Sunday, November 22, 2009

Luther: What is Law? (Part 2)

Previously, I asked Roman Catholic blogger Ben to provide a 100 word summary statement on Luther's understanding of Law and Gospel. I do this because using less words forces one to really see if the position under scrutiny is being comprehended. Ben recently summarized the general Protestant attitudes towards the commandments with the following:“He, therefore, that saith he loveth the law is a liar, and knoweth not what he saith.” - Luther, Commentary on Galatians 3:23. I challenged Ben to at least briefly explain Luther's view on Law and Gospel.

Here is my 100 word summary statement on Luther's Law and Gospel:

Law and gospel is a key organizing distinction in Luther’s theology. The Christian needs both, but they should be sharply distinguished. The function of law is to convict of sin. It is an expression of God’s holiness, showing us how far we have fallen from his righteous standards. It directs one toward repentance, and to a recognition of helplessness, and to seek God’s mercy. The gospel is purely a word of grace, mercy, and promise: the righteousness of Christ reckoned to our account alone provides mercy and salvation. It does not contain commands or threats, only the promises of God.

Ben then provided his:

I found it almost impossible to give what I consider a halfway reasonable summary of Luther’s ideas on Law and Gospel in the specified 100 word target range (you might notice I went a wee bit over). And what I do give will undoubtedly be unsatisfactory, but it will have to do. Précis, especially of a notoriously complex subject such as this, just ain't my forte! Anyway, fwiw, here’s my summary draft:

A distinction between Law and gospel forms the dominate theme in Luther’s theology. Both are contrasted sharply. For Luther, the Law is objective, and functions merely to inculcate in fallen man, clearly and unambiguously, a sense of his utter sinfulness and inability comply with the commandments, and thus become / remain righteous before an infinitely just and holy God, whose standard always remains absolute perfection. The Law of itself saves no one. Indeed, it leads only to a paralyzing fear of divine wrath. Luther himself evidences this throughout his writings by constant reference to his own “terrified conscience”.

The Gospel, on the other hand, is the infinitely merciful God’s remedy for man's paralysis, for his “terrified conscience.” It is mercy unspeakable, wholly undeserved. It is the “good news” par excellence.

Unlike the Law, however, the Gospel functions subjectively. Its central purpose: to allay all fear, terror, and dread of eternal punishment in those willing to apprehend it by “faith alone.”

As a result, the sting of conscience (i.e., the necessary and unavoidable consequence and immediate temporal punishment due to sin) no longer retains its former power over the sinner. For, by his acceptance of the gift of salvation through the Gospel, the sinner immediately and irrevocably secures his destiny to eternal bliss. To be sure, his conscience may still trouble, but it can no longer terrify. For now he has “assurance” that “no sins have it in their power to damn him, but only unbelief.”

Put another way: For Luther, the Gospel can only suggest, but never impose (as did the Law) a definite standard of moral perfection such that the believer’s “assurance of salvation” can be affected. For ultimately, all his sins, regardless of gravity (idolatry i.e.) are completely (by default) “covered” by the infinite merits of the God-man Jesus Christ. His simple Gospel message of unconditional pardon and forgiveness of all sins has only to be “received” or “accepted.”

Commandments and good works, demanded under the Law, play no role whatsoever toward salvation under the Gospel. Indeed, all such works and commands Luther deemed antithetical to the very nature of the saving Gospel, which for him, could never be merited or “earned,” but only “received.”

To be sure, extreme interpretations of Luther’s teachings, notably those of Nicholas Amsdorf, held that all good works were “pernicious to salvation.” However such extreme views appear to be absent Luther’s writings. Luther was no antinomian. On the contrary, he clearly recognized the importance of both good works and observance of the commandments (though never for salvific merit), and often encouraged his followers to faithfully practice and observe both. Without constant preaching and correction however, good works neither flow automatically from saving faith, nor remain with it.

Finally, although it is undeniable that Luther himself did, on occasion and for reasons of expedience, counsel against the keeping of certain commandments, nevertheless, it should be noted that even his most severe critics (Denifle and Grisar) failed to find in any of his extensive writings incontrovertible evidence of a direct and wholesale disregard for either good works or the Ten Commandments.


