble the Christian by revealing remaining imperfections. Although this has to do with the continuing function of the Law to reveal sins, it is extremely important to note that Chemnitz refrains from equating this with the “second use of the Law” (Secundus usus Legis), which he identifies as applying to the justification of the unregenerate. Thirdly and lastly, the Law is important on account of the fact that the believer is not yet fully spiritual, but is paradoxically both an “old” and “new man.” It is on account of the flesh and the fact that faith does not possess full power and spiritual renewal is not complete that the Christian still benefits from a certain amount of 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.” These statements of Chemnitz are essentially the same as those found in the Formula of Concord and the later editions of Melancthon’s Loci Communes. Whether or not Chemnitz is right to ascribe the origins of the “third use of the Law” to Luther has been a matter of great debate since the mid-twentieth century.
In response to Karl Barth’s lecture “Gospel and Law” (“Evangelium and Gesetz,” published 1935), a series of reactionary works appeared by Lutheran theologians Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, Gerhard Ebeling, and Ragnar Bring to defend the paradigm of “Law and Gospel.” In the lecture, Barth purposefully shifts the order of the paradigm to stress the goodness of the Law as inherent to the covenant Promise, “that the Law is nothing else than the necessary form of the Gospel, whose content is grace.” For the Lutheran theologians, this turned the Gospel into Law and made the good news a matter of works. This resulted in a surge of scholarship devoted to the interpretation of historic Lutheran texts and documents.
According to one such scholar, John Calvin was the one responsible for the “leveling out” of the “contrast between law and gospel” in his stress on the role of the Law as a normative rule for Christian conduct. Indeed, in the Institutes Calvin does identify the primary function of the Law to be that of instructing and exhorting the believer to good works, which Elert identifies as the Gospel serving the Law within a covenantal framework. Elert even suggests that this statement is a polemic against Luther who always identified the primary purpose of the Law as its “usus theologicus,” or the revelation of sin. Scholars such as Elert argue that the “third use of the Law” is un-Lutheran, that it was an aberration introduced by Melancthon, but given even greater prominence by Calvin and Reformed Protestantism. This Reformed emphasis on the Law in the Christian life is blamed for tendencies toward legalistic moralism in later Puritanism.53 It is precisely this emphasis that Barth seemed to reaffirm in his lecture and that was believed by his Lutheran critics to be detrimental to the integrity and priority of the Gospel.
Elert’s most significant contribution to the discussion of the “third use” in Luther is his essay exposing a forgery in the Weimar Edition of Luther’s works. In Luther’s A Disputation Against the Antinomians (1538), three uses of the Law are clearly described in detail. However, Elert argues that this passage appears in only two of the existing nine manuscripts of the disputation and was probably interpolated later by an unknown author. In fact, no actual minutes of the entire series of disputations exist. Prior to the nineteenth century, Luther’s theses were the only source of knowledge regarding the antinomian disputations. Even when discovery was made of the earliest known record of the disputations, this could not be dated any earlier than 1553. One clue for Elert that the “third use” text does not belong to Luther is the association of the pedagogical use of the Law with the civil use, or usus politicus, rather than with the usus theologicus. Elert proposes that this association is more akin to Melancthon and was probably inserted as if they were the words of Luther by an unknown editor. Of the only two texts that do contain the “third use” passage, one author has been identified as Israel Alectriander, a student of the University of Wittenberg beginning in 1550, twelve years or so after the actual event of the disputation. Elert considers this text, then, to be a cornerstone proof inappropriately used by many previous scholars to argue for a triplex usus legis in the theology of Luther.
Gerhard Ebeling agrees with Elert, though with some modifications. Ebeling observes that Luther only ever formally spoke of a “duplex usus legis.” Ebeling agrees with Elert that the one text mentioned above is pseudopigraphal. Ebeling enlarges on Elert’s forgery thesis, however, and actually pinpoints three of nine manuscripts that contain the disputed “third use” text, although in the third manuscript it falls in a place remotely distinct from the other two. That these texts all appear in different places with no textual variations may suggest a common editorial origin. Ebeling also importantly notes that the oldest manuscript (Helmst. 773, dat. 1553) does not contain the interpolation of the “third use” passage.
One other “third use” passage in Luther is found in his exposition of Galatians 3:23–29 in the Weihnachtpostille of 1522, which does refer to a “threefold use of the Law” and was translated by Martin Bucer in 1525 as triplex usus legis. Ebeling argues, however, that upon closer examination Luther is referring to something completely different from what is commonly identified as a “third use of the Law.” Luther is distinguishing here between complete disregard for the Law, outward compulsion by the Law, and inward desire for the Law. Ebeling convincingly demonstrates that this is not how Luther elsewhere even formally defines the “usus legis.”
One noteworthy attempt has been made to defend the “third use” text in the antinomian disputations. In an unpublished dissertation, Norman Lund argues that Melancthon’s formulation of a tertius usus legis was commensurate with Luther and may even have been a reiterating of Luther’s position. He acknowledges along with Ebeling that only three of the nine manuscripts of the disputation contain the text, but argues that there are “wide divergences” beyond whether or not the text is included. Lund actually suggests a “deletion” thesis, that this text was in fact removed from the other six manuscripts. Contrary to Elert and Ebeling, Lund argues that only four of the nine manuscripts could really be used to deny the authenticity of the text (Goth. 264; Helmst. 773; Pal. 1827; Rig. 242). Of the three that do contain it (Helmst. 722; Aug. 67; Monac. 940), two manuscripts place the text at variable locations after the closing of the disputation while the remaining manuscript (Monac. 940) places it several pages earlier in a previous argument. Lund suggests that the probable reason for this discrepancy is due to the appearance of an “M. Georgius” whose impertinence during the disputation caused him to be completely omitted in three of the manuscripts. Therefore, the single copyist of Monac. 940, probably for polemical reasons, decided to move the words of Luther made after the formal closing of the disputation into this earlier section. Two of the six manuscripts that do not contain the text (Helmst. 688b; Homb. 74) end the recording of the disputation well before any of the others so they cannot even appropriately be used to argue in support of the forgery thesis of Ebeling and Elert.
Lund proposes that remarks made by Luther himself after the formal closing of the disputation were obviously not included by every copyist. The manuscripts that do not contain the questionable text also continue the dialogue after Luther’s formal word of dismissal, but Lund argues that there is “no need to allege falsification because of the fact that three of the copyists record one final remark which the others omit” since the copyists were under no obligation to continue recording the discussion.
Lund also criticizes Elert for banking his argument too much on the fact that the disputed text aligns the usus paedogogicus of the Law with the usus politicus. Lund agrees that Melancthon does diverge from Luther by restricting the usus paedigogicus to the usus politicus, but argues that Luther himself associates the two on occasion.
Lund does admit that the disputed text seems out of place in the disputation and that a reference to “exercise in obedience” is out of character for Luther. Nevertheless, Lund postulates that Luther borrowed from Melancthon’s Loci Communes of 1535, a possibility he points out Ebeling and Elert never consider. Whereas H. Fagerberg argues that differences between Luther and Melancthon over the usus legis possibly existed, though there is “no recorded difference of opinion” between them, Lund highlights the fact that Luther in his Table Talk praises Melancthon’s treatment of the Law in the later 1530s.
The controversy involving this disputed text is complicated but critical. If Luther was indeed the author of these words, the debate surrounding the “third use of the Law” in Luther would appear to be finally settled, at least with regard to his theology of the later 1530s. However, since none of these manuscripts can be dated earlier than 1553, and due to the fact that the earliest extant manuscript does not contain the text in any form and it is missing from six of the nine manuscripts, it would be difficult to ever build a case alone on such a questionable text. For now, it seems safe to conclude that Luther never formally referred to a “third use of the Law.” That does not automatically mean, however, that the substance of a “third use” cannot be discerned in his theology. For example, Helmut Thielicke acknowledges that the disputed text is not found in the most reliable manuscripts, but he argues that it is not necessarily in conflict with Luther’s theological intentions. He believes Elert’s accusation of the text as a “blatant falsification” is an exaggeration based on faulty assumptions and that other texts of Luther besides this one can be shown to infer a “third use of the Law.”
Ragnar Bring has been very influential in providing theological objections to a “third use of the Law” in Luther on the basis of its lack of coherence with the general tone of his thought. While he admits that certain isolated statements of Luther could in fact be interpreted in agreement with a “third use of the Law,” these interpretations contradict Luther’s basic presuppositions. According to Bring, the “third use of the Law” upsets Luther’s dialectic of Law and Gospel and imposes upon him definitions and meanings that are foreign to his thinking.
Furthermore, Bring argues that by its very definition a “third use” must be unique to the life of the believer as “new man.” To say that the “first” and “second uses of the Law” continue to apply to the “regenerate” (pii) in a way that is distinct from the “unregenerate” (impii) does not even constitute a “third use.” According to Bring, the Christian as “new Man” needs no such Law to govern his conduct because he is ruled inwardly by the Spirit of Christ through love and obeys the Law freely without any need of command, instruction, or coercion. Bring does acknowledge that the Law is still needed for the Christian with regard to the flesh, but the enduring task of the Law with regard to its first and second uses is not a “third use.”
Lauri Haikola similarly objects to a “third use” in Luther, for the simple reason that Luther always objects to the Law as having any positive function with regard to Christian obedience. The Law demands obedience but provides no “strength” necessary for doing good works. The Christian as “new man” is not ruled by the Law, but rather becomes its master. In Christ, the Christian rules over the Law and has the authority to challenge it if for some reason it conflicts with showing love to others. Love guides the believer in every situation and by its very free nature is prohibited from ever becoming bound to a fixed form. Each new situation presents the Christian with a fresh way to respond in love. However, Haikola points out that experience does show a certain degree of universality in the way love is applied, and this is how Luther can affirm the usefulness of the Ten Commandments. Yet the new obedience of the Christian motivated by love extends above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Law. A “third use of the Law,” then, is incompatible with Luther’s thought on the basis that it circumscribes the freedom of love. Haikola only allows for one to speak of a “third use” in Luther when this applies to Christian vocation and civic service.
Gerhard O. Forde personally objects to a “third use” in Luther, since the Law functions for the Christian as a citizen under the old age and not the age to come that has already dawned through faith, but has stated that scholars for the most part now agree that a “third use” in Luther is at most implicit rather than explicit in his writings. Forde and others have made the important observation, however, that the crux of the whole argument centers on how the “third use of the Law” is defined.
Paul Althaus, in his classic work on the theology of Luther, admits that the formal expression of the “third use of the Law” never appears in Luther’s writings, though he suggests it is there “in substance.” According to Althaus, Luther indeed understands the Christian to be a new creature free from the Law with regard to justification and the gift of the Spirit, but there is still a sense in which the Christian in the flesh needs both the continuing, though mitigated, theological use of the Law to reveal sins and, depending upon the level of the increase of the Spirit, the positive ethical imperatives of the Bible to guide him in good works. However, Althaus prefers to describe the ethics of the New Testament as apostolic “commands” and imperatives of the Gospel rather than “law” to distinguish the positive instruction in good works from the negative work of revealing sins, though he admits that the New Testament exhortations fall under Luther’s more general definition of “Law” and are in agreement with the Ten Commandments. Althaus also makes the distinction between “commands” (“Gebot”) and “Law” (“Gesetz”) in his work The Divine Command. He observes that the justified Christian is free from the condemnation and coercive nature of the Law, but is nevertheless expected to abide by the evangelical “commands” implicative of the Gospel. Thus, whereas “Law” is more negatively associated with revealing sins in both the condemned and the justified, the “command” is positive and affectionately instructs the Christian with regard to the doing of good works. However, Althaus admits again that Luther himself never makes such a formal distinction between “command” and “law.”72
Wilfried Joest asks whether or not Luther’s emphasis on evangelical freedom leaves room for “an exhortational office of the Law” that agrees with the “sense” of a “third use of the Law.” According to Joest, “Law” in Luther is not equivalent to any abstract notion of the will of God or to specific ethical commandments, but rather is defined existentially according to the experience of guilt. “Law” lays the burden of salvation on the human person, and “Gospel” unconditionally declares that salvation to have been accomplished by Christ.74 Joest argues, however, that “Luther knew a command that—only truly in with, and under the Gospel—gives concrete directives, and an obedience of faith that is united to the freedom of faith.” These commands do not confront the believer in the same manner that Law confronts the unbeliever. As a result of being saved it says “you can, because” rather than “you must.” According to Joest, Luther’s emphasis on evangelical freedom does not absolve the need for commandment, but rather provides liberation to obey without the fear or burden of having to merit salvation. Rather than looking for an implicit “third use” in Luther, since this disturbs the purity of the Law-Gospel dialectic, Joest argues instead for a “practical use of the Gospel” (usus practicus evangelii) that applies to the Christian with regard to his or her freedom and not in the character of condemning Law.
Similarly, according to Otto Pesch, “a third use of the Law” is “unlutherisch” if it is assumed that the Law inhibits or diminishes Christian freedom. Yet Pesch, like Joest, agrees that Luther still reserved a place for Biblical “directives” and “exhortations” to guide the Christian life, though these are in complete harmony with the nature of Christian freedom.
Ole Modalsi agrees that the “evangelical” or “Gospel exhortations” are heartily embraced by the Christian with regard to his or her faith, but emphasizes the duality of the Christian as simul justus et peccator and points out that these exhortations are “required” for the believer on account of the “old man.” In one sense then, the commandments of God are welcomed by the Christian much as they were by Adam in the innocence of paradise, as “a friendly admonition,” but at the very same time the Christian as “old man” continues to encounter them as “driving and damning Law.” Even the accusing force of the Law persists in the conscience of the Christian throughout his or her earthly life, although this is to be overcome by the consistent comfort provided in the Gospel.80 According to Modalsi, Luther’s doctrine of a duplex usus legis should not be misinterpreted as dismissing the reality of a “use of evangelical [or Gospel] precepts” (usus evangelicus praecepti) and that Luther’s emphasis on the obedience of faith is actually consistent with the sense of a “third use.” Furthermore, since the obedience of faith surpasses that of the unbeliever’s outward obedience to the Law, this could also suggest a “third use of the Law.” Yet Modalsi contends that Luther never used “lex,” but rather “praeceptum,” when speaking of the obedience of faith. Therefore, he suggests that it is more accurate to speak of a “third use of precepts” (tertius usus praeceptum) rather than a “third use of the Law.”
Much of the work that argues for an implicit “third use of the Law” in Luther has focused on his Small and Large Catechism, particularly his exposition of the Ten Commandments. Eugene Klug is one scholar who considers it surprising that “in spite of Luther’s clear support of the concept of the third use of the Law there is a strange opposition on the part of many ranking Luther scholars to the idea that he taught it or supported it.” In his report on the Fifth International Congress for Luther Research (1993), Klug described a “strange, really antinomian opposition” on the part of many delegates to the idea of a “third use” in Luther. According to Klug, “Luther is so explicit in upholding the concept of the Law’s special use for the Christian as a guide and norm for godly living,” and that “Brilliantly plain is his use of the concept in his catechisms and the Galatians commentary.” Klug argues that Luther’s teaching on the “third use” is thoroughly consistent with the Lutheran confessions, including the Formula of Concord. Contrary to the opinion of scholars such as Elert who believe that Melancthon and later theologians polluted Lutheranism with works-righteousness, legalism, and moralism, “he [Elert] closes his eyes arbitrarily against the voluminous evidence in Luther’s writings in support of the third use of the law.” Although the Christian as “new man” theoretically requires no commandment, the Law is still needed as a guide because of the “continued presence of the old man.”
David P. Scaer has published widely on Lutheran theology, particularly as it relates to the theme of sanctification and the Law. He affirms that sanctification in Lutheranism comes not from the Law but from faith and that the Law in its condemning, threatening, and coercive function can never produce truly good works. The Law is simply the embodiment of what faith does naturally. However, like Klug, Scaer sees in Luther’s exposition of the Ten Commandments a description of what would only later be more formally termed the “third use of the Law.” Scaer argues that Luther’s positive augmentation of the negative prohibitions of the Decalogue suggests that the Law has a function in the life of the Christian qua Christian other than that of prohibition and threat.
Other scholars who agree that a “third use of the Law” is at least implicit in the theology of Luther include H. H. Kramm, Jeffrey K. Mann,88 and Armin W. Schuetze. In his essay, Schuetze attempts to demonstrate the substantial agreement of Luther with the Formula of Concord and asserts that Luther simply neglected to number the Law’s continuing function in the life of the believer as a “third use.” Walter H. Wagner answers “an unequivocal but non-Calvinist ‘yes’ ” to the question of a “third use” in Luther and contends that more attention should be given to the catechisms as Luther himself would have desired.90 This point has been challenged, however, by Bernard Lohse, who argues that Luther never taught a “third use of the Law” even in the catechisms, but only an implicit “pedagogical use.”
More recently, Jeffery Silcock has argued in an unpublished dissertation that to impose a “third use of the Law” on Luther fails to do justice to his teaching that the “usus legis” always functions in the life of the Christian insofar as he or she is still a sinner. Silcock argues that it is best to speak of “faith’s use of the law” rather than even an implicit “third use.” Similar to Bring, Silcock argues that whenever Luther speaks of the Law in any normative sense, this more accurately refers to an enduring “usus theologicus” rather than a new and independent “third use.” The Law always confronts the Christian existentially with sin and never merely as a neutral commandment, although this was also certainly true for Melancthon. According to Silcock, the Law acts “in service to the Gospel” and guides the Christian in good works against the deceptions of the flesh. Yet the Law does this only by arousing Christians to battle against the flesh by reminding them of their sins so that good works can be performed freely through the gracious indwelling of Christ through faith. The Law then becomes a servant of the Christian, which allows Luther to speak of creating “new decalogues.”94 Like Althaus and Joest, Silcock acknowledges a distinction in Luther between the harsh preaching of the Law and the preaching of “paranesis,” or “gospel imperatives,” which are more like gentle coaxes and invitations. While Silcock praises Joest’s “laudable attempt to explain the evangelical character of the law” by identifying a usus practicus evangelii rather than a “third use of the Law,” Silcock points out that even the preaching of “paranesis” acts like Law and thus leads the Christian back to the Gospel so that good works may come freely and spontaneously from faith. On this account, Silcock suggests an “evangelical use of the law,” or “faith’s use of the law,” even though, technically speaking, the Law really ceases to be “Law” when made a servant of faith and the Gospel.
The issue of the “third use of the Law” in Luther’s theology has become somewhat of a tired, though still unsettled, debate. Two recent interpretations of the theology of Luther by leading scholars do not even explicitly address the dispute. The lines have been drawn between those who essentially deny it, those who argue for its substantial but implicit presence, and those who fall somewhere in between but who prefer to name it something else. In some sense the debate is really a moot point when considering that the formal development of the “usus legis” in Lutheranism really postdated the major works of the English evangelical reformers. However, the issue of what the “third use of the Law” essentially means and whether or not it can be found in Luther is an important one because it asks whether or not Luther emphasized a positive role for the Law with regard to the life of good works and Christian obedience. This point is the hinge on which much previous scholarship on the early English evangelicals has turned in its identification of a significant contrast with the theology of Luther.


Law and Gospel in Luther’s “Breakthrough Years” and Early Lectures on the Bible (1513–1519)
IT IS IRREFUTABLE THAT LUTHER ALWAYS RECOGNIZED THE NEED FOR the preaching of the Law, and this was true of his earlier as well as later writings. However, the precise function of the Law in relation to the true Christian is far more complex and has generated the most vigorous debate. In fact, confusion over how the Law relates to the Christian who is both righteous and sinner explains why scholars such as Carl Trueman can understandably interpret Luther as being ambivalent towards the Law. The harsh words Luther has to say about the Law in one place compared with the adulation he expresses for the Law in another place can seem duplicitous, but Luther’s statements must be interpreted in their historical and polemical context, or “situational nature,” whether he is arguing with medieval Catholics or with antinomians and enthusiasts.2 Furthermore, Luther’s stress on the Christian as both righteous and sinner and its relationship to his theology of Law and Gospel cannot be overstated.
Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel first took form during his lectureship on the Bible at the University of Wittenberg between the years 1513 and 1519. By the time the lectures began, Luther had been wrestling for years with the unsettled state of his soul before God (Anfechtung) nurtured by the dissatisfaction of his conscience in obtaining peace with God through the austere ascetic piety of the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt. Much to the displeasure of his father, Luther terminated his path to a legal profession and entered the Erfurt monastery in 1505 to seek the favor of his eternal Father by a strict adherence to the laws of the Augustinian Order. It is possible that Luther had been considering the life of a monk long before 1505, and that the infamous thunderstorm on the way back to Erfurt one summer night merely made more urgent the calling of God he had been sensing for a long time. Ironically, having entered the monastery to placate God with a higher dedication to mortifying the flesh, Luther, transferred to the Augustinian House in Wittenberg in 1511, found in his university lectures on the Bible the necessary tools to attack the theological training that had caused him so much angst and had impressed upon him the need to rely on the contribution of his own merit in justification. By the time of the publication of The Freedom of a Christian in 1520, Luther was concerned above all to oppose what he perceived was essentially a false doctrine of justification by meritorious works in the late medieval Church. Therefore, quite understandably, how Law and Gospel relate to the justification of the sinner before God takes center stage in the development of his early theology. Yet Luther was never so naïve as to not recognize the implications in a doctrine of justification by faith alone for Christian obedience and he always made room to discuss the value of good works.
In the preface to an edition of his Latin writings published in 1545, it seems that Luther identifies the breakthrough in his interpretation of the “righteousness of God” (iustitia dei), the righteousness not by which God punishes or rewards human effort but that which is given freely through faith in Christ alone, as occurring early on in his second lectureship on the Psalter (late 1518 or early 1519). Yet this autobiographical statement can also be read to indicate that it was precisely his formulation of that breakthrough between 1515 and 1518 during his lectures on Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews that prompted him to return to the Psalms. Scholars such as Alister McGrath have argued that, while Luther’s new understanding of the righteousness of God pertaining to justification has culminated by 1519, it is accurate to identify his “breakthrough” as a development beginning as early as 1514 or 1515.
At the instigation of his Augustinian superior Johann von Staupitz (c.1460–1524), who hoped to divert his attention away from soul-gazing, Luther went on to receive a doctorate of theology in 1512 and to lecture on the Bible at the newly established University of Wittenberg. Between 1513 and 1515, Luther delivered his first biblical lectures on the Psalter (Dictata super Psalterium) and also performed pastoral duties in the city church. In the Psalms lectures, Luther distinguishes Law and Gospel, but not yet in a way that sets him remarkably apart from presuppositions inherited from late medieval Catholic theology. Law refers more to God’s outward rule of the Jews under the Old Covenant replaced by the rule of Christians inwardly through the Gospel and new Law of Christ rather than the righteous commands of God sentencing judgment upon all sinners to be distinguished from the promise of absolute forgiveness, justification, and acceptance through faith in Christ. In his surviving scholia, first published in the early twentieth century, Luther drives a sharp contrast between mere outward obedience in bondage to fear under the rule of the Old Covenant Law and inward obedience to the Law of Christ in a spirit of freedom through the power of grace. The works of the Law are done coercively, outwardly, and only for temporal advantage, and the Jews had become content with keeping the Law only with the hand and not with the heart. The Gospel of Christ, however, reproves the idolatrous pride of the human heart bringing about a desire for forgiveness and the help of grace to enable the Christian to delight in the moral Law and fulfill it from the heart, which is the root of righteous works leading to the merit of eternal reward.9 Luther speaks even in these early Psalms lectures of justification by grace through the righteousness of faith in Christ who made satisfaction for sins in His death, as well as the receiving of power from God in grace to keep the Law freely for merit without compulsion, but McGrath has convincingly argued that Luther has not yet established against his late medieval theological education that the desiring of grace through humility and faith is itself the result of God’s selective, prevenient grace working inwardly nor does he stress the Gospel more strictly in contradistinction to Law as the proclamation of forgiveness and the reckoning of righteousness before God through faith in Christ.
In 1515 Luther began his lectures on the book of Romans, which lasted through the summer semester of the following year. As with the Dictata super Psalterium, the scholia that served as the basis for his actual lectures was not published until the early twentieth century. These lectures are significant for understanding the development of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, as well as the coinciding maturing of his theology of Law and Gospel.
In his textual glosses on the Latin text of Romans, Luther describes the moral Law as essentially natural Law and that the core of the Decalogue was inscribed on the conscience from the very beginning of time. The Gentiles may not have received the written Law in the manner of the ancient Jews, but they have always had the Law written upon their minds. Thus, the moral Law existed long before the coming of Abraham and Moses. The Jews found it easy to scorn the Gentile peoples for adultery and murder, but Paul rebukes them for failing to keep the spirit of those laws inwardly. According to Luther, this moral Law binds all people and transcends time, geography, and national identity. All other specific laws, whether of a civil or ceremonial character, are culturally contingent. The Gentile nations were never expected to keep all the laws handed down by Moses to Israel. However, devotion to the one true God and love of the neighbor is at the very core of the Decalogue and binds every child of Adam together in moral accountability. Accordingly, unbelieving Gentiles will not be judged according to the laws of Moses, since these laws were never intended for them. However, this does not excuse them from God’s wrath for the works of the natural Law were written on their conscience and will be their judge.14
Luther repeatedly stresses that any good work done to escape punishment or for personal benefit, though perhaps appearing righteous in the eyes of the world, only fulfills the Law outwardly. In fact, if people were brutally honest, they would wish all laws away so that they could obey their lusts without any fear of retribution or penalty. As such, the Law actually arouses hatred of God and His Law since it represses and restrains selfish desires. As in his Psalms lectures, the kind of outward obedience that is elicited forcefully constitutes “works of the Law” (opera legis) for Luther. These works do not and can not justify, and they possess no merit because they do not flow freely from a heart of pure love for God. Luther does make a distinction between people who are confident of their righteousness in such “works of the Law” and those whose works are “prepatory” to the receiving of righteousness and justification knowing the inadequacy of their efforts, hating their sins, and desiring that God would show them mercy and make them righteous. In fact, Luther comments that such humility indicates that a person is indeed “already righteous in a certain sense. For a large part of righteousness is the will to be righteous.” The knowledge of sin and a heart of repentance that results in prayerful pleas to God for the mercy of forgiveness and the help of His grace to be made perfect and free of all sinful impulses characterizes the entire earthly life of the elect: “he who thus seeks in heart and work, by the very fact that he seeks to be justified and does not think that he is righteous, is doubtless already righteous before God.” It is not those who are satisfied in outward works of compulsion for their righteousness but those who work while humbly seeking the grace of God and constantly desiring that He show them mercy and make them righteous whose sins are not reckoned by God for condemnation through faith in Christ. In other words, the presence of sin does not necessarily condemn the sinner, but only the inward consent of the heart and a false trust in outward works of compulsion. Luther’s understanding of justification in terms of healing from the power of sin, along with his emphasis on the righteousness that is bestowed from God through the humility of faith apart from works, is evidence of some influence of Augustine on the theology of the Romans lectures.17
Following in the footsteps of Augustine and his ancient dispute with Pelagius, Luther describes how the Law makes demands of people without providing any help to sinners in bondage to sin for the meeting of those demands. Thus, those who live under the condemnation of the Law are under the dominion and power of sin, for they are in bondage to reluctant toil and fruitless effort to fulfill the Law. This foreshadows Luther’s later open dispute with Erasmus in the middle of the 1520s. However, even during his lectures on Romans, Luther was aware of how his more Augustinian theology of the Law and original sin set him apart from Erasmus’ annotations on the Epistle to the Romans in the Novum Instrumentum (1516). George Spalatin (1484–1545), chaplain and secretary to Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, speaks of a “friend” (Luther) who disagreed with Erasmus’ ambivalence on the issue of original sin as well as his interpretation that justicia operum or legis in Paul referred only to the ceremonial works of the Law as if justification was still by the moral Law.
According to Luther, Jew and Gentile both stand eternally condemned and helpless under the judgment of the Law, whether the written Law on tablets of stone in the case of the Jews or the natural Law written on the conscience in the case of the Gentiles. Obedience to the works of the Law can never satisfy the justice of God or make one righteous in His eyes. Rather, the Law is fulfilled because the person is already righteous and has come to recognize his or her own natural weakness and reliance upon the grace of God: “For we are not righteous because we act according to the Law, but because we are first righteous, therefore we then fulfill the Law.”
Luther describes openly in the beginning of his scholia on Romans that the “chief purpose of this letter” is to undermine all pretense of human righteousness before God: “we must be taught righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign.” Luther makes clear, then, really for the first time that the precise function of the Law with regard to justification is to humble the sinner by exposing the deep roots of sin, which actually increases by the compulsion of the Law. To the sinner, the Law is rigorous and its harshness actually expels all personal delight in it, which constitutes the essence of real moral perfection and righteousness.
Therefore, Luther’s Romans lectures develop the important emphasis that the Law brings the knowledge of sin, and not only the knowledge of sinful acts but the very bondage of the natural will and disposition of the soul. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, theses prepared for a disputation presided over by Luther in 1517 and then printed in 1520, Luther reiterates that the will by original sin is naturally opposed to the Law: “Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.” The natural will cannot even desire to do good without grace.24
The context of Luther’s objections to free-will is the late medieval “covenant” (pactum) theology of Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–1495) whose writings Luther studied as a monk under the tutorship of Johann Nathin. Biel was himself influenced by the teachings of the English Franciscan William of Ockham (c.1287–1347) whose philosophical ideas had become firmly entrenched at the University of Erfurt under professors Jodocus Trutvetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi von Usingen. Luther as an arts student in 1501–1505 had already encountered Ockham’s belief that the absolute freedom of God (potentia Dei absoluta) transcends the dictates of human reason and is restricted only by His revelation (potentia Dei ordinata). This, along with the progressive vision of European humanists in providing tools for studying ancient texts in their original languages, such as the Hebrew scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522) and the Greek and Latin scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536), made an influential contribution to the importance of biblical revelation in the thought of Luther. Also following Ockham, Biel taught that the infusion of grace in justification enabling good works that lead to the reward of eternal life is a congruous merit given by God in His own covenant of mercy to those who in their own natural powers, “doing what is in them” (facere quod in se est), desire this grace through repentance. Luther had openly spoken of preparation for grace earlier in his Psalms lectures (1513–1515): “Therefore he bestows everything gratis and only on the basis of the promise of His mercy, although He wants us to be prepared for this as much as lies in us. Hence as the Law was the figure and preparation for the people for receiving Christ, so our doing as much is in us disposes us toward grace.” McGrath argues that the Luther of the Dictata super Psalterium is still influenced by this via moderna tradition of late medieval scholasticism and points out that it was Luther’s reading of Augustine in conjunction with his study of the book of Romans that caused him to openly challenge these popular assumptions as a revival of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. Luther’s response was then to make even the preparation leading up to the grace of justification through the humility of repentance and faith the effect of the internal and prevenient work of God in His sovereign grace.
In the Romans lectures, Luther does state that between the ungodly and believing Gentile lies the person who: “through some good action directed toward God as much as they were able earned grace which directed them farther, not as though this grace had been given to them because of such merit, because then it would not have been grace, but because they thus prepared their hearts to receive this grace as a gift.” Peter A. Lillback identifies Luther’s initial break with medieval covenant theology in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517) and in his preference for describing the Gospel as an unconditional “testament” guaranteed upon the death of Christ. Yet the concept of congruous merit is explicitly excluded in the Romans lectures,31 and his conscious use of “testament” must not overshadow the fact that Luther did go on to speak of the baptismal promise and the ongoing battle with sin in the life of a Christian in terms of a “covenant” in 1519 and in later sermons on baptism in 1528 and 1538. Furthermore, although Luther’s anfechtung in the confessional resulted precisely from his doubts about the sincerity and merit of the contrition in his confessions, he still continued to stress that a sinner must always be moved by God first through repentance under the Law to desire the gift of righteousness in Christ promised in the Gospel and received through faith alone. The significant development beginning in 1515–1516 is in Luther’s insistence that the very movement of the conscience to seek justification in Christ is itself the fruit of the prevenient and sovereign grace of God and the proper ministry of the Law in distinction to the proper ministry of the Gospel, which was in objection to the late scholastic understanding of justification as God’s covenant of mercy to bestow the infusion of justifying grace as a congruous merit upon the precondition of a natural mind and will disposed to desire grace through its own powers of repentance and humility before God.
Luther argues in his Romans lectures that the giving of the Law increased rather than decreased sin, yet insists that there is no fault in God’s Law and that His ultimate intention was not that sin should increase. Rather, the Law was given and sin necessarily increased because of the utter wickedness of human nature. Even without the giving of the Law in written form, transgressions against the natural Law would have continued. The fact that the Law was given at Sinai simply afforded the Jews the opportunity to see more objectively the contemptible state of their natural depravity.
At a convention of German Augustinians held at Heidelberg in April of 1518, Luther, at the behest of Staupitz, prepared a series of theses for academic disputation. Luther was told to avoid the issue of the selling of indulgences directly, which his 95 Theses (1517) had recently made the subject of an intense controversy involving the integrity of the papacy. Instead, the Heidelberg theses expand on the necessity of repentance, which Luther believed had been undercut by Tetzel in his recent marketing of indulgences beyond the borders of Electoral Saxony. Luther writes of the bondage of the will to sin and reaffirms that this bondage is not on account of any inherent fault in the Law itself. Instead, the Law, seen through the sufferings of Christ on the cross, exposes the deficiency of human works in salvation so as to exalt the works of God. Contrary to “theologies of glory” that rationalize a human contribution, the incredible sufferings of Christ on the cross for humanity reveal the utter powerlessness of the Law, “the most salutary doctrine of life,” to make wretched sinners righteous by it. This emphasis on weakness and self-abasement as opposed to the self-confident rationalization of the late medieval scholastics explains Luther’s brief sympathy with certain aspects of the medieval German mystical tradition, such as in the sermons of the Dominican Johannes Tauler (c. 1300–1361), exemplified by his own publication of the anonymous Theologia Germanica in 1516–1518. Instead, the Law actually kills, condemns, accuses, and utters the wrath of God against the guilt of all mankind. Righteousness, then, is not by the doing of the Law, but by the believing of faith in the revelation of the Gospel. The Law says to men “do this,” which has not yet been done, whereas the Gospel says “believe in this,” which promises that the whole Law has already been satisfied for sinners.38 In his Explanations of the 95 Theses (1518), Luther explains again that “Through the Law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the Law points out but does not take away. And we ourselves cannot take it away.” Yet the Law is still extremely important with regard to the necessity of cultivating contrition, as Luther explains in the Heidelberg theses: “sin is recognized only through the law.”40 In fact, this cultivation of repentance through the Law is the operative work of God Himself (opus alienum) that He might, in turn, make the repentant sinner righteous through faith in Christ (opus proprium).
In the Romans lectures, Luther begins to carefully develop a proper distinction between the Law and Gospel with regard to their intended effects on the human heart. The work of the Gospel he characterizes as “properly” to preach Christ and the forgiveness of sins. This must not be confused with the proper work of the Law, nor must Christ be thought of as only a new and better Moses. If the nature of the Gospel is confused with the giving of commandments, it would then cease to be really “good news.” The work of the Gospel is to preach comfort to consciences troubled by the Law with the promise of the One who performed all that the Law demanded. In his earlier Psalms lectures, Luther describes the “Gospel” more as the law of love in the life of Christ that judges all human egotism. By 1519 Luther still describes how the sacrifice and sufferings of Christ in the passion rightly induce contrition. The cross, which was the death of Christ for sin acts first as a reproof of sin for it was the righteous Son of God who endured the punishment. In a sermon by Luther entitled “Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” a copy which was sent to Spalatin in 1519 and appeared again in Luther’s Winter Postil of 1525, Luther goes so far to state that “the main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he be terrified and crushed by this.”44 Augustine also put a heavy emphasis on the role of the Incarnation and the sufferings of Christ as a blow to human pride, yet the “proper” work of the Gospel as Luther begins to emphasize it and distinguish it from the “proper” work of the Law in the Romans lectures is the proclamation of absolute forgiveness of sins in the death of Christ and the gift of complete righteousness in Him.
In his new and revised scholia on the Psalms, based on lectures begun sometime in the latter part of 1518 and published as the Operationis in Psalmos (Psalms 1–22) in 1519–1521, Luther continues to develop this contrast between “Law” and “Gospel” particularly in light of the distinctive pedagogies characterizing the dispensations of the Old and New Testaments respectively. The teaching of the Law and works properly belongs to the dispensation of the Old Testament, namely the Mosaic Covenant. The imposition of these laws and threats of punishment, however, only succeeded in bringing about human rebellion and the wrath of God. The teaching of faith and grace, on the other hand, properly belongs to the dispensation of the New Testament ushered in by the death of Christ. The doctrine of faith is more fully revealed and more frequently spoken of in the light of His coming. It is the preaching of forgiveness, the fulfillment of all righteousness in Christ, and the promise of peace and freedom for all who believe. Luther does continue to speak of Christ as a “Lawgiver” (legislator) in the revised scholia on Psalms, and his stress on the superiority of Christ over Moses as the One through whom is bestowed the needed power to truly fulfill the inward demands of the Law is similar to statements made in his earlier Dictata super Psalterium (1513–1515) where Christ is described as a “Lawgiver” (legislator) and “Giver of evangelical law.” However, in his Lectures on Galatians, which were delivered in 1516–1517 following his lectures on Romans and published as a commentary in 1519 and again in 1523, Luther is careful to stress the proper work of Christ in the Gospel not as “a lawgiver” but “the fulfiller of the Law.”
Yet Luther never loses sight of the fact that Christ did teach the Law. In his scholia on the book of Hebrews, lectures delivered in 1517–1518, Luther describes the preacher of the Word as straddling the two dispensations of “Law” and “Gospel.” On the one hand, he states: “Properly speaking, therefore, it is not the office of the new priest to teach the Law but to point out the grace of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law.” However, at the same time, Luther maintains that, “since in this time that righteous man for whom the Law has not been laid down makes no more than a beginning,” the evangelical preacher, much like John the Baptist, must teach the Law as well as point to Christ the Savior.49 Luther also acknowledges in his Lectures on Galatians (1519) that Christ and the apostles in the New Testament openly preach the doing of works, but that the proper definition of their new office is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. Thus, Luther here already implies that Law and Gospel relate to the Christian as paradoxically a sinner and a righteous person, a member of both the present fallen world and the more perfect world to come.
