What was Martin Luther's perspective on the law and gospel, faith, and salvation? This article considers this question with a view to helping the reader become more nuanced in his understanding of Luther. The author explains first that Luther's style of speaking and writing needs to be properly appreciated. From there he looks at Luther's life, his studies and how these led him to certain crucial theological conclusions, and finally his voluminous writings, which present what he gradually learned and taught.

Source: The Outlook, 1994. 11 pages.

Martin Luther: The Law and the Gospel

Around October 31, Martin Luther is remembered far and wide in the United States among evangelical protestants as a hero of the faith. We look back at Luther as a pioneer, as a profound theologian, as a heroic re­former. Some of us gather in Reformation Day services on October 31st to remember the great beginning of the Reformation.

On other days of the year, how­ever, we Reformed Christians are of­ten inclined to harbor at least some suspicions about Martin Luther. Is it true that Martin Luther did not fully reform the church from Roman Catholic elements? We may think particularly about sacraments and cer­emonies as areas in which Luther may not have done all that he should have done. We may also suspect that Luther had a bit of an antinomian tendency. Is his stress on the distinc­tion between the law and the gospel an emphasis that goes too far? Is Luther one who has made too little of the law? We as Reformed Christians may fear that he has tipped the balance on the side of antinomianism. We may harbor such suspicions about Luther because the Lutherans con­stantly harbor suspicions about us that we have tipped the balance in the direction of moralism.

Luther's Style🔗

Since Lutherans and Reformeds tend to enjoy trading insults with one another — we accusing them of being monophysites and they accusing us of being Nestorians, for example — it is appropriate that we take a look again at Martin Luther and ask our­selves, what did Luther really say about the law and the gospel? What can we learn from him and are there any areas in which we may have le­gitimate concerns? It is not always easy for us as Reformed Christians to read Martin Luther. We need to real­ize that if we are going to read him — and we should because there is great spiritual profit in reading Martin Luther — that Martin Luther some­times uses words with different defi­nitions than the ones we are accus­tomed to using. Particularly in his use of the words "law" and "gospel," we will see that he does tend to de­fine them differently from the way in which Reformed folk define them.

We also need to bear in mind that Luther's style is rather different from the style of most Reformed authors. Luther was an expert in the use of hyperbole. Luther loved to exagger­ate to make a point. And if we do not bear that in mind as we read Martin Luther, if we just lift his statements out of context, we will surely misun­derstand him. He loved to drive home a point by exaggeration. One of my favorite examples is when he once said, "All callings are honorable be­fore God." He was resisting the me­dieval notion that only priests, monks and nuns had a calling. He was in­sisting every Christian occupation is a calling. He said all callings are honorable before God "with the possible exceptions of burglary and pros­titution." He was not, in fact, pro­moting burglary and prostitution, but he was exaggerating to make a point.

Luther exaggerated in part because of his reaction to medieval theology. Luther said the most important word in medieval theology was the Latin word, ergo (therefore). He said the besetting sin of Latin theology was "therefore" — constantly resting their theology on the conclusions of hu­man reason. He said the real word that should be at the center of our theology is the German word, dennoch (nevertheless). Theology operates not by "therefores," but by "neverthe­lesses." We as Reformed theologians following that nice, balanced lawyer, John Calvin, may tend to be more sympathetic to "therefores." But if we are going to understand Luther, we have to understand his use of the "nevertheless" to drive home his point. He exaggerates and at times overemphasizes.

This point is even more important when we remember that Luther was not in the strictest sense a systematic theologian. He was an occasional theologian. He never wrote a full systematic theology. He never even sat down to write his projected sys­tematic treatise on justification. He wrote to specific issues in the life of the church. He exaggerated as he felt necessary for the occasion.

Also, he wrote at great speed. When he wrote his treatise in 1520, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," which was his analysis of the sacraments of the church, he be­gan the treatise saying that there were three sacraments: penance, baptism, and the Lord's Supper. He concluded the treatise saying there were two sac­raments. He had developed his thought in the course of writing the treatise, but had no time to go back and revise it. We need to bear this in mind as we read and study Martin Luther.

Luther's Life🔗

Let us begin by looking at Luther's life: Luther the radical conservative. Luther, I think, must be understood as a conservative who took conserva­tive principles to a radical conclusion. Luther had nothing of the revolution­ary in his soul. He did not seek to change the church. He did not set out to make all things new. He did not really like change. He reached his reforming conclusions by taking the conservative positions of the me­dieval church to their logical conclu­sion. He was a radical conservative. As Heiko Oberman in his very inter­esting biography of Luther, Luther, Man Between God and the Devil1 argues, Luther was not really a reformer. He did not set out in any conscious or perhaps even unconscious sense to reform the church. There had been many reformers through the Middle Ages. Luther really did not have any­thing of that sense about himself, Oberman argues. Luther was much more the prophet who comes to chal­lenge the people that they have not lived up to their own ideals. Luther comes to Protestant conclusions not so much out of a desire to change or out of a desire to be a revolutionary, but out of a desire to get the church to be consistent with its own most basic principles.

