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The Importance of Distinguishing Law & Gospel

thelutherandifference

“For Luther, a proper distinction between Law and Gospel opened the door to a right understanding of God’s Word and, therefore, a right understanding of God’s will for humankind and our salvation.  Throughout its history, the Lutheran Church has continued to maintain that rightly distinguishing between Law and Gospel is absolutely necessary in this regard.  The Law shows us God’s will and reveals our sin; the Gospel proclaims our salvation in Christ.  To confuse these two doctrines is to remain confused about ourselves and about our God.  To misunderstand them is to misunderstand the reason for the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  In short, Law and Gospel are the means by which we can rightly understand the whole of the Christian faith.” [Edward Engelbrecht (ed.), The Lutheran Difference (St. Louis: CPH, 2010), p40-41)]

Sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive

Heidelberg Disputation

Thesis 28

 

God is loveThe love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it…the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive…Christ says: “For I came not to can the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. (LW 31, Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Heidelberg Disputation

 

The Great Exchange

 

LutherPreachingThrough faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it “the righteousness of God” in Rom. 1[:17]: For in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed …; as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by his faith.’” Finally, in the same epistle, chapter 3[:28], such a faith is called ”the righteousness of God”: “We hold that a man is justified by faith.” This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam. It accomplishes the same as that original righteousness would have accomplished; rather, it accomplishes more. (LW 31, Two Kinds of Righteousness, 1519)

Two Kinds of Righteousness

The one thing necessary

Freedom of  a ChristianOne thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11[:25], “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”; and John 8[:36], “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”; and Matt. 4[:4], “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing.  On the other hand, there is no more terrible disaster with which the wrath of God can afflict men than a famine of the hearing of his Word, as he says in Amos [8:11]. Likewise there is no greater mercy than when he sends forth his Word, as we read in Psalm 107[:20]: “He sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.” Nor was Christ sent into the world for any other ministry except that of the Word. Moreover, the entire spiritual estate—all the apostles, bishops, and priests—has been called and instituted only for the ministry of the Word. (LW 31, The Freedom of a Christian, 1520)

It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law. It is true that “the law is not laid down for the just” [I Tim. 1:9]. This is that Christian liberty, our faith, which does not induce us to live in idleness or wickedness but makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation. (LW 31, The Freedom of a Christian, 1520)

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Claims about Individual Interpretation of the Bible

That'sYourInterpretationIt is held by some that “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura originated with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant ‘Reformation.’[1]  Part of this is true.  Dr. Luther was a 16th-century German monk (of the Augustinian order).  However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther for his teachings.

Claims about Individual Interpretation of the Bible

In referencing an understanding of the Bible at the time of the Reformation, Peters states, “As the confrontations between Lutheran the Church’s hierarchy ensued and tensions mounted, Luther accused the Catholic Church of having corrupted Christian doctrine and having distorted Biblical truths, and he more and more came to believe that the Bible, as interpreted by the individual believer, was the only true religious authority for a Christian.  He eventually rejected Tradition as well as the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (with the Pope at its head) as having legitimate religious authority.”[2]

Luther did, of course, accuse the Catholic Church of having corrupted Christian doctrine and having distorted Biblical truths.  Luther also did reject Tradition and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (and Lutherans still do) as having legitimate religious authority (as such authority usurps the authority of God’s Word).  However, Peters is incorrect to say that Luther claimed the only true religious authority for a Christian is the Bible, “as interpreted by the individual believer.”

Luther did believe that God’s Word is the final authority (the formal principle) for faith and life, and that no church and no pope has authority over this authority.  Yet this claim that the Bible is the final authority did not derive from his own personal interpretation of Scripture.  Rather, this interpretation came from Scripture itself.[3]  In other words, Luther claimed that his preaching and teaching did not come from his own interpretation, but from what Scripture said itself.

