Lutherans and the Law
Nicholas Hopman

When Lutherans have conflicts over matters of the Law, we often are rudderless. After all Lutherans are gospel people, and we should always decide in favor of Grace, shouldn’t we? The best we can achieve seems to be a vague antinomian (anti-Law) position. Those opposed to antinomianism often retreat back into legalism. How do gospel-based Lutherans, in other words Evangelical-Lutherans, deal with the law?

Luther’s explanation of the third commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” in his Large Catechism is a great example of how Lutherans deal with the Law. Luther notes that this commandment was given only to the Israelites (Book of Concord 375, 376). Christians do not keep the Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. In “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” Luther wrote that the Ten Commandments themselves do not apply to Gentiles because God never led them out of Egypt and gave them these commandments on Sinai (Lull 138–139). We see this most clearly in regard to the Third Commandment because, of the ten, it is most directly related to a specifically Jewish practice.

However, nature tells us that people need rest from work and that they need to hear from their creator (Book of Concord 376). Therefore, it is natural law and in accordance with the third commandment that Christians should have time off work and that they should gather together to hear the word of the Lord. For good order, but not out of legal requirement, Christians do this on Sunday (Tappert 376).

What does this teach us? First, as Christians justified by faith, we have freedom. This freedom includes freedom from the law. This freedom allows us to engage in a dialogue with the law (Westhelle). We ask questions like, “does this law apply to me/us?” If it does not apply to us, we are free to ignore it, just as Christians do not ascribe any special holiness to Friday night and Saturday. However, we are careful to look for natural and moral laws that apply at all times and places until kingdom come.

The topic of natural law brings with it a set of tangled questions concerning what truly is natural and how we can know nature. To say that Lutherans should obey the natural law is not to say that they should follow the natural law tradition coming out of Aristotle and today publicized by journals like First Things. The best way for Lutherans to think of natural law is in its simplest sense, as devoid of philosophical baggage as possible. Here the Lutheran theologian becomes an observer of the world. For example, Luther, who hated Aristotle, simply noticed that human beings need rest and said so commenting on the Third Commandment.

Here we also see an important way the law continues to apply to Christians. It still works in our bodies, which need rest. Luther writes, “We keep them [holy days or holidays], first, for the sake of bodily need” (Book of Concord 376). The human body, until the day of the resurrection, works the same way whether or not its owner has been set free from the Law by the Gospel.

In his great declaration of freedom, The Freedom of a Christian, Luther uses the terms “body” and “outward man” as short hand for the sinful self or the old Adam or Eve. Such language runs the risk of re-establishing the false Greek duality between body and spirit, but we do need language appropriate to describing the dual natures of the Christian. Since the new being in Christ is now hidden in faith and cannot be seen or touched while the body can be seen and touched, such language naturally fulfills this need. Language of the inner and outer person should be kept in tension with language that uses the words “old” and “new.” There is nothing wrong with the body because it is a body. The body is evil because it is the body of the old sinful self as the new resurrection body has not yet been sown.

If we simply declare that we are Gospel people and not Law people, we will do unnecessary damage to our bodies. For example, if Christians stop obeying traffic lights because the Gospel trumps the Law we will do a tremendous amount of damage to our bodies and the bodies of others. Traffic lights naturally organize traffic, and obeying them is one way of loving your neighbor as yourself. This golden rule is natural law as all different cultures and times and places understand the golden rule because it is necessary for life on earth. The philosophy of this type of natural law really is as easy as the philosophy behind traffic lights and obeying them.

Of course there are also borderline situations. In the chapter on the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” the textbook I use to teach confirmation talks about war and abortion in cases of known danger to the mother, etc. Here, perhaps, some killing might be necessary to avoid greater killing. In such circumstances the law should stand back and keep silent as we do the best we can under horrible conditions (Nestingen 39–40). To use again the example of a traffic light, you might need to blow through a red light if your passenger is having a heart attack.

As those free from the Law, we are free to make useful distinctions when applying the Law to Christians. For a rather extreme example, Luther allowed Philip von Hesse to marry a second woman with his promise to continue providing his first wife with her marital rights. Luther cited the biblical precedence of polygamy. However, in sixteenth-century Germany Luther demanded that Philip keep the second marriage private. Philip later caused a scandal by publicizing the marriage. Whatever one might think about this case, the principal of privately allowing behaviors without publicly announcing their righteousness has precedent in the Lutheran tradition. However, Luther’s private blessing of a second marriage, with its biblical precedence, does not necessarily apply to any other specific action.

Often life is best served by applying the Law leniently. Often Law needs to be applied in different ways at different times and places. This does not mean that the Law ever ceases to function or that its essential content ever changes (Forde 1995).

Finally, disagreements about matters involving the Law are not necessarily merely legal controversies. They can reveal differences in the Gospel and faith. Here the great biblical example is the controversy surrounding circumcision in Galatia. Paul knew well that circumcision was a matter of the law (Galatians 2:16, 21, 3:2, 10–13, etc.), but when the super apostles told the Galatians they must be circumcised Paul did not merely engage in a dispute about the extent to which Christians must obey the law. Instead he discerned that something greater was at stake and accused the super apostles of preaching a false gospel (Galatians 1:6–9). Furthermore, he made circumcision the occasion for eternal judgment, telling the Galatians that if they allowed themselves to be circumcised Christ would no longer be of any benefit to them (Galatians 5:2).

Therefore, deliberations about the Law involve not only taking a position on what can or cannot be allowed but also deciding if the reasons behind the varying positions taken are Christian, or if one or both positions come from a false understanding of the distinction between Law and Gospel. We are not justified by doing or prohibiting, but by faith. This is precisely how Paul analyzed the situation in Galatia. He understood his opponents’ prescription of circumcision as an attack on the Gospel itself.

Because the Law is a secondary matter to the Gospel, there is a possibility, depending on the circumstance, that Lutherans can disagree on matters of the Law, and yet the disagreement can remain only a secondary matter that does not destroy agreement on the chief article of justification by faith. Galatians shows us that the opposite can also be true. Disagreements about the Law can destroy agreement on the chief article and break the fellowship of the church.

The good news is that faith is the end of the Law where the gospel is truly preached through the proper distinction of Law and Gospel. The gospel is not only the end of laws that do not apply to Christians. Faith is also the end of all natural and moral law or whatever terms one would use to describe laws that apply to us. Those who live by faith have been born again of water and the Spirit and live a new life beyond the Law and its condemnation. The Law no longer applies in any way in faith itself. Faith is Jesus Christ himself living in us. As he is now risen from the dead, the Law no longer has any rights over him. And so it shall be for us one day. We do not have a dialogue with the gospel (Westhelle), but instead it flows over us in a life-giving flood. Until the day of the resurrection, we live by faith, but we also live in the body and need the Law to discipline us.


Nicholas Hopman is Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Dollar Bay, Michigan and Grace Lutheran Church in South Range, Michigan.



The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Tappert, Theodore, ed. and trans. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.

Forde, Gerhard O. “Law and Sexual Behavior.” Lutheran Quarterly 9(1995): 3–22.

Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997.

Luther, Martin. How Christians Should Regard Moses. In Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Lull, Timothy, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989: 135–148.

Nestingen, James A. and Gerhard O. Forde. Free to Be: A Handbook to Luther’s Small Catechism. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1975.

Westhelle, Vitor. Luther on the Authority of Scripture. Lutheran Quarterly 19(2005): 373–391.

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