Luther grew up living the traditional life. He grew up as the son of a pros­pering German businessman. He grew up as a loyal and obedient son. His father looked around and asked what his son should do to advance the family fortunes. The answer in his day — as well as in ours — was to become a lawyer. So Papa Luther determined to send his son off to study the law. And loyal, faithful son Mar­tin went to study the law. Yet Luther went with a heavy heart because he was not only a loyal son of his fam­ily. He was also a loyal son of the church.

The church had been educating Luther with the truth that one must take care for one's soul. The church told Martin Luther that the soul was a precious thing and that the salvation of the soul was difficult to ac­complish. The church advised that anyone who wanted to be really seri­ous about his soul and about salva­tion should become a monk because the life of a monk was precisely the life of giving oneself over to the salva­tion of one's soul. When Luther be­came a monk, he did so because he was a conservative. He had listened to the voice of the church that said to him, you need to take care of your soul first and foremost. He illustrated the medieval proverb that said doubt makes the monk. Luther became a monk because he doubted. He doubted his relationship to God.

Luther's very enthusiasm for mo­nasticism made him in some ways obnoxious in the monastery. He kept going to his confessor to confess mi­nor sins. The confessor kept sending him away saying he did not want to talk to him because he did not have anything significant to confess. Yet Luther was burdened with a sense of his sin and tried to make faithful use of the medieval sacrament of penance to deal with his sin.

Luther's Studies🔗

Now a wise leader in the monas­tery set Luther to work studying be­cause he recognized him as a man of unusual brilliance. Luther began to study. Although this is something of an oversimplification, we can say his study led him to two crucial theologi­cal conclusions: one in the area of authority and the other in the area of salvation.

The Matter of Authority🔗

If we look first at the matter of au­thority, we see that the late medieval tradition was rather undifferentiated and somewhat confused in its ap­proach to authority. The late medi­eval tradition basically said that the Bible was authority, that tradition was authority, that reason was authority, and that the Pope was authority. And late medieval religion basically be­lieved there was no tension among those authorities. They were all equally authoritative. But as Luther set to work, he began to find that in fact there were tensions among these authorities. He found that he could not really reconcile one authority with another.

His confidence first began to waiver in reason as an authority. Luther later in his life would make one of his famous hyperbolic statements when he said that reason was a whore. What he meant was not that one should never reason, or that reason was not in fact very useful in con­ducting the affairs of this life. Rather what he meant was that when one reflects on spiritual things, when one thinks about theology, reason will only lead you astray. Reason gets you nowhere. One has to find truth through revelation was Luther's ulti­mate conclusion. And so, already in the early years of the second decade of the sixteenth century, Luther be­gan to move away from the great con­fidence in Aristotle and his reasoning that the medieval theologians had taught.

In 1517, about a month before his posting of the famous "95 Theses," Luther wrote some theses in Septem­ber of 1517 entitled, "Disputations on Scholastic Theology." In those disputations, he shows that he had reached the point where he was reject­ing Aristotle as an authority in religion. One of the theses said, "The whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light."2  So Aristotle has nothing to teach us in theology.

What was his antidote to Aristotle? In these theses the antidote was Au­gustine. Here he was pitting, in effect, two traditions of the church against each other. What he contrasted then was Aristotle with Augustine.

At the beginning of these theses he wrote: "To say that Augustine exag­gerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere."3 Now that in fact was a very revolutionary thing for Luther to say because the standard medieval way of dealing with Augustine on pre­destination was to say that he had exaggerated in his opposition to Pelagius. Pelagius was so bad in his theology that Augustine had to over­state his position on grace and pre­destination as an antidote to Pelagius.

But here Luther has clearly reached the conclusion that Augustine was not exaggerating when he wrote about grace and predestination. So Luther was changing by 1517 in the matter of authority. He was rejecting reason and counter-posing to that the author­ity particularly of Augustine as the great doctor of the church.

His thought continued to develop and again we have the feeling that we can almost see his thought crystallize in the great debate that he entered into at Leipzig in 1519. There he confronted one of the great theolo­gians of the Roman Church, Johannes Eck. The debate turned into a dispu­tation especially about authority. Eck kept pressing the point that Luther could not be right when he stood against the popes, the doctors, the bishops, the councils and the tradi­tion of the church. What right did he have to claim that he was right and everybody else was wrong? Eck re­ally painted Luther into a corner. Eck in fact knew the history of the church and the decisions of the doctors, the theologians and the councils of the church much better than Luther did. Luther, in that situation where he could not answer history with his­tory, kept falling back on the Scrip­tures. That after all was what Luther had been studying through the years. He was a professor of the Bible at Wittenberg. So Luther kept return­ing to the Bible and arguing against the history of the church from the Bible. Eck finally charged him with behaving just like John Huss. Huss was of course, a condemned heretic. To be identified with Huss was to be utterly identified with heresy. Luther — really on the spot — seemed finally to have realized that the only absolute au­thority in theology was the Scripture. Tra­dition was not a genuine authority. Tradition was not a reliable guide to truth. Tradition did not speak with one voice: what tradition, whose tra­dition, which tradition? Luther came, in time, to realize clearly that Scrip­ture alone must be our authority.

