Luther in english part 3 -Law and Gospel in Luther’s “Breakthrough Years” – by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Luther in english part 3
by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Law and Gospel in Luther’s “Breakthrough Years”
and Early Lectures on the Bible (1513–1519)
IT IS IRREFUTABLE THAT LUTHER ALWAYS RECOGNIZED THE NEED FOR the preaching of the Law, and this was true of his earlier as well as later writings. However, the precise function of the Law in relation to the true Christian is far more complex and has generated the most vigorous debate. In fact, confusion over how the Law relates to the Christian who is both righteous and sinner explains why scholars such as Carl Trueman can understandably interpret Luther as being ambivalent towards the Law. The harsh words Luther has to say about the Law in one place compared with the adulation he expresses for the Law in another place can seem duplicitous, but Luther’s statements must be interpreted in their historical and polemical context, or “situational nature,” whether he is arguing with medieval Catholics or with antinomians and enthusiasts.2 Furthermore, Luther’s stress on the Christian as both righteous and sinner and its relationship to his theology of Law and Gospel cannot be overstated.
Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel first took form during his lectureship on the Bible at the University of Wittenberg between the years 1513 and 1519. By the time the lectures began, Luther had been wrestling for years with the unsettled state of his soul before God (Anfechtung) nurtured by the dissatisfaction of his conscience in obtaining peace with God through the austere ascetic piety of the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt. Much to the displeasure of his father, Luther terminated his path to a legal profession and entered the Erfurt monastery in 1505 to seek the favor of his eternal Father by a strict adherence to the laws of the Augustinian Order. It is possible that Luther had been considering the life of a monk long before 1505, and that the infamous thunderstorm on the way back to Erfurt one summer night merely made more urgent the calling of God he had been sensing for a long time. Ironically, having entered the monastery to placate God with a higher dedication to mortifying the flesh, Luther, transferred to the Augustinian House in Wittenberg in 1511, found in his university lectures on the Bible the necessary tools to attack the theological training that had caused him so much angst and had impressed upon him the need to rely on the contribution of his own merit in justification. By the time of the publication of The Freedom of a Christian in 1520, Luther was concerned above all to oppose what he perceived was essentially a false doctrine of justification by meritorious works in the late medieval Church. Therefore, quite understandably, how Law and Gospel relate to the justification of the sinner before God takes center stage in the development of his early theology. Yet Luther was never so naïve as to not recognize the implications in a doctrine of justification by faith alone for Christian obedience and he always made room to discuss the value of good works.
In the preface to an edition of his Latin writings published in 1545, it seems that Luther identifies the breakthrough in his interpretation of the “righteousness of God” (iustitia dei), the righteousness not by which God punishes or rewards human effort but that which is given freely through faith in Christ alone, as occurring early on in his second lectureship on the Psalter (late 1518 or early 1519). Yet this autobiographical statement can also be read to indicate that it was precisely his formulation of that breakthrough between 1515 and 1518 during his lectures on Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews that prompted him to return to the Psalms. Scholars such as Alister McGrath have argued that, while Luther’s new understanding of the righteousness of God pertaining to justification has culminated by 1519, it is accurate to identify his “breakthrough” as a development beginning as early as 1514 or 1515.
At the instigation of his Augustinian superior Johann von Staupitz (c.1460–1524), who hoped to divert his attention away from soul-gazing, Luther went on to receive a doctorate of theology in 1512 and to lecture on the Bible at the newly established University of Wittenberg. Between 1513 and 1515, Luther delivered his first biblical lectures on the Psalter (Dictata super Psalterium) and also performed pastoral duties in the city church. In the Psalms lectures, Luther distinguishes Law and Gospel, but not yet in a way that sets him remarkably apart from presuppositions inherited from late medieval Catholic theology. Law refers more to God’s outward rule of the Jews under the Old Covenant replaced by the rule of Christians inwardly through the Gospel and new Law of Christ rather than the righteous commands of God sentencing judgment upon all sinners to be distinguished from the promise of absolute forgiveness, justification, and acceptance through faith in Christ. In his surviving scholia, first published in the early twentieth century, Luther drives a sharp contrast between mere outward obedience in bondage to fear under the rule of the Old Covenant Law and inward obedience to the Law of Christ in a spirit of freedom through the power of grace. The works of the Law are done coercively, outwardly, and only for temporal advantage, and the Jews had become content with keeping the Law only with the hand and not with the heart. The Gospel of Christ, however, reproves the idolatrous pride of the human heart bringing about a desire for forgiveness and the help of grace to enable the Christian to delight in the moral Law and fulfill it from the heart, which is the root of righteous works leading to the merit of eternal reward.9 Luther speaks even in these early Psalms lectures of justification by grace through the righteousness of faith in Christ who made satisfaction for sins in His death, as well as the receiving of power from God in grace to keep the Law freely for merit without compulsion, but McGrath has convincingly argued that Luther has not yet established against his late medieval theological education that the desiring of grace through humility and faith is itself the result of God’s selective, prevenient grace working inwardly nor does he stress the Gospel more strictly in contradistinction to Law as the proclamation of forgiveness and the reckoning of righteousness before God through faith in Christ.
In 1515 Luther began his lectures on the book of Romans, which lasted through the summer semester of the following year. As with the Dictata super Psalterium, the scholia that served as the basis for his actual lectures was not published until the early twentieth century. These lectures are significant for understanding the development of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, as well as the coinciding maturing of his theology of Law and Gospel.
