Silent no more: Luther lays down the law on how to preach the law (200 proof version)

25 Apr
Does God want you to read this book?  Diagnose yourself with help from this post.

Does God want you to read this book? Diagnose yourself with help from this post.

(Exclusive paper from Dr. Holger Sonntag*: God’s Last Word: The Third Use of the Law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses and Disputations)

More people reading than usual (with the post here, here, here, and here in particular), but few are commenting. Have the last few posts “said it all”?  Or misdiagnosed non-existent “problems”?  Is the “Great Sanctification Debate of 2013” over?  Or has it just begun? 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I urge you to cast aside any weariness you feel towards this issue.  Choose, in synergy, your own adventure!  (you can read Pastor Sonntag’s paper here)

In 2008, Pastor Holger Sonntag translated from the original Latin Martin Luther’s four disputations on his six sets of Antinomian theses, held in the late 1530s and early 1540s.  He says that, being in Latin, “they did not seem to have had a noticeable impact on the discussion on the use of the moral law in preaching and teaching over the past 50 to 200 years” (p. 1)  I note that includes the last five years as well.

Reading these theses it becomes clear that, in spite of the contentions of the 20th c. theologian Werner Elert**, Martin Luther taught a “domesticated” third use of the law, in addition to a political and theological use (pp. 1, 2)

In a footnote (p. 2), Pastor Sonntag reminds us that the Book of Concord commends Luther as “the chief teacher of the Lutheran Church who understood the issues confessed by it in a summary fashion better than anybody else…” (SD RN 9, DS VII, 39, 41)

Yes, but in what way is justification for preaching?

Yes, but in what way is justification for preaching?

For the modern confessional Lutheran who believes that “anything other than stern condemnation is… an attempt to manipulate God’s unchanging Word in order to let the sinner get off easy (“and inevitably create secure Pharisees”)”,*** these disputations contain many passages that might cause a measure of cognitive dissonance.  One example:

The law is already mitigated greatly by the justification which we have because of Christ; and it thus ought not to terrify the justified. Yet meanwhile Satan himself comes along and makes it often overly harsh among the justified. This is why it happens that those are often terrified who ought not to be, by the fault of the devil.

Yet the law is nonetheless not to be removed from the temples; and it is indeed to be taught, since even the saints have sin left in their flesh which is to be purged by the law, until it is utterly driven out. For this wrestling match remains for the saints as long as they live here. Here they fight by day and night. There they finally overcome through Christ.

Before justification the law ruled and terrified all whom it touched. But the law is not to be taught in such a way among the pious, so as to accuse and condemn, but so as to admonish to good. For I ought not to say or preach: You are not under the remission of sins. Likewise: You will be condemned; God hates you etc. For these sayings do not pertain to those who have received Christ, but address the ruthless and wild. The law then is to be attenuated for them and is to be taught them by way of exhortation: Once you were gentiles; now, however, you are sprinkled and washed by the blood of Christ (cf. Eph. 2:11, 13; 1 Cor. 6:11). Therefore now offer you bodies to obey righteousness, putting away the desires of the flesh, lest you become like this world (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 6:13; Eph. 4:22). Be imitators of the righteousness of good works (cf. Tit. 2:14) and do not be unrighteous, condemned like Cain etc.; you have Christ.

Now, what does this mean?  Let’s take a quiz:

a)      Luther was capable of making anywhere from 3-10 false statements in 304 words

b)      Luther was actually a Calvinist, Baptist, or Pietist

c)       Luther could have benefitted from a stint at an LC-MS seminary

d)      All of the above

e)      This explicit statement of preaching methodology seems to fit Luther’s sermons like a hand in glove

Hope you got that one right.  Sonntag comments:

“In other words, there are basically two ways in which the law is to be taught by and in the church. First, in all its sternness to terrify unjustified sinners so as to cause them to seek the gospel’s forgiveness and salvation, but then also in the mode of an “attenuated” exhortation to those who are justified already.

Given the biblical references to which Luther alludes in this section, it is evident that he considered this method of going about preaching the law to Christians to be the apostolic method found in the New Testament itself. In fact, already in the preface to the first disputation, Luther summarized “this method” as that of “Christ himself, John the Baptist, the apostles and prophets.”

This is just the beginning.  The paper does not let up.   From Luther’s antinomian disputations some might be surprised to learn that: the Holy Spirit renders the Law “enjoyable and gentle” to the justified (p. 4) ; the preacher should not make the law overly harsh among the justified but should change into the gentler tone of exhortation (p. 5, see also 17) ; “under Christ the law is in the state of being done, not of having been done”, and therefore believers need to be “admonished by the law” (p. 5) ;  when the Antinomians insisted they taught repentance, Luther conceded this to them (p. 8) ; too much condemning law can lead into despair and to kill completely – the law “should be reduced through the impossible supposition to a salutary use” (pp. 8, 9) ; right method in preaching is no guarantee for success in hearers (p. 9) ; the law’s constant accusation against those outside of Christ is its main purpose or use (p. 14) ; to the extent that a believer is “actively” righteous, the law’s accusatory office has ceased (p. 16) ; under the accusatory law insofar as they are sinners, Christians are also “without the law” because Christ’s fulfillment of the law is imputed to them and insofar as they battle sin in their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit (pp. 16-17) ; we obey more willingly and freely when Christ’s life is shown as the example of the law (p. 17) ; our “active justification” in the world, while imperfect, is still praiseworthy (pp. 23, 24) ; God needs our good works because He is pleased to need them according to His will (pp. 25, 26) ; Luther’s anthropology of the “Thomas Christian”, where we are a twin that is triumphant and militant at the same time, explains how we are called into “lifelong military service and battle array” to expel sin against God’s law in them more and more (pp. 27, 28 ; note this is not the sinner/saint distinction) ; venial sins are done against the renewed will of the Christian, while mortal sins are done with the full consent and pleasure of those who either never had or who have now lost Spirit, faith, and therefore also their renewed heart (p. 29, 30)

Sonntag notes that in Ap. IV, 167**** it says the law always accuses us – but apart from faith in Christ, which silences the accusation of the law (pp. 12, 13)  The law accuses us when considered outside of Christ (p. 14).  He also notes LCII, 2-3, which says that the Gospel (the Creed) is given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandments require of us (p. 31).

So, what does this mean?  Is this the right book/article for the right time?  Is this apropos to our current debates?   Have you read the Antinomian Disputations?  If not, why not?

If you think you need a word of Gospel right now – that glorious message of forgiveness for Christ’s sake – you have it!  What next? 


*I asked if I could put this on the web and he concurred.  Here is more on Pastor Sonntag, who has become a dear friend of my pastor and a treasured voice to myself: Born in Germany and originally a member of a territorial Lutheran church in that country, Pastor Sonntag studied at seminaries at Bielefeld and Heidelberg, both affiliated with the territorial Protestant churches in Germany. During his dissertation at Heidelberg, he became acquainted with the works of Hermann Sasse and from there formed a critical opinion about the theological course of his ecclesial home in Germany. At that time, the late 1990s, also the negotiations between Rome and Protestants on the doctrine of justification came to a head in the so-called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. When he moved to the US in 2000, he first joined the ELCA, despite his questions about the recent ecumenical agreements of that church body with various Reformed and Anglican church bodies. Attending an ELCA seminary was the straw that finally broke this camel’s back, and Sonntag felt compelled to look elsewhere for a church fellowship more friendly to his rediscovered and deepening Lutheran roots. So in 2001, he started attending Concordia Theological Seminary in FW. Then he served a vicarage and pastorate in LCMS congregations in MN. Now he serves as an Non-Commissioned Officer in a helicopter maintenance company of the US Army en route to his second deployment to Afghanistan.

**Elert, who denied the third use of the law (saying the law only instructed man about his sinfulness, p. 12), said that the afterward of the second disputation where Luther specifically talks about a third use of the law was a “plump forgery” (p. 2).  Sonntag shows, among other things, that even if this were the case, it correctly summarizes the uncontested parts of the second disputation.

***Green, “The ‘Third Use of the Law’ and Werner Elert’s Position,” Logia XXII, 2 (Eastertide 2013): 32, quoting W. Elert.  Because of this, “we just ought to preach ‘the law’ and then just let the Holy Spirit use it as he wills – a view also upheld by [Scott] Murray (in “The Third Use of the Law: The Author Responds to His Critics”, CTQ 72 (2008), 108-109)  But what is the Law anyway?  I, not Dr. Sonntag, offer the following view for critique: Mark Mattes writes that Jesus, in becoming sin for us, was “in the end justly accused as a violator of the Torah – God’s own law…”. Mark Mattes, “The History, Shape, and Significance of Justification”, in Virgil Thopson, ed., Justification is for Preaching, (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 53.

