Martin Luther and the Law

In 1529, artist Lucas Cranach the Elder produced a panel painting that visualized the theology of his famous friend, Martin Luther. The two wings of the painting represent the path to salvation through the law and the gospel. The left panel depicts a naked man being prodded to hell by a devil and a skeleton. The sky is dark, his face is frightened, and Moses stands beside him pointing to the Ten Commandments. On the right panel stands another man. In this panel the sun is shining and the man’s face is peaceful. This man is also naked and stands calmly with empty hands at the foot of the cross, gazing upon the risen Christ. This painting not only reflected Luther’s own conversion experience, but it exposed a huge theological problem of his day: The church had forgotten how to properly distinguish between the law and the gospel.

Luther’s early years as a monk had acquainted him with what he would later describe as the “hammer” of the law. The crushing weight of the law’s requirements caused him deep guilt and anxiety. No matter how much he excelled at being a monk, or how often he confessed his sin, the law still demanded more. His devotion was outwardly strong, but inwardly he hated God. His despair grew as he realized his good works and efforts to keep the law were futile. Salvation was out of his grasp– until he finally understood Romans 1:17.

He suddenly realized he had gotten it all wrong. The righteousness of God was not something he was required to earn. It was only the alien righteousness of Christ–not his own–that could meet the demands of the law and secure his salvation. This was the linchpin of Luther’s conversion. It was only then that the agony of his struggle to achieve righteousness was finally relieved in the sweetness of gospel truths.

It’s no surprise then, that as a recovering ex-monk, Luther developed a severe allergy towards the misuse of the law and vigorously sought to clarify the proper use of God’s commands. Luther explained that the law exists to “bridle civil transgressions, and then to reveal and to increase spiritual transgressions.”[1] The theological shorthand for these two uses are “curb” and the “mirror.” As a curb, the law restrains evil in society and allows for civil order. As a mirror, the law reflects our own sinful state, revealing the terror of God’s demands and our need for Christ. In the face of the law, the worst evil-doer and the most puffed-up Pharisee find themselves leveled and driven to Christ as their only hope.

Over the years there has been confusion and concern over whether Luther taught a third use of the law as a guide for right Christian living. Pages have been written on the topic, but it’s clear that he certainly believed in this third use. He wrote, “Here, then, we have the Ten Com­mandments, a summary of divine teaching on what we are to do to make our whole life pleasing to God. They are the true fountain from which all good works must spring, the true channel through which all good works must flow.”[2]

Though Luther saw a distinction in Scripture between law and gospel, he did not see them as Act I and Act II of the salvation story. The law does not fade behind the curtain after the sinner is driven to Christ. Once saved by the righteousness of Christ, the law is an ongoing reminder of our need for the gospel. Though our inner man is renewed, our outer man has sinful inclinations that need to be brought into gospel submission. So the law reminds us of where we have come from, convicts us when we continue to fall short, and defines what it looks like to please God.

It is still true that we have no saving righteousness apart from Christ, but grace renews our nature and gives us the desire and ability to obey the law and please God. The grace of God is not a call to inaction, for Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Good works are truly good when they flow from the gratitude of a regenerate heart.

Over five-hundred years removed from Luther, we tend to not think all that deeply about the place of the law in our lives. Worse still, we act as if the law has no continuing value for the believer. We must be reminded that to misunderstand the place of the law is to misunderstand the gospel itself. May we never cease to recognize ourselves in the second man in Cranach’s painting, singing along with the hymnist, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law's demands…. thou must save, and thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace.”

Megan K. Taylor earned her MA in Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Joel, live in Sanford, Fl where she works for Ligonier Ministries.

[1]Luther, Martin, Jaroslav Pelikan., and Walter A Hansen. Lectures On Galatians (1535). Saint Louis: Concordia. 1963.144

[2]Luther, Martin. The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert, Phila­delphia (Fortress), 1959. 407.


Megan Taylor