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. For in his engagement with Erasmus on the question of free choice, grace, human agency and divine omnipotence, Luther actually recovered believing Israel’s conception of torah — God’s revelation both through gracious works [haggadah] and through words of instruction [halachah], along with the proper relation of the two. Arguably, even for the Pharisees, torah “always meant both the story of God’s gracious acts in creating and preserving a people for himself … and also God’s will for the way that people should shape their lives in the light of those acts.”[1] This is of course the conception that structured the books of Torah themselves. Yet many Christians claiming to follow Luther’s lead have mistakenly and disdainfully regarded the words of Moses as “Law” in the sense of unremitting burden, obligation, judgment and Old Testament — in contrast to “Gospel,” grace and New Testament. The irony is that Luther either was not fully aware that he was recovering torah, or did not explain himself well enough to preclude his followers’ misunderstanding.

Post-Lutheran misunderstanding of Israel’s faith and torah does not so much arise from a mis-reading of Luther, as a partial reading of Luther. For as we have already seen in Luther’s words to Erasmus, the contrast between law and gospel was his. In making this contrast Luther himself comes to the brink of Marcionism: “The New Testament properly consists of promises and exhortations, just as the Old Testament properly consists of laws and threats” (210). In making this textual distinction, Luther does not posit a different God for each testament, as Marcion did, but he does risk appearing to make of the Trinity a split personality: “It is likewise the part of this incarnate God to weep, wail, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, when the will of the Divine Majesty purposely abandons and reprobates some to perish” (206-207).[2] These are among Luther’s most extreme statements and do not convey the full texture of Luther’s thought on the relation of law and gospel, but only one sharp and careless edge. The reader will perhaps sympathize with Luther’s risking of them who closely follows his debate with Erasmus over free choice and grasps why the law/gospel distinction was so crucial. Yet problems will remain.

Every time you quote God’s words of law, command, or imperative to me –wrote Luther to Erasmus– as though these alone proved that human beings human beings could freely choose of their own will to fulfill the law, I’ll quote Paul to you (190). And again and again Luther did quote Paul, especially the latter half of Romans 3:20: “For `no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”

In Luther as in Paul, law is salutary, but only if directed to its proper object — knowledge of sin, preparing the sinner to trust wholly in God’s grace. “For human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything; and for this pride and blindness God has no readier remedy than the propounding of his law…” (185). Trust in grace cannot be the sort of lame caveat that Erasmus had been making (we have free choice, but of course it can do nothing without grace [53, 89-91]); it must be sighing and gasping for the grace offered in Christ, grace that comes only to the person who has felt the full gravity and magnitude of sin. And for this law is necessary (306).

Law, then, prepares the way for grace. Those “who have not yet experienced the office of the law, and neither recognize sin nor feel death, have no use for the mercy promised by that word,” i.e. the preaching of divine mercy toward all humanity[3] (200). The worst sin of all is the sin of the noblest and best in any human society, who think they can achieve righteousness or virtue by fulfilling works of law through their own power (304).

Thus law is absolutely necessary, and grace is absolutely necessary, but it is absolutely crucial that we not confuse their respective roles. Erasmus’s exegetical mistakes, his failing to distinguish words of law from words of promise, are of a piece with his ignorance about new birth and regeneration, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Erasmus

sees almost nothing in either [Old or New Testament] except laws and precepts, by which men are to be trained in good manners. What the new birth is, however, or renewal, regeneration, and the whole work of the Spirit, of this [he] sees nothing at all, and I am amazed and astounded that a man can be so utterly ignorant of the Holy Writ who has worked long and hard at it.

Luther, on the other hand, despairs not only of fundamental moral improvement apart from grace and the work of the Holy Spirit (since the very attempt leads to the worst sin of all, self-righteousness), he despairs of any person’s ability to be saved through free choice and the works of the law. Luther does not require a Pauline proof-text, though one is available in the first and other half of Romans 3:20. Writing in passionate autobiography he speaks of the bitter costs he had paid in learning to be grateful that God has taken salvation out of our hands, away from our own free choice.

For, on the one hand, I should be unable to stand firm and keep hold of [salvation] amid so many adversities and perils and so many assaults of demons, seeing that even one demon is mightier than all men, and no man at all could be saved; and on the other hand, even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainty and to fight as one beating the air, since even if I lived and worked to eternity, my conscience would never be assured and certain how much it ought to do to satisfy God. (32

If polemical debate serves to sharpen some issues, however, it tends to obscure others. In so forcefully making the critique that Erasmus deserved, and that defense of the gospel required, Luther in some passages drew the distinction carelessly between law and gospel as though it were coterminous with the distinction between Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Thoroughly applied, this would amount to Marcionism, as we have seen. And there are related problems.