For all his stress on the powerlessness of the natural human will before the Law, Luther still valued it, not only as that which shows the very need for the Gospel but also as being the very delight of the Christian who has been released from guilt. In his glosses on the book of Romans, Luther states that the Christian is no longer under the condemnation and dominion of the Law and on this account actually becomes a willing servant of Christ and does good deeds from a cheerful heart pleasing to God: “through faith in Christ we satisfy the demands of the Law and through grace are freed and voluntarily perform the works of the Law …”
To have the gift of the Holy Spirit is to have the Law living in the heart, and this is different from having the works of the Law written on the heart: “Indeed it is a law without a law, without measure, without end, without limit, and a law reaching beyond everything that a written law commands or can command.” The Gospel by no means abolishes the Law, but only the burden of having to merit God’s acceptance by keeping it. Instead, by the word of the Gospel is created in the Christian an obedience that is free, spontaneous, even if no law or commandment existed. Despite his later objections to the apostolic canonicity of James, Luther follows Augustine in juxtaposing Paul’s stress on justification before God apart from the Law with James’ stress on the keeping of the Law as the fruit of faith and a justification already received. Luther differentiates between a state of life under the Law and a state of life under grace. The “works of the Law” condemned by Paul in Romans are any works that are merely outward and produced by the force and compulsion of the Law. Contrary to the medieval commentator Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270–1349) as well as the more contemporary Erasmus, Luther follows Augustine in interpreting “works of the Law” not only as the ceremonial legislation of the Jews but all works including the moral Law. The works applauded by James, however, are the “works of faith” (opera fidei) that are done in a spirit of liberty flowing from justification as the spiritual fruits of a living faith.
Luther is careful, however, to maintain that not even the works of faith possess merit before God, in opposition to what medieval theologians such as Aquinas referred to as “condign merit” rewarded to a faith “formed by love” (fides caritate formata). Luther is insistent that neither the works that precede nor the works that follow faith have anything to do with meriting justification or righteousness before God. In opposition to the ethical philosophy of Aristotle, which had been adapted for medieval Christian thinking by Aquinas and was the subject of lectures given by Luther at the University of Wittenberg during the single academic year of 1509–1510, Luther now states emphatically that it is not the habitual practice of virtue that makes one virtuous: “The works which precede do not justify because they prepare for righteousness; those which follow do not justify because they demand a justification which has already been accomplished. For we are not made righteous by doing righteous works, but rather we do righteous works by being righteous. Therefore grace alone justifies.”57 While “justified,” “grace,” and “made righteous” in the Romans lectures still convey a sanative meaning similar to that found in Augustine, Luther clearly deviates from medieval Thomism’s rationalized concept of a supernaturally created “habit of grace.” Adapting Aristotelian concepts of motion, substance, and accidents to the process of salvation, this “habit” in scholastic thought was a creative operation of God in the soul, a righteous disposition infused by His grace resulting in the forgiveness of sins and exercised through human cooperation in the performance of good works for the increase of condign merit and the reward of eternal life. That this grace was perceived as a created habit now belonging to the soul itself was seen to be necessary since “saving charity must be a voluntary act arising from a disposition man could call his own.” Luther not only opposes the idea that this created habit of grace is the basis of justification and righteousness before God, but Stephen Ozment also argues that Luther even early on in 1509–1510 falls more in line with the Sentences of Peter Lombard (c.1100–c.1160) in believing that the moral regeneration of the Christian is the uncreated and personal presence of the Holy Spirit mysteriously “working internally without [human] aid or volition.”
The lectures on Romans are a significant turning-point in the early development of Luther’s evangelical theology of justification. Luther stresses throughout the lectures that a sinner is justified purely by mercy and grace, receiving righteousness extrinsically from God in Christ through faith apart from all works. This righteousness is both a full and complete reality reckoned or imputed to the sinner in Christ and a partial reality relative to the renewal of the Christian through the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ in faith. “Justification” understood more exclusively as “imputed righteousness” through faith alone in union with Christ and His atoning death and resurrection is developed and emphasized even more strongly by Luther in the 1530s. In the Romans lectures, Luther does speak of the “alien righteousness of Christ” (iustitia Christi aliena) as a gift from God received through faith alone and also of the exchange wherein Christ takes upon Himself the sins of sinners and in turn bestows upon them His righteousness. However, Luther does not speak explicitly of the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (iustitia imputata Christi), and he also stresses that righteousness is “imputed” by God proleptically on account of the future eschatological glorification of the Christian. This is illustrated, using an analogy bearing the influence of Augustine, by a sick patient who is assured a full recovery by the physician long before he is ever completely healed. In the eyes of the physician (Christ) he is as good as healthy even though practical treatment is still required to achieve those ends. Likewise, though the Christian continues to require constant treatment for sin in this mortal life, those who desire His mercy and grace to make them whole and healthy are already reckoned as fully righteous by God on account of the future certainty of complete and permanent healing from sin. Luther does speak of the “imputation” (reputatione) of righteousness and defines it here as the forgiveness of sins. The sinner is accounted in the present as righteous on account of the alien righteousness of Christ received through faith alone and with regard to the sure promise of what God will accomplish in the future in the final resurrection of Christians to glorified perfection. God, then, promises to not “impute sins” (imputans peccatum) to repentant sinners who desire His mercy in Christ and earnestly yearn for Him to make them perfect by His own grace. In fact, as has already been mentioned, Luther considered such humility and the desiring of the mercy and grace of God in Christ as characteristic of the whole life of the Christian and indicative that the sinner is already justified in righteous standing before God and has the beginnings of renewal in His Spirit. Thus, the Christian is: “both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And thus he is entirely healthy in hope, but in fact he is still a sinner; but he has the beginning of righteousness, so that he continues more and more always to seek it, yet he realizes that he is always unrighteous.” Repentance and reliance upon the mercy and grace of God as a state of mind characterizing the whole life of the Christian is reaffirmed by Luther in Thesis 1 of his 95 Theses (1517): “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Luther rarely throughout his entire career makes the more formal distinction common in later Protestantism between “justification,” or the forgiveness of sins through the forensic declaration or imputation of righteousness in Christ, and “sanctification,” or the regeneration of the sinner followed by a life of good works. Justification conceived more explicitly in terms of “imputed righteousness” in Christ does become more developed and emphasized by Luther especially in the 1530s, yet Paul Althaus argues that Luther throughout his career continues to use the words “justify” and “justification,” although in a secondary sense, in terms of God’s inseparable but subsequent work of “making righteous,” or healing from the power of sin through the effective presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of Christ in faith only to be perfected at the final resurrection.
Scholars such as McGrath argue that this more formal distinction between “justification” and “sanctification” is really the legacy of Melancthon upon later Lutheran theology, although the origins of “imputed righteousness” could be said to lie within the theology of Luther. McGrath acknowledges similarities between Luther and Augustine on the doctrine of justification but argues that Luther was no mere imitator of the ancient bishop’s theology even in 1515–16. It is clear from his early Romans lectures that Luther did not adopt all of Augustine’s interpretations of Paul, as he himself later claims in a comment recorded by Veit Dietrich in 1532. Nevertheless, even in the 1530s, Luther continued to quote from Augustine, considered his insights on justification to be the best among all other Church Fathers, and generally praised his writings as second only to the Scriptures.
Luther was in agreement with Augustine that righteousness in justification is not possible by works of human free-will in obedience to the Law but originates entirely outside of mankind in the sovereign grace of God. Luther, much like Augustine, also encompasses progress in the Christian life under “justification” (semper iustificandus) but defines this as being “justified anew” through returning to Christ rather than as a process of becoming “more and more righteous” intrinsically through cooperation with the grace of the Spirit as in the theology of Augustine. According to McGrath, Luther interprets the antithesis of “flesh” and “Spirit” theologically rather than in the more anthropological manner of Augustine, and Augustine stresses “faith working through love” rather than “faith alone” as justifying before God and attaining eternal life, defining “justified” and “grace” more in terms of being “made righteous” intrinsically through the healing power of the grace of the Spirit that increases through “participation in the divine life.” According to McGrath, this interpretation of Paul is explicitly rejected by Luther on account of his understanding that the Christian in this life always remains intrinsically sinful so that righteousness in justification is entirely and only ever extrinsic in the “alien righteousness of Christ” (iustitia Christi aliena). This is true both of the complete reckoning of righteousness in Christ as well as of the moral regeneration and renovation of the Christian in the living presence and power of the Holy Spirit and Christ present in faith. McGrath does acknowledge that Luther’s theology of justification has a sanative and proleptic quality, first identified by Karl Holl in the 1920s, and that this shows some affinity with the theology of Augustine. Holl argues that Luther’s theology of justification is analytic and that God imputes righteousness on account of the fact that He has already begun and will complete His work of making the sinner righteous. Althaus agrees that there is a proleptic dimension in Luther’s theology of justification and that this continues to be reflected even in his later writings as well, but he criticizes Holl for minimizing the importance to Luther of the necessity of imputed righteousness in Christ through faith alone to forgive the guilt belonging to the Christian as still sinner.
In Luther’s theology, justification is primarily the reckoning or imputation of righteousness in Christ, which is God’s promise (promissio) of complete forgiveness for sins in Christ and His atoning righteousness received through faith alone. As scholars have recently stressed, this is never a mere legal fiction, for this divine Word that promises complete favor with God in Christ possesses the powers of creation, establishes a new reality of being, and through the divine gift of faith and the present Christ and life of the Spirit adds a new orientation of delight in righteousness and hatred of sin in the experience of the Christian.
It is also true, however, that the more carefully developed distinction between “justification” as the imputation of righteousness in Christ and “sanctification” as regeneration to good works in later Lutheranism tended to obscure the union in justifying faith of Christ as both the favorable verdict and renovating power of God in the theology of Luther. Through justifying faith in the Gospel, the Christian not only passively receives the complete reckoning of righteousness before God in Christ but also the righteous desires and affections of the Holy Spirit and the present Christ. Indeed, as Luther will later elaborate, the Christian is healed from the power of sin in this life only as faith increases, because as the old self decreases and faith in Christ increases room is made for the redeeming crucified and risen presence of Christ to rule powerfully without interruption through the Spirit.70
Essential to understanding how “Law” and “Gospel” apply to the life of the justified Christian is Luther’s concept of the Christian as “simul justus et peccator,” which he really begins to develop in the Romans lectures. According to Luther, it is the mind, or conscience, of the Christian that is released from the authority and condemnation of the Law through faith in the promise of forgiveness in the Gospel. By this faith and the inward power of the Holy Spirit, a spontaneous delight for God and His Law is created within the Christian. However, the Christian is still unable to accommodate his or her new desires in the purest sense because he or she also remains a sinner and experiences impulses that are contrary to the very same Law. In his Explanation to Thesis 6 of the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther states that sin is present wherever there is felt the slightest hint of unwillingness, hesitancy, or reluctance to perform God’s will. This is experienced to a greater or lesser degree throughout the Christian life. Such a righteous person whose works are always performed in absolute freedom cannot be found this side of heaven. Similarly, there is no Christian on earth who is immune to sinful impulses, even though he or she does not consent to them inwardly by the presence of faith and the Holy Spirit. The Christian in this life has been transformed by the power of God in the Gospel from a sinner once wholly inclined towards sin but restrained outwardly by the Law, into a person now inclined through the Holy Spirit freely towards the good, but opposed by the sinful nature.73
To shed further light on Luther’s understanding of the Christian as simul justus et peccator it is important to understand the distinction he makes between “flesh” (caro) and “spirit,” or “Spirit” (spiritus). Luther clearly recognizes that the Bible often distinguishes between the immaterial part of a person, the “soul” (anima) or “spirit” (spiritus) and the “body” (corpus), and that the former is the animating and determining principle of human action: “For the flesh experiences no desire except through the soul and spirit, by virtue of which it is alive. By spirit and flesh, moreover, I understand the whole man, especially the soul itself.”
Many scholars have argued that during his lectures on the Bible Luther broke away from tendencies toward Platonic, dualistic anthropologies inherited by early and medieval Christian asceticism, which interpreted the disparity between “flesh” and “spirit” described by Paul in Galatians 5:14 in terms of the inferior passions and sensualities of the body (sensus) in dissonance with the pursuit of God through the higher faculty of the mind or “reason” (ratio). Even Augustine, who stressed that sin is essentially a problem rooted in the enslaved will, spoke of the libido in human sexual reproduction as a sinful passion and the one that most supplants the godly exercise of reason. Scholars rightly point out that Luther develops an entirely different approach to the antithesis of “flesh” and “spirit” as descriptions of human nature viewed in totality (totus homo) before God, with the rational soul at its core. With regard to the “flesh,” this refers to the essential sinfulness of the human soul in all its idolatry, in reason and thought, in values and motivations, and in will and desires inherited by original sin. Luther does not define sin in terms of outward actions so much as the essential disposition of nature that underlies them in the unbelief of the human heart. The idolatrous state of every human soul is a reality even though people can often appear as outwardly decent and rational beings in the eyes of the world. In the light of this contrast, scholars argue that Luther’s definition of the antithesis between “flesh” and “spirit” be understood theologically rather than anthropologically and with regard to the whole human person and the fundamental orientation of his or her nature either toward idolatrous self-exaltation or indulgence, obeying the Law of God only by coercion, or perfect communion with God through humility and faith, delighting in His Law and serving others with love in all things.
The existential struggle between good and evil desires in the Christian is a predicate of his or her paradoxical existence possessing both godly and idolatrous orientations. The Christian is both a “spiritual man” and “carnal man” (spiritualis et carnalis), “righteous” and “sinner” (Iustus et peccator), “good” and “evil” (Bonus et malus). Luther defines the doctrine of simul justus et peccator in the Romans lectures in terms of the conflicting desires within the Christian and not exclusively as the totality of divine acceptance in Christ over against intrinsic human sinfulness. Althaus insightfully observes that simul justus et peccator in Luther’s thought “characterizes not only the paradoxical theological and empirical togetherness of the divine verdict and a man’s actual condition, but also the anthropological conflict within the Christian man.”.
According to Luther, this paradox of the Christian life is best expressed by Paul in Romans chapter seven. Paul speaks of himself as a sinner in the first person, yet states that this only constitutes a “part” of him. Luther defines the “inner man” (interiorem hominem) as the “spiritual man” and “mind and conscience that is pure and delights in the Law of God,” yet for those not yet justified, “the entire man is the ‘old man’ and only outward.” For Luther the unique experience of the Christian is characterized by Paul’s own frustrations with sin: “He does not want to lust, and he judges that it is a good thing not to lust, and yet he lusts and does not carry out his own will, and thus he is fighting with himself; but because the spirit and the flesh are so intimately bound together into one, although they completely disagree with each other, therefore he attributes to himself as a whole person the work of both of them, as if he were at the same time completely flesh and completely spirit.”78 Luther alludes to the ancient theological concept of “communio Ideomatum” to illuminate the nature of this duality: “Therefore we must note that the words ‘I want’ and ‘I hate’ refer to the spiritual man or to the spirit, but ‘I do’ and ‘I work’ refer to the carnal man or to the flesh. But because the same one complete man consists of flesh and spirit, therefore he attributes to the whole man both of these opposing qualities which come from the opposing parts of him. For in this way there comes about a communication of attributes, for one and the same man is spiritual and carnal, righteous and a sinner, good and evil.”
In the Romans lectures Luther does describe the unique existential conflict of the Christian in terms of a disparity of understanding, will, and desire rather than as a strict conflict of mind and body. Luther indeed later speaks of the Christian battle with sin in terms of fundamental thoughts, beliefs, desires, and attitudes in the conscience. The battle between “flesh” and “spirit” in the Christian life is a battle between the intrinsic sinful soul and the Holy Spirit and effectual presence of Christ in faith. This conflict continues as long as life in a mortal body continues. According to Luther, the struggle of the Christian with sin will only be once and for all resolved at the Final Judgment and future resurrection of the body. This does not mean, of course, that struggle with sin in the here and now results from the possession of a mortal body. Not only will the body be made new but it will be reunited with the soul ruled by the Spirit when faith is at last perfected and becomes sight in the presence of the glory of Christ. Luther describes the life to come in terms of the Christian finally being able to purely accomplish the good he or she desires without any hesitation or resistance: “Thus the Spirit accomplishes the good that it wishes when without rebellion it does its work in accord with the law of God, which cannot be done in this life, because ‘I cannot do it’.”82 In his Lectures on Galatians (1519) Luther identifies “works of peace and perfect well-being” performed without the slightest hint of hindrance or resistance, which are characteristic only of the life to come: “if he consents entirely to the Law, he is altogether spirit; and this will take place when the body becomes spiritual.” Not until the future resurrection of the body, what Luther calls the “changing of the flesh,” will the Christian be ruled perfectly by the Spirit and finally and entirely freed of all remnants of sin.
Even though all Christians give in to sinful impulses from time to time, Luther reiterates repeatedly that God does not impute sin to the one who does not give full consent to such sin, as if without contrition, having an inward delight for His Law and earnestly desiring His mercy and the power to be conformed more and more to the Law: “But only to those who manfully struggle and fight against their faults, invoking the grace of God, does God not impute sin.” Luther stresses this same point in his The Holy Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519), a treatise that went through sixteen German editions between 1519 and 1523 followed by a Latin translation in 1543.
Not unlike his contemporaries, Luther refers to baptism explicitly as a “covenant” (vorpinden), which he defines as the eternal promise of God bestowed upon infants to forgive their sins and to no longer impute sin so long as they believe upon His mercy in Christ and live out their “spiritual baptism” by the daily mortification of sins. This clearly agrees with statements in the Romans lectures with regard to the freedom from condemnation of those who maintain an aggressive attitude against sin through resistance, repentance, humility, and the desire to be forgiven and made righteous, which characterizes a battle with sin that ceases only at death. It is worth quoting Luther at some length to highlight the certain conditionality he describes in connection with the promise of justification in baptism:

So long as you keep your pledge to God, he in turn gives you his grace. He pledges himself not to impute to you the sins which remain in your nature after baptism, neither to take them into account nor to condemn you because of them. He is satisfied and well pleased if you are constantly striving and desiring to conquer these sins and at your death to be rid of them. For this reason, although evil thoughts and appetites may be at work, indeed even though at times you may sin and fall, these sins are already broken by the power of the sacrament and covenant. The one condition is that you rise again and enter again into the covenant, as St. Paul says in Romans 8[:1]. No one who believes in Christ is condemned by the evil, sinful inclination of his nature, if only he does not follow it and give in to it … We must humbly admit, ‘I know full well that I cannot do a single thing that is pure. But I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me. He will not count my sin against me, but will slay it and blot it out’ … He will not count sin against us if only we keep striving against it with many trials, tasks, and sufferings, and at last slay it at death. To them who do this not, God will not forgive their sins. For they do not live according to their baptism and covenant, and they hinder the work of God and of their baptism which has been begun.

This battle with sin is a daily reality for the Christian who is “simul justus et peccator.” In his Works on the Psalms (1518), Luther describes the earthly sojourn of a Christian as a life in transition and an overlap between two ages: “There is no one in this life in whom all the completeness of the New Testament has been fulfilled; nor will anyone be found in whom some part of the Old Testament does not remain. For this life is a kind of transition and passage from Law to grace, from sin to justification, from Moses to Christ. But its consummation is the future resurrection.”
As the Christian remains a sinner, so the Law continues its function in relationship to sin. The marriage of Law and sin is what many modern scholars have referred to as the “existential character” of the Law. These scholars also argue that “Law” in Luther is never simply equated with any written legislation such as the Decalogue, but rather is defined as whatever evokes guilt in the human conscience (lex accusans). This is why the death of Christ in reproving sin is described as functioning like Law rather than Gospel. Lex accusans ceases and becomes lex vacua only in the age to come, though this can be experienced in the present in a partial sense through faith in the Gospel. Thus, according to these scholars, the dialectic of “Law” and “Gospel” in the experience of the Christian corresponds respectively to the paradoxical identity of the Christian as still a member of this fallen age but now also of the eschatological age to come. It is certainly correct to say that, for Luther, “the moment never arrives in the life of the Christian when the law has nothing more than an informatory significance for him.”89 Nevertheless, Luther could also speak positively of “Law” in terms of the righteous will of God transcendent of the experience of human guilt.
