Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies 5 (of 5): Welcome “Mr. Sin” Boldly!

Chapter 5 of 5: Sin Boldly or Welcome “Mr. Sin” Boldly? (Luther’s “Thomas Christian”)


Chapter 1: Natural Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations

Chapter 2: Does the Christian Cease to be Under the Law of God?

Chapter 3: If the Law is Abrogated in Jesus Christ How Can the Ten Commandments be Eternal?

Chapter 4: Should the Preacher Reduce the Force of God’s Law?


“Sin boldly” means in no way boldly to sin. But enough about that. Let’s talk about those baptized into Christ welcoming “Mr. Sin” boldly. 

“we have… Christ, through whom we are pure & unleavened. And nonetheless [Paul] commands us to cast out the old leaven.” – Luther, SDEA 103

You see, it’s not just about what some call “the simul”. Many are familiar with Martin Luther’s point that Christians are simultaneously saint and sinner, which correlates with the idea of the new man and the old man, the spirit and the flesh, or sinful nature.

As one stands before God, one always must remain totally a sinner and totally a saint (100% each). The Christian’s primary identify is saint, and yet in order to be a saint one must, on earth, be willing to see one’s self as a sinner.

On earth, after all, the healthy, or righteous, do not need the doctor (or so they think!). They do not need the friend of sinners (or so they think!). If these do claim Christ as their own, they then have a false Christ. Only those who are Christians are those who are sinners and saints at the same time.


“[W]hat exercise of faith will be left….when the battle between spirit and flesh will be taken away?….” (SDEA, 261)

But few know that Martin Luther also thought that another idea was needed to really explicate the Christian’s day-by-day experience. This concept, the “Thomist Thomas or twin,” describes how the Christian is also triumphant and militant at the same time.

So what does this all mean? Luther explains in his response to the third argument of the fifth Antinomian Disputation.

First, the triumphant aspect:

“Insofar as he is triumphant, and dwells under the shadow of the wings of his Lord (cf. Psa. 36:7), as it is said (Psa. 32:1-2), “Blessed are those whose sins are covered and whom the Lord did not impute their sins” so far there is nothing about law. Here let Moses depart, let him go away to the ravens with his stuttering tongue, here I do not hear anything, neither heaven nor earth….  Insofar as the Christian is a Christian, leave him in peace and unconfused. For being accused and convicted, and being—or be­ing regarded—righteous, cannot stand at the same time. Yet the Christian is righteous by faith in Christ. In himself, however, he still has inherent sin” (ODE 150, 151).

Again, the justifiied say “Silent law!”: “He died for us, bore the curses and punishments of the law, and gave us his innocent righteousness… where I shall have Christ by faith, there I have what the law requires and demands from me. (SDEA 63, 189)


This seems a lot like the “saint” part of the sinner-saint formulation. But now, with the militant aspect of the Thomas Christian, things get really interesting – and colorful, as is Luther’s custom:

“…now I come to another area, which is widely different from that above, to the militant Christian, who still lives in the flesh, and I come to me and my person. Alas, how much wretchedness I see here! Here I, and you, insofar as we as such, would do all shameful acts in our power, if only they could be done secretly, without the knowledge of people, so that we daily and truly ought to experience how true it is, what Paul says about himself (Rom. 7:23): “I see another law in my members” etc. Yet as soon as these things take place, and as soon as this law or this carnal nature infected by the venom of Satan in Paradise rears its head and incites the poor Christian to lust, to greed, to despair, or to hatred of God, there, I say, the Christian stirs himself up and says, as if in wonder: “Look! And you are still here! Welcome, Mr. Sin. Where were you? Where did you spend your time so long? Are you still alive now? From where do you come to us? Away with you to the cross! It will absolutely not be so! I will protect my virgin and will do what is just, even against your will. And the more you torture me, even challenge and incite me to dishonor, lust, despair, the more I will laugh at you with a spirit that is both confident and strong! Trusting in the help of my Christ I will scorn you and crush your head (cf. Gen. 3:15). What do I have to do with you? I have another Lord in whose camp I am now a soldier. Here I will stay, here I will die.” This one is that glorious soldier and strong George who makes a great massacre in the army of the devil and wins gloriously, as Paul says (Rom. 8:37): “In all these things we overcome through Jesus Christ,” and he does not permit sin to devour in his flesh.

Indeed we, each in his age and situation, cannot but encounter a great number of sins and evil desires. But with God’s help, we will nevertheless not permit them to rule. I witness my flesh having a taste for the same things as the Turk, the pope, and the entire world, but don’t assent! Let him not allow the lice to build nests in the coat. Thus Paul has sin, but conquered and faint. The impious have living, ruling, triumphant sin” (SDEA 275, 277; ODE, 151, 152, italics and bold mine).[i]

Look at these passages again, paying close attention!

When it comes to the sinner-saint aspect of our Christian life, the saint identity is the primary one. So what identity do we think is primary here? Is it, as we might think, the victorious Christian aspect?

“[I]s it then here really appropriate for us; I wonder, to sleep or to be secure, to be inattentive or to snore giving the raging of an utterly vigilant and violent enemy?” (SDEA, 261)

Not in the context that Luther is here concerned with! He is clear:

“…we do not hope for peace, since we are under the Lords of Hosts, under Sabaoth, not of sleepers and snorers, but of the fighters under the Lord, who is Christ Jesus. This is why the Church living in this life is called militant, not trium­phant. Certainly, after this life, when all our enemies will be destroyed and when also death, our last enemy, will be subdued and destroyed, then we will triumph.” (SDEA, 263 ; ODE, 145)

And he is not shy about how ugly and difficult it is to “obey[] the Spirit, [and] avert[] by prayer[ii] the evil [we] feel[]… (SDEA, 271). Speaking of Christians, the pious, he goes so far as to say that disgrace and punishment may well be primary motivators for us (SDEA, 269): “…I, and you… would do all shameful acts in our power if only they could be done secretly, without the knowledge of people….” (SDEA 275, ODE 151). Again, “the law is still given to the holy and righteous Paul, not insofar as he is righteous and holy, but insofar as he is flesh, and he ought to be convicted by the law… (SDEA, 269).

Unless we watch extremely carefully in prayer—[the devil, the world, and our flesh] finally overthrow us at some time, and we will not be able to escape without huge and extremely great danger.” – Luther, SDEA 297

Note what is not being said here.

First, Luther is not denying, but is rather upholding, the distinction between venial and mortal sins. Simply put, venial sins are done vs. the renewed will of the Christian, while mortal sins are done with his full consent and pleasure (and yes, venial sins become mortal when considered insignificant — if you are confused by this, see this short post which makes things more concrete).

Second, Luther is not saying that there is nothing in the Christian that wants to conform to God’s law. He said as much earlier in the disputations, when he, for instance, states: “…insofar as there is Spirit in us, so far is there also delight in the law” (SDEA, 47, 61, 63). The point is simply that sometimes fear of punishment and disgrace is – and until death must continue to be! – a part of the Christian’s complex of motivations, which are never fully pure, but which can certainly be more or less so.[iii]

Third, while Luther is saying that motivations like this might play a part in the believer’s behavior, he is not saying that preachers, for instance, necessarily need to encourage this kind of behavior, this kind of ongoing repentance, through threats of punishment. There may be occasions where this is what they do, but at the same time, as we saw in the last post, there is also a kind of admonishment without the intention of threat that is based on appealing to believers “by the mercies of God….”

In sum, it is not difficult to imagine Luther making appeals, based on Christ’s mercy, like “stir yourself up!”, “protect your virgin!”, “Laugh at Mr. Sin!”, and the like.

One only needs to look at his sermons to see that this is the case. To see the similarities he shares with the Apostle Paul.

“Get behind me, Satan (cf. Mat. 16:23)! Shut up! No, don’t rule, flesh! Be completely silent!….These and such words are not man’s, but Christ’s and the Holy Spirit’s…” (SDEA 271)


And he has a very definite judgment about the antinomians of his day:

“Our Antinomians are so blind that they cannot recognize the doctrine of the law in Paul, e.g., in these obvious words (Phil. 4:8): “Whatever things are chaste, just, etc., these pursue.” Yet they do all things for that reason that they might render us secure and that the window might be opened for the devil in order to overthrow us unexpectedly” (ODE 156, SDEA 287, italics mine).

No patience:

“Yet Christ,” they say, “has removed your sin. Why are you sad?” This is why they continue to do what they do in an utterly secure manner. They translate the merit of the passion of Christ and of the remission of sins into luxuriousness….

Christ fulfilled the law, but it needs to be added: “Later see to it that you lead a holy, pious, and irreproachable life, as it is fit­ting for a Christian. This is what you have heard so far: Be forgiven. But lest you complain that you are utterly forsaken, I will give you my Holy Spirit, who makes you a soldier; he will even produce mighty and unspeakable cries against sin in your heart, so that you thus finally do what you wish.” But am I not unable? “Pray that I may hear you, and I will make you able…” (SDEA 303, 305, italics mine)

And if that gives you pause, remember also that this is the man who highlighted the doctrine of justification in the Church’s time of need – when it was needed the most! He, and those who follow in his train, are more than eager to give you, the penitent, absolution in Christ.

One more:

“[I]t is necessary to admonish, to stir up, and to call as if to battle, so that they may remember in what danger they live. Don’t sleep, don’t sleep and don’t snore! Awake!” (SDEA, 263)

“I walk in danger all the way…” (Hymn # 716)


We Christians can boldly face Mr. Sin because our old nature, our old Adam, is being put to death in Christ. It’s not that we were baptized, for we currently belong to him (it’s not I was married, but I am).

We are baptized. There is no condemnation for we who are found in Him.

Those who let God be God, cling to Him, and have no other hope.


The law does not want you to despair of God…it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” — Luther (ODE, 195)





[i] Other passages that leap out to me in the Antinomian Disputations (SDEA page numbers):

To be dead and to die to sin is a Pauline phrase for battling against sin and not allowing it to rule in us. And this happens not only in one member, but in all, so that now the heart, eyes, hands, tongue, and feet do something else than before, and serve Christ the Lord, not sin, and thus become from day to the next constantly holier and better. But because this nature is totally infected by the devil, we do not hope to be fully free from sins before the body is covered by the ground and is consumed by worms. There is therefore a twofold death in Paul: To die to sin or world, and to die to nature. The impious also dies to nature, no matter how great he is. But the pious dies also in this life to sins, that is, to the world with all its evil lusts, which Paul calls elsewhere mortifying and crucifying his flesh, as he says to the Ephesians (4:28): “Who was stealing, let him steal no more.“

But such death of Christians is not seen. For it is hidden in Christ, where there is neither male nor female (cf. Gal. 3:28). But meanwhile, as long as this life lasts, we must constantly fight against the sins that remain in the flesh, which, since they cannot be totally taken away, needs to retain the law that keeps the flesh in service. (335)


Truly saints, pure, and righteous, just as even Gabriel himself in heaven, by faith; and we are truly set in the heavens with Christ (cf. Eph. 2:6). But as for myself and my flesh, I am a sinner. Yet as I there become lord of all things now and in the kingdom with Christ, over law, death, and devil, so I here become a servant of all things and a soldier of Christ against sin and all evil lusts,(i) as Christ says (John 5:14): Go, sin no more, lest something worse happen to you. (337)


Insofar as they are Christians they are rightly called righteous and are not under the law, since no law is given to the righteous (1 Tim. 1:9), insofar as he is righteous. And the greatest care needs to be taken lest Groom and bride disagree. For the forgiveness of sins ought to rule preeminently the conscience with Christ, and it ought not to be allowed that it be vexed by the law. For this bed is narrower than that it could further receive or allow the law or any tradition. Here the Groom alone lies down with the bride, after all onlookers are thrown out.

