Luther in english part 4 -Combating Legalism and Lawlessness Law and Gospel in Luther’s Writings of the 1520s – by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Luther in english
by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Combating Legalism and Lawlessness
Law and Gospel in Luther’s Writings of the 1520s
FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, NAYSAYERS ACCUSED LUTHER AND HIS doctrine of justification as the gift of righteousness in Christ received by faith alone as opening the door to presumption upon the favor of God and thus to moral lawlessness. Such criticisms were made by Catholic scholars and clergy as well as by other compatriot German reformers. However, though Luther did stress the Gospel early on in opposition to a predominance in Catholic thinking on the Law and works in justification, even his earliest biblical expositions of the 1520s stress the importance of preaching the Law in the Church for the sake of the not justified and a use of the Law for the life of the justified with regard to ongoing struggles with sin and the flesh. Throughout the following decade of the 1520s Luther would be challenged to develop his biblical theology in the context of very complicated circumstances and by balancing an emphasis on faith alone coram Deo with the moral obligation of the Christian coram mundo. The revolutionary decade of the 1520s, in which the evangelical reforming theology of Luther began to be implemented and adapted throughout Germany by sympathizers and zealots, is of great importance for observing how Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel addressed everyday life in Church and society.
In 1520, just months prior to receiving his official warning of excommunication from Pope Leo X, Luther published an exposition of the Ten Commandments entitled A Treatise on Good Works in answer to direct questions posed by Spalatin about the role of ecclesiastical ceremonies and the laws of Church and State in a theology of justification by faith alone in Christ apart from works.
Luther begins the treatise by defining a “good work” according to the revealed commandments of God and states that a person need not look beyond the Decalogue for the definition of a truly spiritual life pleasing to God. Contrary to the opinions of his earliest opponents and even modern stereotypes, Luther never exalts faith to the exclusion or minimizing of good works, and states in this treatise his purpose “to teach the real good works which spring from faith.” Such works do not consist of ritual fasts, monastic vows, prescribed prayers, or pilgrimages, which are neither commandments of God nor do they have any goodness in them when performed with the uncertain hope of earning favor from God. Instead, Luther exposits the Ten Commandments, defining them as “a mirror” (ein Spiegel) better than any other to “find what you lack and what you should seek.” Throughout the exposition, however, it becomes clear that Luther is not merely thinking of the outward prohibitions as they are strictly stated in the Ten Commandments, but, rightly interpreted, of the even higher demands for worshipping God and social responsibility that speak about the human heart. Thus, the prohibition against stealing is fundamentally a commandment condemning all forms of material greed and self-love, including the hoarding of wealth to the neglect of the needs of others. To fulfill these demands in truth is impossible for sinners and results only from the renovative power of Christ in the heart through faith and confidence in the Gospel. The person who obeys the First Commandment to believe in the one true God with faith and confidence has no problem fulfilling what the commandment teaches because he or she relies completely on God who has promised to meet every need. This approach to the Law is not entirely new for Luther and is apparent in his earlier Dictata super Psalterium (1513–1515). Of course, his theology of justification has developed much since then, yet in the Psalms lectures Luther similarly defines mere outward obedience to the Decalogue as the “letter” binding the Jews contrasted with the inward “spirit” of the Law interpreted by Christ who gives the power through faith to keep the true intent of the Law.
Later on in the treatise Luther states that the order of the Decalogue reveals a certain hierarchy to the commandments. This is particularly true when comparing the first (Exodus 20:1–11) and second tables (Exodus 20:12–17). Luther argues that the fourth commandment to honor parents refers also to the respecting of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, but it can be broken if conflict arises with the first three commandments to believe, honor, and worship the one true God. As such, the first table deals with restoring the relationship of the sinner to God apart from which no truly good work can come: “For as their conscience stands in relation to God and as it believes, so also are their works which issue from it.”6 Luther argues that faith alone fulfills the First Commandment and “is the very first of all commandments and the highest and the best, from which all others must proceed, in which they exist and by which they must be judged and assessed …” For Luther, there is no distinction between works that proceed freely from faith in the grace of God in Christ, but Luther does contrast, as in his earlier Romans lectures, between works performed in faith and freedom, including even the most ordinary daily activities, with the many faithless works done in a spirit of idolatry whose false motivation is the hope of earning divine forgiveness and favor. Such works are not and cannot be pleasing to God, since they are the intentions of a heart and conscience that is unbelieving in the God who promises to justify sinners on the basis of His mercy and grace alone. This is a breaking of the First Commandment and by implication all the other commandments that derive their true goodness from obedience to the First Commandment through faith and confidence in the mercy of God.
Yet, if faith in the mercy of God in Christ alone fulfills the First Commandment and all the rest, why then should the State have so many laws and the Church so many laws, rituals, and ceremonies that might tempt people to falsely rely on them for justification? According to Luther, the answer is simply lack of faith in the Gospel: “If every man had faith we would need no more laws. Everyone would of himself do good works all the time, as his faith shows him.” Obviously, Luther considered true faith to be a rare commodity in the world. Luther then speaks of “four kinds of men.” First, there are the righteous who through faith have no need of such laws or ceremonies to inspire them to work. Then there are those who will need laws because they will use the Gospel only to excuse their laziness and indulgence. Then there are the wicked who like “wild horses and dogs” constantly need to be restrained by laws, threats, and punishments. Finally, the last group is still immature in their understanding and only needs to be better educated with regard to the nature of Christian freedom in the Gospel. Thus, for a time they are coaxed along by various ceremonies, rituals, and religious practices. Laws and ceremonies are necessary, therefore, with respect to the common order of Christendom, which is made up of the wicked and the weak or immature in the faith.
Luther does state openly in the treatise that the “Christian man living in this faith has no need of a teacher of good works, but he does whatever the occasion calls for, and all is well done,” but he is certainly not precluding the need for the Law in the Christian life entirely. His theology of the Christian as simul justus et peccator developed earlier in his biblical lectures on Romans and Galatians has certainly not changed. Luther was personally aware of the reality that no Christian carrying around the flesh lives in faith so powerfully from moment to moment throughout life and that no Christian can be without the need for some direction with regard to how faith should be applied in the world for others. The fact that Luther uses the Ten Commandments, rightly interpreted according to their inward sense, as the very outline for the whole treatise shows that he understood the “good works” of faith pleasing to God to have an identifiable shape and form with regard to the Christian living in the world for others. It is also important to keep in mind that this statement is made in the context of a treatise whose primary aim is to teach that all works are “good” only in so far as they spring freely from faith and confidence in the mercy of God who reckons righteousness by His grace alone, exposing the fruitless error of trusting in manmade rituals and ceremonial and civil laws as “good works” and the way of righteousness before God. What Luther is essentially stressing in the statement above, then, is that the Christian “living in this faith” and in the confidence of the mercy of God for righteousness does not need to be taught “good works” since faith makes the Christian righteous and all the works the Christian does good and well-pleasing to Him. As to why Luther does not make more explicit the fact that the righteous who have no need of the Law are also sinners is difficult to explain. However, Luther has made clear before and will do so again in forthcoming treatises that faith, though justifying, never has complete power and sway in the life of Christians who still need the Law on account of remaining weakness and susceptibility to sin through the flesh.
Luther reiterates some of these same themes in his better known The Freedom of A Christian (1520), a treatise addressed to Pope Leo X and written within six months after his disputation in Leipzig in 1519 with the Ingolstadt theologian John Eck. It was published in November of 1520 soon after he received the papal bull (Exurge Domine) in October warning him of his pending excommunication and was among the works Luther was asked to renounce several months later before Charles V and other nobles and church officials at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 (followed shortly by the finalization of his imperial condemnation issued on May 26).
Though justification by faith in Christ alone is central to the treatise, Luther balances the utterly passive nature of justification before God apart from works with the expectation of active responsibility on the part of the Christian living in the world for others: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
As he had already come to emphasize before 1520, the commandments of God teach sinners what He justly requires of them while exposing and condemning their own inherent incapacity to fulfill them. Faith alone, then, justifies the guilty sinner because faith leans wholly upon the truth of God’s own promise to reckon mercy and righteousness in Christ: “Faith works truth and righteousness by giving God what belongs to him. Therefore God in turn glorifies our righteousness … our faith shall be reckoned to us as righteousness if we believe.”
Luther refers again to the exchange that takes place through union with Christ by faith, this time using the Pauline analogy of marriage in Ephesians 5:25–32. Just as a husband and wife become “one flesh” and have all things in common, so Christ assumes the sin of the sinner while the sinner assumes the favor of God and all His gifts in Christ. The reckoning of the alien righteousness of Christ through faith first involves the complete imputation of righteousness in Him on account of His death and resurrection but this is inseparable from the additional gift of His own living presence by the Spirit through faith acting powerfully over the intrinsically sinful soul for the moral renovation of the Christian life. On this basis, the divine gift of faith cannot help but be busy in doing good works, and it “only makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation.” Faith ascribes complete integrity to God as He has revealed Himself, and this is the “very highest worship of God … When this is done, the soul consents to His will.” Having been freed of all debt to the Law before God in Christ through faith alone, the Christian nevertheless lives as Christ to his or her neighbor freely and not for a divine favor already possessed.14
Luther states again that faith alone is the fulfillment of the First Commandment and even the “fulfilling of all commandments.” God is neither truly glorified nor is the Law truly fulfilled by mere outward compulsory obedience. Faith is the “source and substance of all our righteousness.” It contains the seed of all truly good works: “for he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest.”
Luther repeats again his insistence that true Christian liberty does not give license to sin, but it is expected that Christians will be productive in doing good works. Even though the “inner man” (interiore homine) on account of faith in the Gospel has all righteousness and freely delights in the will of God, the Christian also has an “outer man” (externum hominem) that remains completely hostile to the will of God in the Law. Thus, although works have no value in attaining justification and righteousness, the Christian must nevertheless work to “reduce the body to subjection and purify it of its evil lusts … our whole purpose is to be directed only toward the driving out of lusts.”
Earlier in the treatise, Luther describes the Christian as possessing a “soul … spiritual, inner or new man” (animem … spiritualis, interior, novus homo) and a “bodily nature” (iuxta corporalem), or “flesh … carnal, outward or old man” (quam carnem dicunt … carnalis, exterior, vetus homo). As in his previous biblical lectures and writings, Luther associates the new creation of the “inner man” with the passive righteousness established coram Deo through faith alone in the Gospel of Christ, while the “flesh” or “old man” remains subject to the Law and to the doing of works as the active compliment of faith for righteousness coram mundo. Luther’s totus homo anthropology developed earliest in his biblical lectures on Romans guards his definition of the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” from being interpreted in a dualistic fashion, as if this conflict characterized an enmity between soul and body. The unique existential conflict of the justified Christian results from a tension between the power of the Spirit and the presence of Christ in faith and the intrinsic sinfulness of the soul that only ceases with death. In another treatise dating to the same period, Luther states that the spirit is the “noblest, best and most important part of man,” and reassures Christians again that, on account of the righteousness of faith, God “does not charge the sin which remains in the lesser part, the flesh, toward his condemnation.” The “flesh” as the “lesser part” refers to the entire old nature and not just the physical body alone. This old nature is destined to die forever when the Christian dies. Until then, God mercifully overlooks the guilt of the flesh with all its sins so long as the Christian is repentant and believes the Gospel for forgiveness.