By 1519, Luther had developed a careful distinction between the proper tasks of Law and Gospel and the biblical dispensation peculiar to each according to their emphasis. However, Luther had also intimated that the preaching of the Law continues to function in the present age alongside the priority of the Gospel. In his Lectures on Galatians (1519), Luther explains that the apostles as ministers of the Gospel regularly preached good works as “explanations of the Law whereby sin should be recognized more clearly.” By the end of 1519, Luther had become more reluctant to speak of Christ as a new “Lawgiver” for the obvious reason of wanting to stress the fact that the proper ministry of Christ was the Gospel. Yet he also wanted it to be clear that the works taught by Christ were not a new and different will of God but merely the proper explanation and interpretation of the will of God already given in the Law, although now with much greater stress on its inward fulfillment. Luther also describes the good works taught by the apostles as “aids and observances by which the grace already received and the faith that has been bestowed may be guarded, nurtured, and perfected, just as happens when a sick person begins to receive care.” Although Luther does not go into detail to explain what this means or how it precisely works, he clearly differentiates between a role for the apostolic preaching of good works in exposing how deep the roots of sin go so that grace might be sought all the more and another role that applies to the Christian on the other side of having received grace and faith on account of the sickness of sin that remains.
Of course, Luther believes that faith itself does not require any such laws or exhortations to good works. Yet Luther also understands that faith does not always wax strong, that the renewal of the Christian is never complete in this life, and the residual promptings of sin remain opposed to the desires that proceed from faith in the Spirit: “in the flesh there is no one who attains this goal perfectly … the description of the fruits of the spirit, against which there is no law, is rather a goal that is set up in front—a goal towards which those who are spiritual must strive. Therefore the Law is not against them insofar as they live in the spirit, but it is against them insofar as they are prompted by the desires of the flesh.”
Luther states that the “Ten Commandments are necessary only for sinners,” but then quickly adds that “On account of their flesh … the righteous, too, are sinners.” However, the relationship of the Law to the justified is not like that of those not justified. The justified Christian is free of the condemnation of the Law and through faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit now has the desire to do above and beyond what the Law before could only outwardly extort by compulsion. The Law and commandments of God are now something desirable and, with regard to Christians as still sinners, serve an important purpose in directing them in obedience to God in the world and in resistance to the sinful promptings of the flesh: “that as persons who are already righteous we may know how our spirit should crucify the flesh and direct us in the affairs of this life, lest the flesh become haughty, break its bridle, and shake off its rider, the spirit of faith. One must have a bridle for the horse, not the rider.” The Christian by faith delights in the Law and uses the commandments of the Law against the promptings and desires of the flesh and to obey God in good works, which in turn have the effect of guarding the integrity of faith from slipping into a false presumption. Luther even says that the “spirit of faith” can be lost if the flesh is not bridled by the Law and commandments. Though Christians through faith have no obligation to the demands of the Law as a means of acceptance before God, neither any need for the Law to instruct them in the right way, the truth is that Christians are also still intrinsically sinful possessing desires diametrically opposed to the Spirit: “the spirit of the righteous man, although through faith it is now without sin and owes nothing to the Law, nevertheless still has a body unlike itself and rebellious, upon which it works and which it disciplines so as to render it, too, without sin, righteous, and holy like itself.”94 In the light of the totos homo anthropology developed in his earlier Romans lectures and repeated again in the lectures on Galatians, Luther’s reference to disciplining the “body” (corpus) cannot be interpreted dualistically, as if the physical body possesses its own rebellious will and desires independent of and contrary to the soul. The Christian life is a battle between the sinful desires of the soul and its indulgence of the body and the righteous desires of the Spirit rendering the body unto the glory of God with thanksgiving in sacrifice and service to others.
As far as faith is concerned, Luther acknowledges: “we are not under a custodian. But the custodian has become our friend and is honored by us more than he is feared.” Without understanding the analogy of the “custodian” (paidagogos, Galatians 3:24) in the context of Luther’s discussion, it can be easily misconstrued to say that Luther disregarded any need for the Law in the life of the Christian. The metaphor borrowed from Roman culture by Paul refers to the practice of a household slave appointed to supervise the education and moral conduct of the firstborn son until his coming of age. Once the child had reached the age of attaining full rights to his inheritance he was free of the supervision and discipline of his custodian and would actually then become his or her master. According to Luther, this image explains why the apostle can often speak so disparagingly about the Law in the context of the doctrine of justification by faith.97 Obedience to the Law that is compulsory is illustrated by the young child in servile bondage to his custodian. For Luther, this is what it means for a person to live in bondage to sin under the Law. Until he or she comes to believe in the inheritance that is bestowed purely by the promise of God, he or she forever remains burdened by the Law and is a reluctant slave to it much like the child is to his earthly guardian.
To be free of slavery to the Law does not mean freedom to live an immoral life without inhibition or consequence. For Luther, this is to understand Paul’s teachings on faith and grace in a “stupid way.” On the contrary, freedom from slavery to the Law is only freedom from servile bondage under the Law as if the law were the means to the eternal inheritance. Insofar as the Christian is accounted righteous by faith and renewed in the power of the Spirit of Christ, no such Law is needed to teach or compel a good life: “So a righteous man does not have to live a good life, but he lives a good life and needs no law to teach him to live a good life.” However, when Luther speaks of the righteous who have no need of the Law, he is speaking with regard to the faith of the righteous in Christ. However, as was already stated before, Luther acknowledges in these very same lectures that even the righteous have need of the Law on account of the flesh and there is no sinner, justified or not justified, who can be entirely without the Law in this life.
Furthermore, true Christian freedom is precisely the freedom to live in the Law and to do good works from a free and spontaneous desire without any regard to penalty, reward, or “out of slavish fear or childish desire.” The Law itself does not change in the Gospel but only the relationship of the Christian through faith to it: “the same Law that was formerly hateful to the free will now becomes delightful, since love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” In fact, the Christian goes from “servitude to servitude, from freedom to freedom,” exchanging slavery to sin for willing service to God under the Law and freedom from righteousness to freedom for righteousness. Like the child who has grown into his inheritance, the Christian in the power of faith now freely chooses what was once formerly imposed.
A Christian is truly free from the Law only in the sense of being liberated from the burden to satisfy God with works. Yet the Christian lives in the Law with a genuine love toward the neighbor, which is “truly the sum, the head, the completion, and the end of all laws.” The Christian serves the ecclesiastical and civil laws of his or her respective government, not as a means of righteousness and not out of a fear of punishment, but in so far as these laws harmonize with the love that springs from faith: “Thus one must be subject to the laws of emperors, of popes, of towns, of states, and of provinces only, as Christ says (Matthew 17:27), to avoid giving offense to them and in order not to injure love and peace.”
By the end of 1519, Luther had developed a solid foundation for his understanding of Law and Gospel, including the role of the Law in the Christian life, and this was only to be later expanded, developed, and worked out in particular contexts. In these early years, as Luther established his theology in opposition to a perceived overemphasis on works in late medieval scholasticism and Catholic piety, Luther came to understand that the Law judges all for failing to fulfill it from the heart. The Law acts importantly as an accuser, revealing the essential idolatry of the human heart and its deserving condemnation by God to bring about humility. To be justified is to receive the reckoning of righteousness from God in Christ through faith alone and through this same faith a righteous orientation through the power and presence of the living God. The Christian by faith in the Gospel and through the power of the Spirit now freely delights to do what was formerly done outwardly with reluctance as compulsory “works of the Law.” Yet the Christian always remains a sinner and experiences opposition to the Law in the sinful impulses of the flesh, never ceasing to plead the mercy of God and to yearn for the day when perfection comes. For now, the Christian is called into the thick of battle against the old nature under the banner of God’s favor who promises not to impute sin to his soldiers for their victory is secure. Until the moment of the final resurrection, when the struggle of faith will at last become sight, and the body itself completely restored by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Law continues to be necessary in the daily warfare of the Christian pilgrim.


Combating Legalism and Lawlessness

Law and Gospel in Luther’s Writings of the 1520s
FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, NAYSAYERS ACCUSED LUTHER AND HIS doctrine of justification as the gift of righteousness in Christ received by faith alone as opening the door to presumption upon the favor of God and thus to moral lawlessness. Such criticisms were made by Catholic scholars and clergy as well as by other compatriot German reformers. However, though Luther did stress the Gospel early on in opposition to a predominance in Catholic thinking on the Law and works in justification, even his earliest biblical expositions of the 1520s stress the importance of preaching the Law in the Church for the sake of the not justified and a use of the Law for the life of the justified with regard to ongoing struggles with sin and the flesh. Throughout the following decade of the 1520s Luther would be challenged to develop his biblical theology in the context of very complicated circumstances and by balancing an emphasis on faith alone coram Deo with the moral obligation of the Christian coram mundo. The revolutionary decade of the 1520s, in which the evangelical reforming theology of Luther began to be implemented and adapted throughout Germany by sympathizers and zealots, is of great importance for observing how Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel addressed everyday life in Church and society.
In 1520, just months prior to receiving his official warning of excommunication from Pope Leo X, Luther published an exposition of the Ten Commandments entitled A Treatise on Good Works in answer to direct questions posed by Spalatin about the role of ecclesiastical ceremonies and the laws of Church and State in a theology of justification by faith alone in Christ apart from works.
Luther begins the treatise by defining a “good work” according to the revealed commandments of God and states that a person need not look beyond the Decalogue for the definition of a truly spiritual life pleasing to God. Contrary to the opinions of his earliest opponents and even modern stereotypes, Luther never exalts faith to the exclusion or minimizing of good works, and states in this treatise his purpose “to teach the real good works which spring from faith.” Such works do not consist of ritual fasts, monastic vows, prescribed prayers, or pilgrimages, which are neither commandments of God nor do they have any goodness in them when performed with the uncertain hope of earning favor from God. Instead, Luther exposits the Ten Commandments, defining them as “a mirror” (ein Spiegel) better than any other to “find what you lack and what you should seek.” Throughout the exposition, however, it becomes clear that Luther is not merely thinking of the outward prohibitions as they are strictly stated in the Ten Commandments, but, rightly interpreted, of the even higher demands for worshipping God and social responsibility that speak about the human heart. Thus, the prohibition against stealing is fundamentally a commandment condemning all forms of material greed and self-love, including the hoarding of wealth to the neglect of the needs of others. To fulfill these demands in truth is impossible for sinners and results only from the renovative power of Christ in the heart through faith and confidence in the Gospel. The person who obeys the First Commandment to believe in the one true God with faith and confidence has no problem fulfilling what the commandment teaches because he or she relies completely on God who has promised to meet every need. This approach to the Law is not entirely new for Luther and is apparent in his earlier Dictata super Psalterium (1513–1515). Of course, his theology of justification has developed much since then, yet in the Psalms lectures Luther similarly defines mere outward obedience to the Decalogue as the “letter” binding the Jews contrasted with the inward “spirit” of the Law interpreted by Christ who gives the power through faith to keep the true intent of the Law.
Later on in the treatise Luther states that the order of the Decalogue reveals a certain hierarchy to the commandments. This is particularly true when comparing the first (Exodus 20:1–11) and second tables (Exodus 20:12–17). Luther argues that the fourth commandment to honor parents refers also to the respecting of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, but it can be broken if conflict arises with the first three commandments to believe, honor, and worship the one true God. As such, the first table deals with restoring the relationship of the sinner to God apart from which no truly good work can come: “For as their conscience stands in relation to God and as it believes, so also are their works which issue from it.”6 Luther argues that faith alone fulfills the First Commandment and “is the very first of all commandments and the highest and the best, from which all others must proceed, in which they exist and by which they must be judged and assessed …” For Luther, there is no distinction between works that proceed freely from faith in the grace of God in Christ, but Luther does contrast, as in his earlier Romans lectures, between works performed in faith and freedom, including even the most ordinary daily activities, with the many faithless works done in a spirit of idolatry whose false motivation is the hope of earning divine forgiveness and favor. Such works are not and cannot be pleasing to God, since they are the intentions of a heart and conscience that is unbelieving in the God who promises to justify sinners on the basis of His mercy and grace alone. This is a breaking of the First Commandment and by implication all the other commandments that derive their true goodness from obedience to the First Commandment through faith and confidence in the mercy of God.
Yet, if faith in the mercy of God in Christ alone fulfills the First Commandment and all the rest, why then should the State have so many laws and the Church so many laws, rituals, and ceremonies that might tempt people to falsely rely on them for justification? According to Luther, the answer is simply lack of faith in the Gospel: “If every man had faith we would need no more laws. Everyone would of himself do good works all the time, as his faith shows him.” Obviously, Luther considered true faith to be a rare commodity in the world. Luther then speaks of “four kinds of men.” First, there are the righteous who through faith have no need of such laws or ceremonies to inspire them to work. Then there are those who will need laws because they will use the Gospel only to excuse their laziness and indulgence. Then there are the wicked who like “wild horses and dogs” constantly need to be restrained by laws, threats, and punishments. Finally, the last group is still immature in their understanding and only needs to be better educated with regard to the nature of Christian freedom in the Gospel. Thus, for a time they are coaxed along by various ceremonies, rituals, and religious practices. Laws and ceremonies are necessary, therefore, with respect to the common order of Christendom, which is made up of the wicked and the weak or immature in the faith.
Luther does state openly in the treatise that the “Christian man living in this faith has no need of a teacher of good works, but he does whatever the occasion calls for, and all is well done,” but he is certainly not precluding the need for the Law in the Christian life entirely. His theology of the Christian as simul justus et peccator developed earlier in his biblical lectures on Romans and Galatians has certainly not changed. Luther was personally aware of the reality that no Christian carrying around the flesh lives in faith so powerfully from moment to moment throughout life and that no Christian can be without the need for some direction with regard to how faith should be applied in the world for others. The fact that Luther uses the Ten Commandments, rightly interpreted according to their inward sense, as the very outline for the whole treatise shows that he understood the “good works” of faith pleasing to God to have an identifiable shape and form with regard to the Christian living in the world for others. It is also important to keep in mind that this statement is made in the context of a treatise whose primary aim is to teach that all works are “good” only in so far as they spring freely from faith and confidence in the mercy of God who reckons righteousness by His grace alone, exposing the fruitless error of trusting in manmade rituals and ceremonial and civil laws as “good works” and the way of righteousness before God. What Luther is essentially stressing in the statement above, then, is that the Christian “living in this faith” and in the confidence of the mercy of God for righteousness does not need to be taught “good works” since faith makes the Christian righteous and all the works the Christian does good and well-pleasing to Him. As to why Luther does not make more explicit the fact that the righteous who have no need of the Law are also sinners is difficult to explain. However, Luther has made clear before and will do so again in forthcoming treatises that faith, though justifying, never has complete power and sway in the life of Christians who still need the Law on account of remaining weakness and susceptibility to sin through the flesh.
Luther reiterates some of these same themes in his better known The Freedom of A Christian (1520), a treatise addressed to Pope Leo X and written within six months after his disputation in Leipzig in 1519 with the Ingolstadt theologian John Eck. It was published in November of 1520 soon after he received the papal bull (Exurge Domine) in October warning him of his pending excommunication and was among the works Luther was asked to renounce several months later before Charles V and other nobles and church officials at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 (followed shortly by the finalization of his imperial condemnation issued on May 26).
Though justification by faith in Christ alone is central to the treatise, Luther balances the utterly passive nature of justification before God apart from works with the expectation of active responsibility on the part of the Christian living in the world for others: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
As he had already come to emphasize before 1520, the commandments of God teach sinners what He justly requires of them while exposing and condemning their own inherent incapacity to fulfill them. Faith alone, then, justifies the guilty sinner because faith leans wholly upon the truth of God’s own promise to reckon mercy and righteousness in Christ: “Faith works truth and righteousness by giving God what belongs to him. Therefore God in turn glorifies our righteousness … our faith shall be reckoned to us as righteousness if we believe.”
Luther refers again to the exchange that takes place through union with Christ by faith, this time using the Pauline analogy of marriage in Ephesians 5:25–32. Just as a husband and wife become “one flesh” and have all things in common, so Christ assumes the sin of the sinner while the sinner assumes the favor of God and all His gifts in Christ. The reckoning of the alien righteousness of Christ through faith first involves the complete imputation of righteousness in Him on account of His death and resurrection but this is inseparable from the additional gift of His own living presence by the Spirit through faith acting powerfully over the intrinsically sinful soul for the moral renovation of the Christian life. On this basis, the divine gift of faith cannot help but be busy in doing good works, and it “only makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation.” Faith ascribes complete integrity to God as He has revealed Himself, and this is the “very highest worship of God … When this is done, the soul consents to His will.” Having been freed of all debt to the Law before God in Christ through faith alone, the Christian nevertheless lives as Christ to his or her neighbor freely and not for a divine favor already possessed.14
Luther states again that faith alone is the fulfillment of the First Commandment and even the “fulfilling of all commandments.” God is neither truly glorified nor is the Law truly fulfilled by mere outward compulsory obedience. Faith is the “source and substance of all our righteousness.” It contains the seed of all truly good works: “for he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest.”
Luther repeats again his insistence that true Christian liberty does not give license to sin, but it is expected that Christians will be productive in doing good works. Even though the “inner man” (interiore homine) on account of faith in the Gospel has all righteousness and freely delights in the will of God, the Christian also has an “outer man” (externum hominem) that remains completely hostile to the will of God in the Law. Thus, although works have no value in attaining justification and righteousness, the Christian must nevertheless work to “reduce the body to subjection and purify it of its evil lusts … our whole purpose is to be directed only toward the driving out of lusts.”
Earlier in the treatise, Luther describes the Christian as possessing a “soul … spiritual, inner or new man” (animem … spiritualis, interior, novus homo) and a “bodily nature” (iuxta corporalem), or “flesh … carnal, outward or old man” (quam carnem dicunt … carnalis, exterior, vetus homo). As in his previous biblical lectures and writings, Luther associates the new creation of the “inner man” with the passive righteousness established coram Deo through faith alone in the Gospel of Christ, while the “flesh” or “old man” remains subject to the Law and to the doing of works as the active compliment of faith for righteousness coram mundo. Luther’s totus homo anthropology developed earliest in his biblical lectures on Romans guards his definition of the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” from being interpreted in a dualistic fashion, as if this conflict characterized an enmity between soul and body. The unique existential conflict of the justified Christian results from a tension between the power of the Spirit and the presence of Christ in faith and the intrinsic sinfulness of the soul that only ceases with death. In another treatise dating to the same period, Luther states that the spirit is the “noblest, best and most important part of man,” and reassures Christians again that, on account of the righteousness of faith, God “does not charge the sin which remains in the lesser part, the flesh, toward his condemnation.” The “flesh” as the “lesser part” refers to the entire old nature and not just the physical body alone. This old nature is destined to die forever when the Christian dies. Until then, God mercifully overlooks the guilt of the flesh with all its sins so long as the Christian is repentant and believes the Gospel for forgiveness.
Even as Adam before the Fall was given the commandment to cultivate the Garden, the Christian does good works as a way of being productive in the world. Luther is quick to point out that, in both cases, the doing of good works is not what “makes him holier or more Christian.” Holiness is an entirely new nature and disposition created in Christ who is present in faith, out of which springs pure love for God and others, and which grows in keeping with growth in faith. Faith in Christ alone makes a person good from within and issues forth naturally in righteous deeds. Luther states in another treatise of 1521 that: “Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example exercises your works. These do not make you a Christian. Actually they come forth from you because you have already been made a Christian.”
Though not original or unique to Luther, he frequently uses the biblical illustration of the tree and its fruit to describe the relationship of faith to good works: “the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked.” Luther certainly has in mind here a rejection of the medieval scholastic understanding of moral virtue as a “habitus” created in the soul by infused grace and increased through cooperation in works for condign merit worthy of eternal life. Luther is also mindful of the familiar scholastic notion of “faith formed by love” (fides caritate formata). However, for Luther, instead of love and works making faith complete or perfect for justification, it is faith alone in the Gospel that makes love perfect. Good works of love are the natural fruits of justification by faith. As faith alone justifies, in the sense of righteousness being reckoned on account of union with Christ, the sinner is also made just and has the beginnings of righteousness through the present Christ solely by means of this same faith. Ironically, and counterintuitive to natural reason, Luther stresses that it is not the active exercise of works that makes one righteous but the passive receiving of the promise of God in Christ by faith alone. In another treatise of the same year, Luther observes that the piling of laws and good works on those who lack faith in the complete mercy of God in Christ only increases their condemnation, since without the freedom that comes from the assurance of divine favor and the gift of the Holy Spirit their hearts grow in defiance and are incapable of obeying freely or willingly.
The emphasis of The Freedom of A Christian leans toward freedom from the Law before God in the Gospel, although Luther clearly describes how such freedom leads naturally to the keeping of the Law and good works. Yet this is not to imply that the Gospel makes the Law unnecessary and irrelevant for preaching and teaching in general. Indeed, Luther’s early evangelical writings would become resources for the antinomian rejection of the preaching of the Law entirely, but this only suggests that such reforming theologians differed with Luther even from the very beginning. While certain isolated statements in Luther’s early writings might appear to call for the demise of the preaching of the Law and works,23 these must be interpreted alongside other clear and unambiguous statements in Luther’s writings concerning the absolute necessity of continuing to preach the Law and works.
Luther makes this point in his Answer to the HyperChristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser in Leipzig (1521). Jerome Emser (1478–1527), also known as the “Leipzig Goat,” was a staunch supporter of Catholic orthodoxy and an early opponent of Luther’s theology of justification by faith alone. In the treatise, Luther emphasizes the importance of distinguishing and preserving both Law and Gospel as “two ways of preaching.” The preaching of the Law, or “letter,” is to urge obedience to the commandments of God without explaining where to gain the power to fulfill them. According to Luther, this was the mode of preaching characteristic of Moses under the Old Covenant, which was never able to make Israel righteous. Instead, it enslaved their consciences to burdensome demands they could never fulfill. Yet, the preaching of the Law nevertheless served the indispensable purpose of leading Israel to seek refuge in the mercy of God, and this ministry of the Law continues even into the present age of the Church. The ministry of the Spirit and the preaching of grace characteristic of the New Covenant properly begin where the office of Moses ends, but the ministry of Moses did not end in an absolute sense, as the antinomians came to believe, with the first advent of Christ and the coming of the Spirit. Rather, Moses’ office ends when personal faith in the Gospel begins. This is why the preaching of the Law is necessary even after the historical event of Pentecost: “Therefore, it is impossible for someone who does not first hear the law and let himself be killed by the letter to hear the gospel and let the grace of the Spirit bring him to life. Grace is only given to those who long for it.”
Preaching the Law in this way is nevertheless to be distinguished in form and delivery from Jesus’ moral teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. While hiding away in Elector Frederick’s castle in Wartburg as an outlaw of the state following his trial at Worms and the official issuance of the Edict condemning him in May of 1521, Luther completed a treatise attacking monastic vows as essentially unbiblical, unbinding, and powerless for establishing righteousness before God (including a preface dedicated to his own father who had been opposed to the vows taken by Luther in 1505). While supporting the abandonment of such vows, Luther carefully stresses the importance of doing the good works that God has commanded in Scripture in order that Christian freedom from monastic vows will not be misinterpreted as giving opportunity for fleshly liberty: “Nor can the freedom of the gospel dispense with the commandments.” Luther dismisses the common interpretation that the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:25, 39–44) only speaks of the higher “counsels” vowed by monks to be distinguished from the more common “precepts” expected of the general Christian population. Instead, Luther argues that the Sermon on the Mount teaches the works expected of all who profess to be Christian and disciples of Christ. For Luther, the Gospel understood in its proper sense is “simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man,” but among these “benefits” Luther includes all the wisdom of the commandments and exhortations of Christ to His disciples. In a work of the previous year, Luther explains that this mode in which Christ exhorts His disciples to do good works is very different than the ministry of the Law preached by Moses: “We see too that unlike Moses in his book, and contrary to the nature of a commandment, Christ does not horribly force and drive us. Rather he teaches us in a loving and friendly way … Christ drives and compels no one. Indeed he teaches so gently that he entices rather than commands.” Thus, although Luther believes Christ in the Sermon on the Mount to be simply interpreting the Decalogue truthfully, he does make a distinction between the rhetorical tone of Jesus’ moral teaching and that peculiar to the dispensation of Moses under the Old Covenant. The latter is done more with outward threats and compulsion without providing the motivating power to obey them from the heart, whereas Christ exhorts the disciples to good works in the manner of a loving friend.
That Luther did not want to do away with the Law of the Old Testament entirely on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount is clear in his statement in Monastic Vows that the Ten Commandments “ought not be dispensed with, but observed (if I may so express it) according to their inner meaning, but not according to the conscience” (that is, as a proper means to justification). In fact, the one who lives by faith is the one who keeps the Law rightfully. Luther even says that the “office of the Law is not to demand works of us,” in the sense that the Law gives the power to do good works or to fulfill the Law, “but to show us our sin and our inability … Therefore, just as the works of the law are to be given up, so the teaching of the law ought to be given up.” As in his earlier Romans lectures, the “works of the Law … to be given up” refer to a particular kind of work enforced by compulsion. The works of the Christian living in the Law freely through faith in the Gospel no longer constitute “works of the Law.” Ideally, everyone would live as a true Christian through faith without the need for such compulsion. Of course, Luther knew that there would always be people who without faith can only do “works of the Law.” Thus, Luther’s statements about the “works of the law” and the “teaching of the law … to be given up,” if taken in an absolute sense, must either be interpreted idealistically as if all became Christians and lived by faith or in the sense that the “teaching of the Law” and “works of the Law” as realistically attainable means of righteousness for justification “are to be given up” in Christendom.
Similar statements are made in a sermon from Luther’s Wartburg Postil (1522), a series of homilies created for German pastors and also drafted by Luther while in the Wartburg. The Wartburg Postil was made up of Christmas and Advent sermons and was published in German in 1522. In the sermon on the “Gospel for Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1–14,” Luther states: “in the church nothing other than the gospel shall be preached,” and later on declares that “faith and the gospel, that they and nothing else should be preached in Christendom.” First of all, Luther defines the “Gospel” (Euangelion) as containing two things: “Christ and His example, two kinds of good works: one kind belonging to Christ, by means of which we in faith, attain salvation, the other kind belonging to us, by means of which our neighbor is helped.” Whereas Luther elsewhere defines the proper work of the “Gospel” to be the proclamation of forgiveness promised in Christ, in this context the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the life of Christ as an example to the Christian. Thus, Luther’s statements above cannot be interpreted as removing the need for teaching good works altogether. It should also be noted that the context of these statements is Luther’s objection to the teaching of compulsory works and ritual piety as pleasing to God and meritorious of His eternal favor. Yet, it still might appear that he is denying the ministry of preaching the Law in its Mosaic sense to evoke the fear of God and expose sin and its righteous condemnation. However, in another exposition of Luke 2 in the very same Postil, Luther insists that faith necessarily follows an encounter with the Law: “For without the law no one recognizes himself and what he is lacking; and he who does not know himself, does not seek grace.” Furthermore, Luther describes the Christian after justification as still properly remaining “under the Law,” that is, “according to the body,” and is expected to be active in resisting sin and productive in doing good works for others in the world while passively and wholly trusting in the mercy of God in the Gospel “according to the soul.” Luther, then, on the basis of these other contemporaneous statements, cannot be excluding the need for the Law entirely, but only the wrong preaching of the Law and the value of works, which is basically to preach the Law without the biblical Gospel. It is important to remember, too, that Luther assumes many of his fellow Germans to be living under the same bondage to the Law in anfechtung that he experienced in the monastery, and, thus, what the people needed in the early 1520s was to be less burdened by the preaching of the Law and more comforted through the preaching of the Gospel.
Also completed in the Wartburg, and using the Greek text of Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum (1519), was Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German published in September in Wittenberg (the “September Testament”). Just as Luther had inserted the phrase “only” (allein) after “faith” into his translation of Romans 3:28 to reflect his own understanding of justification, much to the ire of his Catholic critics, the Vorrhede (Preface) to the translation outlines his new evangelical hermeneutic and reiterates his proper distinction between Law and Gospel. The teaching of Law and commandments is predominantly, though not exclusively, associated with the books of the Old Testament canon, and Luther asserts that the Gospel was prophesied long ago in Genesis chapter three. In his Brief Instruction on what to Look for the in Gospels (1521), Luther describes the Old Testament as Christ “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger … all Scripture tends toward him.” Yet, the fuller revelation of that Gospel brought to light in the first coming and life of Christ is the property of the teaching of the books of the New Testament canon. Luther defines the “Gospel” more strictly in terms of the promise of salvation in Christ so as not to confuse it with the proper task of the Law to command, as well as to avoid confusing the two distinctive ministries of Christ and Moses.37 Luther, of course, acknowledges that Christ often taught good works in the gospels, but that it is important to distinguish his rhetoric from that of Moses, as well as to point out that making satisfaction for sins, not teaching works, was the ultimate priority of His coming. In his Brief Instruction Luther warns: “Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws.”
Although Christ and the apostles do often teach and provide examples of doing good works, Luther argues that Christ is always offered first as the gift of the favor of God to be received by faith alone. Whereas the Mosaic pedagogy of works drives and compels by means of terrifying threats and warnings of judgment, the kindlier entreaties of Christ and the apostles exhort Christians on the basis of the love of God in Christ. On this account, Luther favored the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul, since they explained the Gospel more potently than any other New Testament books. Luther even states that he would rather do without the record of Jesus’ life and deeds than the preaching of the Gospel in His death and resurrection, since it is this proclamation that justifies and saves sinners through faith. This does not mean that the record of Jesus’ deeds have no exemplary value for the Christian life, but these are secondary to, even deriving their proper significance and meaning from, the priority of the Gospel.
It is often pointed out that Luther describes the book of James in his preface to the New Testament as an “epistle of straw.” However, it is important to stress that this is not simply because it teaches works, for on that account Luther actually praises it and considers it “good.” Rather, his disdain for the book results from the fact that it really only teaches works and, although works are spoken of as the fruits of true faith, does not speak explicitly about faith in the Gospel of Christ. Luther also firmly disapproves of James’ statement that justification is by faith and works as in the example of Abraham offering up his son Isaac in Genesis 22. Therefore, on account of its utter lack of any explicit discussion of the Gospel of Christ and since it refers to justification by faith and works, Luther could not conceive how the book was properly an apostolic book if the apostles’ ministry was first and foremost the preaching of the Gospel of righteousness to be received by faith alone. For Luther, the practical advice of James without the Gospel acts more like the Mosaic pedagogy of Law. On the other hand, Luther warmly praises the epistles of John for their stress on the importance of good works, “not by harping on the law, as the epistle of James does, but by stimulating us to love even as God has loved us.”
In his New Testament preface to the book of Romans, Luther identifies the structure of the letter in terms of a logical progression from Law to Gospel: “that the law, correctly understood and thoroughly grasped, does nothing more than to remind us of our sin, and to slay us by it, making us liable to eternal wrath.” In the Gospel, the Christian is free of all obligations and debts to the Law with regard to justification before God, yet is expected to do good works for the sake of others: “This knowledge of and confidence of God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace.”43 This does not mean to imply that the justified Christian then becomes morally perfect through faith. Luther reiterates his contrast between “flesh” (Fleisch) and “spirit” (Geist), defining “flesh” in the not yet justified as essentially the entire opposition of his human nature to God, whether “unbelief” or “unchastity.” “Spirit” refers to human nature in harmony with God and the will of His Holy Spirit. While the not justified sinner could be said to be only “flesh,” only the justified Christian is both “spirit” and “flesh” experiencing an existential tug-of-war that wages more or less within all who possess the Holy Spirit through faith. This tension is not equivalent to a dualistic conflict between soul and body, since the soul or conscience is the very seat of a battle with the Spirit against unbelief, lustful desires, envy, hatred, and greed. Although the Christian daily receives the righteous redeeming presence of Christ through faith, the battle with sin ceases altogether only when the Christian becomes “wholly spiritual,” which for Luther occurs at the final resurrection. In the meantime, Luther identifies the major task of faith in the present through the rule of the Holy Spirit as to “slay the old Adam and subdue the flesh,” daily sufferings and tribulations being the best remedies for preserving a sober consciousness of sin and a continued dependence upon the forgiveness and grace promised in the Gospel. No matter how strong the raging of sin that Christians experience, so long as they hate, resist, and fight against these urgings and promptings, repenting if they should fall, leaning always on the mercy and strength of God through faith, there is no condemnation for the sake of Christ. That God on account of Christ does not condemn the faithful who fight and resist sins, are repentant and seek always after His grace, have delight for His Law and earnestly long for Him to rid them entirely of all remnants of sin echoes earlier statements made by Luther before 1520 in his Romans lectures (1515–1516) and in his treatise on the sacrament of baptism (1519).
Following an earlier visit in December of 1521, Luther came out of hiding from the Wartburg permanently in March 1522 to shepherd the reform movement that was beginning to progress at a volatile pace in his absence, even though many of those liturgical innovations introduced by Karlstadt were theoretically agreeable to him. These included serving the people communion in the form of bread and wine and translating the entire Mass into the vernacular (Luther published his own German Mass in 1526). Though not completed until the end of 1522 and published later in the summer of 1523, Luther had already begun some work on the translation of the Pentateuch while in the Wartburg. It was always his intention to translate the whole Bible into German, and, despite the associations of the Old Testament with the Law of the Mosaic Covenant and what Luther perceived was an essentially Mosaic preaching of the Law in the medieval doctrine of justification, Luther highly valued the books of the Old Testament as eminently valuable to the Church.
In response to those Christians who began to antagonize the Old Testament on account of the Gospel, Luther defends its critical importance in his Preface as a servant to the New Testament. Among all the laws and judgments, the coming of Christ is prophesied in the Old Testament period. The New Testament is merely the declaration that the promised Christ has now come and that all that was formerly promised has now been historically fulfilled in Him. Whereas the Old Testament contains many useful laws and tells stories often of the keeping and breaking of those laws, the New Testament tells the story of Christ, of the grace of God, and of His gift of the power to truly fulfill His will. The distinction Luther makes between the books of the Old and New Testament canons is roughly parallel to his distinction between Law and Gospel in their proper senses, but this is not to say that the Gospel cannot be found in the Old Testament books. Luther describes the book of Genesis as “an exceedingly evangelical book” providing numerous examples of faith and unbelief. Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers constitute the core of the Pentateuch with the most detailed expositions of the Law, which Luther defines as important for revealing human sins and weakness under the judgment of God apart from His grace. Luther lastly describes the book of Deuteronomy as a summary of the will of God in terms of faith and love, “for all God’s laws come to that.”
Similarly, the New Testament is not without the teaching of laws and commandments. In fact, Luther states clearly that along with the offer of grace in the New Testament are teachings about laws and commandments, and he adds significantly that this is “for the control of the flesh—since in this life the spirit is not perfected and grace alone cannot rule.” As earlier, Luther again exposes a guarded optimism and preserves the need for moral exhortation in the life of the Christian on account of the flesh and the fact that all Christians are still sinners. Nevertheless, Luther defines the “chief teaching” of the New Testament as “the proclamation of grace and peace through the forgiveness of sins in Christ” and the Old Testament as “really the teaching of laws, the showing up of sin, and the demanding of good.”
As harsh as Luther can be against preaching the Law as a meaningful way to righteousness, as if justification was achievable by works of compulsion, he argues that Moses’ office of preaching works using compulsion is as necessary as it ever was for revealing sin to spiritual “blindness and hardened presumption.” Even the ceremonial laws, though amoral by nature, were commanded by God and thus brought judgment upon Israel because of their disobedience to them. Unlike the ceremonial laws, the moral laws of the Ten Commandments essentially agree with the natural Law of creation written on every human heart. In this case, even before the Decalogue was ever written down, the breaking of these commandments constituted sin and wrongdoing. In Christ, the “law ceases,” and this includes all the ceremonial laws of Israel as well as the whole natural-moral Law of the Ten Commandments. However, the cessation of the latter is not to be understood in this way: “in the sense that they are no longer to be kept or fulfilled, but in the sense that the office of Moses in them ceases; it no longer increases sin by the Ten Commandments and sin is no longer the sting of death.” The distinction Luther makes here between the cessation of the Ten Commandments (Law) and the cessation of the “office of Moses in them” is critically important. The “office of Moses” is the terrifying of consciences, which increases belligerence against God leading to even greater condemnation. This “office” ceases only when Christ is grasped in the heart by faith. According to Luther, the “telos” of this office of the Law was even prophesied by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 18:15, which predicts that another prophet of God would arise. Luther observes that this cannot refer to the later prophets of the Old Testament, since all prophets even unto John the Baptist served the office of Moses by largely urging works and repentance under the Law in the fear of God. The distinguishing feature of this future “Prophet” would be the new emphasis in his message, which is not the teaching of laws or commandments, since “Moses has done that to perfection.” Rather, the office particular to Christ is the preaching of grace and the fulfillment of the whole Law. Whereas the Mosaic Covenant was based on works and promised earthly blessings conditioned by obedience, the New Covenant is guaranteed entirely upon the work of the Messiah who is the fulfillment of all the promises of divine mercy, redemption, and eternal blessing. In this way, the office of Moses under the Old Covenant stands in dialectical relationship to the ministry of the Messianic Prophet of the New Testament.
Out of a concern for reforming the Christian piety of the German people, and probably in response to the religious commotion developing in Wittenberg inspired in part by his own protests, Luther published his Personal Prayer Book in 1522. This was an adaptation of the medieval form of the prayer book already in use by the fifteenth century but now transformed by Luther’s evangelical theology. The prayer book predates Luther’s more well-known catechisms created seven years later and is actually based on an even earlier work entitled A Short Form of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer (1520). The prayer book went through many editions and printings and was eventually replaced in popularity by his Small Catechism in 1529.
Luther purposefully reverses the traditional order of the prayer book. Instead of beginning with the Hail Mary prayer and proceeding from the Lord’s Prayer to the Creed and then the Ten Commandments, Luther begins with the Decalogue followed by the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Luther did include the Hail Mary prayer at the end, but modified it with warnings against false veneration of the Virgin. This ordering reflects his own basic understanding that the Law (Ten Commandments) leads sinners to the refuge and promises of the Creed and to the supplications of the Lord’s Prayer. The devotional purpose of the Prayer Book itself indicates that Luther perceived Christians to have need of the Law for the daily renewal of repentance, faith in the assurance of forgiveness, and the receiving of power for good works and the mortification of sins. In the foreword of the prayer book, Luther identifies these three articles as “the essentials of the entire Bible.” The Ten Commandments reveal the sins of the human heart, the Creed shows people where they can find forgiveness and strength to keep the commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer is a petition to God for help to increase in holy devotion to the God who promises all things to them who keep His ways.
