Luther On Law

Tullian Tchividjian
Tullian Tchividjian

Ok, get ready to do some real thinking here. What follows is heavy theological lifting.

I asked my friend Jono Linebaugh to weigh in on the recent discussion about Law and Gospel. His thinking is solid. His nuances are crucial. He adds serious depth to this ongoing conversation. Much food for thought here.

Jono recently joined the Faculty at Knox Theological Seminary (the seminary owned by Coral Ridge). He graduated from Messiah CollegeTrinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and then earned his PhD from Durham University studying Pauline Theology. He’s published articles in the following leading academic journals: New Testament Studies, Early Christianity, and Studia Patristica.

He was a two-time college All-American in lacrosse and he surfs (which is the real reason he was hired at Knox). He’s 29, married to Megan, has two children (Liam and Callie) and one on the way.




Reading some of the recent discussions about Law and Gospel, I was reminded of one of the conclusions of Gerhard Forde’s book The Law-Gospel Debate: “when participants in the debate speak of law, they may be speaking of quite different things.” My own situation may be too ambiguous to offer much by way of clarification (I’m an Anglican teaching at a Reformed seminary writing on Luther!). But moving conversations forward often requires taking a step back–and returning to the thinker who introduced and emphasized the theological concept of “uses of the law” seems like a good place to start.

In a treatise from 1520, “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther stated an essential element of his theology: “the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments [Law] and promises [Gospel].” The basic distinction is straightforward: the Law tells us what we ought to do; the Gospel tells us what God has given. At this level – what Luther called the “level of words” – “There is no one so stupid that he does not recognize how definite this distinction between Law and grace is.” At a more basic level, however – what Luther called “the level of reality and experience” – this distinction “is the most difficult thing there is” (Galatians 1535). There are two reasons why this simple linguistic distinction is an existential difficulty. First, and for Luther most importantly, when a Christian is aware of and afflicted by their sin, it is “the most difficult thing in the world” to let the conscience listen to the voice of Christ rather than the condemnation of the Law. Second, the distinction between Law and Gospel is ultimately – that is, in reality – not a distinction between what is said; it is a distinction between what is heard; or more precisely it is a difference between whether God’s verbal encounter with the human effects condemnation and death or works faith, forgiveness, and freedom. Thus, for Luther, the same words can be heard as either Law or Gospel. For example, the 10 Commandments are both the “hammer of God” that terrifies sinners with the “thunder of Mt. Sinai” and the pure promise that “I am the Lord your God.” Conversely, the beautiful and basic words of the Gospel – “Christ died for your sins” – can be, to the ears of unbelief, nothing but an announcement of the “enormity of God’s wrath” (Against the Antinomians 1539). An awareness of the doubleness of the distinction between Law and Gospel – a distinction that is so simple that the “stupid” recognize it and so difficult an art that “only the Holy Spirit practices it” (Galatians 1535) – forces us to step back and ask about Luther’s theological definition of Law.

God’s Use of God’s Good Law

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it rightly.” For Luther, this short sentence from 1 Timothy 1.8 reveals two things about the Law: first, it is good; second, it has a proper use. The goodness of the Law is emphatically affirmed in Romans 7.12 (“the Law is holy, righteous, and good”) and is a frequent refrain in the Psalms. The proper use of the Law is specified in 1 Timothy 1.9 (“the law is not given for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and the sinner”) and its function and effect is detailed in Romans: the law makes the whole world guilty before God (3.19), works wrath (4.15), increases sin (5.20), and, as a weapon in the hand of Sin, kills (7.11).

Taking his cues from Paul, Luther described the Law as good – as “the most salutary doctrine of life” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 1) – and he defined the Law in terms of its function: “when the Law is being used correctly, it does nothing but reveal sin, work wrath, accuse, terrify, and reduce the minds of men to the point of despair” (Galatians 1535). Thus, following the pattern of 1 Tim 1.8, Luther affirms both “that the Law is good and useful” and that this is only the case “in its proper use” (Galatians 1535). What this means is that, for Luther, the Law is not primarily a moral codex (e.g. the Mosaic Law) or a grammatical pattern (e.g. imperatives); Law is a theological term that describes one of two ways that God encounters humans verbally. In other words, Law names the event of divine speech that condemns sin and kills sinners. As one of the Lutheran confessions puts it, “Law is everything that proclaims something about sin and God’s wrath” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration).