It is true, because we still carry around with us the flesh and the body of sin, the law must be added and urged; the yoke must be added, lest we begin to be lascivious, because the flesh is usually the largest part. One ought to place its feed higher and restrain it, lest it advance beyond its limits. And for the unbridled the law needs to be emphasized more than the Gospel preached. To the others I respond: Insofar as they are right, they are called righteous and not under law, since for the righteous there is no law given. (361)

[ii] See theses 17-30 from the 3rd set of theses in ODE 126-127 (SDEA 231). Here, Luther talks about the Lord’s prayer as a prayer of repentance, a powerful weapon of the Holy Spirit. “If you are a saint, why do you cry? Because I feel the sin clinging to me, and this is why I pray: “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.” “O Lord, be merciful to me.” But you are a saint. But you are a saint? In this way, insofar as I am a Christian, because to that extent I am righteous, pious and belonging to Christ, but insofar as I look at me and my sin, I am wretched and a very great sinner. Thus, in Christ there is no sin, and in our flesh there is no peace and quiet, but perpetual battle as long as this old Adam and this corrupt nature last. They are destroyed only by death itself” (ODE 153, SDEA 281).

[iii] Note what Luther says in this sermon excerpt. While it might initially seem to contradict the sentence this footnote is attached to, note and reflect on the words in italics:

What will your repentance profit you, if you fail to do it gladly or willingly, but are constrained by the commandment or by fear of shame, otherwise you would rather not do it? But what is the reason? Because it is a repentance in the devil’s name or in your own name. Hence you go on and do worse things, and wish there were no confession and sacrament, so that you might not be constrained to attend them. This is repentance in our own name, and proceeds from our own strength.

But when I begin to believe in Christ, lay hold of the Gospel, and do not doubt that he has taken away my sin and blotted it out, and comforts me with his resurrection; my heart is filled with such gladness that I myself take hold willingly, not through persuasion, nor of necessity, I gladly do what I ought and say: Because my Lord has done this for me, I will also do his will in this, that I may amend my ways and repent out of love to him and to his glory. In this way, a true reformation begins that proceeds from the innermost heart, and that is brought forth by the joy that flows from faith, when I apprehend the greatness of the love Christ has bestowed upon me.


Leave a comment

Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Uncategorized


Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies 4 (of 5): Preaching the Law not to Condemn?

Chapter 4 of 5: Should the Preacher Reduce the Force of God’s Law?


Chapter 1: Natural Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations

Chapter 2: Does the Christian Cease to be Under the Law of God?

Chapter 3: If the Law is Abrogated in Jesus Christ How Can the Ten Commandments be Eternal?


Lutherans, as anyone who knows about Martin Luther might expect, are famous for talking about how the law of God even accuses the most mature of Christian believers: lex semper accusat.

“Augustine [says]: ‘Since you were a fugitive from the heart.’ The law is revealed to me because of original sin; it is also to be taught. For we always sleep, given the opportunity. Therefore we are to be woken up by the law which shows us our sins” (SDEA, 383).


And it is right that we do. As Luther said of pious believers, perhaps to the surprise of some (SDEA 289),

“[they]… still have sin left in their flesh,”… [they should be] “admonished and convicted, lest they become secure and complacent; so that they can be stirred up for a battle and military service against remaining sins and temptations… the law is to be taught and inculcated… lest we become idle and sluggish, lest we perish” (SDEA, 269, 283)[i]

At the same time, there is a danger here that such a focus, if we are not sufficiently aware, might contribute to us to missing the bigger picture. In the Garden of Eden, when God gave law in the form of the command to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, this command did not accuse, but simply informed. And in this sense, of course, it warned of danger.

As Luther put it in his Genesis commentary (AE:1), regarding the passage “On whatever day you eat from this tree, you will die by death”:

“..if they should transgress His command, God announces the punishment… as though He said: ‘Adam and Eve, now you are living without fear; death you have not experienced, nor have you seen it. This is My image, by which you are living, just as God lives. But if you sin, you will lose this image, and you will die’” (AE:1, 62).

In spite of this, we might think, fearful warning[ii], one thing that immediately stands out about Luther’s commentary is that Luther gives the impression that man, created in the image of God[iii], was perfectly at ease with his Creator.[iv]

For example, Luther writes that prior to the fall, man’s “intellect was clearest, his memory was the best, and his will was the most straightforward – all in the beautiful tranquility of mind, without any fear of death and without any anxiety” (AE:1, 62), and also asks “who [now] could understand what it means to be in a life free from fear, without terrors and dangers, and to be wise, upright, good, and free from all disasters, spiritual as well as physical?” (AE:1, 65, italics mine).[v]

“God does not command man impossible things. But man himself, by sin, falls into impossible things… God is forced to give us the law and show or reveal ourselves to us…” – Luther, SDEA 291


Luther says more about Adam and Eve’s original state:

“You can remain in the life for which I have created you. And yet you will not be immortal in the same way as the angels. Your life is, as it were, placed in the middle: you can remain in it and afterwards be carried to an immortality that cannot be lost; contrariwise, if you do not obey, you will become a victim of death and lose your immortality…[this is] the deathless life in which there would be no further opportunity of sinning” (AE:1, 111).[vi]

With the Fall however, everything changes. As Luther points out, the new situation demands a new word from the Lord: “[W]e have a different Word, which Adam did not have when his nature was perfect…”[vii] “The Law given to the unrighteous is not the same Law that was given to righteous Adam” (AE:1, 109).

God’s commands – His Law – begins to accuse us. And rightly so. Even now, for we who have begun to know the amazing grace found in Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere in the Antinomian Disputations, Luther makes this abundantly clear:

“[The Antinomians] cast aside [this terrifying and convicting use of the law] when they damn as sacrilege the terrifying of the pious by the law…. The law is still given to the holy and righteous Paul, not insofar as he is righteous and holy, but insofar as he is flesh, and he ought to be convicted of the law.” (SDEA, 265, 269)

At this point we are very far from the intent of the original command in the Garden! No one can doubt that Luther believes that the pious should, in some sense, remain terrified by the law of God. This was also seen from the quotations from the Antinomian Disputations in the second chapter of our series (Does the Law cease for the Christian) …. Lutherans would typically associate this kind of thing with the “second use of the law,” (the law as mirror, given to convict) and not see this as qualifying as a separate “third use” (the law as a guide to what pleases the Lord).

At the same time, when it comes to this convicting function of the law, there are concerns thoughtful Christians should have.

Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart: to not preach the third use of the law is break the bruised reed and snuff out the smoldering wick


For example, after one of the greatest Lutheran theologians of the 20th century had given a talk defending the 3rd use of the law, (I speak about this presentation more briefly in this post) he was questioned by another popular teacher and seminary professor in the following way (this text is at the end of the linked post):

Questioner 3: Thank you. The Gospel cannot be preached without preaching the Law—

Dr. Marquart: Yes.

Questioner 3: —calling to repentance, God working contrition. Does not the Law that brings about contrition and repentance also serve the function of admonishing the Christians to what is good? Or [does] the Law need to be separated in its application in terms of second and third use? In other words, if the Law has been preached to work repentance, does it then need to be repeated again in some sort of way that—different sense, after the Gospel has been proclaimed and comforts and is the means by which the Holy Spirit quickens?

Dr. Marquart: There’s a very important question, and in answer I should like to say that we should beware of all legalisms that want to confine preaching to some particular formula, like this “goal, malady, means,” which is pure manipulation. Rather, the Christian preacher ought to present that in freedom, so that his sermons are basically unpredictable. People should not be able to see—look at their watch and say, “OK, he’s had ten minutes of Law, now he must be going to say—the next ten minutes, Gospel.” That’s too predictable, too mechanical. Rather, Law and Gospel ought to be intertwined. They ought to be in dialogue constantly. And the second use of the Law basically will concentrate on our evil and our sins. But the third use of the Law should concentrate on the good things which are pleasing to God. So that’s how these ought to be handled differently. But, of course, the Holy Spirit will, in the preaching of the Law, will do both things at the same time. But yes, pastors ought deliberately to have in mind to support the new creation in its struggles against the world, the devil, and the flesh. But there’s no particular formula, in other words, and, for example, some say, “Never end with an admonition.” Why not? What’s wrong with, after a rich Gospel sermon, saying, “And so the Lord gave us these riches; let us go and do likewise.” Nothing wrong with that. So—

Questioner 3: So, just to clarify, the Law is doing both when it is proclaimed—second or third use—

Dr. Marquart: It can.

Questioner 3: —first, second, third—

Dr. Marquart: It can do both.

Questioner 3: But the “uses” are more descriptions of how the Law functions—

Dr. Marquart: Right.

Questioner 3: —as opposed to being able to be—

Dr. Marquart: But the preacher needs to make the distinction, because otherwise, the recipient will feel that he is just an unconverted sinner and needs converting every Sunday.

Note the last line. What is fascinating about this exchange between Dr. Marquart and this other theologian is that Martin Luther shows a similar sensitivity when it comes to the law’s condemning function and the person who is already a Christian.

“You are a saint and pray because of sin. You make sense of it” – Luther, SDEA 291


In the quotation which follows, take note of what Luther says — presumably to someone who was sympathetic to the Antinomians — during the twenty-first question in the second of the Antinomian Disputations. Also, please take note that this is not even a concession that Luther makes to the Antinomians, but simply a concise re-stating of themes that he had already sounded earlier:

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” (ODE 116, SDEA 211, 212, italics mine)

“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… The law then is to be attenuated for them and is to be taught them by way of exhortation.” Here, in the Antinomian Disputations we see Luther talking about what the later Lutherans would recognize as and call the “third use of the law,” even if he himself did not call it this. While Christians, unlike Christ, cannot receive the law completely without threat, they nevertheless do begin to delight in it (see SDEA 61). This, of course, would help explain why the Apostle Paul preaches differently in Romans 1-3 and Romans 12ff, for example.

Yes, but not in the way described by Luther himself?


To re-iterate once again, because of the fall this use of the law is not the primary or “proper one” — for our great sin must be exposed – continually – that we might continually see our need for our great Savior. With this proper use of the law established as foundational in our minds, this “third” use of the law can then help us to remember and recall the purpose of the original laws and commands given to Adam and Eve.

In other words, these are things given not to accuse (even as, insofar as we are sinners, we will be), but again, to keep us safe, to guide and invite.

