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

14 Aug

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)


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