Luther prioritizes the two tables of the Decalogue much as he did in his earlier A Treatise on Good Works (1520). He asserts that the moral Law of the Decalogue is in fundamental agreement with reason and the natural Law of the created order and elaborates on what real obedience or disobedience to the commandments looks like in the context of daily life in the human community. For example, fraudulent business transactions, greed and lust for money, and refusing to pay off personal debt or loans are all ways of breaking the prohibition not to steal from others. In a statement anticipating his praise for the Law in his later catechisms, Luther exalts the Decalogue as containing: “in a brief and orderly manner all precepts needful for a person’s life. Anyone wishing to keep them all will find enough good deeds to do to fill every hour of the day; he need not hunt for other things to do, running here and there to do things which are not commanded.” Luther again has in mind a rejection of fasts, prescribed prayers, pilgrimages, and monastic vows as good works commanded by God. The Decalogue, interpreted correctly is completely adequate for knowing and applying what God demands of His human creation in relation to Himself and to one another, and this is true for Christians who are still sinners. However, at the same time, if it were not for the promises of the Creed and the supplications provided in the Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue standing by itself is only a voice of condemnation and despair for all who rightly understand that it is not fulfilled without love and the complete willingness of the heart.
The Old Testament continued to preoccupy Luther’s attention in the mid-1520s, especially in the light of “radicals” who either considered the Old Testament irrelevant to Christians or who sought to reimplement the formal law code of ancient Israel. In 1523, Luther began lecturing on the book of Deuteronomy to a small gathering made up of Augustinian friars, university colleagues, and even his future pastor Johann Bügenhagen (1485–1558). Luther made transcripts of his own personal lecture notes and edited a complete edition in 1525. Even prior to the outbreak of the antinomian controversy in 1527–1528, Luther already alludes to a certain group of men who want to reject Moses, the Law, and the Old Testament altogether, an extreme conclusion probably drawn from his own emphasis on faith and the New Testament Gospel. Luther instead openly praises the books of the Old Testament as containing rich stories of faith and godliness and wise and useful, though not binding, civil and ceremonial laws.
In the lectures, Luther identifies the inability of the office of Moses by itself to lead to righteousness and the kingdom of salvation, and, in keeping with his understanding that all Scripture points to Christ, that Moses’ exclusion from the Promised Land of Canaan foreshadows this. The Law only has the power to take people as far as the wilderness of Moab, represented by death. Joshua, however, succeeded Moses and led Israel into the Promised Land, but even Canaan was only a temporal and conditional promise to Israel for obedience under the Mosaic Covenant. The New “Testament,” which Luther is careful to distinguish from the Old “Covenant” on account of its temporality and conditionality on the basis of works, was fulfilled by Christ in time but promised long even before the coming of Moses, stretching back before time itself. Thus, Christ does not usher His people into a physical land like Joshua, the temporal enjoyment of which was based on conditional promises, but into a spiritual and eternal inheritance through faith in unconditional promises.
Yet, despite the weakness of the Law on account of sin to lead sinners to eternal salvation, it still remains the proper place for His human creation to look for knowing how God desires to be worshipped and obeyed. Apart from the Word of God, sinful people create their own idolatrous works, such as prayers and fasts, thinking that God is pleased by them: “The people of God should seek wisdom nowhere or know anything except from the Law of its God, where it will find richly and happily how it should conduct itself toward God and man in prosperity and adversity, peace and war. Wisdom gained anywhere else is nothing but stupidity before God.” “People of God” comes from the Old Testament reference to Israel and refers more generally to the whole social body of the Church for whom the Decalogue properly defines the created structures of human community under God. As Luther has stated repeatedly, however, only those truly justified by faith among the people of God are able to desire the keeping of God’s laws freely from the heart.
As made clear in earlier writings, the First Commandment of the Decalogue is not merely a physical law prohibiting the worship of God in the form of an image, but it is the principal and chief commandment to believe and trust in the One true God above all else with complete faith and integrity. It is the “measure and yardstick of all others, to which they are to yield and give obedience.” Moses himself impressed the importance of the First Commandment throughout the book of Deuteronomy, which shows that he himself understood how all the other commandments derive their value from the faith and worship of the one true God.
Luther then speaks of the importance of rightly dividing the Word of God by Law and Gospel. While the Gospel sets the conscience free and at peace with God by eliminating the need for all works and exalting the utter passiveness of faith in the righteousness reckoned in Christ alone, Luther explicitly warns: “see to it that you do not free the flesh through the Gospel, but hold it down and mortify it through the Law and works, just as it is proper for the old man and body of sin to be destroyed.” The Gospel rightly preached, understood, and believed does not excuse Christians from moral action in the world or from the responsibility to actively resist the sins of the flesh. On the contrary, the truth of the Gospel creates the right motivation for these in the freedom and sincerity of the heart and excludes all pretense of seeking to earn the favor of God by them. For Luther, teaching Law and Gospel as it pertains to the “inner and outer man” (interiorem et exteriorem) is to rightly “part the hoof,” an allegorical reference to the dietary laws in Deuteronomy 14. The Gospel is the promise of justification and peace before God in Christ to those who repent and receive the promise with the passiveness of faith, whereas the Law applies to the response of the Christian in obedient action in the world for others: “Therefore let the heart become free through the word of grace, and let the body become a servant through the law of love; then the hoof will be properly parted.” This careful balancing of the right preaching of Law and Gospel is essential for avoiding the twin extremes of works-righteousness and moral licentiousness.
Luther also allegorizes the emancipation of household slaves in the Old Covenant “Year of Jubilee” (Deuteronomy 15:16), which symbolizes the sinner being set free from slavery to sin under the Law by the Gospel. While the sinner labors to please the Master under the Law as a slave, he or she finds its demands impossible and harsh. Consequently, hatred toward the Law and the Master swells leading to an increase of sin and judgment. However, a freed slave in ancient times might choose to have his ear pierced with an awl, revealing his intention to freely remain in the service of his beloved master: “the man now free in spirit nevertheless subjects his flesh the more strongly to the Law and by means of the iron and rigid Law forces it to obedience, as Paul says: ‘I pummel my body and subdue it’ (1 Corinthians 9:27). Thus he remains a slave and a freeman at the same time.” While being set totally free from all obligation to the Law with regard to earning the favor of the Master, the Christian remains intentionally subject to that very same Law in grateful obedience to the Master and in opposition to the contrary desires of the flesh.
Luther again contrasts the prophetic ministries of Moses and Christ, and he repeats his insistence that both offices must be preserved throughout time. Although not equal in respect to the outcome of their ministry, the work of the Mosaic Law to humble and the work of the Gospel of Christ to comfort both bear the stamp of divine authority. Both are necessary to bring about salvation, for without death by the Law there can be no new life through the Gospel.
Luther adamantly rejects those who only trouble consciences by adding more and more works, ceremonies, and laws as means for achieving righteousness. This conflicts with the Gospel being the end and fulfillment of the office of Moses. Luther makes another important distinction between the Mosaic ministry of the Law and the commandments of the New Testament directed to the justified Christian. Luther scholars such as Paul Althaus have thus distinguished the “Law” (Gesetz) from an evangelical “command” (Gebot), and Wilfried Joest prefers to speak of evangelical exhortations and moral implicatives of the Gospel in Luther rather than a “third use of the Law.” In the lectures, Luther does differentiate the form of the “commandments” of the New Testament from the form of the “Law” in its Mosaic ministry under the Old Covenant. Yet, even as Althaus admits, for Luther these evangelical exhortations constitute “Law” in accordance with Luther’s more general definition.60 The distinction that Althaus and Joest make, then, is fair to Luther so long as it is clear that he never thought the moral teachings of Christ and the apostles to be an entirely new ethic different in substance from that of the Ten Commandments as taught by Moses. Luther has already praised the Decalogue in his writings of the early 1520s as the clearest expression of the divine will for the created human community. The proper distinction to be made is in emphasizing the distinct audience, aims, and rhetorical, or pedagogical, form of the preaching of the Law under the Mosaic Covenant compared with the commandments of the New Testament taught by Christ to His disciples. The latter are uniquely given in light of the coming of Christ and His fulfillment of all righteousness for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, which enables the believer to desire the keeping of them from the heart. The Law in its Mosaic office only compels works by force and, acting as an accuser and a mirror of sin, always precedes faith by driving the conscience to seek refuge in the mercy of God, but here Luther speaks of another type of moral exhortation given specifically in light of the Gospel with its own distinct purpose for the life of the Christian.
Luther explicitly states that the commandments in the New Testament are directed toward the justified Christian, though he specifies that this is obviously not on account of their faith that “hastens of its own accord,” but “to kill the remnants of the old man in the flesh, which is not yet justified.” Elsewhere in the lectures, Luther speaks again of Law and Gospel in the Christian life with reference to active and passive righteousness: “The spirit and freedom should be within, in the heart, but the Law and the yoke of deeds should be outside, in the body, so that there is bondage without liberty for the flesh, liberty without bondage for the spirit, but not bondage and liberty on both sides.”62 Again, this language is not to be understood dualistically, as if the Gospel establishes an enmity between the soul and body to be overcome in the life of the Christian. In fact, Luther is describing the ideal Christian life by saying that, though through faith in the Gospel the heart is no longer in bondage to the Law for righteousness coram Deo and is at peace, a heart of faith nevertheless serves the Law in the body in the doing of good works coram mundo on behalf of others in love and in resistance to the opposing desires of the flesh. The commandments of Christ and the apostles, then, uniquely serve the justified Christian not as a cage to restrain a wicked heart lacking the Spirit nor as an accuser of the conscience of the eternal wrath and judgment of God leading to repentance and faith in His mercy for justification (later identified as the first and second “use of the Law”), but to exhort the justified Christian on the very basis of grace, though on account of sin and the flesh, to active resistance against sinful promptings and desires and to diligent moral action for others in the world. Thus, the dialectic of Law and Gospel has a unique application in the life of the Christian as “simul justus et peccator,” which corresponds to complete freedom from the Law and works in the conscience before God through the Gospel and, account of that very Gospel, slavery and duty to the Law and works in resisting sinful desires and in acting morally on behalf of others in the world. Whereas the not justified, unregenerate person is completely “old man” and entirely under the force, dominion, and condemnation of the Law, the Christian with regard to faith in the Gospel is both a “new man” totally free from any obligation to the Law before God yet delighting in His Law and also an “old man” who needs to be mortified daily through the Law and works.
The particular relationship of Old Testament laws to Christian freedom became a practical issue in Wittenberg in the early 1520s. Thomas Müntzer had begun his ministry in Zwickau in 1520 at the recommendation of Luther, and within a year three self-proclaimed prophets from this very town found their way to Wittenberg claiming private revelation and rejecting infant baptism. Beginning in 1522, Luther began to combat the teachings of Müntzer and the Zwickau Prophets, dubbed as “enthusiasts” (Schwärmer). By 1523, it was becoming clear to Luther that Müntzer and others were promoting a militant revolution that far exceeded his own zeal for reform, which he interpreted as nothing less than the work of the Devil. In 1524, John Frederick, the future Elector of Saxony in 1532 and son of Duke John, brother to Frederick the Wise and Elector in 1525, consulted with Luther on the specific question of the continuing validity of the Mosaic Law, which was being used by enthusiasts like Müntzer to endorse a violent, apocalyptic purge of idolatry and all idolaters. In July 1524, Müntzer preached before Duke John and John Frederick in Allstedt Castle, the town of his recent ministry activities, declaring his readiness to lead these rulers in the purging of Christendom with the civil use of the sword. Luther did not agree with Müntzer’s militant approach to implementing reform and believed that the Spirit works perfectly well through the pure preaching of the Word. In fact, Luther perceived that it was precisely for such social revolutionaries as Müntzer that God instituted governments. Thus, Luther allowed for some slowness to the pace of reform and acknowledged a need for patience toward doctrinal pluralism and ignorance. Müntzer’s rejection by the Saxon dukes led him, in turn, to support the economic grievances of the peasants in revolting against the established authorities until his capture and death in 1525.
Luther also had to contend with his former Wittenberg colleague Andreas Karlstadt (c.1480–1541) who was hastily introducing liturgical changes in Wittenberg in 1521–22 and even challenging the practice of infant baptism and the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Luther, in response to a request from church leaders such as Martin Bucer (1491–1551) in Strassbourg, wrote a letter to expose the theological errors of Karlstadt, who had visited Strassbourg after being expelled from Electoral Saxony in 1524. In an earlier sermon preached in Wittenberg in 1522, Karlstadt had called for the immediate abolition of images in churches, and this led to some disorderly removal and destruction by zealous parishioners. In his “Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit” (1524), Luther stresses that ceasing from image worship is really an inward matter of the heart, and though he did not wholly disapprove of the orderly and timely removal of images linked with idolatrous abuses, he interprets Karlstadt’s promotion of urgent “iconoclasm” as a wrongful application of Old Testament law and a new form of legalism and works-righteousness. Luther contends in the letter that the Old Testament injunction to smash images was given to Israel in the context of the Mosaic Covenant involving the promise of Canaan, whereas the Christian in the New Testament combats idolatry through the proclamation of the Word. Similarly, in his “Letter to the Christians at Strasbourg” (1524), Luther rejects Karlstadt’s preaching as ensnaring consciences by imposing works under the guise of righteousness, works which are not even commanded for New Testament Christians anyway: “For we know that no work can make a Christian, and that such external matters as the use of images and keeping of the Sabbath, are, in the New Testament, as optional as all other ceremonies enjoined by the law.”
Thus, in the early to middle part of the 1520s, Luther found it necessary to explain how the freedom of the Christian relates to law, government, and the social order. This was especially true during the years of the so-called “Peasants Revolt” (1524–1526), the culmination of a century of increasing economic exploitation of the lower classes by landowning nobility. Though Luther early on sympathized with the oppressive plight of the peasants and even upheld the legitimacy of some of their grievances, especially their desire to appoint their own local pastors, in his Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525) princes are encouraged to suppress the revolt as a threat to the social order. Luther was angered that the Word of God, the freedom of the Gospel, and even his own words were being used to call for a social revolution and to justify the use of violence and aggressive militant action in rebellion against the established government. Luther did later criticize the princes’ bloodthirsty suppression of the peasant uprising in his subsequent “An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants” (1525), but he continued to defend his earlier statements that aggressive popular insurrection against the government must be repressed for the sake of order no matter what the grievances.
Even before the uprisings, in the spring of 1522 Luther had preached on the obligation to government in a series of sermons on the New Testament book of 1 Peter later printed along with sermons on 2 Peter and Jude in 1523. Luther stresses throughout these sermons the importance of the Old Testament as a foreshadowing of the Gospel. On the other hand, against those who sought to justify iconoclastic violence on the basis of Mosaic laws against idolatry, Luther responds by distinguishing between God’s peculiar government of the Jews under the Old Covenant with His present government of Christians. Whereas under the Old Covenant God governed the moral life of the Jews by enforcing many external civil and ceremonial laws, with the coming of Christ He rules over the hearts of Christians by the Spirit through His Word. The particular civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have all ceased as commandments in Christ, although the natural-moral Law of love was, is, and always will remain in effect for all people regardless of nationality. Nevertheless, nations require civil governments and laws, for Luther acknowledges that not all are true Christians. For while those who live by faith through the Spirit require no civil law to compel them to live upright lives as members of society, those without the Spirit require the threat of the sword for the sake of preserving public peace and the temporal order: “God has instituted government for the sake of unbelievers.” Christian believers, however, need no other government than the Word of God. If everyone were a Christian living in the spirit of faith in the Gospel, there would no longer be any need for government, for people would do good deeds without compulsion, restraint, or threat of punishment, serving one another as Christ has served them.
Although Christians are indeed free from all obligation to the Law with regard to righteousness before God, whether ceremonial, civil, or moral laws, true Christians are obedient to the government in so far as its laws serve their interests in loving and respecting others. Jesus was the perfect example of one who was not in Himself subject to any earthly government, but out of love for others freely submitted thereunto in obedience to the Father for the salvation of humanity. As such, true Christians love one another whether any civil law existed or not, since laws exist to protect the welfare of people: “Therefore I do not want to be compelled to be subject to secular princes and lords; but I will be subject to them of my own accord, not because they command me but to render a service to my neighbor.” To be Christian is to acknowledge that the conscience is absolutely free of all laws for justification before God through faith in Christ, which Luther believed Karlstadt was endangering by zealously reimposing Old Testament laws against idolatry. At the same time, the Christian along with that freedom is to respect the laws of the civil government for the sake of human welfare and the public good, which Luther believed Müntzer and the peasant uprisings in 1524–26 were endangering by revolt and the use of violence in zeal against moral and spiritual corruption. Thus, Luther states in 1525 against the peasants: “for there stands our Master, Christ, and subjects us, along with our bodies and property, to the emperor and the law of this world, when he says, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ … For baptism does not make me free in body and property, but in soul …”
Luther had made this point a few years earlier in the presence of Duke John in the fourth of a series of sermons delivered in October 1522 in response to the suppression of the German New Testament in Ducal Saxony by Duke George. This sermon, probably preached extemporaneously, was later published in the spring of 1523 as Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed. According to Luther, Christians are citizens of the spiritual kingdom of God by faith and are not subject to the laws of the civil government in the same way as unbelievers who do not possess the Spirit. Instead, being led by the Spirit, Christian believers do even above and beyond what the law requires since the government can only rule over outward actions. In this way, true Christians are obedient to the civil law on account of the fact that they have learned to love their neighbor from the heart: “for this reason it is impossible that the temporal sword should find any work to do among [true] Christians, since they do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings demand.” According to 1 Timothy 1:9, it is the unrighteous who require the civil law and its punishments for the sake of keeping the public peace. A true Christian, however, needs to be told to do good unto others as much as a good tree needs to be commanded to bear good fruit. The context of this statement deals particularly with the compulsion of civil law by the rule of government in particular and cannot imply that the Decalogue or New Testament commandments are without purpose in exhorting the Christian to a life of good works on account of the flesh. In this sermon, Luther all but formally defines what he would later identify as the two-fold “usus legis,” and he even refers his audience back to the Wartburg Postil. Aside from the use of the Law characterized in 1 Timothy 1:9, what Luther later refers to formally as the “civil use” of the Law and the work of God in restraining the wicked for the sake of upholding social order within the human community, Luther identifies in Paul another function of the Law as an accuser of sin and a judge of the conscience under the wrath of God. Luther then interestingly states that Christ does a similar thing, meaning he describes a function of the Law, which is the depiction in His Sermon on the Mount of the life of a Christian. In this sense, the Law has a descriptive role in outlining the true Christian life lived through faith in the Spirit. Yet Luther was not overly confident that any Christian lives so perfectly ruled by the Spirit in the absolute power of faith and he already acknowledged that the New Testament commandments are specifically directed to the justified for the sake of controlling the flesh. Thus, whenever Luther speaks of the Christian not needing to be told to do good works he is thinking in terms of the Christian only with regard to his or her faith, which indeed has no need of ethical instructions, laws, or commandments.