On the Hebrew side, Luther portrayed the law codes of Moses as though they were just as coercive and domineering as he had found the canon laws of the papacy to be (183). The “service of the people of the law,” Luther read Isaiah to be saying, had been an oppressive “burden too heavy to bear,” a “very hard service” (268).[4] Yet Luther, who had prayed the Psalms for years and who arguably discovered the meaning of trusting faith in God there rather than in Paul, certainly knew how many times the Psalmists spoke of the law as a “delight,” “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 1:2, 19:10; cf. 119 passim). Finally, Luther’s 1520 Treatise on Good Works had argued at length that all the commandments of the Decalogue not only continued to be binding on the Christian, but that the faith and confidence in God required to fulfill all of them was already proclaimed in the first commandment (LW 44, 30f). Might Luther perhaps object that no one actually fulfilled the first commandment until the grace of Christ made that possible through the Holy Spirit? Hardly, for God’s promise concerning Jacob in Genesis 25:23 implies “everything that belongs to the People of God, i.e., the blessing, the Word, the Spirit, the promise of Christ, and the eternal Kingdom…” (251).

On the Christian side, there are commands and imperatives in the New Testament as well. In his Judgment on Monastic Vows (LW 44, 257f, 347f) Luther had spoken of the imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount as commandments directed toward all Christians (not just counsels for monks). Yet in that context Luther had said nothing of such words serving only to bring people to knowledge of sin. Now he argued against Erasmus, on the basis of grammar and logic, that the mere fact of an imperative did not imply ability to fulfill the ought. Erasmus could heap up all the imperatives he wanted and “I shall say at once that what is signified by them is always what men ought to do and not what they do or can do” (190). Did everything Luther said about law in the Hebrew Scriptures extend, as the grammar of imperatives surely could, into the New Testament? Luther might profess to have no concern if the impious took his teachings on free choice as license for open iniquity (134-136). But he had struggled against the charge of antinomianism before (Treatise on Good Works, LW 44, 24f), and he would increasingly struggle with the disappointing results of his own preaching of justification by faith alone, when it failed evoke sufficient gratitude to God that works of authentic love of neighbor ensued.[5] Among Radical Reformers and their heirs ever since, lack of evidence for authentic regeneration in the parishes and even the leadership of the magisterial Reformation has been a major source of unease about Luther’s understanding of justification.[6]

Whatever the record of Christian practice on the ground in Saxony, the conceptual move Luther makes to account for New Testament imperatives is the clue to a fuller and more finely textured reading of his understanding of the commandments or law in the Hebrew scriptures. New Testament imperatives are not laws to be fulfilled through a measure of human effort (Erasmus) nor do they function merely to bring knowledge of sin (Paul and Luther). Rather they are “exhortations” — incitements to those who already know themselves dependent on God’s grace and Christ’s work within them.

Erasmus had claimed to find a basis for free choice in all mention of reward and merit in the New Testament, including Jesus’ words of beatitude in Matthew 5:12. No, said Luther, Jesus is here exhorting the apostles, who were “above free choice as being in a state of grace and righteous” (211). Failure to note the difference between law and exhortation was another indication of Erasmus’s confusion. In fact, however troubling may be the quasi-Marcionite passages we have already quoted from Luther, one of them launches Luther’s clearest exposition of the role of exhortation premised on grace:

The New Testament properly consists of promises and exhortations, just as the Old Testament properly consists of laws and threats. For in the New Testament the gospel is preached, which is nothing else but a message in which the Spirit and grace are offered with a view to the remission of sins, which has been obtained for us by Christ crucified; and all this freely, and by the sole mercy of God the Father, whereby favor is shown to us, unworthy as we are and deserving of damnation rather than anything else. Then follows exhortations, in order to stir up those who are already justified and have obtained mercy, so that they may be active in the fruits of the freely given righteousness of the Spirit, and may exercise love by good works and bravely bear the cross and all other tribulations of the world. This is the sum of the whole New Testament. (210, emphasis mine)[7]

No, this is the sum of the whole Bible! Its structure is the structure of the Torah, properly recovered and properly understood. It may indeed be that as Luther said, “almost more than half of the Holy Scripture” contains “sheer promises of grace, in which mercy, life, peace, and salvation are offered by God to men” (198) — but if that leaves another half for laws and threats, the Mosaic laws are premised on God’s grace toward Israel, and the threats are those of the prophets[8] pleading with Israel to return to the trusting relationship it once had with God. The premise, sum and structure of the whole, then, is God’s grace, first revealed to Israel, and then to all humanity through the Suffering Servant that Israel was meant to be, and who God became in Jesus Christ.