In his textual glosses on the Latin text of Romans, Luther describes the moral Law as essentially natural Law and that the core of the Decalogue was inscribed on the conscience from the very beginning of time. The Gentiles may not have received the written Law in the manner of the ancient Jews, but they have always had the Law written upon their minds. Thus, the moral Law existed long before the coming of Abraham and Moses. The Jews found it easy to scorn the Gentile peoples for adultery and murder, but Paul rebukes them for failing to keep the spirit of those laws inwardly. According to Luther, this moral Law binds all people and transcends time, geography, and national identity. All other specific laws, whether of a civil or ceremonial character, are culturally contingent. The Gentile nations were never expected to keep all the laws handed down by Moses to Israel. However, devotion to the one true God and love of the neighbor is at the very core of the Decalogue and binds every child of Adam together in moral accountability. Accordingly, unbelieving Gentiles will not be judged according to the laws of Moses, since these laws were never intended for them. However, this does not excuse them from God’s wrath for the works of the natural Law were written on their conscience and will be their judge.14
Luther repeatedly stresses that any good work done to escape punishment or for personal benefit, though perhaps appearing righteous in the eyes of the world, only fulfills the Law outwardly. In fact, if people were brutally honest, they would wish all laws away so that they could obey their lusts without any fear of retribution or penalty. As such, the Law actually arouses hatred of God and His Law since it represses and restrains selfish desires. As in his Psalms lectures, the kind of outward obedience that is elicited forcefully constitutes “works of the Law” (opera legis) for Luther. These works do not and can not justify, and they possess no merit because they do not flow freely from a heart of pure love for God. Luther does make a distinction between people who are confident of their righteousness in such “works of the Law” and those whose works are “prepatory” to the receiving of righteousness and justification knowing the inadequacy of their efforts, hating their sins, and desiring that God would show them mercy and make them righteous. In fact, Luther comments that such humility indicates that a person is indeed “already righteous in a certain sense. For a large part of righteousness is the will to be righteous.” The knowledge of sin and a heart of repentance that results in prayerful pleas to God for the mercy of forgiveness and the help of His grace to be made perfect and free of all sinful impulses characterizes the entire earthly life of the elect: “he who thus seeks in heart and work, by the very fact that he seeks to be justified and does not think that he is righteous, is doubtless already righteous before God.” It is not those who are satisfied in outward works of compulsion for their righteousness but those who work while humbly seeking the grace of God and constantly desiring that He show them mercy and make them righteous whose sins are not reckoned by God for condemnation through faith in Christ. In other words, the presence of sin does not necessarily condemn the sinner, but only the inward consent of the heart and a false trust in outward works of compulsion. Luther’s understanding of justification in terms of healing from the power of sin, along with his emphasis on the righteousness that is bestowed from God through the humility of faith apart from works, is evidence of some influence of Augustine on the theology of the Romans lectures.17
Following in the footsteps of Augustine and his ancient dispute with Pelagius, Luther describes how the Law makes demands of people without providing any help to sinners in bondage to sin for the meeting of those demands. Thus, those who live under the condemnation of the Law are under the dominion and power of sin, for they are in bondage to reluctant toil and fruitless effort to fulfill the Law. This foreshadows Luther’s later open dispute with Erasmus in the middle of the 1520s. However, even during his lectures on Romans, Luther was aware of how his more Augustinian theology of the Law and original sin set him apart from Erasmus’ annotations on the Epistle to the Romans in the Novum Instrumentum (1516). George Spalatin (1484–1545), chaplain and secretary to Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, speaks of a “friend” (Luther) who disagreed with Erasmus’ ambivalence on the issue of original sin as well as his interpretation that justicia operum or legis in Paul referred only to the ceremonial works of the Law as if justification was still by the moral Law.
According to Luther, Jew and Gentile both stand eternally condemned and helpless under the judgment of the Law, whether the written Law on tablets of stone in the case of the Jews or the natural Law written on the conscience in the case of the Gentiles. Obedience to the works of the Law can never satisfy the justice of God or make one righteous in His eyes. Rather, the Law is fulfilled because the person is already righteous and has come to recognize his or her own natural weakness and reliance upon the grace of God: “For we are not righteous because we act according to the Law, but because we are first righteous, therefore we then fulfill the Law.”
Luther describes openly in the beginning of his scholia on Romans that the “chief purpose of this letter” is to undermine all pretense of human righteousness before God: “we must be taught righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign.” Luther makes clear, then, really for the first time that the precise function of the Law with regard to justification is to humble the sinner by exposing the deep roots of sin, which actually increases by the compulsion of the Law. To the sinner, the Law is rigorous and its harshness actually expels all personal delight in it, which constitutes the essence of real moral perfection and righteousness.
Therefore, Luther’s Romans lectures develop the important emphasis that the Law brings the knowledge of sin, and not only the knowledge of sinful acts but the very bondage of the natural will and disposition of the soul. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, theses prepared for a disputation presided over by Luther in 1517 and then printed in 1520, Luther reiterates that the will by original sin is naturally opposed to the Law: “Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.” The natural will cannot even desire to do good without grace.24
The context of Luther’s objections to free-will is the late medieval “covenant” (pactum) theology of Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–1495) whose writings Luther studied as a monk under the tutorship of Johann Nathin. Biel was himself influenced by the teachings of the English Franciscan William of Ockham (c.1287–1347) whose philosophical ideas had become firmly entrenched at the University of Erfurt under professors Jodocus Trutvetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi von Usingen. Luther as an arts student in 1501–1505 had already encountered Ockham’s belief that the absolute freedom of God (potentia Dei absoluta) transcends the dictates of human reason and is restricted only by His revelation (potentia Dei ordinata). This, along with the progressive vision of European humanists in providing tools for studying ancient texts in their original languages, such as the Hebrew scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522) and the Greek and Latin scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536), made an influential contribution to the importance of biblical revelation in the thought of Luther. Also following Ockham, Biel taught that the infusion of grace in justification enabling good works that lead to the reward of eternal life is a congruous merit given by God in His own covenant of mercy to those who in their own natural powers, “doing what is in them” (facere quod in se est), desire this grace through repentance. Luther had openly spoken of preparation for grace earlier in his Psalms lectures (1513–1515): “Therefore he bestows everything gratis and only on the basis of the promise of His mercy, although He wants us to be prepared for this as much as lies in us. Hence as the Law was the figure and preparation for the people for receiving Christ, so our doing as much is in us disposes us toward grace.” McGrath argues that the Luther of the Dictata super Psalterium is still influenced by this via moderna tradition of late medieval scholasticism and points out that it was Luther’s reading of Augustine in conjunction with his study of the book of Romans that caused him to openly challenge these popular assumptions as a revival of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. Luther’s response was then to make even the preparation leading up to the grace of justification through the humility of repentance and faith the effect of the internal and prevenient work of God in His sovereign grace.
In the Romans lectures, Luther does state that between the ungodly and believing Gentile lies the person who: “through some good action directed toward God as much as they were able earned grace which directed them farther, not as though this grace had been given to them because of such merit, because then it would not have been grace, but because they thus prepared their hearts to receive this grace as a gift.” Peter A. Lillback identifies Luther’s initial break with medieval covenant theology in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517) and in his preference for describing the Gospel as an unconditional “testament” guaranteed upon the death of Christ. Yet the concept of congruous merit is explicitly excluded in the Romans lectures,31 and his conscious use of “testament” must not overshadow the fact that Luther did go on to speak of the baptismal promise and the ongoing battle with sin in the life of a Christian in terms of a “covenant” in 1519 and in later sermons on baptism in 1528 and 1538. Furthermore, although Luther’s anfechtung in the confessional resulted precisely from his doubts about the sincerity and merit of the contrition in his confessions, he still continued to stress that a sinner must always be moved by God first through repentance under the Law to desire the gift of righteousness in Christ promised in the Gospel and received through faith alone. The significant development beginning in 1515–1516 is in Luther’s insistence that the very movement of the conscience to seek justification in Christ is itself the fruit of the prevenient and sovereign grace of God and the proper ministry of the Law in distinction to the proper ministry of the Gospel, which was in objection to the late scholastic understanding of justification as God’s covenant of mercy to bestow the infusion of justifying grace as a congruous merit upon the precondition of a natural mind and will disposed to desire grace through its own powers of repentance and humility before God.
Luther argues in his Romans lectures that the giving of the Law increased rather than decreased sin, yet insists that there is no fault in God’s Law and that His ultimate intention was not that sin should increase. Rather, the Law was given and sin necessarily increased because of the utter wickedness of human nature. Even without the giving of the Law in written form, transgressions against the natural Law would have continued. The fact that the Law was given at Sinai simply afforded the Jews the opportunity to see more objectively the contemptible state of their natural depravity.
At a convention of German Augustinians held at Heidelberg in April of 1518, Luther, at the behest of Staupitz, prepared a series of theses for academic disputation. Luther was told to avoid the issue of the selling of indulgences directly, which his 95 Theses (1517) had recently made the subject of an intense controversy involving the integrity of the papacy. Instead, the Heidelberg theses expand on the necessity of repentance, which Luther believed had been undercut by Tetzel in his recent marketing of indulgences beyond the borders of Electoral Saxony. Luther writes of the bondage of the will to sin and reaffirms that this bondage is not on account of any inherent fault in the Law itself. Instead, the Law, seen through the sufferings of Christ on the cross, exposes the deficiency of human works in salvation so as to exalt the works of God. Contrary to “theologies of glory” that rationalize a human contribution, the incredible sufferings of Christ on the cross for humanity reveal the utter powerlessness of the Law, “the most salutary doctrine of life,” to make wretched sinners righteous by it. This emphasis on weakness and self-abasement as opposed to the self-confident rationalization of the late medieval scholastics explains Luther’s brief sympathy with certain aspects of the medieval German mystical tradition, such as in the sermons of the Dominican Johannes Tauler (c. 1300–1361), exemplified by his own publication of the anonymous Theologia Germanica in 1516–1518. Instead, the Law actually kills, condemns, accuses, and utters the wrath of God against the guilt of all mankind. Righteousness, then, is not by the doing of the Law, but by the believing of faith in the revelation of the Gospel. The Law says to men “do this,” which has not yet been done, whereas the Gospel says “believe in this,” which promises that the whole Law has already been satisfied for sinners.38 In his Explanations of the 95 Theses (1518), Luther explains again that “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.” Yet the Law is still extremely important with regard to the necessity of cultivating contrition, as Luther explains in the Heidelberg theses: “sin is recognized only through the law.”40 In fact, this cultivation of repentance through the Law is the operative work of God Himself (opus alienum) that He might, in turn, make the repentant sinner righteous through faith in Christ (opus proprium).
In the Romans lectures, Luther begins to carefully develop a proper distinction between the Law and Gospel with regard to their intended effects on the human heart. The work of the Gospel he characterizes as “properly” to preach Christ and the forgiveness of sins. This must not be confused with the proper work of the Law, nor must Christ be thought of as only a new and better Moses. If the nature of the Gospel is confused with the giving of commandments, it would then cease to be really “good news.” The work of the Gospel is to preach comfort to consciences troubled by the Law with the promise of the One who performed all that the Law demanded. In his earlier Psalms lectures, Luther describes the “Gospel” more as the law of love in the life of Christ that judges all human egotism. By 1519 Luther still describes how the sacrifice and sufferings of Christ in the passion rightly induce contrition. The cross, which was the death of Christ for sin acts first as a reproof of sin for it was the righteous Son of God who endured the punishment. In a sermon by Luther entitled “Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” a copy which was sent to Spalatin in 1519 and appeared again in Luther’s Winter Postil of 1525, Luther goes so far to state that “the main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he be terrified and crushed by this.”44 Augustine also put a heavy emphasis on the role of the Incarnation and the sufferings of Christ as a blow to human pride, yet the “proper” work of the Gospel as Luther begins to emphasize it and distinguish it from the “proper” work of the Law in the Romans lectures is the proclamation of absolute forgiveness of sins in the death of Christ and the gift of complete righteousness in Him.
