What About Antinomianism?

The second appendix to our Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book […]

Mockingbird / 10.21.15

The second appendix to our Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book addresses a popular (religious) objection to its contents:

There’s an accusation which sometimes gets leveled against those who stress Christian freedom and forgiveness in lieu of behavior-modification, and who downplay ‘spiritual progress’ as a burdensome distraction from the indiscriminate compassion of grace. The charge is that such people denigrate God’s law, or cast it as ‘bad.’ The formal name for this charge is ‘antinomianism’ (anti=against, nomos=law). The common picture of the antinomian is someone who thinks that, because of Christ’s forgiveness, they can (and will) do whatever they want: self-indulgence, sexual deviancy, substance abuse, lewd music, and the like. A few points to make:


1. If you’re not being accused of antinomianism occasionally, you’re probably not preaching the Gospel. St. Paul himself had to answer criticism on precisely this point.

2. Paul evidently thought a lot about the antinomian gripe, and responded in no uncertain terms: “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?,” he imagines a satire of his message going. “By no means!” he replies. “How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?” (Rm 6:1-2). To the extent that we have died to sin, it’s simply impossible to go on living in it. Of course, none of us have died to sin entirely, or even mostly.

3. Which is why antinomians (in the hedonistic sense) don’t really exist. The specter of a depraved hedonist sustained by a fervent belief in the Gospel is just that, a specter—there aren’t real people who live that way. There may be real people who use forgiveness as an excuse to keep on doing bad stuff—but if there are, it’s not as though the gospel of behavior-modification would’ve gotten them in the church’s door instead. In fact, their self-indulgence itself is often a response to the law rather than a (fictional) disregard of it, rebellion and conformity being flip sides of the same coin (see also: Fight, Flight and Appeasement). As John D. Koch and Simeon Zahl wrote:

“Martin Luther once made a remarkable comment about antinomianism. He called it a drama put on in an empty theater. What he meant essentially was that antinomianism doesn’t really exist. That is, sure you can say you are an antinomian, and you can have behavior to match, but no one can ever really be free of the Law like that. It is built into the world, built into our lives. No one can outrun every ‘ought,’ however much they might like to, not even the most libertine of us all. This is why antinomianism has been called an ‘impossible heresy.’”

4. The true antinomian is the one who tries to distort the Law. The one who reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) as “Do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” Or who read “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” as “Tithe ten percent” or “Contribute what you reasonably can.” The very people who accuse others of antinomianism are usually the ones who are themselves denigrating the Law. Because if you want measurable spiritual progress or spiritual accomplishment, you’re going to have lower God’s standard quite a bit.

5. The antidote to antinomianism, therefore, is not to sell people on linear, measurable sanctification, but to preach the Law in all its fullness. The condemning voice of conscience should not be smoothed over by developing good habits, but should be echoed in the pulpit and taken to its extreme, as Christ does in Matthew 5. The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it. Anything less—including using it for exhortation—risks real antinomianism.

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34 responses to “What About Antinomianism?”

  1. Patricia F. says:

    This post is the first time I really understand what ‘antinomianism’ is all about! Thanks!!

  2. Excellent – a really helpful analysis.

  3. Tanya says:

    Guess I still wonder. . . because while my behavior hardly approximates that of a spring break frat boy, I do recognize a sort of “what the hell,” when I have a split second of self-awareness before a decision to blow my temper or my budget on something I don’t need but really, really want. And under that is some sort of typically American, “well, God surely loves me anyway, hahahaha.” Am I alone?

    • BS says:

      Hardly alone, Tanya. I think I heard it somewhere around here that the only thing I contribute to my sanctification is my own sin.

    • Tricia says:

      That is your Old Creature or Old Self speaking, for in this old world you remain fully saint and fully sinner – Old Creature and New – until the Last Day when the Old Creature will be put to death and the New Creature will live with Christ forever.

      • Tanya says:

        Right, but isn’t this not merely about what we do, but what “inspires” us. I’m thinking. . . I’m a little bit antinomian.

  4. Michael Cooper says:

    from Luther’s Against the Antinomians, 1539:

    .” But these spirits themselves [the antinomians against whom Luther is arguing] are not such Christians, for they are so secure and confident. Neither are their listeners, who also are secure and happy. In one passage a fine, beautiful young woman, a splendid singer, sings thus: “He feeds the hungry so that they rejoice, and sends the rich empty away. He humbles the mighty and exalts the lowly, and his grace is
    with those who fear him” [Luke 1:50–53]. If the Magnificat speaks the truth, then God must be
    the foe of the secure spirits who are unafraid, as such spirits who do away with law and sin are
    sure to be.”


    ” For they are wrong in maintaining that one must follow only one method of preaching repentance, namely, to point to Christ’s suffering on our behalf, claiming as they do that Christendom might otherwise
    become confused and be at a loss to know which is the true and only way. No, one must preach
    in all sorts of ways—God’s threats, his promises, his punishment, his help, and anything else—in
    order that we may be brought to repentance, that is, to a knowledge of sin and the law through
    the use of all the examples in the Scriptures. This is in accord with all the prophets and the
    apostles and St. Paul, who writes in Romans 2 [:4]: “Do you not know that God’s kindness is
    meant to lead you to repentance?” ”

    This seems a far cry for the so-called “Radical Lutherans” such as Forde and his disciples, who seem much closer to the Antinomians against whom Luther wrote, and who are similarly fond of singing a one note song from the pulpit.

  5. Nicholas Hopman says:

    Nice try Mr. Cooper:

    The Johann Agricola antinomians of the late 1530’s (against whom Luther wrote and disputed) wanted to soften the law. Luther said that the antinomians condemn him and the Wittenbergers because “we teach the condemning law.” (Holger Sonntag, trans, Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Disputations, Latin and English ed. [Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008]: 381; WA 39II:128.6) “They [i.e. the Antinomians] damn as sacrilege the terrifying of the pious by the law.” (Sonntag 265; WA 39I:497.24-25) Luther said, “our Antinomians make up a Church, as I said, which is utterly pure and holy and which needs only to be admonished by the example and grace of Christ concerning future sin.” (Sonntag 255; WA 39I:491.13-15)

    So it is actually those who believe in the softened 3rd use of the law that are more like the antinomians than those of us who follow Forde and who, as Dr. Koch and Mr. Zahl write, preach the law fully, meaning with its condemnation rather than merely with its instruction, guidance, etc., who are more like Luther.

    When we preach the law we know that it is always a threatening condemning law. The claim that we simply do not preach the law is mistaken. E.g. I am preaching the law to you, Mr. Cooper, right now.

  6. Michael Cooper says:

    If you were God, Mr. Hoffman, I would be worried. What you have proved beyond dispute is that the Calvinists are not the only theological asses in Christendom.

  7. Michael Cooper says:

    but on a more substantive note, Forde rejects the substitutionary atonement and and suggestion of God’s just punishment and advocates preaching a gospel free of threats and designed to produce exactly the “secure spirits who are unafraid” which Luther condemns. If is simply ludicrous and disingenuous to suggest that Calvin softened the law, when he wrote that the primary function of prayer and the sweetness of it was in repentance. This is the repentance stressed here by Luther, but this seems lacking in Forde and seen as a mark of not fully embracing our being forgiven and “free” of the law, except of course if we beg to differ with the uber Lutheran pronouncements.

    • Matt K says:

      Why in the world do all objectors always go straight back to Gerhard Forde? I don’t see Forde mentioned in the article. The criticism of him is insane. Forde may have some theological issues (which we all do to a certain extent), but he did not deny the substitutionary atonement:

      “Jesus came to forgive sin unconditionally for God. Our sin, our unbelief, consists precisely in the fact that we cannot and will not tolerate such forgiveness. So we move to kill him. There is nothing for him to do then but to die “for our sins,” “on our behalf,” “give his life a ransom for many.” For him to stop and ask us to “shape up” would be to deny the forgiveness he came to give, to put conditions on the unconditional. Thus he must “bear our sins in his body”—not theoretically in some fashion, but actually. He is beaten, spit upon, mocked, wasted. That is, perhaps we can say, the only way for him to “catch us in the act.” – Gerhard Forde (The Exodus from Virtue to Grace)

      • Michael Cooper says:

        Matt, The passage you quote does not describe the substitutionary atonement as it has been understood in terms of penal substitution , but rather Forde’s creative reinterpretation of it, which removes all penal aspects in terms of Jesus suffering the just wrath of God on our behalf. Of course in the byzantine world of conservative Lutheran law/gospel hair splitting, the substitionary atonement has been diced and parsed so that with its various sub definitions one can say Forde teaches “it” in some highly restricted defined form. This is why this issue always comes up. Forde ceratinly has some valuable things to say, and I do not claim that he is actually antinomian, but that the implications of some of his theology, in actual practice, lead many to see God’s law as the enemy of God’s grace, which is similar to an antinomian position regarding the law.
        My problem is with this silly notion that because Calvin rightly held that God’s law no longer condemns the Christian to hell ( obviously a position that Luther and any Christian would share) that he, or anyone who holds to the “third use” is somehow antinomian. That seems little more than a clever ruse to me. If Calvin thought that God’s law was no longer “condemning” for the Christian, as that term is now loosely used, then he certainly would not have seen continual confession of sin and repentance as so key to the Christian life.

        • Nicholas Hopman says:

          Good stuff here.

          Yes, getting to what it means that the law is no longer condemning for Christians is the heart of the matter.

          Holger Sonntag in his translator’s preface to the Antinomian Disputations references Argument 21 of the Second Disputation as a place were Luther advocates a softened “exhortation-like” use of the law for believers. There certainly are statements that in isolation would seem to be that. However, a few sentences later Luther says, “I ought not to say or preach: You are not under the remission of sins.”

          In other words, Luther is saying that one should not preach the law alone, but the law and the gospel. The law is mitigated because the gospel steps in and only allows the law to condemn so far, i.e. not unto eternal hell, but unto preparation for resurrection and life.

          Gerhard Ebeling (“Triplex Usus Legis”) understood, better than Sonntag, that Luther’s statements about such mitigation of the law are not a third use, but (this is from memory but very close to an exact quote) “the gospel intruding on the doctrine of the uses legis.”

        • Matt K says:


          First of all, thanks for the feedback to my response. For someone who disagrees with Forde, I’m glad you at least still find value in his work. That shows someone willing to learn and listen. Both sides go to the extremes with his, and other people’s theology. For the record, I disagree that penal substitution isn’t mentioned in the quote I provided. In my opinion, when Forde says “He must bear our sins in his body – not theoretically in some fashion, but actually.” We kill Him, yet He bears our curse on His body. I think some of the confusion with Forde in many respects is the fact that he doesn’t like to be boxed in on one particular viewpoint, similar to Robert Capon. They won’t outright endorse particular theories because they view those theories as being incomplete to the human mind. I read “Where God Meets Man” recently, and highlighted some verses that I think support that viewpoint on where he is on the atonement. I think he definitely saw the penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement, but he just felt this was an incomplete theory in the grand scheme of things:

          “The death and resurrection of Christ leads not merely to a doctrine about atonement, but to an actual accomplishment of atonement. Looked at in this way, it is apparent that there is no real difference between so called “different pictures” or “theories” of the atonement. Jesus “satisfied the wrath of God”, or “bears the curse of the law,” or “suffers the punishment” at the same time as he “wins the victory” over the demons and death. It is all of a piece. Indeed, since his life, death, and resurrection are ours, it is quite possible also to speak of him as our “example.” All the view come together and the language is virtually interchangeable as long as we are talking about a theology of the cross, not merely about the cross…for – once again – only the God who comes down to earth can really help us. Only the one who dies the death that we must die and yet is not conquered by it can save us. Anything else – however pious or Orthodox it sounds – is useless and vain.” – Gerhard Forde (Where God Meets Man)

          I hope this helps clarify where I think he stood on the atonement. Without digressing even further from the main point of the article, I will get back on topic. I highly recommend the Law and Gospel publication. They do a great job of dissecting law and Gospel teaching that is highly valuable, especially to this layman.

