Luther on Christian Freedom and the Bondage of the Law

Again, Happy Reformation Day! From his Commentary on Galatians: Paul seemeth here to compare those […]

Will McDavid / 10.31.13

Again, Happy Reformation Day! From his Commentary on Galatians:

Paul seemeth here to compare those that seek righteousness by the law, unto oxen that are tied to the yoke. For like as oxen draw the yoke that draw the yoke with great toil, receive nothing thereby but forage and pasture, and thereafter are appointed for slaughter: even so they that seek righteousness by the law, are captives, and oppressed with the yoke of bondage, this is, with the law, and when they have spent their strength a great while, this is their reward, that they are perpetual and miserable servants, even of sin, death, God’s wrath, and the devil. As if he would say, we stand not here upon a matter of small importance, but either of everlasting liberty, or everlasting bondage…

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Paul’s exhortation in Galatians, “do not return to a yoke of slavery”, has been interpreted so often in terms of not returning to those hard-to-break sinful habits that it can very difficult to cut through to the meaning. Fortunately, Luther knew himself well enough, held the Law in high enough esteem, and honest enough with himself to cut through our halfway solutions concerning ‘Atonement-and-now….habit changes!’ – no, Luther knew our predicament to be so dire that the answer after belief must remain the same as the answer before belief.All to say, his remarkably low anthropology led him to a proper view of the Law’s impossibility to effect good in our lives, and thus to the highest possible Christology. The answer is always the same – and if the Law didn’t work before for us, it’s probably not working after… but after “a great while” it instead produces burnout. If this sounds supersessionist or anti-Catholic, well, that’s probably because it is. But regardless of how we feel about Luther’s diagnosis of the ‘usual suspects’, the take-away is to recognize the part of ourselves constantly pulling us back toward a ‘life of bondage’, our inner Adam who’s continually refastening the yoke to the old, wearisome plow and pulling on like nothing ever happened, like we haven’t experienced failure and exhaustion in the effort a hundred times before. Luther continues:

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Who is not moved by these words of Paul (which call the law a yoke of bondage, and they which are circumcised make Christ unprofitable and cannot be stirred up to seek that liberty which is in Christ, his heart is harder than stone or iron[c. Ez 36:26]… So let us learn to separate Christ far from works, as well as from evil: from all laws, both of God and man, and from all troubled consciences: howbeit, not to afflict them more, but to raise them up, and to comfort them. Therefore, if Christ appear in the likeness of an angry judge, or of a lawgiver, that requireth a strict account of our life past, then let us assure ourselves that it is not Christ, but a raging fiend. For the Scripture setteth forth Christ to be our reconciliation, our advocate, our comforter. Such a one He ever is, and ever shall be: He cannot be unlike Himself.

COMMENTS


One response to “Luther on Christian Freedom and the Bondage of the Law”

  1. mark mcculley says:

    if the Law didn’t work before for us, it’s not working after… Amen. Amen.

    It is Christ’s death which establishes the law. The key to Romans 3:31 is the propitiation which meets and satisfies the law. All other views of the cross besides penal satisfaction attempt to bypass the law, or to change the law, in order to lower the demand of the law. Arminians who talk about “substitution” cannot logically believe in it, because they have a general representation which denies that the specific sins of the elect were (before the cross) imputed to Christ for the sake of strict substitution.

    This is why law keeps coming back in Arminianism—in the doctrine of “evangelical obedience”, in which faith is seen as a kind of substitute obedience, where God imputes faith as the righteousness.

    Law also comes back to those who don’t teach strict substitution in their doctrine of “sanctification” whereby the sub-consciously felt demand of the unsatisfied law returns and demands perfection. And of course, the possibility of losing your justification is also about the coming back of that unsatisfied law. In all these ways, the law is still saying: Guilty!

    Unless you died with Christ to the law, that law will continue to pursue you, and overtake you in one way or the other. For some outside of Christ, the law takes them to a very self-righteous place. For others outside of Christ, the law takes them to despair–why not continue to sin, since I have no atonement for even one of my sins, since there was no specific imputation of sins of anybody to Christ?

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