Look down on or Despise: Luther on the extent of the law

1st Timothy 4:12 says, ” Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” The Greek word, kataphroneito, means to despise or look down on. both of these translations are correct, but one lends itself to a less condemning tone in Paul’s letter. If people look down on Timothy, it is because he is young and inexperienced. If they despise him, it is because he is young, yet preaches the eternal truth of God’s Law and Gospel. Sinful man, because of the fall, will always choose the lesser translation, the translation that doesn’t kill, but only cripples the sinner.

This approach to translations can be partially due to a misguided understanding of the purpose and therefore extent of the Law. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther writes, “The Foremost office or power of the law is that it reveals inherited sin and its fruits. It shows human beings into what utter depth their nature has fallen and how completely corrupt it is. The law must say to them that they neither have nor respect any god or that they worship foreign gods. This is something that they would not have believed before without the law. Thus they are terrified, humbled, despondent, and despairing. They anxiously desire help but do not know where to find it; they start to become enemies of God, to murmur, etc” (Smalcald Articles III.2.4 312 Kolb-Wengert). In addition to this, we have the Catechism Hymn, LSB 581 These Are the Holy Ten Commands, that says in verses 11-12, “You have this Law to see therein that you have not been free from sin, but also that you clerarly see how pure toward God life should be. Have Mercy Lord. Our works cannot salvation gain; they merit only endless pain. Forgive us , Lord! To Christ we flee, who pleads for us endlessly. Have Mercy Lord!”  The law kills all pious disillusionment of fallen man.  The law leaves no survivors, only dead sinners in need of the reviving breath of life in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The law is not to be tamed or defanged, but proclaimed in its fullness in order that it may do its work of preparing the sinner to receive the Gospel. After this is done, the law is also used, “when those who have been born anew through God’s Spirit, converted to the Lord, and had the veil of Moses removed for them live and walk in the law” (Formula of Concord Solid Declaration VI.1 Kolb-Wengert 587). Beautifully asserted in sung confession, we Lutherans proclaim, “it was a false, misleading dream, that God His Law had given. That sinners could themselves redeem and by their works gain heaven. The Law is but a  mirror bright, to bring the inbred sin to light that lurks within our nature” (LSB 555 Salvation Unto Us Has Come vs. 3).

When the Law is not preached to leave the sinner hopeless, then the Gospel loses its usefulness. If the sinner survives the law’s proclamation he believes he can limp his way up the ladder into heaven. If the law doesn’t kill, the sinner begins to use the law to his own advantage, driven not by piety but rather by lust. Man cannot fulfill the law because his heart is never pure outside of faith, outside of Christ. In his preface to the book of Romans, Luther asserted the doctrine of the law saying, “But God judges according to what is in the depths of the heart. For this reason, his law too makes its demands on the inmost heart; it cannot be satisfied with works, but rather punishes as hypocrisy and lies the works not done from the bottom of the heart” (Luther’s Works 25.366). From where does this pure heart come? Luther answers, “Such a heart is given only by God’s Spirit, who fashions a man after the law, so that he acquires a desire for the law in his heart, doing nothing henceforth out of fear and compulsion but our of a willing heart” (Luther’s Works 35.367). Luther concluded his section on the law in the book of Romans saying, “For the more the law forbids, the more our evil nature hates the law, and the more it wants to give reign to its own lust. Thus the law makes Christ all the more necessary, and more grace is needed to help our nature” (Luther’s Works 35.375).

If we don’t understand the depravity of our sinful condition, we don’t receive the law for in its proper uses. If we don’t receive the law for its proper uses, we don’t understand how much we either contribute or receive in relation to our salvation.  As the Apology to the Augsburg Confession declares, “What becomes of original sin if human nature itself has the power to love God above all things, as the scholastic confidently affirm? What need will there be for the grace of Christ if we can become righteous by our own righteousness? What need will there be for the Holy Spirit if by our human power alone we can love God above all things and keep God’s commandments” (Apology Augsburg Confession II.10 Kolb-Wengert 114).

What does this all have to to with translations. If we don’t receive the full wrath of the law and the full promise of the Gospel, we find translations of the bible that fit our lustful piety. We don’t want to be condemned when we read the bible. We want to pick it up, put it down, and continue on with life as if the Sacred Scriptures were never opened. We don’t want to open up the bible and translate words that will condemn our false piety and idolatrous worship. We want the bible under our big toe. Let us properly distinguish the command of the law and the promise of the Gospel when we read our Bibles, it just may save us.

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