In his new and revised scholia on the Psalms, based on lectures begun sometime in the latter part of 1518 and published as the Operationis in Psalmos (Psalms 1–22) in 1519–1521, Luther continues to develop this contrast between “Law” and “Gospel” particularly in light of the distinctive pedagogies characterizing the dispensations of the Old and New Testaments respectively. The teaching of the Law and works properly belongs to the dispensation of the Old Testament, namely the Mosaic Covenant. The imposition of these laws and threats of punishment, however, only succeeded in bringing about human rebellion and the wrath of God. The teaching of faith and grace, on the other hand, properly belongs to the dispensation of the New Testament ushered in by the death of Christ. The doctrine of faith is more fully revealed and more frequently spoken of in the light of His coming. It is the preaching of forgiveness, the fulfillment of all righteousness in Christ, and the promise of peace and freedom for all who believe. Luther does continue to speak of Christ as a “Lawgiver” (legislator) in the revised scholia on Psalms, and his stress on the superiority of Christ over Moses as the One through whom is bestowed the needed power to truly fulfill the inward demands of the Law is similar to statements made in his earlier Dictata super Psalterium (1513–1515) where Christ is described as a “Lawgiver” (legislator) and “Giver of evangelical law.” However, in his Lectures on Galatians, which were delivered in 1516–1517 following his lectures on Romans and published as a commentary in 1519 and again in 1523, Luther is careful to stress the proper work of Christ in the Gospel not as “a lawgiver” but “the fulfiller of the Law.”
Yet Luther never loses sight of the fact that Christ did teach the Law. In his scholia on the book of Hebrews, lectures delivered in 1517–1518, Luther describes the preacher of the Word as straddling the two dispensations of “Law” and “Gospel.” On the one hand, he states: “Properly speaking, therefore, it is not the office of the new priest to teach the Law but to point out the grace of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law.” However, at the same time, Luther maintains that, “since in this time that righteous man for whom the Law has not been laid down makes no more than a beginning,” the evangelical preacher, much like John the Baptist, must teach the Law as well as point to Christ the Savior.49 Luther also acknowledges in his Lectures on Galatians (1519) that Christ and the apostles in the New Testament openly preach the doing of works, but that the proper definition of their new office is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. Thus, Luther here already implies that Law and Gospel relate to the Christian as paradoxically a sinner and a righteous person, a member of both the present fallen world and the more perfect world to come.
For all his stress on the powerlessness of the natural human will before the Law, Luther still valued it, not only as that which shows the very need for the Gospel but also as being the very delight of the Christian who has been released from guilt. In his glosses on the book of Romans, Luther states that the Christian is no longer under the condemnation and dominion of the Law and on this account actually becomes a willing servant of Christ and does good deeds from a cheerful heart pleasing to God: “through faith in Christ we satisfy the demands of the Law and through grace are freed and voluntarily perform the works of the Law …”
To have the gift of the Holy Spirit is to have the Law living in the heart, and this is different from having the works of the Law written on the heart: “Indeed it is a law without a law, without measure, without end, without limit, and a law reaching beyond everything that a written law commands or can command.” The Gospel by no means abolishes the Law, but only the burden of having to merit God’s acceptance by keeping it. Instead, by the word of the Gospel is created in the Christian an obedience that is free, spontaneous, even if no law or commandment existed. Despite his later objections to the apostolic canonicity of James, Luther follows Augustine in juxtaposing Paul’s stress on justification before God apart from the Law with James’ stress on the keeping of the Law as the fruit of faith and a justification already received. Luther differentiates between a state of life under the Law and a state of life under grace. The “works of the Law” condemned by Paul in Romans are any works that are merely outward and produced by the force and compulsion of the Law. Contrary to the medieval commentator Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270–1349) as well as the more contemporary Erasmus, Luther follows Augustine in interpreting “works of the Law” not only as the ceremonial legislation of the Jews but all works including the moral Law. The works applauded by James, however, are the “works of faith” (opera fidei) that are done in a spirit of liberty flowing from justification as the spiritual fruits of a living faith.
Luther is careful, however, to maintain that not even the works of faith possess merit before God, in opposition to what medieval theologians such as Aquinas referred to as “condign merit” rewarded to a faith “formed by love” (fides caritate formata). Luther is insistent that neither the works that precede nor the works that follow faith have anything to do with meriting justification or righteousness before God. In opposition to the ethical philosophy of Aristotle, which had been adapted for medieval Christian thinking by Aquinas and was the subject of lectures given by Luther at the University of Wittenberg during the single academic year of 1509–1510, Luther now states emphatically that it is not the habitual practice of virtue that makes one virtuous: “The works which precede do not justify because they prepare for righteousness; those which follow do not justify because they demand a justification which has already been accomplished. For we are not made righteous by doing righteous works, but rather we do righteous works by being righteous. Therefore grace alone justifies.”57 While “justified,” “grace,” and “made righteous” in the Romans lectures still convey a sanative meaning similar to that found in Augustine, Luther clearly deviates from medieval Thomism’s rationalized concept of a supernaturally created “habit of grace.” Adapting Aristotelian concepts of motion, substance, and accidents to the process of salvation, this “habit” in scholastic thought was a creative operation of God in the soul, a righteous disposition infused by His grace resulting in the forgiveness of sins and exercised through human cooperation in the performance of good works for the increase of condign merit and the reward of eternal life. That this grace was perceived as a created habit now belonging to the soul itself was seen to be necessary since “saving charity must be a voluntary act arising from a disposition man could call his own.” Luther not only opposes the idea that this created habit of grace is the basis of justification and righteousness before God, but Stephen Ozment also argues that Luther even early on in 1509–1510 falls more in line with the Sentences of Peter Lombard (c.1100–c.1160) in believing that the moral regeneration of the Christian is the uncreated and personal presence of the Holy Spirit mysteriously “working internally without [human] aid or volition.”
