AC = Augsburg Confession
Ap = Apology of the Augsburg Confession
SC = Small Catechism
LC = Large Catechism
SA = Smalcald Articles
FC = Formula of Concord
Ep = Epitome of the Formula of Concord
SD = Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
Martin Luther once said, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Since the 16th century, there has been much debate over this distinction. But, what is the true Lutheran understanding of it? Specifically, how do the Lutheran Confessions understand the nature and function of the moral Law, and the nature and function of the gospel? To answer this question an analysis of the historic Lutheran Confessions is necessary.
As Luther said, the Scriptures must be divided between Law and gospel if they are to be understood correctly. By gospel, Luther and the Lutheran Reformation had in mind the promises of God to save human beings through Jesus Christ who offers forgiveness of sins, life, and justification. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession echoed Luther’s distinction when defending the doctrine of justification. Melanchthon wrote:
“All Scripture should be divided into these two main topics: the Law and the promises. In some places it communicates the Law. In other places it communicates the promise concerning Christ, either when it promises that Christ will come and on account of him offers the forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life, or when in the gospel itself, Christ, after he appeared, promises the forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life” (Ap, IV, 5).
The Formula of Concord (FC), V, 1 affirms the same necessary distinction.
But what is the nature of the moral Law? Is it equivalent to sin because it shows us our sin, or, is it the will of God for our lives? The FC states that through it, God tells human beings how they are to think, speak, and act in order to be pleasing to Him. The FC says:
“ We therefore unanimously believe, teach, and confess that in its strict sense the Law is a divine teaching in which the righteous, unchanging will of God revealed how human beings were created in their nature, thoughts, words, and deeds to be pleasing and acceptable to God” (SD, V, 17).
The Law is therefore the will of God for human beings. The Law also instructs us as to what is contrary to God’s will.
The Law's Function
What is the Law’s function in the hearts and minds of people who read and hear it? What does it do? Luther taught that the Law was a hammer of God by which he drove sinners into despair. He wrote, “Now this [the Law] is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which he destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair” (SA, Third Part, III, 2). The Law destroys us because we cannot live up to it. We desire to have the assurance of our salvation but the Law cannot give it. The Law accuses us of being sinful and tells us that we have fallen short of the glory of God. Melanchthon recognized the same primary function of the Law as accusing when he wrote, “Paul says [Rom. 4:15]: ‘The Law brings wrath.’ He does not say that through the Law people merit the forgiveness of sins. For the Law always accuses and terrifies consciences” (Ap, IV, 38).
Scholastic theologians like Gabriel Biel held that it was possible to love God without the assistance of divine grace. Others like Duns Scotus argued that this natural ability was intensified by the infused habitus of love, leading to works that were meritorious. To these arguments the Apology brought to light the nature of the first three commandments (the first table of the Law) as defining our relationship to God. The Apology states that due to original sin, our works are defective before God:
“We wanted to show that original sin also included these maladies: ignorance of God, contempt for God, the absence of the fear of and trust in God, and the inability to love God. These are the chief defects of human nature—in conflict especially with the first table of the Decalogue” (Ap, II, 14).
Before God (coram Deo) all of us have sinned and fall short of His glory. Who on earth has kept the first commandment perfectly? Luther said that the meaning of the first commandment was to “fear, love, and trust God above all things” (SC, The Ten Commandments, 2). Who has been able to do this? What the Scholastic theologians did not understand is that the Law demands total, perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God (SD, VI, 22). Further, they also focused on loving the neighbor as if that would make them righteous before God. To this, the Apology responded, “There is no reason to think that Paul has attributed either justification or perfection before God to the works of the second table of the Law rather than to the first” (Ap, IV, 231). Rather, we have to be made righteous before God first before our works can be pleasing to God. The commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart (Deut. 6:5) can not be kept without the grace of the Spirit.
What is the solution to the problem of our sin and the Law? The Confessors answered that the gospel promises grace, forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation on account of Christ. This promise is received by faith alone and not by works. The Apology says,
“But since justification takes place through a free promise, it follows that we cannot justify ourselves. Otherwise, why would a promise be needed? And since the promise cannot be grasped in any other way than by faith, the gospel (which is, strictly speaking, the promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification on account of Christ) proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the Law does not teach…. But the promise freely offers to us, who are oppressed by sin and death, reconciliation on account of Christ, which is received not by works, but by faith alone” (Ap, IV, 43-44).