In Temporal Authority, Luther also makes the important distinction between the “two governments” (zwei Regiment) established by God, one which is “spiritual” ruled by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of true Christians, and one that is “temporal,” ruling the outward behavior of the unregenerate to preserve a semblance of social order in the world. Luther reiterates that there would be no need for temporal government if the world were made up of “real Christians,” but Luther admits these “are few and far between,” warning that the government must not be abolished until the world is filled up with true Christians. While there is such a temporal government, Christians are among those who submit to it, but they do so freely for the sake and welfare of others whom they love through the power of the Gospel. Christian submis¬sion to the government includes paying taxes and doing whatever else is necessary in supporting the work of the common good. Though a Christian must never take up the sword in personal vengeance and ret¬ribution, he or she supports the cause of the government in punishing criminals for the sake of the protection and welfare of others. In this way, Luther could even encourage Christians to fill vacant positions as “hangmen, constables, judges, or princes” in so far as these vocations were established to protect the people. In fact, Luther states that “For the sword and authority, as a particular service of God, belong more appropriately to Christians than to any other men on earth.” With regard to personal affliction, every Christian in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount must bear suffering as his or her own cross even as Christ tolerated personal injustices without retaliation.78 In this way, the Old Testament concepts of holy war and capital punishment for criminal offenses are completely agreeable to Christians, not on account of any perpetual binding authority of the Old Covenant office of Moses, but in so far as they serve to protect the life and property of others. In fact, every civil and ceremonial law of the Old Testament would be worth keeping if it could be proven that they indeed serve the welfare of others in accordance with the natural law of love written in creation: “For everyone is under obligation to do what is for his neighbor’s good, be it Old Testament or New, Jewish or Gentile … For love pervades all and transcends all; it considers only what is necessary and beneficial to others, and does not ask whether it is old or new.”
Temporal government, then, has every right and power to make laws that protect human life and property, but it does not possess any authority to prohibit the work of the Gospel or to contradict the Word of God. Luther, of course, has in mind in this published sermon the evangelical-minded Christians living under the repressive Catholic rule of Duke George. On the other hand, it is well known that Luther himself earlier in 1520 had appealed to the German nobility as fellow baptized Christians of the one body of Christ, sharing the same “spiritual estate” with those in the pastoral offices, to contribute through the means of their vocation to the much needed work of reforming the Church: “Inasmuch as the temporal power has become a member of the Christian body it is a spiritual estate, even though its work is physical. Therefore, its work should extend without hindrance to all the members of the whole body to punish and use force whenever guilt deserves or necessity demands, without regard to whether the culprit is pope, bishop, or priest.”
In the wake of peaking social unrest later in 1524–1525 and with the religious freedoms granted legally to the German estates by the First Diet of Speyer (1526), princes, nobles, and city councils indeed became much more proactively involved in the establishment of religious order in favor of evangelical reforms in their territories and cities. Luther made frequent appeals to the Elector of Saxony in the second half of the 1520s to support the work of reform in the parishes. Yet it was never his intent either in 1520 or in the latter half of the 1520s to capitulate complete spiritual authority over the Church and its faith and doctrine to the State. In his Address to the Christian Nobility, it was his desire to breakdown the absolutism of a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy by appealing to lay Christians in positions of temporal authority and with regard to the particular privileges and responsibilities they possessed as heads of state. Furthermore, not one of the reforming theses in To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation deals explicitly or significantly with the innovative doctrinal insights that Luther had developed by 1520 but rather, more subtly perhaps, with issues involving the interference of the Roman Curia (Church) in the autonomies of the German nation (State). This was a point which resonated quite profoundly with an already burgeoning spirit of nationalism among the German nobility, including the sympathy of imperial knights Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523) and Franz von Sickingen (1481–1523). The other theses are largely concerned with curtailing religious abuses tied to the surplus of new religious orders, endowments for private Masses on behalf of the dead, and new pilgrimage destinations, of which not even humanist intelligentsia would disapprove.
Luther, then, obviously had no trouble in calling upon heads of state to be involved in some capacity with reforming the Church in their realms, but according to Temporal Authority whenever earthly governments establish laws commanding Christians to believe or to do things contrary to the Word of God or harmful to faith and the Gospel, they misuse their ordained power and must be disobeyed by Christians in allegiance to God, though without any use of force. The Fourth Commandment to honor earthly authority, then, may be broken in honor of the supremacy of the First Commandment to honor God in truth above all else. The temporal government also possesses no rightful power to enforce conversions or to punish dissent with capital punishment, but it can bring civil action against dissenters who nurture social unrest leading potentially toward physical harm against the general population. Luther was of the mindset that magistrates possessed both the authority and the obligation to put down insurrection for the sake of upholding public peace and order, which includes religiously inspired movements of an aggressively or defensively militant nature.84 However, in the 1530s, Luther does cautiously develop a tolerance for evangelical military resistance against the threat of war from Charles V on the basis of allowances made within imperial law itself for acts of self-defense against imperial tyranny and, ultimately, for the protection of the Gospel and the salvation of souls from the real enemy behind the call of the Emperor to war, the diabolical leadership of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, his promotion in the early 1540s of an aggressive program of civil persecution of the Jewish religion shows the evolution in Luther’s understanding of the role of the State in guarding and protecting true Christian religion.
Luther’s treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525) was one of two other important works developing the themes of Law and Gospel in light of the volatile situation of the 1520s, particularly that of the legalism of Karlstadt and other “Schwärmer.” In this treatise, Luther describes five core articles of the Christian faith, and the most fundamental are those that set the conscience free. The first article is the preaching of the Law for the revealing of sin. The second article that follows is the offering of grace in the Gospel. Beyond this there is the outgrowth of Christian obedience, which Luther defines as the mortification and subjection of the “old man” in the life of the Christian. Regarding the fourth article, good works are to flow freely towards the neighbor in imitation of the kindness of Christ. Luther describes the fifth and final article of the Christian faith as proclaiming the Law for the “crude and unbelieving” who need the discipline of the Law “in the manner in which we control wild animals with chains and pens,” which is necessary for the preservation of common peace. In the first and fifth articles, the substance of the later two-fold “usus legis” is plainly evident, and the third and fourth articles on mortification of sin and obedience in service to others imply a “third use” for the Law in the life of the Christian.
The fundamental error of Karlstadt that is the backdrop for this particular treatise is his urging of congregations in the 1520s to cease using images and other ceremonial practices associated with the Mass, such as kneeling before the host, elevating it, and calling it a “sacrament.” In the opinion of Luther, Karlstadt is making such obedience necessary to being a true Christian. Luther interprets this as dangerously similar to papal teaching and another threat to the freedom of the Gospel. Whereas the papacy establishes its own good works not commanded by God, Karlstadt establishes his own prohibitions not forbidden by God. Both the papacy and Karlstadt are more concerned about adding or subtracting external matters than about the attitude of the heart changed by the Gospel. With regard to the traditional use of liturgical images and other ceremonial practices, Luther considers these to be matters of congregational preference, the use of which is neither inherently detrimental to the chief articles of salvation nor in clear violation to any commandment or prohibition in Scripture. Certainly, Luther recognizes that images can be abused and become objects of idolatry, but he argues that this is fundamentally a problem of the heart that requires the proper education of the Word rather than a problem with the external object in itself. A person is not any more a sinner or any less a Christian when using images in an appropriate way. Thus, as it is not necessary for Christians to keep the commandments invented by the papacy, Luther argues that is it not necessary for Christians to follow the prohibitions imposed by Karlstadt: “Dear friend, do no lightly regard this prohibition of what God has not forbidden, or the violation of Christian freedom which Christ purchased for us with his blood, or the burdening of conscience with sins that do not exist.”
Luther rejected the use of the Old Covenant Mosaic Law to justify the necessary removal of images. Luther states again that the commandment to destroy idolatrous images was given only to the Jews with regard to the Promised Land in the context of a national covenant. Furthermore, Luther argues that the First Commandment of the Decalogue and its prohibition against idolatry is really aimed at the worship of God in an image and not the making of images for other purposes, even as the Israelites themselves were told to do on occasions. Thus, Luther did not object to looking upon an image of a saint or even a crucifix if done as a remembrance. Nevertheless, he admits that his purpose for writing the treatise is not to urge the use of images, and Luther recognizes the occurrence of abuses, even supporting the timely removal of those images more blatantly idolatrous or associated with pilgrimages. Yet, this is to be done in an orderly manner through appeals by the people to the local magistrates.
Luther challenges Karlstadt to prove on the basis of the New Testament that it is necessary for Gentile Christians to abolish the use of images. If Karlstadt is bent on urging one Old Covenant law upon Christians, so Luther argues, then he must urge the whole Mosaic Law, which also includes the rite of circumcision. The ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws of the Decalogue cannot be divided in so far as they constitute one body of Mosaic legislation. In fact, Luther argues that the prohibition against worshipping images and the commandment concerning the strict keeping of the Saturday Sabbath in the Ten Commandments should actually be considered ceremonial, rather than moral, laws.
Luther refers to the entire Mosaic Law as the “Sachenspiegel” of the Jews, whereas the natural-moral core of the Decalogue cuts across all historical, cultural, and national boundaries. The Ten Commandments, then, continue in use precisely because “the natural laws were never so orderly and well written as by Moses.” Therefore, with regard to their precise form as recorded in Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments are not the obligation of the Christian under the terms of the New Testament. This is why Luther could reject the smashing of images and the strict keeping of the Saturday Sabbath on the seventh day as binding laws, which were commanded of the Jews only and not discernable in natural Law. With regard to the Sabbath, however, what is not necessary to keep is the precise form and day for which it was commanded, though Luther does argue that it is reasonable for people to set aside time to cease from labor for physical rest and, more importantly, to sit together under the teaching of the Word of God. However, one day is not any more holy than another, nor is any one day of the week the only lawful day. That Sunday should be maintained for the traditional gathering of public worship is for Luther a matter of historical continuity, common order, and not of binding law or divine commandment. The issue of the Sabbath became a subject of real concern for Luther in the 1530s with the Sabbatarians in Moravia, a Christian sect that began observing the Saturday Sabbath as a result of local Jewish influence.
Luther continued these same themes in a series preached on the book of Exodus from 1524 to 1527. One of these sermons was published independently in 1526 as a pamphlet entitled How A Christian Should Regard Moses. The very title of this work suggests its obvious importance for understanding Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel, but it must be interpreted in the context of his debate with Karlstadt and others who sought to impose Old Testament Mosaic regulations on Christians.
Luther reasserts that the giving of the Law at Sinai, including the tables of the Decalogue and all the ceremonial and judicial laws connected with it, were demanded only of the Jews. With this in mind, Luther states that “Moses has nothing to do with us. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses.” For Luther the whole Old Covenant legislation given by Moses composes a single body, and is incapable of division into three unrelated parts. To reject one part is to reject them all. Not even the Ten Commandments in the precise form as they were recorded for the Jews were intended for Gentiles. The Decalogue was given as it was to the nation that God delivered from Egypt and with whom He had made a special covenant at Sinai with regard to the inheriting the land of Canaan. It was not Gentiles whom God rescued from Egypt, yet the Gentiles do have the natural Law written on their hearts, which in almost every way agrees with the Ten Commandments. Thus, on the one hand, Luther can say, “not one little period in Moses pertains to us,” but at the very same time that “We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless he agrees with both the New Testament and natural law.”
The Mosaic legislation was a national law code for the Jews just as the Germans have their own “Sachenspiegel.” Luther states that the temporal governments of Europe could even learn a lesson or two from the judicial commandments of Moses, but they would do so in their own free choice and not because it was commanded of them under the divine authority of Moses. Moses must only be kept by other nations and times in so far as he agrees with natural Law. With regard to the life of Christians, and in place of the authority of Moses, “We have our own master, Christ, and he has set before us what we are to know, observe, do, and leave undone.” Thus, Luther again acknowledges that Christ, while primarily coming to fulfill the Law as a righteous satisfaction for sins, also teaches good works to His disciples, which are nothing more than His interpretation of what the Decalogue really commands and how it is properly fulfilled. Luther speaks as he did in the early 1520s of the Decalogue as the finest expression of natural-moral Law and, in preaching on the Sermon on the Mount later in 1530–1532 in Wittenberg during the absence of Bugenhagen, that “no one, not even Christ Himself can improve upon it.” Yet, again, Luther warns that it is imprecise and even dangerous to simply equate the Law as it was given through Moses with the moral teachings of Christ to His disciples.97 According to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, published at the end of 1525 and written in reply to Erasmus’ essentially moral and practical argument for the power of free-will to desire the good, a significant error of the latter was in failing to distinguish the Mosaic ministry of the Law with its warnings of threats and promises of rewards from the ethical teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. These teachings are not the path of merit before God in imitation of the life of Christ but are spoken with love to His disciples that they might work with gratitude for the grace already promised fully in the Gospel. The former only troubles consciences with the burden of works and so leads to condemnation, whereas the latter exhort on the basis of fellowship with God through faith in the Gospel: “to stir up those already justified and have obtained mercy, so that they may be active in the fruits of the freely given righteousness and of the Spirit, and may exercise love by good works and bravely bear the cross and all other tribulations of the world.”
Luther makes this same distinction in his Lectures on 1 John, which were delivered from August to November of 1527 to the faculty and students remaining in Wittenberg after an outbreak of the plague. Luther is especially careful to counter abuse of the Gospel and to attack false presumption by stressing good works as the sign and demonstration of real faith. Indeed, Luther even states that “the knowledge of Christ has been handed down to us in order that we may fulfill the commandments of God.”101
Luther readily acknowledges the need for exhortation to good works in the life of Christians and warns against yielding smugly to the flesh. Luther even explains that to give in to the rule of sin, which is fundamentally to lose a heart of repentance, reveals that “Christ and the [spiritual] birth have been lost,” for “if the works of the devil are in a person, Christ cannot be there.” He encourages Christians to “retain the seed of the living God,” which is the “Word of God,” in order that they might be shielded from the complete control of sin and succumb to a carnal presumption of divine mercy. Final acceptance into heavenly glory, at least from a temporal perspective, only follows a life of persevering repentance and faith that results in a life devoted to the mortification of sins and good works. While election to eternal life is the hidden and sovereign work of God in those whom He alone chooses, made abundantly clear by Luther in his Bondage of the Will (1525), the pastoral responsibility of the preacher of the Word is to diligently warn Christians against hardness of heart and the deceitfulness of sin.
Luther recognizes that all Christians are beset with temptations, but reasserts that a faithful Christian always does “battle against himself.” Although all Christians yield to sin at one time or another, the faithful quickly rise up again through repentance and faith to new obedience. While Luther claimed that the Devil would often trouble him about his own salvation so that he would call forth the memory of his baptism as assurance of the favor of God toward him promised by the Gospel, Luther also attacks those who place a false trust in their baptism so that they might sin and be disobedient without repentance. This is presumptuous of the Gospel and a false faith, for “[Christ] appeared in the flesh to take away sins, not to give license to sin.” At the same time, acceptance before God and the assurance thereof never rests on the basis of works whatsoever, though these can be reassuring evidence that Christ has indeed made the person righteous through faith in the Gospel. Echoing comments made earlier in The Freedom of A Christian, Luther states that good works never make a person Christian, but they are evidence that one has been made a Christian already: “What is the source of this goodness? It does not come from the fruits; it comes from the root. It does not come from sanctification; it comes from regeneration.”
As made explicit in a sermon of the early 1520s, Luther again describes good works as self-assurances of faith to the point of even strengthening it: “Faith is established by its practice, its use, and its fruit … The consciousness of a life well spent is the assurance that we are keeping the faith, for it is through works that we learn that our faith is true.” Good works are a reflection to the Christian of the presence of the Holy Spirit within and, by implication, a genuine faith in the Gospel. The good works Luther has in mind are, of course, the various ways in which love is shown to others. For the one who has true faith, the commandment to love one another from the heart is not burdensome, for Christ has loved sinners by bearing the burden and severity of the Law for them, forgives them, and by the Holy Spirit through faith in the Gospel frees them to love others in like manner. Christ removed the severity and judgment of the Law in his obedience to death on the cross, eliminating it as a curse and a burden upon the conscience and allowing for genuine obedience to issue forth as the response of faith to the mercy of God. In his exposition of the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism of 1529, Luther even speaks of the ability of Christians to forgive others, though not itself meriting the forgiveness of God, as a special sign sanctified by God to strengthen assurance in the promise of His forgiveness in the Gospel.
The stress in 1 John upon love as the evidence of true faith in the Gospel does not mean, for Luther, that the Christian should be burdened in his or her conscience with a concern for good works: “it is the sum and substance of the Gospel that you should believe and hope.” Luther encourages those whose consciences feel the weight of personal unworthiness before God and who are experiencing the harassment of the Devil in the Law to find peace in the promise of the Gospel and not in the enumeration of works. Although genuine faith is distinguished from false presumption by a hatred of sin and a zeal for good works, despair of personal salvation is never calmed by looking at works, but only by faith in the Gospel.
Aside from the Law as an existential burden and means of driving the sinner to the Gospel, the Christian through faith in Christ now delights in that same Law in obedience to the will of God. This point is made by Luther in his Lectures on Isaiah (1527–1530) delivered between 1527 and 1530. The lectures were interrupted once by the plague and a second time by the Colloquy at Marburg called by Phillip of Hesse in 1529 to unite the German Lutheran and Swiss Reformed traditions in counteraction to the threat of imperial Catholic resurgence. In the lectures, Luther states again that “the Law is no longer outrageous in its dictates but an agreeable companion. The Law itself indeed is not changed, but we are.” True Christian liberty is a freedom of the conscience from the judgment of the Law before God, but not freedom from the Law with regard to a life of moral action: “This is indeed a great knowledge, to know well the use of law, namely, for outward government, not for the conscience. This has been set free by Christ, if only we believed.” Similarly, in his Lectures on 1 Timothy given in Wittenberg in 1527–1528, Luther states: “To the Christian the Law is most sacred. Because it is divine wisdom it is a very fine and sacred thing. The fact of the matter is this: but the wicked and the pious man have the Law. Both have a very good thing. But they disagree over its use. The former misuse a very sacred thing.” The misuse Luther obviously has in mind is “when I assign to the Law more than it can accomplish. Good works are necessary and the Law must be kept, but the Law does not justify.”112 When a Christian, then, hears the commandments of Christ in the New Testament, he or she hears the voice of the Law but without its compulsion and the sting of its condemnation. This agrees with comments found later in his Lectures on Galatians (1531–1535), in which Luther clearly states that “there are commandments in the Gospel,” which are “expositions of the Law and appendices to the Gospel.” Similarly, in preaching on the Sermon on the Mount in the early 1530s, Luther describes that “Christ here deliberately wanted to oppose all false teaching and to open up the true meaning of God’s commandments,” though Luther admits he does so in a more “friendly way.”
Therefore, when scholars such as Althaus and Joest differentiate between “commandments” or “evangelical exhortations” in the New Testament from the “Law” in the Mosaic sense of coercing obedience and revealing sins deserving judgment this can potentially mislead if it is not equally underscored how that the will of God remains essentially one and the same. Lutheran scholar Eugene Klug goes even further in arguing that Althaus and Joest fundamentally succumb to the error of the antinomians in closely associating the commanding of good works with the Gospel rather than the Law. If Luther considers “Law” to be a valid descriptor for Jesus’ commandment in the New Testament to love one another, so long as the particular audiences and rhetorical techniques of Moses and Christ are properly distinguished, and if the good works Jesus and the apostles teach are directed specifically to justified Christians, then identifying a “third use of the Law” in this sense is perfectly consistent with his theology. This also agrees with Luther’s proper definition of the “Law” as always teaching what is to be done and left undone, whereas the proper ministry of the Gospel is to declare forgiveness and the promise of hope and grace in Jesus Christ, in whom also is given the power through faith to obey the Law from the heart.
