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Law and Gospel in the Lutheran Confessions
Philip MelanchthonJohn A. Slade  

There are three great confessions of the Lutheran Reformation: the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord. Each gives a clear testimony to the righteousness which is of faith and the place of law and gospel in Christian doctrine.

The Augsburg Confession is the first and greatest of all the confessions of the Reformation. It was drawn up by Philip Melanchthon and unanimously accepted by all the German evangelicals of the sixteenth century.

"Article IV: Of Justification

    "Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4."

The Reformers were already being accused of antinomianism, so Article XX vigorously refutes the charge:

    "Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding Good Works. For their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and others of like import, bear witness that they have taught to good purpose concerning all estates and duties of life, as to what estates of life and what works in every calling be pleasing to God."

In his Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon carefully elaborates on the doctrine of justification by faith alone and defends it against the papal adversaries. After citing a great number of scriptures and evangelical arguments, he says:

    "Therefore Christ was given, that we may believe that for His sake we are justified. He plainly denies justification to the Law. Hence, for Christ's sake we are accounted righteous when we believe that God, for His sake, has been reconciled to us...

    "Truly, it is amazing that the adversaries are in no way moved by so many passages of Scripture, which clearly ascribe justification to faith, and, indeed, deny it to works. Do they think that the same is repeated so often for no purpose? Do they think that these words fell inconsiderately from the Holy Ghost? But they have also devised sophistry whereby they elude them. They say that these passages of Scripture, (which speak of faith,) ought to be received as referring to a fides formata, i.e., they do not ascribe justification to faith except on account of love. Yea, they do not, in any way, ascribe justification to faith, but only to love, because they dream that faith can coexist with mortal sin. Whither does this tend, unless that they again abolish the promise and return to the Law? If faith receive the remission of sins on account of love, the remission of sins will always be uncertain, because we never love as much as we ought; yea, we do not love unless our hearts are firmly convinced that the remission of sins has been granted us. Thus the adversaries, while they require in the remission of sins and justification confidence in one's own love, altogether abolish the Gospel concerning the free remission of sins; although, at the same time, they neither render this love nor understand it, unless they believe that the remission of sins is freely received."—Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), pp. 40,41.

On the other hand, Melanchthon is very sensitive to the charge of antinomianism, and reasons from Scripture to show the relationship of regenerate men to the law of God:

    "Here the adversaries urge against us: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments, Matt. 19:17; likewise: The doers of the Law shall be justified, Rom. 2:13, and many other like things concerning the Law and works. Before we reply to this, we must first declare what we believe concerning love and the fulfilling of the Law.

    "It is written in the prophet, Jer. 31:33: 'I will put My Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.' And in Rom. 3:31, Paul says: 'Do we, then, make void the Law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the Law.' And Christ says, Matt. 19:17: 'If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,' Likewise, 1 Cor. 13:3: 'If I have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.' These and similar sentences testify that the Law ought to be begun in us, and be kept by us more and more [that we are to keep the Law when we have been justified by faith, and thus increase more and more in the Spirit] . Moreover, we speak not of ceremonies, but of that Law which gives commandment concerning the movements of the heart, namely, the Decalog. Because, indeed, faith brings the Holy Ghost, and produces in hearts a new life, it is necessary that it should produce spiritual movements in hearts. And what these movements are, the prophet, Jer. 31:33, shows, when he says: 'I will put My Law into their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.' "—Ibid., pp.41, 42.

Having said this, Melanchthon goes on to show that in this life the believer is never wholly without sin and is "far distant from the perfection of the Law" (Ibid., p. 46). For this reason, he must continue to live by faith in the forgiving mercy of God. He is never accounted righteous on the grounds of his new obedience.

The Formula of Concord refutes legalism by confessing:

    "We believe, teach, and confess that, although the contrition that precedes, and the good works that follow, do not belong to the article of justification before God, yet one is not to imagine a faith of such a kind as can exist and abide with, and alongside of, a wicked intention to sin and to act against the conscience. But after man has been justified by faith, then a true living faith worketh by love, Gal. 5:6, 50 that thus good works always follow justifying faith, and are surely found with it, if it be true and living; for it never is alone, but always has with it love and hope."—Ibid., p.220.

In its "Thorough Declaration," the Formula of Concord devotes a large section to explaining the proper relationship of the law and the gospel. The proper distinction between law and gospel is called "a special brilliant light." It also declares:

    "Therefore the two doctrines belong together, and should also be urged by the side of each other, but in a definite order and with a proper distinction; and the Antinomians or assailants of the Law are justly condemned, who abolish the preaching of the Law from the Church, and wish sins to be reproved, and repentance and sorrow to be taught, not from the Law, but from the Gospel. . .

    "These two doctrines, we believe and confess, should ever and ever be diligently inculcated in the Church of God even to the end of the world, although with the proper distinction of which we have heard, in order that, through the preaching of the Law and its threats in the ministry of the New Testament the hearts of impenitent men may be terrified, and brought to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance; but not in such a way that they lose heart and despair in this process, but that (since the Law is a schoolmaster unto Christ that we might be justified by faith, Gal. 3:24, and thus points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who is the end of the Law, Rom. 10:4) they be comforted and strengthened again by the preaching of the holy Gospel concerning Christ, our Lord, namely, that to those who believe the Gospel, God forgives all their sins through Christ, adopts them as children for His sake, and out of pure grace, without any merit on their part, justifies and saves them, however, not in such a way that they may abuse the grace of God, and sin hoping for grace, as Paul, 2 Cor. 3:7 ff., thoroughly and forcibly shows the distinction between the Law and the Gospel."Ibid., pp.260, 261.

Under the heading, "Of the Third Use of God's Law," the Formula of Concord then goes on to discuss the place of the law in the life of a Christian:

    "Since the Law of God is useful, 1. not only to the end that external discipline and decency are maintained by it against wild, disobedient men; 2. likewise, that through it men are brought to a knowledge of their sins; 3. but also that, when they have been born anew by the Spirit of God, converted to the Lord, and thus the veil of Moses has been lifted from them, they live and walk in the Law . . .

    ". . . we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that although the truly believing and truly converted to God and justified Christians are liberated and made free from the curse of the Law, yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, Ps. 1:2; 119:1: 'Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law doth he meditate day and night.' For the Law is a mirror in which the will of God, and what pleases Him, are exactly portrayed, and which should [therefore] be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently urged upon them without ceasing.

    "For although 'the Law is not made for a righteous man," as the apostle testifies 1 Tim. 1:9, but for the unrighteous, yet this is not to be understood in the bare meaning, that the justified are to live without Law. For the Law of God has been written in their heart, and also to the first man immediately after his creation a law was given according to which he was to conduct himself. But the meaning of St. Paul is that the Law cannot burden with its curse those who have been reconciled to God through Christ; nor must it vex the regenerate with its coercion, because they have pleasure in God's Law after the inner man.

    "For the Law says indeed that it is God's will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, Gal. 3:14, renews the heart. Thereafter the Holy Ghost employs the Law so as to teach the regenerate from it, and to point out and show them in the Ten Commandments what is the [good and] acceptable will of God, Rom. 12:2, in what 'good works God hath before ordained that they should walk,' Eph. 2:10."—Ibid., pp.261, 262.

    "Accordingly, we reject and condemn as an error pernicious and detrimental to Christian discipline, as also to true godliness, the teaching that the Law, in the above-mentioned way and degree, should not be urged upon Christians and the true believers, but only upon the unbelieving, unchristians, and impenitent. "—Ibid., pp.263, 264.