Monthly Archives: September 2017

Dissecting the Readily Hijack-able “Radical Lutheranism” with Todd Wilken

Pastor Wilken in the studio of Issues ETC. with a couple guests.


Please note: Pastor Wilken’s comments are in blue alone. The rest is my voice.

First of all, if you need a primer on Radical Lutheranism – the term first coined by the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde – you can see this piece that I wrote, explaining why every Christian should be tempted by it!

Nevertheless, don’t be too tempted! — it has its problems. For instance, you can get a taste of them in this interview that Pastor Todd Wilken, of the theological talk show Issues ETC., did with Jack Kilcrease (found on this page – Kilcrease’s is a more sympathetic critique) about Gerhard Forde.


One of the Radical Lutherans’ big claims is that later Lutherans domesticated Luther and put him in a straightjacket of sorts. It is they who go back to the vintage, authentic Luther. My guess is that most if not all of the authors of the book The Necessary Distinction: a Continuing Conversation of Law and Gospel would say the same thing (in addition to Martin Luther getting it right where every other person in church history had been wrong!).

I would contend however, that Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations, unpacked in my recent series Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies, should cause anyone to doubt this claim. And Pastor Wilken has also been critical of Radical Lutheranism himself. See, e.g. the talk referenced here by Pastor Cooper and looked at more closely on the Steadfast Lutherans blog.

Wilken, reviewing Pastor Cooper’s book: “As a Lutheran pastor and 20-year Forde disciple, I spent the better part of my parish ministry and subsequent time as a radio host promoting the Radical Lutheranism of Forde…”


In this post, I am going to look in more detail at the points that Pastor Wilken made in his talk critiquing Radical Lutheranism in light of my recent study of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations. Since I think Pastor Wilken’s first ten points are his strongest ones, I focus on providing longer comments on those, usually with more sound bite-length comments for the last nine. The immediate text below and numbered comments in blue below are Pastor Wilken’s. My commentary is interspersed between these.

The teachings of Radical Lutheranism can be recognized by any combination of the following ideas:

  1. Sin is reduced to self-justification. The only thing sinful about any thought, word or deed is that it is an attempt to justify oneself before God.

The antinomians in Luther’s day evidently believed that because of Christ’s work, no sin actually remained in the Christian. Therefore, the law was no longer needed. In Radical Lutheranism, sin does remain in the Christian and the law is still needed, but almost always only to convict persons of the sin of trying to earn their salvation before God by being overly concerned about avoiding specific sins and the like. Even though the antinomians of Luther’s day talked about following Christ’s example, they also mocked those overly concerned about particular sins. For the Radical Lutheran, in the end, one often gets the impression that the people who think that they should both be concerned about actual sins and that God’s law should be proclaimed vs. actual specific sins are the only persons who God is really angry at. In other words, since non Radical-Lutherans do not realize that God is not really angry at the world (in Forde’s account, Jesus’ death was not even to atone for their sins!), and so also not angry at them, He is now, in some sense, angry at them for rejecting his goodness (unless the Radical Lutheran is also a universalist, which, yes, we also should be tempted by).

  1. The Christian’s struggle against sin is replaced with a struggle against feelings of guilt.

The antinomians of Luther’s day simply wanted to avoid being condemned and convicted by God’s law (preferring more subtle ethical instruction from Christ’s example – being both less direct and not merely propositional).

What Wilken says directly above though does indeed seem to be what happens in Radical Lutheranism – if a specific sin is talked about, it tends to be the sin of “self-justification,” deriving from original sin, mentioned above. Along with this comes the idea that it makes sense for the Christian to be humble about what he believes about God and particularly God’s law. In Luther’s day, no one questioned that guilt was incurred for actual sins but the guilt of original sin was, for many, in doubt (possibly with the antinomians of Luther’s day as well, though they would have protested this). Again, today’s Radical Lutherans have the opposite problem, with, it seems, many an actual sin being all that is thrown into doubt (or simply being regarded as irrelevant).

While surely not all identifying with Radical Lutheran theology want to toss out God’s law, those who do have a friend in its theology, with its more “hijack-able” system. Focusing on guilt instead of sins allows “old sins,” like traditional sexual immorality, to be replaced by “new sins” like “homophobia,” and all in the name of spiritual humility. More progressive Christians do not even have to say, with the postmodernists, that there is no truth or that truth is evolving, because instead of focusing on the Bible as God’s word they can appeal to something like Platonic ideas. In other words, they can appeal to something like “unchanging Forms in the heavenly realms (or in the mind of God)” that we, as we progress in sanctification (their definition), are coming to better realize and understand with the help of one another (in a “Hegelian dialectic” fashion). Christian thought, in their view, has evolved regarding things like polygamy (well, we’ll see), slavery, and now, marriage and gender.


  1. The Christian’s struggle against sin is described as, at best futile, or merely an attempt at self-justification.

Against the antinomians of his day, Luther spoke gravely against their security – how they ridiculed sin, smiling and smirking, treating “innumerable evil desires to be a joke and a game” (SDEA 253). On the contrary, “it certainly is the duty of a preacher to say that lusts, wantonness, greed, and cheating someone else is sin and that God will punish it, even with eternal death” (SDEA 289). But with Radical Lutheran theology at the helm – where no sin is serious enough to demand atonement – things like cohabitation, lustful thoughts, drunkenness, what one watches or views, and the use of the profanity are, to say the least, far more likely to be seen as far less serious than previous generations of the faithful have judged.

Of course, self-justification and the other sins deriving from it – various legalisms – should be avoided by all means. Again, it is far more likely that Radical Lutherans or those sympathetic to them will even find doctrines like the Real Presence and corresponding practices like those of closed communion – meant to protect safeguard the richness of the simple and humble message of the Gospel (Christ’s real body and blood given and shed for you!) and those partaking of Christ’s body and blood – as evincing this legalism.

Very interestingly, Luther suggests that it is not so much what Christians believe – in this case about God’s law – that the world finds problematic, but rather its willingness to act on its beliefs, which we all know tends to, uncomfortably, reveal divisions and distinctions among persons. To the idea that Eph. 2:14 suggests the wall destroyed by Christ is his law, Luther responds as follows:

“And here Paul speaks about the law of Moses proper, not about the Decalogue, since the latter pertained to all nations. For the nations did not hate the Jews because of the Decalogue, but because they separated themselves from the remaining nations by way of unique worship and cer­emonies, and called themselves alone the people of God, all the others they called atheists and unbelievers. The quarrel was about the temple and the ceremonies. Yet finally Christ came and destroyed this obstruction and Jews and Gentiles were made one. But if the Decalogue is referred to, it is well, and it is here removed, and destroyed insofar as it is damnation, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.” (ODE, 123)

  1. The Holy Spirit’s uses of the Law are usually abandoned one by one (usually in the order of 3, 1, 2)

3 = law as a guide (to guide the Christian who remains a sinner), 2 = law as a mirror (“bringing down to hell,” to condemn), and 1 = law as a curb (for civil society). In Luther’s day, the antinomians focused on the second, or condemning use of the law. They denied that the Holy Spirit had anything to do with this process, which Christ came to alleviate with his first coming. Perhaps today Satan attempts a less direct route, focusing on third use of the law. Here, conta everything we see in Paul’s letters, the idea is that it is wrong to exhort a Christian to behave in a certain way after they have been told that God puts away their sins (the only message, which when embraced by faith, grants and preserves us in eternal life). For the Radical Lutheran it is this which would not be the work of the Holy Spirit, but the devil himself. If you disagree, you are like Luther’s opponent Erasmus!

Ultimately, of course, Satan would like to eliminate the second use of the law, and so perhaps now he is content to play a longer game. In Luther’s day, perhaps he conceived he could be successful because of the growing popularity of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian theologies (salvation by works). Pelagians and semi-Pelagians have a weakened doctrine of original sin, and the Lutherans emphasized how the law accused us not only of sinning and particular sins, but of being sinners who failed at a very deep level: we are all rebels, enemies of God, etc. Without this doctrine, Christ is no longer needed.

  1. Contrition over sin is assumed, even in unbelievers. People are generally assumed to have a knowledge of, and guilty conscience over their sin.

This claim, which does indeed seem to be assumed by many Radical Lutherans, is simply not credible. In Luther’s Antinomian Disputations he admits that even in his day few are terrified by God’s law and that even when there is a little fear unbelievers in fact need more fear: “the law is also not so great that it could cast love—if it is genuine and not fake—out of your heart. But the more you fear, the more the law is to be urged, until you see that you do not love wholeheartedly as the law requires” (SDEA 167). Just because Luther insists that all persons have a natural knowledge of God, this should not be given too much weight. Luther reminds us that Paul knew much about God’s law and yet was not convicted of His persecution of God’s people. Furthermore, God had to republish the law through Moses in order to help people remember His will. Finally, Luther even makes the comment that a people can get to the point where they are “unnatural” – where the revealed and even seemingly natural knowledge of God seems far from them. There is always a sense in which they know and are still culpable, and yet, that knowledge is being suppressed to an unbelievable degree.

Even granted that some do experience a guilty conscience over sins they really are guilty for –and that God will bring to repentance and faith those who He has predestined for faith in good time – whatever different types of strategies they might choose, Christians nevertheless have an obligation to create an environment where the full counsel of God can be heard by the people of God and the world is welcome to hear it as well.

  1. The Law is confused with the pain and trouble of living in a fallen world. The Law may be described as any bad situation or evil occurrence in life.

It is important to note that when Luther says in the Antinomian Disputations “whatever shows sin, wrath and death exercises the office of the law,” and that “reveal[ing] sin is nothing else – nor can it be anything else – than to be the law of the effect and power of the law in the most proper sense,” what he does not say is just as important, namely, for example: “whatever produces sorrow” exercises the office of the law. Indeed, the matter of a good conscience and bad consciences, seared ones and hardened ones – intextricably related to the written law which correlates with the law written on man’s heart –should certainly be foremost in our mind here. We should not be giving the impression that books like this one by Tim Wengert — which purport to give an accurate view of what Luther taught regarding Law and Gospel — are actually helpful in any sense.

All this talk about 3rd use of the law is a form of omphaloskepsis? What? : ) Well, we didn’t start the fire, as one said. This is a recent, careful evaluation of the roots of liberal theology – by a liberal theologian. The book explains a lot. And so does the paper described (and linked to!) here by my pastor.


  1. The distinction between Justification and Sanctification is blurred in statements like “Sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification.”

The main figure in Radical Lutheranism, Gerhard Forde, rightly pointed out how those who are justified and have peace with God are also those who are sanctified. It is most certainly true that those who are justified by faith have a faith that is alive – for they have also experienced the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (passive sanctification). This said, what, ultimately does it mean to say that “sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification?” Does it mean that we can say that in this and because of this new relationship with Christ by faith, we begin to act according to the law by loving God and neighbor — and that this flows with and not against the 10 commandments? If not, why not? If the answer is “no” is it because, as regards the proper standard of conduct for the reborn, it can only be said to be their relatedness to Christ, which is not compatible with the unchanging will of God, the Ten Commandments? (“relatedness” vs. “law”).