          Matt Kroelinger

  8. Nicholas Hopman says:

    1. Who is this Hoffman, who is making an ass of himself? I’d like to help him out if there’s still hope for him.

    2. I doubt that your growth in sanctification (as measured by the law) will be helped by calling someone an ass for daring to disagree with you, Mr. Cooper, or should I say, Mr. Cooffer?

    3. I doubt your argument will be very convincing when I have provided multiple quotes replete with citation, which are examples of one of the central themes of Luther’s Antinomian Disputations, and you reply with an ad hominem attack against this Hoffman ass rather than addressing the substance of my argument.
    You then attempted to add a bit of substance to your previous “argument.” You did not challenge my interpretation of Luther’s statement. Instead you made some vague accusations against Gerhard Forde, who, to my knowledge, was not present at any of the Antinomian Disputations. While I’m sure that your accusations are true at certain “Forde is the devil” blogs (as well as contradicted by other “Forde is the devil” blogs, because Forde is the great Satan who can be blamed for everything, what he actually wrote doesn’t matter, he can be blamed for two evils, even if they contradict one another. I recently had a debate with a third user who started it by saying Forde doesn’t believe the new creature in Christ exists, and by the end of the debate was claiming that Forde is too optimistic about the new creature in Christ) it is not the most official argument of those who have actually published attacks on Forde.
    E.g. Scott Murray attacks Forde for claiming that God’s law is inherently threatening. Without addressing why Murray wants the law not to be inherently threatening or the truth of his attack, he has accurately stated Forde’s position. For Forde the law is inherently threatening.
    In the paragraph above I am stretching the 8th commandment to its breaking point. I assume that you meant something about the law threatening Christians. You actually wrote that Forde “advocates preaching a gospel free of threats.” This is of course accurate and here Forde is in agreement with every Lutheran ever (except for maybe Mr. Cooffer). The law threatens, the gospel comforts.
    Forde also writes extensively about repentance. By that he means the full biblical repentance of being put to death, you know, like what the Small Catechism says about Baptism (question 4), or even Romans 6.

    4. I’m off to find this Hoffman, who, according to you, wishes he was God or something along those lines. As a preacher of the full law, I can’t tolerate such self-righteous idolatry. Where did you see him last?

  9. Michael Cooper says:

    Dear Mr. Hopman, I am sorry for the mistake with your name. You can call me Cooffer or, more correctly, that asshole Cooffer, if you please. All kidding aside, I really am sorry for actually being the ass that I wrongly accused you of being! And I can honestly say that Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross has to be one of my favorite books of theology.

    • Nicholas Hopman says:

      Dear Mr. Cooper,
      I forgive you.
      Good, I enjoy a debate with someone who can laugh at himself, though I do enjoy laughing at Hoffmans more than at myself.

  10. Michael Cooper says:

    The wonderful thing about the whole law/gospel insight is that it allows a Christian to both laugh at himself, and even better, recognize that he had rather not laugh at himself!!! That is a fruit of the sanctification that only a radical understanding of justification brings…..wait, I’m afraid I might be a closet Forde-ite 🙂

  11. Rob says:

    What do you do when you keep just giving in to temptation, with the thought lingering in the back of your mind that it’s okay, God will forgive? And you do it again and again.

  12. Michael Cooper says:

    You realize that you are a sinner, saved by grace.

  13. Michael Cooper says:

    Just like everyone who writes or reads this blog.

  14. Rob says:

    Thanks, Michael Coofer! Sometimes (all the time really) I see others as nearly perfect, while I alone am abominable.

  15. Ross Byrd says:

    This is a debate worth having. Nicholas, I disagree with you on Luther’s meaning here. I think he used the word ‘antinomian’ not simply because he was afraid of people ‘softening’ the law (as you say), but because he actually saw Christians speaking against (anti) it and trying to nullify it in Christian life and preaching (perhaps partially due to a misunderstanding of Luther’s own teachings). But regardless of our interpretation of Luther, the more important point is how we interpret Scripture here.

    It seems to me that you (and JD and Simeon) are dealing with a kind of Platonic concept–an abstract doctrine of law–and thus you defend its ‘fullness’ or ‘perfection’ as though it were just that–a concept. But the actual law, as it is expressed and given in Scripture is quite different. It is not so rigid or mechanistic as a human idea, because it is not a human idea. It’s not even a divine ‘idea’. It is an actual set of commands that have been given to us by our Father. Nicholas, you say…

    “…it is actually those who believe in the softened 3rd use of the law that are more like the antinomians than those of us who follow Forde and who, as Dr. Koch and Mr. Zahl write, preach the law fully, meaning with its condemnation rather than merely with its instruction, guidance, etc., who are more like Luther.”

    But it seems to me that you have failed, for a moment, to imagine what the law actually is and does in Scripture. It commands. It instructs. It guides. And yes, it condemns, but only indirectly, when we fail to obey. It’s not “thou shalt go to hell,” it’s “thou shalt not covet.” When Jesus sums up the law, he does not speak in theoretical terms about a deep condemning idea/force that drives us to our knees (it may very well become that for us, indirectly, but to skip to that is to miss what the law IS). No, he simply says, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

    You speak of the law as though it is, most importantly, a doctrine to be believed in all its ‘fullness’, rather than a command to be (quite practically) obeyed. But Paul disagrees: “But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who DOES them shall live by them.” Put simply, the law is for doing. And we theologians, though we might be tempted to believe otherwise, are not above that very practical function of the law: that we must hear and obey–or at least try to obey–what our good and perfect Father has commanded of us. Otherwise how could we say that we understand it? How could we even say that the law condemns? How would we know?

