Monthly Archives: December 2018

God Knows When We Won’t Do Good. And He Knows When We Will.

Even if all our good works are tainted by the “old Adam” that remains, does that mean none of our works are truly good before God?



“Truly, you cannot read Scripture too much; and what you read, you cannot understand too well; and what you understand, you cannot teach too well; and what you can teach, you cannot live too well.”

–Martin Luther, Erlangen, LXIII, 370-372.


Getting ready to make some New Year’s resolutions for this year? Below are some thoughts to help you prioritize — thinking about the matter of growing in faith and abounding in good works… (see, e.g. 2 Cor. 9:8)

A few months ago here, I asked the question of whether an atheist could do any truly good works. So first, to get started, let’s briefly address some of my Lutheran brethren who question whether or not they can!

First, a couple tweets from a “Radical Lutheran” to chew on:

There is a lot of truth in this… this goes hand in hand with the importance of the doctrine of justification… how we are saved by grace alone though faith alone in Jesus Christ. Now though, note Mr. Martin’s last few sentences here:

Again, one can make a case that this is certainly true about our justification. Dead in our sin, faith cannot come without God giving us the same (and baptism comes with faith, not before it)! At the same time, Radical Lutherans also carry this same attitude — “He knows we won’t” — into the realm of sanctification, or our spiritual growth.

The problem with this view (which it seems is much like that of the late novelist John Updike) is that even as “He knows we won’t,” He knows we will as well.

“[Some] fear God for the sake of God, and, at the same time, for the sake of the threatened punishment; their works are less good and perfect.” – Luther

And, by the way, He plays a big part in that — and always has, right from the very beginning.

After all, it is not only fallen man who must depend on God for all things. In truth, we were created to depend on God, the weaker one drawing strength from the Stronger One…

“We should be humans and not God, that is the Summa.” – Luther


Furthermore, given that the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1 asserts that:

“[God is,] in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ  as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…”

We should recognize that God working for the “good” in all things (covered here more in a recent post), spoken of in Romans 8:28 as well, means working towards the purposes Paul mentions here.

Yes, “God work all things for good for those who love him…”, but of course some things are also better to work with than others!


And given that:

“….we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (I Thes. 2:13)

And that

“But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9)

And finally:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We believers must never assert that God does not give us sufficient love and strength to do the works He calls us to and to do!

But what about my T-shirt?


Surely, as noted above, with the initial conversion of the Christian, also known as regeneration, our faith may be said to be passive, as God’s Holy Spirit grants both repentance and faith by hearing. Think about the child at his mother’s breast! (more here on this kind of infant-like faith). As Luther rightly confessed:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

“…you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”


In like fashion, one may reasonably conclude that because of

  1. the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in us,
  2. the measure of the knowledge of God and His ways that we have been given, and
  3. the measure of grace God has given us and continues to gives us in this or that particular circumstance

we Christians cannot but depend on God, even unconsciously, and hence often succeed in enacting the good works that He has planned for us (like Luther put it so marvelously here).

That said, we should not imagine that en route to serving our neighbor for His Name’s sake (why we are here!), there will also not be other times when–particularly in the midst of trial and temptation–it may be necessary for us, empowered by His Holy Spirit, to consciously look to Him for more, depend on Him for more: rely on the truth and promises He has planted in our heart, cry out to Him, ask Him to fill us with His Holy Spirit, show us better paths to walk on, include fasting on our paths, etc.

We are in a war after all. Cue Dr. Veith at Cranach.


Furthermore, given that the Apostle in 1 Cor. 7 says that

“If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better” (I Cor. 7:36-38)

We should be aware that not rejecting God’s grace in this or that circumstance, sufficient for us, will result in us being able to determine not only what is right but what is the even better thing or at least will get us on the road to such recognition!

Some might insist: all of this is abandoning Lutheranism!

It’s not. And even if it was abandoning “Lutheranism,” today, it would not be abandoning Martin Luther nor those who followed faithfully in his train.

Luther not abandoning Luther.


In the Antinomian Disputations of the late 1530s, Luther responded to the following proposition: “We are not obliged to do the impossible. The law is impossible. Therefore we are not obliged to do it,” as follows:

It is said improperly, that is, not rightly and not fittingly, that we are obliged to do what is impossible by the law. When Adam was first cre­ated, the law was for him not only something possible, but even something enjoyable. He rendered the obedience the law required with all his will and with gladness of heart, and did so perfectly. Yet what now, after the fall, is impossible, is so not by fault of the law, but by our fault. It is not the fault of the one binding, but of the one sinning, hence this statement, The law urges us to do what is impossible, needs to be understood fittingly, for if you want to preserve the strict sense of the words, it sounds as if God himself is being accused of burdening us with the impossible law. Yet it is sin and Satan, who made the possible and enjoyable law impossible and terrifying, who are to be accused.

Christ, however, by willingly submitting himself to the law and enduring all its curses, earned for those who believe in him the Spirit, being driven by whom they also in this life begin to fulfill the law; and in the life to come the most joyful and perfect obedience will be within them, so that they will do in body and soul as now do the angels (SDEA 47, 49).

Again, as I noted above, “we believers must never assert that God does not give us sufficient love and strength to do the works He calls us to and to do.” We do not say this for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and we do not say this about ourselves now – even if every good work that we do here will be tainted by sin and sinful motivation, to this or that degree.

Ultimately, why does this not need to condemn us? I mean, given that God’s law requires perfection, there is no doubt we should be condemned!

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”


It is because we are yoked with Christ, who lived the life we could not, and died the death we deserved to die. With Him, “it is finished” indeed, and God sees all of our good works though His good work. We are robed in His righteousness.

Because this loving Savior’s yoke is easy and His burden is light, we gladly strive in Him.

We ultimately do so – and now, post-fall must even remind ourselves that we do so (we are always now tempted to believe that our good works save us!) – from the peace that we have with God through the forgiveness, life, and salvation Christ brings–and continues to bring us, in His perpetual pardon and power every day!*

We are, again, “in the groove,” as Concordia Seminary St. Louis professor Joel Beirmann puts it. Christ returns us to that child-like peace and innocence and creaturely limitedness (a good weakness!) that we had in the garden with our Creator!


“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) – the Apostle Paul



Images: Sin target: ; Yoke:

* As my pastor put it years ago, we are “MacGyver Christians”: everything we need we already have…

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 28, 2018 in Uncategorized


Peter Scaer on God’s Will, Law, and Freedom

Reprinted from here with permission from Peter Scaer


There is a strange notion going around that the law is somehow alien to God, that it differs from his will. The law is called a legal scheme, which is done away with, not fulfilled, by the preaching of a gospel word, by an absolution, apart from the law’s fulfillment. The thinking goes like this: God should not be thought of as being bound to the law, as if he were subject to a legal code, and not totally free to forgive us.

But such folks miss some important truths. First, the law is not inherently negative. We may think of commandments concerning murder, adultery, and stealing, and note that they condemn us as sinners. True enough. But positively speaking, the law describes life as God would have it, life as we find in the life of Christ, and indeed in the eternal life of the Trinity. In short, the fulfillment of the law is love, and love is eternal. So, even though I am a sinner, in as much as I am a Christian, I delight in the law. I see the beauty of children obeying parents, the attraction of a culture that values life and marriage, and neighborhoods where people look out for each other and their property, without coveting or malicious words. Yes, the law, from the point of view of the Christian, as Christian, is beautiful to behold, for it is simply the life of love, the law of liberty.

And, do we really want to say that God’s grace is somehow freer if he is free to disregard the law? What we are saying is that freedom might be defined as God being free to be who he is not, to go against his character. That, of course, is not freedom. So also, in the heavenly places, we shall be totally free, but that does not mean that we will be free to sin, which is a type of ugly bondage, but free to be who we are, and will be in the resurrection. God’s will is not arbitrary, and Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And that means that our eternal life in Christ is secure. He’s not reneging on his promises.

Does the gospel then override the law as if the law were nothing. Of course not. Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill, on our behalf. When Christ submits to the justice due us, he acts according to both justice and mercy. A God who simply overrode the law would show himself not more loving, not more gospel-like, but indifferent to the suffering which sin causes, callous to justice and to the cries of those who are wronged.

Ah, yes, our God is the God whose Son fulfilled the law because it was necessary, not contingently necessary, but necessary for our salvation. Thanks be to God who demands the sacrifice, and then provides it.


1 Comment

Posted by on December 19, 2018 in Uncategorized


Is Martin Luther’s Exlex God Steve Paulson’s “Outlaw God”?

Is God like an Outlaw? Or more like the Good Sheriff?


Following up a bit on my recent series  “Meditations for Radical Lutherans on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations….”

In Francis Pieper’s classic Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, we read:

“Man is just when his actions conform to the Law of his divine Superior. But since God has no superior and therefore no fixed norm, can we really predicate the righteousness of Him? This apparent difficulty is resolved in the Scriptural axiom coined by the Scholastics and used by Luther: Deus est exlex. God is outside the Law. ‘He is just, because He wills and does everything in conformity with His own Law.’ Luther: ‘God issues His Law to others, but He does not apply it as a norm to Himself’ ” (457).

Is Steven Paulson right then? Is His “Outlaw God” the same as Luther’s exlex God?

