Comments on Luther’s “How Christians Should Regard Moses”

Either before or after you read these comments, you will want to read "'How Christians Should Regard Moses," a sermon by Martin Luther.

This article is an attachment to Martin Luther’s “How Christians Should Regard Moses.” I trust you have read that sermon or will soon read it. I have several points I want to make about Luther’s sermon.

There are those who vilify Luther because he did not have a perfect understanding of the law and covenants. But this is rather like looking at a glass in which there is water to the half-way level and saying it is half empty instead of saying that it is half full. As Luther’s sermon shows, Luther had a better grasp of the law and covenants than many (probably most) in both his day and ours. And can those who are so critical of Luther say that they now have such a perfect understanding that no one coming after them can vilify them for their lack of perfection?

That being said, it is true that Luther was nothing if he was not inconsistent. Just as, at Worms, Luther accused popes and Councils of contradicting each other, he also contradicted himself (as do all humans at times, including this one). This was especially so as he developed his theology. But his changes as he developed his theology were not always for the better. Notice what James A. Nestingen points out in his article, “Changing Definitions: The Law in Formula VI,” that appeared in the July/October 2005 Concordia Theological Quarterly.

Speaking of Luther and Melanchthon’s early writings, he says,

The first issue is the end of the law, an assertion that emerged early in the Reformation out of Luther and Melanchthon’s consideration of Romans 10:4, where Paul states that “Christ is the end [τέλος] of the law, that all who believe may be justified.” Luther and Melanchthon both picked up what had generally been either passed over or minimized by the tradition, the sense of termination that is also included in τέλος. In fact, from 1520 to 1530, this became a theme of the Lutheran reformers to the point that in the later Galatians commentary “the end of the law” in the sense of termination became a virtual christological title. Christ is the end of the law just as he is Savior and Lord. For Luther the original force of the argument is as much theologica1 as it is exegetical, very much along the lines of Paul’s argument in Galatians 2:21, “. . . if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” The logic is devastatingly simple. Christ Jesus’ justification of the godless is the first and therefore the controlling premise in the theological argument. So if Christ saves, the law cannot. If Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the law cannot be; if Christ has the last word, the law must fall silent before him. Christ’s death and resurrection are, in effect, the first premises in every theological argument….

Nestingen further points out,

One of the most powerful statements of the end of the law in the early Reformation was set out by Melanchthon in the 1521 Loci Communes. The bulk of one whole chapter is devoted to what he calls “the Abrogation of the Law,” the argument proceeding along the same lines as Luther’s. So Melanchthon explicitly states that “…that part of the law called the Decalogue has been abrogated by the New Testament” and then follows with further explanation: “But our freedom consists in this, that every right of accusing and condemning us has been taken away from the law” and “Christ took away the curse of the law and the right it had so that even though you have sinned, even though you now have sin…yet you are saved. Our Samson has shattered the power of death, the power of sin, the gates of hell.” What was later termed “the new obedience” properly follows: “Those who have been renewed by the Spirit of Christ now conform voluntarily even without the law to what the law used to command.”

But Nestingen quotes the later Luther as writing, “They are altogether ignorant and deceivers of souls who endeavor to abolish the law from the church. For that is not only stupid and impious, but absolutely impossible…. Therefore the law will never in all eternity be abolished, but will remain either to be fulfilled by the damned, or already fulfilled in the blessed.” This was obviously a shrinking away from his earlier position, and Melanchthon took off with it.

Nestingen quotes Melanchthon and then adds his own comments:

“We therefore unanimously believe, teach and confess that in its strict sense the law is a divine teaching in which the righteous, unchanging will of God revealed how human beings were created in their nature, thoughts, words and deeds to be pleasing and acceptable to God” (SD V,17). The law is no longer defined functionally in light of the gospel but structurally and cohesively as the definitive expression of God’s will….

In effect, law and gospel have traded places. Whereas in the earlier Lutheran argument, the gospel as the ultimate word rendered the law penultimate, now in the Formula [Formula of Concord], the law is set forward as the ultimate expression of God’s will….