The gospel is strictly speaking, the promise of the forgiveness of sins through the work of Jesus Christ. The gospel is always presented in relationship to justification because through it we receive the promises of God through faith by which we are justified. Without distinguishing between Law and gospel, the work of Christ is diminished, and the Scriptures are misunderstood. We cannot keep the Law unless we are first justified by the gospel. Later in the Apology, Melanchthon wrote: “We must first be reconciled by the promise before we keep the Law” (Ap, XII, 80).
Because the doctrine of justification was central to the Lutheran Reformation, the function of killing and making alive through preaching Law and gospel was also central. Through preaching Law and gospel, God condemns and makes the sinner alive. The Apology said,
“For these are the two chief works of God in human beings, to terrify and to justify the terrified or make them alive. The entire Scripture is divided into these two works. One part is the Law, which reveals, denounces, and condemns sin. The second part is the gospel, that is, the promise of grace given in Christ” (Ap, XII, 53).
Are there other ways that the gospel was to be administered? In addition to the public proclamation of the Word, Luther recognized four other ways that the gospel was administered:
“First, through the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel); second, through baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters” (SA, Third Part, IV).
Through preaching, Absolution, and the Sacraments, the forgiveness of sins are promised to the recipient. Melanchthon especially saw the voice of Absolution as the heart of the gospel. Melanchthon wrote, “The power of the keys administers and offers the gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the gospel” (Ap, XII, 39).
The Law and the Christian Life
After a person receives the forgiveness of sins by faith, does the law apply to their life? Would saying so negate the gospel’s effect in their lives? Indeed not! Luther held that through gospel, the Holy Spirit gives us help to live according to the Ten Commandments. He said, “[The Apostle’s Creed] is given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandments require of us” (LC, The Creed, 2). The Creed presents the grace of the Spirit that comes through the redemption of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit working through the gospel empowers us to live according to the Law. Since now there is no condemnation for those who are forgiven in Christ Jesus, the Christian is no longer condemned by the Law. But because the Christian still has the old Adam clinging to them, they still need the Law to light and guide their path as followers of Jesus Christ (Ep, VI, 1). The FC says that we have been redeemed by Christ in order that we might exercise ourselves in accordance with the moral Law and desire to do God’s will:
“We believe, teach, and confess that, although people who truly believe in Christ and are genuinely converted to God have been liberated and set free from the curse and compulsion of the Law through Christ, they indeed are not for that reason without the Law. Instead, they have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the Law day and night (Ps. 119[:1])” (Ep, VI, 2).
Even after rebirth, however, it is not as if Christians do not regress and are never convicted of their sin by the Law. The Christian will often regress, and will be accused as a sinner before God. The Apology says, “The Law always accuses since we never satisfy the Law” (Ap, IV, 164A, octavo; 164, quarto). Through the gospel, we are promised again that we are forgiven and our hearts are renewed:
“For the Law indeed says that it is God’s will and command that we walk in new life. However, it does not give the power and ability to begin or to carry out this command. Instead, the Holy Spirit, who is given and received not through the Law but through the proclamation of the gospel (Gal. 3[:2, 14]), renews the heart” (SD, VI, 11).
Through the proclamation of the gospel our hearts are renewed because we know that God truly loves us as His children. He has given us His Holy Spirit so that we can even delight in the Law of God, rather than fear it as if we were still enslaved to it. Luther said,
“Through this knowledge we come to love and delight in all the commandments of God because we see here in the Creed how God gives himself completely to us, with all his gifts and power, to help us keep the Ten Commandments: the Father gives us all creation, Christ all his works, the Holy Spirit all his gifts” (LC, The Creed, 69).
Prior to the gospel, we could only fear that we could not live up to God’s Law. We had no assurance of our salvation through it, but only felt convicted by it. But now, through the reconciliation and renewal of the gospel our hearts are able to delight in God’s Law according to our inward person. This means that we can delight in doing the will of God who has redeemed us, even while we were lost. The FC says,
“Paul holds that the Law cannot burden those whom Christ has reconciled with God with its curse and cannot torment the reborn with its coercion because they delight in the Law of the Lord according to their inward persons” (SD, VI, 5).
Did the Lutherans believe that there was possibility of any progress in relationship to the Law for the children of God? That is, did they believe that it was possible to keep the Law more and more in an increasing manner? Melanchthon wrote,
“We openly confess, therefore, that the keeping of the Law must begin in us and then increase more and more. And we include both simultaneously, namely, the inner spiritual impulses and the outward good works” (Ap, IV, 136).