Even as Adam before the Fall was given the commandment to cultivate the Garden, the Christian does good works as a way of being productive in the world. Luther is quick to point out that, in both cases, the doing of good works is not what “makes him holier or more Christian.” Holiness is an entirely new nature and disposition created in Christ who is present in faith, out of which springs pure love for God and others, and which grows in keeping with growth in faith. Faith in Christ alone makes a person good from within and issues forth naturally in righteous deeds. Luther states in another treatise of 1521 that: “Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example exercises your works. These do not make you a Christian. Actually they come forth from you because you have already been made a Christian.”
Though not original or unique to Luther, he frequently uses the biblical illustration of the tree and its fruit to describe the relationship of faith to good works: “the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked.” Luther certainly has in mind here a rejection of the medieval scholastic understanding of moral virtue as a “habitus” created in the soul by infused grace and increased through cooperation in works for condign merit worthy of eternal life. Luther is also mindful of the familiar scholastic notion of “faith formed by love” (fides caritate formata). However, for Luther, instead of love and works making faith complete or perfect for justification, it is faith alone in the Gospel that makes love perfect. Good works of love are the natural fruits of justification by faith. As faith alone justifies, in the sense of righteousness being reckoned on account of union with Christ, the sinner is also made just and has the beginnings of righteousness through the present Christ solely by means of this same faith. Ironically, and counterintuitive to natural reason, Luther stresses that it is not the active exercise of works that makes one righteous but the passive receiving of the promise of God in Christ by faith alone. In another treatise of the same year, Luther observes that the piling of laws and good works on those who lack faith in the complete mercy of God in Christ only increases their condemnation, since without the freedom that comes from the assurance of divine favor and the gift of the Holy Spirit their hearts grow in defiance and are incapable of obeying freely or willingly.
The emphasis of The Freedom of A Christian leans toward freedom from the Law before God in the Gospel, although Luther clearly describes how such freedom leads naturally to the keeping of the Law and good works. Yet this is not to imply that the Gospel makes the Law unnecessary and irrelevant for preaching and teaching in general. Indeed, Luther’s early evangelical writings would become resources for the antinomian rejection of the preaching of the Law entirely, but this only suggests that such reforming theologians differed with Luther even from the very beginning. While certain isolated statements in Luther’s early writings might appear to call for the demise of the preaching of the Law and works,23 these must be interpreted alongside other clear and unambiguous statements in Luther’s writings concerning the absolute necessity of continuing to preach the Law and works.
Luther makes this point in his Answer to the HyperChristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser in Leipzig (1521). Jerome Emser (1478–1527), also known as the “Leipzig Goat,” was a staunch supporter of Catholic orthodoxy and an early opponent of Luther’s theology of justification by faith alone. In the treatise, Luther emphasizes the importance of distinguishing and preserving both Law and Gospel as “two ways of preaching.” The preaching of the Law, or “letter,” is to urge obedience to the commandments of God without explaining where to gain the power to fulfill them. According to Luther, this was the mode of preaching characteristic of Moses under the Old Covenant, which was never able to make Israel righteous. Instead, it enslaved their consciences to burdensome demands they could never fulfill. Yet, the preaching of the Law nevertheless served the indispensable purpose of leading Israel to seek refuge in the mercy of God, and this ministry of the Law continues even into the present age of the Church. The ministry of the Spirit and the preaching of grace characteristic of the New Covenant properly begin where the office of Moses ends, but the ministry of Moses did not end in an absolute sense, as the antinomians came to believe, with the first advent of Christ and the coming of the Spirit. Rather, Moses’ office ends when personal faith in the Gospel begins. This is why the preaching of the Law is necessary even after the historical event of Pentecost: “Therefore, it is impossible for someone who does not first hear the law and let himself be killed by the letter to hear the gospel and let the grace of the Spirit bring him to life. Grace is only given to those who long for it.”
Preaching the Law in this way is nevertheless to be distinguished in form and delivery from Jesus’ moral teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. While hiding away in Elector Frederick’s castle in Wartburg as an outlaw of the state following his trial at Worms and the official issuance of the Edict condemning him in May of 1521, Luther completed a treatise attacking monastic vows as essentially unbiblical, unbinding, and powerless for establishing righteousness before God (including a preface dedicated to his own father who had been opposed to the vows taken by Luther in 1505). While supporting the abandonment of such vows, Luther carefully stresses the importance of doing the good works that God has commanded in Scripture in order that Christian freedom from monastic vows will not be misinterpreted as giving opportunity for fleshly liberty: “Nor can the freedom of the gospel dispense with the commandments.” Luther dismisses the common interpretation that the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:25, 39–44) only speaks of the higher “counsels” vowed by monks to be distinguished from the more common “precepts” expected of the general Christian population. Instead, Luther argues that the Sermon on the Mount teaches the works expected of all who profess to be Christian and disciples of Christ. For Luther, the Gospel understood in its proper sense is “simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man,” but among these “benefits” Luther includes all the wisdom of the commandments and exhortations of Christ to His disciples. In a work of the previous year, Luther explains that this mode in which Christ exhorts His disciples to do good works is very different than the ministry of the Law preached by Moses: “We see too that unlike Moses in his book, and contrary to the nature of a commandment, Christ does not horribly force and drive us. Rather he teaches us in a loving and friendly way … Christ drives and compels no one. Indeed he teaches so gently that he entices rather than commands.” Thus, although Luther believes Christ in the Sermon on the Mount to be simply interpreting the Decalogue truthfully, he does make a distinction between the rhetorical tone of Jesus’ moral teaching and that peculiar to the dispensation of Moses under the Old Covenant. The latter is done more with outward threats and compulsion without providing the motivating power to obey them from the heart, whereas Christ exhorts the disciples to good works in the manner of a loving friend.
That Luther did not want to do away with the Law of the Old Testament entirely on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount is clear in his statement in Monastic Vows that the Ten Commandments “ought not be dispensed with, but observed (if I may so express it) according to their inner meaning, but not according to the conscience” (that is, as a proper means to justification). In fact, the one who lives by faith is the one who keeps the Law rightfully. Luther even says that the “office of the Law is not to demand works of us,” in the sense that the Law gives the power to do good works or to fulfill the Law, “but to show us our sin and our inability … Therefore, just as the works of the law are to be given up, so the teaching of the law ought to be given up.” As in his earlier Romans lectures, the “works of the Law … to be given up” refer to a particular kind of work enforced by compulsion. The works of the Christian living in the Law freely through faith in the Gospel no longer constitute “works of the Law.” Ideally, everyone would live as a true Christian through faith without the need for such compulsion. Of course, Luther knew that there would always be people who without faith can only do “works of the Law.” Thus, Luther’s statements about the “works of the law” and the “teaching of the law … to be given up,” if taken in an absolute sense, must either be interpreted idealistically as if all became Christians and lived by faith or in the sense that the “teaching of the Law” and “works of the Law” as realistically attainable means of righteousness for justification “are to be given up” in Christendom.
Similar statements are made in a sermon from Luther’s Wartburg Postil (1522), a series of homilies created for German pastors and also drafted by Luther while in the Wartburg. The Wartburg Postil was made up of Christmas and Advent sermons and was published in German in 1522. In the sermon on the “Gospel for Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1–14,” Luther states: “in the church nothing other than the gospel shall be preached,” and later on declares that “faith and the gospel, that they and nothing else should be preached in Christendom.” First of all, Luther defines the “Gospel” (Euangelion) as containing two things: “Christ and His example, two kinds of good works: one kind belonging to Christ, by means of which we in faith, attain salvation, the other kind belonging to us, by means of which our neighbor is helped.” Whereas Luther elsewhere defines the proper work of the “Gospel” to be the proclamation of forgiveness promised in Christ, in this context the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the life of Christ as an example to the Christian. Thus, Luther’s statements above cannot be interpreted as removing the need for teaching good works altogether. It should also be noted that the context of these statements is Luther’s objection to the teaching of compulsory works and ritual piety as pleasing to God and meritorious of His eternal favor. Yet, it still might appear that he is denying the ministry of preaching the Law in its Mosaic sense to evoke the fear of God and expose sin and its righteous condemnation. However, in another exposition of Luke 2 in the very same Postil, Luther insists that faith necessarily follows an encounter with the Law: “For without the law no one recognizes himself and what he is lacking; and he who does not know himself, does not seek grace.” Furthermore, Luther describes the Christian after justification as still properly remaining “under the Law,” that is, “according to the body,” and is expected to be active in resisting sin and productive in doing good works for others in the world while passively and wholly trusting in the mercy of God in the Gospel “according to the soul.” Luther, then, on the basis of these other contemporaneous statements, cannot be excluding the need for the Law entirely, but only the wrong preaching of the Law and the value of works, which is basically to preach the Law without the biblical Gospel. It is important to remember, too, that Luther assumes many of his fellow Germans to be living under the same bondage to the Law in anfechtung that he experienced in the monastery, and, thus, what the people needed in the early 1520s was to be less burdened by the preaching of the Law and more comforted through the preaching of the Gospel.
Also completed in the Wartburg, and using the Greek text of Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum (1519), was Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German published in September in Wittenberg (the “September Testament”). Just as Luther had inserted the phrase “only” (allein) after “faith” into his translation of Romans 3:28 to reflect his own understanding of justification, much to the ire of his Catholic critics, the Vorrhede (Preface) to the translation outlines his new evangelical hermeneutic and reiterates his proper distinction between Law and Gospel. The teaching of Law and commandments is predominantly, though not exclusively, associated with the books of the Old Testament canon, and Luther asserts that the Gospel was prophesied long ago in Genesis chapter three. In his Brief Instruction on what to Look for the in Gospels (1521), Luther describes the Old Testament as Christ “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger … all Scripture tends toward him.” Yet, the fuller revelation of that Gospel brought to light in the first coming and life of Christ is the property of the teaching of the books of the New Testament canon. Luther defines the “Gospel” more strictly in terms of the promise of salvation in Christ so as not to confuse it with the proper task of the Law to command, as well as to avoid confusing the two distinctive ministries of Christ and Moses.37 Luther, of course, acknowledges that Christ often taught good works in the gospels, but that it is important to distinguish his rhetoric from that of Moses, as well as to point out that making satisfaction for sins, not teaching works, was the ultimate priority of His coming. In his Brief Instruction Luther warns: “Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws.”
Although Christ and the apostles do often teach and provide examples of doing good works, Luther argues that Christ is always offered first as the gift of the favor of God to be received by faith alone. Whereas the Mosaic pedagogy of works drives and compels by means of terrifying threats and warnings of judgment, the kindlier entreaties of Christ and the apostles exhort Christians on the basis of the love of God in Christ. On this account, Luther favored the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul, since they explained the Gospel more potently than any other New Testament books. Luther even states that he would rather do without the record of Jesus’ life and deeds than the preaching of the Gospel in His death and resurrection, since it is this proclamation that justifies and saves sinners through faith. This does not mean that the record of Jesus’ deeds have no exemplary value for the Christian life, but these are secondary to, even deriving their proper significance and meaning from, the priority of the Gospel.
