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date: 29 April 2017

Law in Doctrine and Life According to Martin Luther

Summary and Keywords

The law both is and functions in Martin Luther’s theology. To the extent that it simply is, the law is wholly good, just, and pure. It reveals God’s benevolent providence for creation by instantiating structures of human relationships, natural processes, and social arrangements within which human life and all of creation can flourish. Luther regards the essential character of the law in a way reminiscent of the haggadah tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, where the law is a narrative which reveals features of the lawgiver. Under the conditions of sin, however, the law can be experienced as wrath by humans who cannot fulfill what it requires, and who suffer as a result of their own transgression of the Word of God or as a result of the transgressions of others. It functions thus as a curb against wickedness and as a means of exposing sin to be sin. Its continued presence in the life of the believer is necessary, as Luther clarified in his various debates with Johann Agricola and the so-called “Antinomians.” When the law is understood only in its antinomy with the gospel, the life-affirming elements of the law are occluded, even as the gospel’s life-redeeming elements are thereby rendered clear.

While numerous fine distinctions can be found in Luther’s theology of the law, it maintains a basic unity-in-diversity. God wills singly in dealing with human beings as his creatures. Therefore “civil law,” the Decalogue, and other manifestations of the law are facets of the one will of God for the flourishing of creation. Recent Pauline scholarship has criticized Luther for eisegesis on Paul’s view of the law; Luther needed to see his contemporary Roman partisans as Paul’s legalistic Jewish opponents, they say, and so he read Romans as a critique of 16th-century “works righteousness.” This view ignores the fact that Luther (and Augustine) viewed the post-conversion Paul as “continent” in doing the works of the law, neither weak-willed nor perfectly virtuous.

Law is necessary for doctrine, but it is also important for the “Christian life” because it helps the believer to understand the reciprocity that underlies interpersonal relationships, seen especially in the “golden rule” that functions as the epitome of the Christian life. The radical receptivity (i.e., passivity) that characterizes the life of faith in believers enables the experience of God’s will, understood as law or command, in a constructive and beneficial way. While Christian life should employ a “faith approach” rather than a “law approach,” genuine faith in God does, in fact, reveal the true meaning of the law. This might be called the “second use of the gospel” in that God’s command (Gebot), viewed in light of the gospel, becomes a source of guidance for the Christian life, the ten commandments, the double love command, and the Sermon on the Mount chief among them.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Law, civil use of the law, theological use of the law, Torah, Antinomianism, Johann Agricola, merit, New Perspective on Paul, Christian life

The Unity of the Law

The concept of the law has many meanings in theology. For this reason, special articles are necessary for “civil law,” “natural law,” and the distinction between “law and gospel.” While the present article focuses on Luther’s understanding of the biblical concept of nomos, the law, we also need to ask whether Luther assumes a plurality of different biblical concepts, referring to (1) God’s will in general, (2) the Decalogue, (3) the Golden Rule of reciprocal neighborly love, (4) the Sermon on the Mount and (5) the law written in people’s hearts.

Luther scholars have not seldom assumed basic distinctions between these manifestations of the law. Paul Althaus, for instance, tends to interpret the Golden Rule as a rational and reciprocal form of law. In addition to it, Althaus assumes a law of the cross or a deeper Christian love which endures injustice without resisting.1 More recently, however, Luther scholars have also argued that there is a basic unity of the law that holds together the meanings from (1) to (5). While these meanings need not be identical, they all manifest the same kind of law which can be summarized as God’s will in dealing with human beings. In terms of such unity of the law, God is not acting through different dispensations but the divine will is in some strong sense immutable even when it can appear to humans in different ways.2

Along this line of interpretation, one can argue that Luther does not interpret the Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12), as a rule of natural rationality but as a rule of divine love, exemplified in Jesus Christ. Given this, God’s one will and law can manifest in the different variants of law. As natural law or as a law in people’s hearts, the norm is neither autonomous nor rationalistic but belongs to God’s reality of creation, expressing God’s will. In the Decalogue, in the Golden Rule or in other prescriptions of the Sermon on the Mount, God’s will is manifested and radicalized in writing. All the time, however, we are dealing with the same will of God.3

A similar argument can be presented proceeding from the double commandment of love (Matt. 22:37–39). Luther interprets this commandment as the summary of God’s salvific plan for humankind.4 While he does not consider the ceremonial laws of the Torah as binding for Christians, he pleads for the continuing normativity of its moral laws. The original sin of Adam and Eve consisted in breaking the first commandment of the Decalogue.5 In addition to the political use of the law in government and its theological use in awakening the consciousness of sin, Luther ascribes to the law a parenetic use in the life of the Christians. The Christian freedom means a new obedience in which the believers freely obey God’s will, praying that it will be done in their lives. This will of God is no new law but has the same content as the Decalogue.6

As Luther distinguishes so strongly between law and gospel, emphasizing the theological use of the law through which God’s law appears as terrible judge, it is not always easy to see the positive unity of law in his theology. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) is a particularly illuminating test case of this feature, as Jesus there so strongly speaks of a “reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:12). As salvation is for Luther not by the works of the law, and as the law in his vocabulary often goes together with merit and reward, the role of the law seems to be somewhat challenged by the Sermon on the Mount. Moreover, as Jesus also speaks of “greater righteousness” than that of the teachers of the law (Matt. 5:20), the need for a differentiation among the different concepts of law seems evident.