Let’s take a look at what Luther said in a sermon on Exodus 9, preached on Dec. 26th of 1524 (St. Louis ed., vol. 3:811-815 (= WA 16:140-145)) Interestingly, this lesser known passage, not available in Luther’s Works (including the new volumes, I think), is from the time between the publication of Erasmus’s Freedom of the Will (Sept. 1524) and the publication of Luther’s response in Dec. 1525:

A measure has been established for man that I should do this and that: my life is finite; it can be comprehended and has a rule, measure, manner, and law, Wis. 11. If you wanted to act with God in the same way, you have missed God. For what is taken up concerning God according to law, measure, and goal is off the mark. Reason cannot reach anything beyond thinking: God should act this way and not differently; and soon it arrives at the judgment and says that it is not good to harden. In this way, it establishes a measure for God, thinking that God is like a man in order to judge God like a man. … But God gives laws to you, but does not accept any from you: he establishes a goal for you, but you do not establish one for him. This is why it is not right that you want it to be so … but know that he wants it to be so and commands it to be accordingly: his will is placed above all laws. When he says: I want to have it this way, then it is above all laws; for he is an infinite God and has the power and freedom to do so. But if one says: Well, I do not understand how it is good that he hardens. Indeed, friend, in your eyes it is evil–do you think you are God? God has no measure, law, or goal (as has been said); this is why he cannot act against it; he cannot sin against the law because no law has been placed before him. This is why everything he does is good, Gen. 1:31.
But another question arises from here: Whether God drives man to sin? This question brings it about that I comprehend God into a ring and circle or into a glass where I want to keep him. He has prescribed to me how I should live and how I should serve him–this is why I think he should live like this as well. He gives the law, but he does not accept the law. No one but God alone may give law and teaching how one should live and be good. But I am not to ordain a law for God as to how he should rule the world or man. No matter what you think, what God does is right; for his will is not unjust or evil; he does not have his measure or law as to why he enlightens this one or hardens the other one. If I measured or judged God in this matters according to my reason, he is unjust and has more sins than the devil; in fact, he is more terrifying and horrible than the devil. For he acts and deals with us violently, plagues and tortures us, and has no regard for us.
This might cause one to become foolish if he does not take his reason captive and does not allow all such thoughts to be driven out of his head. And this foolishness is caused only by the fact that no one should measure God or prescribe him a law; for God is exlex, as one says. But reason cannot be talked into this, much less can it be persuaded here; one cannot remove from its eyes the cursed, damned brooding and searching in such lofty incomprehensible matters, as reason always says: why? For the law is there: If God does this or that according to the law, then it would be done rightly. But this measuring causes you to lose body, life, and our Lord God when it is said: measure away in the devil’s name! But every heart that can say: Dear God, do as it pleases you; I am content–that heart cannot perish, but all the others must go down. …
Man is called good because he acts and lives according to the law. Turn this around for God; in his case, a work is called good because God does it. My work is not good because I do it, but because it is done according to the law of God in which it is prescribed to me what I should do. I must step out of my mind into a higher mind, namely, the law of God. God is not good because he does a particular work, but the work is right, good, holy, and well done because he himself does it, so that the goodness comes from God, not from the work. God is the doer and does not take the goodness from the work or law. But our goodness does not come from doing good things and respected for it among the people, but, so that the law is given its due, it must be fulfilled through the Holy Spirit; then we too get the name that we are good. …
Reason cannot properly interpret this Pharaoh, that God drives him to do evil and hardens him, or entices him to good or evil. God does well and does not act unjustly. But he who is driven in this way does act unjustly: For he has God’s commandment before him that he should not act in this way, and the devil nonetheless drives him to act and do in this way way and not to live as God wants to have it. God wants you to have his law before you; but the devil entices you to act against the law. Would you then say: Is God’s will against itself? That is too high. God’s will is there, but I am not to know how this happens. I am to look down, to what God wants to have. Now he has revealed his will by law and gospel and taught what I am to do. I am to deal with this and not climb up and ask why God does this or that. Leave this undone. But once you have come to faith and true understanding and have experienced the cross, then you will understand it.
Reason always begins to build the house on top at the roof and not at the bottom. One finds many who have never heard a sermon on Christ; they are crude and wild people, torture themselves and curse as if they were full of devils–and their first question is why God does this or that thing. They come to the light with their dirty feet and blind reason and measure God according to reason. … 
One should preach about the divinity only once a year so that people would know that, when it comes to salvation, one has to start below, that is, how Christ came to us, so as to preach how this child, Christ, eats milk and butter, lies on his mothers breasts, and is to be found in Bethlehem–and learn there why Christ came, what he gives, Is. 7:15; 1 Peter 2:2. When I say to God: why do you do this? He answers: I know well what is behind it. If we could only leave out the “why,” the devil would not make inroads with questions such as: are we predestined to salvation or not? How can Christ be God and man? 
Should one not rather preach about faith and love? Indeed, people say, I’ve known all that well. But, friend, do not embark on such questions; deal with the humanity of Christ; there you are certain that God sent his Son into the flesh; leave him in the flesh; seek him here; he has come down into the Virgin Mary’s womb and put his humanity before our eyes. There he wants you to know, contemplate, and practice yourself in the same. He is the way, the truth, and the life, John 14:6. Nonetheless, we want to climb higher and know how he predestined this or that, how he hardened this one and not the other. He who is intelligent and wise, let him remain on this marked-out path. …”
There goes Luther, with that 3rd use of the Law stuff again. And talking about goals too! Good grief!*
Will someone teach him how to be a real outlaw already?
In other matters though…  Merry Christmas everyone!
I think you might like — even if you are a Radical Lutheran! —  this sermon my pastor did a few years ago where we hear that “God is found in the little baby Jesus, so that He does not frighten us away with His appearance among us”.


*Freshly translated by Holger Sonntag.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 18, 2018 in Uncategorized


Meditations for Radical Lutherans on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations (part 6 of 6)

“Luther’s answers?”: “Specifically, Paulson takes up the central question of all theology (and life): What is God’s relation to the law, and the law’s relation to God? Luther’s answers are surprising and will change the way you preach.” — back of Steven Paulson’s 2018 book, Outlaw God.


Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


He Rules the World with Truth and Grace… Far as the Curse is Found… (part 6)

In the last post, I stated: “the law and gospel – just like the Holy Spirit – reveal an important truth which is exactly the same: God has an overriding desire to do good to all men (even, finally, desiring that each not despair but be saved in Christ).

Critical to the Gospel God’s messenger brings: *you,* personally, are in the “all” : “God our Savior… desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” — I Timothy 2:3,4


Again, if Luther is right when he says “[t]he law does not want you to despair of God… it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” (SDEA 367, 369),[i] how can we not conclude this? The Holy Spirit brings God’s good law!

But some will object:

Luther also says that “[t]he law is not given to make you certain of the forgiveness of sins” or grace (265, SDEA, see 289 also) – not even this law you quote him saying above! None of the above means that man can, from his own powers, do this or even want to do this! When Luther says things like: “Do not despair! Call on Him who helps you! Call on the one who makes you believe and hope!” (see 309, 311), he does so fully aware that without the Gospel of Christ – where grace is completely given or at least completely offered (“Come to the Feast!) — even these statements are ultimately law which kills and won’t empower us to call on Him in truth, rightly…

Well, yes. Exactly.

Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in Him! — Psalm 2:12


This in fact helps us complete our necessary dialectical exercise. For only with the Gospel ringing in our ears… only with the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ which utterly transforms our hearts… do Luther’s statements about the law’s demand that we trust unconditionally make any sense at all – i.e. insofar as we might be able to begin to realize this in our lives (see Rom. 4:23 – 5:1).

Only with the Gospel can we begin to believe that these statements – and any statements of God’s law, really – speak truth about the nature of the relationship we are to know with our Creator, and meant to live in accordance with. Only through the glorious message of salvation from sin, death, and the devil through the work of Jesus Christ can we begin to taste the glory and freedom of Eden again.

Only when sorrow produced not by man’s commands but God’s commands – a sorrow which, yes, may even reach hatred of God and despair of Him! – is repeatedly accompanied with this Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins can there be an ongoing life of repentance that leads to life and not death.

Why bother praying “Thy Will be Done”? Isn’t this just more law?


And, again, must we not go further? When we walk this way, in faith, do we not see that the law does not work by itself – meaning that it is somehow the “opposite of the Holy Spirit” – to produce sorrow? For if that were the case, this would only be a sorrow that would lead to sickness and death! How could this be the case, given the unity that we saw and demonstrated in the last post regarding the law, the gospel, and the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit uses God’s law and gospel to produce a godly sorrow unto salvation!

“I like that you’re broken, broken like me….” Or something deeper?


Away with man’s Hidden God and to the Revealed God!

Must not unbiblical, un-Christian, and un-Lutheran notions of God’s hiddenness fall away from us at this point, as we see that everything that reveals truth to us comes from the same Holy Spirit who is Gift?

The same Holy Spirit who comes in the liberating Gospel God is eager to give to all persons? (Rom. 11:32; Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2)

One can understand sympathize with the Radical Lutherans and their desire to shy away from these “propositional truths” men like Luther espouse in the Antinomian Disputations. Especially for pastors concerned to bring a comforting and encouraging word, it is no wonder why they might be tempted to downplay (or ignore) some things.

Yes, and what does this really mean?: “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.” – Luther, at Heidelberg (LW 31:52)


What, after all, is one to do with the assertion that the law or will of God Himself lies behind what happens to us – not just when we feel slighted in life, but particularly in times of great disaster and confusion? For the unbeliever — or even for the believer weak in faith – it seems such truths might drive them to a despair that has no chance to recover… to be able to hear good news.

Of course, these concerns are not unfounded, as many have lost faith. “Does God not care? How can He let this happen to me? How can this be God’s will?”

