In the comments section of the latest post which was a piece from a Lutheran it was suggested that Lutherans might well earn their reputation for slouching toward antinomianism and that Calvinism has something of a monopoly on understanding the third use of the law. For one thing, it is helpful to remember that such charges tend to the stuff of urban legend. After all, as Horton is fond of reminding us, men were made for law, so it is easier to find a legalist than an antinomian. Indeed, do such creatures actually exist?
For another, in the 2007 Confessional Presbyterian Journal, J.V. Fesko does a fairly nice job of helping to put to bed the Lutheran epithet. Here at length is a bit of the conclusion to “The Westminster Standards and Confessional Lutheranism on Justification.”
In turning to the second half of our investigation, we must explore the question of whether the Lutheran commitment to sola fide is such that they make absolutely no place for the necessity of good works, in some sense, in the broader category of their soteriology. In other words, is Lutheran soteriology antinomian? There have been those in both the distant and recent past who have argued that Luther and Lutheranism only hold to two uses of the law: the political or civil, in retraining evil, and the elenctic or pedagogic, in leading people to knowledge of sin and the need of redemption. Yet, at the same time a perusal of primary sources, including Luther’s writings, Lutheran confessions, and other Lutheran theologians evidences that Luther and Lutheranism hold to the third use of the law in some form, the didactic or normative use, regulating the life of the regenerate. One may begin with Luther’s own writings, as his writings are incorporated in the confessional corpus of the Lutheran church.
While Luther certainly divided the scriptures into the categories of law and gospel, commands and promise, just because a person became a Christian did not mean that he was now suddenly free from the demands of the law. Luther, for example, writes that
“…as long as we live in a flesh that is not free of sin, so long as the Law keeps coming back and performing its function, more on one person and less in another, not to harm but to save. This discipline of the Law is the daily mortification of the flesh, the reason, an dour powers and the renewal of our mind (2 Cor 4:16)…There is still need for a custodian to discipline and torment the flesh, that powerful jackass, so that by this discipline sins may be diminished and the way prepared for Christ.”
So long as the Christian is simil iustus et peccator, there is always a need for the law in the life of the believer. Luther’s use of the law in the life of the believer is further evidenced from his catechisms.
Luther’s Small Catechism begins with an exposition of the Decalogue. At the close of the exposition of the Decalogue in Luther’s Large catechism, Luther explains the importance of the law in the life of the believer:
“Thus, we have the Ten Commandments, a compend of divine doctrine, as to what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God, and the true fountain and channel from and in which everything must arise and flow that is to be a good work, so that outside the Ten Commandments, no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, however great or precious it be in the yes of the world.”
Luther saw a need for good works, but was careful, like the Reformed tradition, to teach about the proper relationship between good works and justification. Luther addresses the proper place of the law as it relates to justification when he writes:
“The matter of the Law must be considered carefully, both as to what and as how we ought to think about the Law; otherwise we shall either reject it altogether, after the fashion of the fanatical spirits who prompted the peasant’s revolt a decade ago by saying that the freedom of the Gospel absolves men from all laws, or we shall attribute to the law the power to justify. Both groups sin against the Law: those on the right, who want to be justified through the Law, and those on the left, who want to be altogether free of the Law. Therefore we must travel the royal road, so that we neither reject the law altogether not attribute more to it than we should.”
Luther saw a place for the law in the life of the believer. When he was explaining the doctrine of justification he said that there was no place for works or the law. In relationship, though, to one’s sanctification and the knowledge of what is pleasing to God, the Decalogue served as guide as well as a tool in the hand of God to confront the remaining sin in the believer. This careful fencing of justification from works, yet at the same time connecting justification to sanctification, is especially evident in the Lutheran confessions.
The Augsburg Confession is the first official Lutheran confession, and was largely written by Luther’s lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560). The Augsburg Confession carefully explains that justification is by faith alone: “Our works can not reconcile God, or deserve remission of sins, grace, and justification at his hands, but that these we obtain by faith only, when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone is appointed the Mediator and Propitiatory, by whom the Father is reconciled.” Yet, at the same time the confession gives an apology against antinomianism: “Ours are falsely accused of forbidding good works. For their writings extant upon the Ten Commandments, and others of the like argument, do bear witness that they have to good purpose taught concerning every kind of life, and its duties; what kinds of life, and what works in every calling, do please God.”
The confession even goes so far as to say that Lutherans “teach that it is necessary to do good works,” but it specifies that “not that we may trust that we deserve grace by them, but because it is the will of God that we should do them. By faith alone is apprehended remission of sins and grace. And because the Holy Spirit is received by faith, our hearts are now renewed, and so put on new affections, so that they are able to bring forth good works” (Augsburg Conf., ¶ 20, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.24-25). So, here, in this Lutheran confession we see the emphasis upon justification by faith alone but also the need for good works, informed by the law. While this is not precisely the same nomenclature that one finds in the Westminster Standards [it] is nonetheless parallel to the Standards’ emphasis on the third use of the law (WLC qq. 95-97; WCF 19.6; cf. Belgic Conf., ¶ 25; Heidelberg Cat., q. 93). What we find in inchoate forms in the Augsburg Confessions, however, emerges quite clearly in the formula of Concord.
…It is in the Formula of Concord that the Lutherans, legendary for their insistence upon justification by faith alone, also state that “good works must certainly and without all doubt follow a true faith (provided only it be not a dead faith but a living faith), as fruits of a good tree” (Formula of Concord, ¶ 4, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.122.). It is in article six, “Of the third use of the law,” where the document makes its most pronounced statement about the importance of the law and good works: “We believe, teach, and confess that although they who truly believe in Christ, and are sincerely converted to God, are through Christ set free from the curse and constraint of the Law, they are not, nevertheless, on that account without the Law (Formula of Concord, ¶6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.131.). The document goes on to state that “the preaching of the Law should be urged not only upon those who have not faith in Christ, and do not yet repent, but also upon those who truly believe in Christ, are truly converted to God, and regenerated and are justified by faith” (Formula of Concord, ¶6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.132.). So, then, it appears from primary sources such as Luther, the Augsburg Confession, and the Formula [of] Concord that Luther and Lutheranism places a heavy emphasis upon justification by faith alone but not to the exclusion of the importance and necessity of good works or the third use of the law. This is not a unique conclusion.
J.V. Fesko in The Confessional Presbyterian, Volume 3, 2007, pgs. 22-24.