No Law for You (Part One)

This is part seven of a series of twelve newsletter articles written by Rev. Neil L. Carlson for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rev. Carlson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Sidney and Chappell, Nebraska.

During the Reformation, Luther was given the monastery where he once resided as a monk to be his and Katharina’s personal home. Since it was a rather large structure, the Luthers’ home also served as a boarding house. Many colleagues and students stayed with the Luthers for various amounts of time. One such student was named Joannes Agricola. Ironically, Agricola repaid Luther by rejecting the Law and Gospel preaching for which Luther was so commonly known. Sad to say, Melanchthon had his hand in this heresy of the Reformation as well. He taught: “The sin of unbelief is rebuked not by the Law, but by the Gospel.”[1] Melanchthon’s role was minor, however; and Agricola is known as the father of Antinomianism. “Anti” means against and “nomos” means law. At the time of The Reformation, Antinomianism came in two waves and in two forms. The first, which was promoted by Agricola, was that the Law has no place in the Church but belongs in the courthouse only.[2] He believed “that true knowledge of sin and genuine contrition is produced, not by the Law, but by the Gospel only”.[3] Thus, Agricola taught the Law should never be heard from the pulpit.

The second form of Antinomianism that later arose concerned the third use of the Law or sanctification. The false belief here is that Christians don’t need the Law to tell them what good works are. Instead, the Gospel only is needed to lead them in good, right, and salutary Christian lives. This strain of Antinomianism allowed for the preaching of the Law to bring repentance before conversion but saw no need for the Law among believers.

Like most of these controversies, Agricola’s Antinomianism boiled under the surface until after Luther’s death. Then, he brought his false teaching out in full force. The central issue is the question, “Does faith presuppose contrition?”[4] Historically the Church taught that repentance, properly speaking, was brought about by the Law which made one sorry over his sin. Then, after the Law worked contrition, the Gospel worked faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, causing the contrite soul to trust in Christ’s atonement for the forgiveness of his sins. This answers the question with a “No.” Faith does not presuppose contrition, but contrition prepares one for faith, so to speak. The Antinomians answered the question “Yes,” teaching that the Gospel gave saving faith and then brought about repentance, which wrought general faith.[5] This teaching divides faith into two, general faith and saving faith, contrary to the clear words of St. Paul “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5).

Luther and the reformers taught, “The Law was not given to justify or help in any way toward righteousness. But to reveal sin and work wrath, i.e. to render the conscience guilty (Rom. 3:20, 4:15).[6] With this Biblical and right understanding of the Law and the Gospel, the reformers said,

The mere preaching of the law without Christ either produces presumptuous people, who believe that they can fulfill the law by external works, or drives man utterly to despair. Therefore Christ takes the law into his hands and explains it spiritually (Matt. 5:21ff.; Rom. 7:6, 14); thus he reveals his wrath from heaven over all sinners and shows how great this wrath is. This directs the sinner to the law, and there he really learns to know his sin, an insight that Moses could never have wrung out of him. For Paul testifies that although “Moses is read,” the veil which “he put over his face” remains unremoved, so that they do not see the law spiritually, or how much it requires of us, or how severely it curses and condemns us because we could not fulfill or keep it. “When a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:13-15).

Therefore the Spirit of Christ must not only comfort but, through the office of the law, must also convince the world of sin. Thus, even in the New Testament, he must perform what the prophet calls “a strange deed” (that is, to rebuke) until he comes to his own work (that is, to comfort and to preach about grace). To this end Christ has obtained and sent us the Spirit, and for this reason the latter is called the Paraclete, as Luther explains it in his exposition of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. He states: “Everything that preaches about our sin and the wrath of God, no matter how or when it happens, is the proclamation of the law. On the other hand, the Gospel is a proclamation that shows and gives nothing but grace and forgiveness in Christ.[7]

A form of Antinomianism which has sprung up recently is one that rejects the preaching of the Law in much the same way as Agricola. This new Antinomianism teaches not that sinners are sinners in need of repentance before preaching the Gospel, but that sinners are victims of the sins of others and then comforts them with the Gospel that Jesus has made everything all better through His cross. Rightly speaking, there are times when this type of Law, which Rev. Herman Stuempfle Jr. calls “mirror of existence” is properly preached. There are instances when Scripture tells sinners that bad things happen simply because we live in a sinful world (ex. Isaiah 51:6). But this modern Antinomianism (which this author thinks has been greatly influenced by the writing of J. Louis Martyn, N. T. Wright, and millennial thinking) uses this preaching of the Law only and never call sinners to repentance for their sins. Instead, it confirms sinners in their sins, making secure sinners who are never called to repentance for their failure to keep God’s Law.  This Antinomianism refuses to preach the Law to bring contrition but uses the Law to victimize sinners into blaming the devil and the world for their suffering and death, never their own flesh. St. John speaks against this in his first epistle (cf. 1 John 1:8-9).

May Christians always be willing to confess their insufficiency before God.

[1] F. Bente. Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions. St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 377.


[3] Bente. 377.

[4] Bente, 379

[5] Bente, 380.

[6] Bente, 382.

[7]Tappert, Theodore G.: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959, S. 559

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