There a season for every activity under the heavens: “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was…”


And no doubt many preachers have faltered here, trying to bring God’s Promise in Christ, but nevertheless giving the impression they are basically like Alexander Pope: “whatever is, is right….” (after all, if Judas betrayed by necessity…)

So perhaps we should just take comfort in the fact that whatever disasters befall us are only a “Hidden God” of our imagination – and have absolutely nothing to do with the true God revealed on the cross?

We cannot. For in the end not just trust but strong trust in God’s loving and redemptive Providence – against all appearances to the contrary – is to be identified as the will of God. Why? Because not only our Lord Jesus Christ, but saints like Job, Shadrach, Meshach, Abendego, Jeremiah, and, of course, Habakkuk – who ultimately live to testify of Christ – are also to be held up in honor as existing for the life of the world, fallen in sin and cursed.

I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.

17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

–Habakkuk 3

The biggest struggle of the Christian is to be tempted to disbelieve what the Scriptures clearly state as unambiguously true: that God really does mean and intend for all to be saved from those things and persons that oppose Him (and hence His children).[ii] He even intends me to be saved. He saves me, now — and later.

“‘You have been subjected to discipline long enough and frequently enough, and I have often hidden My face from you. But because you have clung to the promise so firmly, I have been compelled to yield to you, to hear you, and to help you.’” — Martin Luther, LW 6:259 (1543).


What? Yes, of course: ultimately not this life but the next. We should speak of “Joy to the world in this sense” – the thorns do indeed remain, far as the curse is found, for now.

For we know, deep down, that ultimately this life, blessings in this life, are not what our life is all about. Christians know even more: because we are all one in Adam’s sin, this world is not only passing away, but cursed and condemned (Gen. 3, Rom. 8). God has given it over to the consequences of its sin in judgment (Romans 1:18-3:23), and Christians are not immune from suffering – they should even expect more (2 Timothy 3:12).

But we have Christ, the Promised One.

He. Loved. Us. Inexplicably loved us.


“…faith and the Spirit… believ[es] that God is good even though he should destroy all men.” — Luther, p. 202


Hence, faith’s attitude, anchored in the cross of Christ, is the following: Even if I feel condemned in this world—even by God—in the end, I will be saved and, if need be, the whole world condemned.[iii] Temporally or eternally or both.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” ends with “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” — Psalm 22.


So be it.

For He is good. So His promises are good. Even if that is hidden in Christ with God, to say the least (Col. 3:3).

Even more—God means for not only my family and friends but my enemies to have this same invincible confidence in Christ, who suffered God’s full wrath for us.

The facts must be faced. Pure Radical Lutheranism cannot abide this teaching, this faith.

“….Although it is true that Luther spoke of the atonement in a less systematic way than his successors, one cannot deny that Luther understood Jesus’ saving act in his fulfilling of the whole, eternal law….” — Pastor Andrew Preus, p. 96


For it is not our faith, our realization that God is “not mad at us through Christ,” that satisfies Him and neutralizes His wrath. That saves us (see Preus, 95). God is still mad at sin, even the believer’s sin, and will destroy it utterly.[iv]

Rather, our salvation is only in Christ’s saving work for our sakes whereby He turned His own wrath away by taking His wrath onto, into, Himself. 

And not just in Christ’s “passive obedience”[v] but Christ’s full obedience to every jot and title of God’s law (Matthew 5), through the Holy Spirit, was completely necessary for our salvation!

Everything that Christ did in His role as prophet, priest, king, and suffering servant corresponded with the outward duty He fulfilled towards His Father according to the 10 commandments, God’s eternal law. Reality is, after all, an ontology of harmony for eternity. And of course, all of these things that we can see went hand in hand with the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23) which derive from the heart that believes God’s words. These include, but not limited to, the “suffering of love, which bears all things (I Cor. 13:7).”

“In perseverance in prayer and faith God becomes a visible God from a hidden God.” — Martin Luther, LW 6:259 (1543).


Why must the Pure Radical Lutheran ultimately create a new ladder theology, a new “law story,” in order to save himself? Why is even the one who dabbles in Radical Lutheranism, or tolerates it, responsible for laying the foundation of a new law, even unawares?

Because to seek the weightier matters of the law apart from the complete obedience of Christ—perfectly exemplifying to the world the fulfillment of the eternal law of God in every facet—is indeed, as Andrew Preus clearly sees, “to create justice, mercy, and faithfulness in one’s own image” (99).

And it is to scorn the work and honor of the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Patience towards the people, always (2 Peter 3:9).

But abject intolerance and sheer hatred towards the doctrine.


Let’s end with some of the theses from the third set of Antinomian Disputations:

‘….even the Lord’s Prayer teaches that the law is before, under, and after the Gospel, and that repentance must take its beginning from it.”


  1. The Lord’s Prayer, taught by the Lord himself to his saints and believers, is part of repentance and is full of the teaching of the law.
  2. For whoever prays it truly confesses with his own voice that he sins against the law and repents (cf. LC VI:9).
  3. For who asks that the name of God be hallowed confesses that the name of God has not been sanctified perfectly yet.
  4. And who asks that the kingdom of God come confesses that he partly still is stuck in the kingdom of Satan that is contrary to God’s kingdom.
  5. Who asks that the will of God be done confesses that he is largely dis­obedient to the will of God and that he repents of that.
  6. Yet it is God’s law that teaches that God’s name is to be hallowed; pray­ing, one bears witness that one has not fulfilled this law.
  7. And who detests the kingdom of Satan left in him, thereby bears witness that he did not fulfill chiefly the law of the First Table.
  8. And who prays that the will of God be done in him, bears witness that he is disobedient to the will of God.
  9. Yet this prayer ought to be prayed by the entire Church until the end of the world and by each saint until death.
  10. For the entire Church is holy and acknowledges that she has sin and that repentance needs to take place perpetually.
  11. Therefore even the Lord’s Prayer teaches that the law is before, under, and after the Gospel, and that repentance must take its beginning from it.
  12. For who asks for anything first confesses that he does not have what he asks for and expects it to be given.
  13. Yet it is the law that first shows us what we do not have, and that it is nonetheless necessary to have this.
  14. It follows from this that those enemies of the law also need to eliminate the Lord’s Prayer itself when they eliminate the law.
  15. In reality, they even are forced to eliminate most of the sermons of Christ himself from the history presented in the Gospels.
  16. For he not only recites the law of Moses in Matt. 5, but also explicates it perfectly and teaches that it is not to be destroyed.
  17. And teaching the Pharisee on the great and first commandment of the law he confirms the law and says (Luke 10:28): “Do this and you will live.”
  18. Throughout the Gospel he also convicts, scolds, threatens, terrifies, and practices similar offices of the law.
  19. So that never anything more impudent is heard, or will come about, than that of those who teach that the law be eliminated.
  20. Namely, poor men who are ashamed to teach and do what the Lord himself did and taught.
  21. One might pose the case that sin may be known through something other than the law, although this is impossible.
  22. Why should the law be given up, when it works the same that is caused by something else, namely, the recognition of sin.
  23. And even if the law is eliminated by grammatically and materially remov­ing the word itself—for this is what they must think.
  24. Who will eliminate that living law inscribed in the hearts (cf. Rom. 2:15) and the handwriting of requirement (cf. Col. 2:14) that stands against us, which is identical with the Law of Moses?




[i] The full argument:

Sixteenth [Forty-Third] Argument

The proper office of pointing out sin is despair. Despair, however, is induced by the law. Therefore the law is not to be taught.

Response: Despair of ourselves is very good and pleases God. But to despair of God is the highest shame and sin against the First Commandment. For here one sins exceedingly in each part, either despairing of God or being presumptuous about our powers and be secure. This is why one ought to argue like this: The law induces despair of God. Therefore the law is not to be taught.

Here I deny the antecedent and the consequence, since the law does not want you to despair of God, but rather that, having recognized the sin con­cerning yourself, you might also learn to seek help from him, in whom it is offered by God. For the sum of the First Commandment is not to despair, rather to trust and fear God and to love him above all things, for he wants to be believed wholeheartedly, requiring not only hands and feet. But the law also, if it sneaks in and finds that we do not hope, nor love God, there accuses this security and unfaithfulness, contempt of God and our presumptuous­ness, and commands and wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God—believe it! But I can’t. Call upon him, it says, who is powerful to make you to be able to, and hope, do not despair but call (end argument).

And when Luther does not hesitate to talk about “the good” (SDEA 33) should not many of our questions about Luther’s views of natural law vis a vis a scholastic theologian like Thomas Aquinas begin to dissipate?

[ii] Thomas Aquinas, good on natural law/“the good”, nevertheless failed this test badly, succumbing to a hard “double predestination” view which, ultimately, could only undermine the comfort the Gospel provides.

[iii] In December [2006], on an Issues ETC. radio program (Dec. 11, hours 1 & 2, “Judgment Psalms), Pastor Todd Wilken interviewed Dr. Reed Lessing of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO.  Dr. Lessing had written an article in the recent Concordia Journal called “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby-Bashing: is there any Place in the Church for the Imprecatory Psalms?”….

I believe Dr. Lessing has done a great service in bringing attention to these passages. Dr. Lessing… is getting right to the heart of the matter: Cursing the enemies of the faithful is built into the very fabric of the Promise. There can be no salvation without damnation. There is no Gospel without Law. There is no deliverance and mercy without justice. Simply put: darkness cannot exist with light and evil and its offspring must ultimately be annihilated forever. Helpfully, Lessing also noted that God’s anger lasts only for a moment, and host Todd Wilken added that God’s justice and vengeance – being his “alien work” – operate to serve his mercy. With all of these points, I could not agree more, for on the last day, we who are in Christ will no doubt rejoice (Revelation 18:20 [all following passages are NIV]), shouting “hallelujahs” (Rev. 19:1), and saying “true and just are His judgments!” (Rev 19:2) The fact that “with such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again (Revelation 18:21)”, is indeed a part of our comfort in the Gospel. God will finally, as the Anglican scholar N.T. Wright notes, “set the world to rights”. Here, there can be no doubt that this will be the pinnacle of happiness.