The Matter of Salvation🔗

Similarly, over time, Martin Luther came to a fresh understanding of the matter of salvation. He entered the monastery a convinced medieval Catholic and for the medieval Catho­lic, the gospel was the new law. Christ was the new law giver. You can see that displayed in various forms of iconography in the Middle Ages: Christ appears in various pictures looking almost like Moses with the book of the Law in his hand. The gospel re­ally was seen as a more demanding law than the Old Testament Law. Luther took that all with great seri­ousness and saw the Christian life as this arduous road towards obedience.

Some of you may have heard of the reply of John Calvin to Cardinal Sadoleto in his defense of the Refor­mation. But most of us do not read Sadoleto's original letter to Geneva urging them to come back to the Ro­man Catholic faith. In that letter Sadoleto rather brilliantly summarizes this medieval Roman position on sal­vation. Sadoleto wrote:

And since the way of Christ is arduous, and the method of lead­ing a life conformable to His laws and precepts very difficult (be­cause we are enjoined to with­draw our minds from the contamination of earthly pleasures and to fix them upon this one object — to despise the present good which we have in our hands, and aspire to the future, which we see not), still of such value to each one of us is the salvation of himself and of his soul, that we must bring our minds to decline nothing, however harsh, and endure everything, however laborious, that, setting before our­selves the one hope of our salva­tion, we may at length, through many toils and anxieties ... attain to that stable and ever-during salvation.4

You see, there is the medieval pic­ture. It is toil and worry and work to the end, in the hope, that maybe one might be saved. In reaction to that pattern of teaching, to that under­standing of salvation, Luther came gradually to understand the gospel.

In his famous 1545 preface to his Latin works, he reflected back on his life as a monk and on how much he was trapped in this works-righteous­ness. He said:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely dis­turbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, 'As if, indeed, it is not enough that mis­erable sinners eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous­ness and wrath!' Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled con­science.5

He wondered how one could not hate a God who comes only with righ­teous demands that cannot be met. That was the anguish of the soul of Martin Luther as a monk. It was that anguish that drove him into the Scrip­tures and led ultimately to what we know as his evangelical breakthrough. He came to a realization that when God speaks of righteousness, he is not speaking of the righteousness that he demands, but when he speaks of righteousness in the gospel, he is speaking of the righteousness that he gives in Christ. And Luther said that that apparently small difference abso­lutely turned his world upside down. Again he wrote about his discovery: "Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates."6 He said he ran his mind through the Scriptures with his new insight and saw passage after passage revealed in a completely new light. Luther had committed the New Testament to memory and vast sections of the Old Testament. As he went through that memory of Scrip­ture, he saw the doctrine of justifica­tion by faith coming through.

What Luther had experienced in­tensely in his own life was the contrast between works and glory on the one hand and faith and grace on the other. He came to talk about the Roman Church's theology of glory: the glory of the use of the human mind and reason to understand hu­man theology, the glory of the hu­man experience in gaining merit be­fore God to attain salvation. This theology of glory he contrasted with the theology of the cross where a man comes to recognize that his own mind could not bring him to the truth and his own works could not bring him to God and that it was only on the cross, that ultimate place of foolishness, that God was to be found. Luther, again in his hyperbolic manner, would talk about finding God where He ought not to be and not finding him where he ought to be. Where ought God to be? He ought to be found in the beauty of nature, in the glories of this world. But God was not to be found there. He was to be found on the cross. But God should not be found on the cross, the place of condemnation, the place of failure. God did not belong there, but nevertheless, that was where he was to be found. That was where the only hope for salva­tion was to be found.

So Luther's theology was very much a personal theology. It was a theology that resulted from his per­sonal experience as a conservative fol­lowing the advice of the church, becoming a monk, becoming a student of Scripture. From that study of Scrip­ture and from that examination of his heart and soul, Luther realized that salvation was to be found only by grace through faith.

Luther's Writings🔗

Now that experience led Luther into a public path that made of him a re­former of the church. He had to ex­plain and to defend what he had learned and taught.

One of the most productive years that Luther ever had in terms of writ­ing was 1520. He wrote his "Appeal to the German Nobility" in which he appealed to the princes to take the leadership in the reform of the church since it was obvious that the bishops would not. He also wrote his treatise on "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" in which he criticized the seven sacraments of the Roman Church and came to the conclusion ultimately that there are only two sac­raments that our Lord had instituted. Then he wrote what many regard as his best treatise entitled "The Free­dom of the Christian."

