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Luther On Law

Posted By Tullian Tchividjian On September 12, 2011 @ 8:00 am In Uncategorized | 63 Comments

Ok, get ready to do some real thinking here. What follows is heavy theological lifting.

I asked my friend Jono Linebaugh to weigh in on the recent discussion about Law and Gospel. His thinking is solid. His nuances are crucial. He adds serious depth to this ongoing conversation. Much food for thought here.

Jono recently joined the Faculty at Knox Theological Seminary [1] (the seminary owned by Coral Ridge [2]). He graduated from Messiah College [3], Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry [4], and then earned his PhD from Durham University [5] studying Pauline Theology. He’s published articles in the following leading academic journals: New Testament Studies, Early Christianity, and Studia Patristica.

He was a two-time college All-American in lacrosse and he surfs (which is the real reason he was hired at Knox). He’s 29, married to Megan, has two children (Liam and Callie) and one on the way.



[6]Reading some of the recent discussions about Law and Gospel, I was reminded of one of the conclusions of Gerhard Forde’s book The Law-Gospel Debate: “when participants in the debate speak of law, they may be speaking of quite different things.” My own situation may be too ambiguous to offer much by way of clarification (I’m an Anglican teaching at a Reformed seminary writing on Luther!). But moving conversations forward often requires taking a step back–and returning to the thinker who introduced and emphasized the theological concept of “uses of the law” seems like a good place to start.

In a treatise from 1520, “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther stated an essential element of his theology: “the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments [Law] and promises [Gospel].” The basic distinction is straightforward: the Law tells us what we ought to do; the Gospel tells us what God has given. At this level – what Luther called the “level of words” – “There is no one so stupid that he does not recognize how definite this distinction between Law and grace is.” At a more basic level, however – what Luther called “the level of reality and experience” – this distinction “is the most difficult thing there is” (Galatians 1535). There are two reasons why this simple linguistic distinction is an existential difficulty. First, and for Luther most importantly, when a Christian is aware of and afflicted by their sin, it is “the most difficult thing in the world” to let the conscience listen to the voice of Christ rather than the condemnation of the Law. Second, the distinction between Law and Gospel is ultimately – that is, in reality – not a distinction between what is said; it is a distinction between what is heard; or more precisely it is a difference between whether God’s verbal encounter with the human effects condemnation and death or works faith, forgiveness, and freedom. Thus, for Luther, the same words can be heard as either Law or Gospel. For example, the 10 Commandments are both the “hammer of God” that terrifies sinners with the “thunder of Mt. Sinai” and the pure promise that “I am the Lord your God.” Conversely, the beautiful and basic words of the Gospel – “Christ died for your sins” – can be, to the ears of unbelief, nothing but an announcement of the “enormity of God’s wrath” (Against the Antinomians 1539). An awareness of the doubleness of the distinction between Law and Gospel – a distinction that is so simple that the “stupid” recognize it and so difficult an art that “only the Holy Spirit practices it” (Galatians 1535) – forces us to step back and ask about Luther’s theological definition of Law.

God’s Use of God’s Good Law

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it rightly.” For Luther, this short sentence from 1 Timothy 1.8 reveals two things about the Law: first, it is good; second, it has a proper use. The goodness of the Law is emphatically affirmed in Romans 7.12 (“the Law is holy, righteous, and good”) and is a frequent refrain in the Psalms. The proper use of the Law is specified in 1 Timothy 1.9 (“the law is not given for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and the sinner”) and its function and effect is detailed in Romans: the law makes the whole world guilty before God (3.19), works wrath (4.15), increases sin (5.20), and, as a weapon in the hand of Sin, kills (7.11).

Taking his cues from Paul, Luther described the Law as good – as “the most salutary doctrine of life” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 1) – and he defined the Law in terms of its function: “when the Law is being used correctly, it does nothing but reveal sin, work wrath, accuse, terrify, and reduce the minds of men to the point of despair” (Galatians 1535). Thus, following the pattern of 1 Tim 1.8, Luther affirms both “that the Law is good and useful” and that this is only the case “in its proper use” (Galatians 1535). What this means is that, for Luther, the Law is not primarily a moral codex (e.g. the Mosaic Law) or a grammatical pattern (e.g. imperatives); Law is a theological term that describes one of two ways that God encounters humans verbally. In other words, Law names the event of divine speech that condemns sin and kills sinners. As one of the Lutheran confessions puts it, “Law is everything that proclaims something about sin and God’s wrath” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration).