In his extensive Sermons on Matt. 5–7 (1532) Luther wrestles with these issues in detail. Referring to Matthew 5:17, he considers that the law is perfect in the form given in the Old Testament. Christ is not aiming to improve the law, but he wants to teach the law in its fullness. Jesus is speaking about the teaching of the law. His point is not, according to Luther, to deal with how people manage to do this in concrete life. In this manner, Luther deviates slightly from Augustine who pays attention to both teaching and concrete life.7

Luther here defends the unity of the canon and also the unity of law in both Testaments. With his focus on teaching, he manages to shift away from the concrete practice of good works. However, as Matthew 5:20 thematizes the “better” or “greater” righteousness that the Christians are supposed to display vis-à-vis the teachers of the law, the issue of assuming different scales of goodness remains a challenge. In 1522, Luther employs the translation “better righteousness.” In his sermons he preaches against the righteousness of works, considering that Jesus is requiring a righteousness that is not based on free human decision and legalistic doing of works.8

In Luther’s reading of Matthew 5:20, the better righteousness means neither an improved human capacity nor a new standard given by Christ. Instead, Luther holds that the same law can be encountered either by means of legalistic doing or by means of faith and grace. The latter is better righteousness because it does not rely on human powers but lets God be active in justification. The fruits of this justification by faith may manifest as qualitatively “better” works than legalistic doings, but this does not mean that there would be a different law behind the righteousness of faith.9 In this manner, the unity of the law is preserved even when legalistic or pharisaic understanding of the law is criticized. If there is an exegetical price paid for this interpretation, it may consist in postulating a quasi-Pauline view of two kinds of righteousness into the text of Matthew.10

The unity of the law is nevertheless a fruitful heuristic idea that helps one to understand why Luther fights the antinomians and wants to preserve the Decalogue at a prominent place in his Catechisms. While salvation is not by the works of the law, the law is not abandoned in Christian life. As it represents the immutable will of God, its shape can be found in Christian life guided by the Holy Spirit. Matthew 5–7 does not establish a new law but Jesus “cleanses” the Decalogue, or the original will of God, from later confusing interpretations.11 In Luther’s readings of the Old Testament, the law can also prompt joy in faithful followers.12 While the law terrifies guilty consciences, it also has the capacity to produce other emotions. This does not mean, however, that there would be different laws. The one will of God can prompt many different reactions.

The Law of God as Such

Treatments of the role of “law” in Luther’s theology are undoubtedly numerous because of its central role but also because it is one of the loci on which Luther is most creative and novel in departing from medieval traditions. However, too often the law is reduced to its partner “gospel” or else treated in such a way that a “system” of law needs to emerge, with certain features—like the law’s uses, natural law, or civil law—conditioning and limiting each other so that a “schema” of the law can emerge.13 It is true that Luther, when speaking about the role of the law in theology, tended to make these kinds of statements. The later Lutheran tradition, with its “lex semper accusat” motifs do the same thing. However, when Luther actually reflects on the law of God, rather than on the “place of the law of God in doctrine,” a different picture emerges.14

In Luther’s lengthy lectures on Genesis (1535–1545) he has occasion to reflect on God’s benevolent intentions in the creation of and providence for the world. The law, as originally intended by God, emerges in those lectures as a kind of window into God for the purpose of ordering our worship of him.

