Luther’s Consistent Denial of Antinomianism
Luther’s advice to Jerome Weller to put “aside the whole Decalogue” and “even commit some sin” is likely not indicative of antinomianism in Luther’s thought. Rather, Luther appears to be speaking of trusting in the passive righteousness of Christ alone. However, the advice Luther gave to Jerome requires that we consider his understanding of the law and its proper use. Our contention is that a measured consideration of Luther’s advice within the framework of his view of the Law will help us give proper context to his advice to Jerome.
The Roman Catholic Church accused Luther of rejecting or prohibiting good works. This is why in establishing the necessity of both passive and active righteousness in his “Lectures on Galatians,” he expressly stated “I am saying this in order that no one may suppose that we reject or prohibit good works, as the papists falsely accuse us because they understand neither what they themselves are saying nor what we are teaching” (Luther 7). It might be objected that Luther wrote his Galatians commentary in 1535, nearly five years after his letter to Jerome Weller. Thus, Luther’s position shifted with regard to the necessity of obedience to the law. However, in Luther’s later writing “Against the Antinomians,” he spoke about his consistent upholding of the law, “But suppose I had taught or declared that the law should not be taught in the church, though all my writings prove the opposite and from the beginning have always stressed the catechism. Why should people adhere to me so tenaciously, and thus at the same time oppose me, when my teaching has always been quite the opposite” (Russell and Lull 179)? Admittedly, Luther’s work “Against the Antinomians” was written in 1539, but he self-consciously argued that his theology regarding the law had not changed, using a reference to his catechetical instruction from 1529. Further, Luther wrote “Two Kinds of Righteousness” in 1520, in which he established the necessity of both passive and active righteousness. Moreover, Luther argued that, “We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obligations, but we also need it to discern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ” (Russell and Lull 377). In addition, it must be understood that Luther stood strongly against the Antinomians.
Although they have rejected and are unable to understand the Ten Commandments, they preach much about the grace of Christ. Yet they strengthen and comfort only those who remain in their sins, telling them not to fear and be terrified by sins, since they are all removed by Christ. They see and yet they let the people go on in their public sins, without any renewal or reformation of their lives. Thus it becomes quite evident that they truly fail to understand the faith and Christ, and thereby abrogate both when they preach about it. How can he speak lightly about the works of the Holy Spirit in the first table—about comfort, grace, forgiveness of sins—who does not heed or practice the works of the Holy Spirit in the second table, which he can understand and experience, while he has never attempted or experienced those of the first table? Therefore it is certain that they neither have nor understand Christ or the Holy Spirit, and their talk is nothing but froth on the tongue. (Russell and Lull 365)
Luther’s View of the Law’s Proper Use
If Luther saw the Law as necessary to the Christian life but did not see it as something that brought comfort and assurance, then what was the Law’s proper use? Luther believed the Law was given first to terrify the conscience and break a man of self-righteousness, so that he would cast himself upon Christ. This work of the Law is necessary to destroy the powerful grip of self-righteousness, which is endemic to the fallen heart of man. Luther taught that, “This presumption of righteousness is a huge and a horrible monster. To break and crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law, which is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of divine wrath. To what purpose? To attack the presumption of righteousness, which is a rebellious, stubborn, and stiff-necked beast” (Luther 310). Luther went on to argue that when the Law had done its work of condemning the conscience and convincing it of the just wrath due to it, “then the Law is being employed in its proper use and for its proper purpose” (Luther 310). This was best summarized by Luther in his commentary on Galatians 1:2,
To the question, “If the Law does not justify, what is its purpose?” Paul, therefore, replies: “Although the Law does not justify, it is nevertheless extremely useful and necessary. In the first place, it acts as a civic restraint upon those who are unspiritual and uncivilized. In the second place, it produces in a man the knowledge of himself as a sinner, who is therefore subject to death and worthy of eternal wrath.” But what is the value of this effect, this humiliation, this wounding and crushing by the hammer? It has this value, that grace can have access to us. Therefore the Law is a minister and a preparation for grace. For God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, the desperate, and of those who have been brought down to nothing at all. And it is the nature of God to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, to comfort the miserable and afflicted, to justify sinners, to give life to the dead, and to save those who are desperate and damned. For He is the almighty Creator, who makes everything out of nothing. In the performance of this, His natural and proper work, He does not allow Himself to be interfered with by that dangerous pest, the presumption of righteousness, which refuses to be sinful, impure, miserable, and damned but wants to be righteous and holy. Therefore God has to make use of that hammer of His, namely, the Law, to break, bruise, crush, and annihilate this beast with its false confidence, wisdom, righteousness, and power, so that it learns that it has been destroyed and damned by its evil. Then, when the conscience has been terrified this way by the Law, there is a place for the doctrine of the Gospel and of grace, which raises it up again and comforts it; it says that Christ did not come into the world to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick (Is. 42:3) but to announce the Gospel to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives (Is. 61:1). (Luther 314-15)
Thus, Luther believed the Law primarily served the purpose of condemning the sinner, so that he is humble enough to cast himself upon the mercy of God in Christ. Law keeping never justifies a man. The Law kills and condemns a man. Therefore, the Christian’s relationship to the Law is not that of a man under the lordship of the Law. Rather, Christ freed us from the Law. Our consciences are no longer to be terrified by the Law. It is this understanding of the Law, which led Luther to say that when he felt remorse in his conscience for sin, “I look at the bronze serpent, Christ on the cross (John 3:14–15). Against my sin, which accuses and devours me, I find there another sin. But this other sin, namely, that which is in the flesh of Christ, takes away the sin of the world” (Luther 159-160).