    To me, the true ‘softening’ of the law is to treat it as a concept or a ‘force’ rather than as the thing it actually is on every page of the Old and New Testament: good commands from our perfect Father which are meant to be kept.

    And to make matters worse, when I try to fit your concept of law into the context of a Father’s commands, I’m tempted to believe that you don’t actually think very highly of Him as a father–that, in effect, He’s raised you with a bunch of unattainable ideals so that you will do nothing in this life but fail to keep them: “Go get straight A’s, make billions of dollars, give all your money to the poor, and be perfectly humble about it. Then you’ll be righteous. Can’t do that? Don’t worry. I’ll save you. But it’s going to be through a enlightening process of disillusionment in which you realize that I didn’t actually intend for you to try to accomplish those things in the first place. I just wanted you to believe that you couldn’t do them so you would need me.” Is that what you think He’s like? My father would be way better than that if all he ever did was teach me to try hard.

    But there is another ‘softening’ of the law that I see in Scripture for which I am very glad. It’s the kind of softening that is depicted in Deuteronomy 30 when the Lord says the commandment he gives is ‘not too hard for you, nor too far off’. He must not have understood you all’s theory about the law. Nor John when he wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” But perhaps this is not so much a ‘softening’ of the law as a recreation of the will through faith for the sake of obedience. That’s probably a better way to put it.

    So…at the very least, if these words of John are agreeable to you (and JD and Simeon), then why write posts and comments like this about the inescapable condemnation of ‘the law’ (even for the Christian) and treat all attempts at actual Christian obedience as somehow naive, unenlightened, delusional, or self-righteous? Is the Holy Spirit also just a concept? Certainly you would say, theoretically, that He has the power to bring about obedience on this side of heaven. But is it merely theoretical? Or does the Holy Spirit have actual power over sin in the lives of believers right now? That’s a real question, not a rhetorical one.

    • Ian says:

      Ross, I understand your concern, and am constantly meditating on what obedience looks like within the New Covenant. I don’t want to make a lengthy response here so instead I’ll just say that it seems to me you’re collapsing John’s words into the broader lex semper accusat discussion. I like the paraphrase you offer at the end of your 2nd to last paragraph, that John seems to be unpacking the recreation of the will rather than softening the Law. This ties in nicely with Paul’s crucial distinction that in the New Covenant we “fulfill” the Law rather than “do” the Law. I also would not collapse any and all commands into the rubric “Law;” it seems to me that much of the Mbird discussion concerns “little l” Law that fits what Paul describes as the activity of the powers in Galatians 4 and Colossians 2. We have to hear every part of Scripture’s witness about the Law to understand it correctly, but it’s hard to deny Galatians has a decisive word. As you said, the Law is “not of faith.” Why was the Law added? “Because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (3:19). “Is the Law contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not!” (3:21). But here’s where the distinction is vital, I think: the Law isn’t contrary to the promises because the fulfillment of the promises isn’t contingent upon our accomplishment of the Law, praise God! “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law” (3:21)- Paul is saying there that THAT would be contrary to the promises. That is such an important denial: the Law was never given so that all of us could do it perfectly and achieve what had been promised. In the scheme of redemptive history, it really comes down to one authentic human (Jesus) being all we were meant to be but refused to be and now cannot be but insist with fists clenched we can and will. And so, “the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (3:22). The condemning power of the Law isn’t only an experiential fact in the life of believers, it’s a redemptive-historical fact that ties together the beginning, the middle, and the end of history and weaves each of our pathetic stories into it.

      • Ross Byrd says:

        Hi Ian,

        Thanks for your gracious response and for being patient enough to read my lengthy comment! I resonate with your heart for figuring out the place of ‘obedience’, especially in the law/gospel paradigm of Galatians. And yes, a distinction between ‘little l’ law and Law is probably in order in some of these discussions. But, forgive me, I’m not sure I follow your main point. What distinction do you see between ‘doing’ the law and ‘fulfilling’ it? Did Jesus ‘fulfill’ the law but not ‘do’ it? Did he do it and fulfill it, whereas we (believers) can only ‘fulfill’ it (by way of imputation)? Also, I certainly agree that the condemning power of the law is a fact that persists throughout the story of sinful humanity, but don’t you believe that there is an even great power (than our sin, I mean), which binds us together as believers: “Sin shall no longer be your master, for you are no longer under law…”, “There is now no condemnation…”, “new creation”, “the fruit of the Spirit”, (and to go beyond Paul in the NT…) “his commandments are not burdensome”, “having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth’, etc?

        • Ian says:

          Hi Ross!

