“The Gospel frees us to fulfill the Law” is a thoroughly Christian statement

No, it’s not.

The chief article of the Christian faith is the free justification of sinners by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone, apart from the works of the Law. This is the Gospel, the article on which the Church stands or falls, the fundament without which no other doctrine matters or makes sense. But it’s not the only doctrine that “matters” in some totemic fashion, as though apophatic silence must reign in the face of other theological questions. Nor does simple reiteration of its truth suffice for everything. To say that “justification is the only thing that matters” smacks not a little of Seminex prof Ed Schroeder’s “Gospel reductionism.”

For whatever reason, though, this bad penny is turning up again among Lutherans, even among those who identify as “Confessional.” (For my non-Lutheran readers, “Confessional” is a self-applied label for many Lutherans who consciously subscribe to The Book of Concord as a Biblically-normed rule of Christian doctrine, holding it to be fully in accord with, and indeed a confession of, the catholic and apostolic faith. “Confessional Lutheran” should be redundant, but for some reason it’s not.) The featured image is a pretty good example. Although one can imagine the statement “The Gospel frees us to fulfill the Law” being used to imply something heterodox, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. If there is, then our Lutheran Confessions are rife with Christ-denying error. More to the point, St Paul himself is, when He declares that we are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Whether this is a reference to our first creation, our re-creation in Christ (freely by grace through faith), or, more likely, both, it’s pretty clear that St Paul is saying that doing God’s good and gracious will is, in fact, our raison d’etre. It seems odd to deny this.

Part of the problem is equivocation. “Fulfill” can mean “complete”, “keep perfectly”, “bring about the end of”, or “satisfy”; this is propitiatory language. Yet it can also mean “do”, “follow”, “keep”, “abide by”, or “observe”; when used in this second way, “fulfill” is not a propitiatory term, but a eucharistic1 and moral one. This latter usage is clearly employed by the Lutheran Confessions when they speak of “inchoate fulfilling of the Law”, or when it is stated that “we must first apprehend the promise that for Christ’s sake the Father is reconciled and forgives” and then “[a]fterwards we begin to observe the Law” (Apol V [IV II], 175).

In this life the Law is never fulfilled perfectly by us, but is rather always “being fulfilled”2— not in order to justify, but in order to serve our neighbor and obey our dear Father. As the Apology states, “no saint… perfectly fulfills the Law” (op. cit., 110); however, “this inchoate fulfilling of the Law pleases on account of faith, and… on account of faith, there is no imputation of the imperfection of the fulfilling of the Law” (op. cit., 56b). So the saints do fulfill the Law imperfectly, and although such fulfillment would be rather useless with respect to justification, it is rather useful in the civil realm, that is to say, it has pleased God to use our imperfect works of the Law to serve our neighbors. Our neighbors don’t need perfect works. Here the earthly, imperfect fulfilling of the Law suffices.

There are a few more requirements. Also, *you’re.

Moreover, that our fulfillment of the good and gracious will of God is not only a result, but truly a purpose of the Gospel, is attested by the Lutheran reformers in no uncertain terms. A good place to start in consideration of this issue is the above-cited Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article V [IV II], “Love and the Fulfilling of the Law.” This shouldn’t be too surprising, given its title. Anyone wanting to know more about what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess concerning how and in what manner Christians can be said to “fulfill the Law” should read this article. Below are some selected quotations to get you started.

The following passages may surprise you if you’re a Lutheran who isn’t particularly well-read in The Book of Concord (no shame!); if you’re not a Lutheran, these quotations will certainly disabuse you of the notion that Lutheran doctrine is somehow “antinomian.” That there are Lutherans (and “Lutherans”) out there who are personally (or ecclesially, respectively) antinomian cannot be denied; however, the allegation that Lutheran doctrine is itself antinomian is a baseless smear. I hope you take the time to read the following selections carefully, or— better yet!— just read the whole of Apology V [IV II], “Love and the Fulfilling of the Law.”

