Editor’s Note: Rev. Brian L. Kachelmeier serves as pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Los Alamos, NM. He is the host of the Redeemer Theological Academy radio program, a frequent guest on Issues, Etc., Old Testament teacher for the Wittenberg Academy, and author of the soon to be released book Reading Isaiah with Luther.
As heirs of the rich Reformation theology, we love our Latin phrases: sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola Christus (Christ alone), simil iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner), and lex semper accusat (the Law always accuses). However, we must be careful lest we exchange our birth right for simple bumper sticker slogans. Our Faith is not grounded in Latin phrases; rather, it is rooted in the Holy Scriptures and confessed clearly in the Book of Concord.
We want to be clear on the proper historical context of these Latin slogans. As those who confess the Faith of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, we should continue to study our confessional documents to make sure that we are saying the same thing. After all, to confess is to say the same thing. We believe, teach, and confess that the Law always accuses without Christ the Mediator. In fact, we believe, teach, and confess that the Law cannot accuse or even condemn the righteous.
I would like to address a common misconception about the Law of God. It is as if the Law only accuses. Typically, this notion is promoted by regurgitating the Latin phrase “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses). To be fair, this phrase is typically set up as a warning against the danger of works-righteousness, the thought that we can justify ourselves before God by our good works. Of course, we must be careful that we do not fall into the false idea that our deeds can merit God’s favor, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
However, as heirs of the Augsburg Confession, we should not be so easily misled. We know that the Law cannot justify. Jesus justifies. No one will be justified before God by the works of the Law. Therefore, we maintain that a person is justified by faith alone apart from the works of the Law.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that sometimes pastors speak as if it was their primary role to use the Law for accusing people of their sins. It is as if the pastor is sent to put everyone under the curse and condemnation of the Law. In this use, there is no difference between unrepentant unbelieving sinners (who are secure in their sins) and the repentant believing sinners (who are troubled by their sins). It is assumed that everyone is trying to misuse the Law for one’s own self-justification.
Yet, pastors should be reminded that they are not ministers of condemnation; they are ministers of justification. The primary role of the pastor is to proclaim that for those who are justified by faith, the law cannot accuse or condemn them (lex non potest eos accusare aut damnare). Maybe we don’t know that Latin phrase because it is too long.
It seems to me that it is much easier to listen to soundbites, post bumper sticker slogans, and quote radical assertions than to read the Book of Concord and speak in the language given to us for clearly confessing the Faith. However, we are heirs of the rich Reformation theology. Thus, we should rejoice in the treasure of our inheritance, namely, the Book of Concord. While the Concordia is normed by the Sacred Scriptures, the Concordia norms are clear confession with precise language. In Christ, the Law cannot accuse.
For our discussion on the proper use of the term “the Law always accuses,” we want to keep in mind two extremely important passages from the Bible. First, the Holy Spirit teaches us, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Second, the Holy Spirit teaches us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Furthermore, we want to keep in mind an extremely important paragraph in the Apology on the Article of Justification. Melanchthon writes,
…the Law condemns all men, but Christ, because without sin He has borne the punishment of sin, and been made a victim for us, has removed that right of the Law to accuse and condemn those who believe in Him, because He Himself is the propitiation for them for whose sake we are now accounted righteous. But since they are accounted righteous, the Law cannot accuse or condemn them, even though they have not actually satisfied the Law (Triglota Apology Art. III, 58)
Thus, for those who are in Christ, that is, who trust in Him as their Mediator, the law cannot accuse or condemn them (lex non potest eos accusare aut damnare). When we say, “the Law always accuses” we are not stating an absolute without any qualifications. We are saying that without Christ as Mediator and faith in Him, the law always accuses. In fact, without reconciliation, justification, and regeneration, we are under sin and the Law only accuses. Thus, the phrase “the Law always accuses” is a rejection of the papal teaching on justification.
Likewise, the phrase, “the Law cannot accuse or condemn them” is an affirmation of the Biblical doctrine of justification. In the Apology, we are clearly confessing the righteousness of the Gospel in contradistinction to the papist teaching on justification which is merely the preaching of the righteousness of the Law without Christ the Mediator. Thus, Melanchthon is asserting that if they want to become righteous by the works of the Law, then they must understand that the Law always accuses. The Law cannot justify the guilty.
In a similar way, St. Paul argues the case with the baptized who want to be circumcised. In Galatia, the Judaizers were promoting the righteousness of the Law instead of the righteousness of the Gospel. Here we must make a distinction between the active achieved righteousness accomplished by works and the passive received righteousness obtained by faith.
By faith, we are freed from the curse and condemnation of the law. We are no longer under law, but under grace. However, if a Gentile convert wants to be enslaved to the Law like the Jews who reject Jesus as the Mediator, then they will be placed under the curse and condemnation of the Law which cannot justify.
Thus, the Apostle warns the baptized saying,
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:10–14)
Take note, Melanchthon will use the same idea in the Apology on Justification. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law and we receive the Holy Spirit through faith. The issue at hand is not the ritual of circumcision; instead, the problem is trying to obtain an active achieved righteousness according to the Law apart from the righteousness of the Gospel. Thus, Paul will double down on his warning and declare,
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:2–4)
Such a person is no longer under grace; rather, he has placed himself under the law, under the curse, under sin, and under condemnation. It is as if Paul was saying, “If you want to be justified by the Law, then give it a try. However, the Law always accuses, and it cannot justify.” So that the baptized are clear on the article of Justification, Paul writes,
“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
In Paul’s letter to the baptized in Rome, he notes that “all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12). The Law cannot justify the guilty. And again, he writes,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19–20)
However, those who have been justified by faith are no longer under the law, but under grace. In other words, they are no longer under the curse and condemnation of the Law. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1–2). To have access to the Father through the Son, is to have Christ as one’s Mediator with God.
He alone merits reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins. Thus, with Christ as one’s Mediator, Paul can say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1–2). With Christ as our Mediator, we have the gift of the remission of sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit by faith alone. Therefore, the law cannot accuse or condemn us.
In Part 2 of our conversation, we will look at the context of the Latin phrase “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses) in the Book of Concord.