(Exclusive paper from Dr. Holger Sonntag*: God’s Last Word: The Third Use of the Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses and Disputations)
More people reading than usual (with the post here, here, here, and here in particular), but few are commenting. Have the last few posts “said it all”? Or misdiagnosed non-existent “problems”? Is the “Great Sanctification Debate of 2013” over? Or has it just begun?
In 2008, Pastor Holger Sonntag translated from the original Latin Martin Luther’s four disputations on his six sets of Antinomian theses, held in the late 1530s and early 1540s. He says that, being in Latin, “they did not seem to have had a noticeable impact on the discussion on the use of the moral law in preaching and teaching over the past 50 to 200 years” (p. 1) I note that includes the last five years as well.
Reading these theses it becomes clear that, in spite of the contentions of the 20th c. theologian Werner Elert**, Martin Luther taught a “domesticated” third use of the law, in addition to a political and theological use (pp. 1, 2)
In a footnote (p. 2), Pastor Sonntag reminds us that the Book of Concord commends Luther as “the chief teacher of the Lutheran Church who understood the issues confessed by it in a summary fashion better than anybody else…” (SD RN 9, DS VII, 39, 41)
For the modern confessional Lutheran who believes that “anything other than stern condemnation is… an attempt to manipulate God’s unchanging Word in order to let the sinner get off easy (“and inevitably create secure Pharisees”)”,*** these disputations contain many passages that might cause a measure of cognitive dissonance. One example:
The law is already mitigated greatly by the justification which we have because of Christ; and it thus ought not to terrify the justified. Yet meanwhile Satan himself comes along and makes it often overly harsh among the justified. This is why it happens that those are often terrified who ought not to be, by the fault of the devil.
Yet the law is nonetheless not to be removed from the temples; and it is indeed to be taught, since even the saints have sin left in their flesh which is to be purged by the law, until it is utterly driven out. For this wrestling match remains for the saints as long as they live here. Here they fight by day and night. There they finally overcome through Christ.
Before justification the law ruled and terrified all whom it touched. But the law is not to be taught in such a way among the pious, so as to accuse and condemn, but so as to admonish to good. For I ought not to say or preach: You are not under the remission of sins. Likewise: You will be condemned; God hates you etc. For these sayings do not pertain to those who have received Christ, but address the ruthless and wild. The law then is to be attenuated for them and is to be taught them by way of exhortation: Once you were gentiles; now, however, you are sprinkled and washed by the blood of Christ (cf. Eph. 2:11, 13; 1 Cor. 6:11). Therefore now offer you bodies to obey righteousness, putting away the desires of the flesh, lest you become like this world (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 6:13; Eph. 4:22). Be imitators of the righteousness of good works (cf. Tit. 2:14) and do not be unrighteous, condemned like Cain etc.; you have Christ.
Now, what does this mean? Let’s take a quiz:
a) Luther was capable of making anywhere from 3-10 false statements in 304 words
b) Luther was actually a Calvinist, Baptist, or Pietist
c) Luther could have benefitted from a stint at an LC-MS seminary
d) All of the above
e) This explicit statement of preaching methodology seems to fit Luther’s sermons like a hand in glove
Hope you got that one right. Sonntag comments:
“In other words, there are basically two ways in which the law is to be taught by and in the church. First, in all its sternness to terrify unjustified sinners so as to cause them to seek the gospel’s forgiveness and salvation, but then also in the mode of an “attenuated” exhortation to those who are justified already.
Given the biblical references to which Luther alludes in this section, it is evident that he considered this method of going about preaching the law to Christians to be the apostolic method found in the New Testament itself. In fact, already in the preface to the first disputation, Luther summarized “this method” as that of “Christ himself, John the Baptist, the apostles and prophets.”
