Law, gospel and the irony of Martin Luther

Theo 635: Theology of Martin Luther, University of Notre Dame, 19 November 1992

Erasmus. “On the Freedom of the Will [De Libero Arbitrio].”
Luther, Martin. “On the Bondage of the Will [De Servo Arbitrio].”
In Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, translated and edited by Ernest Gordon Rupp, in collaboration with A. N. Marlow. The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 17. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

No skill is more basic in a theologian, according to Luther, than the ability to distinguish between law and gospel. Luther’s opponent in this case, Erasmus, had woefully failed in that task. Most of his theological mistakes had followed from this error, and all of his exegetical mistakes. Erasmus had either stacked up words of law while slighting those of promise, grace, comfort and gospel, or quoted the latter as though they were law (194-195, cf. 210-211).

Now I ask you, what good will anyone do in a matter of theology or Holy Writ, who has not yet got as far as knowing what the law and what the gospel is, of if he does, disdains to observe the distinction between them? Such a person is bound to confound everything –heaven and hell, life and death– and he will take no pains to know anything at all about Christ.

Woe become us, then, if we disdain to learn from Luther how to distinguish law and gospel, law and grace. If it is a skill that any discerning reader of scripture must have (197), how much more those aspire to be Christian theologians and exegetes?

Actually, the same might be said of Jewish exegetes.

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