          My pleasure, man. The distinction, as near as I can tell because Paul doesn’t unpack it systematically in great, explicit detail, is that our gospel adherence (and that’s not a very salutary way to put it, is it?) issues in existence that fulfills the telos of the Law, the actual goal behind the Law’s very existence. One of Paul’s greatest points in Galatians is that the Law will never be fulfilled by our doing it. Our “doing” is never an “accomplishment.” Our “doing” is always a failure. And this is Paul’s distinction- the language is real, and it is original. We, as heirs with Christ, and participants of the age to come, as new creations, exist such that the aim of the Law is at last satisfied and accomplished. But indirectly, as it were, because our trying to do the Law results in wrath. I think it’s a little more complex than this, and perhaps approaches a dialectic. Because Israel was often blessed in real ways when they obeyed the Law, but then again, there were times were they honored the legal code but their hearts were far from YHWH, and those instances still issued in wrath. They did not yet have circumcised hearts whose being was rooted in the age to come, sharing in Christ’s own heart of obedience rooted in love. Again, he is authentic- we are not. And we still wobble constantly between the ages and thus see that tension between loving God and wanting to please Him and often falling so horribly short of that. But we do exist for the very first time in the realm of possibility in which we can, in fact, love Him and live as authentic human beings. (But it certainly won’t be by the head-on assault, direct path of “I am going to be authentic, by God!”) It seems asymptotic to me: you can see greater or lesser obedience at any point in Israel’s history, but you always need to see it through the twin lenses of 1) our calling to be good creatures of a good God and 2) our utter inability and failure to do so. We have to be able to toggle back and forth between the two to be faithful to Scripture’s witness.

          I would look again at the very first verse you listed in your last response: “Sin shall no longer be your master, for you are no longer under law…” The basis for sin’s no longer holding mastery is the fact that the Law is no longer the principle (another perfectly good translation of νομος) ordering our existence. This is one aspect of something even bigger, “no condemnation,” being a “new creation,” experiencing “the fruit of the Spirit” are all aspects of this reality. We belong to a new principle, but it isn’t a Law- it’s a person. A Son. And we are being conformed to the pattern of this Son’s life as a son who loves his Father and thus from the depths of His heart does what He says. I won’t make the claim that it’s spontaneous and thus a priori better than honoring a written code- that’s erroneous. But it does have something to do with that basic, intrinsic desire to act in accordance with love in keeping with the real parameters of being the creature one is. So there is conduct that is fitting for this Son and those who are united to him, and conduct that isn’t, but I think this is rooted in something far, far deeper than the commands issued at Sinai and the entire sequence of Israel’s history which came in response to the Fall. They taught us something about the authentic existence we forfeited, but did not have the power to give us that existence or transfer us to a realm where it was possible. They pointed to something though, something that would purchase that existence, and they signaled our desperate need for it. And the life Jesus shares with sinners is it. That is what we are freed to in the New Covenant as opposed to a new Law. That is obedience to the truth. And it rules.

          And there, that’s now way too long. But I hope that clarifies.

          • Ross Byrd says:

            Thanks Ian. That does clarify some things for me but perhaps muddies others. 🙂 I want to respond to your whole response, but only have time to respond to the first part right now. Hopefully more to come.

            Your distinction between ‘doing’ the law and ‘fulfilling’ the law is still unclear to me. I assume when you say that the law will never be fulfilled by our ‘doing’, you mean that it will never be fulfilled by our ‘obeying’ it in practical human terms. Correct? I guess that could mean one of two things: (1) The law cannot be fulfilled by ‘doing’ because we sinners (without God intervening) are incapable of doing what it commands. (2) The law cannot be fulfilled by ‘doing’ because the law could never be fulfilled in that way, and to think that it could is to misunderstand what the law is. If the former, then of course I agree with you: without God’s intervention, we are slaves to sin. If the latter, then I am confused. Didn’t Jesus do exactly that? I mean, didn’t he live a life of perfect obedience to God’s commands? And when we imagine OURSELVES in heaven, fully redeemed by that same Jesus, don’t we imagine ourselves finally living lives of real obedience to the Father? And when we take into account the already/not yet nature of our redemption here on this earth, don’t we imagine that that MUST include tangible obedience to him here and now (after all, the power that raised Jesus from the dead apparently dwells in us)?

            There is, to me, a sense in which one might actually hold the law of God TOO high–like higher than God–like so high that you don’t think it actually applies to you, because you don’t think that God (or Jesus) actually meant for you to do–or even try to do–any of the things he commanded. How could He have meant such a thing? The law is too high! And we creatures created in the image of God are apparently too low even to try to obey such a high calling. If you honestly believe, as you say, that “our ‘doing’ is always a failure” and “our trying to do the law results in wrath”, then again, it’s hard for me to imagine how you have not raised the law out of its context in Scripture, out of its context in our lives, out of the context of a Father commanding his children, and made it a kind of untouchable, abstraction. Your distinction of ‘doing’ versus ‘fulfilling’ seems symptomatic of this. It seems as though you’re saying the law cannot be ‘done’ because the law is too high and untouchable a thing to be ‘done’; no, you say, it must be ‘fulfilled’ in some higher and vaguer sense which we mere humans can hardly understand much less hope to accomplish. But the whole beauty of the law is that it is not vague. That’s how it does its job(s). That’s precisely how it makes us conscious of sin.

            Not to mention the good-cop bad-cop thing that this storyline suggests between the Father and the Son. What father responds wrathfully to ALL his child’s efforts to obey? Besides being downright immoral, the very idea of such a thing is so mechanistic – not a shred of personality. And how does the story play out? Well, at first we’re stuck with this impossibly demanding perfectionist father who has hardly given us a single reasonable, reachable goal to go after, and who proceeds to cast all the blame on us for not reaching his expectations. But then…enter the merciful Son, who loves us as we are and takes all our blame upon himself, saving us from this tyrant of a dad. It’s a good story, but not a Christian one.

            Forgive my hyperbole. Clearly, Ian, you do not believe what I have written above. But I’m trying to take a step away from all the theological jargon so that we can consider what we really believe about God and Jesus and the law. And I do realize (as someone who loves and has always loved Luther) that I’m playing the part of Erasmus here to some extent. But…so be it.

          • Ian says:

            I don’t know why, Ross, but I couldn’t respond to your response, so here I am formally responding to myself. Such is life.