Two important implications follow from this theological definition of Law. First, because Law is a way of identifying God’s action with words, talk about “uses” of the Law cannot be human uses of the Law but God’s use of his Law. In other words, God is the acting subject; he wields the words of death and life and the theological term Law is a way of pointing to God’s accusing, condemning, and killing speech. Second, because Law is defined in terms of its function and effect rather than simply its content, it is not, as noted above, reducible to a moral codex or a grammatical pattern. This means that the common assumption that “imperative = Law” is far too static an equation. There seems to be some persistent confusion on this last point, so it is worth teasing out Luther’s perspective a little more.

No Condemnation and the End of Conditionality

[7]God’s words that accuse and kill typically do their work of condemnation in the form of a commandment attached to a condition. So, for example, when Paul sums up the salvation-logic of the Law he quotes Leviticus 18.5b: “the one who does [the commandments] will live by them” (Gal 3.12). Here, there is a promise of life linked to the condition of doing the commandments and a corresponding threat: “cursed is everyone who does not abide in all the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” (Gal 3.10 citing Deut 27.26). When this conditional word encounters the sinful human, the outcome is inevitable: “the whole world is guilty before God” (Rom 3.19). It is thus the condition that does the work of condemnation. “Ifs” kill!

Compare this to a couple examples of New Testament imperatives. First, consider Galatians 5.1. After four chapters of passionate insistence that justification is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul issues a couple of strong imperatives: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore stand firm (imperative) and do not be subject (imperative) again to the yoke of slavery.” Are these imperatives instances of God’s accusing and killing words? Are these commandments with conditions? Is Galatians 5.1 an example of Law? No! The command here is precisely to not return to the Law; it is an imperative to stand firm in freedom from the Law. Or take another example, John 8.11. Once the accusers of the adulterous women left, Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Depart. From now on, sin no more.” Does this final imperative disqualify the words of mercy? Is this a commandment with a condition? Is this Law following the Gospel? No! This would be Law: “if you go and sin no more, then neither will I condemn you.” But Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The command is not a condition. “Neither do I condemn you” is categorical and unconditional, it comes with no strings attached. “Neither do I condemn you” creates an unconditional context within which “go and sin no more” is not an “if.” The only “if” the Gospel knows is this: “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2.1).

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counter-intuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).

A Third Use of the Law?

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520)

Listen for the Creature

[8]A word of caution from Luther by way of conclusion: it is one thing to affirm that the gospel creates a secure space within which a command can be heard without a condition; it is another thing altogether to issue a command that is not heard as a condition. This is why Luther was always saying that “as far as the words are concerned…everyone can easily understand the distinction between the Law and grace, but so far as practice, life, and application are concerned, it is the most difficult thing there is” (Galatians 1535). In other words, there will always be a temptation to preach or teach what could or should be – that is, a context in which a command is not a condition – without attending to the way such a command is still heard as Law – as an “if” and thus as judgment – by the sinful, doubting human.

For this reason, distinguishing Law and Gospel in real life requires a double listening. First, as we attend to God’s word, we listen for the “if” that accuses and kills and the “nevertheless” that forgives and makes alive. Second, in Luther’s deeply pastoral phrase, we “listen for the creature, i.e. sinful humanity.” When God’s word is spoken and heard as forgiveness without any “ifs,” then we know God is speaking Gospel. It is no surprise, then, that Luther referred to the practice of distinguishing Law and Gospel as the highest art, an art that “none but the Holy Spirit” practices because he alone is “intent on using the Law and preaching the Gospel” (Galatians 1535).

63 Comments (Open | Close)

63 Comments To "Luther On Law"

#1 Comment By Don Sartain On September 12, 2011 @ 8:19 am

“…he surfs (which is the real reason he was hired at Knox)”

Haha, I’m sure he appreciates that, lol.

#2 Comment By Don Sartain On September 12, 2011 @ 8:42 am

This is definitely something I’m going to have to read again later…after my head stops spinning!

Good stuff, as always, though. Thanks for sharing.

#3 Comment By Steve Cornell On September 12, 2011 @ 10:32 am

As I follow these discussions, I keep returning to Matthew 5:17-20 where our Lord teaches that he has fulfilled the Law and yet endorses the enduring validity and applicability of the least stroke of a pen within the law. He then warns those who break ” the least of these commandments” and “teach others to do so.” They will be demoted in the kingdom of heaven.

Those committed to the integrity of scripture (particularly the fact that it does not contradict itself) must understand the harmonizing principle for explaining the obvious change of relationship to Old Testament Law for the people of God in the New Testament. Prior to the coming of Christ, those who believed in God related to Him on the basis of Old Testament Scriptures (Dt. 8:1-5; Ps. 119; 2 Tim 3:15-16). With the coming of Christ, however, something changed regarding the way God’s people related to Old Testament revelation itself.