Here is my evaluation of Ben's synopsis:

I found it almost impossible to give what I consider a halfway reasonable summary of Luther’s ideas on Law and Gospel in the specified 100 word target range

Thanks for providing a summary statement. Concise summary statements are typically hard work. It means that one thoroughly has digested the position in review. I always shoot for summary statements with less words, because it forces me to get to the heart of a particular issue. It's extremely easy to present a lot of words, and yet still miss the heart. What I would've done if I had constructed the statement you did on Law and Gospel, would be to take each paragraph, and boil out the point, and do this until I had a shorter concise summary statement. I respect the fact that you at least tried to accommodate my request. That being said, here are the points in which I think you aren't being accurate:

A distinction between Law and gospel forms the dominate theme in Luther’s theology.

I would revise this to specifically state it forms one of the dominant theme in Luther's theology. There are other crucial themes (like the Theology of the Cross) that similarly comprise the scaffolding of Luther's thought.

For Luther, the Law is objective, and functions merely to inculcate in fallen man

I can appreciate the use of the term objective. I think that's a helpful description. However, the corpus of Luther's writings do not support the sole function of the Law as merely inculcating...a sense of his utter sinfulness and inability comply with the commandments. I would disagree with the use of the word "merely", because even if your synopsis was accurate, "merely" can carry with it the connotation "this is simply all it can do, and lacks value as a created entity." This may appear to be quibbling, but it does contradict what you say in your last two paragraphs. If the Law "merely" does as you suggest for Luther, why and how did Luther "clearly recognize the importance of both good works and observance of the commandments" and "and often encouraged his followers to faithfully practice and observe both"? Obviously for Luther, it did more than you "merely" suggest.

True indeed, Luther can speak negatively about the Law, thus giving the impression that it simply is like a black plague looking to condemn its victim to death. If one only concentrates on specific negative statements from Luther about the Law, one could even paint the picture of an antinomian Luther (which you've done in the past, and also recently here on this blog). You later rightly repudiate the notion. I could produce scores of quotes from Luther on the value and use of the Law. Even last night, in the current volume of LW, I came across Luther saying, "We must prove ourselves before the world. How? By keeping the other commandments as well: 'You shall honor your father and mother' " (LW 69:330). Most striking of course are the Catechisms Luther wrote and his positive estimation of the the Ten commandments.

The Law of itself saves no one. Indeed, it leads only to a paralyzing fear of divine wrath.

This is accurate in terms of soteriology, and should be qualified as such. But in Luther's theology, something like the First Commandment can be both Law and Gospel at the same time. Thus it can produce the negative inner feeling you suggest. On the other hand, it can also produce the promise of the Gospel. Review Luther's Catechisms.

The Gospel, on the other hand, is the infinitely merciful God’s remedy for man's paralysis, for his “terrified conscience.” It is mercy unspeakable, wholly undeserved. It is the “good news” par excellence.

This is true as far as it goes, but lacks clarification as to exactly... why? Note in my summary statement, I wrote: "The gospel is purely a word of grace, mercy, and promise: the righteousness of Christ reckoned to our account alone provides mercy and salvation." Here, I captured the essence of the good news according to Luther: the work of Christ in fulfilling the Law becomes mine by accepting words of grace, mercy, and promise.

Unlike the Law, however, the Gospel functions subjectively.

The Gospel according to Luther also has an objective nature in its proclamation via the preached Word and sacrament. Like the Law, it only pierces the heart subjectively. That is, both Law and Gospel have their subjective experience based on the state of the heart.

Its central purpose: to allay all fear, terror, and dread of eternal punishment in those willing to apprehend it by “faith alone.”

Had you clarified "gospel" earlier, this would make more sense. The fear, terror, and dread is not being able to meet God's righteous standards revealed in the Law by those with such an inner disposition to despair. This Gospel is not simply the absence of fear, terror, and dread of eternal punishment. It is the rejoicing in the fact that Christ fulfilled the Law in my place, and His righteous becomes my righteousness. This is a great joy, more along the lines of receiving a gift of infinite value.