[iv] Here, Luther quotes provided by Laura Welker help us to better understand the whole story:

“In order to test and humble them, God hides his true face of ‘life, glory, salvation, joy, and peace’ under the mask of ‘wrath, death, and hell.’ He ‘afflicts the godly and conceals the fact that He is our God and Father and rather conducts Himself as a tyrant and judge who wants to torture and destroy us.’” LW 8:4, 31 (1545); cf. LW 4:324 (1539).

“For Luther, the point is that ‘reason despairs’, the ‘will murmurs’ and the senses ‘are completely downcast.’ The fallen flesh is crushed in order for the redeemed spirit to conquer and persevere in true faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary.” LW 8:8 (1545).

“At the same time, invasion by the brutal Turks was a constant threat that struck fear into the hearts of Luther’s audience. The primary question on their minds was, ‘Where is Christ? Where is our  God?’ Luther’s response was that God was still present, but it is his custom to ‘pretend that He is quite alienated from us.’ Luther likened God to a father who hides from his children in a game of hide-and-seek, which at this period in his life was a game Luther had no doubt played with his own children. Such a game ‘pains us immeasurably, since we do not understand it. . . . [But] He hides himself and disguises himself so that he may test us to see whether we will remain firm in faith and love toward him.’” LW  6:259 (1543); 47:209 (1543).

[v] For Paulson and Hopman, second generation Lutheran reformers (like Flacius and Chemnitz) preserved Luther’s teaching of the atonement even as they insist that they changed it as well: “for [them], this obedience to the law is not only to suffer its punishment passively, as in Luther, but atonement also depends of Christ’s actual obedience to the law” (49, “Atonement”, Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions). See Andrew Preus’ weighty and thoroughly convincing response to claims like this in the recent Concordia Theological Quarterly.


Leave a comment

Posted by on December 17, 2018 in Uncategorized


Meditations for Radical Lutherans on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations (part 5 of 6)

Yes? “God is not united by law and gospel but divided.” — Steven Paulson, 24


Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


Seeking Refuge from the Law’s Inherent Goodness in the “Hidden God”? (part 5)

One might think that because of the nature of God’s law, given in Eden and still inscribed on human hearts today, Christ and the Holy Spirit should not ultimately be set against the law in any way.

As we saw in our last post however, in the Radical Lutheran account the Holy Spirit is said to be the “opposite of the law.” In his article “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna” (see my response to this article in the latest Concordia Theological Quarterly here) we see that Radical Lutheran theologian Nicholas Hopman also asserts that:

  • “[T]he content of the commandment/law is always a weapon attacking human sin” (159).
  • “[T]he fulfillment of the law actually empties the law of all its content, namely, its threatening teeth” (160, italics mine)
  • “Where there is no accusation, there is no law” (164)
  • “[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)

In sum, in the Radical Lutheran account, the law appears to be fully identified with “the hidden God” — God as human beings see him though their sin-infested reason. Again, they desire to stand before God with their good works, their “ladder theology” and/or “law story” (see part 2). The revealed God, however, has nothing to do with law, and comes in the form of Jesus Christ. He, actually, is the end of the law.

So — while Luther warned about flirting with God hidden in wrath, some modern theologians would prefer to make it a staple in how we do theology, especially when it comes to the law.

If Jesus had been born today, would we even recognize this “outlaw God”?


Jack Kilcrease explains “the self-evident threat posed by the hidden God to humanity” the Radical Lutheran sees:

“Relying on several remarks Luther made in his Antinomian Disputations, [Gerhard] Forde identifies the hidden God’s threatening activity with the law. Forde writes in The Law-Gospel Debate that the law must be broadly understood as “a general term for the manner in which the will of God impinges on Man…” (278). 

Again, as noted in part 3, man’s response to God’s law, the nature of which is said to be our sense of accusation, is “Hell if I am going to be God’s slave.” As such, they “flee from what they perceive as the unreasonable expectations and control (oppression, coercion… punishment!) of the True God.”

Pauson and Hopman agree. And so, whatever their own intentions may be, they in any case show how Radical Lutherans can conveniently bracket God’s good law in the category of the “hidden God”…

“The resurrection is Christ’s victory over sin, death, hell, the devil, and even over God hidden in wrath (deus absconditus)—along with his law. Death is the last, greatest enemy but the law is the strangest enemy.” (“Hated God,” 23)

“It is dangerous to want to explore and comprehend the divinity by means of human reason without Christ” (SDEA, 89).


The Radical Lutherans explain to us that this “strangest enemy,” the law, even justly accused Jesus Christ! As I wrote in a past post:

[W]hat it comes down to is this: Christ ends up a damned sinner, “defeated” by that most coercive and even killing of forces: the merciless “order keeping” law!

What do I mean?

By “order keeping” I mean something like this: law is not necessarily associated first and foremost – or at all! — with God’s law, the 10 commandments, but is rather anything which provides boundaries, “makes life work,” and keeps peace – all good things! What really is true, right, and just may not even need to be considered here, as this story from a good friend of mine illustrates:

“In Kindergarten I was accused of and punished for throwing a snowball at recess. I had not done it. Oddly enough, 45 years later, it still kind of hurts to think about.

In other words, even though I was not guilty of the sin for which I was punished, there was significant suffering involved on my part. I didn’t need to be the sinner to suffer for the sin of whoever did commit that sin. Although that is what I, for all intents and purposes, became.

And justice was served. The boy hit by the snowball in the face, and his parents, were satisfied. The teacher and principal upheld the law. My classmates learned from my experience.”


In sum, for the Radical Lutheran, the law is understood in terms of the wrath we see in God’s creation[i], and might be said to rightfully demand the death of all sinners with nary a concern for God’s mercy.[ii] Ultimately, with its “relatively good” order-keeping coerciveness, it–not just the ceremonial laws abolished in the New Testament–is temporal and passes away. It is not connected with God as He really is.

We are told by the Radical Lutherans that the revealed will of God is very different from–nay, the complete opposite of–the law. It is the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Unlike the law, it actually cares about both truth and individuals, ultimately aiming to save all persons in Christ through preachers! (see Romans 10).

Does this approach to this issue not cause unnecessary confusion? Should we really be wondering whether God’s will and the law of God are two completely different things? Should we really be opening up doors for those who, asserting the temporal nature of God’s law (and of course redefining “nature,” “God,” and “law” in the process!), are also eager to see it evolve in a “Hegelian” fashion or otherwise?

Who is really being the Erasmian skeptic and “enthusiast” here?

“…no answer is ever given to those who seek to judge God’s justice. He will remain a hidden God to those who try to access him experientially…” – Pastor Philip Hale, p. 24


Does it really make sense that the “the law of the Spirit who gives life” is the opposite of the law? Or does it make sense that it is instead the opposite of “the law of sin and death,” from which Christ has set us free (Rom. 8:2)!?

Again, going along with the previous posts (part 3), how we size up this issue will also determine how we view the law’s role in the Christian’s conscience and life of repentance.

“When the conscience is under attack, one must abandon the law completely”? In this case?


Here, it also does us well to note that Luther speaks of the current world as a place where we can still, in spite of the fall, speak of “the good” (SDEA 33). And to re-iterate once again, even though Luther did speak of the law in Eden in terms of it being a threat, an evaluation of his Genesis commentary reveals that in no sense did this law actually accuse or terrify Adam and Eve, who were already at peace with God.[iii] And while for Nicholas Hopman’s Luther “[w]here there is no accusation, there is no law” (Hopman, 164), we also know that in Eden this was not the case. The law was not meant to drive, by force, God’s people to this or that (Hopman, 160), but rather to inform them of and to keep them from a very specific danger, as well as being an invitation to grow in the fear, love and trust in God (again, see my longer, more detailed argument in the latest Concordia Theological Quarterly here).

And the fact also remains that the law/commands of God, used by the Holy Spirit, are always good. With the Gospel of forgiveness ringing in our ears, it guides His people in paths that are right and true and safe. If God meant for “very good” Adam and Eve to be prevented from sinning via his command in the Garden, how much more might this be true for us who have fallen and who now face not only the devil, but the fallen world and our sinful flesh?

“In Adam we have all been one…” or no? Not Luther’s view?: “Attempts to get God off the hook of our suffering and death commonly end with a theory of the misuse of human free will as the cause of our suffering and the reason for the presence of evil.” — Steve D. Paulson, p. 365


Indeed, until the time that the law is fulfilled in us perfectly, the Christian will be at war with these three under his commander, Christ. And here, the Holy Spirit – and the good law that He brings which says “[t]he law does not want you to despair of God… it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” – is not to be denied (SDEA 367, 369)

Whatever else can be said here – and much more must be said and will be said in the final post of this series – this much is clear: the law and gospel – just like the Holy Spirit – reveal an important truth which is exactly the same: God has an overriding desire to do good to all men (even, finally, desiring that each not despair but be saved in Christ). This holds true even as the purposes of the law and gospel are distinct and must always remain so.

Yes? “God is not consistent but contradicts himself. Here we see God against God!” — Oswald Bayer, p. 104.