In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus taught the “anticipatory-fulfillment” nature of Old Testament Scripture. He then “…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Although Jesus himself was “born under the law” (Gal.4:4) and “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matt.3:15), in his person and work, He “wrapped up” that era of biblical history where the law regulated the covenant relationship of the people of God. Jesus is the new locus of authority for God’s people. He determines for us what is pleasing to God. And the entire tone of Jesus ministry indicates that He clearly knew he was, “the end (telos) of the law…” (Ro 10:4).

Jesus opened his public ministry with the words, “the time is fulfilled…” (Mk. 1:15). Expressions attached to the first coming of Jesus indicate a significant change (e. g. ”the fullness of time,” Gal. 4:4, or “the consummation of the ages” Heb. 9:26). In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). All the Old Testament prophecies, promises and laws came to their full and final meaning in Jesus. Food laws, festivities and special days were “a shadow of what is to come but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

“The law was only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image…” (Heb. 10:1). The earthly priesthood, temple and sacrifices were “a copy and shadow of he heavenly things.” (Heb. 8). All these things come to their full and final meaning in Christ. Jesus said “…all things written about me in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44).

Peter, preaching to Cornelius, said with reference to Christ, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness” (Acts 10:43). The Apostle Paul, referring to Jesus, makes this great statement, , He writes: “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes…” 2Cor. 1:20

Jesus advocates an anticipatory and prophetic view of Old Testament Scriptures as they point to, look to, and anticipate fulfillment.

In Matthew 5:18 Jesus taught his exhaustive commitment to the enduring integrity of scripture down to the smallest letter and marking of the Hebrew alphabet. But even in this, he adds, “till all be fulfilled.” Jesus viewed the Old Testament revelation as “provisional” based on a principle of fulfillment.

In keeping with the testimony of the entire New Testament, He presented Himself as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. The harmonizing principle, therefore, that enables us to understand the obvious change of relationship with the Old Testament law observed in the early church is the Christ event in its totality. It includes his incarnation, life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, second coming and glorious reign. This is not to advocate the cessation of the application of the Old Testament to our lives, it simply means that obedience to and teaching of the least commandment must be in keeping with the one who is himself the fulfillment of these scriptures. Matthew 5:18-19 must be approached in the context of Matthew 5:17)

It is of interest to notice that although Jesus did not feel the common necessity to substantiate his ethical demands with Old Testament scriptures, He did continue to use the scripture. Most notable is his threefold quotation of the Old Testament to counter the attack of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Another significant use is in the account of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus about obtaining eternal life (Lk. 18:18-23; Gal. 3:24; 1Tim 1:8-9).

In the present age, we look to Jesus and through Jesus for our understanding and application of the Old Testament. If someone asked me if I considered myself directly under the Old Testament law, I would answer: “Not in the same way Old Testament believers were under it.” Yet I do consider myself even more responsible to the Old Testament revelation because I stand on the side of fulfillment. We enjoy a greater privilege being on the fulfillment side of the Old Testament but with that privilege comes greater responsibility and the demand for more careful attention. There is also the threat of a greater judgment if we carelessly disregard the revelation of God in Christ (Hebrews 2:1-4; 10:26-31; 12:18-29). “If disregard for the Mosaic law was appropriately punished, unconcern for the gospel must inevitably be catastrophic!” (William Lane, Hebrews, WBC, vol. I, II)

“Jesus does not conceive of his life and ministry in terms of opposition to the Old Testament, but in terms of bringing to fruition that toward which it points. Thus, the Law and the prophets, far from being abolished, find their valid continuity in terms of their outworking in Jesus. The detailed prescriptions of the Old Testament may well be superseded, because whatever is prophetic likewise discovers its legitimate continuity in the happy arrival of that toward which it has pointed.” (D. A . Carson, Sermon on the Mount, p. 37)

“In all its details the Scripture remains authoritative, but the manner in which men relate to and understand its provisions is now determined by the one who has fulfilled it” (Douglas Moo, p. 117)

#4 Pingback By Should we obey Old Testament Law? « Wisdom for Life On September 12, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

[...] we obey Old Testament Law? I’ve been following some interesting discussions about the way believers in Christ should relate to OT Law. I cannot emphasize enough how important [...]

#5 Comment By Steve Cornell On September 12, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

My comment is far too long. I apologize. If you prefer, you could link it [9]

#6 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 12, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

The ultimate reality for all Christians is this one fact… we still sin. How we relate to the OT (theologically) seems to be a technical periphery. For the everyday believer this is the central problem… now what. We see the sin… we are honest about the fact of our sin. But for all the “trying” and “prying” some failures are recurrent and persistent. The “Good News” finally is we are secured in the works of Christ and a reality regardless of our weakness. The final analysis is “We are justified, sanctified and glorified in Christ. Not in ourselves. So it seems the obvious place to look would be upward to Christ… abandonment of the self effort.

#7 Comment By Danny On September 12, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

“The God in whose hands are all our days and ways, did cast into my hand one day a book of Martin Luther’s; it was his Comment on Galatians . . . . I found my condition in his experience so largely and profoundly handled, as if his book had been written out of my heart . . . . I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.” – Joyh Bunyan (Quoted by John Piper, 2/2/99 biography)

I woud agree…
thank you for this post

#8 Comment By Abby On September 12, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

“. . .as far as the words are concerned…everyone can easily understand the distinction between the Law and grace, but so far as practice, life, and application are concerned, it is the most difficult thing there is.” If my hero, Martin Luther, had this trouble–then it is no wonder that I, too, have a hard time with this extreme Grace. I can grasp the concept. But it is the practice, life, and application that is so hard.

“Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor. . .

Pure gold. Is this a faith that we have to “work” at? Or is it ours by imputed holiness? When I struggle with doubt regarding my relationship it seems that I am far from achieving this.

#9 Comment By Steve Martin On September 12, 2011 @ 6:30 pm


There is nothing to be achieved. Hear it…and believe it. “It is finished.”

No one can get this and move along on their happy way. It needs to be preached and taught over and over and over again. Because that Old Adam in us struggles mightily against God’s grace as long as we are breathing and taking in nourishment.

And the unbeliever who resides in us all our days is the reason that we Lutheran types have such a high view of the Sacraments, and why we believe that Jesus commanded that we do them (He really does them to us, in the same way that He does His Word of Law and Gospel to us).

Hang in there, Abby.

Nice job, Jono Linebaugh!


#10 Comment By Abby On September 12, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

Thank you, Steve. I LOVE being Lutheran. And I would dearly love to be able to have Holy Communion weekly. When I go to it I truly am there for the forgiveness of sins. And when I come away, I am refreshed.

#11 Comment By Steve Martin On September 12, 2011 @ 6:37 pm


My pastor has preached an excellent sermon on how we cannot “achieve” this understanding or belief in Christ and His gospel on our own.

I posted this sermon here before and it was widely listend to (or at least clicked on by many).


Anyway, I think it is most helpful in understanding just how all of this works.


#12 Comment By Steve Martin On September 12, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

Thank you, Abby.

God bless you.

#13 Comment By Abby On September 12, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

Steve, wonderful sermon! I particularly liked the part that explains how each of us are at a different place on the path and for the “strong to bear with the failings of the weak.” That helps my perspective because even I don’t know where I am on the path and I look for “strong” ones to help me if I can find someone. That’s why I listen to Tullian and several other good preachers. Thanks for this good teaching.

#14 Pingback By What I Read Online – 09/13/2011 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia On September 12, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

[...] Luther On Law – Tullian Tchividjian [...]

#15 Comment By Steve Martin On September 12, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

I’m with you, Abby…I don’t know where I am on the path, either.

But it’s comforting to know that God knows. And that He has us in His strong grip.

Glad you enjoyed the sermon, Abby. I’ll be speaking with you again hopefully.

#16 Comment By Abby On September 12, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

Steve, I saved your website. I’ll be checking in there to read some of the things you post. I like things I’ve read already!

#17 Comment By Steve Martin On September 13, 2011 @ 12:54 am

Thanks, Abby.

I appreciate that. I think we can use all the resources we can find when it comes to hearing the gospel.

I really am enjoying Pastor Tullian’s site.

#18 Comment By James On September 13, 2011 @ 6:07 am

Somebody said to me,” Have you ever thought that maybe God said no about you” end quote. …

#19 Comment By John Thomson On September 13, 2011 @ 6:51 am

An excellent post. Thankyou. This has helped my understanding of Luther considerably. It also seems at odds with much claims to be lutheran. An article like this should go a long way to reinstating the imperatives of the faith and preventing the widening rift as it seems in our understanding. I hope many read it.

#20 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 13, 2011 @ 7:28 am

So when the adulterous woman left with the imperative “go and sin no more” one has to ask 2 questions: 1. What was her understanding of Christ’s command? 2. Did Christ expect her to actually fulfill his command?
Any thoughts?

#21 Comment By Brian Wasicki On September 13, 2011 @ 7:48 am


Thanks again for putting this subject in front of us.

In my opinion, it is the most pressing need for the church today to get this right. Unfortunately, the vast majority (of pastors & elders) get it wrong, and they function as if they are still under the Old Covenant, when it comes to sanctification.

#22 Comment By Rick On September 13, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

Coincidentally, I happen to be reading through Horatius Bonar’s God’s Way of Holiness. Wondering if you have read it and specifically what your thoughts are in reference to C 6 The Saint and the Law? It’s available free at: [11]

#23 Comment By James On September 13, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

Hi M.H.
Just my own point of view to the two questions. First- It would seem to me when Jesus spoke these words to her He had her undivided attention. While she was fixed into His face while He was speaking not only was she hearing every word but she was also understanding everything He was saying. That much I think we can agree on. Second- We on one hand can’t give an absolute (she did) but on the other hand to say-Did Christ expect her to- Only He knows and knew even before He gave her this command.We know that Jesus knew the thoughts of the pharisees and Sadducees even His Apostles So It’s one of those mysteries I guess that only He knows but you can ask Him when you meet Him.

#24 Comment By Steve Martin On September 13, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

I believe that Jesus absolutely does not want us to sin. For our sakes and for the benefit of those around us.

But He knows what we are made of. He knows full well that we will sin. He knows that we are in bondage to sin.

So when He tells us not to sin, He knows that Word (of law) will convict us, expose us, and drive us back into His loving and forgiving arms. And he tells us that He loves us and forgives us. And tells us yet again, to not sin.

This is the life of the Christian. Repentance and forgiveness. Over and over and over…all throughout our lives.

This is why Luther told us that we ought to return to our Baptisms, daily.

Not to view it as a rabbit’s foot, but to realize that our old sinful self has been put to death (in baptism), and that we have been raised again with Christ (in our baptism). Key themes in Romans 6.


Sure…we still sin. But that sin will not be held against us. It’s accusing voice is stopped…in Christ.

It’s an EXTERNAL WORD that comes to us from outside of ourselves. It is a Word that is DONE TO US.

This is Lutheran theology 101. (of course it applies to every Christian – but many Christians are not interested in giving up the Pelagian/cooperation project)

Thanks for considering these thoughts. (they are not my thoughts, but come directly from Scripture)


#25 Comment By Steve Martin On September 13, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

That last sentence of mine probably should not have been included in my comments.

I do realize that EVERYONE (every Christian) can say the same thing. No matter what theology they espouse.

The difference is that Luther (Lutherans) had a canon within the canon. A lense with which to view the Scriptures through the gospel, and God’s grace…alone.

#26 Comment By Abby On September 13, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

From Dr. Luther to his friend, George Spenlein, a friar in the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, April 8, 1516. Spenlein abandoned monastic life and became an Evangelical clergyman.

“Now I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ. For in our age the temptation to presumption besets many, especially those who try with all their might to be just and good without knowing the righteousness of God which is most bountifully and freely given us in Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible.

Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to pray to him and despairing of yourself, say: “Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and hast given to me what is thine. Thou hast taken upon thyself what thou wast not and hast given to me what I was not.” . . . For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. . . you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works.”

“Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel” Edited and translated by Theodore G. Tappert, D.D., Litt.D., The Westminster Press

#27 Comment By Abby On September 13, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

I particularly like: “Now I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ.”

I’m wondering if anyone can ever be satisfied and at peace with their own righteousness before God. If one knows God at all, like Luther says, “It is impossible.”

#28 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 13, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

Great Post Abbey!

#29 Comment By Steve Martin On September 13, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

I’m wondering if anyone can ever be satisfied and at peace with their own righteousness before God. If one knows God at all, like Luther says, “It is impossible.”

I met a woman today (at work) who says she no longer sins and is living a perfectly obedient, Christian life.

I tried to give her a bit of law by asking her if she ever worried about anything. She said, “no…I never worry about anything.”

The self-righteous and prideful are alive…and not so well.

#30 Comment By Abby On September 13, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

How can anyone know “perfect?” Amazing.

#31 Comment By James On September 13, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

I believe that Jesus absolutely does not want us to sin. I hope you don’t think I was implying otherwise, surely not, God forbid! Look how many times Jesus told people not to say nor do anything and immediately they were blabbing it everywhere. Jesus knew that also and there’s cases where Jesus would tell somebody something as in this case and she goes away and we don’t know anything more about her after that, of course He didn’t want her to sin, no more then He wanted those not to say anything when He told them not to say anything. Go and sin no more elsewhere go and say nothing to anyone. the latter they disobeyed. the former it’s best to say we just don’t know,(in reference to her).But in reality she most likely did because nobody can go and sin no more nobody.

#32 Comment By Steve Martin On September 13, 2011 @ 11:16 pm


No, I never thought that you believed otherwise (that Jesus does not want us to sin).

I just wanted to preface an explanation of Jesus’ use of the law to show us our need of Himself with that obvious starting point.

Your explanation is right on the mark, James. (I believe)

#33 Comment By Mike On September 14, 2011 @ 4:56 am

The Christian is not in bondage to sin. I would encourage you to read Romans 6. According to Paul, we have died to sin, and he rhetorically, ask how can we live in it any longer? We sin daily in thought and deed, but the Christian has a new power – the Holy Spirit – and a new heart – regeneration – that allows us to put to death the deeds of the flesh. In fact, if we are not doing this, Paul later says in Rom 8 that we will not live.

Blessings in Christ-

#34 Comment By Steve Martin On September 14, 2011 @ 7:18 am

Then why is it that you are still sinning, Mike?

When exactly are you going to utilize this power to stop sinning?


I’m off to work but will check back in later this afternoon.

#35 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 14, 2011 @ 7:20 am

Define “deeds of the flesh.”

#36 Comment By John Thomson On September 14, 2011 @ 7:56 am


Don’t you think you are first obliged to answer Mik’s point on Rom 6. We are told there sin will not have dominion over us… that we have been set free from sin and become slaves of righteousness… and slaves of God. We are told in the light of this to act; to not allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies… so now present our members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

Your view that we are in bondage to sin as believers seems to fly directly in the face of these Scriptures, does it not?

To answer your question: why do we sin? We sin because we all too often allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies (presumably we are exhorted not to do so because we can do so). We sin because we do not walk consistently by faith in the Spirit. Scripture never says we will live sinlessly (we do have the flesh within) but it does so we can overcome sin and refuse to be ruled by it.

But please comment Steve on the texts cited.

#37 Comment By Jono On September 14, 2011 @ 8:06 am

Hi Mike,

Just a quick thought about Romans 8.13 which you referenced. I suggested in the post that the only “if” the gospel knows is “if anyone sins we have an advocate…” What I didn’t mean, of course, is that the New Testament doesn’t use the word “if.” But I did mean that the gospel announces a salvation that is unconditioned by human worth or works. Romans 8.13, precisely because it uses the word “if,” helps to bring this out.

I think we need to make a distinction between a *material* condition and a *formal* condition; or in plainer terms, between a real “if” and the word “if” used in an unconditional context. The salvation-logic of the law, as Paul summarizes it using Lev. 18.5b, is a *real* condition: “the one who does these things will live by them.” Romans 8.13, however, while formally a conditional clause, does not make life contingent on human worth or works. It does state a theological truth: “if you live according to the flesh you will die.” Thus, the implicit command is “put to death the deeds of the flesh and live. But here, the deeds of the flesh are put to death “by the Spirit” — the announcement of the command is attached to the announcement of the saving agent.

As Luther, following Augustine (and Paul!), loved to say, “the promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfill what the law prescribes so that all things may be God’s alone…. He alone commands, he alone fulfills” (Freedom of a Christian). That is the end of “ifs!” That is the promise of freedom!

#38 Comment By Mike On September 14, 2011 @ 8:36 am

Brother, I will continue to sin until I’m in glory with my Saviour. However, my union with Him begins in this life and His Spirit provides me with His power to say “no” to sin and yes to righteousness – this is by no means perfect, and only a small beginning, in this life. But it is a change of heart and mind and action from my former union with Adam – in which I enjoyed my sin and was in bondage to it.

I would humbly submit that Paul give us a picture of this in Gal 5: 16-22. Nice corollary to Rom 6 and 8.

Lastly, Titus 2: 11-13, may be one of the most neglected or overlooked passages on what the “grace” of God teaches us…

I pray that we all have teachable hearts and a desire to say “No” to sin.

#39 Comment By Mike On September 14, 2011 @ 9:01 am

Thank you for your comments – nice clarification on conditions.

I would like to add Calvin’s thoughts on this passage (as well as cite as reference the Westminster Confession Chapter on Saving Faith)

Rom 8:13 – “He adds a threatening, in order more effectually to shake off their torpor; by which also they are fully confuted who boast of justification by faith without the Spirit of Christ, though they are more than sufficiently convicted by their own conscience; for there is no confidence in God, where there is no love of righteousness. It is indeed true, that we are justified in Christ through the mercy of God alone; but it is equally true and certain, that all who are justified are called by the Lord, that they may live worthy of their vocation. Let then the faithful learn to embrace him, not only for justification, but also for sanctification, as he has been given to us for both these purposes, lest they rend him asunder by their mutilated faith.”

#40 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 14, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

Is there not a lightening to the load of a Christian conscience? Most of what is stated in these blogs seems to direct our attentions to what we see as it is performed moment-by-moment. Jono/Tullian has made the case that it is all a gift… what God commands he gives.
Can an individual be a Christian while attending to his own affairs as a husband, father, son, employee and not have to get completely bogged down with all of the theological and personal daily assessments to see if I’m really in or not. Do I have to personally feel the weight of “advancing the kingdom” daily or can I simply know that God is going to take care of it all.
I don’t want to be the one to point out the conditions of acceptance into the Kingdom to someone. Let me go to work, come home see my family friends enjoy the gifts provided me by God and wake up to do it all again tomorrow.

#41 Comment By James On September 14, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

I remember a while back this Christian said this to me “I can go 1 day without sinning” I said no you can’t. He didn’t like that and he went about explaining how he could, and then he said so what do you think (like as if I was ready to agree now) but again I said that won’t work either. Now he was a little angry and he says’s to me OK then you tell ME why you don’t think I cannot sin for one day. I said as soon as you said to your self I can …you blew it. He said what do you mean so I said as soon as you became puffed up in your pride even if you said nothing to anybody and you was going to do this privately through self, you were already dead in the water before you even started your little self test, pride had already conceived. He walked away mumbling I know I can go one day without sinning…

#42 Comment By Jono On September 14, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

It’s possible that I’m not getting the full significance of your question about the easing of the Christian conscience and its relation to everyday life, but here’s a brief reply (attempting to stay in Luther’s voice).

The unburdening of the conscience was among Luther’s primary pastoral aims. For him, it is the Law with its “oughts” and “ifs” that plagues the conscience because it identifies sin and thus accuses and condemns the sinner. The agony of the conscience is therefore precisely life under the Law — the bondage to the endless and hopeless effort to establish a positive position before God. For this reason, it is because Christ is the end of the Law (Rom 10.4) that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. In other words, because the curse of the Law has been carried out on the cross (Gal 3.13), the condemning voice of the Law has no jurisdiction in the Christian’s conscience. Freed *from* the inhuman attempt to establish a righteousness before God, the one who is declared righteous by God is freed *for* human life: loving their neighbor, going to work, celebrating the gift of family, etc. So Luther’s answer to your question is “Yes, the Christian conscience is unburdened and we are liberate to live and love. But this is so precisely because God did what the Law could not do and thus in Christ there is no condemnation (Rom 8.3-4, 1).

#43 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 14, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

Thanks for your comment… and yes I would say you got the gist of what I’m asking. Many want to invoke this or that passage of scripture to incite some formal case of “they’re in” because they aren’t doing/struggling with whatever is in the list. On the other hand I hear the command to “love God totally and my neighbor as my self” and I’m certainly not pulling that off. I love my family and own interests more than the poor and downtrodden. I do love (humanly speaking) but nowhere near what God commands.

#44 Comment By Mike On September 14, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

This will be final post on this topic, and I agree with the thrust of Jono’s discourse on Luther. I believe one of the basis of our assurance as Christians is NOT that we don’t struggle with whatever is on a list, but just the opposite is true; only Christians struggle and fight against sin – this is what mortification entails (refer you to John Owen’s work on this topic). I would challenge your thinking on whether you’re loving God and your neighbor as yourself – others in your life will probably see evidence of this much more than you do – albeit not perfectly (since none of us will reach perfection in this life).

I’ll leave you with Paul’s exhortation of encouragement from I Tim 6:12…”Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

#45 Comment By Steve Martin On September 14, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

John T.,

Sin doesn’t have dominion over us…for righteousness sake. But if you read ahead to chapter 7, the great apostle tells us that sin hangs on. “What I should do, I don’t do, and what I shouldn’t do, I do.”

This is reality.

Romans 6 tells us to CONSIDER (even though we still sin) ourselves dead to sin. Why? Because in our baptisms the old sinful self was put to death…with Christ.

Yes, we still sin. Not just in what we ought not be doing, but even more so in all the things that we should be doing, but choose not to do…often at the expense of our neighbor.

#46 Comment By Steve Martin On September 14, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

Bottom line, my friends, is that we don’t really want to stop sinning…otherwise we would.

We ARE in bondage to sin, but we don’t struggle very hard to get out of it.

But the great news is that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

He loves us warts and all.

#47 Comment By Mitchell Hammonds On September 14, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

Thank you for the response my friend. Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is more encouraging than anything I’ve read so far… as well as much of what I have read from Calvin. Where I have found my assurance… Christ and his work alone. Thank you again.

#48 Comment By Steve Martin On September 14, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

I just recently got home from work so forgive my many entries here (making up for lost time).

One of the reasons that I am a Lutheran is this question of assurance. We receive our assurance in a tangible way in the water and promises of Holy Baptism. I believe that God knew full well where all of this would go if we had to look inward to our performance, or our feelings, or even to our faith for the assurance of our salvation. So He gave us the gift of Baptism.

It is a Word of promise (death and resurrection – Romans 6 – Paul speaks directly to baptism)that comes to us from outside of ourselves, and action of God, that we can return to often (as the Jews returned to Bethel, and Shiloh) for the assurance that God has acted, in a tangible way, for our sakes.

The Sacraments are vehicles, institued by Jesus Himself, that we may KNOW we are His. We can have faith in God, and not merely faith in our ‘faith’.

#49 Comment By Steve Martin On September 14, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

I think this fairly short piece on Romans 6 and Baptism goes a long way to unpack these Scriptures so that we can have assurance, totally outside of what we do, say, feel and think.


It only takes a couple, three minutes to get through it.

You won’t regret taking the time, even if it is only to understand Luther, and Lutherans better.


#50 Comment By paul st.jean On September 15, 2011 @ 4:10 am

this is very cool.
thanks Jono I know you will will enjoy this new post. God bless.

#51 Comment By paul st.jean On September 15, 2011 @ 4:13 am

Steve Martin
I like Pastor Andersons sermon. He said at one point. “The Holy Spirit calls and makes the announcement that our sins are forgiven for Jesus sake.”
I know that for a fact.

#52 Comment By Steve Martin On September 15, 2011 @ 8:09 am

Thank you, Paul.

I trust it to be so, also.

#53 Comment By James On September 15, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

Has anybody read this book Paul a novel by walter wangerin jr.

#54 Comment By Jack Miller On September 15, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

Thanks for another challenging and helpful post on law and gospel. It seems to me that the reformed understanding of the third use of the law is what Jono is describingas the gospel context-ed admonition of now go in this godly direction.


#55 Comment By Pastor Matt On September 16, 2011 @ 10:17 am

Thanks Tullian!

#56 Pingback By Beyond Impertatives: A Must Read on the Law | Mockingbird On September 16, 2011 @ 10:33 am

[...] Sep 16, 2011 • 11:15 am No Commentsvia Flikr Jarod CarruthersThere is an amazing post entitled “Luther on Law” over at our good friend Tullian Tchividjian’s blog which is written by another good friend of [...]

#57 Comment By boaz On September 16, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

Best treatise on how to preach law and gospel is still Walther.


[14] and gospel

#58 Comment By paul st.jean On September 18, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

Have you heard about the book by Ravi Zacharias called “Why Jesus? Rediscovering His Truth in an age of mass marketied spirituality”
He said: “people are hungry and empty within themselves” and “We need to (as spiritual leaders) move people away from hollowness”
and “challenge people to think” “helping them to be free to think for themselves.” (i’m paraphrasing what he said.)”challenging people to think in a way that builds them up.”

#59 Pingback By Luther On Law « Forget the Channel On September 21, 2011 @ 4:28 am

[...] Luther On Law – Jono Linebaugh. [...]

#60 Pingback By Preach the Gospel – What is the Relationship Between Justification and Sanctification? | Emeth Aletheia On September 21, 2011 @ 5:54 am

[...] Luther on Law – by Jono Linebaugh from Tullian Tchividjian (Gospel Coalition Blog) [...]

#61 Pingback By Linkathon II 9/21 | Phoenix Preacher On September 21, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

[...] Tullian Tch-tchi-tchchch-dangithesBillyGrahamsgrandson on Luther and the law. [...]

#62 Pingback By Boring Addicts and Portugese Drug Law | Mockingbird On November 14, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

[...] it.” But the article is a fascinating case study into questions of what theologians call the uses of the Law (First, Second, and Third). Read it and see what you think.When asked if Portugal’s program [...]

#63 Pingback By Confusing Law and Gospel « Scandalized by Grace | Official Blog of Ken Stoll On February 21, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

[...] Tullian Tchividjian’s Blog: Luther On Law Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted by Ken Stoll Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment » [...]

Article printed from Tullian Tchividjian: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian

URL to article: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2011/09/12/luther-on-law/

URLs in this post:

[1] Knox Theological Seminary: http://knoxseminary.edu/index.php

[2] Coral Ridge: http://www.crpc.org/

[3] Messiah College: http://www.messiah.edu/

[4] Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry: http://www.tsm.edu/

[5] Durham University: http://www.dur.ac.uk/

[6] Image: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/files/2011/09/LawImage.jpg

[7] Image: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/files/2011/09/liberating-power-of-grace.jpg

[8] Image: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/files/2011/09/Listen2.jpg

[9] : http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/should-we-obey-old-testament-law/

[10] : http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/2011/02/26/i-believe-that-i-cannot-believe/

[11] : http://www.biblesnet.com/Horatius%20Bonar%20God%20s%20Way%20of%20Holiness.pdf

[12] : http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/baptism-gods-decision-for-you/

[13] : http://www.lutherantheology.com/uploads/works/walther/LG/

[14] : http://www.cph.org/p-8987-law-and-gospel-how-to-read-and-apply-the-bible.aspx?SearchTerm=law