Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mark's thoughts: What's wrong with Luther here?

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a remarkable work in which he defends the fact that the Christian is justified by faith in Christ and not through works of the Law (2:16). Through a variety of arguments Paul tells the Gentiles in Galatia that their inclusion in God’s people is already a fact through faith in Jesus Christ.  As the baptized they are in Christ, and so they already are sons of God (3:26-27). There is nothing that needs to be added to this. 

In a rousing conclusion to this entire line of thought Paul writes, “For freedom (τῇ ἐλευθερίᾳ) Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1 ESV).  There are two ways that stand before the Galatians.  Either they can continue their life in Christ through faith, or they can go the route of works.  Paul has already said that the law cannot bring salvation, because no one can do the law perfectly (Gal 3:10).  Now Paul says that if anyone wants to head down the path of law by being circumcised, they will have to do the whole law- all of the Torah (Gal 5:3).  As the apostle has already indicated, such a move will have disastrous consequences. He writes: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4 ESV).

Yet after arguing for more than five chapters that Christians are free from the law, in 5:13 Paul makes an unexpected rhetorical pivot that plays off of 5:1.  He states, “For you were called to freedom (ἐπ’ ἐλευθερίᾳ), brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13 ESV).  Paul has said that faith works through love (5:6; πίστις δι’ ἀγάπης ἐνεργουμένη).  He has said that Christians are not justified by works of the law.  Yet now he also says that this love worked by faith and directed toward the neighbor fulfills what the law is all about: “For the whole law is fulfilled (πεπλήρωται) in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14 ESV; cf. Rom 13:8-10).

The apostle then launches into a description of how the Christian life is lived in the tension of the struggle between the Spirit and the fallen, sinful flesh (5:16-26).  He tells the Galatians, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς οὐ μὴ τελέσητε) (5:16 ESV).  He describes the works of the flesh that prevent a person from inheriting the kingdom of God (5:19-21) and sets this in opposition to the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). The shift from a discussion focused on freedom from the law to one that exhorts Christians not to use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh but instead to serve in love is impossible to overlook.

Galatians was, of course, a tremendously important work for Martin Luther.  He described it as his Katie von Bora.  Luther lectured on the book for a second time in 1535 (the first lectures were in 1519).  The Galatians lectures are considered classic statements of the teaching that we are justified by grace on account of Christ through faith.  Luther lays out the fact that the law cannot give salvation, and describes the law’s role in convicting us of sin and leading us to repentance – the classic movement from Law to Gospel.

However, because the 1535 lectures on Galatians are such a classic statement of Lutheran teaching, they also provide a helpful test case. There is no need to demonstrate that the law is not a means of salvation and instead convicts sinners. There is no need to demonstrate that the Gospel is running the show in these lectures. What is surprising – and I would say revealing – is the way Luther speaks when he arrives at 5:13 and the verses that follow.  There in commenting on the section that begins at 5:14 he writes:
Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith. For Satan is enraged by both and bitterly resists them. Nevertheless, faith must be implanted first; for without it one cannot understand what a good work is and what is pleasing to God (LW 27:53; emphasis added).
Everything that has been said thus far in the commentary indicates that the Gospel must predominate. And yet Luther dares to say, “Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith.”
Luther then goes on to say:
Therefore the apostle admonishes Christians seriously, after they have heard and accepted the pure doctrine about faith, to practice genuine  works as well. For in the justified there remain remnants of sin, which deter and dissuade them both from faith and from truly good works. In addition, the human reason and flesh, which resists the Spirit in the saints   (in the wicked, of course, it has dominant control), is naturally afflicted with Pharisaic superstitions and, as Ps. 4:2 says ‘loves vain words and seeks after lies’; that is, it would prefer to measure God by its own theories rather than by His word and is far more ardent about doing works that it itself has chosen than about doing those that God commands. This is why faithful preachers must exert themselves as much in urging a love that is unfeigned or in urging truly good works as in teaching true faith (LW 27:54; emphasis added).
One can perhaps soften these statements somewhat by regarding them as hyperbole, but that does not change the fact that Luther is talking in a vigorous way about the need to urge good works.  For Lutherans trained by twentieth century interpretations of the law and its function, the question that arises is: “What’s wrong with Luther here?”  In our present setting, the immediate reaction that is given to any statement that sounds remotely like what Luther has written is: "The law always accuses."  We are told that preaching in this way steals what the Gospel has given, and ultimately is in opposition to the Gospel.  And yet this doesn’t seem to bother Luther at all.  Instead he sets a robust admonishment to good works side by side with teaching about faith.
The second quote sounds remarkably like Formula of Concord VI.  FC VI explicitly distinguishes the topic of article VI, “third use of the law” from the second use in which people are led through the law “to a recognition of their sins” (FC Ep. VI.1).  Instead it describes the purposes of the third use of the law as being: 1) To prevent Christians from making up their own works (FC Ep. VI.4; SD VI.3, 20) 2) To compel the old man against his will to follow the Spirit and be led by it (FC Ep. VI.4, 7; FC SD VI.6, 9, 12, 19, 24).  It says that the reason this use of the law by the Spirit is needed with baptized Christians is because of the old man is still present and battles against the new man (FC SD VI.18-19, 23-24).
There are two points to be noted here. First, Luther is speaking explicitly about preaching. Second, Luther is talking specifically about admonishing Christians to do good works.  This is not a vague application of the law that can then be used however the Spirit may wish.  Instead this is admonishment about good works and it is set out as a specific task in preaching alongside teaching faith.
Modern Lutheranism may say “The law always accuses” and use this principle to guide all practice in a way that avoids ever speaking the law except in the expectation that it will convict people of sin. However, this does not guide Luther.  He has no problem saying that exhortation and admonishment to good works and Christian living should be robust parts of preaching.  The reason for this is very simple: It is what he finds in Paul and the New Testament.  It is true that the law always accuses, but as it accuses it is not always doing the same thing.  The Spirit can employ it in a second use way to convict people of sin and lead them to repentance.  Luther has said much about this in treating the previous chapters of Galatians. However the Spirit can also use the law to restrain sin and the old Adam by accusing, and so enable the new man to lead the Christian to live in the ways he should (and of course, the new man rejoices in that law).  It is also quite possible that the Spirit is doing several of these things at the same time.
I believe that what Luther says here is exactly right.  My question then to those on the other side of this discussion is whether they think Luther’s statements are correct.  If they don’t believe they are, then I must follow up by asking: ‘What’s wrong with Luther here?”


  1. I cannot post as one who disagrees with Luther, who has always taught that God works by means of the preached word. The Law never changes, but the believer's relationshipto the Law changes. Therefore the preached law is not condemning and coercive to the believer, but an energetic rousal to willing holiness by the Holy Spirit.

  2. Mark, I think this is an extremely helpful blog post, thank you.

  3. Mark,

    You continue to ask the questions we all should be asking - and should have been asking years ago. Thanks again for your good work(s) : )

    Blessings to you and yours this Christmas season!

    Pastor McCain - enjoyed your piece on Issues the other day to. Thank you for your persistent witness to these issues.