Luther himself did not regard that as his best treatise. Luther regarded his best treatise as his treatise on "Bondage of the Will," the one that we Reformed folk particularly love to read and quote to some of our Lutheran friends. One Lutheran claimed that Luther did present such a position once but never repeated it again. That claim is not really accu­rate because late in his life, Luther said, that if all his works were de­stroyed he hoped only two would sur­vive, his "Small Catechism" and his "Bondage of the Will."7  So, Luther treasured his "Bondage of the Will." But many observers do believe that among his finest works is his treatise on the "Freedom of the Christian."

"The Freedom of the Christian" is the closest thing we have to a treatise on justification by Luther. It really is a splendid work and a work that re­veals in more detail the hyperbolic nature of Luther's theology. We can see here Luther's love of the contrast, Luther's love of the dennoch.

On Right Doctrine🔗

Luther began that treatise with an open letter to Pope Leo X expressing the hope that Leo might still be moved to reform the church. Now Luther was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Pope was anti-Christ, but in this letter to the Pope he did not es­pouse that point of view. Rather he suggested that the Pope had been cor­rupted by evil advisers. He appealed to the Pope to see the truth and rise up to reform the church. (This ap­proach reflected a medieval self-justi­fication that was regularly used to ex­cuse insurrection against one's sover­eign. One claimed that the sovereign was not at fault, but that the sover­eign was surrounded by evil advis­ers.)

Luther expressed his reforming con­cern in a very interesting way in this open letter to the Pope. He said that the Pope needed to be aware that his con­cern was not about bad morals, but about ungodly doctrines. Reform in the Middle Ages had always been directed against bad morals. The aim of re­form had been to promote holy liv­ing. Luther made clear that it was a fundamental misunderstanding of his reformation to view it as the pursuit of holiness. We will see later that Luther was not at all opposed to the pursuit of holiness. He was in favor of the pursuit of holiness. But he was adamant that he was not seeking in the first place to challenge the morals of the church. He was challenging the doctrines of the church. The teach­ing of the church had gone astray. He believed that unless doctrine was rectified, the morals of the church would never be straight. In fact, Luther at one point said that the morals of the Prot­estants were no better than Roman morals. It was their doctrine that was better. Now that, too, I hope was hyperbolic (although sometimes looking at the present state of Protes­tantism, one is not so sure). But none­theless, Luther's passion was to set doctrine right.

(Let me say as an aside that it is particularly troubling today to see so many evangelicals in America saying that doctrine really is not important, but that the Christian life is really important. I find that especially ironic as someone from Westminster Semi­nary, because the liberalism that Dr. Machen faced in the 1920's was a liberalism that precisely said doctrine was not important, but that Christian living was important. And if I may be permitted a non-sixteenth century note, I believe that we in America are reliving in many ways the situation of the second and third decade of the twentieth century. Liberals in the 1920's all insisted that they were evan­gelical. I see the evangelical move­ment in America now being stretched theologically to a breaking point once again.)

On Law and Gospel🔗

Now Luther said near the begin­ning of this treatise on "The Freedom of the Christian," that it contained the "whole of Christian life in a brief form"8   and then proceeded to say that all of what he was teaching could be reduced to two propositions. The two propositions were these: (1) "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, sub­ject to none;" (2) "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."9  We are perfectly free and nevertheless perfectly subject. That dichotomy is the essence of the Chris­tian life.

First the Christian is a free lord of all, subject to none. Luther expli­cated that statement in relation to jus­tification. As we live before God, as we live Coram Deo, we are perfectly free. We are free from the law: free from the demands of the law, free from the threatenings of the law, free from the condemnation of the law. Now Luther was not saying that we do not need the law. We do need the law precisely to drive us from the law. We need the law to drive us to Christ. We do need the law to make clear to us how weak and hopeless we are before the demands of the law. We must be crushed by the law before we can ever understand the gospel. Luther at one point in his 1535 Galatians commentary said that there were two uses of the law, one to teach civil righteousness and one to con­demn us and to drive us to Christ. And he said it was that second use of the law which is the principal use of the law. The second use of the law is:

the theological or spiritual one, which serves to increase transgressions. This is the primary purpose of the Law of Moses, that through it sin might grow and be multiplied, especially in the conscience. Paul discusses this magnificently in Romans 7. Therefore the true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well deserved wrath of God.

That is what the law teaches.

Hence this use of the law is ex­tremely beneficial and very nec­essary. For if someone is not a murderer, adulterer, or thief, and abstains from external sins as the Pharisee did (Luke 18:11), he would swear, being possessed by the devil, that he is a righteous man; therefore he develops the presumption of righteousness and relies on his good works. God cannot soften and humble this man or make him acknowledge his misery and damnation any other way than by the Law. Therefore the proper and abso­lute use of the Law is to terrify with lightning (as on Mt. Sinai), thunder, and the blare of the trumpet, with a thunderbolt to bum and crush that brute which is called the presumption of righteousness.10

So the law has this absolutely neces­sary function for Luther.