To be encouraged by and to delight in… because of the mercies of God! (check out Romans, chapter 12)

“The law does not want you to despair of God…it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” — Luther (ODE, 195)





[i] Here, Luther warns of the possibility of losing faith. Elsewhere though, he is very positive about this fight of faith, essentially speaking about how losing faith should never happen. The Lord “can lead into battle, but he himself wants to console the conscience, having given for this purpose the Holy Spirit who sufficiently arms those who are his” (SDEA 267, italics mine). Referring to Micah 6:8, “Walk attentively with your God,” he says “…the Christians indeed are taught the law, but with a certain prerogative, because they triumph in these matters and do not succumb, neither to sins – even if they are sometimes opposed – nor to the law” (SDEA 287).

[ii] Luther’s translation of God’s warning is a far cry from even St. Augustine’s: “I will kill you.” See AE 1: 62-65, 111. Luther appears to steer away from this kind of Augustinian interpretation.

[iii] Related to this concept, Luther forthrightly lays out the teleological-related truths one may gather from divine revelation, stating that “man is a unique creature and that he [alone] is suited to be a partaker of divinity and immortality” (AE 1: 115).[iii] Related to this goal, Luther elsewhere says the following:

“It is revealed in the Word of God, which alone, as I said, imparts true information about the two main causes, the effective and the final; knowledge of these, if available, is considered to be of the greatest importance also in matters pertaining to nature. What advantage is there in knowing how beautiful a creature is man if you are unaware of his purpose, namely, that he was created to worship God and to live eternally with God?” (131)

He goes on to say:

“The main goal, then, to which Scripture points is that man is created according to the likeness of God; in eternity, therefore, he is to live with God, and while he is here on earth, he is to preach God, thank Him, and patiently obey His Word. In this life we lay hold of this goal in ever so weak a manner; but in the future life we shall attain it fully. This the philosophers do not know. Therefore the world with its greatest wisdom is most ignorant when it does not take advantage of Holy Scripture or of theology. Human beings know neither their beginning nor their end when they are without the Word. I say nothing about the remaining creatures” (131).

[iv] “[This tree] was forbidden; and… in this respect they should obey so gracious a Creator… In this way Adam and Eve, resplendent with innocence and original righteousness, and abounding in peace of mind because of their trust in God, who was so kind, walked about naked while they discoursed on the Word and command of God and praised God, just as should be done on the Sabbath. But the, alas, Satan interfered and within a few hours ruined all this, as we shall hear” (AE 1: 144, italics mine).

One is reminded of what Luther writes in his Small Catechism, about the first article of the Apostle’s Creed: “… and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true. (SC II.1)”

[v] Of course, by way of contrast, in Reformed theology, there is the notion of a covenant of works, whereby man was to earn his final salvation through his deeds, but in Luther’s Genesis commentary, one looks in vain for such a concept. See Pastor Jordan Cooper’s blog post on the topic here:

[vi] Elsewhere he writes: “It is not our business to determine or to investigate too inquisitively why God wanted to create man in this middle condition, or why man was so created that all people are brought into being from one through procreation [unlike the angels]…” (AE: 1, 112).

[vii] What he goes on to say connects all of this with the need even Adam and Eve had to actively and consciously fight temptation, consenting to the work of God’s Spirit, through His word, within them:

“….this tree in the middle of the garden would have been like a temple in which this Word would be preached: that all the other trees were wholesome, but that this one was destructive. Therefore they should have learned to obey God and to render Him the service of refraining from eating of it, since God had forbidden it.

In this way uncorrupted nature, which had the true knowledge of God, nevertheless had a Word of command which was beyond Adam’s understanding and had to be believed. Moreover, this command was given to Adam’s innocent nature that he might have a directive or form for worshipping God, for giving thanks to God, and for instructing his children. Since the devil sees this and knows that this command is beyond the understanding of the human being he tempts Eve so that she herself may not proceed to ponder whether this is God’s command and will or not. This is the beginning and the main part of every temptation, when reason tries to reach a decision about the Word and God on its own without the Word” (AE:1, 154).

Luther also explains elsewhere that the tree had this “death-dealing” power because of the Word of God coupled with it, much like the serpent that was raised up in the wilderness had “life-giving” power to save. (AE:1, 227)


Leave a comment

Posted by on August 14, 2017 in Uncategorized


Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies 3 (of 5): the Law Abrogated?

Chapter 3 of 5: If the Law is Abrogated in Jesus Christ How Can the Ten Commandments be Eternal?


Chapter 1: Natural Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations

Chapter 2: Does the Christian Cease to be Under the Law of God?


Is the law abrogated[i] in Jesus Christ, and if so, how can the Ten Commandments be eternal? This post addresses this question in some detail.

In the twelfth argument in the first disputation of the Antinomian Disputations of 1537, a student asks:

“Isn’t the New Testament called “new” because it differs from the Old?…. The Old Testament is removed and the New is chosen as a substitute instead. The law pertains to the Old Testament. Therefore the law is not to be taught….”


Luther responds:

We have talked earlier about the abrogation of the law [note: see below!] The law and the prophets last till Christ. When he is present, they cease, since he fulfills the law. And then, since the law condemned him as an innocent, he removed the entire power of the law, which consists in requiring, accusing, and terrifying. This requiring ceased in Christ, but only through the forgiveness of sins and divine imputation; for it is God’s will to consider the law fulfilled as long as we believe in the Fulfiller of the law. Additionally, he gives the Holy Spirit so that we begin to fulfill it here. In the future life we will be like the Fulfiller, Christ (I John 3:2)

Therefore, to the extent the law is fulfilled, it is removed. In Christ it is fulfilled perfectly. In us, it is not, because we do not believe this with a firm faith” (SDEA 71, 73, italics mine).

The really significant word above for our purposes in this chapter is “requiring”. The Law makes specific requirements, and backs them up with the threat of punishment from God. When Christ comes however, this “requiring” ceases in Him.

And evidently, some Christians, presumably those with a “firm faith,” are not going to feel the accusation and terror of the law as much as others. Not necessarily because sin has decreased so much in them in particular – though this may certainly have some impact on their disposition as well – but, above all, because they really do firmly believe in and bank on God’s grace and mercy in the Lord Jesus Christ. “Lord, I am not worthy… but only say the word and I will be healed.”

In other words, before God, they know they are in His “good graces” and at peace with Him! Therefore, when they reflect and meditate on the law, the “requirement” aspect fades… it is, in a very real sense, now largely about looking forward to the righteousness found in, with, and through Jesus Christ that will be fully theirs’ in heaven and which is only experience piecemeal in this life…[ii]

Still, one might wonder if this means that the law will be no more in heaven – when we are perfect in Him? Are the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, perhaps not eternal after all?

Luther’s Antinomian opponent, Agricola. Luther: “These true disciples of Satan seem to think that the law is something temporal that has ceased under Christ, like circumcision” (SDEA 141, italics mine).


Here, it is helpful to see what Luther wrote in response to an earlier argument, the seventh one, on that same day. To a student who said….:

Whatever is annulled is not effective. The law is annulled. Therefore, it is not to be taught. Paul proves to the Romans, that it is annulled, 6(:14): “you are not under law but under grace.” The sermons of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and others in Acts prove the same thing.”

Luther responded with one of the most theologically rich passages in the First Disputation which is worth quoting in full:

Circumcision and other ceremonies were meant for a certain people and time; after its completion, they ceased. Yet the Decalogue still dwells in the conscience. For if God had never given the law by Moses, the human mind nonetheless by nature would have had the idea that God is to be worshiped and the neighbor is to be loved. The Decalogue also has its predetermined time; that is to say, when Christ appeared in the flesh and submitted himself to the law, he took away its right and restrained its sen­tence, so that it may not be able to drive into despair and condemn.

In the future life, however, it will be totally removed. In heaven it will not be necessary to admonish to love God. But then we will truly and perfectly do what Christ did here. At that time you will not say: “I should love the Father,” but: “I love the Father,” and “as he has given me command, thus I do.”

Under Christ, therefore, the law is in the state of being done, not in that of having been done. Here believers need to be admonished by the law. In heaven there will be no debt or any demand, but the finished work of the law and the highest love. Thus, the demand of the law is sad, burdensome, and impossible for those who are outside of Christ. Contrariwise, among those who are under Christ, it begins to be done as something enjoyable, possible in the first fruits, albeit not in the tithes.[iii] And therefore it must necessarily be taught among Christians. Not, to be sure, because of faith which has the spirit subject to the law, but because of the flesh which resists the spirit in the saints, Gal. 5(:17). To the extent it (the flesh) lives, the law is not abrogated; but it (the flesh) does not rule, but is forced to be subject to the spirit in servitude.

The law, therefore, is necessary, first, for the ruthless and the foolish who need to be coerced; second, for the faithful who are still dealing with the remainders of sin. For as sin and death never rest, but repeatedly perturb and sadden the pious as long as they live, so the law repeatedly returns to the consciences of the pious and utterly terrifies them. Yet when we are raised, it will simply be abolished; it will neither teach us nor exact anything from us.

Thus it is the office of Christ also in this life to reinstate the human race in that lost innocence and joyful obedience to the law, which existed in Paradise in the positive. This he did when he died for us, bore the curses and punishments of the law, and gave us his innocent righteousness. In this way the law obedience becomes joyful to us in some other way; we will render it in the superlative in heaven.[iv] . Since, therefore, most are hardened and impenitent, and since the saints in this life do not entirely leave the old man and feel the law in their members rebelling against the law of their mind and bringing it into captivity (cf. Rom. 7:23), the law must not be removed from the Church, but must be retained and faithfully driven home (SDEA 61, 63, italics mine).[v]

“But watch meanwhile, lest you make Christ into some lawgiver like Mo­hamed, because this is not his proper office. But rather that you look at him and accept him as much as Mediator and as Savior who came to fulfill the law, but not to remove it….” (SDEA 315).


Some core things to notice.

First, here we again see that the “requirement,” or “exacting” aspect of the law fades… “[Christ] took away [the law’s] right and restrained its sentence, so that it may not be able to drive into despair and condemn.”

Second, right after saying this, Luther notes that in the future life “[the Decalogue] will be totally removed.” Does He mean to say that everything that might pertain to the Ten Commandments will be totally removed? This might seem to be the case, because he says, for example, that in heaven “it will not be necessary to admonish to love God,” and “when we are raised, [the law] will simply be abolished; it will neither teach us nor exact anything from us.” Elsewhere in the disputations, he says “The believer…is dead to the law and does not serve the law, insofar as he is such a one in the bosom of grace and in divine consideration” (SDEA 301)

On the other hand, might the phrase “it will be totally be removed” be zeroing in on “its right” and “its sentence,” meaning it’s just accusation and punishment? In other words the “requirement,” or “exact[ing]” aspect of the law noted above will be no more? Put another way, that the thing which treats us like slaves who must be forced to do good, bringing with it the looming threat of punishment, will be no more? After all, right after talking about how the believer does not “serve the law,” in one sense, he goes right on to quote the Apostle Paul: “With the mind, I serve the law of God, but with the flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25)! (SDEA 301)

The word “admonish,” as SDEA translator Holger Sonntag points out, is not necessarily the law preached with the specific intent to kill and condemn but can also be used in contexts where the concern is to rather to guide the Christian on earth (as will be seen in a future post in this series). Even so though, while on earth sin remains with us which means the “teeth” of the law, with its “requirement” aspect, also remains.

