Great Stuff — Four things Lutherans believe about the Law that are false … and true

Posted originally on Pr. Surburg’s Blog:


mlsealIn our study of Scripture we return to the same texts, yet we often do not find them to be same.  Naturally the text hasn’t changed.  Instead we have changed in our knowledge and experiences, and so we recognize things that we had not noticed before.  We ask questions of the text that we had not thought of before.

In preparing for a sermon, I had occasion to read again 1 Thessalonians 4:1 in which Paul says:

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV)

As I read this, I was struck by the way it speaks to – and contradicts – four assumptions with which Lutherans have read Scripture since the middle of the twentieth century.

First, Lutherans have assumed that in texts like this the Law only serves to show people their sin.  Beyond this, since Lutherans have assumed that this is the only use of the Law that really matters for Christians, they have tended to believe that this is Paul’s true purpose in speaking these words.  Paul tells them to walk as they should and to please God (and to do so more and more!) in order to show them that they really can’t do this.  He seeks to show them their sin so that they will then embrace the forgiveness that is found in Christ.

Now only the Holy Spirit determines how the law is used, and so Paul’s statement may be used by the Spirit to show a person their sin (second use), or to restrain and kill the old man so that the new man is able to determine how the individual acts (third use), or the Spirit may do both of these at once.  Yet it is simply not true that Paul’s true purpose is to show them that they really can’t do this and are sinners.  Quite the opposite he writes these words because he wants them to do these things and he even believes that they are doing them (more on this in a moment).

Second, Lutherans have assumed that pastors who preach this way will drive people to despair.  The law always accuses and in speaking exhortation they only show people how they fail to do these things.

However, while the law accuses the old man, the new man rejoices to hear these words because they are exactly what he wants to do.  The Spirit can and does use words like this to restrain and hinder the old man, so that the new man can direct the actions of the individual.  Paul is not worried here about driving the Thessalonians to despair.

Third, Lutherans have assumed that pastors who preach this way will lead people into presumption and self righteousness.  If Christians are directed to focus on what they do, then they will take pride in them and lose sight of justification by grace through faith on account of Christ.

However, the result of such preaching can be righteous living.  When the Spirit uses the law to restrain and hinder the old man, the result of such preaching may be that the new man causes the individual to walk as he should and to please God.  Paul is not worried here about leading the Thessalonians into self-righteousness.

Fourth, Lutherans have assumed that when Paul says, “just as you are doing,” this can’t really be true.  Lutherans are so finely tuned in their perception of sin and its influence that they are not willing to grant that Christians actually live in ways that can be described as “walking as they should and pleasing God.” Sin pervades the individual so completely since the Fall that it is not possible to speak in this way.

However, it is an unavoidable fact of this text that Paul says they are doing it. Similar language is found frequently in the Psalms when the psalmist asserts that he has lived in ways that please God (e.g. Ps 17:3-5).  Naturally such language does not mean that the old man is completely vanquished and gone, and ultimately it can only be true today of those who are in Christ.  Yet it does demonstrate that it is thoroughly biblical to talk about people living and doing in ways that please God.  In regeneration the Spirit creates the new man and this actually makes a difference.

These four points have been persuasive since the mid-twentieth century because they are mutually reinforcing.  More significantly, they have been persuasivebecause they are all true. They are all true.  However, they are not the only things that are true.  In each case, because we are dealing with Christian who is new man and old man at the same time, there is also another side to the story. Error creeps in when we lose sight of the fact that both sides described in each point above are true.  So the law does show people their sin. It can drive to despair.  It can lead to self-righteousness.  The person’s actions are never entirely pure because they still have the old man. But likewise the law found in exhortation can help produce the result that the individual actually does what God wills.  Instead of despair it can bring joy, as the person says, “Yes! That’s exactly what I want to do.”  Instead of self-righteousness in can result in righteous living. It can produce conduct that the Bible is willing to describe as reflecting God’s will.

