Over on another blog post, Roman Catholic blogger Ben has been dropping Luther bombs in the comment box but keeps missing the intended targets. He's ventured into Luther's understanding of Law and Gospel. Ben says, "Luther was clearly a very confused, very disturbed man. He did untold damage to the Church and to European society with his insane ravings and his immoral shenanigans." He's posted a mass of Luther-related rhetoric, some of it from Denifle's Luther and Lutherdom, a book that even many Roman Catholic scholars repudiate.
I'm not sure if Ben even understands what Luther means by Law and Gospel, so I've asked him in his own words, to provide a summary of Luther's understanding of it. I've asked him to provide a 100 word summary, minus rhetoric and polemic, to the best of his ability, as honestly as possible, to attempt to summarize Luther's position, from Luther's perspective. He shouldn't even quote Luther, but simply define his position. I often do this when I get in to a detailed discussion with someone. Before you try and tear down a position, it's always good to at least understand it.
In order to help Ben, here's a good chunk of Luther's sermon from John 20:21-29, found in LW 69:329-332 on the Law. In the following text, you read just how confused, disturbed, and immoral Luther actually was with his insane ravings.
YOU have heard today the first part of the Gospel, in which we are shown how we should conduct ourselves toward God. What now follows is how we should conduct ourselves toward our neighbor. When He appeared to them for the second time, He said: "Have peace! Just as the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you" [John 20:21]. Of this we wish to speak. It is said that when we preach of faith we are forbidding good works. We have never preached that. Christ, in His life, never did a good work in order to become righteous, and yet He did good works all the time. From the time He was born of the Virgin Mary He was always righteous, from the very beginning of His birth. Everything that Christ did on earth He did to serve us. He did all His works for us and for our sake.
Now we come to the same place. "Just as My Father has sent Me, so I am sending you." [Jesus says:] "How has He sent Me? He has sent Me in such a way that I take upon Myself the Law, death, hell, sin, etc., even though I have not deserved it, but I have done it for your sake. Now you also, do as I have done today." If I come to acknowledge and to love the Law, I fulfill the Law entirely, and that happens out of or through faith. Faith brings everything along with it, [faith] that says, "I have a gracious God." [Jesus says,] "As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you." There is no command there. As I have done, do likewise; if you do not do it, that is a sign that no faith is yet present."
St. Peter also admonishes us in this respect when he says, Satagite fratres, "Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure through good works" [2 Pet. 1:10]. It is the things that we should do for our neighbor that are good works and are called good works by St. Peter. 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. However, we become neither righteous nor saved by them. Faith takes away all works, as St. Paul says in Romans 13 [:8]: Nemini quicquam, "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law."
Thus we must prove ourselves before the world. How? By keeping the other commandments as well: "You shall honor your father and your mother." If there is secular authority over me, I must obey it. I do this not in order to be saved or to earn heaven thereby; rather, I know that Christ was obedient, though He had no need to be, and did it for my sake. Therefore, I also want to be obedient for the sake of Christ and the good of my neighbor, and do it solely to prove my love. Obedience to parents must flow out of pure love, not to earn something by it or because the Law demands or commands it, but rather I should be free and certain in the promise that God freely made to me and freely gives to me. Thus I should do the works in such a way that I cast them out to be plundered—whoever gets hold of something can keep it. This is how the apostles admonish us to good works, not to become righteous or saved through them but to show that we are Christians.
Cursed be that life in which someone lives for himself and not for his neighbor. And on the other hand, blessed be that life in which one lives not for himself but for his neighbor and serves him with teaching, with rebukes, with help, as it may be. When my neighbor errs, I should rebuke him; if he cannot follow me immediately, then I should wait patiently for him, as Christ did with Judas, who carried the moneybag of the Lord and had the duty of coming to the help of the poor; he always wandered from the path like a dog, yet Christ was patient with him and admonished him often, though it was no help.
Faith always speaks like this: "Christ has done that for me; why should I not for His sake also do all things freely?" Furthermore, the things we do for God are not called good works, but rather the things that we should do for our neighbor—those are good works. Whoever is a regent should not think that he is therefore a king or mayor, [nor] that he may earn heaven thereby; nor should he seek his own advantage, but he should serve the congregation, so that my flesh may be tamed and it may serve my neighbor. I take a wife and make myself captive. I do this so that I will not stain or shame the wife or daughter of my neighbor. Before, I ran wherever I wanted; now, I am captive and must be satisfied with one woman, etc.
First, [Jesus] says, "Have peace;' that is, toward God. Second, "Have peace;' that is, toward my neighbor. God demands nothing of us other than (faith and love (that is, [love] toward our neighbor); and the [works] that are useful to our neighbor are good works indeed. God grant us His help that we may love our neighbor. Amen.
As an example for Ben of how to do a 100 word summary statement, here would be my short synopsis of law and gospel according to Luther:
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.
Notice I didn't cite Luther, nor did I get caught up in tangents. For instance, you won't find Luther discussing the third use of law (like Calvinists do), but it's implicit in many of Luther's writings that a Christian could use the law to direct one to holy living (see the Luther quote above). Also Luther would strongly reject antinomianism, or that conversion does not produce a changed life. But most often, Luther uses the law negatively as that which shows a Christian his failure, and this drives him to seek grace and strength from the gospel.
Here are a few helpful links presenting a basic overview of Luther's Law and Gospel:
Steven Paulson, Luther For Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) Chapter two: Law and Gospel: God's Two Words.
Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), Chapter 19: Law and Gospel.