Luther Fought the Law, and the Gospel Won

Editors Note: The following is a discussion of Luther's Large Catchecism. All quotes are from Trans. Robert Fischer. Fortess Press: Philadephia; 1959.

From this side of the Twenty-first century the Protestant Revolution oft appears cold and bloodless. The sides clearly demarcated and the issues merely formal. This side of Trent and Vatican II, even the words of Tetzel can seem merely quaint and old fashioned. This is why a reading of the varied theologians on one issue done historiologically becomes of first importance. After spending a good month reading the ancient and medieval church documents, a first read of Luther’s Larger Catechism leaves one with a strange sense of alienation. However as one plows through the text the thought hits that this is new and different, and from that point the text fits one not unlike a new pair of jeans, at once comforting and irritating.

This fitting room moment of unease came in Luther’s discussion of the Fourth Commandment as he wrote “according to the literal, outward sense this commandment does not concern us Christians. It is entirely external matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament with peculiar customs, persons, times, and places from all of which we are now free through Christ” (20). In a sense this was not as different as it may seem. St. Thomas Aquinas, himself, taught in the Summa that there were moral, ceremonial, and judicial aspects to the Law and that only the moral aspects were 100 percent apropos to the Christian (I-II.99.2-5). Nor was he entirely different from others such as St. Gregory Palamas or St Bonaventure who at times seemed more than willing to John McCain’s hammer to the Jewish backgrounds of the text (as opposed to many modern Evangelicals who seem more fond of Barack Obama’s scissors). So in a sense the more one reads documents on the Ten, the more comfortable one becomes with the ability of the authors to tell us ‘what the text really meant’ even if that seems to stretch to the Sinai background.

For the past several hundred years’ worth of reading a feeling of dread and despair had been building. All of this culminated in the words of Bonaventure that following these laws was easy: that being faithful to these laws were the barest of minimums to be expected in the Christian life. Reading these words week to week made this one feel the need to feel to a barren room and start with the whips himself. One can agree with Luther that “we shall have our hands full to keep these commandments, practicing gentleness, patience, love towards enemies, chastity, kindness, etc., and all that the virtues involve” (51); or further, “let all wise men and saints step forward and produce, if they can, any work like that which God in these commandments so earnestly requires and enjoins under threat of greatest wrath and punishment” (54). Finally someone has looked at their own writing as realized the blatant impossibility of living out these laws.[1]

None of this though prepares for the power of the words as quoted above which state that all these works “are now free through Christ” (20). This grand freeness is seen nowhere more brilliantly than Luther’s words on the First word: you shall have no other gods. He wrote that “the purpose of this commandment, therefore, is to require true faith and confidence of the heart, and these fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone” (9). One cannot trust money or education, religious practice or belief, any accounting of religious action, or superstition. Here his words spoken as from God stand firm, “what you formally sought  from the saints, or what you hoped to receive from mammon or anything else, turn to me for all this; look upon me as the one who wishes to help you and to lavish all good upon you richly” (10). That whoosing sound you heard when reading was all the air flowing out of your lungs after having held your breath for so long hoping that omniscient God might overlook your sinfulness. There is a God and He is for me. That is a good and comforting thought. It comforts and soothes the senses, even as it may irritate one’s ego and pride. It helps make sense of one singer’s lament that “they tell us down here we can save ourselves but that isn’t very good news. Cause if we could, we would’ve, and we wouldn’t need you like we do.”[2]

Of course any Gospel of grace needs to incorporate the corresponding words of Paul: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”[3] And the large majority of the document in question here is concerned with working out how one is to “work out one’s faith in fear and trembling.” In that sense much of what is said does not stand out as vastly different from what has come before. Yet it is the Spirit of those three words “free through Christ” that established this work as something with which to be reckoned.

[1] Aquinas in I-II.99.1 comes close to saying this as he admits that it was impossible for the Jews without access to the Holy Spirit to follow the law completely.

[2] Rick Elias. “I Wouldn’t Need You (Like I Do).” Ten Stories. Frontline Music Group, 1991.

[3] Romans 8:1-2. NRSV.


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