This downgrade in Luther’s theology is certainly dismaying and has caused confusion to this day. Yet God has not put me in a position to judge the man, though I certainly do have a responsibility to determine if what he says agrees with the Bible (Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 John 4:1).

Here are some more of my comments on Luther’s sermon, presented in no particular order:

1) Rather than Luther’s distinction of the law binding the Jews and not the Gentiles, I prefer to say that the law bound only the Jews under the Old Covenant and binds no one under the New Covenant.

2) It is interesting to note that, unlike today’s Christian Reconstructionists or Domionists, Luther did not believe there was any necessary reason to institute the Law of Moses as the law of the land. He did, however, believe it to be as good a law to run a nation as any other, and with this I disagree. The Law of Moses was not just civil, but also religious. However, Jesus Christ instituted an age that severed the civil and religious. Therefore, the Law of Moses would be a very inappropriate law to run a state today. Reconstructionists should read footnote 5 under Luther’s article where even Calvin is quoted as saying that those who want to reinstitute Moses’ Law as the law of the land “dangerously go astray.” He also said, “For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere.”

3) I disagree with Luther’s teaching on natural law, its origins and effects on man. This is far too complex to deal with here. Lord willing, I will address it in a separate article.

4) I did not write the notes at the end of “How Christians Should Regard Moses.” I assume they were written by the translator and editor, E. Theodore Bachmann. Concerning note 2, some of the Radical Reformers were certainly fanatics. But this term does not apply to all or even most of them. In reality, most of the Radical Reformers were sensibly trying to apply the New Covenant and saw that, among other things, it required a believers only church and the separation of church and state. Luther could have learned much from the Radical Reformers. In fact, there is evidence that he did learn much of what he taught from them. It is also true that Luther himself was more radical until his confinement at Wartburg Castle. During that time, he seems to have decided that it was better to pull back the Reformation from its logical and biblical conclusions (such as a church composed of believers only and the separation of church and state). We can only guess why he did this, but likely he felt that without the support of the Elector of Saxony and others (who would never have agreed to a church of believers only and the separation of church and state), the Reformation might be completely crushed (not to mention his neck being on the line). Thus, Luther is known as a Magisterial Reformer. The Radical Reformers saw this move as traitorous. This pulling back of Luther, both in regards to the law and concerning ecclesiology is the major bone of contention I have with Luther. For more information on this point, see Leonard Verduin’s three books, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, and That First Amendment and the Remnant.

5) Luther’s “Second thing to notice about Moses,” that it has the “promises and pledges of God about Christ,” is, in my opinion the primary use of the Old Testament for the Christian. Jesus Himself taught this purpose for the Old Testament Scriptures. Speaking to the Jews, He said, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). After His resurrection, we read of what Jesus’ taught to the two on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). There are many more types, shadows, and prophecies of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament than are explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. But by using the New Testament as an example of how Christians are now to understand the Old Testament, we can find a treasure of such references. Unfortunately, the Protestant theologians who came after Luther so stressed a strict historical-grammatical interpretation (emphasizing that the Scripture can only mean what the original writer intended) that they put blinders on their eyes and missed much of the richness of the Old Testament. Even worse, many seminaries still follow these blinkered theologians, teaching the strict historical-grammatical interpretation. They even make light of anyone who follows the example of the New Testament writers and even Christ Himself in seeing the Old Testament as a book of types and shadows.

6) Luther hits upon a major problem in the church that continues today when he writes of the “factious spirits” who, “say of everything they find in Moses, ‘Here God is speaking, no one can deny it; therefore we must keep it.’” This was, perhaps, the root of the problem in the old Worldwide Church of God when I worked for it under Herbert W. Armstrong. It continues to be a problem in those organizations that still follow Armstrong’s teachings. It is a problem in many cults. Sadly, however, it is also a problem in many churches of whatever denomination. This is why there are so many people who tithe, try to keep a Sabbath day, call the church building the “house of God,” and generally have an Old Testament mindset. They do not know how to rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).  As Luther says, “It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day.” My sentiments are entirely with Luther when he writes of stumbling preachers who “rage and fume, chattering to people, ‘God’s word, God’s word!’ All the while they mislead the poor people and drive them to destruction.” God save us from such preachers!

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