It is often pointed out that Luther describes the book of James in his preface to the New Testament as an “epistle of straw.” However, it is important to stress that this is not simply because it teaches works, for on that account Luther actually praises it and considers it “good.” Rather, his disdain for the book results from the fact that it really only teaches works and, although works are spoken of as the fruits of true faith, does not speak explicitly about faith in the Gospel of Christ. Luther also firmly disapproves of James’ statement that justification is by faith and works as in the example of Abraham offering up his son Isaac in Genesis 22. Therefore, on account of its utter lack of any explicit discussion of the Gospel of Christ and since it refers to justification by faith and works, Luther could not conceive how the book was properly an apostolic book if the apostles’ ministry was first and foremost the preaching of the Gospel of righteousness to be received by faith alone. For Luther, the practical advice of James without the Gospel acts more like the Mosaic pedagogy of Law. On the other hand, Luther warmly praises the epistles of John for their stress on the importance of good works, “not by harping on the law, as the epistle of James does, but by stimulating us to love even as God has loved us.”
In his New Testament preface to the book of Romans, Luther identifies the structure of the letter in terms of a logical progression from Law to Gospel: “that the law, correctly understood and thoroughly grasped, does nothing more than to remind us of our sin, and to slay us by it, making us liable to eternal wrath.” In the Gospel, the Christian is free of all obligations and debts to the Law with regard to justification before God, yet is expected to do good works for the sake of others: “This knowledge of and confidence of God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace.”43 This does not mean to imply that the justified Christian then becomes morally perfect through faith. Luther reiterates his contrast between “flesh” (Fleisch) and “spirit” (Geist), defining “flesh” in the not yet justified as essentially the entire opposition of his human nature to God, whether “unbelief” or “unchastity.” “Spirit” refers to human nature in harmony with God and the will of His Holy Spirit. While the not justified sinner could be said to be only “flesh,” only the justified Christian is both “spirit” and “flesh” experiencing an existential tug-of-war that wages more or less within all who possess the Holy Spirit through faith. This tension is not equivalent to a dualistic conflict between soul and body, since the soul or conscience is the very seat of a battle with the Spirit against unbelief, lustful desires, envy, hatred, and greed. Although the Christian daily receives the righteous redeeming presence of Christ through faith, the battle with sin ceases altogether only when the Christian becomes “wholly spiritual,” which for Luther occurs at the final resurrection. In the meantime, Luther identifies the major task of faith in the present through the rule of the Holy Spirit as to “slay the old Adam and subdue the flesh,” daily sufferings and tribulations being the best remedies for preserving a sober consciousness of sin and a continued dependence upon the forgiveness and grace promised in the Gospel. No matter how strong the raging of sin that Christians experience, so long as they hate, resist, and fight against these urgings and promptings, repenting if they should fall, leaning always on the mercy and strength of God through faith, there is no condemnation for the sake of Christ. That God on account of Christ does not condemn the faithful who fight and resist sins, are repentant and seek always after His grace, have delight for His Law and earnestly long for Him to rid them entirely of all remnants of sin echoes earlier statements made by Luther before 1520 in his Romans lectures (1515–1516) and in his treatise on the sacrament of baptism (1519).
Following an earlier visit in December of 1521, Luther came out of hiding from the Wartburg permanently in March 1522 to shepherd the reform movement that was beginning to progress at a volatile pace in his absence, even though many of those liturgical innovations introduced by Karlstadt were theoretically agreeable to him. These included serving the people communion in the form of bread and wine and translating the entire Mass into the vernacular (Luther published his own German Mass in 1526). Though not completed until the end of 1522 and published later in the summer of 1523, Luther had already begun some work on the translation of the Pentateuch while in the Wartburg. It was always his intention to translate the whole Bible into German, and, despite the associations of the Old Testament with the Law of the Mosaic Covenant and what Luther perceived was an essentially Mosaic preaching of the Law in the medieval doctrine of justification, Luther highly valued the books of the Old Testament as eminently valuable to the Church.
In response to those Christians who began to antagonize the Old Testament on account of the Gospel, Luther defends its critical importance in his Preface as a servant to the New Testament. Among all the laws and judgments, the coming of Christ is prophesied in the Old Testament period. The New Testament is merely the declaration that the promised Christ has now come and that all that was formerly promised has now been historically fulfilled in Him. Whereas the Old Testament contains many useful laws and tells stories often of the keeping and breaking of those laws, the New Testament tells the story of Christ, of the grace of God, and of His gift of the power to truly fulfill His will. The distinction Luther makes between the books of the Old and New Testament canons is roughly parallel to his distinction between Law and Gospel in their proper senses, but this is not to say that the Gospel cannot be found in the Old Testament books. Luther describes the book of Genesis as “an exceedingly evangelical book” providing numerous examples of faith and unbelief. Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers constitute the core of the Pentateuch with the most detailed expositions of the Law, which Luther defines as important for revealing human sins and weakness under the judgment of God apart from His grace. Luther lastly describes the book of Deuteronomy as a summary of the will of God in terms of faith and love, “for all God’s laws come to that.”
Similarly, the New Testament is not without the teaching of laws and commandments. In fact, Luther states clearly that along with the offer of grace in the New Testament are teachings about laws and commandments, and he adds significantly that this is “for the control of the flesh—since in this life the spirit is not perfected and grace alone cannot rule.” As earlier, Luther again exposes a guarded optimism and preserves the need for moral exhortation in the life of the Christian on account of the flesh and the fact that all Christians are still sinners. Nevertheless, Luther defines the “chief teaching” of the New Testament as “the proclamation of grace and peace through the forgiveness of sins in Christ” and the Old Testament as “really the teaching of laws, the showing up of sin, and the demanding of good.”
As harsh as Luther can be against preaching the Law as a meaningful way to righteousness, as if justification was achievable by works of compulsion, he argues that Moses’ office of preaching works using compulsion is as necessary as it ever was for revealing sin to spiritual “blindness and hardened presumption.” Even the ceremonial laws, though amoral by nature, were commanded by God and thus brought judgment upon Israel because of their disobedience to them. Unlike the ceremonial laws, the moral laws of the Ten Commandments essentially agree with the natural Law of creation written on every human heart. In this case, even before the Decalogue was ever written down, the breaking of these commandments constituted sin and wrongdoing. In Christ, the “law ceases,” and this includes all the ceremonial laws of Israel as well as the whole natural-moral Law of the Ten Commandments. However, the cessation of the latter is not to be understood in this way: “in the sense that they are no longer to be kept or fulfilled, but in the sense that the office of Moses in them ceases; it no longer increases sin by the Ten Commandments and sin is no longer the sting of death.” The distinction Luther makes here between the cessation of the Ten Commandments (Law) and the cessation of the “office of Moses in them” is critically important. The “office of Moses” is the terrifying of consciences, which increases belligerence against God leading to even greater condemnation. This “office” ceases only when Christ is grasped in the heart by faith. According to Luther, the “telos” of this office of the Law was even prophesied by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 18:15, which predicts that another prophet of God would arise. Luther observes that this cannot refer to the later prophets of the Old Testament, since all prophets even unto John the Baptist served the office of Moses by largely urging works and repentance under the Law in the fear of God. The distinguishing feature of this future “Prophet” would be the new emphasis in his message, which is not the teaching of laws or commandments, since “Moses has done that to perfection.” Rather, the office particular to Christ is the preaching of grace and the fulfillment of the whole Law. Whereas the Mosaic Covenant was based on works and promised earthly blessings conditioned by obedience, the New Covenant is guaranteed entirely upon the work of the Messiah who is the fulfillment of all the promises of divine mercy, redemption, and eternal blessing. In this way, the office of Moses under the Old Covenant stands in dialectical relationship to the ministry of the Messianic Prophet of the New Testament.
Out of a concern for reforming the Christian piety of the German people, and probably in response to the religious commotion developing in Wittenberg inspired in part by his own protests, Luther published his Personal Prayer Book in 1522. This was an adaptation of the medieval form of the prayer book already in use by the fifteenth century but now transformed by Luther’s evangelical theology. The prayer book predates Luther’s more well-known catechisms created seven years later and is actually based on an even earlier work entitled A Short Form of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer (1520). The prayer book went through many editions and printings and was eventually replaced in popularity by his Small Catechism in 1529.
Luther purposefully reverses the traditional order of the prayer book. Instead of beginning with the Hail Mary prayer and proceeding from the Lord’s Prayer to the Creed and then the Ten Commandments, Luther begins with the Decalogue followed by the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Luther did include the Hail Mary prayer at the end, but modified it with warnings against false veneration of the Virgin. This ordering reflects his own basic understanding that the Law (Ten Commandments) leads sinners to the refuge and promises of the Creed and to the supplications of the Lord’s Prayer. The devotional purpose of the Prayer Book itself indicates that Luther perceived Christians to have need of the Law for the daily renewal of repentance, faith in the assurance of forgiveness, and the receiving of power for good works and the mortification of sins. In the foreword of the prayer book, Luther identifies these three articles as “the essentials of the entire Bible.” The Ten Commandments reveal the sins of the human heart, the Creed shows people where they can find forgiveness and strength to keep the commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer is a petition to God for help to increase in holy devotion to the God who promises all things to them who keep His ways.
Luther prioritizes the two tables of the Decalogue much as he did in his earlier A Treatise on Good Works (1520). He asserts that the moral Law of the Decalogue is in fundamental agreement with reason and the natural Law of the created order and elaborates on what real obedience or disobedience to the commandments looks like in the context of daily life in the human community. For example, fraudulent business transactions, greed and lust for money, and refusing to pay off personal debt or loans are all ways of breaking the prohibition not to steal from others. In a statement anticipating his praise for the Law in his later catechisms, Luther exalts the Decalogue as containing: “in a brief and orderly manner all precepts needful for a person’s life. Anyone wishing to keep them all will find enough good deeds to do to fill every hour of the day; he need not hunt for other things to do, running here and there to do things which are not commanded.” Luther again has in mind a rejection of fasts, prescribed prayers, pilgrimages, and monastic vows as good works commanded by God. The Decalogue, interpreted correctly is completely adequate for knowing and applying what God demands of His human creation in relation to Himself and to one another, and this is true for Christians who are still sinners. However, at the same time, if it were not for the promises of the Creed and the supplications provided in the Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue standing by itself is only a voice of condemnation and despair for all who rightly understand that it is not fulfilled without love and the complete willingness of the heart.
The Old Testament continued to preoccupy Luther’s attention in the mid-1520s, especially in the light of “radicals” who either considered the Old Testament irrelevant to Christians or who sought to reimplement the formal law code of ancient Israel. In 1523, Luther began lecturing on the book of Deuteronomy to a small gathering made up of Augustinian friars, university colleagues, and even his future pastor Johann Bügenhagen (1485–1558). Luther made transcripts of his own personal lecture notes and edited a complete edition in 1525. Even prior to the outbreak of the antinomian controversy in 1527–1528, Luther already alludes to a certain group of men who want to reject Moses, the Law, and the Old Testament altogether, an extreme conclusion probably drawn from his own emphasis on faith and the New Testament Gospel. Luther instead openly praises the books of the Old Testament as containing rich stories of faith and godliness and wise and useful, though not binding, civil and ceremonial laws.
In the lectures, Luther identifies the inability of the office of Moses by itself to lead to righteousness and the kingdom of salvation, and, in keeping with his understanding that all Scripture points to Christ, that Moses’ exclusion from the Promised Land of Canaan foreshadows this. The Law only has the power to take people as far as the wilderness of Moab, represented by death. Joshua, however, succeeded Moses and led Israel into the Promised Land, but even Canaan was only a temporal and conditional promise to Israel for obedience under the Mosaic Covenant. The New “Testament,” which Luther is careful to distinguish from the Old “Covenant” on account of its temporality and conditionality on the basis of works, was fulfilled by Christ in time but promised long even before the coming of Moses, stretching back before time itself. Thus, Christ does not usher His people into a physical land like Joshua, the temporal enjoyment of which was based on conditional promises, but into a spiritual and eternal inheritance through faith in unconditional promises.