Luther sees the creative work of God in a variety of ways. Its elements include creatio ex nihilo, creatio continua, and creatio novo as a seamless whole.15 God’s word moves the world into being, sustains and shapes it, and redeems it from its fate of nullity and despair. Luther nearly always conceives of these elements of creation fitting together. “I hold and believe that I am God’s creature, that is, that he has given me and constantly sustains my body, soul, and life….”16 From the very outset of creation, the law is present as a mechanism for maintaining life (though to be precise Luther usually speaks of this as “Gebot” rather than “Gesetz”). When God commands Adam to eat and not eat of certain trees and fruits (Gen. 2:16ff), Luther finds the law to be there. It is not a postlapsarian intervention necessitated by sin, nor even logically implied by the gospel. It belongs to the iustitia originalis of Adam.17 Instead its purpose is to help Adam give shape to his love of God through obedience, and in a way to direct his worship. Luther writes, commenting on Genesis 2:19, “And so when Adam had been created in such a way that he was, so to speak, drunk with joy towards God, and rejoiced also in all other creatures, then a new tree was created for the distinction of good and evil, so that Adam might have a definite sign of worship and reverence towards God. After everything had been entrusted to him to make use of it according to his will, whether he wished to do so for necessity or for pleasure, God finally demands from Adam that at this tree of the knowledge of good and evil he demonstrate his reverence and obedience toward God and that he maintain this practice, as it were, of worshiping God by not eating anything from it.”18 The law presupposes a graceful relationship with God, rather than anticipating wrath. Even after the fall, the law as such retains this basic character. “After sinning Adam is not the same as he was in his state of innocence. However, there is no distinction between the law before sin and the law after sin.”19 What the law becomes under the conditions of sin we discuss next.

The Law under the Conditions of Sin

None has lived under the law as it was originally intended, however, the fact of which renders much of Luther’s Genesis lectures an exercise in counterfactual speculation. The ubiquity of sin means that our worship is misdirected and thus that our actions diminish ourselves and each other. Therefore the law is often experienced as wrath, curse, and restraint. It shows the sinner his need for forgiveness and imposes order on violent and ignorant people. Thus the uses of the law, of which there are at least two for Luther, enter in. Later tradition called the first the “civil use of the law” (usus civilis legis) and referred to oversight of the this-worldly kingdom wherein human interactions with each other needed to be shaped and regulated. Luther’s emphasis here is frequently that, because of sin, wicked human actions need to be forcefully and even violently restrained. The metonym in such cases is that the law is “sword.” The civil magistrate or, chillingly, the executioner,20 enforces the law of God by punishing wrongdoing, policing, and waging war under the auspices of the just war tradition, and restricting vice (such as usury or lust) by dint of law.

What this view misses, however, is that while sin is all around, and thus the law is experienced under the conditions of sin, nonetheless the law retains its creation-shaping character. If the metonym of the law as “sword” is necessary because of sin, the metonym of the law as “bread loaf” is possible because of the continuing goodness of creation.21 The law is wholly just and good, and thus can still direct and sustain human dealings. Luther suggested that the insignia of the Saxon prince ought to contain not a laurel and fox, but a loaf of bread, so that it might remind the civil authorities that their oversight on civil law was not just to restrain wickedness but to generate abundant living conditions.22 To cite a rather modern example: traffic laws must exist because drivers otherwise would drive dangerously and foolishly. The civil use of the law restrains such behavior. But traffic laws also make it possible for a Christian to deliver food by car to a neighbor in need. As the foregoing has shown, even these kinds of loving actions are still done under the stain of sin, but nonetheless they are forms of obedience to the command of loving one’s neighbor, and thus fall under the rubric of the civil use of the law.

The second use of the law, the so-called “theological use,” also enters the picture under the conditions of sin. The purity of the law is a mirror showing the dirtiness of sin and the cleansing power of the gospel. When the law is contrasted with the gospel, the agon structure tends to dominate the presentation of both. In the agon formula in Greek literature, the stronger the villain is, the stronger the hero must be to be victorious. Thus, in deference to the mighty goodness of the gospel, the wrathfulness and burdensome demands of the law are highlighted. When law is considered immediately and only considered as the antinomy of the gospel, the law appears as monstrous and frightful. In order to highlight the splendor, freedom, and salvation of the gospel, the law is shown to be ugly, burdensome, and enslaving.

But law against gospel is not the only way in which Luther envisioned the law. Indeed, when the law–gospel dialectic is not placed into a wider context of God’s triune activity, we are certain to misunderstand it. Luther held that the law, considered in itself, is in fact a good aimed at human flourishing. It is abuse thereof, an unhealthy reliance thereon, and above all the experience of the law under the conditions of sin that causes the predicament to which the gospel is protagonist. This requires a construal of law and gospel as a dialectic, rather than as an antinomy, and the placing of the law–gospel pairing under an understanding of the fundamental unity of the law.