The lectures on Romans are a significant turning-point in the early development of Luther’s evangelical theology of justification. Luther stresses throughout the lectures that a sinner is justified purely by mercy and grace, receiving righteousness extrinsically from God in Christ through faith apart from all works. This righteousness is both a full and complete reality reckoned or imputed to the sinner in Christ and a partial reality relative to the renewal of the Christian through the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ in faith. “Justification” understood more exclusively as “imputed righteousness” through faith alone in union with Christ and His atoning death and resurrection is developed and emphasized even more strongly by Luther in the 1530s. In the Romans lectures, Luther does speak of the “alien righteousness of Christ” (iustitia Christi aliena) as a gift from God received through faith alone and also of the exchange wherein Christ takes upon Himself the sins of sinners and in turn bestows upon them His righteousness. However, Luther does not speak explicitly of the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (iustitia imputata Christi), and he also stresses that righteousness is “imputed” by God proleptically on account of the future eschatological glorification of the Christian. This is illustrated, using an analogy bearing the influence of Augustine, by a sick patient who is assured a full recovery by the physician long before he is ever completely healed. In the eyes of the physician (Christ) he is as good as healthy even though practical treatment is still required to achieve those ends. Likewise, though the Christian continues to require constant treatment for sin in this mortal life, those who desire His mercy and grace to make them whole and healthy are already reckoned as fully righteous by God on account of the future certainty of complete and permanent healing from sin. Luther does speak of the “imputation” (reputatione) of righteousness and defines it here as the forgiveness of sins. The sinner is accounted in the present as righteous on account of the alien righteousness of Christ received through faith alone and with regard to the sure promise of what God will accomplish in the future in the final resurrection of Christians to glorified perfection. God, then, promises to not “impute sins” (imputans peccatum) to repentant sinners who desire His mercy in Christ and earnestly yearn for Him to make them perfect by His own grace. In fact, as has already been mentioned, Luther considered such humility and the desiring of the mercy and grace of God in Christ as characteristic of the whole life of the Christian and indicative that the sinner is already justified in righteous standing before God and has the beginnings of renewal in His Spirit. Thus, the Christian is: “both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And thus he is entirely healthy in hope, but in fact he is still a sinner; but he has the beginning of righteousness, so that he continues more and more always to seek it, yet he realizes that he is always unrighteous.” Repentance and reliance upon the mercy and grace of God as a state of mind characterizing the whole life of the Christian is reaffirmed by Luther in Thesis 1 of his 95 Theses (1517): “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Luther rarely throughout his entire career makes the more formal distinction common in later Protestantism between “justification,” or the forgiveness of sins through the forensic declaration or imputation of righteousness in Christ, and “sanctification,” or the regeneration of the sinner followed by a life of good works. Justification conceived more explicitly in terms of “imputed righteousness” in Christ does become more developed and emphasized by Luther especially in the 1530s, yet Paul Althaus argues that Luther throughout his career continues to use the words “justify” and “justification,” although in a secondary sense, in terms of God’s inseparable but subsequent work of “making righteous,” or healing from the power of sin through the effective presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of Christ in faith only to be perfected at the final resurrection.
Scholars such as McGrath argue that this more formal distinction between “justification” and “sanctification” is really the legacy of Melancthon upon later Lutheran theology, although the origins of “imputed righteousness” could be said to lie within the theology of Luther. McGrath acknowledges similarities between Luther and Augustine on the doctrine of justification but argues that Luther was no mere imitator of the ancient bishop’s theology even in 1515–16. It is clear from his early Romans lectures that Luther did not adopt all of Augustine’s interpretations of Paul, as he himself later claims in a comment recorded by Veit Dietrich in 1532. Nevertheless, even in the 1530s, Luther continued to quote from Augustine, considered his insights on justification to be the best among all other Church Fathers, and generally praised his writings as second only to the Scriptures.
Luther was in agreement with Augustine that righteousness in justification is not possible by works of human free-will in obedience to the Law but originates entirely outside of mankind in the sovereign grace of God. Luther, much like Augustine, also encompasses progress in the Christian life under “justification” (semper iustificandus) but defines this as being “justified anew” through returning to Christ rather than as a process of becoming “more and more righteous” intrinsically through cooperation with the grace of the Spirit as in the theology of Augustine. According to McGrath, Luther interprets the antithesis of “flesh” and “Spirit” theologically rather than in the more anthropological manner of Augustine, and Augustine stresses “faith working through love” rather than “faith alone” as justifying before God and attaining eternal life, defining “justified” and “grace” more in terms of being “made righteous” intrinsically through the healing power of the grace of the Spirit that increases through “participation in the divine life.” According to McGrath, this interpretation of Paul is explicitly rejected by Luther on account of his understanding that the Christian in this life always remains intrinsically sinful so that righteousness in justification is entirely and only ever extrinsic in the “alien righteousness of Christ” (iustitia Christi aliena). This is true both of the complete reckoning of righteousness in Christ as well as of the moral regeneration and renovation of the Christian in the living presence and power of the Holy Spirit and Christ present in faith. McGrath does acknowledge that Luther’s theology of justification has a sanative and proleptic quality, first identified by Karl Holl in the 1920s, and that this shows some affinity with the theology of Augustine. Holl argues that Luther’s theology of justification is analytic and that God imputes righteousness on account of the fact that He has already begun and will complete His work of making the sinner righteous. Althaus agrees that there is a proleptic dimension in Luther’s theology of justification and that this continues to be reflected even in his later writings as well, but he criticizes Holl for minimizing the importance to Luther of the necessity of imputed righteousness in Christ through faith alone to forgive the guilt belonging to the Christian as still sinner.
In Luther’s theology, justification is primarily the reckoning or imputation of righteousness in Christ, which is God’s promise (promissio) of complete forgiveness for sins in Christ and His atoning righteousness received through faith alone. As scholars have recently stressed, this is never a mere legal fiction, for this divine Word that promises complete favor with God in Christ possesses the powers of creation, establishes a new reality of being, and through the divine gift of faith and the present Christ and life of the Spirit adds a new orientation of delight in righteousness and hatred of sin in the experience of the Christian.