“The world is evil and daily becomes worse, and it does not let itself be taught and admonished, as you will also experience in the future when we[, the reformers,] are dead” (SDEA 319).


But not so in heaven! For “Old Adam” will be no more and there will be no one to accuse!

So this brings us to these final, more specific, questions: if there is a sense in which the law “will totally be removed,” what will be the law, if anything, in heaven? Will it simply cease to exist entirely? Can we then say that it is not eternal in any sense? Does this mean that the word “law” is now a completely “empty” term, having no content at all?

Not at all. Elsewhere in the Antinomian Disputations, when one disputant says the law is an “abolished word,” therefore not to be taught, Luther says it is abolished in that it does not condemn – and that faith confirms the law (SDEA, 385). Indeed, he also contrasts the law “taken simply” with the law that accuses us: for the angels and saints in heaven, “[t]he law is empty speech, because they do with joy the things of the law” (SDEA, 161). To say that Luther can say these things while not saying that the law has a form or way of life in mind that conforms to God’s will now and forever is simply not credible. Note also what Luther says about the life to come in the longer quote above: “At that time you will not say: ‘I should love the Father, but: ‘I love the Father,’ and ‘as he has given me command thus I do.’” (61, italics mine).

Here we see a hint of what the commandments of God are (see Rom. 7, for the explicit connecting of the Decalogue’s commands and the law), and were meant to be. From the beginning, God’s commandments were never meant to accuse, but to protect (warning us!), guide, and invite. Minus its accusation, the law simply gives us another picture of the eternal will of God for man on earth and in heaven. This, of course – the fact that reality is ultimately, as I like to philosophically put it, “an ontology of harmony for eternity” – is seen most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“[Christ came] to liberate all who believed in him from the curse of the law… its [terrifying and condemning] yoke is to be removed from the necks of the believers… and Christ’s yoke is to be imposed on them” (SDEA 73).


Or again, as my pastor put it (see chapter 2):

“….when we speak of the law being fulfilled in eternity, it is not that it is like a bucket that has now been filled and we can move on to something else, but a stream that continues to flow throughout eternity, for love and the fulfilling of the law, i.e. the Decalogue, are in effect, the exact same thing” (italics mine).[vi]

In sum, the will of God – which includes Jesus Christ as the law’s end, goal, or telos – is not devoid of commands[vii], even as, because of His perfect life and innocent death for us, these commands have no power to accuse. They only, from a place of total peace with God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, reveal to us all we were made to gladly be and do.

And to gladly be and do without any hesitation we indeed will – in the life to come. And now, it is not that love can only be present where the law is absent.[viii] After all, Paul invites us – admonishes us – to “[o]we no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” And as Luther reminds us, “under Christ, it begins to be done as something enjoyable” (SDEA 47, 61, 63). Looking even further ahead to the future life, the real key is revealed: “in heaven there will be no debt or any demand, but the finished work of the law and the highest love” (SDEA 61).

The law fulfilled in love to the highest degree, in all glad willingness! And in full accordance with the commands of the Decalogue, the eternal will of God.

Luther sums up matters beautifully in the thirteenth argument of this same disputation:

Peter explains in Acts 15 how it is to be understood that neither the ceremonial law—with which he deals there chiefly—nor the moral law, is to be imposed on the neck of the brethren; ob­viously because Christ has come in order to fulfill the law, which neither the fathers nor their offspring were able to bear; and to liberate all who believed in him from the curse of the law. Since, therefore, its office is to terrify and condemn, its yoke is to be removed from the necks of the believers, Gentiles as well as Jews, and Christ’s yoke is to be imposed on them, so that they may live under him in peace who rendered the owed obedience required by the law and gave it to those who believe in him. It is nonetheless to be fulfilled by the pious also, to mortify the works of the flesh by the Spirit, in order to purge out the old leaven (Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 5:7). Thus, the law remains, but its burden or yoke does not weigh down the necks of those upon whom Christ’s burden is imposed, because it is easy and light (Matt. 11:30)” (SDEA 73)


The law does not want you to despair of God…it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” — Luther (ODE, 195)




[i] As regards what happens to the law in the Christian life, there are other words besides “abrogate” that are used throughout the Antinomian Disputations, and it is interesting to see how Luther uses them. To the statement, “An abolished word is not to be taught. The law is an abolished word. Therefore it is not to be taught,” Luther responds very briefly: “The law is abolished for the Christians, so that it does not con­demn, but it is confirmed nonetheless, as Paul says: We do not destroy the law by faith, but we confirm it (Rom. 3:31). For after I have accepted righteous­ness the law thinks like me and affirms that I have true righteousness” (SDEA 385, italics mine). Note the “so that is does not condemn,” as elsewhere Luther states, for example, that “Christ did not abolish the law, but because of Pharisaical delusions explained the law perfectly and spiritually” (SDEA 187). To the statement, “We are not under the law. Therefore it does not condemn,” Luther responds: “It is a good argument. We are not under the law, but with the law. The law does not condemn us but nonetheless the law is needed for the remainders of sin” (SDEA 383). See the previous post as well.

[ii] In the 18th argument of the First Disputation, Luther says the following:

“[W]e die to sin through Christ who was made a sacrifice to sin and thereby killed sin, so that it is no longer able to dominate us. Therefore, to the extent we have died to law and sin by faith in Christ and are buried with him, to that extent sins are dead to us, that is, they are unable to rage and exercise their tyranny against us. This is not a pernicious but a salutary death.

Yet it does not follow from this that the law is removed or is to be removed, or that sin is removed in such a way that it is no longer felt by the pious. Rather, because of Christ, the law’s Fulfiller, the believers are not driven into despair by the accusation and terror of the law, but are lifted up by his word. Then, because of this Christ, the Victor over sin, they are as dead to sin as sin is to them. To the extent they have flesh, however, to that extent the law and sin rule in them” (p. 93).

[iii] Footnote from SDEA: “Before you can give the tithe, there is the firstfruits. However, Eze. 20:40, according to the Vulgate, says this: “In monte sancto meo in monte excelso Israhel ait Dominus Deus ibi serviet mihi omnis domus Israhel omnes inquam in terra in qua placebunt mihi et ibi quaeram primitias vestras et initium decimarum vestrarum in omnibus sanctificationibus vestris.” That is: “On my holy mountain, on the exalted mountain of Israel, says the Lord God, there the whole house of Israel will serve me, all of them, I say, in the land in which they will please me; and there I will seek your firstfruits and the beginning of your tithes in all your sanctifications (sacrifices).”

[iv] Footnote from SDEA: “In Paradise, man’s obedience was joyful in the lowest, the positive degree of comparison. In heaven, there will be most joyful obedience—joyful obedience in the highest, the su­perlative degree of comparison.”

[v] There is another point in the Antinomian Disputations where Luther talks about the law’s abrogation in some colorful detail and in the context of the Christian’s struggle vs. sin:

“But isn’t the law abrogated? Well said, insofar as the mercy is concerned that overshadows you and considers you righteous. But show me one person who does not still feel in his flesh his very many afflictions and evils. Show me the adolescent who, when he is alone with a beautiful girl, would not say: “O my beloved! Here, when we are by ourselves, we ought to pray, I think, lest we fall into temptation” (cf. Mat. 6:13; 26:41). Yes, I think, they ought to pray, that it lasts over a year.

These and such things the pious person feels and battles against as much as he can, believes in Christ who fulfilled the law for him; and later on, he battles sin and may not be so idle and secure as if he were already sailing in the harbor. And I do not believe at all that these Antinomians are so holy that I would dare to give them my wife Katy or my daughter. I will not do that. I do not fight the Antinomians out of hatred or envy, but out of the greatest necessity, because I see what will come and what will one day follow out of their teachings, namely, those last times, concerning which Christ and the divine Peter lament” (305).

[vi] Paul Strawn, email correspondence, Aug. 2, 2017.

[vii] In his response to the second argument in the first disputation, Luther says “After sin has been taken away, the law has no right to accuse us, so that he now ‘is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes’” (Rom. 10:4). It is critical to note here the way that Christ is the end of the law – namely that now, in Him, it “has no right to accuse us.”

Elsewhere, as regards Christ as the law’s end, he writes: “Christ fulfilled the whole law. For he is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), not only of the ceremonial laws or the judicial laws, but also of the Decalogue itself; in this life through the remission of sins which the Gospel offers to all who believe in him; in the life eternal, however, also formally. Yet the end of the Mosaic law is in that text, Deuteronomy 18(:18-19): ‘I will raise up for them a Prophet from among the brethren etc. Whoever will not listen to him, whose avenger I will become.” There he demotes Moses, since he says: “You, O Israel, have heard this Moses and have done well in doing so. But at some time he will come to an end, and I will send you another one whose avenger I will be if you do not listen to him’” (SDEA 187).

[viii] Elsewhere in the Antinomian Disputations, when one disputant says believers are not under the law, and therefore its condemnation, Luther replies by saying that the Christian is not under the law but with the law (SDEA 383). Insofar as we are sinners, we are still under this law.  See the previous post as well.


1 Comment

Posted by on August 11, 2017 in Uncategorized


Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies 2 (of 5): Under the Law?

Chapter 2 of 5: Does the Christian Cease to be Under the Law of God?



Chapter 1: Natural Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations


While we would never say that the Christian ceases to be subservient to the will of God, does the Christian cease to be under the law of God?

Some today would say that this is the case, full stop. What should we say to such theologians?

The following passage from Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations is a very helpful place to start, summing up lots of important content. Here it is (SDEA, 165; ODE 93-94):

We are not under the law, that is, the one that accuses us. It is improperly said that the angels, who in all respects satisfy the law willingly because their nature leads them to this and not because the law demands it, are under the law. Therefore the law also cannot accuse an angel. We too are not under the law, but in a different way, and the law cannot accuse us either, because it is already fulfilled by an alien righteousness, that is, Christ’s, and all this is in our name. Therefore, since this head of mine, that is, Christ, is constantly with me, I do not care much about the uproarious law.

Next, I also respond secondly: We are not under the law that accuses us. For after receiving the Holy Spirit we begin to detest sin, and hate it, and we purge it with the help of the Holy Spirit, not consenting to sin but driving it back. Since we, therefore, have sin in such a way—not that it rules, but that it is forced to serve us for our good—what is it that we fear or mourn? We have the certain testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that since Christ gave us his fulfillment of the law, on account of Christ, our sins certainly are forgiven us. Furthermore, even though I have the occasion, place, and time to fornicate, commit adultery, steal, etc. without any disgrace or punishment, I still do not do it. Here I experience truly and in myself that the Holy Spirit dwells in my heart and is efficacious. (italics mine)

A few pages later Luther says the same thing using more theological terms. Regarding the first paragraph above, it describes the believer ceasing to be under the law that accuses us “in an imputative manner” by faith in Christ. In like fashion, the second paragraph describes the Christian ceasing to be under the law that accuses us “in a formal way as well”.

