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.


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 over emphasizes.

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.


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 Devil I 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.


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 troth 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 be 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 counterposing 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 comer. 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 Dot 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.·

You see, there is the medieval picture. It is toil and worry and work to he end, in the hope, that maybe one light 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:

ThoughI 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 ofScripture. From that study ofScripture and from that examination of his heart and soul, Luther realized that salvation was to be found only by grace through faith. To be continued in the December issue.


1. Heiko Oberman, Luther, Man Betweand 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. 32[.

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.

Dr. Godfrey is President of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA.