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

07 Aug

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).


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Posted by on August 7, 2017 in Uncategorized


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