****Also note Ap. IV, 187-189 (p. 13)


Posted by on April 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


18 responses to “Silent no more: Luther lays down the law on how to preach the law (200 proof version)

  1. Mark Surburg

    April 25, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks for this post and your work with this topic. I will look forward to reading through this material!

    In Christ,

  2. infanttheology

    April 25, 2013 at 4:33 pm


    Thank Dr. Sonntag. He has given Luther a voice in this.


  3. Rev. Karl Hess

    April 25, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Can I get Dr. Sonntag’s email from you? Also tell him I said hi. He tried to teach me German when I was at seminary.

  4. infanttheology

    April 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think he’d mind that at all! I’ll leave it at your blog Pastor Hess!


  5. Michael Mapus

    April 26, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Great blogg! I have been struggling with this topic for very long time but noticed it first with how scriture is being interpreted to “fit” this Elert view of sanctifacation. Also reading Luther’s sermons showed me the how different sermons are preached today. The modern interpretation of Matthew 13:44-46 is just example one if this. That being the who buys the field/pearl, being Jesus. I have admit I like it, but the church has always understood these as the Christian who has eyes to see and ears to hear concerning the value of Christ and His gospel.

  6. Matt Jamison

    April 26, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    “If you think you need a word of Gospel right now – that glorious message of forgiveness for Christ’s sake – you have it! What next?”

    Nothing next. What is so objectionable about letting the Gospel have the last word?

  7. Nathan

    April 26, 2013 at 1:42 pm


    Thank you for your comment. Glad to see you are engaging here!

    The Gospel is always to have the last word. Grace is always to be on tap, flowing freely: But all of this said in the context of striving for holiness – because in God’s eyes we are justified and holy in Christ, and we long for the fullness of that to be realized in our own lives for our neighbor’s sakes. ( – note the differences with this: ). For when we Lutherans talk about the glory of God, we are talking about His gracious and merciful heart for all men without exception.


  8. Matt Jamison

    April 26, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Exigetical question: in 1 John 3:3 “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

    Does the pronoun “he” refer to Christ or to the Christian? Does the Greek help us understand this better?

  9. Nathan

    April 26, 2013 at 5:08 pm


    The context makes it clear it is about Christ. Also see II Cor. 7:1.


  10. Steve Bauer

    April 26, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    I appreciate the way you are engaging us in this topic. Thanks for pointing to these resources. You present what I have always understood the Lutheran position to be based on Luther’s writings and the Confessions.

  11. Nathan

    April 26, 2013 at 6:34 pm


    Thank you. I don’t doubt there are many like you. For those who aren’t on the same page or aren’t sure, my hope is that they will join in the conversation and that God’s spirit would guide us together.


  12. Mark Surburg

    April 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm


    Thanks so much for calling my attention to Sonntag’s paper. After reading it, I have shared the link on my blog. It is has much to add to the discussion.

    In Christ,


  13. Nathan

    April 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm


    You are welcome. Thanks for the link. I hope that Pastor Sonntag’s fine paper gets the widest readership possible. I think the content is quite “game-changing” – at least in regards to the current understandings of Lutheran theology that exist even in Confessional Lutheran circles.


  14. Mark Surburg

    May 6, 2013 at 5:05 am


    A post that I made today as a result of reading Dr. Sonntag’s paper. If we set forth the options and then let Luther speak, the answers become quite clear.

    In Christ,


  15. Nathan

    May 6, 2013 at 11:55 am


    Thanks again for all of your work. I look forward to taking a look at it!


  16. BW

    May 14, 2013 at 12:58 pm


    I am new to your blog but have enjoyed your posts on sanctification. Thank you. Could I get Dr. Sonntag’s email as well? I have been enjoying his volume on Luther’s Antinomian Theses immensely and helping me see a proper Lutheran understanding on sanctification. I mentioned something to my pastor, who went to seminary with Dr. Sonntag and he urged me to let him know and give him some encouragement.


    • infanttheology

      May 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm


      Thanks for the note. Good idea! Email me at NRinne at


      • infanttheology

        May 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm


        By the way, in my most recent post, the fifth and final part in my series critiquing Kolb and Arand’s book on the two kinds of righteousness, I talk about sanctification in modern confessional Lutheran theology in some depth. Here it is:



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