Yet, despite the weakness of the Law on account of sin to lead sinners to eternal salvation, it still remains the proper place for His human creation to look for knowing how God desires to be worshipped and obeyed. Apart from the Word of God, sinful people create their own idolatrous works, such as prayers and fasts, thinking that God is pleased by them: “The people of God should seek wisdom nowhere or know anything except from the Law of its God, where it will find richly and happily how it should conduct itself toward God and man in prosperity and adversity, peace and war. Wisdom gained anywhere else is nothing but stupidity before God.” “People of God” comes from the Old Testament reference to Israel and refers more generally to the whole social body of the Church for whom the Decalogue properly defines the created structures of human community under God. As Luther has stated repeatedly, however, only those truly justified by faith among the people of God are able to desire the keeping of God’s laws freely from the heart.
As made clear in earlier writings, the First Commandment of the Decalogue is not merely a physical law prohibiting the worship of God in the form of an image, but it is the principal and chief commandment to believe and trust in the One true God above all else with complete faith and integrity. It is the “measure and yardstick of all others, to which they are to yield and give obedience.” Moses himself impressed the importance of the First Commandment throughout the book of Deuteronomy, which shows that he himself understood how all the other commandments derive their value from the faith and worship of the one true God.
Luther then speaks of the importance of rightly dividing the Word of God by Law and Gospel. While the Gospel sets the conscience free and at peace with God by eliminating the need for all works and exalting the utter passiveness of faith in the righteousness reckoned in Christ alone, Luther explicitly warns: “see to it that you do not free the flesh through the Gospel, but hold it down and mortify it through the Law and works, just as it is proper for the old man and body of sin to be destroyed.” The Gospel rightly preached, understood, and believed does not excuse Christians from moral action in the world or from the responsibility to actively resist the sins of the flesh. On the contrary, the truth of the Gospel creates the right motivation for these in the freedom and sincerity of the heart and excludes all pretense of seeking to earn the favor of God by them. For Luther, teaching Law and Gospel as it pertains to the “inner and outer man” (interiorem et exteriorem) is to rightly “part the hoof,” an allegorical reference to the dietary laws in Deuteronomy 14. The Gospel is the promise of justification and peace before God in Christ to those who repent and receive the promise with the passiveness of faith, whereas the Law applies to the response of the Christian in obedient action in the world for others: “Therefore let the heart become free through the word of grace, and let the body become a servant through the law of love; then the hoof will be properly parted.” This careful balancing of the right preaching of Law and Gospel is essential for avoiding the twin extremes of works-righteousness and moral licentiousness.
Luther also allegorizes the emancipation of household slaves in the Old Covenant “Year of Jubilee” (Deuteronomy 15:16), which symbolizes the sinner being set free from slavery to sin under the Law by the Gospel. While the sinner labors to please the Master under the Law as a slave, he or she finds its demands impossible and harsh. Consequently, hatred toward the Law and the Master swells leading to an increase of sin and judgment. However, a freed slave in ancient times might choose to have his ear pierced with an awl, revealing his intention to freely remain in the service of his beloved master: “the man now free in spirit nevertheless subjects his flesh the more strongly to the Law and by means of the iron and rigid Law forces it to obedience, as Paul says: ‘I pummel my body and subdue it’ (1 Corinthians 9:27). Thus he remains a slave and a freeman at the same time.” While being set totally free from all obligation to the Law with regard to earning the favor of the Master, the Christian remains intentionally subject to that very same Law in grateful obedience to the Master and in opposition to the contrary desires of the flesh.
Luther again contrasts the prophetic ministries of Moses and Christ, and he repeats his insistence that both offices must be preserved throughout time. Although not equal in respect to the outcome of their ministry, the work of the Mosaic Law to humble and the work of the Gospel of Christ to comfort both bear the stamp of divine authority. Both are necessary to bring about salvation, for without death by the Law there can be no new life through the Gospel.
Luther adamantly rejects those who only trouble consciences by adding more and more works, ceremonies, and laws as means for achieving righteousness. This conflicts with the Gospel being the end and fulfillment of the office of Moses. Luther makes another important distinction between the Mosaic ministry of the Law and the commandments of the New Testament directed to the justified Christian. Luther scholars such as Paul Althaus have thus distinguished the “Law” (Gesetz) from an evangelical “command” (Gebot), and Wilfried Joest prefers to speak of evangelical exhortations and moral implicatives of the Gospel in Luther rather than a “third use of the Law.” In the lectures, Luther does differentiate the form of the “commandments” of the New Testament from the form of the “Law” in its Mosaic ministry under the Old Covenant. Yet, even as Althaus admits, for Luther these evangelical exhortations constitute “Law” in accordance with Luther’s more general definition.60 The distinction that Althaus and Joest make, then, is fair to Luther so long as it is clear that he never thought the moral teachings of Christ and the apostles to be an entirely new ethic different in substance from that of the Ten Commandments as taught by Moses. Luther has already praised the Decalogue in his writings of the early 1520s as the clearest expression of the divine will for the created human community. The proper distinction to be made is in emphasizing the distinct audience, aims, and rhetorical, or pedagogical, form of the preaching of the Law under the Mosaic Covenant compared with the commandments of the New Testament taught by Christ to His disciples. The latter are uniquely given in light of the coming of Christ and His fulfillment of all righteousness for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, which enables the believer to desire the keeping of them from the heart. The Law in its Mosaic office only compels works by force and, acting as an accuser and a mirror of sin, always precedes faith by driving the conscience to seek refuge in the mercy of God, but here Luther speaks of another type of moral exhortation given specifically in light of the Gospel with its own distinct purpose for the life of the Christian.
Luther explicitly states that the commandments in the New Testament are directed toward the justified Christian, though he specifies that this is obviously not on account of their faith that “hastens of its own accord,” but “to kill the remnants of the old man in the flesh, which is not yet justified.” Elsewhere in the lectures, Luther speaks again of Law and Gospel in the Christian life with reference to active and passive righteousness: “The spirit and freedom should be within, in the heart, but the Law and the yoke of deeds should be outside, in the body, so that there is bondage without liberty for the flesh, liberty without bondage for the spirit, but not bondage and liberty on both sides.”62 Again, this language is not to be understood dualistically, as if the Gospel establishes an enmity between the soul and body to be overcome in the life of the Christian. In fact, Luther is describing the ideal Christian life by saying that, though through faith in the Gospel the heart is no longer in bondage to the Law for righteousness coram Deo and is at peace, a heart of faith nevertheless serves the Law in the body in the doing of good works coram mundo on behalf of others in love and in resistance to the opposing desires of the flesh. The commandments of Christ and the apostles, then, uniquely serve the justified Christian not as a cage to restrain a wicked heart lacking the Spirit nor as an accuser of the conscience of the eternal wrath and judgment of God leading to repentance and faith in His mercy for justification (later identified as the first and second “use of the Law”), but to exhort the justified Christian on the very basis of grace, though on account of sin and the flesh, to active resistance against sinful promptings and desires and to diligent moral action for others in the world. Thus, the dialectic of Law and Gospel has a unique application in the life of the Christian as “simul justus et peccator,” which corresponds to complete freedom from the Law and works in the conscience before God through the Gospel and, account of that very Gospel, slavery and duty to the Law and works in resisting sinful desires and in acting morally on behalf of others in the world. Whereas the not justified, unregenerate person is completely “old man” and entirely under the force, dominion, and condemnation of the Law, the Christian with regard to faith in the Gospel is both a “new man” totally free from any obligation to the Law before God yet delighting in His Law and also an “old man” who needs to be mortified daily through the Law and works.
The particular relationship of Old Testament laws to Christian freedom became a practical issue in Wittenberg in the early 1520s. Thomas Müntzer had begun his ministry in Zwickau in 1520 at the recommendation of Luther, and within a year three self-proclaimed prophets from this very town found their way to Wittenberg claiming private revelation and rejecting infant baptism. Beginning in 1522, Luther began to combat the teachings of Müntzer and the Zwickau Prophets, dubbed as “enthusiasts” (Schwärmer). By 1523, it was becoming clear to Luther that Müntzer and others were promoting a militant revolution that far exceeded his own zeal for reform, which he interpreted as nothing less than the work of the Devil. In 1524, John Frederick, the future Elector of Saxony in 1532 and son of Duke John, brother to Frederick the Wise and Elector in 1525, consulted with Luther on the specific question of the continuing validity of the Mosaic Law, which was being used by enthusiasts like Müntzer to endorse a violent, apocalyptic purge of idolatry and all idolaters. In July 1524, Müntzer preached before Duke John and John Frederick in Allstedt Castle, the town of his recent ministry activities, declaring his readiness to lead these rulers in the purging of Christendom with the civil use of the sword. Luther did not agree with Müntzer’s militant approach to implementing reform and believed that the Spirit works perfectly well through the pure preaching of the Word. In fact, Luther perceived that it was precisely for such social revolutionaries as Müntzer that God instituted governments. Thus, Luther allowed for some slowness to the pace of reform and acknowledged a need for patience toward doctrinal pluralism and ignorance. Müntzer’s rejection by the Saxon dukes led him, in turn, to support the economic grievances of the peasants in revolting against the established authorities until his capture and death in 1525.
Luther also had to contend with his former Wittenberg colleague Andreas Karlstadt (c.1480–1541) who was hastily introducing liturgical changes in Wittenberg in 1521–22 and even challenging the practice of infant baptism and the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Luther, in response to a request from church leaders such as Martin Bucer (1491–1551) in Strassbourg, wrote a letter to expose the theological errors of Karlstadt, who had visited Strassbourg after being expelled from Electoral Saxony in 1524. In an earlier sermon preached in Wittenberg in 1522, Karlstadt had called for the immediate abolition of images in churches, and this led to some disorderly removal and destruction by zealous parishioners. In his “Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit” (1524), Luther stresses that ceasing from image worship is really an inward matter of the heart, and though he did not wholly disapprove of the orderly and timely removal of images linked with idolatrous abuses, he interprets Karlstadt’s promotion of urgent “iconoclasm” as a wrongful application of Old Testament law and a new form of legalism and works-righteousness. Luther contends in the letter that the Old Testament injunction to smash images was given to Israel in the context of the Mosaic Covenant involving the promise of Canaan, whereas the Christian in the New Testament combats idolatry through the proclamation of the Word. Similarly, in his “Letter to the Christians at Strasbourg” (1524), Luther rejects Karlstadt’s preaching as ensnaring consciences by imposing works under the guise of righteousness, works which are not even commanded for New Testament Christians anyway: “For we know that no work can make a Christian, and that such external matters as the use of images and keeping of the Sabbath, are, in the New Testament, as optional as all other ceremonies enjoined by the law.”