Lutherans in particular are pretty familiar with the first thing Luther talks about here, the matter of divine imputation…

The justifiied say “Silent law!”: “He died for us, bore the curses and punishments of the law, and gave us his innocent righteousness… where I shall have Christ by faith, there I have what the law requires and demands from me. (SDEA 63, 189)


This means that we are justified by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. We call this the doctrine of justification, which is distinct, but goes hand in hand with what we might call passive sanctification. Here, in order to comfort the terrified conscience and silence the accusations of the law, Luther will go so far as to use language like the following:

  • “…the demand and the accusation of the law, because of what it demands, ends among the pious when Christ is present who says: “Look at me who do for them what you demand—so stop it!” (SDEA 217)
  • “The damning and accusing law will not apply to those anymore who, by John’s showing, have accepted Christ.” (SDEA 365)
  • “For the Christian who abides under the wings of his hen (cf. Mat. 23:37) is free from all laws” (SDEA 277).

Again, in a context like this, Luther even goes so far to say things like the following “the law is neither useful nor necessary for justification or for good works, let alone any salvation” (SDEA 239).[i] On the other hand, Luther also says very interesting things like this: “When death and sin are removed (as Christ did), then the law is profit­ably eliminated, indeed, it is established, Rom. 3(:31)” (SDEA, 249, italics mine).

This brings us to the way the Christian ceases to be under the law that accuses us in a formal manner. This kind of thing has to do with the fact that the Christian, in line with the law of God, continues to confess before God, who is “faithful and righteous to forgive our sins,” the “unbelief, untruthfulness, fear and doubt toward God, despair, likewise anger, concupiscence, hatred, enmity, etc.” – the sin! – which remains in them. When Luther elsewhere says “I purge and mortify more and more the sin that still remains in my flesh…” (SDEA, 159) he first of all means that the Spirit-led believer, by faith, not only passively but actively participates in this act of “continual justification”.

Luther: “Christ is really present in faith itself.” (a focus of this imperfect book). And…”When [Christ] is present the law loses its power. It cannot administer wrath because Christ has freed us from it.” (SDEA 59)

One author commenting on what Luther says in the initial quote above however, puts matters in this peculiar way: “The Christian is successful vs. sin because the Christian and Holy Spirit are not law” (Nicholas Hopman, Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna, footnote 122).

Is that really the way we should be putting things? Is this really what Luther wants us to take away from passages like this? And even if it were true – something I don’t believe should be conceded – would this be the whole story we should know?

Not at all! For while on earth the Holy Spirit always uses God’s law with us and acts in accordance with it! Would that we be most wary of giving the opposite impression!

First of all, even though it might sound in these passages above that the Christian is not under the law of God at all, just a few pages later, Luther puts it this way: “the saints are under the law and without the law” (SDEA 161)! Indeed, insofar as “old Adam” remains in us, we are indeed under the law.[ii]

Second, just a little while later in the Antinomian Disputations, Luther talks about “a very appropriate and very joyous definition of the law” (SDEA 171), namely, how the law – certainly wielded by the Spirit (see SDEA 37) – terrifies consciences in an “evangelical” way by instructing toward Christ: “True fear [of God] with love, or from the law, does call me to love in an evangelical way, so that I, humbled, come to know myself for whom I am, namely, that I do not have love” (SDEA 169, see SDEA 153 as well).[iii]

Third, and perhaps most importantly, while Luther in one place defines the law[iv] as that which reveals sin (“whatever shows sin, wrath, and death”) (SDEA 137), in another place he states that “’law’ in Paul simply and properly means the law which is not yet fulfilled but which is to be fulfilled” (SDEA 283, italics mine), indicating that the law has a very specific form of life in mind not only now but in the future, which in turn means that the reason the law reveals sin and accuses us as sinners is because of its specific content. And the specific descriptions of what “should” and “should not” be as regards us are first and foremost the Ten Commandments.[v]

“Who will eliminate that living law inscribed in the hearts (cf. Rom. 2:15) and the handwriting of requirement (cf. Col. 2:14) that stands against us, which is identical with the Law of Moses?” (SDEA 233). Christ will not eliminate it, but establish it in us for eternity.


In short, true eternal life is found in the Holy Spirit who works in us in love, where “love is the fulfilling of the law…[i.e. the Decalogue]” for “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13). This certainly will only fully describe our reality in the life to come. As my pastor put it:

“….when we speak of the law being fulfilled in eternity, it is not that it is like a bucket that has now been filled and we can move on to something else, but a stream that continues to flow throughout eternity, for love and the fulfilling of the law, i.e. the Decalogue, are in effect, the exact same thing” (italics mine).[vi]

This is a critical point that forces us to consider not only the “imputative manner” by which we, being “hid in Christ,” cease to be under the law. And it also forces us to move beyond the “formal manner” by which the Christian, by faith, actively obtains “continual justification” by continuing to run to Jesus Christ who perpetually pardons. Luther points out that the Christian’s purging sin also implies the pursuit of the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do. As he puts it elsewhere in the Antinomian Disputations:

After receiving him, I begin to wholeheartedly hate everything that offends his name and become a pursuer of good works. What is left in me of sin, this I purge until I become totally pure, and this in the same Spirit who is given on Christ’s account” (SDEA 163, italics mine).[vii]

Relatedly, as he says in response to the fifth argument of the second disputation, “faith…ought to be so great that love is kindled in us and fear is cast out more and more from day to day, until finally, after all fear and trembling is entirely conquered and cast out, love rules utterly in us” (SDEA, 169).

Luther sees this point as being absolutely critical to the Christian life. In his response to the previous argument that day, he discusses I Jn. 4:18 which states that “He who fears is not perfect in love,” explaining that if one fears they do not yet have love or have “laid hold of the gospel concerning Christ”.

“…when the law comes, security ceases, and it leads us to know ourselves.” (SDEA 311)


On the other hand, Luther speaks differently when he speaks about the “constant struggle of holy believers” to love perfectly. If there is a love which is “genuine and not fake,” he says the law which is administered rightly (see SDEA, 173) cannot be so great that it will cast love out of one’s heart because it will “compel me to take refuge in Christ” (SDEA 169).

Therefore, the fear and even terror that the believers experience from the law is not a “fear without love” – for the law does not teach thisbut one with love: it “call[s] me to love in an evangelical way, so that I, humbled, come to know myself for whom I am, namely, that I do not have love”. With this distinctly “evangelical love” in mind, the Christian can therefore “break though these monsters [of fear and fright] to love and not stop until it, not fear, rules within you…” (SDEA 169)

Again, “holy believers” will not be filled with fear and fright – for them, the terrors of the law cannot be so great that it will cast love out of one’s heart because it will “compel me to take refuge in Christ.” No doubt, on earth the “law of the Spirit” in the Christian may well be indistinguishable from the unbeliever who appears, externally, to fulfill God’s Law. The true believer who strives for holiness, however, knows God’s comfort comes in a variety of forms: “The law does not want you to despair of God…it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” (SDEA 367, 369).

“[U]nless repentance is preached in Christ’s name, the repentance of Cain and Judas happens.” (SDEA 227)

Always. For Luther states that

“…the ruling spirit is required, as Paul says (cf. Rom. 7:15ff.): ‘Very well, I do feel sin, despair. I feel death. Does a person really have to remain here? By no means! But one has to strive with hands and feet to hurry to this (Ex. 33:11; 2 Sam. 12:13): ‘I do not will the death of the sinner.’ ‘You will not die’” (SDEA 169).

This is evangelical love indeed!

Because of these things mentioned above, sin decreases in the Christian and the accusations of the law – indeed, what Luther calls its proper office on earth – are increasingly stilled in them. The fulfillment of the law, on the other hand, increases in the Christian, as “’they do by their nature what the law requires’ (cf. Rom. 2:14)” (SDEA, 163).

In heaven, there will be no sin and the law will be completely fulfilled. Therefore, it “ought simply to cease”. As Luther puts it as regards the angels (and, as he mentions elsewhere, the saints in heaven): “The law ‘Yield fruit!’ is empty to the fertile and fruit-bearing tree, since it yields fruit by its own nature.”

In sum, the law’s primary or proper purpose on earth was limited, working primarily to accuse, and, importantly, in the pre-fall context of Eden, to warn of danger (more on this later in the series). Therefore, the law certainly should not only be thought of as accusation.[viii]

The next post, dealing with the question of the abrogation of the law, will make this case even more strongly from Luther’s Antinomian Disputations.


The law does not want you to despair of God…it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” — Luther (ODE, 195)




[i] See first the explanation offered regarding this passage in the previous post in this series (link above): Luther is making clear that only the Gospel begins to make our intent pure. Going along with this, this thesis is taken from the fourth set of theses in the Antinomian Disputations (SDEA 235-239), which deals in part with the problems of the Roman Catholic doctrine of repentance (“those terrified and those who have begun to repent are forced to fall into the final impenitence”) as well as the doctrines of the antinomians, who Luther believed, like “the Papists,” did not understand the seriousness of sin, not realizing that that the law, while we on earth, primarily shows us why we die, as well as “what Christ is or did by fulfilling the law for us” (SDEA 247).

[ii] Elsewhere he writes that

“’In Christ we finally break forth,’ and thus we begin to become saints, Christians and lords of law and death. ‘But where is such a one?’ you ask. ‘Show me one!’ Response: They are hidden. Dead…he is still under the law and under sin. This is because he is still in this life, and ardently feels and ardently desires daily to wage against his flesh, and he lives in this too much, as also the divine Paul complains in Romans 7(:25,23): ‘In the flesh I live for the law of sin;’ likewise: ‘I see another law in m members, opposing the law of my mind.’ Thus the Christian is dead and alive, yet in different regards.

….we are thus holy and free, but in the spirit, not in the flesh, that is, while dwelling under the shadow of the wings of our hen in the bosom of grace. But the feet still need to be washed (cf. John 13:10), which, since they are unclean, are to be bitten and driven about by Satan while they are being cleansed. For you have to pull the foot under the cloak as well, otherwise you have no peace.” (SDEA 297, 299, italics mine).

And in another part of the Antinomian Disputations, Luther also says the following: “We are not under the law, but with the law. The law does not condemn us but nonetheless the law is needed for the remainders of sin” (383).

[iii] More of the quote:

“…fear is twofold: Fear without love and fear with love. Fear without love calls away from love and is satanic and evil. This the law does not teach. True fear with love, or from the law, does call me to love in an evangelical way, so that I, humbled, come to know myself for whom I am, namely, that I do not have love. For this reason, where this has been shown by the law, it ought to cease. It has already discharged its office. It ought not to terrify diabolically and carnally, that is, drive simply into despair, but, after pointing out the evil, compel me to take refuge in Christ. This calling away and mortification is salutary, pertains to the gospel, and is useful, because it calls us away from ourselves, but neither from grace or the remission of sins nor from Christ.

Therefore learn to distinguish well between them. The devil drives and terrifies so that you might perish, that you might die. Contrariwise, the gospel and God do not will that you perish, but rather that you are saved and live (cf. Ez. 33:11). It is enough that you are utterly terrified and mortified, now believe in the Son and you shall live” (SDEA 169, 171).