My guess is that they are not going to like this “old school sanctification” definition provided by Robert Baker:

Sanctification (Greek, hagiasmos : (1) Consecration, purification ; (2) the effect of consecration, sanctification of heart and life. Thayer), in its theological use, denotes the progressive development of the regenerate life in the attainment of conformity to the divine law. It is described in the New Testament as being “conformed to the image of his Son,” the end of predestination (Rom. 8 : 29 ; 2 Cor. 3:18); being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12 : 2) ; “putting on the new man” (Eph. 4 : 23, 24, etc.), besides the usual terms, “holy,” and “sanctify.” Sanctification admits of degrees, unlike justification and regeneration. It is distinguished from justification, also, by bringing an actualized righteousness, while justification brings an imputed righteousness; from regeneration, as this is the impartation of the new life in its beginning, while sanctification is the increase and consummation of the new life. The standard of sanctification is the law of God, particularly as that law is embodied In the life of Christ. Its essence is love (Rom. 13 : 10 ; Col. 3 : 14). It involves the subordination and crucifixion of the “old Adam,” but not, in this life, the eradication of original sin. The error of those who teach otherwise, whether Rome, or an extreme and fanatical Protestantism, is based on a false definition of sin, and a confusion of sanctification with justification. The work of sanctification is effected by the Holy Ghost, the renewed spirit of the believer yielding to his guidance, and co-operating with him. The means of grace are here, as elsewhere in the kingdom of grace, the channel of the efficiency of the Spirit of God. C. A. M.

Source: The Lutheran Cyclopedia, Henry Eyster Jacobs and John A.W. Haas, eds., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 420-1.

  1. Christian cooperation in Sanctification, clearly and carefully taught in the Lutheran Confessions, is equated with cooperation in Justification.

These are clearly not the same, as one can clearly tell from Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations. Whereas the unbeliever is in bondage, desiring to not submit to God’s will, the believer has a new heart, and therefore begins to desire good. The Romans 7 and Galatians 5 and I Cor. 9 battle that Paul describes can now actually take place. All thoughout his career, the reformer talked about the two natures of the Christian. For example, at the end of chapter 1 of his book, “On Christian freedom”, Luther says this:

“The reason why seemingly contradictory statements are often made in the Bible about Christians is due to the Christians two-fold nature. The simple fact is that within each Christian two natures constantly oppose each other. “The flesh wars against the spirit and the spirit wars against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17, “On Christian Freedom”).

Should we be talking about seeing this matter analogously to the issue of Jesus Christ and Christology? Should we be talking about the two natures of the Christian? Luther did not hesitate to do so, and few would accuse him of focusing on the Christian per se instead of Christ!

“Progressive sanctification? The horror!” — Kurt Marquart, sarcastically.


  1. Christian cooperation in Sanctification is depicted as resisting, rather than cooperating with the Holy Spirit.

If someone asks what a Christian contributes to their salvation, a good answer is “sin”. That however, is not a good answer when it comes to matters involving sanctification. I’m guessing that what Matthew Garnet talks about here is in the ballpark of what Pastor Wilken has in mind with his ninth point. Garnet asks the question “Does the pastor show you your sin through his preaching?” and goes on to reply:

“Problems to look out for here include the obfuscation of original sin as well as abstracting actual sin. One very famous Lutheran pastor, speaking on original sin in one of his podcasts asserted that anytime Christians try to be good people in accord with the commands of Scripture, they are re-enacting Adam’s fall. Because only God is good, he reasoned, to try and be good is trying to be like God. Thus, for this man, trying to be good is the essence of original sin. I’ve observed variations on this theme as well from other preachers and obviously, it is wrong.”

  1. Encouragement or instruction in Good Works is considered de facto legalism.

In their essay “The Hated God,” Steve Paulson and Nicholas Hopman say:

“The fundamental concern of a legal myth is to motivate hearers to take a journey that corresponds or collaborates with God (along with the various ‘co’s’ like covenant, contract, or ‘the Great Com-mision’ that all assume cooperation between divine and human for salvation). In this way, law is taken as God’s gift to provide direction in life (reciprocation). Grace is empowerment to fulfill law’s movement, which is what sinners want most from the story: what can we do to help?” (11)

Still, Luther, a guy who knew more than anyone about the “legal myths” and “ladder theologies” by which men seek to secure salvation before God, said this:

“Yet Christ,” [these antinomians] say, “has removed your sin. Why are you sad?” This is why they continue to do what they do in an utterly secure manner. They translate the merit of the passion of Christ and of the remission of sins into luxuriousness….

Christ fulfilled the law, but it needs to be added: “Later see to it that you lead a holy, pious, and irreproachable life, as it is fit­ting for a Christian. This is what you have heard so far: Be forgiven. But lest you complain that you are utterly forsaken, I will give you my Holy Spirit, who makes you a soldier; he will even produce mighty and unspeakable cries against sin in your heart, so that you thus finally do what you wish.” But am I not unable? “Pray that I may hear you, and I will make you able…” (SDEA 303, 305, italics mine)[i]

  1. The Law itself is viewed as the source of legalism, rather than man’s sinful misuse of it.

In short, the law doesn’t make people hate God. It reveals that sinful man, familiar with God’s qualities apart from the Gospel, can’t not hate God. Detail.

  1. Scripture’s warnings against falling away from the faith are minimized or ignored.

Luther: “Our Antinomians are so blind that they cannot recognize the doctrine of the law in Paul, e.g., in these obvious words (Phil. 4:8): “Whatever things are chaste, just, etc., these pursue.” Yet they do all things for that reason that they might render us secure and that the window might be opened for the devil in order to overthrow us unexpectedly” (ODE 156, SDEA 287, italics mine)

Again: “[I]t is necessary to admonish, to stir up, and to call as if to battle, so that they may remember in what danger they live. Don’t sleep, don’t sleep and don’t snore! Awake!” (SDEA, 263)”

It’s almost like we walk in danger all the way or something.

  1. Scripture is often searched to find the sinner, rather than the Savior.

As I once wrote: “… they also, seemingly unawares, often give the impression they think they are the ones who are mature.

They are not like, for example, legalistic, cowardly and insipid pastors stuck in the rut of seeking security! At the very least, these deserve to be ignored, not engaged with seriously, not sympathized with, etc.  No, the more radical Lutherans are the true holy ones who will boldly embrace the mission of the church!  It is they who are the brave and righteous heroes – not only willing to embrace but seek out the multitude of sinners… addicts, ex-cons, prostitutes, the LGBT community, etc…  They are unlike the legalistic Pharisee-types concerned only with their own security and the minutiae of the law… simply unwilling to really “get dirty with” and speak the radical gospel to ‘real’ sinners.”

The “I’m not like other Christians you’ve met” pick-up line is getting old. — Todd Wilken


  1. The sins of Biblical figures are exaggerated or sensationalized.

Those sins are bad enough — no sensationalism necessary!

  1. Teaching is often guided by a reaction to the errors of moralistic evangelicalism, rather than God’s Word or the Lutheran Confessions.

It is more than understandable why many an evangelical Christian stuck in moralism might find someone like Forde to be “cool waters”. Still, my point is always this: we can see what is good about Forde’s emphasis on the Gospel message and the incredible power it has — unadulterated gospel preaching should be appreciated by all Christians. Radical Lutherans, however, often give the impression that they see nothing redeeming about things we find valuable, and often even seem hostile towards them: evangelical converts who, while delighted by the Gospel they find here, nevertheless see something lacking in contemporary Lutheran preaching on the law (where is the delight in the law we see in Psalm 1 and Romans 7?), the Lutheran scholastics, the Synodical Conference, etc.

  1. Man’s sinful condition is described as though a person’s sin qualifies him to receive Grace, rather than Grace being without qualification or condition in man.

Crassly put: The Gospel is for real sinners who know they need Christ, not those who show they don’t need him anymore by talking about a third use of the law!

  1. The effects of the Law are attributed to the Gospel.

For Luther, the passion of the Christ, for example, may “hit” someone as law or gospel. That said, if it is exclusively preached as law, the gospel is “all used up” so to speak.

  1. The Law may be avoided to such an extent that the Gospel is pressed into service to do the Law’s work (produce repentance, instruction in good works through “Gospel imperatives”).

This would be classical antinomianism. The Antinomians also wanted to get around the third use of the law by saying: We don’t need the law to teach us what to do. We just use Christ’s example! Luther, recognizing that they didn’t live like pigs, laughs at them, because what’s Christ’s example if not a restatement of the law?

  1. The Gospel is sometimes replaced with “We’re all sinners, who am I to judge?”

In Tom Christenson’s The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education (2004) he goes in a direction that I have heard university-level LC-MS theologians tempted to go… :

“We may say about an unmarried couple living together that they are ‘living in sin’.  A reflective Lutheran should not talk that way because, from a Lutheran point of view, we are all living in sin, whether we are married, single, sexually active, or celibate.  Our sexual situation or orientation or practices do not make us more or less sinful.  Any relationship may be self-serving, harmful, abusive, careless, and hateful.  We are certainly not rid of all that simply because we have enjoyed a church wedding” (44).

Whatever truth might be in Christenson’s statement is made null and void by what is wrong with the statement. Later on, he says “Our own efforts to secure our own sinlessness themselves spring out of pride and are marred by sin” (43) which sounds good on one level, but may cause one to wonder whether there is any genuine “pursuit of holiness”…. I wonder if what he states here goes hand in hand with his anthropology, which, among other places, he addresses on p. 74 of his book:

“But what if Luther was right, that we are simul justus et peccator, not only both saint and sinner but both at the same time and in the same respect? What if, for example, human accomplishments and human destructiveness are not expressions of opposite parts of the human, but expressions of the same thing? What if it is the best part of us that goes wrong? Is Is that the meaning of the story about Adam and even in the garden who ate the fruit from one tree that was the tree of knowledge of both good and evil?” (p. 74)

To say the least, whatever Christenson means by “a) “in the same respect;” b) “expressions of the same thing;” and c) “the best part of us,” this is not Luther’s view of either the significance of the fall or Christian anthropology.




[i] Sometimes Radical Lutherans go in the opposite direction, giving the impression that we really ought to shy away from talking about the Christian’s active faith at all. Nicholas Hopman states in his 2016 Lutheran Quarterly article on the Lex Aeterna in the Antinomian Disputations, things like “[t]he law (First Commandment) demands faith, which is the presence of the living God, who is not the dead Decalogue (law) written on stone tablets (2 Cor. 3:7)” (167, italics mine)

Here’s the video:

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Posted by on September 28, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Review of CPH’s New “So-Called Third Use of the Law” Book

Not the conversation that we need.


Update: See my full review of this book here: or here:


For non-Lutherans, CPH is “Concordia Publishing House”.

For upset Lutherans, please consider taking 14 minutes to listen to one of my pastor’s sermons at the bottom of this page: “The law and love”, from Sept. 10. Faith comes by hearing the word! This should help you get a better handle on how he — someone who more or less agrees with me on these issues — handles the word of truth.

So, this book. There were times in the past week or so whether I wondered whether I would have to eat crow for my pre-emptive strikes against CPH’s new book: The Necessary Distinction: a Continuing Conversation on Law and Gospel.

