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.
To help us understand the proper meaning of the phrase “the Law always accuses,” it would beneficial to make a distinction between the use of the Law for justification and the use of the Law for the justified. This distinction helps us to understand the difference between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of the Gospel.
To Use the Law for Justification
In this use, the Law is being used without the Gospel. People are being taught to keep the Law for the purpose of justification. In this use, one is attempting to obtain the righteousness of the Law by one’s own works without Christ the Mediator. This is an achieved active righteousness.
Again, Melanchthon states, “those who deny that faith justifies, teach nothing but the Law, both Christ and the Gospel being set aside” (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article II], para. 70).
Therefore, the individual is being placed under the Law which is to be under the curse and condemnation of the Law. Thus, the Law always accuses and condemns. The accusation and condemnation of the Law bring the knowledge of God’s judgment and wrath. In this use, Melanchthon’s hope is to bring the recognition of the need for a different righteousness which can only be found in Christ the Mediator.
To Use the Law for the Justified
In this use, the Law is being used with the Gospel. The Law is not used for justification, accusation, or condemnation. Those who are already justified by faith in Christ the Mediator are instructed to walk in the Law. They are not under the Law. They are under grace and are beginning to keep the Law by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. However, this incipient keeping of the Law is imperfect and incomplete; by faith, sin is not counted against the justified. The justified trust in Christ as the Mediator who alone has made perfect and complete satisfaction for the demands of the Law. The individual has received the passive righteousness of Christ to be his own by faith. This is the righteousness of the Gospel. The believer is under grace. He has been redeemed from the curse and freed from the condemnation of the Law. Thus, the Law cannot accuse or condemn the one justified by faith.
Melanchthon Addresses the Use of the Law for Justification
The second time that Melanchthon talks about the “Law always accusing” he is addressing the opponents who want to use the Law for justification. To fortify their position, they quote Bible passages which demand the keeping of the Law. Jesus says, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). St. Paul says, “The doers of the Law will be justified (Romans. 2:13). In response, Melanchthon clarifies that we should begin to keep the commandments and continue growing in our keeping of them more and more. However, this can only be accomplished with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, and with faith. In fact, this is the meaning of the words of Jeremiah which declare, “I will put my Law upon their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Faith brings the Holy Spirit who brings the new birth and produces new impulses in our hearts. The believer, who is justified and regenerated, begins to fear and love God, to pray, to praise, to give thanks, to submit to God in afflictions, and to love the neighbor. Again, Melanchthon emphasized that it is impossible to keep the Law without Christ and the Holy Spirit. Melanchthon then writes,
Then, too, how can the human heart love God while it knows that He is terribly angry, and is oppressing us with temporal and perpetual calamities? But the Law always accuses us, always shows that God is angry. [Therefore, what the scholastics say of the love of God is a dream.] God therefore is not loved until we apprehend mercy by faith. Not until then does He become a lovable object. (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 7-8. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 128-129).
When Melanchthon is saying that the “Law always accuses,” he is responding to those who are teaching the righteousness of the Law, that is, a righteousness without Christ, without the Holy Spirit, and without faith. To those who think that the outward keeping of the Law satisfies God, their failure to inwardly keep the Law must be exposed. To those who are under the Law, they must be warned that the Law always accuses and shows that God is angry. Melanchthon asserts that such people have the veil of Moses over their eyes. They think they are doing right in God’s sight. Paul writes,
“But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:14–17, ESV)
Commenting on this passage, Melanchthon writes,
Paul understands by the veil the human opinion concerning the entire Law, the Decalog and the ceremonies, namely, that hypocrites think that external and civil works satisfy the Law of God, and that sacrifices and observances justify before God ex opere operato. But then this veil is removed from us, i.e., we are freed from this error when God shows to our hearts our uncleanness and the heinousness of sin. Then, for the first time, we see that we are far from fulfilling the Law. Then we learn to know how flesh, in security and indifference, does not fear God, and is not fully certain that we are regarded by God, but imagines that men are born and die by chance. Then we experience that we do not believe that God forgives and hears us. But when, on hearing the Gospel and the remission of sins, we are consoled by faith, we receive the Holy Ghost so that now we are able to think aright concerning God, and to fear and believe God, etc. From these facts it is apparent that the Law cannot be kept without Christ and the Holy Ghost (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 13-14. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 134-135).
It is at this point that Melanchthon pulls off the veil of deception that a person can keep the Law without Christ and the Holy Spirit in order to be righteous before God by one’s own works without faith. This, of course, does not mean that we do away with the Law; rather, we teach the Law with the Gospel and not apart from it. Contrary to the slander by the papists, we Lutherans teach that Good Works should be done. The difference is that we teach how the Law can be kept in the heart with Christ, the Holy Spirit, and faith. In this way, the Law can be used for the justified who begin to keep the Law in this life. Since they are under grace, the Law cannot accuse or condemn them. Thus, Melanchthon quotes Paul who says,
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, ESV)
Please note that Melanchthon is not “proof-texting,” that is, ripping passages out of context to make it sound like what he is saying. Instead, he wants us to look at the passage in context. Paul says,
“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:2–4, ESV)
Those who are in Christ are those who have been justified by faith alone. They have been set free from the law of sin and death. Because of sin, the Law cannot give life. The Law cannot justify the guilty. However, in the incarnation, the One who knew no sin became sin for us. God condemned sins in the flesh. Yet, Christ was innocent and perfectly and completely fulfilled the Law in our stead. God does what the Law cannot do, namely, He justifies us.
Christ was crucified for our sin, raised for our justification, and has ascended to be our Mediator. He continues to give out the remission of sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Those who are in Christ are beginning to walk in the law of the Spirit of life. Thus, in the same chapter Paul says,
“Who shall bring any charge against [NOTE: accuse] God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33–34, ESV)
As our Mediator with the Father, Jesus continues to intercede for us. In Christ, there is no accusation and no condemnation. In Christ, God does not accuse or condemn us. God justifies. Here the Law is used for the justified. However, the papists teach that love justifies. They want to use the Law for justification. Thus, Melanchthon responds,
From these effects of faith, the adversaries select one, namely, love, and teach that love justifies. Thus it is clearly apparent that they teach only the Law. They do not teach that remission of sins through faith is first received. They do not teach of Christ as Mediator, that for Christ’s sake we have a gracious God, but because of our love. And yet, what the nature of this love is they do not say, neither can they say. They proclaim that they fulfill the Law, although this glory belongs properly to Christ; and they set against the judgment of God confidence in their own works; for they say that they merit de condigno (according to righteousness) grace and eternal life. This confidence is absolutely impious and vain. For in this life we cannot satisfy the Law, because carnal nature does not cease to bring forth wicked dispositions [evil inclination and desire], even though the Spirit in us resists them (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 24-25. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 145-146).
The papists teach the Law without the Gospel. They do not teach the Law for the justified; rather, they teach the Law to merit justification. They boast in the righteousness of the Law without Christ the Mediator. Instead of trusting in Christ’s fulfillment of the Law, they teach that the love of the individual fulfills the Law. For them, the Law always accuses.
In this life, we cannot satisfy the Law. Yet, Christ has perfectly and completely satisfied the Law in our stead. Therefore, for us, we give Christ the proper honor and glory as our Mediator. By faith, we set His work against the judgment of God. Since Christ has fulfilled the Law, the Law cannot accuse or condemn those who are in Christ by faith.
In Part 4 of our conversation, we will examine the Latin phrase “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses) and the role of the conscience.