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by Rev. Jesse Burns

Is there a need in the Christian life for the preaching of the Law? Should pastors proclaim the Law, such as the demands of the Decalogue, from the pulpit in the Christian congregation? Does the Law play a role in the Christian’s life of repentance? These were questions which the Church of the Reformation wrestled with during the mid-16th century, especially in Wittenberg. Perhaps we still face these questions today.

During the days of the Reformation some Lutherans argued that the Law had no place in the Christian life following conversion, that pastors did damage to the Gospel by preaching the demands of the Law, and that the Gospel by itself, not the Law, worked repentance. These teachers were concerned that preaching the Law to the Christian would cloud the truth of the Gospel and lead the Church back into legalism. Because of this concern, they rejected any use of the Law within the life of the Church, though they did see the need for the Law in the civil realm. As a result, Luther labeled this teaching as “antinomian.” (“Nomos” is Greek for “law” and “anti-” means “to be opposed”.) Antinomians were opposed to the proclamation of Law within the Christian congregation.

The Antinomian Disputations, as they’ve come to be known, were a series of six disputations dealing with the role of the Law in the Church, though only four of them were actually debated. These disputations took place between the years 1537 and 1540. The main players in the Antinomian Disputations were Martin Luther and his onetime colleague John Agricola.

John Agricola was born around the year 1494 in Luther’s hometown of Eisleben. He took up studies at the University of Wittenberg around 1515 and received a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1519. He served as a catechist in Wittenberg for a short time and then, in 1525, left Wittenberg to become the director of a Latin school in Eisleben.[1]

Agricola first began arguing against using the Law in the Christian congregation in response to Philip Melanchthon’s Articles of Visitation published in 1528. Melanchthon had said that the Law needed to be preached and taught and that it would lead a sinner to contrition and repentance. Agricola argued that this type of preaching contradicted the Evangelical faith and that a Lutheran pastor was to preach the gospel alone. To Agricola’s thinking it was the Gospel message of Christ’s sacrifice for sin, not the Law, that would turn one from sin in repentance.

Agricola again brought these thoughts forward in 1537, when he anonymously circulated a set of 18 theses in which he again opposed the preaching of the Law to Christians. Among other things, these “anonymous” theses led to a response from Luther, who published Agricola’s writings along with two sets of theses in response. Luther’s two sets of theses served as the basis for the first two disputations which took place at the end of 1537 and beginning of 1538.

Agricola and the Antinomians did not deny the presence of sin in the life of the Christian. However, they saw the Law as a dead letter, which by no means could bring about repentance. Repentance is brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus teaches in John 14-16, and the antinomians operated with the idea that the Holy Spirit did not work through the Law. Instead, they believed that the Holy Spirit operates only in the Gospel. Therefore, the preaching of the crucified Christ alone would lead to true repentance. Repentance from sin was not about recognizing that one had violated the Law but that one had done harm to the Son of Man, who laid down His life for the salvation of sinners.

Luther, on the other side, recognized that while the Christian remains in the flesh he is at the same time justified and yet a sinner. As such, the Law still speaks to him. Luther said, “[Since] the saints in this life do not entirely leave the old man and feel the Law in their members rebelling against the Law of their mind and bringing it into captivity (cf. Rom. 7:23), the Law must not be removed from the Church, but must be retained and faithfully driven home.”[2]

Again Luther writes, “To be sure, man is to be led to repentance through the cross and suffering of Christ. But it does not follow from there that the Law is totally useless, inefficacious, nothing, and to be removed completely. Quite the contrary, we rather come to repentance through the knowledge of the Law as well as through the knowledge of Christ’s cross or of salvation.”[3]

For Luther, if one would lose the proclamation of the Law, one would also lose the sweet gospel which sets sinners free from condemnation. He said, “Yet it is safest to turn to a middle road, to turn too much neither to the right nor to the left. For both are dangerous, and, as I said already, for this reason also, the office of the word was instituted, that we might teach both, that is, the Law and the Gospel. The one cannot properly be taught or dealt with safely without the other…So here too one must divide well, lest only one part be taught in the churches—either fear and sorrow or consolation and joy—but both at the same time.”[4] Both Law and Gospel are necessary for repentance: the Law which works contrition (sorrow for sin) and the Gospel which works faith in the promise of forgiveness.

Is there a need for the preaching of the Law? Should pastors proclaim the Law in their sermons? Does the Law play a role in repentance? Yes. “The Law reveals the guilt of sin And makes us conscience-stricken; But then the Gospel enters in The sinful soul to quicken.[5] As we remain in the fallen flesh we will have need for God’s holy Law, not as a means to make ourselves righteous but in order that we take hold of the depth of Christ’s saving work for us, delivered in the Gospel message of forgiveness.

The Rev. Jesse A. Burns is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ventura, Iowa.

[1] See Martin Bertram’s introduction to Luther’s 1539 letter Against the Antinomians, AE 47:101-106 or Holger Sonntag’s Translator’s Preface to Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Press, 2008., pages 11-21.

[2] Luther, Martin. Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations (Holger Sonntag, Ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Press, 2008., page 63.

[3] Ibid., page 117.

[4] Ibid., page 157

[5] Speratus, Paul, “Salvation unto Us Has Come” (No. 555) in The Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006)