Thus, in the early to middle part of the 1520s, Luther found it necessary to explain how the freedom of the Christian relates to law, government, and the social order. This was especially true during the years of the so-called “Peasants Revolt” (1524–1526), the culmination of a century of increasing economic exploitation of the lower classes by landowning nobility. Though Luther early on sympathized with the oppressive plight of the peasants and even upheld the legitimacy of some of their grievances, especially their desire to appoint their own local pastors, in his Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525) princes are encouraged to suppress the revolt as a threat to the social order. Luther was angered that the Word of God, the freedom of the Gospel, and even his own words were being used to call for a social revolution and to justify the use of violence and aggressive militant action in rebellion against the established government. Luther did later criticize the princes’ bloodthirsty suppression of the peasant uprising in his subsequent “An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants” (1525), but he continued to defend his earlier statements that aggressive popular insurrection against the government must be repressed for the sake of order no matter what the grievances.
Even before the uprisings, in the spring of 1522 Luther had preached on the obligation to government in a series of sermons on the New Testament book of 1 Peter later printed along with sermons on 2 Peter and Jude in 1523. Luther stresses throughout these sermons the importance of the Old Testament as a foreshadowing of the Gospel. On the other hand, against those who sought to justify iconoclastic violence on the basis of Mosaic laws against idolatry, Luther responds by distinguishing between God’s peculiar government of the Jews under the Old Covenant with His present government of Christians. Whereas under the Old Covenant God governed the moral life of the Jews by enforcing many external civil and ceremonial laws, with the coming of Christ He rules over the hearts of Christians by the Spirit through His Word. The particular civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have all ceased as commandments in Christ, although the natural-moral Law of love was, is, and always will remain in effect for all people regardless of nationality. Nevertheless, nations require civil governments and laws, for Luther acknowledges that not all are true Christians. For while those who live by faith through the Spirit require no civil law to compel them to live upright lives as members of society, those without the Spirit require the threat of the sword for the sake of preserving public peace and the temporal order: “God has instituted government for the sake of unbelievers.” Christian believers, however, need no other government than the Word of God. If everyone were a Christian living in the spirit of faith in the Gospel, there would no longer be any need for government, for people would do good deeds without compulsion, restraint, or threat of punishment, serving one another as Christ has served them.
Although Christians are indeed free from all obligation to the Law with regard to righteousness before God, whether ceremonial, civil, or moral laws, true Christians are obedient to the government in so far as its laws serve their interests in loving and respecting others. Jesus was the perfect example of one who was not in Himself subject to any earthly government, but out of love for others freely submitted thereunto in obedience to the Father for the salvation of humanity. As such, true Christians love one another whether any civil law existed or not, since laws exist to protect the welfare of people: “Therefore I do not want to be compelled to be subject to secular princes and lords; but I will be subject to them of my own accord, not because they command me but to render a service to my neighbor.” To be Christian is to acknowledge that the conscience is absolutely free of all laws for justification before God through faith in Christ, which Luther believed Karlstadt was endangering by zealously reimposing Old Testament laws against idolatry. At the same time, the Christian along with that freedom is to respect the laws of the civil government for the sake of human welfare and the public good, which Luther believed Müntzer and the peasant uprisings in 1524–26 were endangering by revolt and the use of violence in zeal against moral and spiritual corruption. Thus, Luther states in 1525 against the peasants: “for there stands our Master, Christ, and subjects us, along with our bodies and property, to the emperor and the law of this world, when he says, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ … For baptism does not make me free in body and property, but in soul …”
Luther had made this point a few years earlier in the presence of Duke John in the fourth of a series of sermons delivered in October 1522 in response to the suppression of the German New Testament in Ducal Saxony by Duke George. This sermon, probably preached extemporaneously, was later published in the spring of 1523 as Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed. According to Luther, Christians are citizens of the spiritual kingdom of God by faith and are not subject to the laws of the civil government in the same way as unbelievers who do not possess the Spirit. Instead, being led by the Spirit, Christian believers do even above and beyond what the law requires since the government can only rule over outward actions. In this way, true Christians are obedient to the civil law on account of the fact that they have learned to love their neighbor from the heart: “for this reason it is impossible that the temporal sword should find any work to do among [true] Christians, since they do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings demand.” According to 1 Timothy 1:9, it is the unrighteous who require the civil law and its punishments for the sake of keeping the public peace. A true Christian, however, needs to be told to do good unto others as much as a good tree needs to be commanded to bear good fruit. The context of this statement deals particularly with the compulsion of civil law by the rule of government in particular and cannot imply that the Decalogue or New Testament commandments are without purpose in exhorting the Christian to a life of good works on account of the flesh. In this sermon, Luther all but formally defines what he would later identify as the two-fold “usus legis,” and he even refers his audience back to the Wartburg Postil. Aside from the use of the Law characterized in 1 Timothy 1:9, what Luther later refers to formally as the “civil use” of the Law and the work of God in restraining the wicked for the sake of upholding social order within the human community, Luther identifies in Paul another function of the Law as an accuser of sin and a judge of the conscience under the wrath of God. Luther then interestingly states that Christ does a similar thing, meaning he describes a function of the Law, which is the depiction in His Sermon on the Mount of the life of a Christian. In this sense, the Law has a descriptive role in outlining the true Christian life lived through faith in the Spirit. Yet Luther was not overly confident that any Christian lives so perfectly ruled by the Spirit in the absolute power of faith and he already acknowledged that the New Testament commandments are specifically directed to the justified for the sake of controlling the flesh. Thus, whenever Luther speaks of the Christian not needing to be told to do good works he is thinking in terms of the Christian only with regard to his or her faith, which indeed has no need of ethical instructions, laws, or commandments.
In Temporal Authority, Luther also makes the important distinction between the “two governments” (zwei Regiment) established by God, one which is “spiritual” ruled by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of true Christians, and one that is “temporal,” ruling the outward behavior of the unregenerate to preserve a semblance of social order in the world. Luther reiterates that there would be no need for temporal government if the world were made up of “real Christians,” but Luther admits these “are few and far between,” warning that the government must not be abolished until the world is filled up with true Christians. While there is such a temporal government, Christians are among those who submit to it, but they do so freely for the sake and welfare of others whom they love through the power of the Gospel. Christian submis¬sion to the government includes paying taxes and doing whatever else is necessary in supporting the work of the common good. Though a Christian must never take up the sword in personal vengeance and ret¬ribution, he or she supports the cause of the government in punishing criminals for the sake of the protection and welfare of others. In this way, Luther could even encourage Christians to fill vacant positions as “hangmen, constables, judges, or princes” in so far as these vocations were established to protect the people. In fact, Luther states that “For the sword and authority, as a particular service of God, belong more appropriately to Christians than to any other men on earth.” With regard to personal affliction, every Christian in obedience to the Sermon on the Mount must bear suffering as his or her own cross even as Christ tolerated personal injustices without retaliation.78 In this way, the Old Testament concepts of holy war and capital punishment for criminal offenses are completely agreeable to Christians, not on account of any perpetual binding authority of the Old Covenant office of Moses, but in so far as they serve to protect the life and property of others. In fact, every civil and ceremonial law of the Old Testament would be worth keeping if it could be proven that they indeed serve the welfare of others in accordance with the natural law of love written in creation: “For everyone is under obligation to do what is for his neighbor’s good, be it Old Testament or New, Jewish or Gentile … For love pervades all and transcends all; it considers only what is necessary and beneficial to others, and does not ask whether it is old or new.”
Temporal government, then, has every right and power to make laws that protect human life and property, but it does not possess any authority to prohibit the work of the Gospel or to contradict the Word of God. Luther, of course, has in mind in this published sermon the evangelical-minded Christians living under the repressive Catholic rule of Duke George. On the other hand, it is well known that Luther himself earlier in 1520 had appealed to the German nobility as fellow baptized Christians of the one body of Christ, sharing the same “spiritual estate” with those in the pastoral offices, to contribute through the means of their vocation to the much needed work of reforming the Church: “Inasmuch as the temporal power has become a member of the Christian body it is a spiritual estate, even though its work is physical. Therefore, its work should extend without hindrance to all the members of the whole body to punish and use force whenever guilt deserves or necessity demands, without regard to whether the culprit is pope, bishop, or priest.”
In the wake of peaking social unrest later in 1524–1525 and with the religious freedoms granted legally to the German estates by the First Diet of Speyer (1526), princes, nobles, and city councils indeed became much more proactively involved in the establishment of religious order in favor of evangelical reforms in their territories and cities. Luther made frequent appeals to the Elector of Saxony in the second half of the 1520s to support the work of reform in the parishes. Yet it was never his intent either in 1520 or in the latter half of the 1520s to capitulate complete spiritual authority over the Church and its faith and doctrine to the State. In his Address to the Christian Nobility, it was his desire to breakdown the absolutism of a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy by appealing to lay Christians in positions of temporal authority and with regard to the particular privileges and responsibilities they possessed as heads of state. Furthermore, not one of the reforming theses in To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation deals explicitly or significantly with the innovative doctrinal insights that Luther had developed by 1520 but rather, more subtly perhaps, with issues involving the interference of the Roman Curia (Church) in the autonomies of the German nation (State). This was a point which resonated quite profoundly with an already burgeoning spirit of nationalism among the German nobility, including the sympathy of imperial knights Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523) and Franz von Sickingen (1481–1523). The other theses are largely concerned with curtailing religious abuses tied to the surplus of new religious orders, endowments for private Masses on behalf of the dead, and new pilgrimage destinations, of which not even humanist intelligentsia would disapprove.
Luther, then, obviously had no trouble in calling upon heads of state to be involved in some capacity with reforming the Church in their realms, but according to Temporal Authority whenever earthly governments establish laws commanding Christians to believe or to do things contrary to the Word of God or harmful to faith and the Gospel, they misuse their ordained power and must be disobeyed by Christians in allegiance to God, though without any use of force. The Fourth Commandment to honor earthly authority, then, may be broken in honor of the supremacy of the First Commandment to honor God in truth above all else. The temporal government also possesses no rightful power to enforce conversions or to punish dissent with capital punishment, but it can bring civil action against dissenters who nurture social unrest leading potentially toward physical harm against the general population. Luther was of the mindset that magistrates possessed both the authority and the obligation to put down insurrection for the sake of upholding public peace and order, which includes religiously inspired movements of an aggressively or defensively militant nature.84 However, in the 1530s, Luther does cautiously develop a tolerance for evangelical military resistance against the threat of war from Charles V on the basis of allowances made within imperial law itself for acts of self-defense against imperial tyranny and, ultimately, for the protection of the Gospel and the salvation of souls from the real enemy behind the call of the Emperor to war, the diabolical leadership of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, his promotion in the early 1540s of an aggressive program of civil persecution of the Jewish religion shows the evolution in Luther’s understanding of the role of the State in guarding and protecting true Christian religion.
Luther’s treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525) was one of two other important works developing the themes of Law and Gospel in light of the volatile situation of the 1520s, particularly that of the legalism of Karlstadt and other “Schwärmer.” In this treatise, Luther describes five core articles of the Christian faith, and the most fundamental are those that set the conscience free. The first article is the preaching of the Law for the revealing of sin. The second article that follows is the offering of grace in the Gospel. Beyond this there is the outgrowth of Christian obedience, which Luther defines as the mortification and subjection of the “old man” in the life of the Christian. Regarding the fourth article, good works are to flow freely towards the neighbor in imitation of the kindness of Christ. Luther describes the fifth and final article of the Christian faith as proclaiming the Law for the “crude and unbelieving” who need the discipline of the Law “in the manner in which we control wild animals with chains and pens,” which is necessary for the preservation of common peace. In the first and fifth articles, the substance of the later two-fold “usus legis” is plainly evident, and the third and fourth articles on mortification of sin and obedience in service to others imply a “third use” for the Law in the life of the Christian.