As a result, the sting of conscience (i.e., the necessary and unavoidable consequence and immediate temporal punishment due to sin) no longer retains its former power over the sinner.

"Immediate temporal punishment" is thinking in terms of Roman Catholicism, and should be removed (recall, the exercise is to try to present Luther's understanding in a sense absent of our preconceived theologies). True, if my righteousness before a Holy God is the righteousness of Christ, no sin can separate me from God. Christ was punished in my place. A fall into sin that tries to convict a regenerated heart of loss of salvation, is, as Luther often explains, lies of the Devil. On the other hand, Luther had a strong belief in confessing sins, and implied throughout his writings is that a genuine believer works hard to avoid sin. The idea that a "fall into sin" would not cause a believer grief is absent from Luther's theology. It would cause grief, not out of fear of loss of salvation, but because sin is an offensive to God. It shows a lack of love and respect for the work and gift of Christ. It would be similar to hurting a spouse, or one you love.

Your synopsis could lead to one thinking Luther held to wanton lawlessness, reminiscent of the old jingle joke: "Free from the Law, oh blessed condition, I can sin all I want, an still have remission." In actuality, the changed life, and the life that avoids sin function in Luther's thought to prove we do love God. Further, Luther's doctrine of the Two Kingdoms would explain that while a sin might not have eternal consequences in the loss of salvation, it still may be subject to temporal punishments by the state, and God has set up the rulers of this world for this very purpose.

For Luther, the Gospel can only suggest, but never impose (as did the Law) a definite standard of moral perfection such that the believer’s “assurance of salvation” can be affected

In a sense. It misses Luther's notion that acknowledging, loving, and fulfilling the Law perfectly was the work of Christ, and by imitating Him, it's a sign that faith is actually present (LW 69:329- "Just as Christ did not seek His own benefit and advantage, so we should seek our neighbor's benefit and advantage. The works done for our neighbor show that we have faith in God and love for our neighbor").

Luther was no antinomian. On the contrary, he clearly recognized the importance of both good works and observance of the commandments (though never for salvific merit), and often encouraged his followers to faithfully practice and observe both. Without constant preaching and correction however, good works neither flow automatically from saving faith, nor remain with it. Finally, although it is undeniable that Luther himself did, on occasion and for reasons of expedience, counsel against the keeping of certain commandments, nevertheless, it should be noted that even his most severe critics (Denifle and Grisar) failed to find in any of his extensive writings incontrovertible evidence of a direct and wholesale disregard for either good works or the Ten Commandments.

Very good. All in all, I think you're on the right the right track here, and had I not known it was you who wrote these last last paragraphs, I would've never guessed it was you. In fact, I would question whether or not you actually think it's true. When I compare it to other comments you've recently made, as well as comments you've made in the past, I wonder if you're just saying what I want to hear.

After doing all this evaluation, I then boil it down to a 100 word summary. I go for what's most important:

Ben errs in the following ways. He says Law and Gospel is Luther’s dominant theme. Actually,it is one of a few dominant themes. Luther did not “merely” hold the Law convicts of sin, nor does it only lead to a paralyzing fear of wrath. Ben contradicts this by later noting Luther’s positive use of Law. Ben says Luther’s Gospel can only suggest, but never impose (as did the Law) a definite standard of moral perfection. Actually, the Gospel standard of perfection for Luther is higher: a Christian is to become Christ to His neighbor, proving and validating his faith.

As to whether or not Ben understand Law and Gospel, I think he does, though my evaluation, if taken seriously, would help him. On the other hand, I question if he understood it before he actually had to sit down and write it out. If he did understand it previously, I can't imagine why he summarized the general Protestant attitudes towards the commandments with the following: “He, therefore, that saith he loveth the law is a liar, and knoweth not what he saith.” - Luther, Commentary on Galatians 3:23. Only the regenrated heart would love the Law of God.