When only reading some of what Luther says, it might be easy to at times get the impression that God’s Holy Spirit only brings peace and joy in the “spirit” by the perfect Gospel, and that the “flesh” is dealt with only according to the imperfect law, at odds with the Holy Spirit (and here, we might see increasing insistence from many that we deal with this or that topic in light of stricter and stricter distinctions between the left-hand and right-hand kingdoms). This kind of “practical Gnosticizing” however, does not take into account what Luther says elsewhere.

For example, in response to the 29th argument in the Second Disputation Against the Antinomians, Luther not only insists that “God preached” (vs. “God not preached,” i.e. the hidden God) is a God of law too, but that He hides also so as to not terrify us:

“God by himself, without certain signs, cannot be comprehended; and whoever searched for God in his majesty and divinity, would be crushed by the glory of God. Yet later he emptied himself and became lovable and admirable, a boy put in the womb of the Virgin and in the manger. In this way we can bear him and he becomes easy to deal with. Otherwise, a man will not see him and live. Yet clothed and dressed in human flesh, born of the Virgin and incarnate of our flesh, made our brother and flesh, I cannot dread him.

In the same way the Holy Spirit in his majesty is incomprehensible, and when he in his majesty as God reveals the law, he cannot but kill and vehe­mently terrify. Therefore, he at last, in order to be Consoler and Sanctifier, also becomes a Gift… the Holy Spirit as God terrifies in the law, but consoles, sanctifies, and vivifies as Gift, in the form of a dove, and in a flame of fire” (bold and italics mine, SDEA 225).

Even if the theme of the hidden God in Luther’s theology is being abused by Radical Lutherans, the proper articulation of it (this is a very nice summary) makes a critical point. The idea here is that God is a God who hides Himself, and a temptation of man is to peek into the window of heaven, trying to catch a glimpse of the “bare God” that He has not revealed to us in Scripture.

Indeed. Ironically? “To seek God behind this giving of himself in words preached is to seek some God… who might allow us to bypass the revelation of our own nature as sinners and creatures.” – Steven D. Paulson, p. 367, 368


Interestingly, elsewhere in the Antinomian Disputations, we can readily discern that Luther in fact speaks of two different kinds of “bare God” in the minds of men.

There is one which, in line with the Scriptures, “speaks in his majesty,” “only terrif[ying] and kill[ing],” – and yet, being ultimately revealed as the merciful Christ who dies for the sins of the world, and who disciplines His children in love. On the other hand, those who neglect this “basic truth” of the gospel, follow “seemingly magnificent and divine illuminations and revelations” which are “in reality satanic”. Their “bare God” is an illusion, and they “finally fall into despair” (SDEA 91).

Luther: “These true disciples of Satan seem to think that the law is something temporal that has ceased under Christ, like circumcision.”


When Luther talks in the Antinomian Disputations about the law showing sin “without this Holy Spirit who is the Gift” He is nevertheless talking about the same Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit is, in fact, the true bare God, the One who in his majesty reveals the law and convicts of sin unto salvation and not damnation (John 16-8-10).

He also reveals the true bare God, that is, the baby, born of Mary and wrapped in swaddling clothes. He is the One who still hides Himself, but now not in wrath, but in humility, simplicity, and weakness – in the human flesh of the man Jesus Christ. For us.

And He does this, for example, in the Lord’s Supper, so as not to further terrify those who have known His wrath (and what is the Radical Lutheran’s view of this Supper?) We can, really, and truly, partake of His true body and blood in peace and joy. In fact, we can have the grace of God applied to each one of us in an exceedingly personal and intimate way.

He does so through simple and humble bread and wine, and importantly, simple and humble words to believe, still “hiding” in a sense, for our sake!

Given for you, like this, so as not to terrify you…


What sweet Gospel this is! “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior!” (Isaiah 45:15)

And, as Luther puts it, if one believes in the revealed God, Jesus Christ, Christ will “gradually also reveal the hidden God; for ‘He who sees Me also sees the Father.’” (LW 5:46 ; LW 28:126 ; see here).

Much more on this kind of thing in the final post…




[i] Hopman has written elsewhere that “the hidden God works even life in his wrath,” and “God in his wrath works life”.

[ii] Instead of: “The law does not want you to despair of Godit wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” — Luther (ODE, 195), the view towards the law might be like what is described in this post:

“By its own standard, which cannot be violated (as a friend once told me “When the Law says ‘stone’ you stone!), the law “justly” but falsely accuses Jesus of being a sinner.

([As you say:] “Here Paul’s point is exact: the law is no respecter of persons, it does not identify Christ among sinners as an exception to the rule. Law as “blind lady justice” executes its judgment regardless of race, color, creed—or divinity.”)”

You can listen to some more official 1517 Legacy folks discuss the atonement quite well here.

[iii] See, e.g. LW 1: 62-63, 65, 111.

Images: Jörg Schubert ; The outlaw (

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 13, 2018 in Uncategorized


Meditations for Radical Lutherans on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations (part 4 of 6)

Simply put, for the Radical Lutheran, the law of God cannot be said to be the lex aeterna, the eternal will of God. Is the Holy Spirit “the opposite of the law”?


Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


The Law of God Set Against God’s Holy Spirit? (part 4)

First, this quote from the “First Disputation Against the Antinomians,” which will serve to set up both this post as well as the final two posts of this series. It is a good one to spend some time with:

Fourth Argument

Against thesis 25. [“For the entire Scripture teaches that repentance must be initiated by the law, which is what the order of the matter itself and also experience shows.”]

The Holy Spirit had to be sent in order to bring about what the law was unable to bring about. The law was not sufficient to terrify souls. Therefore the Holy Spirit had to be sent for this purpose.

Explanation: The law is not a sufficient cause without the heart being moved. It does not even accomplish it externally. Hence the Holy Spirit, who speaks and intercedes for us, is necessary.

Response of Dr. Luther:

“…it is impossible for the law to show sin and move hearts without the Holy Spirit.” – Luther


This argument has already been explained. The consequence is bad: The law does not do its work without inner movement; therefore it is to be removed. The magnitude of sin and of God’s wrath has to be shown carefully by the law, and then the matter has to be entrusted to God. He moves the hearts he wills.

Yet it is to be noted that the 16th proposition of the Antinomians states that the law only shows sins, certainly without the Holy Spirit, so it therefore only shows them unto damnation. This they babble impiously since it is impossible for the law to show sin and move hearts without the Holy Spirit, who is God the Creator of all things and who wrote the law with his finger on tablets of stone, as is said in Exodus (31:18).

We therefore distinguish between the Holy Spirit and God in his divine nature and substance on the one hand, and the Spirit as he is given us on the other hand. God in his nature and majesty is our adversary, requires the law, and threatens transgressors with death. Yet when he associates himself with our infirmity, when he takes on our nature, sins, and evils, then he is not our adversary, as Is. 9(:6) proves: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” unto us is given the true God; he becomes our Priest and Savior. Thus the Holy Spirit is in his majesty when he writes with his finger on Moses’ tablets of stone. He certainly convicts sins and terrifies hearts. Yet when he is enveloped in tongues and spiritual gifts, then he is called Gift, sanctifies, and vivifies. It is without this Holy Spirit who is the Gift that the law shows sin, because the law is not a gift, but the word of the eternal and almighty God, who is fire for consciences.

But the law does not show sin without the Holy Spirit. The reason is God the Giver of the law. Therefore one cannot say that the law shows sin without the Holy Spirit. Yet in that they say that the law shows sin unto damnation, this they rightly say.

Yet then they infer that the law is to be removed because of this effect. This is impious and blasphemous. I’d buy golden shoes for that prophet who showed me for sure from the Scriptures that the law is to be abolished because it shows sins unto damnation. For by abolishing the law in this way they also abolish death and hell. For when there is no accusing and condemning law, what do I need Christ for who gave himself for my sins? Yet when death comes you certainly feel that sin accuses and condemns you so horribly so that you would despair unless you were lifted up by Christ’s promise.

Satan hates the teaching of piety (cf. 1 Tim. 6:3). This is why he wants to remove the law through such spirits. For the same reason for which they remove the law, it has to be established and retained all the more, namely, that it shows and points out true sin, and by this pointing out, it reduces man to nothingness and condemns and impels him to seek help from Christ, Gal. 3(:24)” (SDEA 55, 57, Italics mine).


First of all, if you think Satan only wants to squelch the Gospel narrowly defined (Christ’s work for the forgiveness of our sins that we can be justified before Him and know that we will go to heaven), read this from Thomas Lemke.

Second, let’s get to the heart of the Radical Lutheran’s argument.

For Radical Lutheran theologian Nicholas Hopman, a definition of God’s law devoid of an accusation of sin is inconceivable (see “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna,” 164). Furthermore, “[T]here is no distinction between the law’s requirement/demand (exactio) and the law’s accusation/condemnation (accusatio)” (159). But now, he says, thanks be to God, for the law’s stinger has been removed!

Here, a serious yet charitable Lutheran construction would say that there is nothing wrong with those last two sentences above, even if more certainly must be said! (even heretics, after all, tend to, for the most part, utter entirely true statements). Still, is it reasonable to wonder whether there might be more to the story as well?

Yes, it most certainly is.

In fact, questions abound regarding the Radical Lutheran account. One notices, for example, that when Hopman talks about the law’s “stinger” being removed, he means that the entire content of the law – the qualities and behavior it speaks to – is removed as well: “[t]he law’s instructional, guiding command or demand [no longer] remains for believers” (italics mine)[ii]

Let’s be clear. For the RL, the name of the game is not the law’s intrinsic and spiritual goodness, but its “relatively good” order-keeping coerciveness: “Forde writes in The Law-Gospel Debate that the law must be broadly understood as ‘a general term for the manner in which the will of God impinges on Man.'” — Jack Kilcrease.