The fundamental error of Karlstadt that is the backdrop for this particular treatise is his urging of congregations in the 1520s to cease using images and other ceremonial practices associated with the Mass, such as kneeling before the host, elevating it, and calling it a “sacrament.” In the opinion of Luther, Karlstadt is making such obedience necessary to being a true Christian. Luther interprets this as dangerously similar to papal teaching and another threat to the freedom of the Gospel. Whereas the papacy establishes its own good works not commanded by God, Karlstadt establishes his own prohibitions not forbidden by God. Both the papacy and Karlstadt are more concerned about adding or subtracting external matters than about the attitude of the heart changed by the Gospel. With regard to the traditional use of liturgical images and other ceremonial practices, Luther considers these to be matters of congregational preference, the use of which is neither inherently detrimental to the chief articles of salvation nor in clear violation to any commandment or prohibition in Scripture. Certainly, Luther recognizes that images can be abused and become objects of idolatry, but he argues that this is fundamentally a problem of the heart that requires the proper education of the Word rather than a problem with the external object in itself. A person is not any more a sinner or any less a Christian when using images in an appropriate way. Thus, as it is not necessary for Christians to keep the commandments invented by the papacy, Luther argues that is it not necessary for Christians to follow the prohibitions imposed by Karlstadt: “Dear friend, do no lightly regard this prohibition of what God has not forbidden, or the violation of Christian freedom which Christ purchased for us with his blood, or the burdening of conscience with sins that do not exist.”
Luther rejected the use of the Old Covenant Mosaic Law to justify the necessary removal of images. Luther states again that the commandment to destroy idolatrous images was given only to the Jews with regard to the Promised Land in the context of a national covenant. Furthermore, Luther argues that the First Commandment of the Decalogue and its prohibition against idolatry is really aimed at the worship of God in an image and not the making of images for other purposes, even as the Israelites themselves were told to do on occasions. Thus, Luther did not object to looking upon an image of a saint or even a crucifix if done as a remembrance. Nevertheless, he admits that his purpose for writing the treatise is not to urge the use of images, and Luther recognizes the occurrence of abuses, even supporting the timely removal of those images more blatantly idolatrous or associated with pilgrimages. Yet, this is to be done in an orderly manner through appeals by the people to the local magistrates.
Luther challenges Karlstadt to prove on the basis of the New Testament that it is necessary for Gentile Christians to abolish the use of images. If Karlstadt is bent on urging one Old Covenant law upon Christians, so Luther argues, then he must urge the whole Mosaic Law, which also includes the rite of circumcision. The ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws of the Decalogue cannot be divided in so far as they constitute one body of Mosaic legislation. In fact, Luther argues that the prohibition against worshipping images and the commandment concerning the strict keeping of the Saturday Sabbath in the Ten Commandments should actually be considered ceremonial, rather than moral, laws.
Luther refers to the entire Mosaic Law as the “Sachenspiegel” of the Jews, whereas the natural-moral core of the Decalogue cuts across all historical, cultural, and national boundaries. The Ten Commandments, then, continue in use precisely because “the natural laws were never so orderly and well written as by Moses.” Therefore, with regard to their precise form as recorded in Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments are not the obligation of the Christian under the terms of the New Testament. This is why Luther could reject the smashing of images and the strict keeping of the Saturday Sabbath on the seventh day as binding laws, which were commanded of the Jews only and not discernable in natural Law. With regard to the Sabbath, however, what is not necessary to keep is the precise form and day for which it was commanded, though Luther does argue that it is reasonable for people to set aside time to cease from labor for physical rest and, more importantly, to sit together under the teaching of the Word of God. However, one day is not any more holy than another, nor is any one day of the week the only lawful day. That Sunday should be maintained for the traditional gathering of public worship is for Luther a matter of historical continuity, common order, and not of binding law or divine commandment. The issue of the Sabbath became a subject of real concern for Luther in the 1530s with the Sabbatarians in Moravia, a Christian sect that began observing the Saturday Sabbath as a result of local Jewish influence.
Luther continued these same themes in a series preached on the book of Exodus from 1524 to 1527. One of these sermons was published independently in 1526 as a pamphlet entitled How A Christian Should Regard Moses. The very title of this work suggests its obvious importance for understanding Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel, but it must be interpreted in the context of his debate with Karlstadt and others who sought to impose Old Testament Mosaic regulations on Christians.
Luther reasserts that the giving of the Law at Sinai, including the tables of the Decalogue and all the ceremonial and judicial laws connected with it, were demanded only of the Jews. With this in mind, Luther states that “Moses has nothing to do with us. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses.” For Luther the whole Old Covenant legislation given by Moses composes a single body, and is incapable of division into three unrelated parts. To reject one part is to reject them all. Not even the Ten Commandments in the precise form as they were recorded for the Jews were intended for Gentiles. The Decalogue was given as it was to the nation that God delivered from Egypt and with whom He had made a special covenant at Sinai with regard to the inheriting the land of Canaan. It was not Gentiles whom God rescued from Egypt, yet the Gentiles do have the natural Law written on their hearts, which in almost every way agrees with the Ten Commandments. Thus, on the one hand, Luther can say, “not one little period in Moses pertains to us,” but at the very same time that “We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless he agrees with both the New Testament and natural law.”
The Mosaic legislation was a national law code for the Jews just as the Germans have their own “Sachenspiegel.” Luther states that the temporal governments of Europe could even learn a lesson or two from the judicial commandments of Moses, but they would do so in their own free choice and not because it was commanded of them under the divine authority of Moses. Moses must only be kept by other nations and times in so far as he agrees with natural Law. With regard to the life of Christians, and in place of the authority of Moses, “We have our own master, Christ, and he has set before us what we are to know, observe, do, and leave undone.” Thus, Luther again acknowledges that Christ, while primarily coming to fulfill the Law as a righteous satisfaction for sins, also teaches good works to His disciples, which are nothing more than His interpretation of what the Decalogue really commands and how it is properly fulfilled. Luther speaks as he did in the early 1520s of the Decalogue as the finest expression of natural-moral Law and, in preaching on the Sermon on the Mount later in 1530–1532 in Wittenberg during the absence of Bugenhagen, that “no one, not even Christ Himself can improve upon it.” Yet, again, Luther warns that it is imprecise and even dangerous to simply equate the Law as it was given through Moses with the moral teachings of Christ to His disciples.97 According to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, published at the end of 1525 and written in reply to Erasmus’ essentially moral and practical argument for the power of free-will to desire the good, a significant error of the latter was in failing to distinguish the Mosaic ministry of the Law with its warnings of threats and promises of rewards from the ethical teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. These teachings are not the path of merit before God in imitation of the life of Christ but are spoken with love to His disciples that they might work with gratitude for the grace already promised fully in the Gospel. The former only troubles consciences with the burden of works and so leads to condemnation, whereas the latter exhort on the basis of fellowship with God through faith in the Gospel: “to stir up those already justified and have obtained mercy, so that they may be active in the fruits of the freely given righteousness and of the Spirit, and may exercise love by good works and bravely bear the cross and all other tribulations of the world.”
Luther makes this same distinction in his Lectures on 1 John, which were delivered from August to November of 1527 to the faculty and students remaining in Wittenberg after an outbreak of the plague. Luther is especially careful to counter abuse of the Gospel and to attack false presumption by stressing good works as the sign and demonstration of real faith. Indeed, Luther even states that “the knowledge of Christ has been handed down to us in order that we may fulfill the commandments of God.”101
Luther readily acknowledges the need for exhortation to good works in the life of Christians and warns against yielding smugly to the flesh. Luther even explains that to give in to the rule of sin, which is fundamentally to lose a heart of repentance, reveals that “Christ and the [spiritual] birth have been lost,” for “if the works of the devil are in a person, Christ cannot be there.” He encourages Christians to “retain the seed of the living God,” which is the “Word of God,” in order that they might be shielded from the complete control of sin and succumb to a carnal presumption of divine mercy. Final acceptance into heavenly glory, at least from a temporal perspective, only follows a life of persevering repentance and faith that results in a life devoted to the mortification of sins and good works. While election to eternal life is the hidden and sovereign work of God in those whom He alone chooses, made abundantly clear by Luther in his Bondage of the Will (1525), the pastoral responsibility of the preacher of the Word is to diligently warn Christians against hardness of heart and the deceitfulness of sin.
Luther recognizes that all Christians are beset with temptations, but reasserts that a faithful Christian always does “battle against himself.” Although all Christians yield to sin at one time or another, the faithful quickly rise up again through repentance and faith to new obedience. While Luther claimed that the Devil would often trouble him about his own salvation so that he would call forth the memory of his baptism as assurance of the favor of God toward him promised by the Gospel, Luther also attacks those who place a false trust in their baptism so that they might sin and be disobedient without repentance. This is presumptuous of the Gospel and a false faith, for “[Christ] appeared in the flesh to take away sins, not to give license to sin.” At the same time, acceptance before God and the assurance thereof never rests on the basis of works whatsoever, though these can be reassuring evidence that Christ has indeed made the person righteous through faith in the Gospel. Echoing comments made earlier in The Freedom of A Christian, Luther states that good works never make a person Christian, but they are evidence that one has been made a Christian already: “What is the source of this goodness? It does not come from the fruits; it comes from the root. It does not come from sanctification; it comes from regeneration.”
As made explicit in a sermon of the early 1520s, Luther again describes good works as self-assurances of faith to the point of even strengthening it: “Faith is established by its practice, its use, and its fruit … The consciousness of a life well spent is the assurance that we are keeping the faith, for it is through works that we learn that our faith is true.” Good works are a reflection to the Christian of the presence of the Holy Spirit within and, by implication, a genuine faith in the Gospel. The good works Luther has in mind are, of course, the various ways in which love is shown to others. For the one who has true faith, the commandment to love one another from the heart is not burdensome, for Christ has loved sinners by bearing the burden and severity of the Law for them, forgives them, and by the Holy Spirit through faith in the Gospel frees them to love others in like manner. Christ removed the severity and judgment of the Law in his obedience to death on the cross, eliminating it as a curse and a burden upon the conscience and allowing for genuine obedience to issue forth as the response of faith to the mercy of God. In his exposition of the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism of 1529, Luther even speaks of the ability of Christians to forgive others, though not itself meriting the forgiveness of God, as a special sign sanctified by God to strengthen assurance in the promise of His forgiveness in the Gospel.
The stress in 1 John upon love as the evidence of true faith in the Gospel does not mean, for Luther, that the Christian should be burdened in his or her conscience with a concern for good works: “it is the sum and substance of the Gospel that you should believe and hope.” Luther encourages those whose consciences feel the weight of personal unworthiness before God and who are experiencing the harassment of the Devil in the Law to find peace in the promise of the Gospel and not in the enumeration of works. Although genuine faith is distinguished from false presumption by a hatred of sin and a zeal for good works, despair of personal salvation is never calmed by looking at works, but only by faith in the Gospel.
