Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Luther And The Law: Did Martin Luther Abhor God's Law? (Part Two)


Luther of course wanted the Law announced. He preached and taught it; he inserted it in his catechism and he exhorted his followers to recite it daily. Nevertheless, he, at the same time, warned against allowing the Law to have any influence on the conscience, for then it would become, as he said, “a sink of heresies and blasphemies” [Father Patrick O’Hare, The Facts About Luther (Illinois: Tan Books, 1987), 108].

The Law and the Gospel are not opposed to each other. Jesus and Paul taught that the Law by itself never saved anyone - it was always faith and grace. But that is not the same thing as saying that Law is antithetical to the Gospel. That was Luther's error (one of many) and it is simply unbiblical. Matthew 5:17-20 is sufficient in itself to nail this point down. Salvation is a lifelong process, free will does cooperate after the initial pure act of grace by God. It can't be otherwise.” [ The Interpretation and Exegesis of Romans 2-4]


Luther’s theology indeed has a place for the Law of God and its use in the life of a Christian. The Law for Luther was dual purposed: it first drives one to see their sin and a need for a savior; secondly it functions in the life of a Christian to lead one to a correct understanding of the good one ought to do.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Luther knows how important Moses and the law was in his theology. Luther taught that anyone who is to preach must be able to preach the law:

First, he must preach the Law so that the people may learn what great things God demands of us; of these we cannot perform any because of the impotence of our nature which has been corrupted by Adam's fall.”
Source: Sermons of Martin Luther Volume 1 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 1:131.

Luther also points out that only by knowing God’s law does one even "know" what a good work is:

“…[O]nly those things are good works which God has commanded, just as only that is a sin which God has forbidden. Therefore, he who wants to know and do good works need only know God’s Commandments… These Commandments of God must teach us how to distinguish among good works.”
Source: Ewald Plass, What Luther Says Volumes 1-3 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing house, 1959) 3:1499.

These examples show that Luther valued the law. Luther scholar Paul Althaus points out for Luther, “The Ten Commandments have their place not only ‘before’ but also ‘after’ justification; thus they not only exercise the Christian in the theological function of the law but also lead him to a right knowledge of the good he ought to do according to God’s will.” [Source: Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 272].

Luther composed a hymn on the Ten Commandments in which he states, “To us come these commands, that so- Thou son of man, thy sins mayst know- And make thee also well perceive- How before God man should live.” [Source: LW 53:279] Elsewhere Luther said of the Ten Commandments, “They are the true fountain from which all good works must flow.” [Source: Martin Luther, as cited by Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 272, footnote 124].

In Luther’s Small Catechism the Ten Commandments were placed first because he wanted people to understand that God is wrathful against sin. The negative prohibitions in the Ten Commandments clearly showed our need for a savior. also in the Small Catechism, Luther suggests a daily regiment of prayer and includes a verbal reading of the Ten Commandments. In the reciting of the Ten Commandments along with the Apostles Creed and Lord’s Prayer, one hears both law and gospel at the beginning and ending of each day. Luther says, “…[N]o man can progress so far in sanctification as to keep even one of the Ten Commandments as it should be kept, but that the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer must come to our assistance, as we shall hear, through which we must continually seek, pray for, and obtain the power and strength to keep the Commandments" [Source: What Luther Says 3:1501].

Luther placed a strong emphasis on the First Commandment, which was one of the key factors in the shape of his entire theology. Luther believed God spoke the word of creation bringing human creatures into existence was repeated in the First Commandment. The whole of the Scripture can be summarized in the First Commandment. He understood the First Commandment to be both law and gospel. It is law because it invokes a demand with a burden that can crush us. When we do not place God at the center of our lives, we are lost not living the full life of a human creature. This command is also gospel: it is good news that God says He is our Father, that He is our God, protector-provider, Lord and Savior. It is His gift of being His child. The implication of this for Luther’s entire theology is that he derived all of God’s gracious promises from the First Commandment. As Roland Bainton has rightly said,

One might have expected the great line of demarcation for [Luther] to have lain between the Old Testament and the New. It did for some Protestants, like the Anabaptists, who rejected the wars of Yahweh and took literally the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Luther on a different count might have used his distinction of law and gospel to repudiate Moses as law, but Luther did not. Law and gospel, said he, lie side by side throughout the whole Bible. That which relies on man's good works is law. That which relies on God's good grace is gospel. The Ten Commandments can witness to grace and the Sermon on the Mount can be treated as a new law. Therefore, the Old Testament is not to be rejected or relegated to a lower rank. Here one must recall that Luther interpreted the Old Testament in terms of the pre-existent Christ, who was speaking through Moses and through David.”
Source: Roland Bainton, Studies on the Reformation, 6-7.

Luther said of the entire Old Testament, “Christ must first be heard in the Gospel, then it will be seen how beautiful and lovely the whole Old Testament is in harmony with him, so that a man cannot help giving himself in submission to faith and be enabled to recognize the truth of what Christ says in John 5: 46, "For if ye believed Moses, ye would believe me, for he wrote of me".”
Source: Sermons of Martin Luther Volume 1 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 1:151.

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