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….”
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?
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]
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..
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..
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)
[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.