In the context of Methodism, Baptists and American evangelicalism, it is understandable that some Lutherans are hesitant about embracing the second set of truths on each point.  At some level, it sounds similar to what these traditions have to say. It should not escape our attention that one reason these traditions are persuasive is because they take up language that is found in Scripture. It is placed in a faulty theological framework and it is emphasized in a one sided way, but error and heresy is often a truth pushed too far or viewed in abstraction from other biblical truths.  To emphasize and balance both sides of each point is not to be a “neo-Methodist” – it is instead to be a biblical and confessional Lutheran.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — Four things Lutherans believe about the Law that are false … and true — 8 Comments

  1. Jesus said there are none who seeketh after God.
    He also said that there is none that does good — no not one.

  2. As to point, #4: the Law, I can only assume is the OT. Psalms, Proverbs, the Patriarchs, every Book & Chapter, must be the “Law”.
    Any run of the mill, stump dumb, rump in a pew, if asked, just wants to do, what the Trinity, asks. That is found in both the OT & NT. Micah 6:8, Paul, Peter, & John, expound upon. Human terms are not His, Luther knew that. He had to separate the Pope & the Vatican’s changing edicts, from Sola Scriptura.
    Kids learn that in any history class, Public or Private.
    Why is this now, rocket science?
    Sola Scriptura, is both, the OT & NT. Why now, are we questions, the very definitions, or not teaching, what they the basics are & mean?

  3. I do believe that Pastor Surburg ( yet again!) is trying to show that there is a 3rd use of the law. Page 86 of the 1943 catechism with explanation:

    ‘Thirdly, the Law teaches us Christians which works we must do to lead a God-pleasing life. (A rule.)’ Bible ref: Ps 119:9,105; Luke 10:27.

    Now, how should 3rd use be preached? I don’t know so I’ll leave the pastors and seminarians to fight or discuss? this important topic:)

    In Christ,

  4. @Diane #3

    I also wanted to add that Walther in Thesis XXV states – ‘You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate in your teaching.’ This is taken from ‘Law and Gospel How to Read and Apply the Bible’ – C.F.W. Walther, A Reader’s Edition CPH, 2010.

    In Christ,

  5. “In fact, the highest worship of God is to ascribe to Him truth, righteousness, and any other qualities we would ascribe to one in whom we believe. When the soul thinks of God in this way, it demonstrates that it is prepared to do His will. In doing God’s will the soul hallows God’s name. In doing God’s will the soul demonstrates that it is willing to be dealt with as it may please God.
    You see, the soul simply clings to the promises of God and never doubts that God is true, just, wise, and will do, arrange and provide for everything that is needed in the best possible way. Is not a soul that believes in such a way most obedient to God in all things? Which commandment is not fulfilled by such obedience? What greater fulfillment of the Law is their than complete obedience? Such obedience is not accomplished by works, but only by faith.” (“How To Live A Christian Life” p. 26-27 Martin Luther (Lutheran Press))

  6. Simul iustus et peccator

    Luther 101

    God and man
    bread and Body
    wine and Blood

    Both/and permeates our theology.

    If we rely on our feeble attempts to keep the Law as our justification, they fail and our sin is revealed and condemns.

    If we walk in the works as justified and sanctified sinners, even our feeble and failed attempts become good works which we see and confess as sins so that we receive absolution in order to walk in the works as justified and sanctified sinners…

  7. @Diane #3
    Third use of the law…God loved you, died for your wretched sinful soul…now GO get out and walk with the Lord. Love you neighbor! God commands it…
    And when we all blow it, we come around and receive again…what a great and loving God, eh?

  8. Hear hear! As a new Lutheran I do get bothered by Lutheran preaching which when faced with any exhortation/encouragement passage in the NT, IMMEDIATELY jumps to ‘well of course we can never do this, yay for salvation, next.’ I think its so important to emphasise that living a good and loving life is a GOOD thing, a beautiful thing. Sure we’ll never be perfect, but there’s no reason we can’t at least try to be better. Thats how any human relationship works anyway – I don’t think my husband will ever be a perfect husband but that doesn’t stop me asking him to change certain things – if he just said ‘well i’ll never be perfect, what do you expect, stop bashing me with the law’ I would wonder if he cared about me at all – I think its possible to end up treating God in somewhat the same way…

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