Two important implications follow from this theological definition of Law. First, because Law is a way of identifying God’s action with words, talk about “uses” of the Law cannot be human uses of the Law but God’s use of his Law. In other words, God is the acting subject; he wields the words of death and life and the theological term Law is a way of pointing to God’s accusing, condemning, and killing speech. Second, because Law is defined in terms of its function and effect rather than simply its content, it is not, as noted above, reducible to a moral codex or a grammatical pattern. This means that the common assumption that “imperative = Law” is far too static an equation. There seems to be some persistent confusion on this last point, so it is worth teasing out Luther’s perspective a little more.

No Condemnation and the End of Conditionality

God’s words that accuse and kill typically do their work of condemnation in the form of a commandment attached to a condition. So, for example, when Paul sums up the salvation-logic of the Law he quotes Leviticus 18.5b: “the one who does [the commandments] will live by them” (Gal 3.12). Here, there is a promise of life linked to the condition of doing the commandments and a corresponding threat: “cursed is everyone who does not abide in all the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” (Gal 3.10 citing Deut 27.26). When this conditional word encounters the sinful human, the outcome is inevitable: “the whole world is guilty before God” (Rom 3.19). It is thus the condition that does the work of condemnation. “Ifs” kill!

Compare this to a couple examples of New Testament imperatives. First, consider Galatians 5.1. After four chapters of passionate insistence that justification is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul issues a couple of strong imperatives: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore stand firm (imperative) and do not be subject (imperative) again to the yoke of slavery.” Are these imperatives instances of God’s accusing and killing words? Are these commandments with conditions? Is Galatians 5.1 an example of Law? No! The command here is precisely to not return to the Law; it is an imperative to stand firm in freedom from the Law. Or take another example, John 8.11. Once the accusers of the adulterous women left, Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Depart. From now on, sin no more.” Does this final imperative disqualify the words of mercy? Is this a commandment with a condition? Is this Law following the Gospel? No! This would be Law: “if you go and sin no more, then neither will I condemn you.” But Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The command is not a condition. “Neither do I condemn you” is categorical and unconditional, it comes with no strings attached. “Neither do I condemn you” creates an unconditional context within which “go and sin no more” is not an “if.” The only “if” the Gospel knows is this: “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2.1).

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counter-intuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).

A Third Use of the Law?

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520)

Listen for the Creature

A word of caution from Luther by way of conclusion: it is one thing to affirm that the gospel creates a secure space within which a command can be heard without a condition; it is another thing altogether to issue a command that is not heard as a condition. This is why Luther was always saying that “as far as the words are concerned…everyone can easily understand the distinction between the Law and grace, but so far as practice, life, and application are concerned, it is the most difficult thing there is” (Galatians 1535). In other words, there will always be a temptation to preach or teach what could or should be – that is, a context in which a command is not a condition – without attending to the way such a command is stillheard as Law – as an “if” and thus as judgment – by the sinful, doubting human.

For this reason, distinguishing Law and Gospel in real life requires a double listening. First, as we attend to God’s word, we listen for the “if” that accuses and kills and the “nevertheless” that forgives and makes alive. Second, in Luther’s deeply pastoral phrase, we “listen for the creature, i.e. sinful humanity.” When God’s word is spoken and heard as forgiveness without any “ifs,” then we know God is speaking Gospel. It is no surprise, then, that Luther referred to the practice of distinguishing Law and Gospel as the highest art, an art that “none but the Holy Spirit” practices because he alone is “intent on using the Law and preaching the Gospel” (Galatians 1535). 

Originally published September 16, 2011.