One can see why Hopman wrongly insists that a definition of law devoid of an accusation of sin is inconceivable. For him, the truly significant thing about the law is what he says is its nature: its accusation of sin in the human heart. Therefore, any good behavior that comes about even in part because of the law’s involvement can only be due to a fear of some kind of punishment, temporal or eternal. Therefore, for him, any instruction and guidance are synonymous with coercion, and any “third use of the law” is, to say the least, suspect (nevermind, evidently, that the Christian as new man once again begins to enjoy and delight in the law, even as he will also continue, insofar as he is the old Adam, to be accused by it!).

These, however, are not the only ideas that Hopman has that prompt questions. He also goes so far to say, with sketchy textual evidence from the Antinomian Disputations[iii], that “law is present only where Christ is absent” (164). Even more puzzling, he claims, citing 2 Cor. 3:6 and Gal. 3:5, that the Holy Spirit is “the opposite of the law”! (166)[iv] In other words, in spite of Luther’s words from the Antinomian Disputations above which give the opposite impression, Hopman’s paper “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna” seems to say that the law of God contained in the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin are two things which, in our theology, need not be kept together.

Or must not be.

What happens to John 16 here, formally a staple passage in Lutheran theology?:

“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.”


Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today. Does He mean to pick a fight or something?


For Luther, the law of God contained in the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin go hand in hand. The great reformer not only notes how “the Spirit first convicts the world of sin in order to teach faith in Christ, that is, the remission of sins (John 16:8)” (SDEA 37), going on to speak about how Adam, David, and Paul are killed by the law. He also says that, in accordance with God’s will, the law does not do its work without God’s Holy Spirit, who gives “all truth, wherever it might be,” for “to forbid the law is to forbid the truth of God” (SDEA 139, italics mine ; see also 55).[v]

What is the ultimate reason for the kinds of problems that we see here on display in the writings of Radical Lutherans? Could it have to do with the fact that their view of the Christian life, like that of Gerhard Forde before them, is completely imputation-driven? Ironically even as–at least in Gerhard Forde’s reckoning–there is not vicarious atonement, and hence blessings from the vicarious atonement, to impute to the believer?!

And since the emphasis in this account is on how God’s justifying word does what it says, everything that happens in the Christian’s life is about getting this message out (and not so much on getting the message right – again, vicarious atonement? Meh.). In other words, in the end, it is about doing and not being, even if that doing has to do with preaching the Radical Gospel.[vi]

“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.” — Wade Johnston, on Lex Aeterna.


What is key here for the Radical Lutheran however is that everything is really about God’s doing (He does work all in all, after all, as Radical Lutherans are eager to remind some of us – who I am guessing they doubt believe it). But – and notice this – not the Holy Spirit’s “doing the law and gospel” through the preacher without ambiguity, but really just the Holy Spirit’s doing the gospel alone through the preacher.[vii]

The rest is certainly God (Hopman, 157), but ultimately this really needs to be qualified as the hidden God, involving as it does the temporal law which is passing away…

Intrigued? I hope so.

Good stuff we should talk about more: “The hidden god is what man says about God, not what the gracious father reveals about Himself.” – Pastor Philip Hale, p. 25


More about the meaning of this in the next post.




[ii] As it has served its purpose to be a “pedagogue” to Christ.

[iii] Also note that in the quote above, Luther says “It is without this Holy Spirit who is the Gift that the law shows sin, because the law is not a gift, but the word of the eternal and almighty God, who is fire for consciences.” What does this mean? Does it mean that we distinguish the Holy Spirit’s work of administering the law and the gospel? Yes. Does it mean that the law of God and the will of God are necessarily opposed? No. Luther goes on to say “Yet in that they say that the law shows sin unto damnation, this they rightly say,” and such a statement does not accuse the new man in the Christians, but causes him to rejoice. Not because of the eternal suffering of the wicked, but because of the salvation of the children of God. As I wrote in this post: “Justice is also a help to the oppressed godly ones – a balancing of the scales weighed against them! Their vindication! Their protection! Their preservation! Defeat to those who rebel vs their God and His eternal will! To them, God’s righteous anger, born of His Father’s heart for His children, is Gospel. Come quickly Lord Jesus!” Can one say this and also desire that all persons be saved? Why not?

[iv] This would seem to be corollary to his earlier mentioned claim that “the law and delight in the law are two mutually exclusive realities.” (167)  Of course, if the law is the “hidden God” who only works death in the end, as Hopman has written elsewhere with Steve Paulson, this makes all the sense in the world: the law and “the law of sin and death” appear to be one in the same! In truth however, such a law is clearly an abstraction removed from Christ, the Holy Spirit, the historical account found in the Holy Scriptures, not to mention the Antinomian Disputations.

[v] In the Antinomian Disputations, while some in the disputants shared the argument that the law was “not sufficient to terrify souls” (see the quote at the beginning of this post), Luther alternatively argued that God’s law is always at work, and that it is “false that the law convicts of sin without the Holy Spirit” (SDEA 139).

[vi] Of course being is discussed as well. 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 sanctified 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 means 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? 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”)

[vii] In addition, one often gets the impression that the Spirit not only preaches to the Christian but also believes for the Christian in the Christian. 

Note: added image and quote from Wade Johnston at 8:14 am central time.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 10, 2018 in Uncategorized


Is the Bible Clear?

According to Luther in the Bondage of the Will, the answer is a resounding yes (thanks James Swan, for doing all this work) — with some considerable nuance when it comes to the details:

“But the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists… —who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used these unsubstantial spectres to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign for ever? And are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures—and what more will you find in them? You see, then that the entire content of the Scriptures has now been brought to light, even though some passages which contain unknown words remain obscure. Thus it is unintelligent, and ungodly too, when you know that the contents of Scripture are as clear as can be, to pronounce them obscure on account of those few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another. What God has so plainly declared to the world is in some parts of Scripture stated in plain words, while in other parts it still lies hidden under obscure words. But when something stands in broad daylight, and a mass of evidence for it is in broad daylight also, it does not matter whether there is any evidence for it in the dark. Who will maintain that the town fountain does not stand in the light because the people down some alley cannot see it, while everyone in the square can see it?

There is nothing, then, in your remark about the ‘Corycian cavern’; matters are not so in the Scriptures. The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no more hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature. ‘Their sound is gone out into all lands’ (Ps. 19.4). ‘All things that are written, are written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15.4). Again: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for instruction’ (2 Tim. 3.16). Come forward then, you, and all the Sophists with you, and cite a single mystery which is still obscure in the Scripture. I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer. As Paul said of the Jews in 2 Cor. 4: ‘The veil remains on their heart’ (2 Cor. 3.15); and again, ‘If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost, whose heart the god of this world hath blinded’ (2 Cor. 4.3-4). They are like men who cover their eyes, or go from daylight into darkness, and hide there, and then blame the sun, or the darkness of the day, for their inability to see. So let wretched men abjure that blasphemous perversity which would blame the darkness of their own hearts on to the plain Scriptures of God!

When you quote Paul’s statement, ‘his judgments are incomprehensible,’ you seem to take the pronoun ‘his’ to refer to Scripture; whereas the judgments which Paul there affirms to be incomprehensible are not those of Scripture, but those of God. And Isaiah 40 does not say: ‘who has known the mind of Scripture?’ but: ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’ (Paul, indeed, asserts that Christians do know the mind of the Lord; but only with reference to those things that are given to us by God, as he there says in i Cor. 2 (v. 12)). You see, then, how sleepily you examined those passages, and how apt is your citation of them—as apt as are almost all your citations for ‘free-will’! So, too, the examples of obscurity which you allege in that rather sarcastic passage are quite irrelevant—the distinction of persons in the Godhead, the union of the Divine and human natures of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. Here, you say, are problems which have never been solved. If you mean this of the enquiries which the Sophists pursue when they discuss these subjects, what has the inoffensive Scripture done to you, that you should blame such criminal misuse of it on to its own purity? Scripture makes the straightforward affirmation that the Trinity, the Incarnation and the unpardonable sin are facts. There is nothing obscure or ambiguous about that. You imagine that Scripture tells us how they are what they are; but it does not, nor need we know. It is here that the Sophists discuss their dreams; keep your criticism and condemnation for them, but acquit the Scriptures! If, on the other hand, you mean it of the facts themselves, I say again: blame, not the Scriptures, but the Arians and those to whom the Gospel is hid,who, by reason of the working of Satan, their god, cannot see the plainest proofs of the Trinity in the Godhead and of the humanity of Christ.

In a word: The perspicuity of Scripture is twofold, just as there is a double lack of light. The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word; the second concerns the knowledge of the heart. If you speak of internal perspicuity, the truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it. They do not believe in God, nor do they believe that they are God’s creatures, nor anything else- as Ps. 13 puts it, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God’ (Ps. 14:1).* The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture. If, on the the other hand, you speak of external perspicuity, the position is that nothing whatsoever is left obscure or ambiguous, but all that is in the Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world.

Source: Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Translated by J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnston) (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), pp. 71-74.

* Elsewhere, Luther writes that “the knowledge of predestination [here, Luther points to pagan notions of fate] and of God’s prescience has been left in the world no less certainly than the notion of the Godhead itself. But those who wished to seem wise argued themselves out of it till their hearts grew dark and they became fools, as Rom. 1 says (vv. 21-2), and denied, or pretended not to know, things which the poets and the common people, and even their own consciences held as being most familiar, most certain, most true.” (83, italics mine, Packer ed.)
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 9, 2018 in Uncategorized


Meditations for Radical Lutherans on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations (part 3 of 6)

Make that a question: “What the law requires is freedom from the law.” — Leif Grane


Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


Ladder theologies and the postmodern “bound conscience” (Part 3)

First, again, a quote from Martin Luther, from the “First Disputation Against the Antinomians”:

Against thesis 4. [“The first part of repentance, sorrow, is caused solely by the law. The second part, the good intention, cannot be caused by the law.”]

By God’s grace alone repentance is worked in us. Therefore no part of repentance can be ascribed to the law. I prove the antecedent from Jeremiah 31(:18): “Turn to me and I will be turned” etc. Likewise, Ps. 51(:10): “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”


We do not deny that it is God who works repentance in us. Our theses certainly confess this openly. Nonetheless it is improper to say, God’s grace works repentance in us. For grace is properly the fulfillment of the law, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and life in Christ. Yet actually the following proves that God works repentance in us: Many hear the law, and still they are not moved by its threats and terrors because they do not feel the force of the law. This is why I do not convert anyone by virtue of my preaching, unless God is there and cooperates with his Spirit.

Does this mean that the law is not to be preached because God moves and converts the heart only out of mercy? This consequence is ridiculous. For the same reason I could say, the gospel is not to be preached because few hear it, and even fewer believe it. Yet God wants us to teach the law. Wherever we do this, he will see to it that he certainly converts those by it unto repentance who are converted by it, whomever and whenever he wills. Thus we also ought to preach the Gospel which is a teaching common to all; yet “not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2).

Thus the law pertains to all, yet not all have repentance. Yet those who have it, have it by means of the law. Yet the prophet speaks about true repentance that lasts the entire life. He says (more or less): “Humble me and lead me to true repentance that I might loathe perverted and impious doctrine, but especially that most holy one of the hypocrites who do not understand the law, and much less are able to teach it to others, but bristle with its righteous­ness and their own wisdom” (cf. Is. 5:21). Yet a disciple is not better than his teacher (Matt. 10:24). Therefore, they too certainly convert their disciples, but to idolatry and perdition.

All have the gospel, but not all have faith. All have the law, but not all have the force and experience of the law. Thus, I repent when God strikes me with the law and the gospel. We cannot tell the time and hour. He who wills to convert me knows it. He speaks about the entire life. (SDEA 53)


Luther wrote that Christ dwells in the Christian conscience as the groom in the wedding chamber, and, in the context of the doctrine of justification, goes so far as to say that it is also lord and judge over all works! Steve Paulson writes that “conscience is never a solitary or individual matter but is God’s relation to you as his creature through words” (24, A Brief Introduction to Martin Luther, 2017).

This sounds pretty good. That said, here the critical question arises: does the presence of Christ in the conscience negate the need for the eternal law of God? Luther’s own view would clearly be at odds with this (see here and here). One often gets the impression that in the Radical Lutheran view, “the criterion of the law… is the self,” as another contemporary Lutheran theologian has put it.[i]

It depends. “When the conscience is under attack, one must abandon the law completely.” — John Pless.


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 or the effect and power of the law in the most proper sense” (quoted by Hopman in his paper “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna,” 154), what he does not say is just as important, namely: “whatever produces sorrow exercises the office of the law.”

Indeed, the matter of a good consciences and bad consciences, seared ones[ii] 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.[iii]

Yes, relevant.


In an age where many of those claiming the mantle of Luther exalt the importance of respect for the “bound conscience,” the following extensive quotation from the Reformer’s lectures on I Timothy about a “seared conscience” is particularly relevant.

Here, Luther talks about persons creating laws not given by God and binding men’s consciences by them:

“This “seared conscience” has caused much debate. Almost all interpreters pass it by. We shall explain, to the extent that the matter itself and the nature of other statements allow. It is not the natural conscience. “They fear where there is nothing to fear” (Ps. 53:5). We have the same idea in Matt. 15. It is the nature of all hypocrites and false prophets to create a conscience where there is none, and to cause conscience to disappear where it does exist. There is no fear of God before them, etc. That is, they do not have a god who is God. “In vain do they worship Me (Matt. 15:9).” In the Hebrew, this is fear. Consequently, the fear of God is located much more in the conscience than on the outside. From the conscience comes every doctrine, according to the way in which the conscience is influenced. It lives according to what it teaches. Thus it has a god who is not God. Thus it errs both in doctrine and in worship. The erring conscience is seared. That is, it is seared by cauterization. Just as men or sheep are branded, so those consciences are branded by a false idea of doctrine. With fear they create a conscience where there is no conscience. Paul, then, is speaking about conscience according to the words he has proclaimed. These are the “doctrines of demons.” Every doctrine creates a conscience; so this should be a false conscience and false idea about God. A monk imagines God sitting in heaven to look at his works and righteousness. In this situation he must live according to this rule and perform these works. If he does not, he commits a mortal sin. There he causes an erring conscience. That is, a conscience is brought in by force. This is not natural. The metaphor pleases me very much. It pleases me that he should call it a “seared” conscience, as if it had been branded by a hot iron. He does not say that the conscience has been cut off but that it has been branded to testify of the efficacy and power of that doctrine, as if he were saying: “Fire is burning the flesh.” Thus these men should have a righteousness of faith with greater enthusiasm, concern, diligence, and ardor, as if it were branded on them. He wants to say, then, that the martyrs of the devil suffer more than those of God. That conscience endures because of great exertion. At the same time he indicates that the erring conscience is born of great exertion; much trouble and toil is involved, so that people must burn themselves over it, as it were. They are drawn away from faith to works, which pull them in different directions day and night. This agrees with the sense of Scripture: “They fear where there is nothing to fear.” “They fear me (Matt. 15:8).” Also, “You will serve other gods.” This is real searing. Everywhere it is called trouble and toil. Here are two special evils: first, the false conscience and, second, the restless conscience. The false conscience comes from sin where there is no sin, and with great toil. This is to work in vain” (italics and bold, mine)[iv]

Luther, getting “subjective”?: “I am speaking about true knowledge, in which the wrath of God against sin is perceived and a true taste of death is sensed….” (AE 26:148)


In this passage, we see what happens to the natural conscience when it is corrupted by the false teachings of men who restructure it. This results in a conscience which is “seared,” that is, one that functions in an improper and confused matter. Ultimately, Luther writes elsewhere[v] how the effects of a seared conscience leads to the individual accepting a portrait of Christ created by the devil.

Whether the misleading picture of Christ is seemingly closer or further from the one clearly revealed in the Scriptures, the result is now the same: one must climb and climb to please a God of law and not grace.

Who, according to Luther, are susceptible to creating “ladder theologies”?

Not those who, with the Gospel ringing in their ears, uphold the law of God in its truth and purity.

Not those who believe that the law is rooted in God’s very own eternal goodness and righteousness.

Not those who believe that preachers should aim to guide the consciences of their flock – even after absolving them with the word of the Gospel![vi]

Why uphold this if it doesn’t conform to what the greatest heir of Luther, Gerhard Forde, teaches? Why will it not eventually get pitched?


On the contrary, it is those who outright reject God’s law (as in the case of those in the ELCA who promote the doctrine of the bound conscience), or, more commonly, those who use it selectively and/or downplay/dilute its eternal nature: “[The “Sophist” scholastic theologians] imagined that sin is that which is against human traditions, only rarely that which is against the moral law.” For Luther, both the eternal law and gospel “belong to all” and must be continually taught (SDEA 115 ; for more, read all the blue here).

And here, as regards our own context, what Luther said to his Antinomian opponent Agricola, can be extrapolated to address much of today’s contemporary church, captive as they are to the devil’s lies: “These true disciples of Satan seem to think that the law is something temporal that has ceased under Christ, like circumcision” (SDEA 141).

Just “Milo-esque” and infantile bomb-throwing that doesn’t deserve your serious intellectual and spiritual engagement?


Is it possible that those who are deceived into replacing the law of God are the most eager to live by, to be justified by, the traditions – the laws – of strong and confident men–or even women–whose consciences are not held captive to the word of God?

That they would first seek their approval (and rewards) and not God’s?

Of course it is! This would be the most normal thing in the world. Hell if I am going to be God’s slave. They flee from what they perceive as the unreasonable expectations and control (oppression, coercion… punishment!) of the True God.

Even as the gods they create and cling to will in fact be exemplified by those things more and more (as the creators of them become what they fear!). That is, before their weak idols inevitably fail and they fall back on other less fashionable and more traditional, and “proven” gods…

“Luther states that it is paganism (the faith ‘of the Turks and Jews’) to imagine that God is gracious to men ‘without cost’—without the Vicarious Satisfaction…. Men have asserted that God can forgive sins by His almighty power and therefore satisfaction to be rendered by Christ is superfluous…”
–Francis Pieper, 2:347, 351


One does not need to think that Radical Lutheran men like Paulson and Hopman have necessarily fallen into Wengert’s and the ELCA’s error in their own lives to nevertheless be gravely concerned that their theological approach is much more “hi-jackable” than the one which Luther espouses.

“Denial of the third use of the law does not in each case translate into a redefinition of God as one who no longer requires the death of Jesus as atonement for sin. But it does allow it. And denial of the eternal, unchanging nature of the moral law of God (FC SD II 50) demands it.” — David Scaer, p. 18


Simply put, for the Radical Lutheran, the law of God cannot be said to be the eternal will of God.

Our next installment will explore this further, zeroing in and exploring, for example, Nicholas Hopman’s claim that the Holy Spirit is “the opposite of the law” (166, “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna”).