I honestly wish that would have been the case, but I don’t think an apology is necessary. In fact, the book is worse than I ever thought it would be! In sum, it is a mass of confusion for scholars to deal with, much less your typical layperson.[i]

While the book contains much valuable information and I even enjoyed much of what I read – I loved reading about Stephen Lee (97-99) and Stephen Hultgren’s scholarship is really quite amazing (more below) – there is also much that is misleading and certainly un-Luther-like, which I’ll talk about below.

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little portion which the wold and the devil are that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” — Luther

And let me be absolutely clear so there is no mistake. I do believe it’s a good thing a dialogue like this took place between the LC-MS, NALC, ELCA folks, etc. Really, I do — there is no doubt in my mind such talking is desirable and good.

That said, I just don’t think that the LC-MS dialogue partners were chosen wisely, and, more importantly, that this book ever should have been published by Concordia Publishing House, which is devoted to providing only the best and purest teaching for not only pastors, but us laypersons.

They seem to know that themselves, at some level. We’ll call it a felicitous inconsistency.

And the best construction is?...

And the best construction is?…

The argument I have about the book’s content is simple really, and I’ll take some time to unfold it here after some initial set-up.

First of all, it is interesting that you have many person who are friendly to the late Gerhard Forde and yet seem to deviate from him not only when it comes to his ideas about the atonement, but also when he says that the law of God is temporal.

Luther (not to Dr. Forde): “These true disciples of Satan seem to think that the law is something temporal that has ceased under Christ, like circumcision.”

For example:

  • Stephen Hultgren, in his condensation of his book chapter, states “We can understand divine law for the Christian believer not as the opposite of freedom, but as the proper form by which true freedom is to be shaped.”[ii]
  • Mark Mattes writes: “[t]he new person in Christ truly delights in God and in His ways, how God has ordered the cosmos and the limits he has established for our behavior which fosters our own well-being as well as the well-being of others” (133).
  • James Nestingen writes that the law’s “eschatological significance always remains,” and that it is eternal in this sense, revealing “the shape of life God intends for the creation and the new creation….[Luther’s catechisms] “spell[] out the elemental requirements of creaturely life…” (175, 183).

This all sounds pretty good. However, one also notes this from Dr. Nestingen:

“Augustine, with the Early Church, took the Greco-Roman tradition of natural law. An order built into the shape of life by creation, in the Christian interpretation of it, arranges everything that has being in a hierarchical order from top to bottom. The law, the lex aterna, preserves this order so that all things will move toward the end assigned to them by their status in the hierarchy of being. Natural law is thus inherent in life and necessary to the shaping of existence.

This has important consequences theologically. To begin with, it makes the Law the original way of salvation…. (170).

Giving into paganism? Or…. do we believe that man needed to be “saved” even when “very good” in the Garden?

Let’s stop right there. That last sentence of Jim Nestingen clears up a lot of things right away. It is why, for example, Wade Johnston can write in his harsh critique about Jordan Cooper’s Lex Aeterna book the following:

“Cooper’s scholasticism is too abstract to preach and not concrete enough to fully confess Christ as a person, flesh and blood, whose incarnation, when it comes to us, was not primarily about being something, but about doing things.”

Why? Because Forde is assumed to be correct while Cooper, in embracing “scholasticism,” has fallen to a law-focused “legal scheme” that basically kills the Gospel. As another Forde disciple, Nicholas Hopman, has put it, when a static lex aeterna—“a theological projection of divine, eternal, objective order”— “becomes the framework for the whole theological system, [it] destroy[s] the inherently eschatological nature (Rom. 10:4) of the law-gospel distinction.”[iii]

But assuming that is a fair way to sum up what the older, post-Luther Lutherans believed (there is room to question here!), why, exactly, do they think this is the case? Why, for example, did the late Gerhard Forde believe that any person who upheld the third use of law inevitably took the position of Erasmus? I suggest the answer is very clear: it comes back to the matter of their view of how the First Article of the Creed should fit into our theology.

Like the 3rd use of the law? The “Western tradition” based on creation, fall, and redemption? You are with Erasmus.

As Forde sees it, Erasmus stood with the “entire Western tradition by and large” in his traditional rendering of the fall of man, where the creature was “given a relative perfection in the creation.”[iv] This, he gravely warns “means nothing but trouble for the understanding of sin and freedom” – the “very word ‘fall’” “is not…a good biblical term” (Captivation of the Will, 70).[v]

And this brings us to Naomichi Masaki’s essay in the book on Luther’s Galatians commentary. He says that Luther was not only fighting the “papacy, the enthusiasts, the sacramentarians, and the antinomians alike,” but

“was also fighting against the most powerful and attractive opinion that is inherent in man at the same time: the Law as the original way of salvation. This is what human hearts say. This is also the entire theological tradition both before and after Luther” (italics mine).[vi]

Is this true? That is the core question.

Is Masaki, like Forde, saying that no one previously in church history (post Apostle Paul) had understood that God did not intend for man to live by the law of God, but from the favor of God? Did no one before Luther believe that, in Christ, man could have the peace with God once again that Adam and Eve had had with him in the Garden? Did everyone prior to Luther believe that man, even when perfect in the Garden, needed to be “saved”?

Actually, as I read persons who identify with men like Gerhard Forde, all of these kinds of questions do not seem to occur to them (they do, however, occur to Stephen Hultgren, whose essay really does stand out in this volume). And I think it is because they fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the original creation and Eden – and many (not all!) early church theologians. In a sense, they think the same things that they claim these old theologians did! The “entire theological tradition… before… Luther” they say Luther found himself fighting against!

My argument here is that they, like Masaki does above, are projecting their own false viewpoint of the creation, fall, and redemption on to all the church’s theologians prior to Luther. They look at Luther’s statement that God threatened Adam and Eve by saying “you will surely die,” and they find this threatening. The law always accuses!

A false structure: “[Law and Gospel] are against each other as life and death” (quoted in 316 of TND).

In other words, man, from the beginning, had to deal with a kind of foreign or alien attitude from God: not a pure love which Jesus would demonstrate and could be solely associated with freedom. Rather, they had to deal with something other than a pure love —something which could only be associated with coercion. In short, when God says “you shall surely die,” that is a threat, and that is all you need to know. Period. As Masaki puts it, “The way of the Gospel is not by coercion. The Gospel does not demand; it bestows [God’s] gifts freely” (159).[vii]

The Gospel, in other words, saves us from coercion — even the coercion we feel from God.

For some then, it makes sense to go immediately to what Naomichi Masaki writes here:

“When Luther confessed that the Law was not given to justify but to terrify, accuse and kill, he put himself in enmity against the rest of the theological world. For Luther, the Law was not a description of what man is supposed to do within the structure of the eternal order. Instead, he viewed the Law as what it actually does. It kills” (pp. 153-154, italics mine).

But, as Nestingen acknowledges, Luther talks about how the Decalogue, apart from other parts of the Law, is eternal. This, of course, means that it somehow remains in heaven, revealing as it does “the shape of life God intends for the creation and the new creation”. And so when Jim Nestingen says:

[Augustine’s lex aterna] makes the Law the original way of salvation. The Law must be fulfilled if human beings, who hold a status just below the angels, are to come into the unity with God that is their ultimate purpose. The Law lays down the categories within which grace functions. As Augustine said, ‘Grace gives what the law demands.” (170)

…one notices that for him, the problem, once again, is coercion: “The law must be fulfilled….” Roland Ziegler quotes Werner Elert saying the same thing: “Law denotes our entire reality as the realm ordered by God, but therefore also as a realm of coercion (CE, 81)” (312, TNP).

Getting this right!: “How does (or can) one reconcile the freedom and spontaneity of life in the Spirit with the concept of a Law for the justified, which ought to be noncoercive? This, indeed, is how the Formula [of Concord VI] itself frames the debate” (Hultgren, 191, in TND).

The problem with this view, however, is that Luther — unlike many modern Lutherans — did not believe that the commands given to man in the garden actually threatened him. He did not believe that Adam and Eve felt any pressure to “be saved”, much less that there was the constant pressure of being critiqued, judged, and assessed! For Luther, even though man did have a “relative perfection in creation” (contra Forde) and could progress in the Garden from a lower state to a higher state, this would not have been because they were attempting to gain salvation, that is, attain peace with God. For man already had everything that he needed with his Creator. And good works for the neighbor’s sake were to flow from the peace found in the knowledge and worship of God.

Teleology, or the purpose of our design, is in view here to, as Luther notes: “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?” (AE 1, 131)

Sure, if “Lutheran theology” is not in any sense Luther’s theology!: “Christ has set us free from the teleological life, the life that aims at some kind of ideal” (quoted on 324 in TND).

But doesn’t Luther himself, at other times, seem to contradict my thesis? After all, in his Genesis commentary, while discussing the negative effects St. Augustine’s view of the image of God[viii] had in the history of the church, Luther, ever concerned to guard the doctrine of justification, says the following:

“…although I do not condemn or find fault with that effort and those thoughts by which everything is brought into relationship with the Trinity, I am not at all sure that they are very useful, especially when they are subsequently spun out further; for there is also added a discussion concerning free will, which has its origin in that image. This is what they maintain: God is free, therefore since man is created according to the image of God, he also has free memory, mind, and will. In this way many statements are carelessly made, statements that are either not properly expressed or later on are understood in a wicked way. Thus this was the origin of the dangerous opinion that in governing men God permits them to act under their own impulse. From this assertion came many inconvenient ideas. It is similar to the quotation: ‘God, who created you without you will not save you without you.’ From here the conclusion was drawn that free will co-operated as the preceeding and efficient cause of salvation. No different is the assertion of Dionysius, though more dangerous than the former, when he says that although the demons and the human beings fell nevertheless their natural endowments, such as the mind, memory, will, etc., remain unimpaired. But if this is true, it follows that by the powers of his nature man can bring about his own salvation” (60, 61, italics mine).

Hultgren, defending FC VI: “A third use of the law calls the justified to something higher than the first use does; the latter applies to all people, justified or not” (243).

Is Luther saying that even in the Garden of Eden man needed to reach an ideal to be saved? Not at all! Here, Luther is simply concerned about the way that the issue of “free will” has been understood by most in the Western tradition. The idea has developed such that, in his time, even respectable theologians in the church believed that they could be saved by their own efforts apart from grace – by doing what one could.

But everything that Luther writes in his Genesis commentary gives the exact opposite impression — for him, there was no pressure or coercion here! This, I think, can easily be proved (a brief summation and a much more detailed summation). And this is at the root of our controversies about the third use of the law, which is, at bottom, a matter of Christian anthropology.

Et tu Dr. Scaer? Well, the rule is that if you clearly defend the 3rd use and you are over 70 (“so-called” is derisive!) we let it go. : )

There are, by the way, in this volume, essays which uphold and attempt to defend the third use of the law (though preaching is not mentioned), from both Mark Mattes and from Stephen Hultgren (non LC-MS folks). Both essays are not without their problems however – Hultgren’s, for all its many strengths, even says that Romans 7 is not Paul as a Christian![ix] – and therefore, this is a small consolation. Roland Ziegler’s essay is particularly disappointing. It sets up strawmen (329), lacks depth (What are the implications of insisting that one should not preach like Paul’s letters? How are those who want the legal institution of same-sex marriage nevertheless against the Law? – see 330), and neglects, for example, to mention Edward Englebrecht’s 2011 book Friends of the Law at what would have been an opportune time (312).