‘It is written in the prophet Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” And in Romans 3:31, Paul says: “Do we, then, make void the Law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the Law.” And Christ says: “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). Likewise, II Corinthians 13:3: “If I have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” These and similar sentences testify that the Law ought to be begun in us and be kept by us more and more, that we are to keep the Law when we have been justified by faith, and thus increase more and more in the Spirit. Moreover, we speak not of ceremonies, but of that Law which gives commandment concerning the movements of the heart, namely, the Decalog. Because, indeed, faith brings the Holy Ghost, and produces in hearts a new life, it is necessary that it should produce spiritual movements in hearts. And what these movements are, the prophet, Jeremiah shows when he says: “I will put My Law into their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” Therefore, when we have been justified by faith and regenerated, we begin to fear and love God, to pray to Him, to expect from Him aid, to give thanks and praise Him, and to obey Him in afflictions. We begin also to love our neighbors, because our hearts have spiritual and holy movements. There is now through the Spirit of Christ a new heart, mind, and spirit within. These things cannot occur until we have been justified by faith, and, regenerated, we receive the Holy Ghost: first, because the Law cannot be kept without the knowledge of Christ; and likewise the Law cannot be kept without the Holy Ghost. But the Holy Ghost is received by faith, according to the declaration of Paul: “That we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14)’. (2-6)


‘I John 4:19 teaches: “We love Him, because He first loved us,” namely, because He gave His Son for us, and forgave us our sins. Thus he indicates that faith precedes and love follows. Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Wherefore it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them….Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.’ (20b-22a, 23)


‘Now, then, we will reply to those passages which the adversaries cite, in order to prove that we are justified by love and works. From 1 Corinthians 13:2 they cite: “Though I have all faith, etc., and have not charity, I am nothing.” And here they triumph greatly. Paul testifies to the entire Church, they say, that faith alone does not justify. But a reply is easy after we have shown above what we hold concerning love and works. This passage of Paul requires love. We also require this. For we have said above that renewal and the inchoate fulfilling of the Law must exist in us, according to Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” If any one should cast away love, even though he have great faith, yet he does not retain it, for he does not retain the Holy Ghost. He becomes cold and is now again fleshly, without Spirit and faith, for the Holy Ghost is not where Christian love and other fruits of the Spirit are not. Nor indeed does Paul in this passage treat of the mode of justification, but he writes to those who, after they had been justified, should be urged to bring forth good fruits lest they might lose the Holy Ghost.’ (97-99)


‘Man observes the Law however, when he hears that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled to us, even though we cannot satisfy the Law. When, by this faith Christ is apprehended as Mediator, the heart finds rest, and begins to love God and observe the Law, and knows that now, because of Christ as Mediator, it is pleasing to God, even though the inchoate fulfilling of the Law be far from perfection and be very impure.’ (149b-150a)


(Nota Bene: note the purpose clauses below: “so that we are able to observe the Law; so that we are able to love God and the Word of God, and to be submissive to God in afflictions; so that we are able to be chaste, to love our neighbor, etc.”)

‘[F]aith alone receives remission of sins, justifies, and regenerates. Then love and other good fruits follow. Thus, therefore, we teach that man is justified, as we have above said, when conscience, terrified by the preaching of repentance, is cheered and believes that for Christ’s sake it has a reconciled God. This faith is counted for righteousness before God (Romans 4:3-5). And when in this manner the heart is cheered and quickened by faith, it receives the Holy Ghost, who renews us, so that we are able to observe the Law; so that we are able to love God and the Word of God, and to be submissive to God in afflictions; so that we are able to be chaste, to love our neighbor, etc. Even though these works are as yet far distant from the perfection of the Law, yet they please on account of faith, by which we are accounted righteous, because we believe that for Christ’s sake we have a reconciled God. These things are plain and in harmony with the Gospel, and can be understood by persons of sound mind. And from this foundation it can easily be decided why we ascribe justification to faith, and not to love; although love follows faith, because love is the fulfilling of the Law. But Paul teaches that we are justified not from the Law, but from the promise which is received only by faith. For we neither come to God without Christ as Mediator, nor receive remission of sins for the sake of our love, but for the sake of Christ. Likewise we are not able to love God while He is angry, and the Law always accuses us, always manifests to us an angry God. Therefore, by faith we must first apprehend the promise that for Christ’s sake the Father is reconciled and forgives. Afterwards we begin to observe the Law.‘ (171b-175a)


(Similarly, the conjunction “that” in Apol IV, 45 denotes purpose.)

‘[F]aith, therefore, by which an individual believes that for Christ’s sake his sins are remitted him, and that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled and propitious, obtains remission of sins and justifies us. And because in repentance, i.e., in terrors, it comforts and encourages hearts, it regenerates us and brings the Holy Ghost that then we may be able to fulfill God’s Law, namely, to love God, truly to fear God, truly to be confident that God hears prayer, and to obey God in all afflictions; it mortifies concupiscence, etc.’


‘Therefore the Gospel teaches a new kind of righteousness, namely, that we are pleasing to God for Christ’s sake, although we have not fulfilled the Law; and yet, we are to begin to do the Law.‘ (194b)


 (Note also the clear statements of purpose, italicized below.)

‘But here again the adversaries will cry out that there is no need of good works if they do not merit eternal life. These calumnies we have refuted above. Of course, it is necessary to do good works. We say that, eternal life has been promised to the justified. But those who walk according to the flesh retain neither faith nor righteousness. We are for this very end justified, that, being righteous, we may begin to do good works and to obey God’s Law. We are regenerated and receive the Holy Ghost for the very end that the new life may produce new works, new dispositions, the fear and love of God, hatred of concupiscence, etc. This faith of which we speak arises in repentance, and ought to be established and grow in the midst of good works, temptations, and dangers, so that we may continually be the more firmly persuaded that God for Christ’s sake cares for us, forgives us, hears us. This is not learned without many and great struggles. How often is conscience aroused, how often does it incite even to despair when it brings to view sins, either old or new, or the impurity of our nature! This handwriting is not blotted out without a great struggle, in which experience testifies what a difficult matter faith is. And while we are cheered in the midst of the terrors and receive consolation, other spiritual movements at the same time grow, the knowledge of God, fear of God, hope, love of God; and we are regenerated, as Paul says (Colossians 3:10; II Corinthians 3:18), “in the knowledge of God,” and, “beholding the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image,” i.e., we receive the true knowledge of God, so that we truly fear Him, truly trust that we are cared for, and that we are heard by Him.’ (227-231a)


In fine, it is no more wrong to state that “the Gospel frees us to fulfill the Law” than it is to state that “we are for this very end justified, that, being righteous, we may begin to do good works and to obey God’s Law” (Apol V [IV II], 227). If anything, the second statement is even stronger in its purposiveness.

Once again, I find myself coming back to the words of my friend George, whose statement regarding the modern Lutheran attitude towards the Law neatly and beautifully summarizes my concerns:

‘We have not yet convinced ourselves that the Law is beautiful, and should in every way be our delight, simultaneously the object of our meditation, the joy of our contemplation, and ultimately (though not necessarily most importantly) the true work of our hands; for God is the Law, just as God is Love. If we say the Law only accuses, then we say that God only accuses. Therefore, we should rejoice in the Law always, for the Law is not something separate from God, a list of requirements, etc. It is the essence of God made comprehensible to a created mind. It is for this reason that Luther can say, “Only the Decalogue is Eternal,” for it is one with the Divinity.’

And for those who, like I do, read the above statements about “mortal sin” and “losing the Holy Ghost” and feel more than a bit of dread, I would encourage you in the following way: pray Luther’s evening prayer, and know that the Father has forgiven your sins through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. The Holy Spirit has graciously made you aware of your sins so that you might not become puffed up with pride and impenitence. Nothing is worse than a numbness to one’s own sins. That you are not numb in this way is evident from the discomfort you feel when you think on your sins! You can thank God for this.

As the Rev’d William Weedon says in a comment to his fine piece here, only those sins are “mortal” which we assure ourselves are “venial”, i.e., not worthy of damnation, as paradoxical as that might sound. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that we must recall, itemize, and categorize every single sin, for indeed we cannot. But we can pray for forgiveness, especially mindful of those sins which have surfaced in our memories, and know that God has put them away. If we are especially distraught, we can confess our sins to our pastor and hear the absolution spoken to us personally. I myself need this assurance: I do not know what I would do without the blessing of private confession and absolution.

APPENDIX: Blessed Martin Luther against the antinomians

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  1. In the sense of “flowing from thanksgiving.”
  2. cf. Martin Luther, in his Antinomian Disputations: “Under Christ, therefore, the Law is in the state of being done, not in that of having been done. Here believers need to be admonished by the Law. In heaven there will be no debt or any demand, but the finished work of the Law and the highest love. Thus, the demand of the Law is sad, burdensome, and impossible for those who are outside of Christ. Contrariwise, among those who are under Christ, it begins to be done as something enjoyable, possible in the first fruits, albeit not in the tithes. And therefore it must necessarily be taught among Christians. Not, to be sure, because of faith which has the spirit subject to the Law, but because of the flesh which resists the spirit in the saints (Galatians 5:17).” (Only the Decalogue is Eternal: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, trans. Holger Sonntag; p. 43)