We must realize that this condemn­ing function of the law is not prima­rily conceived by Luther as chrono­logically prior to the gospel. Luther does not mean that you preach the law until someone is crushed and then you leave the law behind and move on to the gospel. Rather Luther would say all our preaching to Chris­tians throughout their lives must be a preaching of the law and the gospel. The Christian never reaches the place where he does not need the law to remind him of his sin, to remind him of his tendency to works-righteous­ness, to remind him of the danger of living in his own accomplishment and yet again and afresh to drive him to Christ. That was Luther's great con­cern about the law. So he could say: "For although the Law is the best of all things in the world, it still cannot bring peace to a terrified conscience but makes it even sadder and drives it to despair. For by the Law, sin be­comes exceedingly sinful."11 That was the great function and purpose of the Law. Therefore, for Luther, it was crucial to distinguish between the way the Law functioned for justification and the way in which the Law might function for other purposes. He said:

From this you should learn, therefore, to speak most contemptuously about the Law in the matter of justification, following the example of the apostle, who calls the Law "the elements of the world," "traditions that kill," "the power of sin" and the like. But, then he says: "Apart from the matter of justification, on the other hand, we, like Paul, should think reverently of the Law. We should endow it with the highest praises and call it holy, righteous, good, spiritual, divine, etc."12

Luther insisted that the crucial work of the theologian is to distinguish the law from the gospel. If we do not under­stand that distinction, we have not understood the very basics of theol­ogy, Luther said. So what was the law for Luther? The law for Luther was the demands of God. Wherever you have demand, you have law and that law is good, that law is holy, that law is spiritual. But its effect in the arena of justification will be only to drive one to despair. There is no healing in the law. There is no hope in the law because the law only holds up the demands of God which we cannot meet, which we cannot fulfill.

On the other hand, the gospel con­tained no demand. Then what was the gospel for Luther? The gospel was purely good news. There was no threat in the gospel. There was only promise.

This is where Reformed people sometimes worry about an anti­nomian aspect to Luther's thought. We worry because we tend to read Luther as if he were speaking chrono­logically about the law and the gos­pel. We worry that he is suggesting that one should preach the law until the listener is crushed and that then one preaches only the gospel, that is only promise without any demands. Then we wonder if Luther is not re­ally being antinomian. But we must remember that Luther insisted that the faithful preacher always preached the law and the gospel. There was always demand in Luther's preaching, but it was the law that demanded. Such preaching also presented the gospel which came as promise to encourage, to support and to cheer:

"...the Gos­pel is a light that illumines hearts and makes them alive. It discloses what grace and the mercy of God are; what the forgiveness of sins, blessing, righ­teousness, life, and eternal salvation are, and how to obtain these."13

We Reformed sometimes have trouble communicating with Lutherans because we tend to define the gospel somewhat more broadly than they do. We do not see any great problem in including in the gos­pel some direction, some positive guidance from the law. But that is why Lutherans tend to think we have become moralists. They think we have put some elements of the law in the gospel. I think very largely this is a difference of terminology rather than a difference of substance between Lutherans and Reformed.

So Luther's great passion was that the gospel be understood as the gra­cious and good promise of God. He insisted no one compromise that truth, that no one lead consciences back to the notion that they are going to jus­tify themselves or earn God's favor in any sense or at any point for their salvation. Luther saw this moralism as a recurring problem and tempta­tion: "My temptation is this, that I don't think I have a gracious God. This is because I am still caught up in the law. It is the greatest grief, and, as Paul says, it produces death. God hates it, and he comforts us by saying 'I am your God.'14 The gospel, for Luther, declared, "I am your God for Christ's sake." The gospel was not "I will be your God if you do certain things," but "I am your God for Christ's sake." For this reason he could say: "This is our theology by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteous­ness, the active (righteousness of my doing) and the passive (righteousness of Christ's doing), so that morality and faith, works and grace, secular society and religion may not be confused."15

On Faith🔗

Now as a corollary to this distinc­tion between law and gospel, Luther discussed faith. Faith after all was what responded to the gospel. Luther was not denying that there must be a response to the gospel. He was say­ing that response must never be seen as a work or a human accomplish­ment or a human merit. Faith, then, was that response to the gospel through which we are reconciled to God. He wrote in his treatise on "The Freedom of the Christian": "Anyone who has had even a faint taste of it (faith) can never write, speak, medi­tate or hear enough concerning it. It is a living 'spring of water welling up to eternal life...'"16 Luther's great pas­sion was to talk about faith, the glo­ries of faith, the wonders of faith. He wrote:

It is indeed impossible for me to grasp and attain to this one and only Redeemer from sin, Jesus, except through faith. He is and remains beyond the grasp of works. Since faith alone, before any works follow it, can lay hold of this Redeemer, so it must be true that only faith before and with­out works grasps hold of his re­demption, which means nothing else but becoming righteous. For to have been redeemed from sin or to have sin forgiven must be the same as being or becoming righteous.17

Good works, however, follow such faith (or redemption or forgiveness of sin or righteousness) as the fruit of faith. Now we will come back to de­velop that point a little later, but it is important to hear Luther here. While he insisted that faith alone and only faith justified, Luther made perfectly clear in his writing that good works follow from and grow from faith:

For faith is a vigorous and powerful thing; it is not idle speculation, nor does it float on the heart like a goose on water. But just as water that has been heated, even though it remains water, is no longer cold but is hot and an altogether different water, so faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, fashions a different mind and different attitudes and makes us an altogether new human being.18

In another place he wrote, "There­fore faith is an active, difficult, and powerful thing."19 This faith was no bare mental assent. That was how the medieval Catholics understood faith. But Luther's faith was life-changing, life-controlling because it put one in touch with Christ.

Luther wanted to make this point about the law and the gospel and about faith so that we would clearly understand man to be a free lord of all, subject to none. As we stand be­fore God we are not subject to the law, we are not subject to any earthly power. We are freed before God by the gospel of His promise. Neverthe­less, we are also the dutiful servants of all, subject to all. That is also the reality in which we live as we live before the world, before men, coram hominibus.

Luther discussed human service by saying that the law is valuable but in a deep sense unnecessary. Now ex­actly what did he mean? He meant that when faith is real, there will bubble up out of the Christian heart a spontaneous response to God. We will love to do what God does. We will desire what God desires. We will be drawn not by threats but by love to live the Christian life. In that sense, then, the law is unnecessary for the Christian. The law is unnecessary be­cause the law demands, the law threat­ens, but the Christian does not need demands, the Christian does not need threats. He lives for God by faith.

Now we Reformed are inclined to ask whether Luther was not being a little naive? Are Christians really that good? Have Christians really come that far? Is faith really that powerful? We must recognize that Luther was not naive. Naivety is one of the few charges that cannot be brought against Martin Luther. We must see that Luther based his thought on this mat­ter on a very careful distinction that he made between the inner man and the outer man. The inner man lives by faith; he has been renewed; he has been changed so that he has a prin­ciple of living faith that does sponta­neously respond to God and follow after God. But the inner man is not the whole story for the Christian. The Christian is also the outer man. He is still also burdened with an old na­ture. In the face of that old nature, Luther said we do still need the law to nudge us, to direct us, to force us on. He taught that we must show the fruit of the Spirit. We must make progress in Christian living and, if we are Christians, we will make progress in Christian living. This progress is primarily because of the spontaneous quality of faith, but is also because of direction from the law. Luther could sometimes be difficult to understand because he moved back and forth be­tween the inner and outer man. He contrasted them in different ways. Yet when we stand back and look at the whole picture, we can say Luther re­ally was quite right.

We as Reformed may still want to draw the inner man and outer man a little closer together and talk more positively of the law for the inner man than Luther is willing to do. Yet, I think we can have a profound sympa­thy for what Luther was saying. He was not fundamentally wrong here it seems to me. He was right to say that faith makes a difference. We do have a new nature. We do have a new sympathy for God. There is a filial response to God so that we desire to please Him. We can certainly agree that there is an old nature, a sinful nature that needs prodding, that tends to move in the wrong direction. Luther wanted to stress that the real Christian life is the Christian life that is moving toward holiness. Luther never compromised that point. In his discussion of faith over and over again he spoke of the way in which faith must live itself out. He said:

Therefore we conclude with Paul that we are justified solely by faith in Christ without the Law and works. But after a man is justified by faith, now possesses Christ by faith, and knows that Christ is his righteousness and life, he will cer­tainly not be idle but, like a sound tree will bare good fruit...There­fore we, too, say that faith with­out works is worthless and useless ... faith without works — that is a fantastic idea and mere vanity and a dream of the heart — is a false faith and does not justify.20

You see there is no hint of antinomianism there. If faith has no fruit in this life, it is not a real faith and therefore it does not justify. "We say that justification is effective without works, not that faith is with­out works. For that faith which lacks fruit is not efficacious but a feigned faith.21 This conviction reverberated through his writings over and over again.

On the Law as a Spiritual Guide🔗

When we come to what we call the third use of the law, that is the law as a spiritual guide to the believer, we find that even there Luther said things that would soften even the hardest Reformed heart. He wrote, for ex­ample:

We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obliga­tions, but we also need it to dis­cern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in His work of sanc­tification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is re­quired. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ.22

That is a beautiful statement. That is not a statement to which we could take exception.

