Martin Luther: Law and Gospel

The other day I returned from the Philippines.  I was there to teach Reformation church history on the islands of Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro) and Luzon (Malolos).  One of the subjects that we covered was the topic of law and gospel in Luther’s theology.  Below are the lecture notes for this.  Enjoy!

***********************

6.4.3  Law and Gospel

I want to begin here with two quotes.  Please listen carefully:

The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.  The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the Mediator and the free remission of sins, through faith.[1]

That’s the first quote.  Here is the second:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds:  the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.”  For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings…We must pay great attention to these things.  For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.[2]

Now who do you think said those things?  They were both written by Reformed theologians, not Lutherans.  The first quote is from Zacharias Ursinus, from his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.  The second quote is from Theodore Beza, from his confession of faith.  One was a German Reformer, the other Swiss.  Both maintained a distinction between law and gospel.

This is important to recognize because many have said that the law/gospel distinction is Lutheran.  They say that it has its origins with Martin Luther and only Lutherans hold to it.  Historically, this is only half true.

The law/gospel distinction is found with Reformed theologians before, during, and after the time of John Calvin.  It’s also found in the writings of Calvin himself.  So it is not correct to say that this is only a Lutheran doctrine – historically it has been maintained in Reformed theology too and therefore it is found in the Three Forms of Unity too.  In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that we know our sin and misery from the law of God.  In Lord’s Day 6, we know about our mediator from the holy gospel.  In the Canons of Dort chapter 3-4, article 5, we confess that the law is inadequate to save – “it leaves the transgressor under the curse.”  That is why the gospel is necessary according to article 6 of chapter 3-4.  There is a clear distinction between law and gospel in our Confessions.

However, it is true that we can trace the origins of this distinction to Luther.  One can find evidence of it among some of the church fathers (for example, Augustine at times), but it was Luther who recovered it in the time of the Reformation.  From Luther, it was transmitted not only to Lutheran theologians, but also to Reformed theologians.

Before outlining the distinction as Luther presented it, it’s important to consider the background.  Thomas Aquinas was one of the pre-eminent theologians of the late medieval period.  Aquinas held that justification takes place through progressive moral transformation, with the help of infused grace.  Thomas maintained that the Old Testament dispensation involved an old law.  The New Testament dispensation presented God’s people with a new law.  In both dispensations, believers are expected to obey God and thus earn his pleasure.  The difference is that under the new law, believers receive more grace, they receive more help to obey.  To be sure, Thomas said that the main thing about the new law was that it commanded faith.  However, this faith included human good works in its definition.[3]  So what you have with Thomas (and much of medieval theology with him), is justification by good works.

That brings me to the key point to keep in mind with this distinction.  For Luther, as well as for the Lutheran and Reformed theologians, it is a distinction that functions within the context of justification.  It grew out of the recognition that Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians had misunderstood the biblical doctrine of justification.  They had misconstrued how a sinner gets into a right relationship with God.  Thomas and many medieval theologians made it into a matter of works – new law.

Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of justification.  In its place, he came to understand that Scripture speaks in terms of law and gospel.  We find it with Luther as early as 1518 in his explanation of the 95 Theses.  This is what he wrote regarding thesis 62:

The gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace.  It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.

The law is a word of destruction, a word of wrath, a word of sadness, a word of grief, a voice of the judge and the defendant, a word of restlessness, a word of curse….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.[4]

This distinction became more defined in Luther’s theology as he continued to study.  In 1532, he preached through Galatians.  In one of his sermons, he defined the law as “God’s Word and command in which he commands us what we are to do and not to do and demands our obedience.”  The gospel does not demand obedience for justification, but “bids us simply receive the offered grace of the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.”[5]

Luther’s law/gospel distinction must not be misunderstood as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament.  Luther maintained that the law was found in both the Old and New Testament.  Similarly, the gospel is also found in both the Old and New Testament.  So this is not a matter of placing one Testament against the other.  Law and gospel are found throughout the entire Bible.

There is a lot more that could be said about this, but let me just draw out one more point that is often misunderstood.  Some forget that this distinction functions within the context of justification.  They say that Luther (and then the Lutherans as well) are antinomians or close to being antinomians.  Because of the law/gospel distinction, the law has no place in the life of a Christian.  They say that, for Luther, the law is only about giving awareness of sin and misery, so that one will be driven to Christ for salvation.  After salvation, the law no longer has a function in the life of a believer.  In dogmatic terms, they say that Luther only advocated the first use of the law.[6]  Because of the law/gospel distinction, they say, he did not advocate the third use of the law, the law as a guide for thankful Christian living.  A recent Reformed biographer says, “Luther simply avoids discussing the Christian’s life of obedience as obedience to the law.”[7]  This is simply not true.  While it is very commonly believed amongst Reformed people, the evidence in Luther’s writings does not support it.  Yes, it is true that Luther’s emphasis is on the first use of the law.  But he also teaches the third use.  You can see it in his Large Catechism.  As he discusses the 10 Commandments, he not only discusses the accusing function, but also points out how these commandments are to actively function in the life of the Christian who loves God and wants to please him.[8]  Moreover, The Formula of Concord, written after Luther’s death (published in 1580) but a good summary of Luther’s theology, says this:

…We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that people who truly believe and are converted to God, justified Christians, are liberated and made free from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10).  Yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2; see also Psalm 119:1).  The Law is a mirror in which God’s will and what pleases him are exactly portrayed.  This mirror should be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently encouraged for them without ceasing.[9]

From this you can see, that Lutherans, following Martin Luther, do indeed teach and confess the third use of the law.

KEY POINTS:  Luther rejected the old law/new law scheme of medieval soteriology.  Luther taught a law/gospel distinction within the context of justification.  The law demands payment and obedience.  Through Christ the gospel gives what the law demands.  Both law and gospel are found in both Old Testament and New Testament.  Luther emphasized the first use of the law, but also maintained the third use.  This law/gospel distinction became foundational in all Protestant theology, both Lutheran and Reformed.


[1] Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 2.

[2] Theodore Beza, Confession de foi du chretien – as quoted by R. S. Clark, “Letter and Spirit” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, 342.

[3] Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 336-337.

[4] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 338.  On page 173 in the Portuguese edition of Luther’s selected works.

[5] As quoted by Clark, “Letter and Spirit,” 339.

[6] Three uses of the law in Reformed theology:  1) The accusing use – the law exposes our sin and misery and therefore our need for Christ.  2)  The political use – the law is a guide for civil society.  3) The law as a guide for thankful Christian living in response to the gospel of grace.

[7] Nichols, Martin Luther, 81.

[8] See especially Concordia, 395-397.

[9] Concordia, 558.  See also the Epitome, Concordia, 486-487.

 

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

Comments are disabled.

%d bloggers like this: