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, 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 should love our Latin phrases such as, “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses) which rejects the idea of justification by the Law without faith in Christ our Mediator and the Latin phrase “lex non potest eos accusare aut damnare” (the law cannot accuse or condemn them) which extols the article of justification through faith alone in Christ our Mediator. More importantly, we should rejoice in the comfort of knowing Christ as our Mediator. He is the end of the Law for righteousness to all who believe (Romans 10:4). In Him, we have been redeemed from the curse and condemnation of the Law (Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:1). As Melanchthon writes,
[Christ] 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 (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 58. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 179).
In the Book of Concord, we are taught how the article of justification gives all glory to Christ our Mediator and true comfort to our consciences. The root of the Reformation lies in the pastoral care of souls. The goal of extolling justification is to change a guilt-filled conscience into a joyful conscience in Christ. Therefore, we should grow in our understanding of the Lutheran Confessions which teach us that the Law cannot accuse or condemn those who have Christ the Mediator by faith.
In our discussion, we want to understand the proper context of the phrase “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses) as found in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. First, the Apology is our response to the Roman Confutation which claims that good works merit the remission of sins and are worthy of eternal life with the assistance of divine grace. Second, the Roman Confutation is the papist rejection of the Augsburg Confession Article IV (Justification), Article V (the Ministry), Article VI (the New Obedience), and Article XX (Good Works) in which we teach that a person cannot be justified before God by one’s own strength, merit, or good works. Instead, one is justified freely by faith for Christ’s sake who made satisfaction for our sins and continues to serve as our High Priest.
Before we get started, we want to establish an understanding of two terms: Mediator and Law. Christ is the Mediator who unites Creator and creation. He alone is the propitiation for our sins and Propitiator. He is the sacrificial Lamb who atones for our sins. He is the High Priest who intercedes for us before the Father. He bears our sins and bestows His righteousness to us. Through His work, He brings reconciliation, remission of sins, and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. When we state that Christ is currently our Mediator before the Father, we are declaring that we are justified by faith in Christ. Melanchthon writes,
…readers must be admonished of this, that just as it is necessary to maintain this sentence: Christ is Mediator, so is it necessary to defend that faith justifies, [without works]. For how will Christ be Mediator if in justification we do not use Him as Mediator; if we do not hold that for His sake we are accounted righteous? But to believe is to trust in the merits of Christ, that for His sake God certainly wishes to be reconciled with us. Likewise, just as we ought to maintain that, apart from the Law, the promise of Christ is necessary, so also is it needful to maintain that faith justifies. [For the Law does not preach the forgiveness of sin by grace.] For the Law cannot be performed unless the Holy Ghost be first received. It is, therefore, needful to maintain that the promise of Christ is necessary. But this cannot be received except by faith. Therefore, those who deny that faith justifies, teach nothing but the Law, both Christ and the Gospel being set aside (Apology 4:69-70)
Here Melanchthon clearly gives us two options. Either you teach Christ as Mediator and justification through faith alone or you teach the Law without Christ and without faith. This brings us to our second term: the Law. When we discuss the Law in the Apology, we are referring to the Ten Commandments which require both external and internal obedience. The Law does not teach the forgiveness of sins. The Law cannot justify the guilty. The Law cannot make us righteous before God.
Furthermore, in the Apology, we want to recognize the difference between the Romanist concept of the righteousness of the Law without Christ the Mediator and our teaching of the righteousness of the Gospel with Christ our Mediator. Their teaching obscures the glory of Christ and robs consciences of true comfort and peace. In fact, Melanchthon argues that their teaching of the righteousness of the Law is no different than the philosophical teaching of the righteousness of reason. In a similar manner, the philosophers taught an outward righteousness of reason without Christ and without the Holy Spirit. It is a teaching of external obedience motivated by threats of punishment and promises of reward. Thus, the papists focus on the second table of the Ten Commandments, which we can associate with civil righteousness. The Law of Moses agrees with the natural law. To distinguish their teaching of righteousness from the pagan teaching of righteousness, the papists believe that Christ acted, in the past, as a Mediator to merit an “initial grace” which enables a person to more easily love God and merit the forgiveness of sins with the aid of God’s grace. Thus, they teach a “one-time” mediation of Christ.
To be clear, this is not Christian righteousness which necessities Christ as a continuous Mediator who continues to give the remission of sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. The righteousness of the Gospel promises the righteousness of faith in Christ. It is impossible to please God without faith. Without the rebirth, a person cannot keep the Law internally. God judges the heart and that which does not proceed from faith is sin. Therefore, without faith, the Law always accuses and condemns.