[iv] “….or to be the effect and power of the law in the most proper sense…” (SDEA 137, italics mine)

[v] See also the first post in this series (link above), which shows how Luther correlates the revealed law, the Decalogue, with the law written in our hearts by nature. An excerpt:

after the fall and before the new heavens and earth, the law, sin, and death are inextricably connected (SDEA 137, 241). Therefore a “law that does not condemn is a fake and counterfeit law, like a chimera or a goat stag” (SDEA 375). Hence, it also makes sense that on earth Luther somewhat conflates the law’s “essence” with it condemning “office” (see SDEA 137).

And yet, Luther writes that “the Decalogue…is greater and better [than things like circumcision and even baptism] because it is written in the heart and minds of all and will remain with us even in the coming life….only the Decalogue is eternal – as such, that is, not as law – because in the coming life things will be like what the Decalogue has been demanding here.” (SDEA 127, 129). Later he notes that it is really Christians, who, “’do by their nature what the law requires’ (cf. Rom. 2:14)” (SDEA, 163). In this life imperfectly, and in the life to come, perfectly.[v]

Both thoughts are connected in thesis 24 of the second set of theses, where Luther writes that “it is impossible that there be sin or that sin be understood without the law, be it written or inscribed (cf.. Rom. 2:14-15).” (SDEA 137, italics mine)

There seems to be only one logical way to read this: insofar as this inscribed law accuses the conscience in either the nonbeliever or the believer, it does so precisely because the content of the law written on our hearts can also be articulated into language that we can comprehend. In other words, it condemns because specific “shoulds” and “should nots” can be recognized and described by human beings.

[vi] Paul Strawn, email correspondence, Aug. 2, 2017.

[vii] Here, Luther talks about how the believer purges until he becomes totally pure. He says roughly the same thing in SDEA, p. 59. On p. 125, he states “…the law remains, also mortification, since our flesh is always rebellious. Therefore the Holy Spirit or faith always impresses the law on its flesh so that it may cease, lest sin would be permitted to rule, lest it would accomplish what it wills (Rom. 6:12).” On p. 103 he states that “remnants [of sin] committed by the flesh are put to death by the Spirit.” Clearly, Luther talks in a variety of ways about the actors involved in this process.

[viii] It is certainly easy to get this impression since Luther says elsewhere “you always ought to remain in the chief definition of the law, that it works wrath and hatred and despair, not joy, salvation, or mercy” (SDEA 177). He also says “whatever shows sin, wrath, and death exercise the office of the law” and “to reveal sin is nothing else – nor can it be anything else – that to be law or to be the effect and power of the law in the most proper sense. The law and the showing of sin or revelation of the wrath, are synonymous terms” (SDEA, 137). On the other hand, as noted above, Luther also speaks about “a very appropriate and very joyous definition of the law” (SDEA, 171), namely, how the law – certainly wielded by the Spirit (see SDEA, 37) – terrifies consciences in an “evangelical” way (!) by instructing toward Christ. This naturally brings this passage to mind: “Christ took our place and supplied what we lack, and erased with his blood the handwriting of the decree which was against us, until the law was finally satisfied by one in the stead of all of us. This is what we mean by law.” (SDEA, 163). In other words, the accusation exists because the law points to the way that reality is for God – namely an ontology of harmony of eternity – which is revealed for us most fully in human flesh in Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the Law of God, exemplified in the Decalogue, the moral law, etc.

Again, per the previous post in this series, when it comes to what the law tells us about living in the world, it is certainly not opposed to the moral law within us (see SDEA, pp. 35, 49, 136-137) which, as Luther consistently reminds us, conforms with the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments (even if, due to the fact that this law within became dull in humanity and still does, the Ten Commandments needed to be published and given).


Leave a comment

Posted by on August 7, 2017 in Uncategorized


Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies 1 (of 5): Natural Law

Chapter 1 of 5: Natural Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations


Welcome to the LADFD series: Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies. Regarding the title of this series — and the photo above, which I had a lot fun generating — I hope you interpret it as I intend: me trying to bring a little humor to a serious issue.

I hope you find the following post — admittedly a lot of work to read all the way through! — informative, worthwhile, and done in good faith – and that you will consider checking out other parts of the series.

First, some preliminaries:

  • This is chapter 1, with proceeding chapterss coming every two days (three days over weekends). I will be posting chapters 2-4 on my own blog, and chapter 5 here as well.
  • Note that all quotations in this series are not taken from the version of the Antinomian Disputations shown at the end of this post (Only the Decalogue is Eternal, or ODE), but from the version that contains the original Latin as well (Latin learners take note!), Solus Decalogus est Aeternus, (or SDEA).


In recent years, there has been an increased interest in the topic of natural law/religion/theology in the writings of Martin Luther. The following three books pictured below are just a sampling of some of the more recent work that deals, either indirectly or more directly, with these issues:



To my knowledge, however, not much if any work has been done addressing the issue of natural law and theology in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations. These disputations occurred during the years 1537-1540, six years before Martin Luther’s death, and in them much is said about the topic. Luther’s thoughts on this topic are somewhat complicated, but here I will attempt to systematically provide as clear a snapshot as possible of what he thinks — given the parameters of a reasonably short blog post.

For those of you already familiar with this content in the Antinomian Disputations, I invite you to scroll right to the bottom of this post to read my short concluding thoughts. Here, I try and sum up the big picture, and to relate it to contemporary theological challenges (i.e., things like the “Hypergrace” movement, and “Radical Lutheranism”).


20th c. theologian Karl Barth to natural law: Nein! (No!) 16th c. theologian Martin Luther: Ja! (Yes!) (and with appropriate nuance!…)


There is one section of the Disputations where I believe Luther brings several of his most developed thoughts together in a short two paragraphs. He responds to this argument:

It is redundant to teach the things that are known by nature. The law is known by nature. Therefore it is redundant to teach the law.

Luther’s response:

Each proposition is false, since we teach and learn the things we know. Since memory is instable even in the masterminds trained best, it is necessary that the most learned have recourse to the books themselves and learn. Indeed, they learn more than everybody else and they do so constantly, as can be seen in the greatest talents who never rest. Furthermore, the law is not known in such a way that it is not necessary to teach or admonish with it, otherwise it would not have been necessary to give the law and send Mo­ses; and we also do not know as much about the law as God wills. For who is there who ever knew how great and what an enormous evil sin itself is? Likewise, disobedience, hatred, wrath, greed, fornication, let alone the sins of the First Table? For we are so corrupted by original sin that we cannot see the magnitude of sin.

For there is our flesh, the devil, and the world who suggest differently and who obscure the law of God written in our heart. This is why it is always nec­essary here to be admonished lest we forget the mandate of God, especially since the law of God is the highest wisdom and the infinite fountain and source and spring of all virtues and disciplines towards God and men, because sin is infinite. So far no theologian or jurist has been found who could say or fully express, what great an evil lust and greed is. If there are those who truly feel sin, as David, those are truly in hell and dwell by the gates of death, as the Psalm says (18:5): “The terrors of hell found me.” (SDEA 333, italics mine)

In what follows, I offer short summary points from the two paragraphs above (note the italicized portions) and also supplement them with content from other parts of the Antinomian Disputations:

  1. Luther fully identifies the natural law, or the law that we find in the creation, with the law given in the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, to Moses.
  • God shared the Ten Commandments, given in history specifically to the Israelites, because they help us remember, “who we were before and who we will be in the future” (SDEA 321).
  • On the other hand, knowledge from the ceremonial practices and civil laws[i] given to the Israelites was not universal, but particular (SDEA 321).[ii]
  • In spite of his not having the law given at Sinai, Luther says that Abraham practiced the “love of righteousness[, which] is the highest degree of the law.” (SDEA 405)
  • “The Decalogue… is greater and better [than circumcision] because it is written in the hearts and minds of all and will remain with us even in the coming life.” (SDEA 127, 129, see also 49, italics mine)
  • Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (see Jer. 31:31,34) does not apply to the Decalogue passing away but to circumcision and other “ceremonial and judicial laws” (SDEA 215, 217).[iii]
  • “Natural law” or the “law of nature” is intrinsic to us and is objectively good, even as it may be more or less strong (see below)


“The law shows that we are not such either as the law requires or as we were before the fall.” – Luther (SDEA, 293)


  1. The law of God is written in the hearts of all, even as it is obscured by our flesh (or sinful nature), the devil, and the world.
  • We can know God’s law and not do it. In fact, we do know God’s law but don’t do it. We can also know God’s law but suppress that knowledge. Knowledge of the law is stronger in some than others.
  • In the Antinomian Disputations, Luther indicates that even though the law of God is “natural”, the suppression of this knowledge (no doubt accompanied by a real searing of the conscience), can be rather brutal, even resulting in a kind of knowledge that is often not perceived or experienced as knowledge (SDEA 115).
  • Luther even appears to suggest that human beings having the natural law is not necessarily true like “all men are mortal” is true. He mentions, for example, some men being “utterly unnatural” (SDEA 321).
  • In sum, what these first two points show is that the actual existential situation for any particular person or people are bounded by [fallen] human nature.
  • On the other hand, it is also influenced to a very large degree by the particular human activities a person or people have experienced on the ground. This leads us into our next three points.
  1. Luther does not pit the law in nature vs. our need/charge to teach, preach, and learn it.
  • Again, the written law “only was given to [the Israelites] and the law of Moses pertains to that people only.” The rest, however, have the same law written on their hearts (SDEA 217).[iv]
  • Because of original sin introduced in the Fall however, we live in sin and our corrupt and blind nature neither “sees not feels the magnitude of sin”. Man’s knowledge of the law is “very weak and obscured” and hence we need teaching.[v]
  • In fact, prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments, the law “was almost totally fallen into oblivion and obscured,” which is why it “was renewed and indeed written and handed over to a certain people insofar as it is written, but not insofar as it is spoken, since this knowledge was common to all nations, as experience itself proves” (SDEA 321).[vi]
  • Again, “[t]he law is common to all, but not all feel its force and effect. Nonetheless, whether people are converted or not, the law is still to be taught” (SDEA 111, italics mine, see SDEA 225 also).
  • He says that when the law is taught to us in words, it is rendered “better known, more conspicuous, and clearer, so that it, even by its appearance, might lash and agitate the mind” (SDEA 343).
  • The Holy Spirit is – and therefore the Church should be – relentless in using the Law in an “evangelical way,” to continue to make persons more and more fearful with the goal of them seeing their need and receiving Jesus Christ (SDEA 169-173)


“I distinguish the law. Grammatically and in a civil sense it certainly pertains to all, but understood theologically and spiritually it does not pertain to all because it terrifies very few.” – Luther (SDEA 225) (quote not from pictured book)