Dr. Hultgren, you’ll have to pry Luther’s understanding of Romans 7 away from our cold, dead hands.

Again, I think that the LC-MS should have gotten partners for this dialogue from its own house who were vigorous defenders of the third use of the law (like Dr. David Scaer and Dr. Joel Biermann), and also that they should have published the papers for free on the internet, without any real fanfare. I know the folks at CPH need to eat, but that is not best done by promoting books that say, for example, that Jesus was justly accused by God’s law (157).

In sum, despite the contrary impressions given on the internet – particularly by the editors of this book who have been hawking it – this book is clearly not something to celebrate. Perhaps if Mattes’ and Hultgren’s and even Nestingen’s essays had served as jumping off points for others who clearly uphold the third use of the law to respond (and rebut), this would have been a great book. As it stands however, the book just gives us another duty for us to fulfill.

“Make duty a pleasure!”


Note: I have changed the text above somewhat (5:45 central time) for the purposes of clarification, filling in some blanks.


[i] In sum, I stand by everything I said, when I had only read all the preliminary materials that were available and had heard a podcast interview with the editors.

[ii] As reader Jon Alan Schmidt observes about this paper, “Skimming through it, he does not appear to address the question of whether paraenetic exhortation is appropriate within the sermon.” Jeff Mallinson, from Concordia Irvine has recently written a paper for Concordia Seward’s education journal (where he, incidently, really gets one of my writings wrong in a footnote) where he also argues that exhortation in the sermon is never really necessary if it is being done in other venues.

[iii] pp. 153, 172, Lutheran Quarterly, Spring, 2016. This leads to other interesting conclusions on Hopman’s part:

  • “[T]he content of the commandment/law is always a weapon attacking human sin” (159).
  • “Where there is no accusation, there is no law” (164)
  • “Only where there is freedom from law… can there be love of the law” (167)
  • “[T]he law and delight in the law are two mutually exclusive realities” (167)
  • “The Christian, in faith alone, is beyond the law” (160)
  • The Christian is successful vs. sin because the Christian and Holy Spirit are not law (171)
  • “[The] law is present only where Christ is absent” (164), and the Holy Spirit is “the opposite of the law” (166)
  • “[T]he fulfillment of the law actually empties the law of all its content, namely, its threatening teeth” (160, italics mine)

[iv] This is exactly what Luther says in his commentary on Genesis (see AE 1). Perhaps what we have here is an “immature very good” (able not to sin) which, through growth in God’s word, moves towards a “mature very good” (not able to sin). See FC VI: 11 ff. One also can consider the Lord Jesus, always free from sin, as regards his growth according to His human nature. We consider that as a child even our Lord “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (NIV), and, as a part of this experience, gladly heard teachers of the law and, undoubtedly, his parents. This aspect of our creatureliness should surely be kept in mind vs. any interpretation of the  new man which, improperly elevating passages like Jeremiah 31: 34, I Cor. 2:15-16, I John 2:27, etc. might insist that the new man never learns through teaching (seeing this as synonymous with coercion!).

[v] Elsewhere in the book we read the following description of this larger Western creation that Forde is critical of:

“The larger Christian tradition begins theologically with creation and the fall. There are certain inherent human characteristics, present by creation, that distinguish humanity from the other creatures of the earth, such as reason and freedom of the will. These powers function in the context of God’s all-embracing law, also inherent to the creation, promoting obedience or turning in the fall toward disobedience. Self-seeking, the force of disobedience, has become the condition of created humanity since the fall, releasing the forces of disorder implicated in the fall.”

[vi] Later he writes: “What we observe from Luther’s confession of the doctrine of the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is that unlike the medieval scholastic theology that had gone before him and the default position of the human heart that goes on as long as man exists in the world, the Law is not the ultimate any longer; the Law is not the way of salvation. The Law is now replaced by Christ” (p. 161).

[vii] See also footnote 103 of his article, p. 159.

[viii] Augustine had said that “the image of God is the powers of the soul – memory, the mind or intellect, and will” (60). More: “Augustine has much to say in his explanation of this passage [Gen. 1:26], particularly in his book On the Trinity. Moreover, the remaining doctors in general follow Augustine, who keeps Aristotle’s classification: that the image of God is the powers of the soul – memory, the mind or intellect, and the will. These three, they say, comprise the image of God which is in all men.

Moreover, they say that the similitude (or likeness, as distinct from image) lies in the gifts of grace. Just as a similitude (likeness) is a certain perfection of an image, so, they say our nature is perfected through grace. And so the similitude of God consists in this, that the memory is provided with hope, the intellect with faith, and the will with love. In this way, they say, man is created according to the image of God; that is, he has a mind, a memory, and a will. Likewise, man is created according to the similitude of God; that is, the intellect is enlightened by faith, the memory is made confident through hope and steadfastness, and the will is adorned with love” (60).

[ix] See 190-191, 219-226. Hultgren abandons Luther’s simul, which, somehow, is able to incorporate both “totus-totus” and “partim-partim” dimensions. He also states that FC VI can be nothing other than a “compromise document”. More work needs to be done here, to say the least! All this said, Robert Benne is right when he says that this is the “definitive essay” in the book. There is much valuable and clarifying information in this essay, which should be read by persons who feel a need to delve deeply into FC VI, or, particularly, feel tempted to deny it. As I have been saying, CPH should not have published this book for profit, but the LC-MS should have made these papers freely available without fanfare.

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Without a Free and Active Will in the Garden?: Luther on Man’s Prelapsarian Will in His Genesis Commentary

What does this mean?: “[He] grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (sermon from my pastor on this text)


It seems to me that the book “The Proper Distinction,” could have benefited from an essay on Luther’s view of man (anthropology) in the Genesis commentary. Here is is a essay, admittedly lengthy, I wrote that covers that ground — while also relating it to what we hear about the topic in the Scriptures and Confessions. Note that this has not undergone peer review, but I offer it now in the hope that some peers might review it, and if need be, critique it below. Enjoy.

(note: this paper deals with issues touched on more briefly — and less completely — in this post from my series on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies).



During his life, Martin Luther was clearly no stranger to controversy. After he had become an extremely popular figure in his country subsequent to publishing his 95 Theses, there was no shortage of foes in the church attempting to stop him. The great Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus was the most renowned scholar who, pressured by those in power, attempted to slow the march of the popular reformer.

The story is well-known among church historians: Erasmus wrote against Luther by focusing on man’s “free will”[1], and Luther famously responded that the great Dutch humanist alone had gone to “the heart of the matter, the very jugular of theology”. Luther’s response, of course, was his storied De Servo Arbitrio (On the Enslaved Will in English), which we know as The Bondage of the Will. Here, as is well-known, he argued for absolutely excluding works from salvation, with the soul cast entirely upon God’s grace.

The relationship that Lutherans have had with this book has been complicated, to say the least. Luther himself later said that besides the The Bondage of the Will and The Small Catechism, one could burn everything else he wrote,[2] but evidently, Lutherans themselves have not, traditionally, agreed with this evaluation. Even during Luther’s life, the documents that would become the Lutheran Confessions did not talk about the matter of predestination, a heavy topic in Luther’s Bondage of the Will. And later on, in the 1580 Formula of Concord, Luther’s view of predestination[3] would arguably be rejected even as reading the Bondage of the Will would be commended for the edification of the believer.

Going into detail about the issues surrounding the Bondage of the Will is beyond the scope of this paper (and books have been written on the topic), but examining a related, and seemingly smaller question, is within reach. That topic is the nature of man’s will in the garden, as explained in Luther’s Genesis commentary, written in the last ten years of his life. How did Luther see man’s will before it was enslaved by sin? Further, are we able to draw any significant implications from Luther’s views on the “prelapsarian” will (that is, man’s will prior to the fall) that might help us to understand his views on the redeemed will of man? Again, this paper will endeavor to answer these questions while primarily limiting itself to Martin Luther’s views presented in the Genesis commentary, and particularly Luther’s comments found in first four chapters of that book. Given that these chapters talk about the nature of man both before and after the fall, the author believes it most likely that what Luther taught regarding both the free/unenslaved and redeemed will are likely to be most clearly presented here.


The wider context surrounding the question of the free, or unenslaved will

One of the first things that one notices when examining the early chapters of Luther’s Genesis commentary is how he distinguishes the life in the garden from the life to come. The first life can be labeled as being physical, material, and temporal, whereas the life to come can be identified as being spiritual and eternal. Regarding the first stage of life, Luther talks about how the “tree of life” (not the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”) was put in the garden in order to preserve Adam and Eve in their “full bodily vigor, free from diseases and free from weariness” (92 – all subsequent page numbers in this paper are from Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume I, or AE I). According to him, this tree of life would have “preserved his powers and perfect health at all times” (93), even “preserv[ing] perpetual youth” (92). But of course, life with God is about much more than this world! For example, Luther says:

 “…man[, unlike “cows, pigs, and other beasts”] is a creature created to inhabit the celestial regions and live an eternal life when, after a while, he has left the earth. For this is the meaning of the fact that he can not only speak and form judgments (things which belong to dialectics and rhetoric) but also learns all the sciences thoroughly” (46).

In Luther’s view, man was created in the image and likeness of God, and this was “an indication of another and better life than the physical” (57). He was to be “a creature far superior to the rest of the living beings that live a physical life” (56). Unlike Epicurus, who “holds the opinions that man was created solely to eat and drink”, Moses “indicates to those who are spiritually minded that we were created for a better life than this physical life would have been even if our nature had remained unimpaired.” Here Luther approvingly cites Peter Lombard, who said that “Even if Adam had not fallen through his sin, still, after the appointed number of saints had been attained, God would have translated them from this animal life to the spiritual life” (56).[4]

Luther then goes on to say the following:

 “Adam was not to live without food, drink, and procreation. But at a predetermined time, after the number of saints had become full, these physical activities would have come to an end; and Adam, together with his descendants, would have been translated to the eternal and spiritual life. Nevertheless, these activities of physical life – like eating, drinking, procreating, etc. – would have been a service pleasing to God; we could also have rendered this service to God without the defect of the lust which is there now after sin, without any sin and without the fear of death. This would have surely been a pleasant and delightful life, a life about which we may indeed think but which we may not attain in this life….” (57).[5]

Later on in the commentary, Luther even writes that “after this physical life was to come a spiritual life, in which [Adam] would neither make use of physical food nor do other things which are customary in this life but would live an angelic and spiritual life” (AE 1: 65). The implications of these views seem rather clear. Even if Luther is not outright consigning the “new heavens and new earth” of Scripture to an existence that is less than concrete, he is clearly downplaying the physical aspect of life, and elevating the spiritual (even as he later talks about the future life also being a “physical life” which would be “blissful and holy, spiritual and eternal” [80].)

Or stated more specifically, and for our purposes in this paper, he is elevating and drawing attention to those who are “spiritually minded”, and who act “in obedience to God and submission to His will” (65)[6], vis a vis those who only know and live according to worldly, “Epicurean” desires. Important here then is also what he goes on to state: “Adam had a twofold life: a physical one and an immortal one, though this was not yet clearly revealed, but only in hope” (57).

Before we can dig more deeply into the implications of these words, it will be important to examine more closely how Luther views the nature of man as God created Him, that is, in the image and likeness of God.


