Do you think that you can love God but not the Christians who penned the Nashville Statement?
Maybe, like St. Augustine who was haunted by the knowledge that he had stolen pears just because they were behind a fence — not even eating them – you are experiencing the utter confusion and divine wrath the law of God brings.
At least, that’s what I venture the Sarcastic Lutheran’s namesake, Martin Luther, would have thought. How can I say that? Keep reading. His view about how speaking God’s eternal law affects sinful human beings is, to say the least, both psychologically and theologically thought-provoking.
(as for my own view on the Nashville Statement, though you might expect a guy like me to sign on, I don’t think it is perfect: I think, especially vis a vis article 13, an acknowledgement that Romans 7 describes Paul as a Christian should have been included)
Before jumping into what Martin Luther has to say about whether God’s law causes sin, a note by way of preface:
As you read what follows, you might think, “it sounds like, for all practical purposes, Luther is saying the Law causes sin.” It is true that Luther insists that focusing on laws will, because of the sin that infects us, result in even more sin. For example, he says: “[[S]how[ing] man the magnitude of God’s wrath against sin] is already truly to increase sin by the law, that is, it is rendered better known, more conspicuous, and clearer, so that it, even by its appearance, might lash and agitate the mind.” And then, he says, our sinning gets really bad.
That said, the distinctions Luther makes here are critical. Ultimately, like Paul (see Rom. 3), he aims through this law to prepare us for the Good News of the Gospel by revealing our sin: “the law is given, so that the sin that is already present in our nature would terrify and arouse us, so that it might show us what kind of people we are in our hearts, not into what kind of people it makes us, as if they are falsely accused by the law.” More: “the bad and corrupt nature is the cause, not the law, that [one] is evil” (italics mine).
Hence, the law indeed causes sin to manifest itself, but it is not rightly called the effective cause of sin. That accusation is lodged firmly on us, who sin even without knowing things like the Ten Commandments (which believers will perfectly fulfill, like Christ, in heaven) and suppress such knowledge of our sin.
But our buried guilt can come back in a moment, like Joseph’s brothers remembering their sin vs. him in Egypt, or King David coming to an awareness of his sins when confronted by Nathan the prophet. While the devil might try to use this knowledge for our death, God means it for our life: aware of our sin, hearing the good news of God’s love and forgiveness through Christ and His work can change everything, even in the most hardened of sinners.
Let’s jump into Luther’s comments, relevant for the Nashville Statement and the reaction to it.
[Here, Luther first is repeating Caspar Cruciger’s argument* in his own words.]
The law snuck in, he says (Rom. 5:20), so that sin would abound, so that sin would be sinning beyond measure (Rom. 7:13). When the law was added, it aroused these passions. And certainly, if the law had not come, then sin would have been a good companion and had snored. Without the law, that poor sin would not have been exhibited and revealed. Therefore the law compels to sinning. For just as limestone does not at all burn without water, but where you add water, it begins to burn, thus is also the law, as Augustine said.[i]
Therefore the law is the efficient cause of sin as water poured over the limestone is the effective cause. Now, therefore, whatever does cause a man to be set ablaze and provoked more to sinning, that is not to be taught; indeed, it is to be prohibited. The law is such, as has already been said. Therefore the law is not to be taught.
The question is here, whether the water merely shows that the limestone burns or whether it itself sets it ablaze? Indeed, it itself sets it ablaze.
[Response of Dr. Martin Luther]:
This simile of Dr. Augustine solves the argument. For if this nature or this heat were not in the limestone, even water would by no means set it ablaze, like when it is poured over other things. But because there is in the limestone a certain fiery and ardent nature, water sets it quickly ablaze.
This is also how it is with us, because our nature is evil, secure, and malicious because of the breath of the Serpent in paradise, as we have already often said. Yet when the law comes, that depraved and corrupt nature is provoked more and more, as, because it sees that it cannot deliver what the law demands, it begins to be resentful against God, to be angry, to boil with rage. And it becomes more and more wicked against God. For thus we all are by nature such, that we desire all the more the things forbidden to us, as someone said:
This is why the law is not the effective cause of sin, but it shows that nature is sinful, and by prohibiting it, arouses sin. Yet by its power it appears to obtrude natural malice and cause it to act, as it were. For if it were utterly silent, men would live pleasantly, they would not get so angry at God, they would not sin so much, and sin would not be so bountiful. We already said that the law is not the effective cause of sin, but its ostensive cause, not its increasing cause, but the demonstrating cause of this so perverted and corrupted nature of man.