Whether Israel’s faith and history proper begins with Abraham, as a naive reading would have it, or in the Exodus, as historical criticism claims, Israel owes its existence to the gratuitous call and unexpected action of God. Abraham’s faith in God’s promise proceeds law, as Paul and Luther remind us. The grace of Exodus for a slave people is the premise of the Mosaic torah, which by ordering the life of the unruly, distraught nation both confirms the grace that created it and invites obedience as a grateful response. Israel’s oldest call to and confession of faith begins: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous, When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, … we cried to the Lord…. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a might hand…. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground…” as thanksgiving to God and nourishment for aliens, widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 26:5-13).

So now,” “therefore” — this was the pattern, the structure of Torah. Having been slaves, and remembering God’s liberation, the Hebrews were to treat their slaves humanely and eventually release them. Having been aliens, they were to remember and treat the aliens among them fairly. (See Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 7:1ff, 14:28-29, 15:12-15; 16:11, 24:17-22; Leviticus 25:29-42.) Above all, Israel was to remember that “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you — for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). The danger, after all, was that once they came into the land and began to enjoy the fulfillment of God’s promise, they would forget the Lord, exalt themselves, and credit their own power and might — one could quote the whole of Deuteronomy 8 here. If some write off Luther’s crisis of faith as that of one guilt-ridden Western individual, his diagnosis of his own soul and of late medieval piety conforms too closely to the collective crisis of this pre-Western Semitic people for the critic to be smug and dismissive. Far from denigrating the faith of Israel as nothing but legalism, Luther recovered the concept and structure of torah.

But perhaps this is an indictment. For if this recovery was unconscious or its terms confusing, Luther might be said to have failed his own basic test of theological competency, the ability to recognize law and gospel. To the Marcionite and antinomian misunderstandings that his choice of words allowed for, we must of course add the specter of anti-Semitism, the apparent delegitimizing of any continuing Jewish existence. Or perhaps Paul was to blame, with even more serious ramifications for any theology that takes the biblical canon seriously.

Perhaps — but no. We may wish Luther had been clearer, yet any system of laws, cultural mores, or halachah looks burdensome to those who are on the outside, those who do not know the narrative or haggadah that gives it meaning, premise and telos.[9]. So too with those on the inside if they forget. If this is so for any ethical system, how much more for one premised on unmerited, “irrational” grace.

Torah is no less grace-full because human beings can devolve it into law of the legalistic and burdensome sort. The Torah itself anticipated, with its warnings against forgetting, the conditions under which that happens. And even the gospel of Christ, suggests Luther, can suffer the same fate, serving for those outside of grace, only to reveal sin. Though only in passing, he observes that even the word of promise can illuminate the evil which sinners are laboring under, and drive them from bad to worse if they refuse it through impenitence because God does not come directly to their aid (199-200). “This is the well-known fury of the world against the gospel of God,” which provokes Satan and hardens Pharaoh’s heart (233).

Law and gospel must be distinguished, but they are both present in all the works and words of God.


1. Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supplemental volume (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), s.v. “Torah,” by J. A. Sanders.

2. Is “Divine Majesty” a respectful euphemism for God the Father? Or is Luther distinguishing and personifying one of God’s attributes (along lines more common to Jewish mysticism and Islamic theology, but not unknown to medieval Christian theology)? If the latter, this phrasing might indicate Luther’s awareness of the danger to be avoided here.

3. The specific example at hand is Ezekiel 18:32.

4. This involved one of Luther’s more questionable exegeses, for the meaning of Isaiah 40:2 is strained far less by interpreting the “term of service” and the “penalty” as Israel’s time in exile. To be sure, this may be more obvious in light of historical criticism, which sees a post-exilic “second Isaiah” beginning with Isaiah 40:1. But pre-critical exegesis could also see in these verses, and many others in Isaiah 40-66, a foretelling of eventual return from exile.

5. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532, trans. James L. Schaaf, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1990), 283-292.

6. A Mennonite is pleasantly surprised to find how often in Luther’s reply to Erasmus he speaks not of a purely formal, forensic justification, but of regeneration and recreation by the Holy Spirit. See block quotation above from p. 211, and pp. 176, 277, 319, 328. Space does not allow further exploration of this theme, but it would add further evidence for the argument I am about to make.

7. Also see pp. 213-214, along with p. 260 on Pauline exhortation.

8. The quotation here is from a discussion of Ezekiel; the charge that Erasmus could not distinguish between law and gospel came in the context of a discussion of words of warning and comfort in Isaiah.

9. Ironically, in 20th century moral philosophy it seems to be the neo-Aristotelians who are most aware of the incoherence of attempts to establish moral obligation without the theistic premises or teleological rationales that make them coherent. See Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of Polynesian taboos and Victorian oughts in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, The Gifford Lectures 1988 (Notre Dame, Ind., University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 182f; and G. E. M. Anscombe’s classic essay “Modern Moral Philosophy,” in Philosophy 33 (1958): 1-19.