This is just the beginning. The paper does not let up. From Luther’s antinomian disputations some might be surprised to learn that: the Holy Spirit renders the Law “enjoyable and gentle” to the justified (p. 4) ; the preacher should not make the law overly harsh among the justified but should change into the gentler tone of exhortation (p. 5, see also 17) ; “under Christ the law is in the state of being done, not of having been done”, and therefore believers need to be “admonished by the law” (p. 5) ; when the Antinomians insisted they taught repentance, Luther conceded this to them (p. 8) ; too much condemning law can lead into despair and to kill completely – the law “should be reduced through the impossible supposition to a salutary use” (pp. 8, 9) ; right method in preaching is no guarantee for success in hearers (p. 9) ; the law’s constant accusation against those outside of Christ is its main purpose or use (p. 14) ; to the extent that a believer is “actively” righteous, the law’s accusatory office has ceased (p. 16) ; under the accusatory law insofar as they are sinners, Christians are also “without the law” because Christ’s fulfillment of the law is imputed to them and insofar as they battle sin in their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit (pp. 16-17) ; we obey more willingly and freely when Christ’s life is shown as the example of the law (p. 17) ; our “active justification” in the world, while imperfect, is still praiseworthy (pp. 23, 24) ; God needs our good works because He is pleased to need them according to His will (pp. 25, 26) ; Luther’s anthropology of the “Thomas Christian”, where we are a twin that is triumphant and militant at the same time, explains how we are called into “lifelong military service and battle array” to expel sin against God’s law in them more and more (pp. 27, 28 ; note this is not the sinner/saint distinction) ; venial sins are done against the renewed will of the Christian, while mortal sins are done with the full consent and pleasure of those who either never had or who have now lost Spirit, faith, and therefore also their renewed heart (p. 29, 30)
Sonntag notes that in Ap. IV, 167**** it says the law always accuses us – but apart from faith in Christ, which silences the accusation of the law (pp. 12, 13) The law accuses us when considered outside of Christ (p. 14). He also notes LCII, 2-3, which says that the Gospel (the Creed) is given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandments require of us (p. 31).
So, what does this mean? Is this the right book/article for the right time? Is this apropos to our current debates? Have you read the Antinomian Disputations? If not, why not?
If you think you need a word of Gospel right now – that glorious message of forgiveness for Christ’s sake – you have it! What next?
*I asked if I could put this on the web and he concurred. Here is more on Pastor Sonntag, who has become a dear friend of my pastor and a treasured voice to myself: Born in Germany and originally a member of a territorial Lutheran church in that country, Pastor Sonntag studied at seminaries at Bielefeld and Heidelberg, both affiliated with the territorial Protestant churches in Germany. During his dissertation at Heidelberg, he became acquainted with the works of Hermann Sasse and from there formed a critical opinion about the theological course of his ecclesial home in Germany. At that time, the late 1990s, also the negotiations between Rome and Protestants on the doctrine of justification came to a head in the so-called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. When he moved to the US in 2000, he first joined the ELCA, despite his questions about the recent ecumenical agreements of that church body with various Reformed and Anglican church bodies. Attending an ELCA seminary was the straw that finally broke this camel’s back, and Sonntag felt compelled to look elsewhere for a church fellowship more friendly to his rediscovered and deepening Lutheran roots. So in 2001, he started attending Concordia Theological Seminary in FW. Then he served a vicarage and pastorate in LCMS congregations in MN. Now he serves as an Non-Commissioned Officer in a helicopter maintenance company of the US Army en route to his second deployment to Afghanistan.
**Elert, who denied the third use of the law (saying the law only instructed man about his sinfulness, p. 12), said that the afterward of the second disputation where Luther specifically talks about a third use of the law was a “plump forgery” (p. 2). Sonntag shows, among other things, that even if this were the case, it correctly summarizes the uncontested parts of the second disputation.
***Green, “The ‘Third Use of the Law’ and Werner Elert’s Position,” Logia XXII, 2 (Eastertide 2013): 32, quoting W. Elert. Because of this, “we just ought to preach ‘the law’ and then just let the Holy Spirit use it as he wills – a view also upheld by [Scott] Murray (in “The Third Use of the Law: The Author Responds to His Critics”, CTQ 72 (2008), 108-109) But what is the Law anyway? I, not Dr. Sonntag, offer the following view for critique: Mark Mattes writes that Jesus, in becoming sin for us, was “in the end justly accused as a violator of the Torah – God’s own law…”. Mark Mattes, “The History, Shape, and Significance of Justification”, in Virgil Thopson, ed., Justification is for Preaching, (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 53.
****Also note Ap. IV, 187-189 (p. 13)