But here it is necessary that that phrase of Paul be explained, what it means “to increase sin” and that “sin abounded by the law” (Rom. 5:20), which are certainly wondrous ways of speaking that are contrary to reason. For laws are given and promulgated by kings for this purpose: To counter sins and so that he can heal. But here he speaks as if the law, which is good and holy, seems to bring death and despair. Not that it brings these about, as has been said above several times, but that, when it comes and accuses, the vicious and evil nature at once begins to become terrified, to resent God’s judgment and wrath—which it already cannot endure—and it begins to despair concerning salvation, to hate God and to blaspheme. In this way the law is the ministry of wrath and death, and increases sin, evidently not outwardly; but inwardly, and in the heart, it stirs up terrors and despair, that is, it arms sin that it may utterly terrify and kill us, as 1 Cor. 15(:56) says: “The sting of death is sin.” Before the law came, we lived idly, securely, not thinking anything evil. But after the law entered, in order to show what kind of people we are, it commanded those things which we, even if we wished to, nonetheless cannot fulfill.
There it is necessary that I despair, that I begin to hate and blaspheme God who seems to deal so unjustly with me. Thus sin becomes bigger and is increased, since, before I heard the law and lived without the law, I here considered myself to be a fine saint. But when the law said (Deut. 6:5; Ex. 20:3): “Love the Lord your God from all your heart” etc.; “you shall have no other gods,” I could not help but despair, because no one ever could, nor can, fulfill the law except Christ. David, after he had committed adultery, did not at all think that sin was so big; later he acknowledged it, having been reproached by Nathan the Prophet (cf. 2 Sam. 12:1ff.). Here the law truly increases sin, that is, it shows him the magnitude of God’s wrath against sin, so that he, utterly terrified, had even despaired, unless Nathan had added (2 Sam. 12:13): “The Lord has removed your sin” etc.
This is already truly to increase sin by the law, that is, it is rendered better known, more conspicuous, and clearer, so that it, even by its appearance, might lash and agitate the mind. 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. Indeed, if he had seen it, he would already be dead. However, so that we might realize some of these things, the law is given, so that the sin that is already present in our nature would terrify and arouse us, so that it might show us what kind of people we are in our hearts, not into what kind of people it makes us, as if they are falsely accused by the law.
I have spoken about the sins of the First Table. Now the same must be said about all the others in order. For just as we are more affected by those when the law is present than when it is absent, and because of the commandment, they frighten and terrify more greatly, so they here too begin to rage against the law and more and more to long for the things the law forbids, as I said above. We desire the forbidden things. We hate the present things. We search out the coming things. And nonetheless, since it is forbidden by the law to covet, we have evil desires. [Since it is forbidden] that somebody else’s wife is granted us, we nonetheless desire to have extramarital sex, to run after prostitutes.
Thus in all other things we wish the things we do not want; and what we ought to do, we do not want. But this is what it means to increase sin in crass and carnal matters. But in internal, that is, spiritual matters, where, if ever the law commands to love and cherish God, and to trust in God, he, when he realizes that he cannot do justice to this law, begins to despair, to hate God, to blaspheme God. For nature is totally corrupt.
The law is therefore the cause of sin, you say, if it has such effects, which, if it were removed, would not occur? I deny this, because the law is not the effective cause of sin, but merely its ostensive one. Yet because nature itself is depraved and corrupted, the good and holy law by itself cannot have a better effect in such a nature. The law only says what must be done, that God must be trusted, feared. This you do not do. And because of this you get angry and blaspheme God so that you wish both God and law removed. Therefore the bad and corrupt nature is the cause, not the law, that the student is evil; he, who, although he was about to do something before, later, when the commandment of the parent or the teacher came along, did not do it, is bad per se. Not that the law of the teacher does this, but because his nature is evil.
So we, when we hear: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods; I will visit the iniquity of the fathers,” then we despair more than we trust in God. Lyra says that it happens consecutively that sin abounds by the law, not causally (bold and italics mine).[iv]
*The actual argument Luther responds to is here:
First [Twenty-Eighth] Argument, of Dr. Caspar Cruciger
Against thesis 18. [“For death and sin exist on account of the law, as Paul says (2 Cor. 3:6), “The law kills;” and (1 Cor. 15:56), “The strength of sin is the law.””]
The efficient cause of sin is not to be taught. The law is the efficient cause of sin, which not only shows sin but also compels to sinning. Therefore the law is not to be taught.
I prove the major: The passions of sins, which have been through the law, are at work in our members in order to bear the fruit of death (cf. Rom. 7:5). This signifies that the passions are efficacious through the law, since natural unbelief is confirmed by the law and compels us, as it were, to sinning, and I think that Paul wants to say this.
[i] Cf. City of God XXI,4, where the example of the limestone is used. In this chapter, however, Augustine is giving examples from nature for his assertion that human bodies remain in the fires of hell forever, without being consumed by that fire. Reference to Augustine’s example of limestone is also made in the ninth argument of the second disputation.
[ii] Ovid, Amores III, 4, 17.
[iii] Terence, Eunuchus 813.
[iv] Bibliorum sacrorum tomus VI cum glossa ordinaria et Nicolai Lyrani expositionibus (Paris 1545), fol. 17ª on Rom. 7:13.