  1. Believers also have knowledge of the law of God that we suppress and are therefore culpable of, even as, without the preached law, the seriousness of human sin – especially as this regards our own sin – escapes us.
  • Paul’s (Saul’s!) pre-Christian conversion knowledge of the law was evidently a “surface knowledge” of sorts: he “did not know anything concerning the law, even though he was wholly in the law, taught he law, but did not know it, as it says in Romans 2 (7:9)….”
  • As a Pharisee, he was “teaching the law and yet did not know it,” in the sense of not “feel[ing] the force of the law” (SDEA 113). He thought “the law can be satisfied by works” (SDEA 355).
  • On the road to Damascus however, he is “first touched by the law and perceives the force and power of the law…” (SDEA 115, 117)
  • In like fashion, Luther asserted in his day that the church in Rome “imagined that sin is that which is against [unbiblical] human traditions, only rarely that which is against the moral law” (SDEA 355).[vii]
  • Again, “the law certainly belongs to all,” he states, “but not all have the perception of the law” (SDEA 115).
  • By preaching God’s law, “[the] veil is removed and I am shown that I sin”. We all are convicted, “not because the Decalogue was handed down and written for us, but so that we know even the laws which we brought with us into this world” (SDEA 321, italics mine).
  • To some degree, this kind of disability characterizes even pious believers in God: “It is impossible that there is a man who ever saw how great a sin it is not to fear God, not to believe in God, not to love God, to scorn the word, and not to call on God” (SDEA 343)
  • When Luther goes so far to say that “the law is neither useful or necessary for any good works” (SDEA 239), one must keep in mind that for him, it is only always the free Gospel of promise, not the coercive law, which creates the good intentions — and power — for a fear, love, and trust in God that begins to be truly righteous and holy (not one which, having a false god, is only tainted and selfish).
  • More: “Through [the law] God is efficacious and acts powerfully wherever and whenever he wills. And what is that to you, if he is efficacious?” (SDEA 115)
  1. The commands of the first table of the Decalogue are also to some degree contained in natural law.
  • Showing that empirical evidence from historical circumstances played into his thought, Luther, for example, states that “no nation was ever so cruel or barbarian or inhuman that they did not understand that God is to be worshipped… even if they erred in the way and means of worshipping God…”[viii]
  • Again, in spite of its capability of becoming greatly obscured in man, “natural law” or the “law of nature” is objectively in all “by nature” and is objectively good. All at some level know the good but do not do it (see SDEA 33 for “the good”).
  • Sin – which inevitably works itself out in everyone’s concrete thoughts, words, and deeds – is now objectively in all “by nature” due to particular historical circumstances involving our first parents.[ix] (SDEA 277)
  • Luther says that both the law and gospel, “belong to all” (SDEA 115).
  • That said, not all have the “perception” of these. Both must be continually taught (SDEA 115).
  • The Gospel must be taught or “traditioned,” i.e. “passed down”: “[E]ver since the beginning of the world has been [culpable] unbelief and ignorance of Christ, since the promise concerning the Seed of the woman was given right after the fall of Adam” (SDEA 111).[x]
  • The same holds true for the law, even as, it also remains in human beings by nature such that they are culpable of sin due to whatever knowledge they have.
  • Again, for Luther, “Divine revelation” – such as the Gen. 3:15 promise concerning the Seed of the woman who defeats the serpent and his work – is given in particular circumstances but is for all and hence should be in all through the activity of believers in history.


“…even if you were to remove these letters: L-A-W, which can be very easily deleted, the handwriting etched into our hearts, which condemns and drives us, nonetheless remains.” — Luther (SDEA 193).


That message of the Seed of the woman, by the way, is the Gospel which answers the law’s accusations against us (read Rom. 1-4, see Rom. 16:20 as well).

Finally, we are ready to sum up matters, with even more additional content from the Antinomian Disputations, in light of contemporary concerns:

Prior to the fall, man obeyed God’s commandment perfectly (SDEA 49) as he was without sin in the garden (SDEA 83) and the law was “not only….possible, but even something enjoyable” (SDEA 47). However, with the fall of Adam and Eve everything changed.

Luther argues that now, in its present state, the order in the creation is that death and sin come before life and righteousness (SDEA 37).[xi] “[I]nfected by the venom of Satan” (SDEA 277) man by his own powers – i.e. without the Gospel by which his conscience “may intend the good” – “cannot intend good” (SDEA 33).

Hence, after the fall and before the new heavens and earth, the law, sin, and death are inextricably connected (SDEA 137, 241). Therefore a “law that does not condemn is a fake and counterfeit law, like a chimera or a goat stag” (SDEA 375). Hence, it also makes sense that on earth Luther somewhat conflates the law’s “essence” with it condemning “office” (see SDEA 137).

And yet, Luther writes that “the Decalogue…is greater and better [than things like circumcision and even baptism] because it is written in the heart and minds of all and will remain with us even in the coming life….only the Decalogue is eternal – as such, that is, not as law – because in the coming life things will be like what the Decalogue has been demanding here.” (SDEA 127, 129). Later he notes that it is really Christians, who, “’do by their nature what the law requires’ (cf. Rom. 2:14)” (SDEA, 163). In this life imperfectly, and in the life to come, perfectly.[xii]

Both thoughts are connected in thesis 24 of the second set of theses, where Luther writes that “it is impossible that there be sin or that sin be understood without the law, be it written or inscribed (cf.. Rom. 2:14-15).” (SDEA 137, italics mine)

There seems to be only one logical way to read this: insofar as this inscribed law accuses the conscience in either the nonbeliever or the believer, it does so precisely because the content of the law written on our hearts can also be articulated into language that we can comprehend. In other words, it condemns because specific “shoulds” and “should nots” can be recognized and described by human beings.

Of course, as Luther said, “[To them]…who serve the law in order to be justified…it also becomes a poison and plague concerning justification” (SDEA 135). And while justification by grace through faith has always been at the heart of Lutheran theology, there are those in the church today who have built systematic theologies that give the impression of being even more so!

The problem however, is that this only appears to be the case. This is because systematic theologies like those offered by men like Gerhard Forde, for example, may give the impression that God’s law – since it is only temporalis not written into human nature such that it continues in the life to come – or even today (is this perhaps what is happening when even a very socially and theologically liberal Lutheran pastor can read someone like the Forde disciple Steve Paulson, for example, and tell me that he really likes him?).[xiii]


What does this mean?


Therefore, certain persons attracted to such theologies may be tempted by a reductionistic view of the topic of Law and Gospel (like the one Forde puts forth) to justify the proposition that understandings of God’s law should evolve. This leads, of course, to the idea that we must respect the “bound consciences” of those who both claim allegiance to Jesus Christ while simultaneously putting forward novel understandings of morality.[xiv]

And then, without sin being rightly identified, is the doctrine of justification still the doctrine of justification?

With an eye towards current debates – those in the confessional Lutheran church and beyond –  I will, over the next several days be doing four more posts unpacking content from Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations. The next one, God willing, will be at my blog theology like a child on Monday.

I hope you have found this worthwhile and will join me again!


The law does not want you to despair of God…it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” — Luther (ODE, 195)



Images in public domain ; Dummies picture by generator here.

[update: I discovered a point in this post where I believe I was insufficiently charitable, and hence have changed what I had in the original post somewhat]


[i] Luther says that when Paul calls the law a shadow, he “chiefly talks about the ceremonial and judicial laws” (SDEA 117).

[ii] Otherwise, we would readily talk about the offerings of bulls, circumcision, and the Sabbath as we do “sins and iniquities…like disobedience, contempt of God, thefts, adulteries, impurities” (see Rom. 2:15) (SDEA 321).

[iii] Luther argues that Jeremiah’s prophetic promise of a new covenant, or agreement (Jer. 31:31,34) “is properly understood as speaking about the ceremonial and judicial law of Moses, similarly about circumcision….” The Decalogue is not included here because “The Decalogue does not belong to the law of Moses….but pertains to the entire world, [as] it is written in etched in the minds of all people from the beginning of the world” (SDEA 217).

He, very interestingly, goes on to say the following:

“Besides, if you understand it as simply referring to the Decalogue, I respond here that it is again rightly said that the law is not to be preached to the righteous, that is, the law as something to be fulfilled or not fulfilled already. For one ought not to impose or preach the law to the righteous as to be fulfilled but as fulfilled, for the righteous already have that which the law requires, namely, in Christ; this is how Paul solves this argument: “The law is not given the righteous” (1 Tim. 1:9). Likewise: “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1); likewise: “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). Thus the demand and the accusation of the law, because of what it demands, ends among the pious when Christ is present who says: “Look at me who do for them what you demand—so stop it!”

Yet this is much more serious, that it says that there will be no further ministry in the Church. What do we say to this? I answer: Christ solves this in John (6:45), when he says: “And they will all be taught by God.” The Jews had many laws, in addition to the customs of all men, which were countless already in Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3ff.), Jerusalem and Gibeon (cf. 2 Chron. 1:3). Thus, one was sent here, the other there, running up and down, all crying, “Know the Lord! Know the Lord!” This was no different than the way it was done under the pope: the one taught that salvation was to be sought with this saint; the other taught that it was to be sought with that saint, as you know. Now Christ says: “It shall not be thus in the future, but all will know me from the smallest to the greatest.” That is to say: “I will give you such a doctrine, the one which, forsaking all other doctrines, my people follows and, however many believers there will be in the whole world, they will teach one and the same thing. For they will all be taught by God; that should work; I myself will make disciples and give the Holy Spirit, but through the Word.“

In this way he wills to be and to be established as teacher, and indeed as the only teacher in his Church. Through the Holy Spirit in the Word we will all have one and the same Christ whom we will teach one another. And there will be no more “Know the Lord, know the Lord,” because from the smallest to the greatest all will know him. However, when Christ is absent, then everybody says that the Lord is to be known differently, and so one is sent to St. James, another to Rome, another to St. Anne; everyone has his one path (cf. Is. 56:11).” (SDEA 217, 218)

[iv] “Moses was merely something like an interpreter or illustrator of the laws written in the mind of all men wherever they might be under the sun in the world.” (189 SDEA)

[v] “…for humankind, because we are not only conceived and born in sin and live in it, but the corruption and blindness of human nature is also so great that it neither sees nor feels the magnitude of sin. To be sure, all men by nature have some knowledge of the law, yet it is very weak and obscured. Therefore it was, and always is, necessary to teach men this knowledge of the law, that they might recognize the greatness of their sin, of God’s wrath, etc.” (SDEA 43)

[vi] He goes on to say:

“…For if this were not the case, we would now disregard it, if the law said: “You do not believe in God; you do not fear God; you abuse his name,” just as we already disregard it, if it is said sometimes: “You are not circumcised, you do no bring a bull, a calf, sheep.” For when I hear these, I am not moved and am not horrified and consider them to be a play and joke. But when it says: “You disbelieve God, you do not believe God, you do not fear God, you are a fornicator, adulterer, disobedi­ent,” and whatever is such, here I am at once horrified and fear and feel in the heart that I certainly owe this to God; not because the Decalogue was handed down and written for us, but so that we know even the laws which we brought with us into this world. And by this preaching at once the veil is removed and I am shown that I sin.

For even though the Decalogue was given in a unique way and place and with ostentation, all nations confess impiety, disobedience, contempt of God, thefts, adulteries, impurities to be sins and iniquities, as Paul writes in Romans 2(:15): “Excusing and accusing one another.” They are therefore natural laws, not political or Mosaic ones, otherwise we would immediately talk about these like those about offering of bulls, circumcision, and Sabbath. But God does not want us to do this. But when the precept, “You shall not steal,” is heard, we right away become silent, and we might be much more silent than fish.”