Aside from the Law as an existential burden and means of driving the sinner to the Gospel, the Christian through faith in Christ now delights in that same Law in obedience to the will of God. This point is made by Luther in his Lectures on Isaiah (1527–1530) delivered between 1527 and 1530. The lectures were interrupted once by the plague and a second time by the Colloquy at Marburg called by Phillip of Hesse in 1529 to unite the German Lutheran and Swiss Reformed traditions in counteraction to the threat of imperial Catholic resurgence. In the lectures, Luther states again that “the Law is no longer outrageous in its dictates but an agreeable companion. The Law itself indeed is not changed, but we are.” True Christian liberty is a freedom of the conscience from the judgment of the Law before God, but not freedom from the Law with regard to a life of moral action: “This is indeed a great knowledge, to know well the use of law, namely, for outward government, not for the conscience. This has been set free by Christ, if only we believed.” Similarly, in his Lectures on 1 Timothy given in Wittenberg in 1527–1528, Luther states: “To the Christian the Law is most sacred. Because it is divine wisdom it is a very fine and sacred thing. The fact of the matter is this: but the wicked and the pious man have the Law. Both have a very good thing. But they disagree over its use. The former misuse a very sacred thing.” The misuse Luther obviously has in mind is “when I assign to the Law more than it can accomplish. Good works are necessary and the Law must be kept, but the Law does not justify.”112 When a Christian, then, hears the commandments of Christ in the New Testament, he or she hears the voice of the Law but without its compulsion and the sting of its condemnation. This agrees with comments found later in his Lectures on Galatians (1531–1535), in which Luther clearly states that “there are commandments in the Gospel,” which are “expositions of the Law and appendices to the Gospel.” Similarly, in preaching on the Sermon on the Mount in the early 1530s, Luther describes that “Christ here deliberately wanted to oppose all false teaching and to open up the true meaning of God’s commandments,” though Luther admits he does so in a more “friendly way.”
Therefore, when scholars such as Althaus and Joest differentiate between “commandments” or “evangelical exhortations” in the New Testament from the “Law” in the Mosaic sense of coercing obedience and revealing sins deserving judgment this can potentially mislead if it is not equally underscored how that the will of God remains essentially one and the same. Lutheran scholar Eugene Klug goes even further in arguing that Althaus and Joest fundamentally succumb to the error of the antinomians in closely associating the commanding of good works with the Gospel rather than the Law. If Luther considers “Law” to be a valid descriptor for Jesus’ commandment in the New Testament to love one another, so long as the particular audiences and rhetorical techniques of Moses and Christ are properly distinguished, and if the good works Jesus and the apostles teach are directed specifically to justified Christians, then identifying a “third use of the Law” in this sense is perfectly consistent with his theology. This also agrees with Luther’s proper definition of the “Law” as always teaching what is to be done and left undone, whereas the proper ministry of the Gospel is to declare forgiveness and the promise of hope and grace in Jesus Christ, in whom also is given the power through faith to obey the Law from the heart.
At the first Diet of Speyer in 1526, with Emperor Charles V distracted by Turkish aggression from the East and by war with a papal-French alliance in Italy, the enforcement of the Edict of Worms condemning Luther and his growing number of followers was temporarily suspended by Charles’ brother and regent, Ferdinand I, pending a future settlement. This gave princes the right de juro to govern religion in their own kingdoms (cuius regio, eius religio). In 1529, this legal action was rescinded much to the objection of the “Protestants” in the second Diet of Speyer and then again after failing to secure permanent legal recognition from Charles at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Nevertheless, between 1526 and 1529 the evangelical movement was able to spread and consolidate with legal sanction in lands ruled by favorable princes, nobles, and city councils. Even before the first Diet of Speyer, visitations of the Electoral Saxon parishes had been commissioned under Duke John and his son John Frederick, including a visit by Luther to Orlamünde in 1524 to counteract Karlstadt’s introduction of more radical reforms and the overstepping of his position as acting archdeacon. Other visitations were made by Jacob Strauss to Eisenach and Nicholas Hausmann to Schneeberg in 1525 in order to promote evangelical preaching. Luther initially envisioned these visitations to focus on the administration of the salaries of parish ministers to support their work in educating the people, but it was also apparent that the parishes needed adequately trained evangelical preachers. In the wake of the first Diet of Speyer and the space it created for the establishment of evangelical reform in Electoral Saxony, “visitors” were appointed as executives to oversee and administrate the transition to an evangelical church order, including Luther’s own nomination of Melancthon from the University of Wittenberg. Luther had prepared to write a catechism for the parishes as early as 1525, and by 1529 his Small Catechism and Large (or German) Catechism were published to correct the deplorable doctrinal ignorance that was observed during the visitations of 1527–1528.
One particular issue that became apparent during these visitations was the lack of emphasis on the teaching of the Decalogue as a means of urging repentance. This was the substance of the first antinomian controversy that erupted between Melancthon and Agricola in the late 1520s, and though Luther’s formal dispute with Agricola actually occurred a decade later, he himself reviewed and published with his own preface Melancthon’s Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony (1528). The aim of these particular instructions was to compensate for the inadequate theological education of the parish clergy. Since the predominant theme of both the controversy and the instructions was the issue of Law and Gospel, and since Luther had some personal involvement in the revision of the Visitation Articles and their publication as the Instructions for the Visitors, it seems only appropriate to discuss them in context of Luther’s understanding of Law and Gospel at the end of the turbulent 1520s.
Johann Agricola (1494–1566) was an early admirer of Luther and a student at the University of Wittenberg in 1515–16. He was later present as a secretary at Leipzig during Luther’s debate with John Eck in 1519, and he was a witness to Luther’s burning of the canon law and papal bull of excommunication outside the Wittenberg city walls in 1520. By 1524 he had become an influential teacher, preacher, and catechist in Wittenberg and was praised by Melancthon. The following year he returned to his hometown of Eisleben to pastor the parish of St. Nicolai, where he soon became the focal point of a major controversy related to the parish visitations in 1527–28. Ten years later he would return to Wittenberg only to become embroiled with Luther in a series of public theological disputations over Law and Gospel.
The dispute originated with Agricola’s objections to Melancthon’s original Visitation Articles. Melancthon drafted this series of theological articles after a meeting in Torgau in 1527 and the unpublished manuscript found its way to Agricola in Eisleben. These articles were reworked by Luther and Bugenhagen in consultation with the visitors and again after a second conference at Torgau in November of 1527. The final form appeared with Luther’s preface as the Instructions for the Visitors in March of 1528. The published work certainly reveals a thoughtful treatment of the issues discussed at Torgau in November, but it is not certain to what extent Luther was personally involved in the editing of the final version.122 Although the work is primarily ascribed to Melancthon, Luther was personally involved in its creation and development, and it was published with his full consent and with his contribution of a preface.
The articles express a concern that the forgiveness of sins is being preached openly in the churches but without urging the need for repentance or “the acknowledgment of sin.” Thus, the Instructions urge pastors to preach the “whole gospel,” which is identified as the complete Word of God including both the preaching of repentance and faith together: “There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood without repentance.” The Instructions state that “repentance and law belong to the common faith,” and that it is necessary to first believe that God “threatens, commands, and frightens” before believing that He is a God who justifies by grace through faith in Christ. The former belongs to the realm of the Law, whereas the latter is the proper work of the Gospel.
The Instructions exhort pastors to teach the Ten Commandments, “for all good works are therein comprehended,” and to warn of God’s temporal punishment for failure to keep the Law. It was the responsibility of the pastors and teachers to encourage “repentance” or “contrition” (Busse or Rew) by preaching the Law, for true faith “cannot exist without earnest and true contrition and fear of God.” On the one hand the despair of Saul and Judas was a failure to go from Law to Gospel, from contrition to faith, but on the other hand, “faith without contrition … is presumption and carnal security.”
For Agricola, the Law was God’s plan under the dispensation of the Old Covenant with Israel, but it was replaced with the Gospel because of its inherent inadequacies to bring about true obedience. The Instructions agree that the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and that Christians should obey the laws that govern their own lands: “Thus each shall follow his own national law … So, we are subject to all authority, not only Christian but Gentile.” Even the strict keeping of the Saturday Sabbath is not a law for Christians, though what does persist is the need for the organized assembly of believers for the preaching of the Word. At the same time, since the Ten Commandments given under Moses are in perfect agreement with the natural Law and teach what are truly good works, they should be taught regularly “so that people be exhorted to fear God.”
For Agricola, the preaching of the Law under the dispensation of the Old Covenant used threats, demands, and warnings of God’s wrath, but this only increased Israel’s despair, rebellion, and condemnation. Repentance, faith, and love are sufficiently nurtured by the preaching of the sufferings of Christ in the Gospel alone. Repentance, then, comes as a result of faith and the knowledge of the “violation of the Son” (violatio filii) rather than the “violation of the Law” (violatio legis). It is important to understand that Agricola never taught that Christians can go on sinning without restraint after faith, but, like Luther and Melancthon, expected that good works would issue forth as the fruit of faith in the Gospel. Luther was probably misinformed when he once admonished Agricola for disparaging the importance of works, not aware that Agricola was speaking with reference to justification by faith before God.
Indeed there is much in Agricola’s thought that bears a strong resemblance to many of Luther’s own opinions, including the inherent incapacity of the Mosaic ministry of the Law to produce the fruits of righteousness. Luther had also described the ministry of the New Covenant, properly speaking, as the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, Luther recognized that the narratives of the sufferings of Christ powerfully induce sorrow and contrition in sinners, but that this is alien to their proper work in declaring the forgiveness of sins. Luther was also never willing to go as far as Agricola in jettisoning the Mosaic ministry of the Law altogether from the present age of the Church, which is necessary to restrain the wicked and to draw people to Christ to receive forgiveness. The real difference between the two parties involves whether contrition is properly the work of the Law or the Gospel. For Luther and Melancthon, there is a contrition or sorrow for sin that necessarily precedes faith in the Gospel of forgiveness, and such contrition belongs to the preaching of the Law. For Agricola, true contrition shows that faith is there already and, in fact, is not even possible without such faith in the Gospel.
The Instructions published in 1528 reflect the compromise of sorts reached at the November conference at Torgau in 1527. It was accepted that repentance indeed follows faith, but the Instructions explicitly identify this faith as the “common faith” in God as a righteous punisher of evil to be distinguished from the faith that justifies in Christ. Luther had earlier asserted that the battle between Melancthon and Agricola was really a “war of words.” Wengert proposes that Luther was not minimizing the weight of the issue as one of semantics but was indicating that the burden of theological proof fell heaviest upon Agricola.132 Over breakfast on the last day of the conference, Agricola commented that Christians were obliged to keep only the precepts of Paul and not the Old Covenant Decalogue. Melancthon retorted that Paul basically reiterated the Decalogue and that the Law is nothing but the instructions of God to do this and not do that.
It is important to understand that Melancthon’s controversy with Agricola was not about whether repentance is to be expected, but whether it derives properly from the preaching of the Law or the preaching of the Gospel. For Agricola, among other issues theological and hermeneutical, the Visitation Articles seemed to imply that salvation was conditional upon something else prior to faith in the Gospel, which to him smacked of a return to late the medieval scholastic theology that Luther himself had attacked. For Melancthon and Luther, it was inconceivable that a person could really believe in the Gospel without possessing a sober awareness of his or her condemnation under the terror of the Law of God. Furthermore, to make repentance the property of the Gospel confuses its proper work of promising the hope and comfort of forgiveness with the power of the Law to convict and accuse.
There is some debate whether or not the Instructions imply an independent “third use of the Law.” Gerhard Ebeling observes hints of a “third use of the Law” this early in Melancthon’s career. According to Wengert, however, Melancthon’s 1527–1528 scholia only explicitly identifies two functions of the Law. A “third use” is not really identified until his 1534 scholia on Colossians. However, Wengert does argue that the “third use of the Law” was formulated by Melancthon as a result of the antinomian controversy with Agricola in the 1520s, at the same time that his understanding of justification was developing an emphasis on the forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ. The third use of the Law was logically formulated, then, as a way of justifying a role for good works in the life of a Christian.
In an extreme response to the late medieval excessive stress on penance, prayers, pilgrimages, and meritorious works, Melancthon had discovered that parish ministers in the 1520s were exalting freedom and grace to the neglect of urging contrition toward the Law of God, which was contributing to moral indifference and complacency within the Saxon parishes. The Instructions obviously have in mind the importance of preaching the Law in the Church for the sake of the unregenerate and the not justified to coerce them into obedience and to draw them in repentance to justifying faith in Christ. However, the Instructions also state that repentance and faith are to continue and increase throughout the Christian life, which implies a continuing function for the preaching of the Law even for the justified Christian on account of the flesh for the renewing of repentance, faith in the forgiveness of God, and devotion to good works and the mortification of sins. The doing of good works is identified in the Instructions as the “third element” of the Christian life, and they speak of the mortification of sin and of “holding the carnal nature in check” as the “work of a new life” resulting from “nothing else than true contrition.” Thus, contrition and the regular confession of sin in the life of Christians brought about by the preaching of the Law leads to a recharge of faith in the promise of forgiveness in the Gospel of Christ and the struggle against sin for a life devoted to good works. This point, along with Melancthon’s retort to Agricola at the conclusion of the Torgau conference that the Decalogue and the apostolic exhortations given to Christians essentially constitute the same will of God, foreshadows his more formal development of a “third use of the Law” in the mid-1530s. In this case, Luther’s own involvement in the controversy, the revision of the Visitation Articles, and the publication of the Instructions for the Visitors is critical with regard to discerning his relationship to the origins of the “third use of the Law.”
As he had proposed to do earlier in 1525, Luther published catechisms for the Saxon parishes in 1529. Luther distances himself from Agricola in the catechisms by openly acknowledging the importance of the Decalogue for the Christian Church. Of course, the format and content of the catechisms was not wholly in response to Agricola. Aside from his desire to draft a catechism well before the outbreak of the controversy, Luther’s Personal Prayer Book (1522) clearly establishes the format of these later catechisms. In 1528, Luther also preached sermons on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer in Wittenberg during the absence of Bugenhagen. The German Catechism, more commonly known as the Large Catechism, was started first and intended primarily for pastors and teachers. Luther attached a new preface to the catechism in 1530. His Small Catechism was intended for the education of children and for use in the home.
As in his Personal Prayer Book, the Creed does not incidentally follow the Decalogue. The order obviously reflects Luther’s understanding that the Law brings about the knowledge of sin so that sinners might seek after the help of the Gospel, in which is found the power to truly keep the Law. Similar to his previous writings of the 1520s, Luther describes obedience to the First Commandment, which relates to belief in the articles of the Creed, as the sum and source of obedience to all the other commandments.
Aside from this, the Law, with the warnings of temporal blessing for obedience and temporal punishment for disobedience, is also useful to restrain the acts of the wicked and unregenerate. In his preface to the Small Catechism, he urges local pastors to emphasize particular laws for particular social classes of people. For example, the law against stealing is to be stressed for workers, shopkeepers, farmers, and servants, and the commandment to honor parents is to be stressed for all children, and particularly those who have difficulty submitting to temporal authority of any kind.
Although Luther has acknowledged that temporal sufferings benefit even Christians for the sake of preserving a spirit of humility toward sin and dependence upon the grace of God, this statement about temporal blessings and punishments at first glance seems to be inconsistent with Luther’s earlier emphasis on the freedom of the Christian from the coercion of the Law. It is doubtless, however, that Luther has in mind here the majority of the not justified that make up a local parish. As such, they can only be encouraged to obey with the promise of rewards and threats until they are properly converted by faith in the Gospel. In the meantime, their outward obedience to the Law is to the common benefit of all. In this way, the Mosaic preaching of the Law in the Church supports the established government in the maintenance of social order for the protection of the Church and the Gospel. This is why, for Luther, young people particularly need to be instructed properly in the Law since they will be the future leaders of the nation. The connection between the preaching of the Law in the Church as it concerns the wider social context is suggested by Luther when he states: “Although we cannot and should not compel anyone to believe, we should nevertheless insist that the people learn to know how to distinguish right and wrong according to the standards of those among whom they live and make their living. For anyone who desires to reside in a city is bound to know and observe the laws under whose protection he lives, no matter whether he is a believer or, at heart, a scoundrel or knave.” Yet the justified Christian can still benefit from the revelation of sin in the Law, which even implies a use for the stern warnings against disobedience to the commandments if they have strayed from the faith to become self-righteous or weak against the temptations of the flesh. The conviction of the Law reminds Christians that they are still unrighteous in themselves, which leads to regular confession of sin, the desire of forgiveness in Christ, followed by a renewed zeal for righteousness.142 According to the Catholic scholar of Luther, Thomas McDonough, differentiating the use of the Ten Commandments and their accompanying retributive “sanctions” in the life of the justified and the not justified requires a “split perspective.”
In the earlier preface, which was based on a 1528 sermon, Luther states that a “catechism” by nature is intended for children and the uneducated. In the 1530 “New preface” (Neue Vorrede) to the German Catechism, however, and in the hopes of dispelling notions that the catechism is only useful for the simple-minded, Luther admits that even he, as a learned “doctor and a preacher,” intentionally devotes time as “a child and pupil” to the daily study and review of the whole catechism.” Luther acknowledges that he has not yet himself become a master of the catechism, in the sense of no longer needing to sit under it as a learner. This obviously includes the Decalogue as well, which would imply that Luther clearly perceived his own constant need for the Law in living the Christian life. Luther identifies the whole catechism as a strong weapon against the temptations of the Devil, the tribulations of the world, and the ferocity of the flesh. To ponder over, sing of, and meditate on God’s “commandments and words” in the Catechism is “the true holy water, the sign which routs the devil and puts him to flight.” For Luther, the Devil hates few things worse than the steady attention of the Christian to the Word of God, including meditation on the holy commandments of the Decalogue. In the concluding section of the catechism, Luther speaks of the valuable importance of regular confession of sin to others. Although not compulsory, as it was formerly mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Luther expects that a true Christian who feels burdened by sin and the accusations of the Law in the conscience will naturally seek for the reassuring comfort and sanctifying strength of absolution confirmed in a special way by a pastor or a trusted brother or sister in Christ.
Luther speaks with further adulation about the Decalogue in the body of the German Catechism, although not the Decalogue in its precise form under the administration of Moses in the Old Covenant. Thus, Luther reiterates that the law concerning the Saturday Sabbath and the particular promise of prosperity in the land of Canaan were only for the Jews, although the underlying principles still apply. In fact, God’s warnings of temporal blessings and punishments apply to all of the commandments. It is worthwhile to quote Luther’s praise of the Decalogue throughout the Large Catechism:
This much is certain: anyone who knows the Ten Commandments perfectly knows the entire Scriptures. In all affairs and circumstances he can counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters. He is qualified to sit in judgment upon all doctrines, estates, persons, laws, and everything else in the world … Here, then, we have the Ten Commandments, a summary of divine teaching on what we are to do to make our whole life pleasing to God. They are the true fountain from which all good works must spring, the true channel through which all good works must flow. Apart from these Ten Commandments no deed, no conduct can be good or pleasing to God, no matter how great or precious it may be in the eyes of the world … It will be a long time before men produce a doctrine or social order equal to that of the Ten Commandments, for they are beyond human power to fulfill … you will surely find so much to do that you will neither seek nor pay attention to any other works or other kind of holiness … we are to keep them incessantly before our eyes and constantly in our memory, and practice them in all our works and ways. Everyone is to make them his daily habit in all circumstances, in all his affairs and dealings, as if they were written everywhere he looks, and even wherever he goes or wherever he stands … From all this it is obvious once again how highly these Ten Commandments are to be exalted and extolled above all orders, commands, and works which are taught and practiced apart from them … We should pride and value them above all other teachings as the greatest treasure God has given us.
The Creed “properly follows” the Ten Commandments in the order of the catechism, since only a heart fully trusting in the promise of the Gospel can keep the commandments of the Law as God wants them to be kept. Although the Law drives sinners to find refuge in Christ, the Christian in turn knows and accepts cheerfully his or her duty to that Law, not for righteousness or justification, but to use it in mortifying sin and the flesh and to structure life for the good of others. To accomplish all this, the Lord’s Prayer provides a model for expressing total reliance upon God for all things.
Beginning with his earliest lectures on the Bible, Luther developed an understanding that righteousness before God is never merited either by natural or supernatural works in obedience to the Law, but that obedience to the Law comes freely from a heart believing in the Gospel of righteousness promised in Jesus Christ alone. To be free from the Law with regard to the conscience before God, understood correctly, is to possess the freedom to keep the Law rightfully with regard to moral action in the world. Luther repeats and develops these themes throughout the reforming crises of the 1520s. Not only does he continue to emphasize justification by faith alone but he also stresses against critics and radicals the rightful importance of the preaching of the Law for the good of Christendom as a whole and of the unique importance of the Law for Christians. Luther praises the Law of the Decalogue interpreted spiritually all throughout the 1520s as the definitive standard of a holy life, and this applies equally to the Christian who is exhorted by Christ and the apostles on the basis of the grace of the Gospel to good works in accordance with the Decalogue for the control of the flesh in service to others. Luther begins at the end of the 1520s to develop more explicitly how the preaching of the Law continues to work repentance leading to the renewal and increase of faith and sanctification (defined by Luther as the forgiveness of sins), but Luther stated early on that the Christian life after baptism is a life of repentance, his publication of the Personal Prayer Book communicated the importance of the Law in the life of Christian devotion, and he frequently spoke of worldly tribulation and affliction as a cross and an effective remedy against the flesh.
The decade of the 1520s was a significant period in which Luther was confronted with the opportunity to incarnate his theology of Law and Gospel in a variety of circumstances, including his ongoing attempt to convince Catholics of the truthful integrity of his insights and correcting “radicals” who took those insights to extreme, even violent, conclusions. Though the assurance of eternal salvation and the complete favor of God are promised only in the Gospel through faith alone in Jesus Christ, Luther repeatedly affirmed the continuing and indispensable value of teaching the Ten Commandments for the health of the Church and surrounding society. Not only did the preaching of the Law serve in ruling the rebellious spirit of false Christians that filled Saxon towns, villages, and congregations, it also taught them to despair of themselves and their own inability to keep the Law and to believe and hope for justification before God in the promises of the Creed. For those who did believe in the Savior, who were no longer under the curse, condemnation, and coercive hold of the Law, Luther upheld the Law and its interpretation by Christ and the apostles as epitomizing the spiritual life of a faithful Christian. Though the Christian with regard to his or her faith in Christ and through the Spirit needs no such outward instruction, the Law is still necessary on account of the paradoxical reality that the Christian also remains a sinner and has the flesh that must be subdued to the Law. For the Christian, then, the Law functions in preserving repentance and the knowledge of intrinsic sinfulness, thus rekindling faith in the Gospel, which then uses that same Law to kill the promptings of sin and to work in the world for the happiness and welfare of others.
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. 71–123). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.