Beyond Imperatives: A Must Read on the Law

There is an amazing post entitled “Luther on Law” over at our good friend Tullian Tchividjian’s […]

JDK / 9.16.11

via Flikr Jarod Carruthers

There is an amazing post entitled “Luther on Law” over at our good friend Tullian Tchividjian’s blog which is written by another good friend of Mockingbird, Jono Linebaugh. As many of you know, there has been an ongoing discussion about the relationship between law and gospel over at the Gospel Coalition. Recently Jono was asked to give some insight into how Luther understood the relationship, and he nails it. Fundamentally–following the blessed Gerhard Forde– whatever “lutheranism” has become, it can most generally be understood as a way of understanding the role of the law and gospel with respect to preaching, i.e., where people actually live. This is why “lutherans” can exist in every church–even Anglican!—because anyone who believes that the law is not merely transformed, but actually ends by faith in Christ alone will, as was said of the early “lutherans,” i.e., the Apostle Paul, never tire of speaking of Jesus and his death for sinners. In any discussion of the law, understood theologically, there are (at least) four major areas that one has to take into consideration if one wants to begin to come to grips with the fullness of the concept theologically  (meaning simply, biblical;-), and Jono lays them all out brilliantly.

1) The Law, understood theologically, is God’s law.  As Jono says:

Two important implications follow from this theological definition of Law. First, because Law is a way of identifying God’s action with words, talk about “uses” of the Law cannot be human uses of the Law but God’s use of his Law. In other words, God is the acting subject; he wields the words of death and life and the theological term Law is a way of pointing to God’s accusing, condemning, and killing speech. Second, because Law is defined in terms of its function and effect rather than simply its content, it is not, as noted above, reducible to a moral codex or a grammatical pattern. This means that the common assumption that “imperative = Law” is far too static an equation. There seems to be some persistent confusion on this last point, so it is worth teasing out Luther’s perspective a little more.

2) The Law must always be understood in is powerless relationship to the life-giving Gospel.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). 

3) The end of the Law is the beginning of freedom.

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The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520)  

4) Despite our best intentions, the heart knows what it hears, so be gentle:) 

A word of caution from Luther by way of conclusion: it is one thing to affirm that the gospel creates a secure space within which a command can be heard without a condition; it is another thing altogether to issue a command that is not heard as a condition. This is why Luther was always saying that “as far as the words are concerned…everyone can easily understand the distinction between the Law and grace, but so far as practice, life, and application are concerned, it is the most difficult thing there is” (Galatians 1535). In other words, there will always be a temptation to preach or teach what could or should be – that is, a context in which a command is not a condition – without attending to the way such a command is still heard as Law – as an “if” and thus as judgment – by the sinful, doubting human.

These are just some excerpts. I hope you read the entire piece. Were it as easy as designating law and gospel with different grammatical or even theological markers, well, that would be one thing, but we’re all in the business of seeking to “properly distinguish” the two, and with this article from Jono, we’re all one step closer!