Some wonder whether Luther re­ally was concerned about holiness since he once said, "Sin boldly!" The statement was frequently quoted against him by Roman Catholic apologists in the sixteenth century. They thought this statement proved that Luther cared nothing for holi­ness and was indifferent to sin. They feared that he was encouraging sin. Like all other of Luther's statements, this one has to be understood in con­text. The context was this: Philip Melanchthon one day was trying to decide what to do. Now Philip was a bit of a hand-ringer, never quite sure, cautious, somewhat like Hamlet. Melanchthon went to Luther and he said that he was afraid that whatever action he took in a particular situa­tion would involve him in sin. To that agony of conscience, which led to utter inaction, Luther said to Melanchthon, "Sin boldly." That was another way of saying, "Do some­thing." Luther counseled that it was better to do something in the service of God even at the risk of doing some­thing wrong, than to do nothing. In that context Luther was not at all in­different to holiness. Rather he ex­pressed his passion that one must live, one must take risks, one must act for the Lord. One must not be immobi­lized by a neurotic fear of sin.

Luther's concerns were well sum­marized in "The Formula of Con­cord," the last of the great Lutheran confessional statements. In 1577, af­ter years of theological wrangling, Lutherans prepared a doctrinal state­ment to make peace. One of the is­sues addressed in the Formula was the third use of the law. Very much in the spirit of Luther, the "Formula" declared:

We believe, teach and confess that although people who genuinely believe and whom God has truly converted are freed through Christ from the curse and the coercion of the law, they are not on that ac­count without the law; on the contrary, they have been redeemed by the Son of God pre­cisely that they should exercise themselves day and night in the law (Psalm 119:1). In the same way our first parents even before the Fall did not live without the law, for the law of God was written into their hearts when they were created in the image of God. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the law is to be diligently applied not only to un­believers and the impenitent but also to people who are genuinely believing, truly converted, regenerated, and justified by faith. For although they are indeed reborn and have been renewed in the spirit of their mind, such regeneration and renewal is incomplete in this world. In fact, it has only begun, and in the spirit of their mind the believers are in a constant war against their flesh (that is, their corrupt nature in kind), which clings to them until death. On account of this Old Adam, who inheres in people's intellect, will, and all their powers, it is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way lest in their merely human devotion they undertake self-decreed and self-chosen acts of serving God. This is further necessary lest the Old Adam go his self-willed way. He must be coerced against his own will, not only by the admonitions and threats of the law, but also by its punish­ments and plagues, to follow the Spirit and surrender himself captive ... Therefore both for peni­tent and impenitent, for regener­ated and unregenerated people the law is and remains one and the same law, namely, the unchange­able will of God. The difference, as far as obedience is concerned, rests exclusively with man, for the unregenerated man — just like the regenerated according to the flesh — does what is demanded of him by the law under coercion and unwillingly. But the believer without any coercion and with a willing spirit, in so far as he is reborn, does what no threat of the law could ever have wrung from him.23

Now again this statement may not be exactly the way Reformed theologians would put it, but there is a real commonality of concern among Lutheran and Reformed that the law be a living reality among believers, that it direct the believer in his life  and help him in his obedience. Luther in his "Large Catechism" on the Ten Commandments says:

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.24

There is Luther's concern for holi­ness.

Now we see that this principle of "nevertheless" (dennoch) in Luther came out of his conviction that the Christian life is an ongoing struggle. The Christian never arrives in the sense of totally conquering sin. The Christian never arrives in the sense of utterly eliminating temptation from his life, even the temptation to doubt that God in Christ is his Savior. Luther said the Christian life was an ongoing struggle and in that struggle we always need the law and the gos­pel. Luther taught that the Christian was simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and a sinner). The Christian is at the same time perfectly righteous before God because of what Christ has done and yet still a sinner. Luther concluded that we live with this struggle correctly when in the face of every doubt, in the face of every temptation, we turn again and again and again to Christ and the gospel. He said: "When the conscience as­sails you, He (Christ) says: 'Be­lieve.'"25 This conviction led Luther to exalt the promises of God because he had known the agony of wonder­ing if God could ever accept some­one such as he.

Today we often misunderstand Luther because so often in our day few if any seem to have that agony. The idea seems often to be: "Well, of course, God would forgive me my sins." One professor once summed it up this way: "The gospel of the aver­age man is this: I like sinning and God likes forgiving, so the world is very well set up." Today often we do not have the agony of conscience and therefore we do not always under­stand Luther's passion about the promise. It is the doubting heart that needs to cling with white knuckles to the promises of God. That is what Luther understood. He said, "I my­self have now been preaching and cul­tivating (justification by faith alone) for almost twenty years and I still feel the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal so with God that I may contribute something and He will have to give me his grace in exchange for my holiness." 26 Luther saw that the cen­tral temptation was to think we can bargain with God and think we can exchange something that we have done for His grace. That idea must be stamped out by the law so that we will understand Christ.