Man’s creation in God’s image and the exclusion of free will from the same definition

Luther does not spend much time talking about man’s likeness – though what he does say about it is significant (see below) – but he does discuss in great detail man’s creation in God’s image.

Regarding the nature of the “image of God” in man, Luther writes: “I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent. Memory, will, and mind we have indeed; but they are most depraved and seriously weakened, yes, to put it more clearly, they are utterly leprous and unclean” (61). Elsewhere, he says “after the Fall death crept like leprosy into all our perceptive powers, so that with our intellect we cannot even understand that image”, “no one can picture in his thoughts how much better nature was then than it is now” (62), and “we have no experience of [the image of God], but we continually experience the opposite” (63).[7]

Not long before saying these things, he mentions the negative effects St. Augustine’s view of the image of God[8] had in the history of the church. Augustine had said that “the image of God is the powers of the soul – memory, the mind or intellect, and will” (60). Ever concerned to guard the doctrine of justification, Luther counters:

 “…although I do not condemn or find fault with that effort and those thoughts by which everything is brought into relationship with the Trinity, I am not at all sure that they are very useful, especially when they are subsequently spun out further; for there is also added a discussion concerning free will, which has its origin in that image. This is what they maintain: God is free, therefore since man is created according to the image of God, he also has free memory, mind, and will. In this way many statements are carelessly made, statements that are either not properly expressed or later on are understood in a wicked way. Thus this was the origin of the dangerous opinion that in governing men God permits them to act under their own impulse. From this assertion came many inconvenient ideas. It is similar to the quotation: ‘God, who created you without you will not save you without you.’ From here the conclusion was drawn that free will co-operated as the preceeding and efficient cause of salvation. No different is the assertion of Dionysius, though more dangerous than the former, when he says that although the demons and the human beings fell nevertheless their natural endowments, such as the mind, memory, will, etc., remain unimpaired. But if this is true, it follows that by the powers of his nature man can bring about his own salvation” (60, 61, bold mine).

This statement, especially the part which I have italicized above, will be addressed later in the paper. For now though, let us explore how Luther himself defines the “image of God”. He says the following:

 “…my understanding of the image of God is this: that Adam had it in his being and that he not only knew God and believed that He was good, but that he also lived in a life that was wholly godly; that is, he was without the fear of death or of any other danger, and was content with God’s favor” (62, 63, bold mine).

One notes that Luther talks about man not living a life that was wholly godly, but living in a life that was wholly godly. This, of course, places the emphasis on what God has created man to be, in the pattern of what Luther says in his explanation of the first article of the Apostle’s Creed. Of course man would eventually lose this image of God through sin. Regarding the passage “On whatever day you eat from this tree, you will die by death”, Luther writes:

 “..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’” (62, bold mine).

In spite of this, we might think, fearful warning[9], one thing that immediately stands out about Luther’s commentary is that Luther gives the impression that man, created in the image of God, was perfectly at ease with his Creator.[10] 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” (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?” (65, italics mine) 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.[11]

What else does Luther say about the image of God in man that we should recognize, “now [that] we wretched men have lost that bliss of our physical life through sin…”? (80)

First of all, we cannot ignore Luther’s brief comments about man being in the likeness, or similitude, of God. Like many theologians, Luther here insists on distinguishing between the image and likeness, evident when he says, for example, “Satan assails the greatest strength of man and battles against the likeness of God, namely, the will that was properly disposed toward God” (150).[12] One notes that while Luther has excluded the will – which he elsewhere says was good, sound, upright and righteous (141,142) – from his definition of the image of God, he has included it here.

Second, one also sees how the likeness of God goes hand-in-hand with an explanation of the original righteousness that Adam had in the garden.  Over and against the sin-minimizing scholastic theologians who maintained that man’s original righteousness was “added to man as a gift, as when someone places a wreath on a pretty girl”, Luther said it was “not a gift which came from without, separate from man’s nature, but that it was truly part of his nature, so that it was Adam’s nature to love God, to believe God, to know God, etc.” (165 ; for more on goodness and uprightness of man’s original nature see, e.g., 115, 153, 156, and 163).

Thirdly, when Luther writes also about the glorious restoration of the image of God, whereby Christ’s righteousness restores the believer’s own original righteousness, he is now willing to talk about man’s will.  His entire description of the full restoration of God’s image in man is worth quoting in full (all the bold are mine):

 “But now the Gospel has brought about the restoration of that image. Intellect and will have remained, but both very much impaired. And so the Gospel brings it about that we are formed once more according to that familiar and indeed better image, because we are born again into eternal life or rather into the hope of eternal life by faith, that we may live in God and with God and be one with Him, as Christ says (John 17:21)

And indeed, we are reborn not only for life but also for righteousness, because faith acquires Christ’s merit and knows that through Christ’s death we have been set free. From this source our other righteousness has its origin, namely, that newness of life through which we are zealous to obey God as we are taught by the Word and aided by the Holy Spirit. But this righteousness has merely its beginning in this life, and it cannot attain perfection in this flesh. Nevertheless, it pleases God, not as though it were a perfect righteousness or a payment for sin but because it comes from the heart and depends on its trust in the mercy of God through Christ. Moreover, this also is brought about by the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit is given to us, who offers resistance in us to unbelief, envy, and other vices that we may earnestly strive to glorify the name of the Lord and His Word, etc.

In this manner this image of the new creature begins to be restored by the Gospel in this life, but it will not be finished in this life. But when it is finished in the kingdom of the Father, then the will will be truly free and good, the mind truly enlightened, and the memory persistent

Until this is accomplished in us, we cannot have adequate knowledge of what that image of God was which was lost through sin in Paradise. But what we are stating faith and the Word teach, which, as if from a distance, point out the glory of the divine image. Just as in the beginning the heaven and the earth were unfinished masses, so to speak, before the light had been added, so the godly have within themselves that unfinished image which God will on the Last Day bring to perfection in those who have believed His Word.

Therefore that image of God was something most excellent, in which were included eternal life, everlasting freedom from fear, and everything that is good” (64, 65, bold mine).

Again, Luther’s view of man’s place in God’s world is unique among the 16th century reformers. It is worth pointing out here that when Luther says, for example, “rather into the hope of eternal life by faith”, at the beginning of the long quotation above, he is echoing the biblical concept of hope – as being that in the future which is certain and secure.

That this is in fact what Luther means can be clarified in part by looking at what he says elsewhere in the commentary, namely: “[Satan] envied man….that after so blissful a physical life he had the sure hope of eternal life, which [he] himself had lost” (82, italics mine). Elsewhere, he speaks of, for example, “the clear hope of a certain resurrection and of [full] renewal in the other life after this life” (196). How that security is obtained – apart from our works – is in part dealt with in the topic of the following section.


Man’s prelapsarian will, in relation to things below and things above

As in Luther’s famed Bondage of the Will, the distinction between “things above” and “things below” – and its important relation to the matter of “free will” – makes an appearance in the Genesis commentary:

 “But once the male and the female are so created, man is then procreated out of their blood through the divine blessing. Although this procreation is something has in common with the brutes, it detracts nothing from that glory of our origin, namely, that we are vessels of God, formed by God Himself, and that He himself is our Potter, but we are His clay, as Is. 64:8 says. And this holds good not only for our origin but throughout our whole life; until our death and in the grave we remain the clay of this Potter.

Moreover, this helps us to learn something about the properties of free will, a subject with which our opponents concern themselves so extensively. In a certain way we indeed have free will in those things that are beneath us. By the divine commission we have been appointed lords of the fish of the sea, of the birds of the heavens, and of the beasts of the field. These we kill when it pleases us; we enjoy the foods and other useful products they supply. But in those matters that pertain to God and are above us no human being has a free will; he is indeed like clay in the hand of the potter, in a state of merely passive potentiality, not active potentiality. For there we do not choose, we do not do anything; but we are chosen, we are equipped, we are born again, we accept, as Isaiah says (64:8): ‘Thou are the Potter; we, Thy clay’” (85, bold mine).

A couple interesting points stick out here right away. First of all, Luther is talking about “free will” not so much in philosophical terms, but about it in terms of who has the power in man’s relationship to God. Man is able to “have his way” with the other creatures God has made, but when it comes to his standing before God, man must and can only be passive. He is powerless before the Almighty Creator, and this, evidently, whether or not he finds himself on the right or wrong side of God’s will.

Second, the language of “potentiality” sticks out. A related footnote here reads the following: “By ‘passive potentiality’ is apparently meant the idea that the only possibility a man has lies in what can be done to him rather than in anything that can be done by him” (85, fn 9). Interestingly, this same kind of active and passive language occurs in Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputations (elevated to prominence in recent years by Gerhard Forde) – along with a reference to the prelapsarian will of man! Theses 14 and 15, respectively, read: “Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity” and “Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.”[13]

What here, is meant by these terms, “passive” and “active capacity”? Fortunately, Luther himself tells us what he means in his explanations of these theses. In his explanation of thesis 14, Luther argues that fallen man’s free will is dead, “as demonstrated by the dead whom the Lord has raised up”. That thing which a man who is dead in sin does in an active manner, is only a thing done towards death. Luther’s explanation to thesis 15 is a bit more difficult to grasp, so I will first quote it and then comment on what it means:

The Master of the Sentences [i.e. Peter Lombard], quoting Augustine, states, ‘By these testimonies it is obviously demonstrated that man received a righteous nature and a good will when he was created, and also the help by means of which he could prevail. Otherwise it would appear as though he had not fallen because of his own fault.’ He speaks of an active capacity, which is obviously contrary to Augustine’s opinion in his book, Concerning Reprimand and Grace (De Correptione et Gratia), where the latter puts it this way: ‘He received the ability to act, if he so willed, but he did not have the will by means of which he could act.’ By ‘ability to act’ he understands the original capacity, and by ‘will by means of which he could,’ the active capacity.

The second part, however, is sufficiently clear from the same reference to the Master.”[14]

What may not be immediately clear here is that Luther is saying that Lombard’s idea of the “active capacity” of the will and Augustine’s idea of the will are simply at odds. For Luther, the scholastics in general really taught that the soul’s natural powers, fueled by God’s grace, produce the necessary faith, which is also a conscious and free decision in response to God’s call. On the other hand, for Augustine, man prior to the fall did have the ability, or potential, or capacity, to act in accordance with God’s will, but it was fully dependent on God’s prior activity. In other words, this simply means that man, as he was created, always needed God and was always meant to be fully and trustingly dependent on Him.

As Gerhard Forde put it in his book about the Heidelberg Disputations, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, “active capacity” simply means “not acted upon from without”.[15] Luther is saying that Adam, even in his prelapsarian state, needed to be acted upon from without and hence did not have the kind of active capacity to do good that Lombard promoted.

But would this then mean that Lombard was right in his criticism: “it would appear as though he had not fallen because of his own fault”? Not at all – for man was always able to resist the goodness of God. Prior to the fall, already having the promise of a “share in immortality” (117), man operated in a “state of grace” and was really to be the one through whom God had chosen to do His work – man was to be His mask.

“Not my will, but His be done” was the watchword, just as it was with our Lord. The will could remain in a state of innocence, but only when receiving from God. “What do we have that we have not received?” the Apostle Paul asks. And as Luther notes elsewhere, for human beings to see themselves anything other than receivers was to fundamentally misunderstand who God was.[16]

“But why”, one might ask, “was man always able to resist the goodness of God?” If God had created man perfectly, why should man have been able to, as the Formula of Concord states, both “able not to sin” and “able to sin”? This great mystery continues to challenge us to this day.

