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

10 Dec

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.

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Posted by on December 10, 2018 in Uncategorized


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