For Luther, claiming a personal interpretation as authoritative was the same thing as placing oneself as the final authority over Scripture (the very same thing the Catholic Church, in fact, does).  Instead of placing himself as the master of the text (magisterial use of reason), Luther submitted himself to the text of Scripture (ministerial use of reason) as servant.  He himself was not the final say of what Scripture meant or did not mean.  The Bible itself was (and is) such a judge.[4]

For the Catholic Church to claim that tradition or the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has legitimate religious authority over Scripture, or is the only one who can rightly interpret it, really, is to apply the erroneous accusation against Luther to itself.  Whether it be an individual (i.e. the personal believer or the pope), the Catholic Church, or another church that claims exclusive rights to correctly interpreting Scripture, each of these places themselves above Scripture, and therefore, against Scripture.  To make the claim, “That’s your interpretation,” where the other simply states what Scripture states, is to do the same thing.


[1] Peters, 2.

[2] Peters, 2-3.

[3] 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:21.

[4] The hermeneutical principle here described is, “Scriptura Sacra Sui Ipsuis Interpres” (Scripture interprets itself).

 

 

Claims about the Reformation

LutherPosting95Theses

It is held by some that “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura originated with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant ‘Reformation.’[1]  Part of this is true.  Dr. Luther was a 16th-century German monk (of the Augustinian order).  However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther for his teachings.

Claims about the Reformation

Peters claims that “The Protestant Reformation was not a reform in the true sense of the word, but rather that it was a revolution—an upheaval of the legitimate, established religious and civil order of the day.”[2]  The Protestant reformation did much to change the religious and civil orders of the day.  And its impact can still be readily recognized today, not only concerning Christendom in general, but also concerning the educational system, too (and various other areas of life).

In a sense, the Reformation could be said to be a revolution, yet such claims can only be rightly understood by those who were instrumental in its fruition.  Martin Luther is immediately attributed as the one who “started” the Protestant (Lutheran) Reformation, yet he was not the first clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church who sought change.  There were others before him, but like John Huss, who questioned the authority of the pope and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, they were silenced in one way or another.[3]

Martin Luther, however, sought reform, not revolution.  His concern, as a Doctor of Theology (received from the church), was that of teaching the Bible aright.  He writes, for example, “First, I am prepared in all humility to honor the Roman Church and to prefer nothing to her, either in heaven or on earth, except God alone and His Word.  For this reason I shall gladly recant any article in which I am proved to be in error.”[4]

The challenge for Luther, however, was that the Catholic Church was not willing to hear him.  They did not want to prove him wrong according to Scripture.  They only wanted him to recant his teaching, and because he did not (and would not) recant, they excommunicated him.  The Catholic Church considered him as a wayward son, and disciplined him accordingly.

For further reflection, consider these words from Luther about his teachings and corresponding practices…

“This message (gospel) is not a novel invention of ours but the vey ancient, approved teaching of the apostles brought to light again.  Neither have we invented a new Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, Lord’s Prayer, and Creed; nor do we desire to know or to have anything new in Christendom.  We only contend for, and hold to, the ancient: that which Christ and the apostles have left behind them and have given to us.  But this we did do.  Since we found all of this obscured by the pope with human doctrine, aye, decked out in dust and spider webs, and all sorts of vermin, and flung and trodden into mud besides, we have by God’s grace brought it out again, have cleansed it of this mess, wiped off the dust, brushed it, and brought it to the light of day.  Accordingly, it shines again in purity, and everybody may see what Gospel, Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, keys, prayer, and everything that Christ has given us really is and how it should be used for our salvation.”[5]

Such words from Luther himself do not at all indicate the desire for a revolution.  Perhaps the desire to apply this term of revolution to Luther only demonstrates the waywardness from Scripture that the Catholic Church has maintained.  The fact that others misused and added to Luther’s teaching to bring about revolution and to revolt against Church and State (i.e. the Peasants War, Fanatics, Anabaptists, etc.) should not detract from the message of the reformer himself.  Rather, it should be cause for maintaining careful distinctions, and not to lump all together in one proverbial basket.

The fact of the matter is that Luther did not want to form a new church his own way.  He wanted the church to return to its roots, and to its center, which is Christ, and founded on God’s Word alone (i.e. Ephesians 2:20).


[1] Peters, 2.

[2] Peters, 65.

[3] John Huss, for example, was burned at the stake in 1415 by order of the church.

[4] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active

Christian, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 839.

[5] Ibid., 1180-1181.

 

 

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