It is not that there is nothing more to say about this topic from Luther’s commentary though. In some parts of the commentary, Luther writes that Adam and Eve, as those who were “led by the Spirit”, had in some sense been created perfect (150: “man was created perfect and according to the likeness of God”). Elsewhere however, he says that we were, by virtue of our only having a mortal life, “imperfect” (115: “he was endowed with extraordinary perception and an upright yet imperfect will”), even if he was also “innocent and righteous”. In the third place, he writes that at the proper time, Adam would be translated into the heavenly kingdom, leaving behind the “innocence of a child” (“so to speak”) for the “virile innocence which angels have and which we, too, shall have in the future life”. Luther goes on to write:

 “I call it the innocence of a child because Adam was, so to speak, in a middle position and yet could be deceived by Satan and fall into disaster, as he did. The danger of such a fall will not exist in that perfect innocence which will be found in the future and spiritual life.”

Luther maintains that the command about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil communicates the following:

“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” (111, bold mine).[17]

I have italicized above the words saying they could “remain in it”. How could they do this? There are a couple things to consider. First of all, there is no reason to say that now, the focus can no longer be on receiving God’s gifts, but is rather some “legal scheme”, as Forde might put it.

The author’s mind moves quickly to what Luther says about God sharing the goodness of Eve with Adam:

 “Moses adds, ‘And He brought her to Adam,’ is a sort of description of betrothal, which is worthy of special note. Adam does not snatch Eve of his own will after she has been created, but he waits for God to bring her to him. So Christ also says (Matt. 19:6): ‘What God has joined let no man part.’….” (134).

What I mean is this: all – even Adam’s corresponding response to God’s gifts – is a gift of God, and will follow the pattern of goodness and good moral order ordained by God and received by man. To say this is by no means to ignore the humanness of this situation, retreating into impersonal and abstract notions of goodness, and, as Forde would put it “legal schemes”. The reason that the humanness of the situation is not lost is because we also need to say that any good work that Adam does in response to God’s gift will not be for his own glory and crown but rather the “crown” for whom the work is good – that is the neighbor loved by God (see I Thes. 2:19 and Philippians 4:1).

And this brings us to the second matter: that of Adam’s activity as inspired and motivated by God’s Holy Spirit. It would seem, by both passively and actively consenting to the goodness of Godpassively in terms of receiving His gifts of love and grace – like an infant willing to be nothing but given to – and actively in terms of receiving the “good works… prepared beforehand” that His “poems” (ποίημα) should walk in them (Eph. 2:10) – like the man ready to follow his leader into war (please note that these good works would not preclude the good work of consistently attending to the word of God, simply taking time to rest in His certain care, and sit at His feet). One notes that by definition, any notion of consent means that you are not acting alone, but with another, responding to one another.

Again, at this point it is perhaps essential to mention the distinction here with the Reformed idea of the “covenant of works”, something it might seem a man like Gerhard Forde cannot avoid consigning Adam Eve’s prelapsarian existence to. The fact of the matter is, as has been shown time and again throughout this paper, Adam and Eve already were in a stable and secure relationship with God and it was from this security – and not the hope of an eternal life of God by their works – from which they lived. One should also recall at this point Luther’s persistent point that, post-fall, good works were never meant to be that which would effect believers’ salvation, but rather were to be done for the good of the neighbor in response to God’s goodness to them in the promise of Christ (189-199).

Of course, not every person claiming the name “Lutheran” is likely to agree with the idea here that Luther is allowing for some sort of active participation (i.e. “active consent” instead of Lombard’s “active capacity”) when it comes to either man’s prelapsarian or lapsarian will. They might point out, for example, that Luther rejected the idea, born of a medieval allegory, that Eve was “the lower part of reason”, in part because this interpretation of Genesis 3:14 “is the source of the familiar secular discussions about free will and about reason’s striving toward the supreme good.” (which turns theology into philosophy and “specious prattle”) (165)

That said, earlier in the commentary, Luther also states that man, with a nature that “somewhat excelled the female” would have, in the face of the serpent’s temptation, have crushed the serpent saying “Shut up! The Lord’s command was different.” He goes on: “Satan… directs his attack on Eve as the weaker part…” (151). Here, there is certain a focus on an aggressively active will in Adam, motivated entirely on the basis of God’s word.

Therefore, here it seems that the one who resists man’s active participation in the fulfillment of the commandments of the First table in particular (as well as the commandments in general) must ask whether the authors of the Formula of Concord believed that they were being faithful to Luther’s views when they insist that man does not cooperate in regards to his justification but does cooperate in regards to his sanctification.

In safeguarding the doctrine of justification against Rome, Luther was certainly right to make the critical distinction that he did between “things above” and “things below”. That said, we also must not forget that many of the “things above” come to us in the midst of the “things below”…. The final section of this paper will address the various contexts –historical and teleological – surrounding man’s ongoing sanctification in the Garden of Eden that God has revealed to us.


Man’s will, teleology, and divine revelation

Regarding the issue of the context for man’s spiritual growth in the Garden of Eden, Luther notes that “while the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is forbidden, the outward worship of the church is established by divine authority – the worship in which they would have born witness of their obedience to God if they had avoided the devil’s snares” (140).


 “[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” (144, bold mine).

Further, it is important to note here that: “the Law given to the unrighteous is not the same Law that was given to righteous Adam” (109). “[W]e have a different Word, which Adam did not have when his nature was perfect…” 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” (154).[18]

Moving on specifically to lay out the teleological truths one may gather from divine revelation, Luther forthrightly states that “man is a unique creature and that he [alone] is suited to be a partaker of divinity and immortality” (AE 1: 115).[19] 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).

While it is not absent in his other writings (see, for example, pp. 64, 65 and also the Large Catechism), Luther’s talk in this commentary and elsewhere does not really abound in talk about the believer’s faith and love becoming more mature. It is particularly noteworthy that, in this commentary, Luther, to my knowledge, does not ever talk about the possibility of prelapsarian Adam’s faith and love becoming more mature during the course of their earthly, physical life. Nevertheless, I contend that this is not because he did not believe that this should have occurred, but rather because of concerns about this point being used to by Roman Catholic polemicists to nefarious purposes.

As can be seen above, clearly Luther thought that the notion of “free will” was rather toxic and had been abused greatly by the Roman Catholic Church and others. Even today, great Christians like C.S. Lewis, have made statements like “in order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love.” Luther would have undoubtedly had concerns with even a statement like this, and justifiably so.[20] Therefore, he was not eager to use the term in a positive sense, even as he did use the term early on in his ministry – even to books written for the Christian layman (see his exposition on the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in AE 42: 47, 48).

Luther’s particular writings always need to be considered in light of the whole of his corpus, or misunderstandings are liable to be the result. For example, at times he seems to clearly conflate man’s status as creature and his fall into sin. In his Deuteronomy commentary, for example, Luther says that “from his creation man has free knowledge and power to rule and deal with those lesser than himself”, but that he is not capable of governing himself and pleasing his superior (“There free will ends; there he is necessarily blind, powerless, yes, dead and condemned”).[21] In like fashion, in his Genesis commentary he says at one point that “matrimony was divinely instituted and commanded for those who cannot live a chaste life without it” (96). Here, one might wonder: “Is Luther saying that the only reason that God gave man marriage in the first place because of His foreknowledge of man’s sin?” Here, I think, one must take into consideration what Luther says elsewhere about procreation being a purpose of marriage in this physical, earthly life.[22]

So were Adam and Eve created and placed in the garden with the desire that they would mature and grow in sanctity and strength? One is hard pressed to argue why this would not be the case. We can, after all, be pleased with the sapling that we plant in our back yard. But as it grows it provides both shade and fruit, and we then become more pleased with it. It was no less “sinless” as a sapling, being exactly what it should be. It was, however, not “perfected”, i.e. not in a position to bear fruit and give shade…

And here, we must note this: even our Lord Jesus – even He who was immortal and without corruption and sin! – became perfect on earth according to His human nature. In short, God became a son of man – and learned obedience, grew in favor with God, and became perfect (complete) – that we might become a son of God.[23]

It is highly doubtful to this reader at least that Luther would have any problem in saying this. Applying this to God’s goals for humanity prior to the Fall, it would, again, of course be wrong to think that the original righteousness that is attributed to man’s nature is something possessed by and for himself.  Here, it was something given to Him by God in which, acted upon from without (by God), he was to grow – and, contra the scholastics, never under his “own impulse”.

And of course, as Luther was fond of pointing out, the life of God’s children, even in the midst of great suffering, was meant to ultimately be a spontaneous life of joyful service – featuring an utter selflessness and self-forgetfulness… even towards God Himself. In his Advent postil of 1522, for example, we read this startling quotation:

 “If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies, a husband for his wife and children, a wife for her husband, children for their parents, servants for their masters, masters for their servants, rulers for their subjects and subjects for their rulers, so that one’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, heart and desire is for others; these are Christian works, good in nature.”[24]

Here we see something of the ideal kind of faith that Luther famously talked about in the introduction to the book of Romans in his translation of the Bible: the Christian acting in a wholly spontaneous manner, eager to do the good to and for one’s neighbor God had given them as a pure gift (note Paul’s selflessness in Romans 9:1-5 – ready to give us his own justification for his neighbor!) – and whom He Himself would have us focus on (as He does not need our good works). Even as one should not restrict talk of the Christian life to just this (i.e., see the first part of this section as well, and the discussion on fighting temptation, for example).

And of course, when we talk about this original and restored righteousness we should also not lose sight the bigger picture talked about in the first part of the paper – where Luther contrasted this earthly life with the life to come.  Here we connect God’s ultimate goals for us, noted at earlier points in this paper, with the goals that He accomplished for us in Christ. Luther says the following when he talks about God making man a “living soul”:

 “In the state of innocence no doubt this image was reflected in a unique way in Adam and Eve…even after sin the Gentiles concluded… [man] is a rather outstanding creature among all the rest of the creatures.

Paul’s thoughts go back to this when he quotes the following words from I Cor. 15:45: ‘It is written: The first human being, Adam, was made a living soul; but the last Adam, a quickening spirit.’ ‘Living soul’ he calls the physical life, which consists of eating, drinking, begetting, growing, all of which are also present in the brutes. But by antithesis he says that the last Adam was made a quickening spirit, that is, such a life as has no need for those animal requirements of life. Paul also teaches that even if Adam had not sinned, he would still have lived a physical life in need of food, drink, rest. He would have grown, procreated, etc., until he would have been translated by God to a spiritual life in which he would have live without any animals qualities, if I may use this expression, namely, from within, from God alone, not from without, as he had previously, on herbs and fruits. This would have been in such a manner that he would still have flesh and bones and would not be a mere spirit like the angels.

…Through the mouth of Moses God wanted, also in this passage, to point to the hope of a future and eternal life, which Adam, had he remained in the state of innocence, would have had as his possession after this animal life….” (86).

All this said, I’m still looking forward to the wedding feast of the Lamb being a real feast with real food, even if, strictly speaking, Luther is correct to insist that we will no longer need to eat.