            I want to remind you that it isn’t my distinction when I point out there is a difference between “doing” and “fulfilling” the Law- it’s Paul’s (and, ergo, God’s) distinction. Longenecker in his commentary on Galatians unpacks it this way, that “doing” the Law is for those who are under the Law, while “fulfilling” the Law is the result of Christian living. Πλεροο carries strong eschatological tones in the NT and so it only makes sense that Spirit-led existence (associated with the age to come), i.e. New Covenant existence, should issue in the “fulfillment” of the Law as eschatological in-breakings of the age to come into the present evil age (Galatians 1:4). You’re absolutely right that there’s an already/not yet element to our walk now, but this is the structure it takes. Again, I think part of the problem is collapsing the concept of “obedience” into the rubric of “law.” We’re used to this as modern Westerners, but it seems Paul’s apocalypticisms present us rigid either/or-ers with a third option: genuine obedience that isn’t rooted in the Law. Obedience and good works are not reducible to Law-observance, according to the gospel. If you insist that there can only be obedience and good works where there is Law, then Paul’s eschatological gospel vision will sound like nonsense to you. But I think this is exactly the sort of surprising, dialectical move God regularly makes in the economy of salvation, and I think it strikes deep into the heart of our inborn theologies of glory with a twelve inch wooden stake. At the end of the day, then, both of your senses of failing to fulfill the Law are correct. It cannot be fulfilled by fallen human beings, and not only that, there was never a law given that could give life or righteousness- that is explicit in Galatians 3:21. The important thing, though, is that this inability doesn’t remove the necessity of our obeying the Law. Jesus did, yes- absolutely, down to the jot and tittle, in our place. But not only was he the one, authentic, faithful covenant keeper in the whole sad history of our race, he himself was also the very thing the apparatus of the Law pictured: he was the High Priest, he was the Temple, he was the sacrifice, etc.

            When you take issue with the impossibility of “doing” the Law, I think you may be trying to vindicate a good God who delivers his Son for our transgressions, a good God who imprisons all under sin in order that He may show mercy (Romans 11:32), a revelation which moves Paul to rapturous doxology at God’s wisdom and goodness. I think you’re missing Paul’s point in Galatians that the Law was added to imprison everything under sin until the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham came to make good on every last one of the promises (Galatians 3:15-22). This is central to the “Why?” of the Law.

            Also, I would chop down at the root treating the divine persons as though they were three separate centers of consciousness and personality, such that a sort of Marcionism is the result, i.e. your caricature of a stern, demanding Father and a compassionate Son who do different things with their opposing emotional/volitional states. This picture only works with two gods, not with the Trinitarian being of the God who is. So yeah, there’s some more to ponder. Grace and peace, friend.

    • Nicholas Hopman says:

      You said:

      “This is a debate worth having.”

      I say:

      Yes, about the only thing worth debating.

      You said:

      “Nicholas, I disagree with you on Luther’s meaning here. I think he used the word ‘antinomian’ not simply because he was afraid of people ‘softening’ the law (as you say), but because he actually saw Christians speaking against (anti) it and trying to nullify it in Christian life and preaching (perhaps partially due to a misunderstanding of Luther’s own teachings). But regardless of our interpretation of Luther, the more important point is how we interpret Scripture here.”

      I say:

      Yes, on one level the antinomians certainly were against the law. However, Luther exposes the fact that although they can very well be against the letters “L-A-W” they cannot get rid of sin or death, therefore, they cannot get rid of the law or finally be against it. He shows that, as Koch and Zahl have stated, antinomianism is played to an empty theatre, i.e. it is impossible. Luther shows that the ultimate problem with antinomianism is collapsing the law with the gospel and Christ becoming so legal that he cannot rescue anyone from the law’s condemnation.
      As Luther is describing the Christian’s need for the law, because he is a sinner and the antinomians pure church does not exist, Luther is always talking about the harsh threatening law (which also teaches, instructs, guides, etc.). My previous quotes prove this.

      You said:

      “it seems to me that you have failed, for a moment, to imagine what the law actually is and does in Scripture. It commands. It instructs. It guides.”

      I say:

      Yes, the law commands, instructs, and guides. We do not deny this. We deny that any of these things can be separated from lex semper accusat. Furthermore, when Luther actually describes the law as a teacher (paedagogus) in the AD he always is describing the law as a teacher to Christ, meaning the law is a task-master, chaperon, Zuchtmeister. This is precisely how the Apostle Paul speaks of the law as a teacher (Gal. 3:24).

      You said:

      “And yes, it condemns, but only indirectly, when we fail to obey.”

      I say:

      Here you’re simply in disagreement with Luther who proclaims that condemnation is the law’s most proper function and being (not indirect): “For to reveal sin is nothing else—nor can it be anything else—than to be law (esse legem) or to be the effect and power of the law in the most proper sense (propriissimam).” (Sonntag, bilingual, 137; WA 39I:348.25-28); “it is the true and proper work of the law to accuse and kill.” (Sonntag 47; WA 39I:363.19-20); “the chief definition of the law, [is] that it works wrath and hatred and despair.” (Sonntag 177; WA 39I:446.5-6)

      Your statement doesn’t even make much sense when it comes to law in Eden, where the law came originally not only as instruction, but also as a death threat:‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

      I suppose at that point you could argue that the law only threatened rather than condemned, but certainly in reality now the law is given specifically because of sin, not to teach etc. apart from sin and only indirectly to condemn: Gal. 3:19 “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…”

      You said:

      “It’s not “thou shalt go to hell,” it’s “thou shalt not covet.” When Jesus sums up the law, he does not speak in theoretical terms about a deep condemning idea/force that drives us to our knees (it may very well become that for us, indirectly, but to skip to that is to miss what the law IS). No, he simply says, “Love God and love your neighbor.””