Ben would also benefit from a study of Luther's exhortations to Christians to be Christ to their neighbors:

“We now come to consider good works. We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith, but also as an example of love toward our neighbor, whom we are to serve as Christ serves us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you with all his possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love, and out of these grows hope in patience. You ask, perhaps, what are the good works you are to do to your neighbor? Answer: They have no name. As the good works Christ does to you have no name, so your good works are to have no name. Whereby do you know them? Answer: They have no name, so that there may be no distinction made and they be not divided, that you might do some and leave others undone. You shall give yourself up to him altogether, with all you have, the same as Christ did not simply pray or fast for you. Prayer and fasting are not the works he did for you, but he gave himself up wholly to you, with praying, fasting, all works and suffering, so that there is nothing in him that is not yours and was not done for you. Thus it is not your good work that you give alms or that you pray, but that you offer yourself to your neighbor and serve him, wherever he needs you and every way you can, be it with alms, prayer, work, fasting, counsel, comfort, instruction, admonition, punishment, apologizing, clothing, food, and lastly with suffering and dying for him. Pray, where are now such works to be found in Christendom?” [Sermons of Martin Luther 1:34]

“Whoever does not receive salvation through pure grace, before performing any good works, will most assuredly never secure it; and whoever turns his good works to his own advantage and endeavors to help himself by them and not his neighbor does no good works to begin with.” [What Luther Says 3:1504.]

“…Christ teaches us rightly to apply the works and shows us what good works are. All other work, except faith, we should apply to our neighbor. For God demands of us no other work that we should do for him than to exercise faith in Christ. With that he is satisfied, and with that we give honor to him, as to one who is merciful, long-suffering, wise, kind, truthful and the like. After this think of nothing else than to do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you, and let all your works together with all your life be applied to your neighbor. Look for the poor, sick and all kinds of needy, help them and let your life's energy here appear, so that they may enjoy your kindness, helping whoever needs you, as much as you possibly can with your life, property and honor. Whoever points you to other good works than these, avoid him as a wolf and as Satan, because he wants to put a stumbling block in your way, as David says, "In the way wherein I walk have they hidden a snare for me," Ps. 142, 3. But this is done by the perverted, misguided people of the Papists, who with their religious ceremonies set aside such Christian works, and teach the people to serve God only and not also mankind. They establish convents, masses, vigils, become religious, do this and that. And these poor, blind people call that serving God, which they have chosen themselves. But know that to serve God is nothing else than to serve your neighbor and do good to him in love, be it a child, wife, servant, enemy, friend; without making any difference, whoever needs your help in body or soul, and wherever you can help in temporal or spiritual matters. This is serving God and doing good works. 0, Lord God, how do we fools live in this world, neglecting to do such works, though in all parts of the world we find the needy, on whom we could bestow our good works; but no one looks after them nor cares for them. But look to your own life. If you do not find yourself among the needy and the poor, where the Gospel shows us Christ, then you may know that your faith is not right, and that you have not yet tasted of Christ's benevolence and work for you.” [Sermons of Martin Luther 1: 111]

“Again you say: What about the doctrine of good works? Shall this amount to nothing, or is it not a beautiful, praiseworthy thing, when a man endeavors to keep the commandments, and is obedient, chaste, honorable and truthful? Answer: Yes, surely; all this is to be done; it is also a good doctrine and life, provided it is left in the place where it belongs, and the two doctrines are kept distinct, how a man becomes pious and righteous before God, and how and to what end he is to do good works. For although it is necessary to teach the doctrine of good works, at the same time, nay, even before this also must be carefully taught (so that the doctrine of the Gospel and of faith be kept pure and unadulterated), that all our works, however good and holy they may be, are not the treasure and merit, by which we become acceptable to God and attain everlasting life. But it is this alone, that Christ goes to the Father and by his departure merits this for us, and gives and communicates to us his righteousness, innocence and merits; and so begins in us a kingdom that we, who believe in him, are redeemed by his power and Spirit from sin and death, and shall live with him forever. It must not be a righteousness that continues only here upon earth and then ceases; but a new righteousness, which endures forever in the life beyond with God, just as Christ lives and reigns above forever.” [Sermons of Martin Luther 2:147]

1 comment:

Ben M said...
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