In this conclusion I will briefly wrap up what has been discussed here and go on to make some comments that might be even more controversial than the ones above.

In Martin Luther’s Genesis commentary one notes how, in spite of the concerns he has with terms like “free will”, he is able to talk about man’s will and its importance in God’s plan for man. While never meant to operate by its own power man’s will nevertheless was meant to both passively and actively consent to all the good gifts that God meant to give His creatures. Lutherans in particular, having a rich understanding of these two emphases in their doctrines of justification and sanctification, should be able, better than most, to do full justice to statements in Scripture that might at first glance appear difficult to reconcile. For example, passages like “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (I Cor. 9:22) on the one hand, and “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Cor. 3:7) on the other. Or “…even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” (I Cor. 10:33) on the one hand, and “so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (I Thes. 2:4), on the other.  Or “…to this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29), on the one hand, and “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (I Cor. 15:10), on the other.

Luther said, “In every single man God precedes with grace and works before we pray for grace and cooperate.”[25] What else can those who believe “what do we have that we have not received?” think? And still, we can be challenged more. Looking at someone like the Apostle Paul, we might go so far to say that God appears to choose to save Paul and also further chooses to make him, by influencing him further through His love, to be a willing cause of his neighbor’s salvation. Would Paul be horrified to take such credit for himself? Apart from Christ to be sure, but it doesn’t seem that Paul thinks that he should necessarily be left out of the equation. God surely could have chosen to pick another man for the task (Luther: “the will of God comes even without our prayer…), but it seems Paul might rather say, “thanks be to God that I have been blessed to play a part in this”. Lutherans who assert that even the unregenerate can decide, in a “things below”-act, to hear the Word of God (which can convert them), perhaps ought to hesitate to think that they cannot – because of God’s “things above” working in the midst of the “things below” – play a critical, conscious, and active role in God’s causing many to come to a saving knowledge of Him. That more and more might be able to receive something like, and even better than, the Paradise that they were meant with the Triune God from the beginning of all things…

“He frees those who are overwhelmed by death, and transports them to eternal life. This he does…. By crushing the head of the serpent. Accordingly, we now find Adam and Eve restored, not indeed to the life which they had lost, but to the hope of that life. Through this hope they escaped, not the first fruits of death, but its tithes; that is, although their flesh must die for the time being, nevertheless, because of the promised Son of God, who would crush the head of the devil, they hope for the resurrection of the flesh an eternal life after the temporal death of the flesh, just as we do” (197-198).




[1] Erasmus was always trying to find the middle road between the “extremes,” regardless of the truth. The free will, he said, is “the ability of the human will according to which man is able either to turn himself to what leads to eternal salvation, or to turn away from it.” “They say that man cannot will anything good without special grace,… cannot complete anything without… the constant help of divine grace. This opinion seems to be pretty probable, because it leaves to man a striving and an effort, and yet does not admit that he is to ascribe even the least to his own powers.” “The Formula of Concord, Article II, Of the Free Will”, Milwaukee Metro North Pastoral Conference; September 21, 1991.

[2] 127 volumes in German, much more than the 65 or so volumes now available in English American Edition [henceforth AE]).

[3] A good article by Matthew Block on the topic:

[4] Footnote 88 reads here: “Cf. Peter Lombard, Sententiarum libri quatuor, II, Dist. XX, Patrologia, Series Latina, CXCII, 692-694.”

[5] Luther goes on here: “But this we have, that we believe in a spiritual life after this life and a destination for this life in Paradise, which was devised and ordained by God, and that we confidently look for it through the merit of Christ.” He later states also: “…now the present life is separated from the future life by that awful intermediate event, death. In the state of innocence that intermediate event would have been a most delightful one; by it Adam would have been translated to the spiritual life, or, as Christ calls it in the Gospel, to the angelic life (Matt 22:30), in which physical activities come to an end. For in the resurrection of the dead we shall not eat, drink, or marry” (111). Luther elsewhere talks about how that transformation would have taken place in much the same way that God made Eve from Adam’s rib while he slept (130).

[6] Those who don’t think Luther ever highlighted obedience should see his commentary on Deuteronomy (AE 9), and his discussion of the Ten Commandments in the Large Catechism. In addition, in 1519 Luther also expounded on the Lord’s prayer, and contrasting the new man in the Christian with the old Adam (“The old Adam is simply the evil leaning in us towards wrath, hatred, unchastity, greed, vainglory, pride, and the like.” [AE 42: 43]), Luther stated, for example, things like the following: “No matter how good our will may be, it is still immeasurably inferior to God’s will” ; “….this good will in us must be hindered for its own improvement.” ; “God’s only purpose in thwarting our good will is to make of it a better will” ; ultimately, he stated, man is to be “delivered from his own will, and knows nothing except that he waits upon the will of God” ; “Now that is what is meant by genuine obedience, a thing which, unfortunately, is entirely unknown in our day” ; “sure, he gave you a free will. But why do you want to make it your own will? Why not let it remain free?” and “A free will does not want its own way, but looks only to God’s will for direction. By so doing it then also remains free…” (AE 42: 47, 48).

[7] Luther goes so far as to say “Our adversaries today maintain the foolish position that the image and similitude of God remain even in a wicked person” (90).

[8] “Augustine has much to say in his explanation of this passage [Gen. 1:26], particularly in his book On the Trinity. Moreover, the remaining doctors in general follow Augustine, who keeps Aristotle’s classification: that the image of God is the powers of the soul – memory, the mind or intellect, and the will. These three, they say, comprise the image of God which is in all men.

Moreover, they say that the similitude (or likeness, as distinct from image) lies in the gifts of grace. Just as a similitude (likeness) is a certain perfection of an image, so, they say our nature is perfected through grace. And so the similitude of God consists in this, that the memory is provided with hope, the intellect with faith, and the will with love. In this way, they say, man is created according to the image of God; that is, he has a mind, a memory, and a will. Likewise, man is created according to the similitude of God; that is, the intellect is enlightened by faith, the memory is made confident through hope and steadfastness, and the will is adorned with love” (60).

[9] Luther’s translation of God’s warning is a far cry from even St. Augustine’s: “I will kill you.”

[10] Again, 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)”

[11] See Pastor and AALC professor Jordan Cooper’s blog post on the topic here:

[12] Interestingly, although Luther says that “whatever the husband has, this the wife has and possesses in its entirety” (137), Luther in this passage is talking about men and women sharing the things in this world and human beings’ purposes in common. Of their own qualities by nature, Luther writes “Although both were created equally righteous, nevertheless Adam had some advantage over Eve”, and that “the perfect nature [of] the male somewhat excelled the female”, seeing the male as not only physically stronger, but stronger in other ways as well (151). That said, also see Luther’s comments on pp. 184-185 for his reaction to the insistence of some scholastics that Eve was the “lower part of reason”. This is also mentioned later on in this paper.

[13] AE 31: 49.

[14] Ibid, 49-50.

[15] Forde, Gerhard, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Eerdman’s, 1997, 57.

[16] AE 11: 411.

[17] 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]…” (112).

[18] 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)

[19] Pastor and AALC seminary instructor Jordan Cooper discusses this here:

[20] Summary of Lewis’ view provided by Pastor John Fraiser, who points out the very real problems with this argument (“Human Machines, Free Will, and Moral Evil”, Brothers of John the Steadfast blog, Jan. 22, 2013, One wonders why Lewis, in order to make his salient point, did not say something less controversial, like “Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be automatons/robots”?

[21] AE 9: 51.

[22] In any case, one must also always remember that those who wrote the Lutheran Confessions seemed willing to challenge Luther himself from Scripture when it came to his views on predestination.

[23] Luther: “If Christ had to surrender his will, which after all was good, yes, undoubtedly and always the best, in order that God’s will be carried out, why should we poor little worms make such a fuss about our will, which is never free of evil and always deserves to be thwarted?” (AE 42: 45)

[24] Wingren, Gustaf, Luther on Vocation, Wipf and Stock, 2004, 120.

[25] Quoted in, “The Formula of Concord, Article II, Of the Free Will”, Milwaukee Metro North Pastoral Conference; September 21, 1991



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Posted by on September 15, 2017 in Uncategorized



Completely Impartial Book Review of Pastor Jordan Cooper’s Lex Aeterna

What does this mean?


Yes, its not impartial. : )

Anyway, as I said in a recent post, about the new book on Law and Gospel now being released by CPH….(see above):

If someone in the Confessional Lutheran house spoke about the “so-called doctrine of justification,” you could bet that every head would turn.

But say “so-called 3rd use of the law” – using the church’s publishing house meant to provide the most excellent Christian doctrine to the laypersons – and many will yawn, talk about the variety of definitions of “so-called,” yada, yada…

Why don’t people with some real clout fight? Do some housecleaning? Say anything?

[this is the cue to unveil my new book review of Jordan Cooper’s Lex Aeterna…]

And for a less intense review of Pastor Cooper’s last book, see here.


[Because] they are afraid. The ideas of Gerhard Forde have infiltrated confessional Lutheran seminaries and colleges in many a local. Dissent may cost you — perhaps not your job, but relationships to be sure. If you criticize at all, make sure you are exceedingly generous with praise as well – and don’t appear like you want any boats rocked.

Jordan Cooper, however, doesn’t belong. He is a convert to Lutheranism who came to the faith largely by reading not 20th century Lutheran theologians, but everyone before that time. As his podcasts show time and again for any with ears to hear – and either the knowledge or research skills to verify – Cooper knows his stuff.

And he knows Gerhard Forde’s theology is trouble. He sees what so many do not want to see. No one in their right mind would deny that Gerhard Forde was a stand-out human being. The trouble, however, is that he is one of the primary forces responsible for letting lose a virus that has given strength, aid, and comfort to Fake Lutheranism everywhere in its most sophisticated forms.

But this is a book by Jordan Cooper, who, in spite of some of what you may have heard, is not only a very loyal confessional Lutheran we are blessed to have on our side, but a warmhearted and ecumenical theologian extraordinaire. If you are looking for fiery and rhetorical-loaded polemics lacking critical nuance, you will be very disappointed with this book.

Cooper does a very nice job of dealing with this topic and breaking it down in a simple way. I never had noticed all the connections he makes, namely how for Gerhard Forde defining absolutely everything by *doing* and not *being* is the rule: “being is defined by act. Everything is defined by what it does, rather than an essence that has independent existence behind that action” (Cooper, 82).

Like the 3rd use of the law? You are with Erasmus. — Forde


In this sense, Forde is completely in line with the pragmatic postmodernist existentialist Hegelian currents which dominate academia and elite circles today. Don’t worry! This doesn’t need to be complicated at all – that is what Forde and those who follow him have done. Cooper will methodically unveil that to you, reducing things to essentials. Like a good butcher, he carves up things where the joints are.

A sample of his getting to the meat:

“[Forde] purports that if the gospel contains specific doctrines about Christ’s life and death as a substitutionary act then it simply becomes another kind of law which one must accept in order to be saved…. Forde argues that theology which concerns itself with propositions, or with things as they are in their essence, is a theology of glory, or a theology ‘about the cross,’ rather than a theology of the cross….

Forde is even bold enough to say that Christ ‘was not doing anything else in his death but dying’” (92).