Whether there are only two uses of the law is of course a famous cul-de-sac in Luther scholarship. Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen spoke for a generation of research in summarizing that “A third function of the Law that followed upon this twofold function—as an instruction on living for believers or those who have been reborn—was rejected by Luther, because living faith spontaneously fulfills the demands of the divine law which coincides with the usus civilis legis as to its content.”23 Yet the sheer number of passages in Luther’s writings sympathetic to something like a didactic use of the law inspires caution from coming to so sharp a decision.24

When the law/gospel antinomy subsumes all other theologizing by becoming not only the criterion but also the very matrix for theology, the law becomes merely an oppressive, extrinsic power. And if the law oppresses because it makes demands, the reverse also comes to seem true, that any kind of demand is, ipso facto, oppressive. This cannot be true, of course, because demands made on parents by children, for instance, or friends on other friends, are often life-affirming and delightful. But as David Yeago notes,

Since the gospel’s liberating character is defined in terms of its antithesis to the law, it will not be our sinful abuse of the law and hostility to the commandment from which the gospel liberates us. Rather, the gospel will liberate us from the situation of having to hear commandment at all, from having to reckon with any word whatsoever that has the formal character of ordered demand.25

This is the distortion of Luther’s thought called Antinomianism, to which we now turn.

The Antinomian Controversies with Agricola

The relationship of the law to good works was consistently an element of Luther’s dealings with his Roman Catholic opponents. However, on two intense occasions it also heightened tensions and even caused division in the evangelical camp. In the so-called “antinomian” controversy of 1538–1539 Luther needed to sharpen and clarify the status of the law of God and the good works commanded by it. Though dead for a decade by the time the second Antinomerstreit broke out in 1556, Luther made a contribution to that argument by virtue of his writings on other matters being marshaled to help decide the matter.26

Luther’s main evangelical opponent was his Wittenberg faculty colleague, friend, and tenant Johann Agricola. Agricola held two radical positions on the debated issue. First, that the law had no longer any justified use in the now-purified church, and second that simple people were to be taught that doing good deeds understood as “works of the law” was not only not necessary for salvation, but was in fact harmful to it. He reasoned that when grace was fully comprehended by and imputed to the believer, simply the proclamation of the gospel would suffice to order society and direct human wills to just action. Further, he worried that if any kind of place were given to the law in salvation, even one as minor as “regenerated persons might occasionally meet God’s law by doing a good work” would be so likely to mislead that it ought not be taught. Agricola had been a very close friend of Melanchthon’s, but nearly broke with him after Melanchthon had written so strongly in favor of the teaching of the Ten Commandments to all Christians.27 Luther sided with Melanchthon but let the discord simmer for a decade before needing to publically address the issue, which he did in his 1539 Against the Antinomians.28 Luther feared that “these sweet-talking Antinomians make our people, who are already overconfident, so ‘secure’ that they fall away from grace.”29

In part Luther feared that the dissolution of the dialectic between law and gospel would simply change the gospel into a kind of law. The Law itself is not an efficient cause of righteousness, but its presence and lasting validity are naturally requisites for righteousness. If it were lacking, by what criterion would the gospel be shown to be surpassing in power? And what of the history of salvation (Luther was lecturing on Genesis at the time, it will be recalled) with its important and dramatic issuances of the law?

A telling Table Talk, even if probably not perfectly accurately remembered, describes a meal at the Luthers’ home at which Agricola was present. Luther marked a full wine glass with three parallel lines. The top line read “Ten Commandments,” the second line was the creed, and the lowest was the Lord’s Prayer. Luther swallowed the whole glass, bottoms up. He passed the refilled cup to Agricola, who could manage only to drink down to the Ten Commandments and then had to stop. More than proving his mettle as a better drinker, Luther was trying to show how much good stuff was lost if one did away with so much wholesome church tradition as Agricola was trying to do.30 The law had to be carefully considered and contextualized, but it must not be jettisoned, pilloried, or vitiated.

Luther and Paul on the Law

During the last ten years, the exegetical debate between the so-called “new perspective” and the so-called “Lutheran Paul” has also drawn the attention of Luther scholars. As this is basically a debate about the relative importance of the law, it needs to be briefly outlined here. Prominent New Testament scholars like W. G. Kümmel, Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders have claimed that Luther’s understanding of Paul has for a long time misled exegetical scholarship. While Luther allegedly condemned all good works and virtue, building his own theology around introspective guilt, the historical Paul had a robust conscience and believed he was able to produce good works. The lament of the ego in Romans 7 does not concern Paulus Christianus, as Luther assumed, but the pre-Christian state of an exemplary I whose initial incapacity has already been overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit.31

Such theses of the “new perspective” are accompanied with the views that Paul was generally closer to Judaism than Luther believed, that the Jews also taught salvation by grace and that the shadow of early modern anti-Jewish theology has prevented Protestant scholars to see the apostle Paul in his proper historical environment of Palestinian Judaism. Luther scholars have basically reacted to the claims of the new perspective in two opposite ways. Some have chosen the side of the so-called “Lutheran Paul,” a view defending the traditional view of seeing Luther as a true disciple of Paul.32 Others have attempted to perform a reinterpretation of Martin Luther that would come closer to the claims of the new perspective.33 Obviously, still others construct positions that are between or go beyond these two ideal-typical alternatives.34

The crucial question in this issue concerns the Christian’s permanent inability to fulfill the requirements of the law. If this inability persists until death and if the salvation is understood as merely imputative in the sense that God merely considers that the person is justified while nothing happens in him or her, then no reconciliation between such understanding of Luther and the new perspective is possible. As the new perspective normally builds on the optimistic holiness theology and liberation from sin expressed in Romans 8:1–2 and interprets Romans 7 in the light of Romans 8, it assumes the new being of the Christian in Jesus Christ. Such a new being is able to perform the requirements of the law to an extent and has a robust conscience.

An attempt to reconcile between Luther and the new perspective can be based on the claim that Luther’s maxim “justified and sinner at the same time” does not mean permanent and total inability to meet the requirements of the law. When Luther introduces this maxim in his 1515/1516 Lectures on Romans, he follows the older Augustine who considers that the Christian Paul is speaking in his own person in Romans 7. The new perspective in a way returns to the position of young Augustine who reads Romans 7 in terms of Paul’s pre-Christian retrospection.35

However, Luther is not claiming that Paulus Christianus sins in everything he does because of his own powerlessness. On the contrary, Luther claims that Paul normally does the right thing. Luther only adds that the right thing is done in some sense reluctantly, as the remaining, ruled sin still contaminates Paul’s mind to an extent. This was already seen in Rudolf Hermann’s old definitive study of simul iustus et peccator, and it has been confirmed in Wilhelm Christe’s new and very comprehensive study.36 However, Lutherans often generally believe that the remaining sin effectively prevents Christians from doing good works. While Paul’s works may not be optimal, they are good by ordinary standards.

A comparison with Aristotle’s categories “virtue,” “continence,” and “incontinence” illuminates the issue. While a virtuous person does good wholeheartedly and spontaneously, a continent person does the same with some inner reluctance. A weak-willed or incontinent person has good aims but does not manage to follow them, sinning in spite of his good intentions. For the older Augustine as well as for Luther, Paulus Christianus is neither weak-willed nor virtuous but continent.37 It seems, however, that some exegetical proponents of the new perspective make Luther a straw man who portrays a weak-willed apostle. In reality, Luther’s Paul is righteous and sinner at the same time in a sense that resembles Aristotle’s continence. The apostle can do good, but because of remaining inner sinfulness he is also qualified as sinner.

Given this, however, the apostle can fulfill many commandments of the Decalogue to a considerable extent. Moreover, his righteousness is not merely in God’s mind but in some sense also in his concrete acts and maybe even in his person in a partial fashion. The apostle is “in Christ” and the Spirit of life has set him free in the sense of Romans 8:1. The so-called New Finnish Interpretation of Luther,38 which stresses our being in Christ and has a strong view of effective fruits of justification, bears therefore a certain theological affinity to the exegetical new perspective.

One of Luther’s most exhaustive readings of Romans 7:14–8:1 is given in Against Latomus (1521). Luther here defends the view that the remaining imperfections of the Christian must be called “sin.” While this position may give some inspiration to the defenders of permanently powerless Christian mind, Luther’s actual exposition denies the view that the Christian’s body would be overcome in action. On the contrary, the spirit controls this action, though the flesh remains repugnant and thus there is sin.39 The decisive matter here is that the Christians are in grace and in Christ. Thus they have an effective antidote against actual sinning. Even when the attack of sin may be greater for the pious than for the impious, the pious do not commit sin in the same manner as the impious.40

Such passages give support to the reconciliation between Luther’s view of the law and the new perspective of Pauline studies regarding the issue of our being in Christ. It must be added, however, that this support remains partial. There are other factors, like the undeniable anti-Jewish attitude of the broader Western theological tradition, which continue to separate Reformation thinkers from the achievements of contemporary Pauline studies. The theological correctives regarding the usefulness of “the law” may therefore have their most dramatic outcomes in the definition of the borderline between Christianity and Judaism.

The Law and Christian Life

Given that Luther assumes the unity of God’s will and law, it is also reasonable to assume that the Golden Rule or the double commandment of love work for him as adequate summaries of the law. We saw that Luther calls the Golden Rule “the sum of Christian life.” The concept of Christian life has recently been much discussed in Luther studies. On the first look, evidence seems to connect faith with doctrine, whereas works and the law relate to life.41 While it is obvious that the law deals prominently with the practices of living, the relationship between law and Christian life is in fact complex in Luther’s texts.

One basic dimension in Luther is that life is mutable and in some sense in our power. Thus it differs from doctrine.42 However, as God’s will the law is immutable and thus resembles more doctrine than life. The Golden Rule makes this picture more dynamic, as one can claim that the rule as such is immutable while its content varies according to the different needs and situations of life. Remarkably, Luther calls the Golden Rule both “the sum of Christian life (leben)” and a “Christian doctrine and a sum of Christian being (wesen).”43 Given such statements, the Golden Rule mediates between the immutable and the mutable realms of reality.

When the Golden Rule is conceived in terms of rationality, it remains in the realm of natural and mutable things, needing other principles to deal with “vertical” issues of theology. The interpretation of the Golden Rule as the principle of divine love pays more attention to the vertical and immutable and elements of the rule’s normativity. As expression of God’s primary and immutable will in Christ, the event of thinking of oneself in the place of the other appears as a rule of love which also encompasses self-giving and forgetting one’s own interests. To some extent, this also happens in rational deliberation, but the vertical dimension of divine love adds to this event a normativity and creativity of gift-giving that is not evident in natural rationality.44

This vertical and theological dimension is also alluded to in the attribute “Christian” which Luther employs distinctively. Together with other Reformers, Luther employs this attribute to depict an ideal that is reinstituted and cultivated so that it can flourish.45 Christian life thus means a free and obedient existence, in which the parenetic resources of God’s law are not neglected. In this manner, law is relevant for both doctrine and practical life. The Golden Rule of putting oneself in another’s position is operative both as a principle of divine, self-giving love and as a rational rule of giving each person his or her due. The same will of God is behind both variants.46

Given this unity of law, Luther is nevertheless critical to all efforts of making the Christian life an existence based on the works of the law or achieved virtue. While the law concerns many external works, the gospel is only concerned “with the unique work, which is internal, namely, faith.” For Luther, “the faith of Christ is the only virtue.”47 Such faith of Christ (fides Christi) is also the faith in Christ, which makes the believer a new person and a subject of the internal and unique work (opus unicum) of faith. In this manner, Christian life is a life in faith and in Christ.48

As this kind of opus unicum, faith is a work of God that takes hold of the entire human being. The works of faith are “impossible for the nature, but very easy for the spirit.” In some sense, all external works are “equal” insofar as they proceed from faith.49 This centrality of faith prompts Luther to reinterpret the first commandment of the Decalogue in terms of a non-economic gift. The first commandment does not mean a basic disposition or readiness to act as the next precepts of the Decalogue tell—to understand it in this manner would for Luther resemble the act of selling God’s gifts to achieve profit.50 Instead, faith is a “general influence” (influentia generalis) or the shape of that passive life of the Christian in which God can work.51 Regarding the first commandment, this means that it commands faith, not works. This faith is not a human activity but a certainty that God steers my course of life.52

In such formulations of Luther we see, on the one hand, that he does not admit that our life is directed by virtues, dispositions, or the intentions of the law as law. The Christian life is a life in faith, a gift commanded to be received in an attentive passivity.53 On the other hand, he does not claim that we could find some other practical life that would be better than the law. As the law manifests God’s will, there is no other good practice. Luther’s emphasis on the first commandment of the Decalogue does not, therefore, have an antinomian point. He rather wants to highlight that there is a theological way of life that is characterized as faith in Christ and as passive life. Only through this passive life of faith can believers enter the realm of God’s will in a constructive and beneficial manner. While Christian life should not employ a “law approach” but a “faith approach,” it is only through this faith approach that the true meaning of the law can be adequately understood.

When this view of passive life and faith as our “unique work” is connected with the issue of “justified and sinner at the same time” (cf. above), a line needs to be drawn between virtue ethics and the faith-based progress of a Christian. While Luther can teach that we do good works through faith and in Christ, he remains skeptical to the emergence of human virtue. This skepticism relates to his broader vision that all works are finally equal in the life entirely steered by faith. While the law primarily applies to the natural realm, Luther’s vision of faith, Christ and gospel primarily aims to conceptualize our spiritual life. The unity of God’s will as immutable and yet dynamic and pluriform law mediates between these two realms to an extent, without compromising the uniqueness of faith, gospel, and Christ.

Because Luther is suspicious of the presence of genuine virtue in humans, the notion of the law leading to human “merit” is likewise problematic. Luther inherited an extensive tradition of merit as the reward for faith’s fulfillment of the law, and, as is well known, mostly repudiated it. The “treasury” of merit stored up by the faithful of the past, whose bursar was the pope, funded the theology of indulgences Luther opposed. His theology of sin was such that no human act, no matter how noble, ever really fulfilled the law. This was so because one’s motives were always partially uncertain and possibilities for benevolence were necessarily limited by sin. Good works are possible, and even mandated (and thus, in a sense, necessary) but “good” does not mean “law-fulfilling.” The law is written objectively and formally. The objectivity of the law is the “letter” of the law, but the law is given formaliter when the Holy Spirit is present in faith in the believer, which causes the believer to actually love the law, and only then to “fulfill” it.54

Review of Literature and Further Questions

German-language scholarship of a generation ago (Althaus, Ethik, and Haikola, Usus legis) was much concerned with the tertius usus legis. More recently, authors like Raunio, Summe, and Wöhle, Freude, have combined elements of natural law, Christocentric theology, and positive appreciation of the Old Testament. Most recently, Stegmann, Auffassung offers an extensive discussion on “Christian life” in Luther’s Theology. American inheritors of Pietism, such as followers of Gerhard Forde, have emphasized the theological use of the law’s accusatory powers to a high degree; a summary and rejoinder can be found in Yeago, “Antinomianism.” Luther’s relationship with the Old Testament Law and natural law nevertheless continue to be issues that need to be discussed more in the future. The validity of the various distinctions related to the law (such as Gebot vs. Gesetz, Gesetz vs. Evangelium, etc.) as they relate to the enduring unity of the law could also beneficially be further nuanced.

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. Die Ethik Martin Luthers. Gutersloh: Mohn, 1965.Find this resource:

Haikola, Lauri. Usus Legis. Uppsala: Lindquist, 1958.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. “Gesetz.” In Luther-Lexikon. Edited by Volker Leppin and Gury Schneider-Ludorff, 253–257. Regensburg: Bückle & Böhm, 2014.Find this resource:

Lazareth, William. Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Lindbeck, George. “Martin Luther and the Rabbinic Mind.” In Understanding the Rabbinic Mind. Edited by Peter Ochs, 141–164. Atlanta: Scholars, 1990.Find this resource:

Raunio, Antti. Summe des christlichen Lebens: Die goldene Regel als Gesetz der Liebe in der Theologie Martin Luthers von 1510–1527. Mainz: Zabern, 2001.Find this resource:

Stegmann, Andreas. Luthers Auffassung vom christlichen Leben. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.Find this resource:

Wingren, Gustaf. Creation and Law. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1961.Find this resource:

Wöhle, Andreas. Luthers Freude an Gottes Gesetz. Frankfurt: Haag & Herchen, 1998.Find this resource:

Yeago, David. “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology.” Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993), 37–49.Find this resource:


(1.) Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1972), 32–41.Antti Raunio, “Natural Law and Faith: The Forgotten Foundations of Ethics in Luther’s Theology,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 99–100.

(2.) Cf. Antti Raunio, Summe des christlichen Lebens. Die goldene Regel als Gesetz der Liebe in der Theologie Martin Luthers von 1510–1527 (Mainz: Zabern, 2001). The unity of the law thesis is carefully formulated in Raunio, “Natural,” 103.

(3.) This argument is based on the evidence presented in Raunio, Summe; Raunio, “Natural” and Katja Juntunen, Der Prediger vom “weissen Berg.” Zur Rezeption der “besseren Gerechtigkeit” aus Mt 5 in Martin Luthers Predigtüberlieferung 1522–1546 (Diss. Helsinki, 2008).

(4.) WA 16:390, 25–16; LW 35:171–2. Here and later in this paragraph we follow Robert Kolb, “Gesetz,” in Luther-Lexikon, eds. Volker Leppin and Gury Schneider-Ludorff (Regensburg: Bückle & Böhm, 2014), 253–257, here: p. 254.

(5.) WA 42:110; LW 1:130. Kolb, “Gesetz,” 254.

(6.) WA 6:204; LW 44:223, 13–16. Kolb, “Gesetz,” 255–257.

(7.) E.g., WA 32:356, 25–38; LW 21:60. We follow here Juntunen, Prediger, 118–119. Cf. Augustine, De sermone domini in monte 1, 8, 20.

(8.) WA 32:364–365; LW 21:69–70. Juntunen, Prediger, 129–131.

(9.) WA 15:647–648; WA 32:360–361, LW 21:64. Juntunen, Prediger, 134–136.

(10.) Cf. Juntunen, Prediger, 194.

(11.) WA 32:362–363; LW 21:65–66.

(12.) Andreas Wöhle, Luthers Freude an Gottes Gesetz (Frankfurt: Haag & Herchen, 1998).

(13.) Two examples of this are compared in Jörg Kailus, Gesetz und Evangelium in Luthers Grossem Galaterkommentar sowie bei Werner Elert und Paul Althaus: Darstellung in Grundzügen und Vergleich (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2004).

(14.) A parallel distinction might be made between what Karl Barth said that “homiletics” were in his Church Dogmatics, and what he actually did when he was preaching. The latter has been rightly regarded as preferable to the former.

(15.) We do not mean to imply that Luther used these terms programmatically, but that they name important elements in his thought. He followed Augustine in thinking of the world coming from nothing and thought that God continually acted in causing creation to develop and acted in such a way as to renew and redeem what is lost, sullied, negated, and destroyed by sin in creation. Cf. Johannes Schwanke, Luthers Lehre von der Schöpfung aus dem Nichts in der grosse Genesinvorlesungen (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004), 13–16.

(16.) Large Catechism II.13, in Timothy Wengert and Robert Kolb, eds. The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 432.

(17.) LW 1:65, 113.

(18.) WA 42:71, LW 1:89 See also Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 58.

(19.) WA 42:82; LW 1:98.

(20.) “Denn die Hand, die das Schwert führt und tötet, ist dann auch nicht mehr eines Menschen Hand, sondern Gottes Hand, und nicht der Mensch, sondern Gott henkt, rädert, enthauptet, tötet und führt den Krieg.” WA 19:648.

(21.) Large Catechism in Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 450.

(22.) On this matter, see Gary Simpson, “Toward a Lutheran ‘Delight in the Law of the Lord’” in Robert Tuttle, ed., Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 20–50.

(23.) “Law” in Hans Hillerbrand, ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), II.405.

(24.) Cf. Edward Engelbrecht, Friends of the Law (St. Louis, MI: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), and William Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), ch. 8, for an especially perceptive analysis of Article VI of the Formula of Concord.

(25.) Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology” in Pro Ecclesia 2 (1993), 40–41.

(26.) See the helpful and brief article “Antinomerstreit” by Irene Dingel in Leppin, Luther-Lexikon, 81–82.

(27.) On their friendship, see the letter of Melanchthon to Agricola, January 1526, in Heinz Scheible, ed., Melanchthon’s Briefwechsel (Stuttgart: Fromann-Holzboog, 1977), 2:396–397.

(28.) A helpful discussion of both the finer points of Agricola’s position and the complicated personal and professional contexts in which the dispute was negotiated can be found in Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532–1546, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 3:156–171.

(29.) LW 47:104–5; WA 39/I:571–2.

(30.) WA TR 6:147.

(31.) For general background information, see Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

(32.) Wilfried Härle, “Paulus und Luther. Ein kritischer Blick auf die ‘New Perspective,’” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 103 (2006), 326–393.

(33.) Risto Saarinen, “The Pauline Luther and the Law: Lutheran Theology Reengages the Study of Paul,” Pro ecclesia 15 (2006), 64–86.

(34.) See the three comprehensive papers in Lutherjahrbuch 80, 2013: Jens Schröter, “The New Perspective on Paul: eine Anfrage an die lutherische Paulusdeutung” (142–158), Bo Kristian Holm, “Beyond juxtaposing Luther and the New Perspective on Paul. A Common Quest for the ‘Other’ Way of Giving?” (159–183), Notger Slenczka, “Die neue Paulusperspektive und die Lutherische Theologie” (184–196).

(35.) See Saarinen, “Pauline Luther” and Saarinen, Weakness of Will in Renaissance and Reformation Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(36.) Rudolf Hermann, Luthers These “Gerecht und Sünder zugleich” (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1930). Wilhelm Christe, Gerechte Sünder (Leipzig: Evang. Verlag, 2014).

(37.) See Saarinen, “Pauline Luther,” and Saarinen, Weakness. WA 1:367; 2:412; 56:339–342, 349–350.

(38.) For this, see Braaten & Jenson, Union, and Olli-Pekka Vainio (ed.), Engaging Luther (Eugene: Cascade, 2010).

(39.) WA 8:99–126.

(40.) WA 8:123, 9–12.

(41.) See Gerhard Ebeling, “Lehre und Leben in Luthers Theologie,” in his Lutherstudien 3 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1985), 3–43.

(42.) See Ebeling, “Lehre.”

(43.) WA 17/II:277, 17–32; WA 10/I.2:333, 25–28. See Raunio, Summe.

(44.) See Raunio, “Natural,” and Raunio, Summe.

(45.) See Scott Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004).

(46.) See Raunio, “Natural,” and Ebeling, “Lehre.”

(47.) WA 57/III:10, 16–19, and 151, 13–14.

(48.) We here follow Andreas Stegmann, Luthers Auffassung vom christlichen Leben (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 227–230.

(49.) WA 57/III:69, 15–17; WA 5:393. Stegmann, Leben, 290–293.

(50.) WA 5:397, 10–11.

(51.) WA 5:396, 25–28. Stegmann, Leben, 292, 334.

(52.) WA 6:204–205; LW 44:71–2. Stegmann, Leben, 204–205.

(53.) For this vita passiva, see Stegmann, Leben, 269, 295 and Philipp Stoellger, Passivität aus Passion (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

(54.) WA 57/III:195–196.