The Law in the life of Christians

As promised yesterday, here is Jono Linebaugh discussing the role of the Law in the life of someone who has faith in the Gospel of Christ.  I know the Third Use of the Law is a big controversy in Lutheranism.  Paul McCain, for example, has been warning Lutherans–including some theologians  in the ELCA–of forgetting that Christians are, indeed, obliged to follow God’s Law.  Dr. Linebaugh, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary (a Reformed institution)  here seems to be downplaying the Third Use as it is often understood in Luther, but I think he is mainly fighting the Calvinist understanding and that he is restoring a properly Lutheran understanding of the Law in the life of Christians.  But, hey, I’m no pastor or theologian.  Let me ask those of you who are:  Does this account properly explain the use of the Law in the life of the Christian? What is the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran understanding of this issue?  When they both use the same term (“Third Use of the Law”) are they meaning the same thing?

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

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 and follow 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). . . .

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” (i.e. a use of the Law after the gospel and thus unique to Christians) is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses [ordering creation and accusing sinners] still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

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).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell


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