Luther, Law and Love
Life is too short not to reap the spiritual benefit of reading Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Archibald Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once said that this particular work was the most influential book he read during his formative years. While Luther was certainly a theologian in transition throughout much of his early years, his commentary on Galatians gives us the most robust and developed Reformational theology--the fruit of years of diligent theological study, wrestling with the text of Scripture in polemical dialogue with the medieval Catholicism from which Luther labored set the church free.
Insisting that Martin Luther was antinomian (i.e. that he had no place for the moral Law of God in the Christian life) many have sadly misrepresented Luther's doctrine of sanctification. There are several rationales for such a mischaracterization. First, Luther made infelicitous statements about the Epistle of James, on account of the fact that he did not understand James' argument on faith and good works. Second--and in many respects related to the first--Luther spent a great deal of his time fighting against the Roman Catholic notion that love was co-instrumental with faith in our justification before God. Luther's relentless defense of justification by faith alone has often overshadowed all that he wrote on sanctification and the Christian life. Third, Luther tended to stress the role of the Holy Spirit as the agent and faith and love as the co-instruments of our sanctification more than he did the Law of God as a means of our sanctification. While Calvin often spoke of the law of God as a means of our sanctification, Luther tended to place his emphasis on the other elements of the process of sanctification. A brief perusal of Luther's treatment of the applicatory section of Galatians, however, shows how he developed his teaching on the place of love in the believer's sanctification with regard to the demands of the law of God. In short, Martin Luther did not believe that sanctification was produced in the life of a believer by a passive, inactive faith. He emphatically asserted otherwise, in his commentary on Galatians 5.
When he came to exposit Galatians 5:6, Luther explained that there is a dual instrumentality of faith and love in our sanctification. He wrote:
"Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, "In Christ Jesus circumcision avails nothing," i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men."
That being said, when he came to Galatians 5:16, Luther unequivocally denied that love plays any role in our justification:
"It is a great error to attribute justification to a love that does not exist or, if it does, is not great enough to placate God; for, as I have said, even the saints love in an imperfect and impure way in this present life, and nothing impure will enter the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). But meanwhile we are sustained by the trust that Christ, "who committed no sin and on whose lips no guile was found" (1 Peter 2:22), covers us with His righteousness. Shaded and protected by this covering, this heaven of the forgiveness of sins and this mercy seat, we begin to love and to keep the Law. As long as we live, we are not justified or accepted by God on account of this keeping of the Law. But "when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every authority" (1 Cor. 15:24), and when "God is everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28), then faith and hope will pass away, and love will be perfect and eternal (1 Cor. 13:8)."1
And, while Luther took the strongest stand against the insistence that love plays any part in our justification, he came full circle back to defense the truth about love in the work of sanctification in his comments on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Luther explained his understanding of Paul's use of the phrase "against which there is no law," when he wrote,
"One must beware of understanding him in a stupid way, as if the righteous man did not have to live a good life and do good deeds (for this is what the uninstructed understand not being under the Law to mean). But the righteous has no law, because he owes the Law nothing, since he has the love which performs and fulfills the Law."2
While this may not satisfy all the concerns one may have about a theological deficiency in Luther's doctrine of sanctification, a careful study of his commentary on Galatians is sure to put many of uniformed concerns at bay.
1. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 27, p. 64). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
2. Ibid., p. 378.