At the first Diet of Speyer in 1526, with Emperor Charles V distracted by Turkish aggression from the East and by war with a papal-French alliance in Italy, the enforcement of the Edict of Worms condemning Luther and his growing number of followers was temporarily suspended by Charles’ brother and regent, Ferdinand I, pending a future settlement. This gave princes the right de juro to govern religion in their own kingdoms (cuius regio, eius religio). In 1529, this legal action was rescinded much to the objection of the “Protestants” in the second Diet of Speyer and then again after failing to secure permanent legal recognition from Charles at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Nevertheless, between 1526 and 1529 the evangelical movement was able to spread and consolidate with legal sanction in lands ruled by favorable princes, nobles, and city councils. Even before the first Diet of Speyer, visitations of the Electoral Saxon parishes had been commissioned under Duke John and his son John Frederick, including a visit by Luther to Orlamünde in 1524 to counteract Karlstadt’s introduction of more radical reforms and the overstepping of his position as acting archdeacon. Other visitations were made by Jacob Strauss to Eisenach and Nicholas Hausmann to Schneeberg in 1525 in order to promote evangelical preaching. Luther initially envisioned these visitations to focus on the administration of the salaries of parish ministers to support their work in educating the people, but it was also apparent that the parishes needed adequately trained evangelical preachers. In the wake of the first Diet of Speyer and the space it created for the establishment of evangelical reform in Electoral Saxony, “visitors” were appointed as executives to oversee and administrate the transition to an evangelical church order, including Luther’s own nomination of Melancthon from the University of Wittenberg. Luther had prepared to write a catechism for the parishes as early as 1525, and by 1529 his Small Catechism and Large (or German) Catechism were published to correct the deplorable doctrinal ignorance that was observed during the visitations of 1527–1528.
One particular issue that became apparent during these visitations was the lack of emphasis on the teaching of the Decalogue as a means of urging repentance. This was the substance of the first antinomian controversy that erupted between Melancthon and Agricola in the late 1520s, and though Luther’s formal dispute with Agricola actually occurred a decade later, he himself reviewed and published with his own preface Melancthon’s Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony (1528). The aim of these particular instructions was to compensate for the inadequate theological education of the parish clergy. Since the predominant theme of both the controversy and the instructions was the issue of Law and Gospel, and since Luther had some personal involvement in the revision of the Visitation Articles and their publication as the Instructions for the Visitors, it seems only appropriate to discuss them in context of Luther’s understanding of Law and Gospel at the end of the turbulent 1520s.
Johann Agricola (1494–1566) was an early admirer of Luther and a student at the University of Wittenberg in 1515–16. He was later present as a secretary at Leipzig during Luther’s debate with John Eck in 1519, and he was a witness to Luther’s burning of the canon law and papal bull of excommunication outside the Wittenberg city walls in 1520. By 1524 he had become an influential teacher, preacher, and catechist in Wittenberg and was praised by Melancthon. The following year he returned to his hometown of Eisleben to pastor the parish of St. Nicolai, where he soon became the focal point of a major controversy related to the parish visitations in 1527–28. Ten years later he would return to Wittenberg only to become embroiled with Luther in a series of public theological disputations over Law and Gospel.
The dispute originated with Agricola’s objections to Melancthon’s original Visitation Articles. Melancthon drafted this series of theological articles after a meeting in Torgau in 1527 and the unpublished manuscript found its way to Agricola in Eisleben. These articles were reworked by Luther and Bugenhagen in consultation with the visitors and again after a second conference at Torgau in November of 1527. The final form appeared with Luther’s preface as the Instructions for the Visitors in March of 1528. The published work certainly reveals a thoughtful treatment of the issues discussed at Torgau in November, but it is not certain to what extent Luther was personally involved in the editing of the final version.122 Although the work is primarily ascribed to Melancthon, Luther was personally involved in its creation and development, and it was published with his full consent and with his contribution of a preface.
The articles express a concern that the forgiveness of sins is being preached openly in the churches but without urging the need for repentance or “the acknowledgment of sin.” Thus, the Instructions urge pastors to preach the “whole gospel,” which is identified as the complete Word of God including both the preaching of repentance and faith together: “There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood without repentance.” The Instructions state that “repentance and law belong to the common faith,” and that it is necessary to first believe that God “threatens, commands, and frightens” before believing that He is a God who justifies by grace through faith in Christ. The former belongs to the realm of the Law, whereas the latter is the proper work of the Gospel.
The Instructions exhort pastors to teach the Ten Commandments, “for all good works are therein comprehended,” and to warn of God’s temporal punishment for failure to keep the Law. It was the responsibility of the pastors and teachers to encourage “repentance” or “contrition” (Busse or Rew) by preaching the Law, for true faith “cannot exist without earnest and true contrition and fear of God.” On the one hand the despair of Saul and Judas was a failure to go from Law to Gospel, from contrition to faith, but on the other hand, “faith without contrition … is presumption and carnal security.”
For Agricola, the Law was God’s plan under the dispensation of the Old Covenant with Israel, but it was replaced with the Gospel because of its inherent inadequacies to bring about true obedience. The Instructions agree that the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and that Christians should obey the laws that govern their own lands: “Thus each shall follow his own national law … So, we are subject to all authority, not only Christian but Gentile.” Even the strict keeping of the Saturday Sabbath is not a law for Christians, though what does persist is the need for the organized assembly of believers for the preaching of the Word. At the same time, since the Ten Commandments given under Moses are in perfect agreement with the natural Law and teach what are truly good works, they should be taught regularly “so that people be exhorted to fear God.”
For Agricola, the preaching of the Law under the dispensation of the Old Covenant used threats, demands, and warnings of God’s wrath, but this only increased Israel’s despair, rebellion, and condemnation. Repentance, faith, and love are sufficiently nurtured by the preaching of the sufferings of Christ in the Gospel alone. Repentance, then, comes as a result of faith and the knowledge of the “violation of the Son” (violatio filii) rather than the “violation of the Law” (violatio legis). It is important to understand that Agricola never taught that Christians can go on sinning without restraint after faith, but, like Luther and Melancthon, expected that good works would issue forth as the fruit of faith in the Gospel. Luther was probably misinformed when he once admonished Agricola for disparaging the importance of works, not aware that Agricola was speaking with reference to justification by faith before God.
Indeed there is much in Agricola’s thought that bears a strong resemblance to many of Luther’s own opinions, including the inherent incapacity of the Mosaic ministry of the Law to produce the fruits of righteousness. Luther had also described the ministry of the New Covenant, properly speaking, as the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, Luther recognized that the narratives of the sufferings of Christ powerfully induce sorrow and contrition in sinners, but that this is alien to their proper work in declaring the forgiveness of sins. Luther was also never willing to go as far as Agricola in jettisoning the Mosaic ministry of the Law altogether from the present age of the Church, which is necessary to restrain the wicked and to draw people to Christ to receive forgiveness. The real difference between the two parties involves whether contrition is properly the work of the Law or the Gospel. For Luther and Melancthon, there is a contrition or sorrow for sin that necessarily precedes faith in the Gospel of forgiveness, and such contrition belongs to the preaching of the Law. For Agricola, true contrition shows that faith is there already and, in fact, is not even possible without such faith in the Gospel.
The Instructions published in 1528 reflect the compromise of sorts reached at the November conference at Torgau in 1527. It was accepted that repentance indeed follows faith, but the Instructions explicitly identify this faith as the “common faith” in God as a righteous punisher of evil to be distinguished from the faith that justifies in Christ. Luther had earlier asserted that the battle between Melancthon and Agricola was really a “war of words.” Wengert proposes that Luther was not minimizing the weight of the issue as one of semantics but was indicating that the burden of theological proof fell heaviest upon Agricola.132 Over breakfast on the last day of the conference, Agricola commented that Christians were obliged to keep only the precepts of Paul and not the Old Covenant Decalogue. Melancthon retorted that Paul basically reiterated the Decalogue and that the Law is nothing but the instructions of God to do this and not do that.
It is important to understand that Melancthon’s controversy with Agricola was not about whether repentance is to be expected, but whether it derives properly from the preaching of the Law or the preaching of the Gospel. For Agricola, among other issues theological and hermeneutical, the Visitation Articles seemed to imply that salvation was conditional upon something else prior to faith in the Gospel, which to him smacked of a return to late the medieval scholastic theology that Luther himself had attacked. For Melancthon and Luther, it was inconceivable that a person could really believe in the Gospel without possessing a sober awareness of his or her condemnation under the terror of the Law of God. Furthermore, to make repentance the property of the Gospel confuses its proper work of promising the hope and comfort of forgiveness with the power of the Law to convict and accuse.
There is some debate whether or not the Instructions imply an independent “third use of the Law.” Gerhard Ebeling observes hints of a “third use of the Law” this early in Melancthon’s career. According to Wengert, however, Melancthon’s 1527–1528 scholia only explicitly identifies two functions of the Law. A “third use” is not really identified until his 1534 scholia on Colossians. However, Wengert does argue that the “third use of the Law” was formulated by Melancthon as a result of the antinomian controversy with Agricola in the 1520s, at the same time that his understanding of justification was developing an emphasis on the forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ. The third use of the Law was logically formulated, then, as a way of justifying a role for good works in the life of a Christian.
In an extreme response to the late medieval excessive stress on penance, prayers, pilgrimages, and meritorious works, Melancthon had discovered that parish ministers in the 1520s were exalting freedom and grace to the neglect of urging contrition toward the Law of God, which was contributing to moral indifference and complacency within the Saxon parishes. The Instructions obviously have in mind the importance of preaching the Law in the Church for the sake of the unregenerate and the not justified to coerce them into obedience and to draw them in repentance to justifying faith in Christ. However, the Instructions also state that repentance and faith are to continue and increase throughout the Christian life, which implies a continuing function for the preaching of the Law even for the justified Christian on account of the flesh for the renewing of repentance, faith in the forgiveness of God, and devotion to good works and the mortification of sins. The doing of good works is identified in the Instructions as the “third element” of the Christian life, and they speak of the mortification of sin and of “holding the carnal nature in check” as the “work of a new life” resulting from “nothing else than true contrition.” Thus, contrition and the regular confession of sin in the life of Christians brought about by the preaching of the Law leads to a recharge of faith in the promise of forgiveness in the Gospel of Christ and the struggle against sin for a life devoted to good works. This point, along with Melancthon’s retort to Agricola at the conclusion of the Torgau conference that the Decalogue and the apostolic exhortations given to Christians essentially constitute the same will of God, foreshadows his more formal development of a “third use of the Law” in the mid-1530s. In this case, Luther’s own involvement in the controversy, the revision of the Visitation Articles, and the publication of the Instructions for the Visitors is critical with regard to discerning his relationship to the origins of the “third use of the Law.”
As he had proposed to do earlier in 1525, Luther published catechisms for the Saxon parishes in 1529. Luther distances himself from Agricola in the catechisms by openly acknowledging the importance of the Decalogue for the Christian Church. Of course, the format and content of the catechisms was not wholly in response to Agricola. Aside from his desire to draft a catechism well before the outbreak of the controversy, Luther’s Personal Prayer Book (1522) clearly establishes the format of these later catechisms. In 1528, Luther also preached sermons on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer in Wittenberg during the absence of Bugenhagen. The German Catechism, more commonly known as the Large Catechism, was started first and intended primarily for pastors and teachers. Luther attached a new preface to the catechism in 1530. His Small Catechism was intended for the education of children and for use in the home.
As in his Personal Prayer Book, the Creed does not incidentally follow the Decalogue. The order obviously reflects Luther’s understanding that the Law brings about the knowledge of sin so that sinners might seek after the help of the Gospel, in which is found the power to truly keep the Law. Similar to his previous writings of the 1520s, Luther describes obedience to the First Commandment, which relates to belief in the articles of the Creed, as the sum and source of obedience to all the other commandments.
Aside from this, the Law, with the warnings of temporal blessing for obedience and temporal punishment for disobedience, is also useful to restrain the acts of the wicked and unregenerate. In his preface to the Small Catechism, he urges local pastors to emphasize particular laws for particular social classes of people. For example, the law against stealing is to be stressed for workers, shopkeepers, farmers, and servants, and the commandment to honor parents is to be stressed for all children, and particularly those who have difficulty submitting to temporal authority of any kind.
Although Luther has acknowledged that temporal sufferings benefit even Christians for the sake of preserving a spirit of humility toward sin and dependence upon the grace of God, this statement about temporal blessings and punishments at first glance seems to be inconsistent with Luther’s earlier emphasis on the freedom of the Christian from the coercion of the Law. It is doubtless, however, that Luther has in mind here the majority of the not justified that make up a local parish. As such, they can only be encouraged to obey with the promise of rewards and threats until they are properly converted by faith in the Gospel. In the meantime, their outward obedience to the Law is to the common benefit of all. In this way, the Mosaic preaching of the Law in the Church supports the established government in the maintenance of social order for the protection of the Church and the Gospel. This is why, for Luther, young people particularly need to be instructed properly in the Law since they will be the future leaders of the nation. The connection between the preaching of the Law in the Church as it concerns the wider social context is suggested by Luther when he states: “Although we cannot and should not compel anyone to believe, we should nevertheless insist that the people learn to know how to distinguish right and wrong according to the standards of those among whom they live and make their living. For anyone who desires to reside in a city is bound to know and observe the laws under whose protection he lives, no matter whether he is a believer or, at heart, a scoundrel or knave.” Yet the justified Christian can still benefit from the revelation of sin in the Law, which even implies a use for the stern warnings against disobedience to the commandments if they have strayed from the faith to become self-righteous or weak against the temptations of the flesh. The conviction of the Law reminds Christians that they are still unrighteous in themselves, which leads to regular confession of sin, the desire of forgiveness in Christ, followed by a renewed zeal for righteousness.142 According to the Catholic scholar of Luther, Thomas McDonough, differentiating the use of the Ten Commandments and their accompanying retributive “sanctions” in the life of the justified and the not justified requires a “split perspective.”
In the earlier preface, which was based on a 1528 sermon, Luther states that a “catechism” by nature is intended for children and the uneducated. In the 1530 “New preface” (Neue Vorrede) to the German Catechism, however, and in the hopes of dispelling notions that the catechism is only useful for the simple-minded, Luther admits that even he, as a learned “doctor and a preacher,” intentionally devotes time as “a child and pupil” to the daily study and review of the whole catechism.” Luther acknowledges that he has not yet himself become a master of the catechism, in the sense of no longer needing to sit under it as a learner. This obviously includes the Decalogue as well, which would imply that Luther clearly perceived his own constant need for the Law in living the Christian life. Luther identifies the whole catechism as a strong weapon against the temptations of the Devil, the tribulations of the world, and the ferocity of the flesh. To ponder over, sing of, and meditate on God’s “commandments and words” in the Catechism is “the true holy water, the sign which routs the devil and puts him to flight.” For Luther, the Devil hates few things worse than the steady attention of the Christian to the Word of God, including meditation on the holy commandments of the Decalogue. In the concluding section of the catechism, Luther speaks of the valuable importance of regular confession of sin to others. Although not compulsory, as it was formerly mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Luther expects that a true Christian who feels burdened by sin and the accusations of the Law in the conscience will naturally seek for the reassuring comfort and sanctifying strength of absolution confirmed in a special way by a pastor or a trusted brother or sister in Christ.
Luther speaks with further adulation about the Decalogue in the body of the German Catechism, although not the Decalogue in its precise form under the administration of Moses in the Old Covenant. Thus, Luther reiterates that the law concerning the Saturday Sabbath and the particular promise of prosperity in the land of Canaan were only for the Jews, although the underlying principles still apply. In fact, God’s warnings of temporal blessings and punishments apply to all of the commandments. It is worthwhile to quote Luther’s praise of the Decalogue throughout the Large Catechism:

This much is certain: anyone who knows the Ten Commandments perfectly knows the entire Scriptures. In all affairs and circumstances he can counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters. He is qualified to sit in judgment upon all doctrines, estates, persons, laws, and everything else in the world … Here, then, we have the Ten Commandments, a summary of divine teaching on what we are to do to make our whole life pleasing to God. They are the true fountain from which all good works must spring, the true channel through which all good works must flow. Apart from these Ten Commandments no deed, no conduct can be good or pleasing to God, no matter how great or precious it may be in the eyes of the world … It will be a long time before men produce a doctrine or social order equal to that of the Ten Commandments, for they are beyond human power to fulfill … you will surely find so much to do that you will neither seek nor pay attention to any other works or other kind of holiness … we are to keep them incessantly before our eyes and constantly in our memory, and practice them in all our works and ways. Everyone is to make them his daily habit in all circumstances, in all his affairs and dealings, as if they were written everywhere he looks, and even wherever he goes or wherever he stands … From all this it is obvious once again how highly these Ten Commandments are to be exalted and extolled above all orders, commands, and works which are taught and practiced apart from them … We should pride and value them above all other teachings as the greatest treasure God has given us.

The Creed “properly follows” the Ten Commandments in the order of the catechism, since only a heart fully trusting in the promise of the Gospel can keep the commandments of the Law as God wants them to be kept. Although the Law drives sinners to find refuge in Christ, the Christian in turn knows and accepts cheerfully his or her duty to that Law, not for righteousness or justification, but to use it in mortifying sin and the flesh and to structure life for the good of others. To accomplish all this, the Lord’s Prayer provides a model for expressing total reliance upon God for all things.
Beginning with his earliest lectures on the Bible, Luther developed an understanding that righteousness before God is never merited either by natural or supernatural works in obedience to the Law, but that obedience to the Law comes freely from a heart believing in the Gospel of righteousness promised in Jesus Christ alone. To be free from the Law with regard to the conscience before God, understood correctly, is to possess the freedom to keep the Law rightfully with regard to moral action in the world. Luther repeats and develops these themes throughout the reforming crises of the 1520s. Not only does he continue to emphasize justification by faith alone but he also stresses against critics and radicals the rightful importance of the preaching of the Law for the good of Christendom as a whole and of the unique importance of the Law for Christians. Luther praises the Law of the Decalogue interpreted spiritually all throughout the 1520s as the definitive standard of a holy life, and this applies equally to the Christian who is exhorted by Christ and the apostles on the basis of the grace of the Gospel to good works in accordance with the Decalogue for the control of the flesh in service to others. Luther begins at the end of the 1520s to develop more explicitly how the preaching of the Law continues to work repentance leading to the renewal and increase of faith and sanctification (defined by Luther as the forgiveness of sins), but Luther stated early on that the Christian life after baptism is a life of repentance, his publication of the Personal Prayer Book communicated the importance of the Law in the life of Christian devotion, and he frequently spoke of worldly tribulation and affliction as a cross and an effective remedy against the flesh.
The decade of the 1520s was a significant period in which Luther was confronted with the opportunity to incarnate his theology of Law and Gospel in a variety of circumstances, including his ongoing attempt to convince Catholics of the truthful integrity of his insights and correcting “radicals” who took those insights to extreme, even violent, conclusions. Though the assurance of eternal salvation and the complete favor of God are promised only in the Gospel through faith alone in Jesus Christ, Luther repeatedly affirmed the continuing and indispensable value of teaching the Ten Commandments for the health of the Church and surrounding society. Not only did the preaching of the Law serve in ruling the rebellious spirit of false Christians that filled Saxon towns, villages, and congregations, it also taught them to despair of themselves and their own inability to keep the Law and to believe and hope for justification before God in the promises of the Creed. For those who did believe in the Savior, who were no longer under the curse, condemnation, and coercive hold of the Law, Luther upheld the Law and its interpretation by Christ and the apostles as epitomizing the spiritual life of a faithful Christian. Though the Christian with regard to his or her faith in Christ and through the Spirit needs no such outward instruction, the Law is still necessary on account of the paradoxical reality that the Christian also remains a sinner and has the flesh that must be subdued to the Law. For the Christian, then, the Law functions in preserving repentance and the knowledge of intrinsic sinfulness, thus rekindling faith in the Gospel, which then uses that same Law to kill the promptings of sin and to work in the world for the happiness and welfare of others
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. iii–123). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.golden seal


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