Martin Luther: The Law and the Gospel (III)

In the last issue Dr. Godfrey discussed Martin Luther’s writings about right doctrine and law and gospel. He concludes the series by reviewing Luther’s writings on faith, and on the law as a spiritual guide.


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 some 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 Fonnula 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 (Ps. 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 no 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.


16. Martin Luther, ed. J. Dillenberger, p. 52.

17. Cited in Robin Lever, Luther on Justijication, 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 (Fotress), 1963, pp. 154f.

21. Martin Luther, “Disputation Concerning Justification, 1536,” Luther’s Works, Vo1. 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.

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, a church historian, is president of Westminster Seminary in CA.