      I say:

      This is an interesting debating technique. I guess our position is wrong because we have not listed every commandment in the bible. Certainly the commandments you list are true. They are not incompatible with the claim that the law in its most proper sense (as Luther says) is condemnation.
      E.g. Jesus also says “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…You are from your father, the devil…” That sounds very similar to “you are going to hell” to me. [Making up “you should go to hell” is a non sequitur. Our position is that the law says: “you are going to hell.”]

      You said:

      “You speak of the law as though it is, most importantly, a doctrine to be believed in all its ‘fullness’, rather than a command to be (quite practically) obeyed.”

      I say:

      The law is not to be believed (i.e. trusted, fiducia). It is to be obeyed, but no one does this.

      You say:

      “But Paul disagrees: “But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who DOES them shall live by them.” Put simply, the law is for doing. And we theologians, though we might be tempted to believe otherwise, are not above that very practical function of the law: that we must hear and obey–or at least try to obey–what our good and perfect Father has commanded of us. Otherwise how could we say that we understand it? How could we even say that the law condemns? How would we know?”

      I say:

      Here Paul is distiguishing law from gospel. He is not distinguishing the law’s condemnation (2nd use) from its guidance (?) (first use).
      Of course the commandments expose our sin to us (condemn us). Unfortunately the news gets worse: You must not only try to obey the commandments, in fact you must obey them. Now, how much “living by them” are you doing? How much dying by them are you doing?

      Yoda said:

      There is no try, there is only do or do not.

      I say:

      Yoda was right. Except when it comes to God’s law, there is no do, there is only do not.

      You say (I already quoted above):

      “When Jesus sums up the law, he does not speak in theoretical terms about a deep condemning idea/force that drives us to our knees (it may very well become that for us, indirectly, but to skip to that is to miss what the law IS).”

      I say:

      You have selectively quoted Jesus (no I’m not holding you responsible for everything he said, but you claimed to have excluded Christ preaching the law as condemnation), and I have proved this problem above.
      Luther certainly disagrees with your assessment of the law (as proven above, but here is more at greater length, all from the Antinomian Disputations):

      “When we speak of the law, we speak about the law’s proper effect, which it can have or perform in this corrupt nature. Besides, we all experience that it can work nothing but despair… For by itself the law cannot do anything but afflict, ruin, and agitate consciences. These are the matters we speak of whenever the law is mentioned… when one treats the law, then one treats the nature and power and effect of the law… you always ought to remain in the chief (principali) definition of the law, that it works wrath and hatred and despair…” (Sonntag 177; WA 39I:445.5-14, 446.5-6);

      “in this entire [second antinomian] disputation “law” ought not to be taken in a technical or material or grammatical sense, as we have already frequently stated, but as it is and sounds forth in your heart, urging and battling your heart and conscience, so that you do not know where to turn. For the law is that experience or power or, as Paul calls it (Colossians 2:14), that handwriting impressed on our hearts, castigating and beating it, so that, if John [the Baptist] would not come, you would soon have to despair, “Oh my, Oh my,” and scream out loud, “I’m done for! I’m lost! Woe to me! God doesn’t want me! He has forgotten me! He hates me! He is my Judge and Condemner! Whereto should I flee from the face of his wrath? Etc.” These voices and these experiences of the law are not empty sounds or syllables.” (Sonntag 191; WA 39I:455.8-24).

      I say:

      You’re argument about Luther’s doctrine of the law making God into a bad Father is a poor restatement of Erasmus’ position. And don’t be so sure that God didn’t say “give all your money to the poor,” because he did: Mark 10:21.
      If Erasmus was correct, and God can only be good if he gives commandments that we have the ability to obey, then get to work, give all your money to the poor, and become best friends with Pelagius, whose position you have just restated.


      Yes, of course Jesus commands love. This is the law, not the gospel. In this life we need law. Those of us against the third use do not say the gospel comes at a point of time in history or any person’s life, and then the law is no longer allowed. No, the church on earth needs law. To the extent the Christian is still a sinner, he hears this law and does not obey it (although he behaves a little better, 1st use). To the extent the Christian is a saint he loves without being told to do so:

      35. Indeed, only faith in Christ justifies, only it fulfills the law, only it does
      good works without the law.
      36. For only [faith] receives the forgiveness of sins and spontaneously does
      good works through love.
      37. It is true that after justification good works follow spontaneously without
      the law, that is, without it either helping or exhorting any longer.
      38. In sum: The law is neither useful nor necessary for justification or for any
      good works, let alone salvation. (Sonntag 239; WA 39I:354.1-8)

  16. Ross Byrd says:

    Wow, that’s some good arguing, Nicholas. You know your stuff. Thank you for taking the time to respond. Though I was a little hurt by the reference to Pelagius. I really hope I find a moment to respond to you soon. But in the mean time, just wanted to say good work.

  17. Ross Byrd says:

    Nicholas, you seem to know your Luther. And I love and respect Luther to such an extent that my disagreeing with him on certain points DOES give me pause! Of course, I have not his training, nor his mind, nor his courage, nor possibly his love for God. But do not mistake me for someone who needs to reconcile my theology to his. He was a great man, but only a man. There is only One to whom our theology must be reconciled. And we’re talking about His commands here, which should give us both pause.

    For me this whole discussion of law, to use a phrase from George MacDonald, is a matter of trying to teach the intellect something that only one’s whole being can learn. I agree with you and with Luther that the law condemns and, as Luther puts it, that we must be careful not to remove (as the so-called antinomians did) ‘the terrifying of the pious by the law’. My point is simply that the good and right ‘terrifying of the pious’ comes through the law’s actual commands as they appear in Scripture, not through some abstract intellectual doctrine of law. My point is that your argument (and the argument of this post) may place you in the very same family as the antinomians of which Luther spoke, precisely because you are substituting the law as command for the law as concept; and in so doing, you have taken away its real power. Let me explain…

    When I hear, “Thou shalt not covet,” I am, hopefully, terrified and condemned, and rightly so. But when I hear, “Condemnation is the law’s most proper function and being,” not only am I not terrified, I am rather tempted to be proud of my own understanding of this great theological insight!