[i] Malysz, Piotr J. “Sin: between law and gospel.” Lutheran Quarterly 28:2 (Summer 2014): 158. If it really is unavoidably the case that “the criterion of the law… is the self,” what, ultimately, is used to stop sinful man from re-intepreting God’s law to his liking, and hence, Christ and His church?

[ii] We can start talking like this and see no problems with it: “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). Tom Christenson, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education (2004) Perhaps we might even feel guilty if we still are tempted to entertain more traditional understandings of morality and sin.

[iii] And perhaps, in the Antinomian Disputations themselves, we can see Luther countering these kinds of problems the sinner has with both law and gospel strategies. See his intriguing argument about using rhetoric to move hardened hearts on pp. 105-107  in the 24th argument.

A strategy using the gospel would be shocking hardened sinners – i.e. those with hardened consciences – with words like “Who did Jesus die for?… How many sins did He pay for?… Which of your sins did Jesus forget to pay for?”, etc. (and not only with words, but by going out of one’s way to treat all persons with gentleness, kindness, respect, and the compassion that Christ felt in His guts).

And another strategy, this time using the law – and one that is perhaps surprising to many contemporary confessional Lutheran ears! – would be: “[t]he law does not want you to despair of God… it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” (SDEA 367, 369). That this message will cause despair without Gospel truth is not the point: the point is that no one, not even on the basis of God’s law instead of the Gospel, can ever say that God means to abandon them.

[iv] Lectures on 1 Timothy (1528), AE 28:310.

[v] Lectures on Galatians (1535), AE 26:38.

I highly recommend reading my pastor’s paper on this topic as you will learn about…:

  • Timothy Wengert’s “simply tragic” (I’d use a different word) failure to acknowledge existing scholarship that had been done on Martin Luther and the conscience by highly noted scholars (I add, this is a good way to kill your conscience about conscience).
  • How for Luther, “the burdening of the conscience with man-made laws or traditions, and the burdening of the conscience by the Law of God in view of sin, are two vastly different things.”
  • How this conscience burdened by God’s Law is an “evil conscience,” “plagued by guilt and despair in the face of the knowledge of God’s judgment upon a specific sin.”
  • How an evil conscience can become hardened: “man can and does fight against his conscience and eventually, may even be able to subdue it so that it goes into a type of dormancy.”
  • How Luther found these things not only in the Bible, but in the character of Orestes in Virgil’s Aeneid: the Erinyes, or Furies, of Alecto (“unceasing”), Megaera (“grudging”), and Tisiphone (“avenging murder,” hounding the guilty for their sin). If hell is not feared, future pain and suffering certainly is.
  • How Luther broke with the scholastic concept of the human conscience which said that it, in part, was a “native capacity to choose to do good,” and instead spoke about the matter in accordance with the Apostle Paul.
  • Luther: “[the conscience’s] purpose is not to do, but to pass judgment on what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved in God’s sight.”
  • How a natural conscience, which has a knowledge of God and His Law, can become a seared conscience, i.e. one that functions improperly, where it cannot “accurately judge the actions of the individual.”
  • In other words, it becomes “artificial, false, unreasonable, not natural, not true, causing a fear of God, that is worship, where God is not to be feared or worshiped.”
  • For a good conscience, “an unfortunate event (which would terrify the evil conscience, bringing to mind former sins, and bringing to light future judgment) is considered not to have happened by chance, ‘but in accord with the good will of God.’”
  • In sum “[h]ow Timothy Wengert applied the concept of ‘bound conscience’ to those who claim to be Christian but who would live in homosexual relationships is not to be found in the writings of Martin Luther” (to say the least!).

[vi] Hence, we read, in the introduction to the Epitome on the Third Use of the Law in 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.”

Clearly, they are not talking about whether or not such a use of the law – with regenerate Christians – should be used by the Holy Spirit.


Leave a comment

Posted by on December 6, 2018 in Uncategorized


Meditations for Radical Lutherans on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations (part 2 of 6)

“A free will is that which wills nothing of its own, but submits only to the will of God.” — Luther (quote not from that work)


Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


Happily Obedient in the Garden (Part 2)

First, to begin this post, a meditation from Martin Luther, from the “First Disputation Against the Antinomians”:

First Argument

Against the entire disputation.

We are not obliged to do the impossible. The law is impossible. Therefore we are not obliged to do it.

Now brace yourself like a man.



It is said improperly, that is, not rightly and not fittingly, that we are obliged to do what is impossible by the law. When Adam was first cre­ated, the law was for him not only something possible, but even something enjoyable. He rendered the obedience the law required with all his will and with gladness of heart, and did so perfectly. Yet what now, after the fall, is impossible, is so not by fault of the law, but by our fault. It is not the fault of the one binding, but of the one sinning, hence this statement, The law urges us to do what is impossible, needs to be understood fittingly, for if you want to preserve the strict sense of the words, it sounds as if God himself is being accused of burdening us with the impossible law. Yet it is sin and Satan, who made the possible and enjoyable law impossible and terrifying, who are to be accused.

Christ, however, by willingly submitting himself to the law and enduring all its curses, earned for those who believe in him the Spirit, being driven by whom they also in this life begin to fulfill the law; and in the life to come the most joyful and perfect obedience will be within them, so that they will do in body and soul as now do the angels (SDEA 47, 49, bold mine).


One of the things that Radical Lutherans warn about is how we as human beings inevitably look to trust in our own righteousness, creating a “ladder theology” or “law story”.

In other words, human beings – and Christians to! – feel like He is obligated to reward them with heaven for what they understand to be their good behavior. They would make God accountable to them. In other words: follow the laws of the universe (perhaps that even God must be subject to!), and reap the rewards!

Ladder theologies everywhere!


Certainly, the Radical Lutherans are right to have this concern. The old Lutheran theologians called this the “opinio legis,” or the “opinion of the law”. Nevertheless, Radical Lutherans Steve Paulson and Nicholas Hopman, in their article “The Hated God,” go so far to write:

“Heresies always fall into an obsessive rut that pulls Christ’s story back into the framework of the law and draws a line between Jesus the man and God. People want to tell the gospel as if it were a law story… Preachers work overtime to make Christ’s story in Scripture fit their own legal tale and spare their hearers any death…”

Sinners don’t just want to help, they say, but want to save themselves: “The temptation of the law is to assume that its presence infers the possibility of doing it, and more importantly, that its purpose from the beginning was salvation from sin” (12).

Acknowledging that there those who claim Christ who believe this, or are at least often tempted to believe this (see Gal. 3:10-14 here), two questions should nevertheless be asked: 1) Did God from the beginning give human beings commands – law – as a means of being saved from sin? ; and 2) Didn’t Luther, per the quote above from the Antinomian Disputations, believe that originally, in Eden, Adam and Eve could do the law?

The answers are “no” and “yes,” respectively. Key for Luther is that the law in Eden may have contained a threat but this by no means meant that Adam and Eve felt threatened. In fact, he gives exactly the contrary impression: Adam and Eve felt no threat whatsoever from this law, command… teaching of God!

And now, then, we come to the critical question: are, for example, all Lutherans who talk about “preaching sanctification” and administering the “third use of the law” (i.e. preaching the law with the intent to guide the Christian) necessarily doing what Paulson and Hopman describes above?

After all, Paulson and Hopman imply as much when they 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)[i]

Or, on the contrary, could anything be further from the truth? In fact, is it possible that the opposite could be the case? That it is the Radical Lutherans who, in promoting a “theology of the cross” which deviates from Luther’s own, open up the door themselves to a “ladder theology” and/or “law story” by which we can be saved?

I know that sounds radical (no pun intended), but hear me out here. One of the main problems with the Radical Lutheran approach to the issue is that, ironically, it simply is not “existential” enough! And this can be said both as regards their description of the Christian life and their understanding of human nature in general.

How well do you know you? “Our nature is such that we always desire new things. We are not content with the doctrine that has been handed down and received. And because the devil knows that our nature is like this, he attacks it with his snares and introduces his light.” — Luther, AE 33, 229


As regards the Christian life, after all, they do not talk like Luther:

“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)[ii]

Luther knows that he can speak like this because those who have been saved delight in following God’s commands. He does not say it so honest and sincere people can work hard to climb the ladder of salvation, having only the possibility of being saved.

And when it comes to Radical Lutherans and the simple matter of human nature, take, for example, this very matter of obedience and submission. Simply put, the idea of delighting in a command is not foreign to human nature. You gotta serve somebody and you will, very often delighting in that fact (even if you realize you are a perpetually miserable “serial server”).

And – contrary to the claims of postmodernists – this phenomena of delighting in loving obedience and submission is not necessarily something that demands to be questioned, interrogated, and deconstructed (note the fourth point in this post as well).[iii]

Do you, generally speaking, want to will nothing of your own — but to follow commands from Your Humble and Simple King!? Or is He just not impressive or attractive enough for you, your lusts, your pride? Who is really secure and free?


Think about those things for now, and be sure to tune in again in future posts where we will discuss how it is those who downplay the importance of God’s law – including its eternal nature – who are most susceptible to the problem of “ladder theologies” and “law stories”.

That issue will be explored in the meditations to come.




[i] This certainly does sound a lot like the theology/philosophy that the popular Jordan Peterson advocates.

[ii] Hopman sometimes goes in the opposite direction, giving the impression that we really ought to shy away from talking about the Christian’s active faith at all. He states, for instance, 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)

[iii] And the deeper fact of the matter is that postmodernists themselves are selective about the particular power structures they see fit to critique.


Posted by on December 3, 2018 in Uncategorized