Several posts at Gottesdienst Online (“Are you an Antinomian?” and “Luther in the Antinomian Disputations”) have highlighted the problem among Lutherans in understanding and applying the Law.

Jason Braaten notes,

This is how we are to preach the law according to Luther: ” . . . so as to admonish to good. . . . by way of exhortation . . . .” The law is not just for the lawless, to terrify. It is to be preached to the pious so as to admonish to good.

No Law

I agree with Jordan Cooper’s observation in “Characteristics of Lutheran Antinomianism” that there is an antinomian problem in American Lutheranism. I too have heard the kind of statements he has highlighted:

The believer is not the new man-Christ is.

The Christian does not cooperate in sanctification.

God’s work of sanctification can never be evidenced by a changed life.

Pastors should not encourage people unto good works in sermons.

If you preach on sanctification, you are trying to go “beyond Jesus.”

The Christian is utterly sinful, and his good deeds are as filthy rags, so that nothing other than his faith differentiates him from the unbeliever.

There are no rewards for the Christian’s good works in heaven.

Lutherans should not worry about what is or is not sin, because Christian liberty negates it.

It is “unlutheran” to ask if a certain behavior is or is not sinful.

There is certainly a problem in how we understand the Law, reflected in the several hundred comments on the two Gottesdienst Online posts linked above.


Helpful in understanding the twofold use of the Law in Lutheran theology (in addition to the civil use) is Holsten Fagerberg’s A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions (1529-1537), published by Concordia Publishing House in 1972 (translated by Gene Lund) and now available on Kindle. This simple statement is, I think, profoundly important: “The Law is an expression of God’s will.” That is indisputable. Being an expression of God’s eternal, immutable will, it must still have relevance for the Christian as Christian. Drawing from the Lutheran Confessions, Fagerberg calls this the normative function of the Law, in addition to the accusing function.

What God wants and says is made clearest in the Ten Commandments. If one recognizes the positive nature of God’s will, and presupposes its constancy, the Law operates as a norm for men’s actions and interpersonal relationships. But if one looks upon the Law as a Word of judgment, it becomes an accusing power. Both of these aspects of the Law in operation are to be found in Luther’s theology, as well as in the Confessions. (Kindle Locations 1552-1555)

If we ignore either of these functions, we lose “something essential in the Reformation concept of the Law.”

The Law judges. However, it also has a positive task in the Lutheran Confessions: “to serve as a guide.” The Decalog has “perpetual significance as a guide to those good works which God wants done” (Kindle Locations 1633-1634).

It strikes me that the chief concern raised against the Gottesdienst/Cooper position is that the normative, guiding use of the Law will send the Christian back to a demand to be fulfilled and thus leave him in doubt of his salvation. Fagerberg asserts that the Confession’s position is just the opposite: this use of the Law—not accusing but guiding—”liberates the burdened conscience from the false demands of work-righteousness” (Kindle Locations 1634-1635). Recognizing that I cannot fulfill the Law’s demands and must seek righteousness in Christ, I am freed from the demands of obedience and now can ask what God wants in my life, knowing that the same Law which condemned me is still “an expression of God’s will.”

Fagerberg states the problem that I think the opposers of the Gottesdienst/Cooper position are also holding to:

To the degree that the Law not only does the work of condemnation but is also identified with condemnation, there seems to be no room left for a positive function. As accuser, it is instead something which must be overcome. (Kindle Locations 1636-1638)

To address this problem, Fagerberg observes that the Lutheran Symbols used different terminology for the different functions. “Law” largely serves to indicate the accusing, judging work of God, while terms like mandatum “designate the positive, normative will of God.”

This positive expression is what has become expressed as “vocation” among the laity by popular writers such as Gene Veith. Interestingly, everyone seems comfortable speaking about “vocation.” But that is precisely an articulation of this “positive, normative will of God.”

The reformers looked upon two commandments as being particularly basic: to remain in one’s earthly calling and to live in the marriage relationship. They drew support for their opposition to ecclesiastical ordinances from the commandments found in Scripture. These alone could liberate the conscience from the compulsion of carrying out futile and self-chosen deeds. (Kindle Locations 1659-1661)

None of this can be accomplished apart from the Holy Spirit. The Gospel is preached for the forgiveness of sins, but also to empower the faithful to live out their vocations according to the Ten Commandments. As Luther says in his Large Catechism,

The Creed properly follows [the Ten Commandments], setting forth all that we must expect and receive from God…. It is given in order to help us do what the Ten Commandments require of us. (LC II.1f)

The Christian’s condition as at once just and sinner requires the dialectic always to remain in this life.

The Law continues to accuse the conscience for failing to fulfill its requirements. But at the same time the will of God functions as a norm—as it is manifested in the Decalog and in the mandata of Scripture — which man should strive to fulfill in the power of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 1670-1672)


T-shirt sold at conferences held for Lutherans

T-shirt sold at conferences held for Lutherans

In my own homiletical training, I was instructed to avoid talk of the new obedience. “Leave that to the Holy Spirit.” But the Spirit works through means, including the preaching that the people hear from their pastor. Over years of reading patristic and early-Lutheran homilies, it struck me that no one preached the way Lutheran pastors are taught to preach today. Luther and the Fathers were keen to instruct their people in the way of righteousness.

I’m still struggling with how to work this out in my own preaching. I fail often, and pray that God overlooks whatever foolishness my people are forced to suffer on my account.

Nevertheless, I do think the key is to be found in the pattern of the Augustana, which moves from sin (article II) to Christ (III) to Justification (IV) to New Obedience (VI). Or more simply in the Small Catechism, Repentance (Commandments), Faith (Creed), and Holy Living (Our Father).

While I’m not finished with Fagerberg’s work yet, I am finding it very helpful in thinking through these issues, and commend it to your use as well.