    That is not to say that the insight is incorrect. Indeed, the law does not, for the sinner, engender what it demands, and thus its proper function–or one of its functions–is to condemn. But the point is the law does not exist simply so that we might ‘acknowledge its function’. It exists, among other purposes, as you and Luther rightly say, to terrify and condemn. But it only does so when we experience it as it is given–in the form of specific commands from the Father (and the Son) which we are actually expected to keep. That’s what makes it so terrifying. He expects us to do what He says.

    So if you and the authors of this post are regularly giving sermons entitled “Thou Shalt Not Covet” and the like, then I stand corrected in my doubting your desire to preach the “fulness of the law” for the “terrifying of the pious.” But if you think, especially in our time, that you can help to engender a right humility before God and need for his grace simply by preaching a general (and highly intellectual) concept of law, while neglecting the literal commands of God on our actual lives here and now, then I say you are Luther’s antinomian. You have stripped the law of all its condemning power, and are nurturing prideful and rebellious ideologues, rather than humble sons and daughters.

    There is one clear difference between Luther and the content of this ‘Lutheran’ discussion. Luther was ACTUALLY one of the ‘terrified pious’. He really felt the weight of God’s demands on his life–not the weight of an idea, but the weight of specific things that he had done and left undone, which haunted him to his core. For Luther, it was this experience not simply of his intellect but of his whole being, which gave rise to some of the most beautiful and pertinent articulations of God’s grace in his time. And likewise, many believers in his day experienced that same weight. Nowadays…not so much. At least not that I see. Do we suffer just as much from depression, anxiety, doubt, despair? Yes. But humility, poverty of spirit, desperation for God? Perhaps not. Perhaps not since the simple commands of the Father have been supplanted with ‘higher’ more sophisticated notions of God and morality.

    • Nicholas Hopman says:

      Dear Ross,

      Fair enough on Luther being human (at the end I see you’re not trying to disagree with him in any way). I’m willing to address this biblically.
      First, here is a sermon on a specific real commandment (the 7th) from one of my fellow “theoretical/conceptual” preachers of the law: http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/holy-thief.html
      (beware, he never says you can actually do what the commandment requires, nor does he ever try to prevent the law from condemning)

      I’ve already done this once, but once again (on the agreed biblical terms of debate) the real concrete bible does not only say “Honour (hello to my Canadian friends) your Father and your Mother.” It also speaks the law this way: “For man this is impossible (re: the Camal through the needle thing).” “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” Etcetera ad infinitum. You are mistaken if you think that such preaching of the law is: “highly intellectual.” It is in fact concrete. It is not veiling the law in intellectualism, but precisely as Luther said (sorry, I broke the rules. But it shouldn’t be a problem because it was in fact Jesus [Sermon on the Mount] who unveiled the law rather than Luther): unveiling Moses. Moses’ commandments (his allowing for divorce as well as the 10 commandments) are the law compromising with human sin. They tell you what to do without breaking the news that you can’t do it. If you want to preach only the veiled (i.e. 1/2 way) law, then fine. It will still condemn. It is, however, a poor preaching of the law when one tries to stop us from unveiling it.

      Furthermore, the comment about what is necessary “especially in our times” I dismiss out of hand. Everyone is always convinced that they are living in the truly evil times. I am so sick of talking about homosexuality et al. that I can’t even begin to describe it.
      People today experience the weight of the law every bit as much as they did in Luther’s day. Though they are less concerned about keeping the Sabbath, modern man is “condemned to be free” and “forced to be his own creator.” Good luck trying to convert the world back to religion so that they’re then qualified to finally hear Romans 3:23, and also that “they are now justified through the redemption in Christ Jesus, as a gift.” While such modern feelings of freedom trickle down to average people more than one might think, many do still encounter the law as “you shall not kill” more than as the assessment of modern life by French existentialists. But how does one preach “you shall not kill?” One unveils the law by showing everyone that they are in fact murderers. One contradicts the law by preaching, “you can do it; you can fulfill this law if you try a little harder. Don’t follow those cheap gracers. Don’t move on to Romans 3:23 without spending enough time in purgatory. God actually wants this done, and by golly, you can do it. At least give it your best this week. We can admit Romans 3:23 is true if we need to next Sunday.”
      Finally, American Christianity is much more works righteous than medieval Roman Catholic Christianity. So the claim that “especially these days” we need to impose more law (i.e. give more major flesh wounds with this or that commandment while refusing to chop off the head with “for man it is impossible”) so the gospel meets a situation more like Luther’s situation is simply mistaken.

      Yes, you are certainly correct about the “terrified pious” comments at the end. I just read Adam Morton’s excellent post darüber. I would suggest that if you want to be truly terrified, step out far onto the small branch where those of us live, who understand that the law is always condemnation. You will find plenty of law rising up to terrify you here. You will also find that the attack usually comes in one form or another of “I love the 10 commandments.”

  18. Michael Cooper says:

    Ross, thank you for articulating so clearly the subtle problem with a highly abstract concept of “law” and “gospel” and why it ends in a place that to me anyway seems as far from Luther as it is from the New Testament witness. The irony of this highly abstract use of law/gospel is that, in spite of whatever concrete illustrations from “real life” or pop culture might be thrown out in a sermon to try to connect (without offending anyone of course with any specific “law” beyond social gaffs) I have over the years seen that it produces preaching that is formulaic, highly predictable, and sadly lacking in either terror or comfort. Of course, there is certainly worse preaching out there of the “do these 5 steps to becomes a more God glorifying Christian” variety. Sadly, this seems to be the only options in the current landscape. I have basically given up and now go to church, when I bother, for the Rite I liturgy and the Scripture readings.

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