Throughout the Apology, Melanchthon uses the phrase “the Law always accuses” eight different times. In addition, he even states that the Law “only” accuses at one point. We want to examine the context of each of these assertions. The first time that Melanchthon uses the phrase, he warns that the righteousness of the Law buries Christ as the Mediator and encourages one to stand before God with his own works. He writes,
Paul says, Rom. 4:15: The Law worketh wrath. He does not say that by the Law men merit the remission of sins. For the Law always accuses (lex semper accusat) and terrifies consciences. Therefore it does not justify, because conscience terrified by the Law flees from the judgment of God. Therefore they err who trust that by the Law, by their own works, they merit the remission of sins. It is sufficient for us to have said these things concerning the righteousness of reason or of the Law, which the adversaries teach… (Apology IV:38-39)
Since the Law cannot justify the guilty, it always accuses those who try to merit the remission of sins by their works. Such people are under the Law without Christ the Mediator. To be under the Law is to be under the curse and condemnation of the Law. Melanchthon goes on to say,
Because, therefore, men by their own strength cannot fulfil the Law of God, and all are under sin, and subject to eternal wrath and death, on this account we cannot be freed by the Law from sin and be justified, but the promise of the remission of sins and of justification has been given us for Christ’s sake, who was given for us in order that He might make satisfaction for the sins of the world, and has been appointed as the [only] Mediator and Propitiator. And this promise has not the condition of our merits [it does not read thus: Through Christ you have grace, salvation etc., if you merit it], but freely offers the remission of sins and justification as Paul says Rom. 11:6: If it be of works, then is it no more grace. And in another place, Rom. 3:21: The righteousness of God without the Law is manifested, i.e., the remission of sins is freely offered. Nor does reconciliation depend upon our merits. Because if the remission of sins were to depend upon our merits, and reconciliation were from the Law, it would be useless. For as we do not fulfil the Law, it would also follow that we would never obtain the promise of reconciliation. Thus Paul reasons, Rom. 4:14: For if they which are of the Law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect. For if the promise would require the condition of our merits and the Law, which we never fulfil, it would follow that the promise would be useless. (Apology IV:40-42).
Here Melanchthon puts forth the righteousness of faith in opposition to the righteousness of works. The righteousness of the Gospel proclaims the person and work of Christ as Mediator who frees us from the curse and condemnation of the Law. The righteousness of the Law places one under God’s wrath. Thus, Melanchthon is using the phrase, “the law always accuses” in contradistinction to faith in Christ the Mediator. Therefore, Melanchthon writes,
…The wrath of God cannot be appeased if we set against it our own works, because Christ has been set forth as a Propitiator, so that for His sake, the Father may become reconciled to us. But Christ is not apprehended as a Mediator except by faith. Therefore, by faith alone we obtain remission of sins, when we comfort our hearts with confidence in the mercy promised for Christ’s sake. Likewise Paul, Rom. 5:2, says: By whom also we have access, and adds, by faith. Thus, therefore, we are reconciled to the Father, and receive remission of sins when we are comforted with confidence in the mercy promised for Christ’s sake. The adversaries regard Christ as Mediator and Propitiator for this reason, namely, that He has merited the habit of love; they do not urge us to use Him now as Mediator, but, as though Christ were altogether buried, they imagine that we have access through our own works, and, through these, merit this habit, and afterwards, by this love, come to God. Is not this to bury Christ altogether, and to take away the entire doctrine of faith? Paul on the contrary, teaches that we have access, i.e., reconciliation, through Christ. And to show how this occurs, he adds that we have access by faith. By faith, therefore, for Christ’s sake, we receive remission of sins. We cannot set our own love and our own works over against God’s wrath. (Apology IV:80-81).
If we “bury” Christ as Mediator, then we are attempting to stand before God with our own works which cannot merit the forgiveness of sins or eternal life. We stand cursed and condemned by the Law. In this case, the Law always accuses. However, Christ as our Mediator redeems us from the curse and frees us from the condemnation of the Law. Christ has risen from the dead and is ascended to the right hand of the Father for us. To those who are justified through faith in Christ the Mediator, the Law cannot accuse or condemn them.
In Part 3 of our conversation, we will examine the reoccurring pattern of the Latin phrase “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses) used for those who try to merit the forgiveness of sins by their own works on the one hand. On the other hand, Melanchthon will set forth Christ as the Mediator who alone merits the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for us. He frees us from the curse and condemnation of the Law.