Yes, you read that right (and there is more where that came from, including Forde’s contention that Adam and Eve’s being “very good” [i.e. “original righteousness”] prior to their fall has no real relevance for theology).

Well, confessional Lutheran – don’t complain that you live in uninteresting times! You live in an age where, in your house, the thoughts of someone like Cooper seems threatening and foreign while many in our academic circles snuggle up closely with Forde.


In spite of the gravity of the threat, I must say that Cooper’s usual irenicism and willingness to assume the best in those he so effectively counters — while giving them an escape hatch for their mistakes — come through. All would not be so generous in the covering of faults, for our ignorance often carries with it great culpability as well.

Don’t believe the bad reviews. They are one-sided views at best, and, I believe, hit sloppy hit pieces at worst. Today, on Pastor Cooper’s Just and Sinner blog, I am putting up this review as well as a short evaluation of what Jack Kilcrease says above.

Get the book for yourself and check it out.

[end review, which will be found at under the title “It Takes an Outsider like Cooper to Really Begin this Sacred Cow Slaying”]

And now, as a bonus, here is an evaluation of Jack Kilcrease’s complaints about Pastor Cooper’s book, also on, simply by using the quotes from Pastor Cooper’s book:

Kilcrease: “First, when I affirm the eternity of the law in my writing, I do not do so only insofar as God eternally wills to punish sin.”

Cooper: “Instead, God’s eternal will is to punish sin, and thus, the law is both eternal and condemnatory.”

Kilcrease: “I affirm that the law that God revealed in nature and Scripture represents an eternal good that in time God wills for his people, irrespective of whether or not it condemns them under sin”

Cooper: “Kilcrease draws upon a distinction made by Theodosius Harnack between the essence and the office of the law … the office of the law differs before and after the fall, as well as in the present and eschatological ages. Forde rejects this distinction by defining the essence of the law by its condemning office.”

Kilcrease: “I do indeed affirm (in accordance with the early Wittenberg Reformation) that habituation to virtue is valid. Nevertheless, my criticism of Biermann is that this does not apply to sanctification, but only to civil righteousness. Sanctification is not something someone develops by repeated practice- that is the position of Thomas Aquinas and not Luther.”

Cooper: “While Bierman argues that Luther only rejected the ideas of habituation and virtue in the context of justification, Kilcrease purports that the Reformer rejected these concepts altogether. To adopt a frame work of virtue ethics is to argue that God gives man some kind of potentiality which he can then use in a process of self-creation or self-actualization.”

Kilcrease: “Thirdly, Cooper suggests that I believe that the law possesses a purely negative role in the Christian life. This is utterly false and slanderous. In the article cited by Cooper, I very clearly state that the law is a necessary channel for human gratitude for the salvation given in Christ. That being said, in our fallen state, the Formula of Concord and the Apology (which I quote!) state that it is impossible to disentangle this use of the law from the law’s condemning and coercive effect. This is simply a byproduct of the simul of Christian existence.”

Cooper: “He approaches the third use of the law in almost exclusively negative terms.”

Kilcrease: ” Lastly, Cooper seems to suggest that Forde and my view of the Christian life is one in which there is no genuine renewal. According to Cooper, I agree with Forde that “sanctification is getting used to justification.” Although I never use this slogan, I would actually agree with its content. That being said, what Cooper and many of his followers imply is that what this means is that one can simply live a life mired in sin and rely on justifying grace as a free pass. This is not merely a caricature of Forde’s (and my) position, it is flatly slanderous.”

Cooper: “While distancing himself from Forde in a number of ways, Kilcrease does not significantly depart from Forde’s perspective on the Christian life. Like Forde, views the Christian life as a process of getting used to the fact that one is wholly justified by faith.”

In sum, the point of controversy seems to be what the proper standard of conduct for the reborn is: Is it their relatedness to Christ or is it the unchanging will of God, the Ten Commandments? From Kilcrease’s own words in the review, it seems that he sides with Forde against the Formula by preferring the former (“relatedness”) over the latter (“law”). (update posted 7/10/2019: Jack’s own response to me about this is was as follows: “There’s no difference between ‘getting used’ to one’s new relationship with God in Christ and obeying the Ten Commandments. Being a new being in Christ means to fulfill the original purpose of creation, which is to live in accordance with the Ten Commandments.”)

“If you’re more Lutheran that Luther and the Confessions, there’s a problem.” — Christopher Jackson


Here, I point to the introduction to the article on the third use of the Law in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord:

Since the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning the third use of the Law, namely, whether it is to be urged or not upon regenerate Christians. The one side has said, Yea; the other, Nay.

I don’t know — its just a guess, but I don’t think that the writers of the Formula of Concord were concerned that the Holy Spirit might not want to urge the law on Christians these ways!

“Yea” — in spades.



Posted by on September 12, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Previews of CPH’s New “So-Called Third Use of the Law” Book

“There is a time for everything…,” but here, now, in this way?


Yes, I know that the book is not only about the third use of the law. But we all know that this is where the controversy lies today.

If someone in the Confessional Lutheran house spoke about the “so-called doctrine of justification,” you could bet that every head would turn.

But say “so-called 3rd use of the law” – using the church’s publishing house meant to provide the most excellent Christian doctrine to the laypersons – and many will yawn, talk about the variety of definitions of “so-called,” yada, yada.

I have two sneak previews for you — for this book that anyone who cares about the future of the LC-MS will be reading in the next few days (this is rhetroric by the way, hyperbole deliberately employed to make a point).

The first is from the Thinking Fellows podcast. A couple of these thinking fellows interview James Nestingen and John Pless, two of the authors who in the book’s introduction talk about the “so-called 3rd use”.

I didn’t need to listen to more than the first ten or so minutes of this podcast to come to Lando Calrissian’s conclusion:


Before we know it, we’ll be learning that Nadia Bolz-Weber also has an essay in the book (even though that is certainly not an endorsement!).

Now the second preview — mine. We do know that the LC-MS was founded with the belief that the Confessional Lutheran Church is the true visible church on earth, right? Crazy? Might that be kind of important to some of us who have come to Lutheranism or, after a struggle, decided to stay? We must be pretty serious then about defending our confessions.

Well….let’s take a look. It says in the book’s preface (download the excerpt I read here):

We have also included “God’s Word Forever Shall Abide: A Guiding Statement on the Character and Proper Use of the Sacred Scriptures” as an appen­dix to this volume. This statement, adopted by the dialogue committee made up of representatives from the NALC, LCC, and LCMS, asserts the necessity of rightly distinguishing the Law from the Gospel for a proper understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

Well, there is no doubt that this is true. That said, being that the book grew out of LC-MS/NALC dialogues I certainly hope that in the book there is some real honesty about the very different understandings those distinct bodies have when it comes to understanding the Scriptures as God’s word… Hmmm. Maybe they will say more about that below.


In our conversations together, we have recognized that the signif­icance of the Law/Gospel distinction is downplayed, questioned, and rejected by some within American Lutheranism. Others have misused the distinction to promote an allegedly more liberated sexual ethic. The place of the so-called “third use of the Law” remains a contentious issue in some circles…

In the Smalcald Articles, Luther notes “that the law was given by God, in the first place, to curb sin by means of the threat and terror of punishment and also by means of the promise and offer of grace and favor” but “the foremost office or power of the law is that it reveals inherited sin and its fruits” (SA III 2).1 These are commonly identified as the first two uses, or functions, of the Law. The Formula of Concord clarified a dispute that had arisen among Lutheran theologians over the place of the Law in the life of the Christian, asserting in Article VI a “third use” that is a guide to the good works that the Christian is obligat­ed to do in his or her vocation. Several of the essays in this volume take up this topic.

The editors of this book are firmly committed to the Lutheran asser­tion that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a necessity if the Scriptures are, indeed, comprehended according to the mind of the Lord who inspired them. (bold mine)

There it is again: “The place of the so-called “third use of the Law” remains a contentious issue in some circles.”[i]

As far as I am concerned, that statement says all you need to know about this book, which yes, I plan to read. I could care less is this statement was made in an Augsburg-Fortress or NALC publication. I expect that kind of language from them. But this kind of statement certainly gives the impression that John T. Pless and Albert B. Collver III, who co-wrote the preface with Jim Nestingen, don’t really think vigorously defending the ‘third use of the law’ is that important.

We’re all good confessional Lutheran brothers though who agree that the law is good and the Scriptures are God’s Word[ii] though, right?

No. Not at all. In sum, my sense is that this book would probably be a Godsend in the hands of many an ELCA laymen, but not so with us and our house.

When Mark Tranvik from Augsburg writes: “This book is a cool drink for those thirsty for new perspectives on the proper relationship between Law and Gospel,” I’m happy for ELCA folks to get that but not for LC-MS folks to get the idea that ELCA views like those of Gerhard Forde have a perspective that does not deserve a vigorous rebuttal and brotherly rebuke within the same book – at least in a book by CPH, which is meant to be an organ for the promulgation of unadulterated truth to the LC-MS and beyond. When WELS professor (!) Wade Johnston writes “[b]oth pastors and laypeople will benefit from the essays contained here,” I read that as saying that Gerhard Forde’s disciples aren’t just content to bring their ideas into LC-MS seminaries —  ideas they no doubt believe can help an LC-MS that they see as overly legalistic. I am not even sure how Robert Bugbee can seriously write, “These authors take Christ, the Scriptures, and our confessions seriously” when we are not talking about the same confessions.

Frankly, in my view, the infections of some of these authors — note I didn’t say these authors themselves — need to go back to Bad Bol, Germany from where they came. We should not be so laissezfaire toward the viruses that have created so much Fake Lutheranism in the ELCA. Luther certainly would have not stood for this nonsense.

Another more conservative ELCA gentleman, Robert Benne says: “All you want to know about the distinctive Lutheran wit­ness to the proper relation of Law and Gospel is in this volume.”

To Robert I say: We shall see. Things aren’t off to a good start however, in the mud that I see on our carpet floor. Why shouldn’t I think myself to be naïve for hoping it will be somehow cleaned up by the rest of the book?

Why don’t people with some real clout fight? Do some housecleaning? Say anything?

Finally, if you are reading me to say that I do not think that we should be talking to persons from the NALC and ELCA about these issues, you have not understood people like myself at all. In fact, we need to have a conversation! No, I would delight to have conversations with people who have honest disagreements over these issues, even if we must agree to disagree.

Lord, in these last days when you said faith would be rare, give us faith. Much faith.




[i] In John Pless’ essay in the book, available for free here, he also says: “Within the last decade or so, there have been significance publica­tions and conferences on Law and Gospel, particularly with reference to the so-called ‘third use.’” “So-called” can refer to how something is publicly known, or, more often nowadays, be used derisively. Why introduce possible confusion here, if not to stir the pot? Well, pot stirred.

Pless also quotes Murray, who indirectly implicates Walther and Peiper: “The theologians who provided articles for The Abiding Word were deeply affected by the orthodoxy they inherited from Walther and Pieper. They emphasized the Law as an objective standard that provides instruction for Christian holiness. Unfortunately, their viewpoint tended to accept a tamed Law” (Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God, 73).

[ii] The editors of this book are firmly committed to the Lutheran asser­tion that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a necessity if the Scriptures are, indeed, comprehended according to the mind of the Lord who inspired them.



Posted by on September 9, 2017 in Uncategorized


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