Nevertheless, he felt in the balance of preaching, one must be careful to preach more of the gospel than of the law. He wrote:

If you preach faith, people become lax, want to do no good, serve and help no one. But if you do not preach faith, hearts become frightened and dejected and establish one idolatrous practice after another. Do as you please; nothing seems to help. Yet faith in Christ should and must be preached no matter what happens. I would much rather hear people say of me that I preach too sweetly and that my sermon hinders people in doing works (although it does not do so) than not preach faith in Christ at all; for then there would be no help for timid, frightened consciences. I see and experience this: Here is a man who is lax and lazy, who falsely boasts of faith and says he relies on the grace and mercy of God and that these will no doubt help him even though he clings to sins. But as soon as death comes to him, it appears that he has never really grasped and believed the grace and mercy of God. Therefore one will have enough to do to cheer and comfort him even though he has not practiced any particular idolatry. But when the message of faith has been extinguished and the heart is completely swamped by sadness, there is neither counsel or help. Say something about grace to such a heart, and it will answer: You preach much to me about grace and mercy; but if you felt what I feel, you would speak differently. So a frightened and inconsolable heart goes on. I have heard people speak like this when I have tried to comfort them. Therefore I would like to have the message of faith in them not forgotten but generally known. It is so sweet a message, full of sheer joy, comfort, mercy and grace. I must confess that I myself have not as yet fully grasped it. We shall have to let it happen that some of our people turn the message into an occasion of security and presump­tion; but others, the works-righ­teous, slander us on this account and say that we make people lazy and thus keep them from reach­ing perfection. Christ, Himself, had to hear that He was a friend of publicans and sinners, that He broke the Sabbath, etc. We shall not fare any better.27


For Luther the solution to presump­tuousness was not just to use the Law, but especially to get people to under­stand the gospel, to understand the grace of God, to understand what Christ has done.

Luther was a pioneer and a heroic reformer. He was also a profound theologian who will help us today to understand the law and the gospel. If you want tremendous spiritual ben­efit and power, read Luther. He has spiritual insights that will be a great blessing to all Christians. He will help us draw near to Christ.


  1. ^ Heiko Oberman, Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, New Haven (Yale), 1989.
  2. ^ Martin Luther, "Disputation Against Scholastic Theology," Luther's Works, Vol. 31, Phila­delphia (Fortress), 1971, p. 12
  3. ^ Ibid., p. 9. 
  4. ^ A Reformation Debate, ed. John C. Olin, New York (Harper Torchbooks), 1966, pp. 32f.
  5. ^ Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, New York (Anchor), 1961, p. 11
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^  Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, New York (Abingdon), 1950, p. 337.
  8. ^ Martin Luther, ed. J. Dillenberger, p. 52.
  9. ^ Ibid., p. 53
  10. ^ Martin Luther, "Lectures on Galatians, 1535," Luther's Works, Vol. 26, Philadelphia (Fortress), 1963, pp. 309f.
  11. ^ Ibid., p. 5
  12. ^ Ibid., p. 365.
  13. ^ Ibid., p. 313.
  14. ^ "Martin Luther, "Table Talk," Luther's Works, Vol. 54, Philadelphia (Fortress), 1967, p.75. 
  15. ^ Luther, "Lectures on Galatians, " p. 7.
  16. ^ Martin Luther, ed. J. Dillenberger, p. 52.
  17. ^ Cited in Robin Lever, Luther on Justification, St. Louis (Concordia), 1975, p. 24.
  18. ^ Martin Luther, "Commentary on the Al­leged Imperial Edict," Luther's Works, Vol. 34, Philadelphia (Fortress), 1960, p. 91.
  19. ^ Martin Luther, "Lectures on Genesis, 1535," Luther's Works, Vol. 2, Philadelphia (For­tress), 1960, pp. 266f.
  20. ^ Martin Luther, "Lectures on Galatians, 1535," Luther's Works, Vol. 26, Philadelphia (Fortress), 1963, pp. 154f.
  21. ^ "Martin Luther, "Disputation Concerning Justification, 1536," Luther's Works, Vol. 34, Philadelphia (Fortress), 1960, p. 176.
  22. ^ Martin Luther, "On Councils and the Church," Luther's Works, Vol. 41, Philadel­phia (Fortress), 1966, p. 166.
  23. ^ The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert, Phila­delphia (Fortress), 1959, p. 480.
  24. ^ Ibid, p. 407.
  25. ^ Oberman, op. cit. , p.129.
  26. ^ Martin Luther, "Sermon on the Sum of the Christian Life," Luther's Works, Vol. 51, Philadelphia (Fortress),1959, p. 284.
  27. ^  What Luther Says, ed. Edwin M. Plass, Vol. 3, St. Louis (Concordia), 1959, pp. 1128f.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.