It is also true, however, that the more carefully developed distinction between “justification” as the imputation of righteousness in Christ and “sanctification” as regeneration to good works in later Lutheranism tended to obscure the union in justifying faith of Christ as both the favorable verdict and renovating power of God in the theology of Luther. Through justifying faith in the Gospel, the Christian not only passively receives the complete reckoning of righteousness before God in Christ but also the righteous desires and affections of the Holy Spirit and the present Christ. Indeed, as Luther will later elaborate, the Christian is healed from the power of sin in this life only as faith increases, because as the old self decreases and faith in Christ increases room is made for the redeeming crucified and risen presence of Christ to rule powerfully without interruption through the Spirit.70
Essential to understanding how “Law” and “Gospel” apply to the life of the justified Christian is Luther’s concept of the Christian as “simul justus et peccator,” which he really begins to develop in the Romans lectures. According to Luther, it is the mind, or conscience, of the Christian that is released from the authority and condemnation of the Law through faith in the promise of forgiveness in the Gospel. By this faith and the inward power of the Holy Spirit, a spontaneous delight for God and His Law is created within the Christian. However, the Christian is still unable to accommodate his or her new desires in the purest sense because he or she also remains a sinner and experiences impulses that are contrary to the very same Law. In his Explanation to Thesis 6 of the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther states that sin is present wherever there is felt the slightest hint of unwillingness, hesitancy, or reluctance to perform God’s will. This is experienced to a greater or lesser degree throughout the Christian life. Such a righteous person whose works are always performed in absolute freedom cannot be found this side of heaven. Similarly, there is no Christian on earth who is immune to sinful impulses, even though he or she does not consent to them inwardly by the presence of faith and the Holy Spirit. The Christian in this life has been transformed by the power of God in the Gospel from a sinner once wholly inclined towards sin but restrained outwardly by the Law, into a person now inclined through the Holy Spirit freely towards the good, but opposed by the sinful nature.73
To shed further light on Luther’s understanding of the Christian as simul justus et peccator it is important to understand the distinction he makes between “flesh” (caro) and “spirit,” or “Spirit” (spiritus). Luther clearly recognizes that the Bible often distinguishes between the immaterial part of a person, the “soul” (anima) or “spirit” (spiritus) and the “body” (corpus), and that the former is the animating and determining principle of human action: “For the flesh experiences no desire except through the soul and spirit, by virtue of which it is alive. By spirit and flesh, moreover, I understand the whole man, especially the soul itself.”
Many scholars have argued that during his lectures on the Bible Luther broke away from tendencies toward Platonic, dualistic anthropologies inherited by early and medieval Christian asceticism, which interpreted the disparity between “flesh” and “spirit” described by Paul in Galatians 5:14 in terms of the inferior passions and sensualities of the body (sensus) in dissonance with the pursuit of God through the higher faculty of the mind or “reason” (ratio). Even Augustine, who stressed that sin is essentially a problem rooted in the enslaved will, spoke of the libido in human sexual reproduction as a sinful passion and the one that most supplants the godly exercise of reason. Scholars rightly point out that Luther develops an entirely different approach to the antithesis of “flesh” and “spirit” as descriptions of human nature viewed in totality (totus homo) before God, with the rational soul at its core. With regard to the “flesh,” this refers to the essential sinfulness of the human soul in all its idolatry, in reason and thought, in values and motivations, and in will and desires inherited by original sin. Luther does not define sin in terms of outward actions so much as the essential disposition of nature that underlies them in the unbelief of the human heart. The idolatrous state of every human soul is a reality even though people can often appear as outwardly decent and rational beings in the eyes of the world. In the light of this contrast, scholars argue that Luther’s definition of the antithesis between “flesh” and “spirit” be understood theologically rather than anthropologically and with regard to the whole human person and the fundamental orientation of his or her nature either toward idolatrous self-exaltation or indulgence, obeying the Law of God only by coercion, or perfect communion with God through humility and faith, delighting in His Law and serving others with love in all things.
The existential struggle between good and evil desires in the Christian is a predicate of his or her paradoxical existence possessing both godly and idolatrous orientations. The Christian is both a “spiritual man” and “carnal man” (spiritualis et carnalis), “righteous” and “sinner” (Iustus et peccator), “good” and “evil” (Bonus et malus). Luther defines the doctrine of simul justus et peccator in the Romans lectures in terms of the conflicting desires within the Christian and not exclusively as the totality of divine acceptance in Christ over against intrinsic human sinfulness. Althaus insightfully observes that simul justus et peccator in Luther’s thought “characterizes not only the paradoxical theological and empirical togetherness of the divine verdict and a man’s actual condition, but also the anthropological conflict within the Christian man.”.
According to Luther, this paradox of the Christian life is best expressed by Paul in Romans chapter seven. Paul speaks of himself as a sinner in the first person, yet states that this only constitutes a “part” of him. Luther defines the “inner man” (interiorem hominem) as the “spiritual man” and “mind and conscience that is pure and delights in the Law of God,” yet for those not yet justified, “the entire man is the ‘old man’ and only outward.” For Luther the unique experience of the Christian is characterized by Paul’s own frustrations with sin: “He does not want to lust, and he judges that it is a good thing not to lust, and yet he lusts and does not carry out his own will, and thus he is fighting with himself; but because the spirit and the flesh are so intimately bound together into one, although they completely disagree with each other, therefore he attributes to himself as a whole person the work of both of them, as if he were at the same time completely flesh and completely spirit.”78 Luther alludes to the ancient theological concept of “communio Ideomatum” to illuminate the nature of this duality: “Therefore we must note that the words ‘I want’ and ‘I hate’ refer to the spiritual man or to the spirit, but ‘I do’ and ‘I work’ refer to the carnal man or to the flesh. But because the same one complete man consists of flesh and spirit, therefore he attributes to the whole man both of these opposing qualities which come from the opposing parts of him. For in this way there comes about a communication of attributes, for one and the same man is spiritual and carnal, righteous and a sinner, good and evil.”
In the Romans lectures Luther does describe the unique existential conflict of the Christian in terms of a disparity of understanding, will, and desire rather than as a strict conflict of mind and body. Luther indeed later speaks of the Christian battle with sin in terms of fundamental thoughts, beliefs, desires, and attitudes in the conscience. The battle between “flesh” and “spirit” in the Christian life is a battle between the intrinsic sinful soul and the Holy Spirit and effectual presence of Christ in faith. This conflict continues as long as life in a mortal body continues. According to Luther, the struggle of the Christian with sin will only be once and for all resolved at the Final Judgment and future resurrection of the body. This does not mean, of course, that struggle with sin in the here and now results from the possession of a mortal body. Not only will the body be made new but it will be reunited with the soul ruled by the Spirit when faith is at last perfected and becomes sight in the presence of the glory of Christ. Luther describes the life to come in terms of the Christian finally being able to purely accomplish the good he or she desires without any hesitation or resistance: “Thus the Spirit accomplishes the good that it wishes when without rebellion it does its work in accord with the law of God, which cannot be done in this life, because ‘I cannot do it’.”82 In his Lectures on Galatians (1519) Luther identifies “works of peace and perfect well-being” performed without the slightest hint of hindrance or resistance, which are characteristic only of the life to come: “if he consents entirely to the Law, he is altogether spirit; and this will take place when the body becomes spiritual.” Not until the future resurrection of the body, what Luther calls the “changing of the flesh,” will the Christian be ruled perfectly by the Spirit and finally and entirely freed of all remnants of sin.