Therefore, Luther’s belief was not that he wanted the Law ignored in matters of proper Christian holiness, but rather that he wanted the law put aside in the question of our justification, which comes only by the passive righteousness of Christ. In fact, Luther established this was the background of his comments regarding putting aside the Law when he wrote, “When the debate is about righteousness, life, and eternal salvation, therefore, the Law must be removed from sight completely, as though it had never existed or would never exist but were a mere nothing” (Luther 316). Luther’s advice to Jerome Weller to put aside the whole Decalogue is best understood in this context. Luther was clear about this when he stated, “when you see a man terrified and saddened by a consciousness of sin, say: “Brother, you are not distinguishing properly. Into your conscience you are putting the Law, which belongs in the flesh. Wake up, get up, and remember that you believe in Christ, the Victor over the Law and sin. With this faith you will transcend the Law and enter into grace, where there is neither Law nor sin” (Luther 158).
But How Could Luther Encourage Sin?
But how do we understand Luther’s counsel to Jerome to “even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles” (Tappert 86)? One key to understanding this advice is to pay attention to Luther’s worry that the devil is using small sins to keep Jerome looking inward toward his own Law-keeping for his righteousness. This is likely what Luther meant when he advised Jerome that, “we shall be overcome if we worry too much about falling into some sin” (Tappert 86). Luther’s purpose was not to provide Jerome permission to sin. He was not encouraging Jerome to continue in sin so that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). To the contrary, he was helping Jerome to avoid biting down on the hook Satan had baited with the greater sin of self-righteousness. Luther desired Jerome to know that,
Blessed is the man who knows this properly amid a conflict of conscience, who, when sin attacks him and the Law accuses and terrifies him, can say: “Law, what is it to me if you make me guilty and convict me of having committed many sins? In fact, I am still committing many sins every day. This does not affect me; I am deaf and do not hear you… do not trouble my conscience, which is lord and king; for I have nothing to do with you. For I am dead to you; I now live to Christ, where I am under another Law, namely, the Law of grace, which rules over sin and the Law.” By what means? Through faith in Christ.” (Luther 158)
Therefore, when Luther’s advice to Jerome Weller is considered against the backdrop of Luther’s overall understanding of the Law, and how it is pastorally applied, we are assisted to see that Luther was not an antinomian. Luther’s advice was that of a pastor concerned with helping his friend avoid an improper use of the Law. Luther was concerned that Jerome’s heart and mind were being easily confused by the fallen human tendency to turn back in upon our own self-righteousness. Luther succinctly expressed this pastoral concern in his “Lectures on Galatians,”
“In fact, the foolishness of the human heart is so great that in its conflict of conscience, when the Law performs its function and carries out its true use, the heart not only does not take hold of the doctrine of grace, which gives a sure promise and offer of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ, but it actually looks for more laws to help it out. “If I live longer,” it says, “I shall improve my life. I shall do this and that. I shall enter a monastery; I shall live frugally and content myself with bread and water; I shall go about barefoot.” Unless you do the very opposite here; that is, unless you send Moses and his Law away to the smug and stubborn, and unless you, in your fears and terrors, take hold of Christ, who suffered, was crucified, and died for your sins, your salvation is over and done with.” (Luther 315)
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4. ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).
Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. William R. Russell and Timothy F. Lull, Third Edition. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
Theodore G. Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2003).