Martin Luther: The Law and the Gospel (II)

Dr. Godfrey concluded his first article by describing Luther’s theology as a “personal theology.” Luther began as a monk, a devotee of the church; he became a student of Scripture and subsequently became strongly convicted of the truth of salvation was to be found only by grace through faith.


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 rhat 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 oft he 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 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 ifI 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 Luthers 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 far justification and the way in which the Law might/unction/or 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 chat 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 (If we had time, which we clearly do not, we could examine Luther’s two-kingdom theology which develops how one lives before God and how one serves in the world.)


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, “Lecturcs 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, “TableTalk,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 54,Philadelphia (Fortress), 1967, p. 75.

15. Luther, “Lectures on Galatians,” p. 7.