Even though all Christians give in to sinful impulses from time to time, Luther reiterates repeatedly that God does not impute sin to the one who does not give full consent to such sin, as if without contrition, having an inward delight for His Law and earnestly desiring His mercy and the power to be conformed more and more to the Law: “But only to those who manfully struggle and fight against their faults, invoking the grace of God, does God not impute sin.” Luther stresses this same point in his The Holy Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519), a treatise that went through sixteen German editions between 1519 and 1523 followed by a Latin translation in 1543.
Not unlike his contemporaries, Luther refers to baptism explicitly as a “covenant” (vorpinden), which he defines as the eternal promise of God bestowed upon infants to forgive their sins and to no longer impute sin so long as they believe upon His mercy in Christ and live out their “spiritual baptism” by the daily mortification of sins. This clearly agrees with statements in the Romans lectures with regard to the freedom from condemnation of those who maintain an aggressive attitude against sin through resistance, repentance, humility, and the desire to be forgiven and made righteous, which characterizes a battle with sin that ceases only at death. It is worth quoting Luther at some length to highlight the certain conditionality he describes in connection with the promise of justification in baptism:
So long as you keep your pledge to God, he in turn gives you his grace. He pledges himself not to impute to you the sins which remain in your nature after baptism, neither to take them into account nor to condemn you because of them. He is satisfied and well pleased if you are constantly striving and desiring to conquer these sins and at your death to be rid of them. For this reason, although evil thoughts and appetites may be at work, indeed even though at times you may sin and fall, these sins are already broken by the power of the sacrament and covenant. The one condition is that you rise again and enter again into the covenant, as St. Paul says in Romans 8[:1]. No one who believes in Christ is condemned by the evil, sinful inclination of his nature, if only he does not follow it and give in to it … We must humbly admit, ‘I know full well that I cannot do a single thing that is pure. But I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me. He will not count my sin against me, but will slay it and blot it out’ … He will not count sin against us if only we keep striving against it with many trials, tasks, and sufferings, and at last slay it at death. To them who do this not, God will not forgive their sins. For they do not live according to their baptism and covenant, and they hinder the work of God and of their baptism which has been begun.
This battle with sin is a daily reality for the Christian who is “simul justus et peccator.” In his Works on the Psalms (1518), Luther describes the earthly sojourn of a Christian as a life in transition and an overlap between two ages: “There is no one in this life in whom all the completeness of the New Testament has been fulfilled; nor will anyone be found in whom some part of the Old Testament does not remain. For this life is a kind of transition and passage from Law to grace, from sin to justification, from Moses to Christ. But its consummation is the future resurrection.”
As the Christian remains a sinner, so the Law continues its function in relationship to sin. The marriage of Law and sin is what many modern scholars have referred to as the “existential character” of the Law. These scholars also argue that “Law” in Luther is never simply equated with any written legislation such as the Decalogue, but rather is defined as whatever evokes guilt in the human conscience (lex accusans). This is why the death of Christ in reproving sin is described as functioning like Law rather than Gospel. Lex accusans ceases and becomes lex vacua only in the age to come, though this can be experienced in the present in a partial sense through faith in the Gospel. Thus, according to these scholars, the dialectic of “Law” and “Gospel” in the experience of the Christian corresponds respectively to the paradoxical identity of the Christian as still a member of this fallen age but now also of the eschatological age to come. It is certainly correct to say that, for Luther, “the moment never arrives in the life of the Christian when the law has nothing more than an informatory significance for him.”89 Nevertheless, Luther could also speak positively of “Law” in terms of the righteous will of God transcendent of the experience of human guilt.
By 1519, Luther had developed a careful distinction between the proper tasks of Law and Gospel and the biblical dispensation peculiar to each according to their emphasis. However, Luther had also intimated that the preaching of the Law continues to function in the present age alongside the priority of the Gospel. In his Lectures on Galatians (1519), Luther explains that the apostles as ministers of the Gospel regularly preached good works as “explanations of the Law whereby sin should be recognized more clearly.” By the end of 1519, Luther had become more reluctant to speak of Christ as a new “Lawgiver” for the obvious reason of wanting to stress the fact that the proper ministry of Christ was the Gospel. Yet he also wanted it to be clear that the works taught by Christ were not a new and different will of God but merely the proper explanation and interpretation of the will of God already given in the Law, although now with much greater stress on its inward fulfillment. Luther also describes the good works taught by the apostles as “aids and observances by which the grace already received and the faith that has been bestowed may be guarded, nurtured, and perfected, just as happens when a sick person begins to receive care.” Although Luther does not go into detail to explain what this means or how it precisely works, he clearly differentiates between a role for the apostolic preaching of good works in exposing how deep the roots of sin go so that grace might be sought all the more and another role that applies to the Christian on the other side of having received grace and faith on account of the sickness of sin that remains.
Of course, Luther believes that faith itself does not require any such laws or exhortations to good works. Yet Luther also understands that faith does not always wax strong, that the renewal of the Christian is never complete in this life, and the residual promptings of sin remain opposed to the desires that proceed from faith in the Spirit: “in the flesh there is no one who attains this goal perfectly … the description of the fruits of the spirit, against which there is no law, is rather a goal that is set up in front—a goal towards which those who are spiritual must strive. Therefore the Law is not against them insofar as they live in the spirit, but it is against them insofar as they are prompted by the desires of the flesh.”
