Martin Luther on the Law

On the Law Revealing Sin

"But by the law I am taught to know myself, that is to say, how corrupt I am, and what a sinner I am. So the law is a light which shows and makes manifest, not the disease only, but death itself."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:24

"Now the proper office of the law is, to give knowledge of sin. For it was not given to justify or quicken, or to make alive. 'For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.'"
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:21

On the Purpose of the Law

"Therefore the law was given them, to the end that they might know what they could do. But when the law came and charged them to love their neighbour as themselves, etc., then they saw what they were able to do."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:19

On the Ineffectiveness of the Law

"The law is that hammer, that stone, that furnace, that fan... For as the fan purgeth and cleanseth the corn from the chaff, so the law cleanseth and purgeth man from his presumption of righteousness."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:24

On the Curse of the Law

"Wherefore, whosoever do not the works of the law, are accursed. Therefore, all those also which are out of Christ, are accursed: for no man is able to perform the works of the law."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:10

On Being Freed from the Law

"We are free from the law, that is to say, we do not fulfill it, and yet the fulfilling of it is required. Therefore we have need of the doctrine of faith."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 5:1

On Faith's Superiority to the Law

"By faith we are made clean, are reconciled to God, and are made God’s children. But the law cannot accomplish this. If we believe it, we have it. If we believe not, we have it not. For the law brings only an evil conscience, the sense of sin, wrath, death."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:6

On Faith in Christ Over the Law

"Christ is not adorned with a law, or with the works of the law, but with grace, with redemption, with righteousness, with peace, and with all manner of consolation. The law hath a threatening visage, it terrifieth, it driveth to desperation: in a word, it is nothing else but the ministry of wrath and damnation."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:10

On the Relationship of Faith and Law

"Faith is not an idle quality or form in the heart, which may exist in state of mortal sin until love shall have been added thereto. No, faith is a divine work, which transforms us and begets us anew from God, slays the Old Adam, makes of us entirely different men in heart, spirit, mind, and all powers; and brings with it the Holy Ghost. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith."
Luther's Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans

On Living in Christ Over the Law

"We must listen to Paul who teaches that we are "justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law" (Gal. 2:16); and that "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law" (Gal. 3:13). The law demands much of us; but there is nothing we can do to satisfy its demands."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 2:20

On Righteousness Apart from the Law

"But after that the righteousness of faith is come, which is no law, but an assured and firm promise of God, that he will not impute our sins unto us, but will justify and save us freely by faith in Christ..."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 3:23

On the Transformative Power of Christ

"For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 2:19-20

On the New Life in Christ

"As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. This Spirit of sonship in faith cries in our hearts unto God, Father, Father; and this crying is so sure and certain, that we doubt not but that we are the children of God."
Luther's Commentary on Galatians, Galatians 4:6

Martin Luther on the Heidelberg Disputation (1518)

Martin Luther's seminal Heidelberg Disputation put forth the contrasts between what he termed the "theology of the cross" and the "theology of glory". In it, he made a significant distinction between the Law and the Gospel, highlighting the futility of relying on human works for righteousness and emphasizing the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ alone.

On the Distinction of the Law and the Gospel

"The law says, 'do this', and it is never done. Grace says, 'believe in this', and everything is already done."
Thesis 26

On Human Inability to Achieve Righteousness Through Works

"He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ."
Thesis 25

On God's Righteousness vs. Works Righteousness

"Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work." 
Thesis 27

On the Fallacy of the Theology of Glory

"A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." 
Thesis 21

On the True Nature of Theology

"He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross."
Thesis 20

The Heidelberg Disputation underscores Luther's belief in the transformative power of faith in Christ, apart from the works of the Law. This conviction is also reflected in his commentary on Galatians, where he repeatedly emphasizes the Gospel's power to declare believers righteous through faith alone, setting them free from the Law's condemning power.

Questions that Challenge Your Current Understanding

  1. How does Luther describe the primary purpose of the law in relation to human nature?

  2. According to Luther, how does the Gospel differ from the law in addressing human sinfulness?

  3. How does Luther’s Thesis 26 in the Heidelberg Disputation succinctly capture the distinction between the Law and the Gospel?

  4. Does your current understanding and belief about the Gospel align with the Reformers' view?