by Rev. Michael Schuermann
In the history of Christ’s Church, the Law has been a constant topic of controversy and theological debate. Even today there is no letup in discussion about what role the Law has in the lives of both unbelievers and believers. During the time period covered by the various Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord, within the Lutheran confession of the Faith, much ink was used in writing back and forth on this topic. Luther, in the Smalcald Articles, isn’t so much confronting an error directly (that comes in the next Article on Repentance), but is instead making a positive confession about what the Law is and what role it plays in the world.
Knowing how to rightly talk about the Law is important. As we’ll see, it helps us avoid the trap of legalism (believing that keeping the Law is in some way necessary to be pleasing to God) or license (believing that the Law no longer applies or even that the Law is bad, because of the Gospel). Many of our fellow Christians may lean towards one of these two erroneous poles in their understanding of Law and Gospel. For example, one of your Christian friends might believe that even after confessing their sin that they must do some penance (a work that satisfies in some part their sin) to properly show and complete her repentance. Moving the other way, another Christian friend might believe that because Jesus forgives the sin of the world and therefore our “new man” lives in freedom from the condemnation of the Law, therefore the Law should no longer be preached to us or be expected to guide our lives.
2. Read Acts 15:1-22. This is the first Council of the Church after Christ’s ascension. The impetus for this Council is the work of the Church in general, and Paul in particular, in bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. However, read verse 1 again. What is the particular claim being made here? What is claimed is lacking in the mission to the Gentiles thus far? Is this a concern with the Gospel, or with the Law?
3. Read Galatians 3:1-6. The issue in the churches of Galatia was the same that was being discussed in the Jerusalem Council. What dangerous direction does this point the Galatians Christians in? What are they being taught to trust in? Where is their hope found according to the false teaching?
4. Now read again Article 2, reference 1. What does Luther say is the first reason for the Law being given, or its office? (Though he won’t use that particular word, “office,” until later in the Article.)
5. How does the Law restrain sin by threats and the dread of punishment? How does the Law offer grace and benefit? Read Romans 13:1-4.
6. Read Article 2, reference 2. Then read Romans 7:7-11. Notice where Luther finds his claim that the Law makes some people worse sinners.
7. Read Article 2, references 3-4. An office is something that a person or thing is authorized to carry out. In this case, God gives His word of Law and the authority that it carries is to reveal sin. Note Luther’s phrase: “to reveal original sin with all its fruit.” This reflects the teaching that even original sin, apart from any active sin, is still sin and therefore merits God’s wrath. See Augsburg Confession, Article II, and the Apology, Article II, for much more on this.
9. Read Article 2, reference 5. How does God use the Law for our benefit? Read Romans 5:20-21. Read Galatians 3:23-26.
10. It’s worth noting that the classic “third use of the Law” (guide or rule) is nowhere to be found in Article 2. Assuredly, Luther does not deny this use. (It comes up, though not by this name, in the next Article.) Certainly, as Lutherans, we embrace it particularly in Article VI of the Formula of Concord.
11. Over the next few studies (this one included) we’ll be considering the Law and the Gospel. One of Luther’s chief treatments of this way that God speaks to us in the Scriptures is in his Lectures on Galatians of 1535. If you want to do some extra reading, pick up a translation of these lectures in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, volume 26 and volume 27.