Luther states that the “Ten Commandments are necessary only for sinners,” but then quickly adds that “On account of their flesh … the righteous, too, are sinners.” However, the relationship of the Law to the justified is not like that of those not justified. The justified Christian is free of the condemnation of the Law and through faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit now has the desire to do above and beyond what the Law before could only outwardly extort by compulsion. The Law and commandments of God are now something desirable and, with regard to Christians as still sinners, serve an important purpose in directing them in obedience to God in the world and in resistance to the sinful promptings of the flesh: “that as persons who are already righteous we may know how our spirit should crucify the flesh and direct us in the affairs of this life, lest the flesh become haughty, break its bridle, and shake off its rider, the spirit of faith. One must have a bridle for the horse, not the rider.” The Christian by faith delights in the Law and uses the commandments of the Law against the promptings and desires of the flesh and to obey God in good works, which in turn have the effect of guarding the integrity of faith from slipping into a false presumption. Luther even says that the “spirit of faith” can be lost if the flesh is not bridled by the Law and commandments. Though Christians through faith have no obligation to the demands of the Law as a means of acceptance before God, neither any need for the Law to instruct them in the right way, the truth is that Christians are also still intrinsically sinful possessing desires diametrically opposed to the Spirit: “the spirit of the righteous man, although through faith it is now without sin and owes nothing to the Law, nevertheless still has a body unlike itself and rebellious, upon which it works and which it disciplines so as to render it, too, without sin, righteous, and holy like itself.”94 In the light of the totos homo anthropology developed in his earlier Romans lectures and repeated again in the lectures on Galatians, Luther’s reference to disciplining the “body” (corpus) cannot be interpreted dualistically, as if the physical body possesses its own rebellious will and desires independent of and contrary to the soul. The Christian life is a battle between the sinful desires of the soul and its indulgence of the body and the righteous desires of the Spirit rendering the body unto the glory of God with thanksgiving in sacrifice and service to others.
As far as faith is concerned, Luther acknowledges: “we are not under a custodian. But the custodian has become our friend and is honored by us more than he is feared.” Without understanding the analogy of the “custodian” (paidagogos, Galatians 3:24) in the context of Luther’s discussion, it can be easily misconstrued to say that Luther disregarded any need for the Law in the life of the Christian. The metaphor borrowed from Roman culture by Paul refers to the practice of a household slave appointed to supervise the education and moral conduct of the firstborn son until his coming of age. Once the child had reached the age of attaining full rights to his inheritance he was free of the supervision and discipline of his custodian and would actually then become his or her master. According to Luther, this image explains why the apostle can often speak so disparagingly about the Law in the context of the doctrine of justification by faith.97 Obedience to the Law that is compulsory is illustrated by the young child in servile bondage to his custodian. For Luther, this is what it means for a person to live in bondage to sin under the Law. Until he or she comes to believe in the inheritance that is bestowed purely by the promise of God, he or she forever remains burdened by the Law and is a reluctant slave to it much like the child is to his earthly guardian.
To be free of slavery to the Law does not mean freedom to live an immoral life without inhibition or consequence. For Luther, this is to understand Paul’s teachings on faith and grace in a “stupid way.” On the contrary, freedom from slavery to the Law is only freedom from servile bondage under the Law as if the law were the means to the eternal inheritance. Insofar as the Christian is accounted righteous by faith and renewed in the power of the Spirit of Christ, no such Law is needed to teach or compel a good life: “So a righteous man does not have to live a good life, but he lives a good life and needs no law to teach him to live a good life.” However, when Luther speaks of the righteous who have no need of the Law, he is speaking with regard to the faith of the righteous in Christ. However, as was already stated before, Luther acknowledges in these very same lectures that even the righteous have need of the Law on account of the flesh and there is no sinner, justified or not justified, who can be entirely without the Law in this life.
Furthermore, true Christian freedom is precisely the freedom to live in the Law and to do good works from a free and spontaneous desire without any regard to penalty, reward, or “out of slavish fear or childish desire.” The Law itself does not change in the Gospel but only the relationship of the Christian through faith to it: “the same Law that was formerly hateful to the free will now becomes delightful, since love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” In fact, the Christian goes from “servitude to servitude, from freedom to freedom,” exchanging slavery to sin for willing service to God under the Law and freedom from righteousness to freedom for righteousness. Like the child who has grown into his inheritance, the Christian in the power of faith now freely chooses what was once formerly imposed.
A Christian is truly free from the Law only in the sense of being liberated from the burden to satisfy God with works. Yet the Christian lives in the Law with a genuine love toward the neighbor, which is “truly the sum, the head, the completion, and the end of all laws.” The Christian serves the ecclesiastical and civil laws of his or her respective government, not as a means of righteousness and not out of a fear of punishment, but in so far as these laws harmonize with the love that springs from faith: “Thus one must be subject to the laws of emperors, of popes, of towns, of states, and of provinces only, as Christ says (Matthew 17:27), to avoid giving offense to them and in order not to injure love and peace.”
By the end of 1519, Luther had developed a solid foundation for his understanding of Law and Gospel, including the role of the Law in the Christian life, and this was only to be later expanded, developed, and worked out in particular contexts. In these early years, as Luther established his theology in opposition to a perceived overemphasis on works in late medieval scholasticism and Catholic piety, Luther came to understand that the Law judges all for failing to fulfill it from the heart. The Law acts importantly as an accuser, revealing the essential idolatry of the human heart and its deserving condemnation by God to bring about humility. To be justified is to receive the reckoning of righteousness from God in Christ through faith alone and through this same faith a righteous orientation through the power and presence of the living God. The Christian by faith in the Gospel and through the power of the Spirit now freely delights to do what was formerly done outwardly with reluctance as compulsory “works of the Law.” Yet the Christian always remains a sinner and experiences opposition to the Law in the sinful impulses of the flesh, never ceasing to plead the mercy of God and to yearn for the day when perfection comes. For now, the Christian is called into the thick of battle against the old nature under the banner of God’s favor who promises not to impute sin to his soldiers for their victory is secure. Until the moment of the final resurrection, when the struggle of faith will at last become sight, and the body itself completely restored by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Law continues to be necessary in the daily warfare of the Christian pilgrim.
Whiting, M. S. (2010). Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35). (K. C. Hanson, C. M. Collier, & D. C. Spinks, Hrsg.) (S. 41–70). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.