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.
In the Apology, Melanchthon contrasts the teaching of the papists with the Biblical doctrine of justification. They teach the Law for justification without Christ the Mediator. Therefore, they are under the curse and condemnation of the Law. The Law always accuses (lex semper accusat). On the other hand, the teachers of the Biblical doctrine of justification teach the righteousness of the Gospel. We teach the work of Christ as the only Mediator with God. We teach the Law for the justified, that is, those who trust in the person and work of Christ are redeemed from the curse and freed from the condemnation of the Law. The Law cannot accuse or condemn them (lex non potest eos accusare aut damnare). Yet, in this life, the conscience continues to be alarmed by the voice of the Law. The Law requires complete and perfect obedience. However, because of the corrupted human nature it is impossible to keep the Law. Therefore, the Gospel must continually be heard by the justified.
The conscience can only gauge what has been done by the individual. It cannot gauge what has been done by another in his stead. For this reason, the external Gospel needs to be constantly proclaimed to bring comfort to the heart. The voice of the Gospel makes void the voice of the Law. The voice of Jesus overrules the voice of the guilty conscience. He is the King of the Conscience.
When an individual tries to placate God’s wrath with his own “good works,” the conscience will always feel the accusations by the Law that always accuses. The individual will never know if he has done enough to fulfill God’s Law. He will never know if God is pleased by his works. There is no peace without faith. It is impossible to please God without faith. Faith comes through hearing the voice of Christ in the Gospel. Only the work of Jesus can placate God’s wrath and bring peace to the conscience. The righteousness of the Gospel delivers gives the proper glory due to the name of Jesus and the true comfort to the troubled conscience.
In contrast, the righteousness of the Law removes Christ from the role of Mediator and robs conscience of peace. Thus, Melanchthon brings up the phrase “the Law always accuses” in respect to the terror and trouble that the teaching of the papists brings to the conscience. He writes,
…the doctrine of the adversaries leaves consciences in doubt, so that they never can be pacified, because the Law always accuses us, even in good works. For always the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, Gal. 5:17. How, therefore, will conscience here have peace without faith, if it believe that, not for Christ’s sake, but for the sake of one’s own work, it ought now to please God? What work will it find, upon what will it firmly rely as worthy of eternal life, if, indeed, hope ought to originate from merits? Against these doubts Paul says, Rom. 5:1: Being justified by faith, we have peace with God; we ought to be firmly convinced that for Christ’s sake righteousness and eternal life are granted us. (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 198-199. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 319-320).
Under the teaching of the papists, the individual never knows if God is pleased by his works. The conscience continually testifies to the failure of perfectly fulfilling God’s Law. For this reason, the Law always accuses. Again, notice that the answer to the accusations of the Law can only be found in Christ’s perfect and complete fulfillment of the Law.
At this point, it is important to notice how Melanchthon ties the papists’ false teaching on justification to their misunderstanding of the Law. The papists teach that the Law of God must be fulfilled by the individual; therefore, they teach that it is possible for the individual to fulfill God’s Law. The focus is placed on the outward act instead of faith in the heart. One becomes righteous by doing righteous things with God’s help. In other words, practice makes perfect. For this reason, they slander Luther’s teaching as forbidding good works. They see the Lutherans teaching as an Epicurean indifference to God’s Law without contrition and without a zeal for good works.
In the Apology, Melanchthon is clearly articulating the doctrine of justification as it is connected to the proper understanding of the Law. The Law requires perfect obedience both inwardly and outwardly by the individual. Furthermore, because of the corrupted sinful nature, it is impossible in this life to perfectly fulfill the Law. To properly understand the doctrine of the Law and correctly teach the doctrine of Justification, three things must be taught.
First, it must be taught that the perfect obedience of the Law must be sought by the individual. In this way, the magnitude of the individual’s sin will be seen, and the warning of God’s wrath will be known. Because of original sin, it is impossible to completely fulfill God’s Law. The Law’s requirement of perfect obedience can only be found in Jesus. He alone has completely fulfilled the Law inwardly and outwardly. He died for our sins and was raised for our justification. Christ is the one Mediator between God and man.
Second, it must be taught that there should be a beginning obedience to the Law in the Justified. Faith first brings the remission of sins and second brings the renewal of the Holy Spirit. In this life, the justified continue to be sinners who sin. Thus, even believers are always sinning against God’s Law and yet always beginning to keep God’s Law. As Mediator, Christ continues to remove our sin so that the Law cannot accuse or condemn the justified. As Mediator, He continues to fill the justified with the Holy Spirit who renews the inner man. This understanding of the beginning new obedience addresses the false notion of an Epicurean indifference which sees no need to be led by the Holy Spirit or to be guided by the Law. Such a delusion leads one to continue in sin so that grace may abound. Faith does not exist in those who walk according to the flesh and are ruled by sin.
Third, it must be taught how the beginning of the new obedience to the Law is pleasing to God. It is not pleasing on its own account. God’s Law requires perfect obedience and not a partial obedience. The incipient keeping of the Law by the justified is pleasing because of the imputation of Christ’s perfect obedience. As Mediator, He perfectly fulfills the Law. His holiness and righteousness are imputed by faith alone. This understanding of imputation addresses the Pharisaic pride which begins with faith and ends with works. Such spiritual arrogance leads to the boasting in one’s own good works and advancement in them. They seek justification by the Law. For them, they are under the curse and the Law always accuses and condemns.
Whereas the papists slander the Lutherans of forbidding Good Works like an Epicurean, Melanchthon accuses the papists of being Pharisees in their understanding of the Law. He states,
… the Law is not observed without Christ. As He Himself has said: Without Me ye can do nothing. Likewise that: Without faith it is impossible to please God, Heb. 11:6. For it is very certain that the doctrine of the Law is not intended to remove the Gospel, and to remove Christ as Propitiator. And let the Pharisees, our adversaries, be cursed, who so interpret the Law as to ascribe the glory of Christ to works, namely, that they are a propitiation, that they merit the remission of sins. It follows, therefore, that works are always thus praised, namely, that they are pleasing on account of faith, as works do not please without Christ as Propitiator. By Him we have access to God, Rom. 5:2, not by works, without Christ as Mediator. Therefore, when it is said, Matt. 19:17: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments, we must believe that without Christ the commandments are not kept, and without Him cannot please. Thus in the Decalog itself, in the First Commandment, Ex. 20:6: Showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments, the most liberal promise of the Law is added. But this Law is not observed without Christ. For it always accuses the conscience which does not satisfy the Law, and therefore in terror, flies from the judgment and punishment of the Law. Because the Law worketh wrath, Rom. 4:15. Man observes the Law however, when he hears that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled to us, even though we cannot satisfy the Law. When, by this faith Christ is apprehended as Mediator, the heart finds rest, and begins to love God and observe the Law, and knows that now, because of Christ as Mediator, it is pleasing to God, even though the inchoate fulfilling of the Law be far from perfection and be very impure… (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 148-150. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 269-270).
Melanchthon calls the papists Pharisees, because they teach that works please God without Christ as the Mediator. Yet, without Christ and without faith it is impossible to please God and keep His Law. Thus, for them, they are under the curse of the Law and it always accuses their consciences. However, for those who are justified by faith, there is peace in the conscience for the sake of Christ who perfectly kept the Law in their stead. Those who are in Christ are beginning to keep the Law. Melanchthon calls this the inchoate, that is, the incipient fulfilling of the Law. This beginning of the obedience to the Law is pleasing to God for the sake of the imputed perfect obedience of Christ. Thus, Christ does not cease to be Mediator even after reconciliation, justification, and regeneration.
All Scripture, all the Church cries out that the Law cannot be satisfied. Therefore this inchoate fulfilment of the Law does not please on its own account, but on account of faith in Christ. Otherwise the Law always accuses us. (Triglotta Apology Art. IV On Justification [Article III: Love and the Fulfilling of the Law], para. 45-46. NOTE: Kolb/Tappert Apology Art. IV, 166-167).
Again, God requires perfect obedience to the Law, but because of our sinful nature, it is impossible to satisfy the Law. For this reason, the Gospel needs to be continuously proclaimed to the justified. In Christ, the inchoate, that is, the incipient fulfillment of the Law is pleasing to God by faith. Without the imputation of Christ’s perfect obedience, that is, His righteousness and holiness, the Law always accuses. But with Christ as our High Priest we are accounted righteous for His sake.
In Part 6 of our conversation, we will bring our discussion on Melanchthon’s use of the Latin phrase “lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses) to a conclusion.