After the person receives the Absolution and renewal of the Holy Spirit, “then improvement should also follow, and a person should refrain from sins. For these should be the fruits of repentance, as John says in Matthew 3[:8]: ‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance’” (AC, XII, 6). The Confessions however, reject the idea of certain Ana-Baptists groups, and the Council of Trent, Session VI, Canon 332 which said that we can keep the Law perfectly after we have been reborn (Ep, II, 12; Ep, XII, 25; SD, II, 79; SD, XII, 33).
Confessional Lutherans in America have done an excellent job maintaining the second use of the Law as the primary use in preaching and teaching. By doing so, justification remains at the forefront since the convicting use of the Law leads to the proclamation of the gospel.
In the 19th century in true Calvinistic form, Karl Barth held that even the Law was gospel since humans did not deserve to hear from God. God was totally “other” and transcendent and whenever he spoke it was gospel. According to Barth, the Law was in the gospel and the Law came from the gospel. This was the same view of John Calvin, the French Reformer of the 16th century in Geneva. This view was not only confusing, but obscured the gospel, which must always remain as a comforting and joyous message of the forgiveness of sins. Throughout most of the history of the church, the gospel was seen as a new Law. Thankfully, the Lutheran Reformation brought to light the distinction between the Law and Gospel, and the difference between Moses and Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was not a new Moses. He is our Savior first, and the Lutheran Reformation and Confessional Lutheranism in America have done well to avoid this confusion.
Because Lutherans have properly distinguished between Law and gospel, Confessional Lutherans in America have also done an excellent job of upholding the doctrine of justification. The proclamation of the gospel as the forgiveness of sins continues to be at the center of Lutheran preaching and teaching.
Many Lutherans today, however, are under the misunderstanding that if you preach the Law after the gospel then you negate the gospel. They also state that all sermons have to end with gospel if they are to be true Lutheran sermons. The confessional quotations above show that the Spirit of grace enables us to keep the Law without fear of punishment but because we know we have a loving Father.
Many are under the impression that a teaching is bad if it is too “Law-oriented.” As the confessional quotations show, after we have been renewed by the Spirit of grace we delight in the Law according to our inward persons. The question should be whether or not an instruction or teaching is in accordance with God’s will. If it is “God’s will-oriented” then we should desire to do it! Lutherans do not often speak of delighting in the Law of God. The Law is usually seen as something that only shows us our sins and is therefore negative, and nothing else. But because we have a loving Father who forgives us, we can now delight in His Law, not out of fear, but out of love.
Some also hold that the Hebrew word torah
used in Psalm 1 and 119 must be referring to the Pentateuch. They hold that it cannot be referring to the moral Law, because it is impossible to delight in the Law which shows us our sins. They have missed the way that the Confessions have understood those Psalms, but more importantly, do not realize that what they are saying is in doctrinal disagreement with the Confessions which teach that Christians do delight in the Law.
Werner Elert brought to light the fact that Melanchthon and the FC taught a threefold use of the Law, while Luther only had a twofold use. While this is true, it does not mean that Luther was against the Law being urged upon Christians. Rather, Luther simply did not have a third use of the law as a systematic category. In the 1960s, Professors at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis began to hold to a twofold use, believing that the Law should not be urged upon Christians. However, Luther in SA, III, 3, 42-45 teaches that the Law must be applied to the Christian because of the fact that sinful flesh clings to him and it is possible for the Christian to fall from grace. The Kolb-Wengert edition notes concerning this addition: “The emphasis here would seem to be directed against John Agricola and the ‘antinomians,’ who taught that the law did not apply to Christians.” This addition to the Smalcald Articles was added prior to its publication in 1538 after John Agricola subscribed in 1536.
And finally it is often said that Lutherans do not believe in progressive sanctification. Usually, Lutherans are responding to the idea of “victorious Christian living” taught by modern Evangelicals, who turn the gospel into principles for Christian living. While turning the gospel into principles for Christian living should obviously be condemned, believing that it is not possible for the justified to progress in relationship to the Law does not represent the true Lutheran position. Modern Evangelicals who advocate “victorious Christian living” often have a false anthropology, and do not understand the person and work of Jesus Christ as Savior. However, because they teach falsely, it is not a cause for Lutherans to overreact and teach that it is impossible for Christians to progress in relationship to the Law. This runs directly in opposition to the Lutheran Confessions that state that because of the new spiritual impulses of the heart created by the power of the gospel, the Christian can keep the Law more and more and improve his or her life. This is not to say that all Christians will do so, but it is certainly possible that God can work that kind of victory over certain sins through the power of the Holy Spirit.