Importantly, he says elsewhere:

“These most destructive beasts, security and presumption, are so great that they cannot be sufficiently upset and crushed; whatever you do against them, you nonetheless accomplish hardly anything. To such a degree our entire nature is corrupted and immersed in original sin, just as if a good and faithful doctor should have a harsh and violent patient who, even though he lies in a grave illness, nonetheless despises and ridicules every medicine, and even throws it at the doctor’s head. Here I ask: What else should the good doctor do than to debilitate him with medicines, so that finally not even his hands or feet are able to do anything? So God the Father—when he saw that we are held captive by the devil in this way—so that we would not later forget also those laws which he had before written in our hearts by his finger, was forced to give a certain Moses, who also by written laws would shake up our mind and senses, so that we, touched by the feeling and power of the law, finally might learn to beg for help and aid” (151).


“But later, since men finally arrived at a point where they cared neither for God nor for men, God was forced to renew those laws through Moses and, written by his own finger on tablets, to place them before our eyes so that we might be reminded of what we were before Adam’s fall and of what we shall be in Christ one day. Thus, Moses was merely something like an interpreter or illustrator of the laws written in the mind of all men wherever they might be under the sun in the world.” (SDEA 189)

[vii] More: “the hypocrites look upon the veiled face of Moses, since they do not see that the law is spiritual and think that the law can be satisfied by works, as Paul also held before his conversion, as did the people of Gomorrah who killed prophets and never had a sense of the law or a true no­tion thereof” (SDEA 355).

[viii] Fuller quote:

“For no nation under the sun was ever so cruel or barbarian and inhuman that they did not understand that God is to be worshiped, loved, and that praises should be give to his name—even if they erred in the way and means of worshiping God. The same is true concerning the honor and obedience toward parents and superiors. Likewise, vices have been shunned, as it can be seen in the first chapter to the Romans.” (SDEA 187, 189)

Elsewhere, he even goes so far to say: “For if God had never given the law by Moses, the human mind nonetheless by nature would have had the idea that God is to be worshiped and the neighbor is to be loved” (SDEA 61).

The 20th century, of course, at least suggests otherwise. Luther may have underestimated the degree to which sinful men can suppress their knowledge of the law, not being able to recognize their sin (Psalm 36:2), calling good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20), having no fear of God (Psalm 36:1), asserting there is no God (Psalm 11).

[ix] “To be sure, the law had not been given or written down at [the time of Abraham]. He nonetheless had the law of nature written in his heart, as all men have (Rom. 2:15). It is therefore not to be doubted concerning the patriarchs that they taught that which is contained in the Decalogue, before the law was revealed from heaven on Sinai, and that that teaching flowed to their posterity. They diligently impressed on their families the impiety and malice of those who existed before the Flood and later became extinct because of them, and dissuaded them from idolatry and other sins lest they too might perish. This is why they were not without teaching, even if it was only put in their hearts by nature. Later, after the law had been given, the public ministry was instituted to teach it” (109, italics mine).

[x] He also states on the same page: “this sin of unbelief and ignorance of Christ has been made known throughout the entire world by the public ministry, which during the earlier times of the fathers hid itself in small corners and among their posterity….ever since the beginning of the world has been unbelief and ignorance of Christ, since the promise concerning the Seed of the woman was given right after the fall of Adam” (SDEA 111).

[xi] “…sin, death, and God’s wrath, is inborn and known to us on account of our first parents. The other, namely, grace, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and life, to be sure, is begun in us through the good work of Christ, but it is not completed. Yet it will be completed manifestly when we will be raised on that day, when the body will be utterly cleansed from all sins and will be like the glorious body of Christ our Head” (SDEA 43, italics mine).

[xii] In the forward of these disputations translated by Pastor Holger Sonntag, Pastor Paul Strawn (my pastor) notes that the phrase “only the Decalogue is eternal” “casts light on the eschatological validity of the moral law frequently emphasized by Luther in the disputations at hand” (SDEA 7)

[xiii] Please note that this is not an argument or an accusation, but a statement made, like my last post, to prompt reflection and introspection. Should we not ask why charismatic and rhetorically gifted theologians are often able to win praise from more liberal and more conservative quarters while wonderful, brilliant, and godly men like Kurt Marquart, for example, might only be read by an ELCA theologian after the LC-MS theocracy has been established (just kidding!)? For his part, Paulson — who, to the best of my knowledge, does not talk about many of the points in this post — spoke at the LC-MS theological seminary in Fort Wayne and received a standing ovation for a speech talking about some of the themes from his book about Lutheranism. As a friend put it “For a guy with such heterodox understandings, he’s really got Confessional Lutherans’ number.” See here for a piercing theological critique of Steve Paulson’s book from Dr. Eric Phillips.

[xiv] Note that never in these disputations (or anywhere else) does Luther give any indication that this moral law or our understanding of it should change, adapt, or evolve, on earth or in heaven. There is no indication whatsoever that we should alter “the good” man knows.



Posted by on August 4, 2017 in Uncategorized


Heretics tell the truth

Marcion (on right): “First-born of Satan” (per Polycarp) or “an important leader in early Christianity” (Wikipedia)?


The MacMillan Encylopedia says about heresy, in part: “Owing to such factors as the rise of theological liberalism and the ecumenical movement, the term ‘heresy’ is rarely used in modern Church circles”

To say the least, this is most certainly true! And yet, as Pastor Todd Wilken of Issues ETC. says, “false teaching hurts people”.

And here is the kicker:

The biggest problem with heretical speech is that it is often always right.

In the words which are uttered, there is often nothing spoken which is, in itself, wrong. In fact heretical speech is often comprised of many true statements. The problem however – which is related to the definition of the word heresy itself – is that the picture that they paint with their statements is completely wrong at worst and incomplete at best. And dangerously so.

It is not so much what is said that makes the heretic. It is what is not said.

A heretic is someone who does not wish to embrace all that one is given to embrace. They are “choosy”. Literally, a heresy means to “pick and choose”.[i]

2nd century pastor Irenaeus of Lyons’s metaphor for heresy: the same puzzle pieces can be put together to show the King or to show a fox. But what is the image on the cover of the puzzle?

Another major problem with heretical speech however, is that so often it does not come from hardened heretics. In fact, in all likelihood (we cannot know human hearts!), it rarely does. No doubt the famous second century Christian heretic, Marcion, (pictured above) seemed quite genuine in his profession of Christianity. And, perhaps, as seems to be the case with Eugene Peterson, those who fall into heresy are more like reeds shaken by the wind then they are those who consciously “masquerade as an angel of light” (II Cor. 11:14).

Speaking of which, I am very glad that Eugene Peterson has recanted. I hope that the recantation is genuine, from his heart. I definitely hope to see him in heaven!

That said, I don’t think I will be paying much attention to his books anymore. Around the time of the news last week a man on a Facebook group I am on said the following (used with permission):

Peterson’s “thing” in evangelical circles was to highlight the introspective, meditative, and mystical elements. So those who wanted a “deeper” faith circled around him like moths to the flame. Peterson was in evangelical precincts what Nouwen was for Roman Catholics and Liberal Protestants. Most of his nearly three dozen books were well received among evangelicals. Then, when he was in his early 60s, he did a stint as Professor of Spiritual Theology at highly regarded Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, for another decade and a half. But, his “circle” of evangelical admirers expanded to take in a very different constituency among American evangelicals: the church growth types. They LOVED his “The Message” paraphrase of the Bible because it was so “accessible,” and did not employ “churchy” language. I could never understand how a mainline Presbyterian in the PCUSA garnered such a large following among theologically conservative evangelicals. But, for Peterson, much of his writing exalted the interior spiritual experience. Experience often seems to trump doctrine among some segments of evangelicalism and that carried him a very long way in the evangelical camp. Notice how his criterion for acceptance of homosexuality was the fact that “gay Christians” seemed to have “as good a spiritual life as I do.”

“Experience often seems to trump doctrine.”

Mark and note that friends.

Trust in the Word — the living Word and His living words in Scripture — and pray that your faith would be deep and strong, like a nail driven into a board. That is the experience you need.

Is your God good and strong enough to save you?



[i] See here.

Leave a comment

Posted by on July 26, 2017 in Uncategorized


Is Truth What Works?

Not quite?


For a man like Jordan Peterson, interpretation is only “true” if it works, which means it is credible, taking into account material and social constraints. For Christians, an interpretation is true if what is stated is what is – what is actually the case. Christianity offers a knowledge (justified true belief) that is stable and even eternal.* The world, purging the word “secular” of any connection with religion, has only a “knowledge” which is constantly in flux — it is conceivable useful trust — depending on the latest intellectual desires and fashions.

In the classes on beginning Christianity that I teach, one of the questions I ask later in the course is this: “Is Christianity true because it works? Or does it work because its true?”

I get a lot of interesting answers, but invariably, as students have already read much of the Bible by this point, they choose the second option.

Of course, I then go on to qualify that we need to talk about Christianity as an “it” and define “works” in this context (i.e. we are not talking about what the world calls “success”). The cross, after all, might not seem to have worked very well.

In sum, the Christian faith tells a distinct story, or history, of the world which is meant for all persons (see Acts 17). And this narrative offers us not only stable but eternal truths that we can cling to with our whole lives.

I can’t say it better than this:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only‐begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men** and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian*** and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Man. Church isn’t church if I don’t hear those good words. Amen indeed!



*”Becoming” in the world is part and parcel of what is.

**Us men means all people.

***Christian: the ancient text reads “catholic,” meaning the whole Church as it confesses the wholeness of Christian doctrine.


Posted by on July 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

Sense & Reference

libraries and philosophy

Reliable Source (This is a)

Overcoming "Fake News" and Beyond

The Jagged Word

"What the Hell is going on!"


Just another weblog

Meditationes Sacrae (et Profanae)

A blog concerning theology, faith, the humanities, and Interesting Things


Just another weblog


Just another weblog


Just another weblog

Blog –

Just another weblog

Worldview Everlasting

Jonathan Fisk exposits on all things Lutheran.

De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine

Just another weblog

Mercy Journeys with Pastor Harrison

Just another weblog

Abide in My Word

Just another weblog


The Blog of LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology

Gottesdienst Online

Just another weblog


Just another weblog

Todd's Blog

Just another weblog

theologia crucis

Just another weblog

The Boar's Head Tavern

Just another weblog

Glory to God for All Things

Orthodox Christianity, Culture and Religion, Making the Journey of Faith

Eclectic Orthodoxy

"I'm a blogger, dammit, not a theologian!"

Jonathan Last Online

Just another weblog

Steadfast Lutherans

An international fraternity of confessional Lutheran laymen and pastors, supporting proclamation of Christian doctrine in the new media.

Just another site


A forum for exploring the historical truths of Christianity reclaimed by the Reformers

Surburg's blog

Just another weblog

Beggars All: Reformation And Apologetics

Just another weblog

Weedon's Blog

Just another weblog

First Thoughts

A First Things Blog

Pastoral Meanderings

Just another weblog