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The Distinction between Law and Gospel in Martin Luther’s Theological Development

Summary and Keywords

Martin Luther’s insistence on the proper distinction between law and gospel in theology marks one of his most important contributions to the Reformation movement and subsequent Protestant theology. In particular, it played the critical role in Luther’s “breakthrough” by which he came to his understanding of God’s righteousness and his justification of the sinner. The distinction between law and gospel served at least two key functions in his thought. First, it kept the story of Christ focused on the benefits to people achieved by his death and resurrection. In this way, it magnified Christ’s work in accomplishing a person’s justification. As a corollary, it provided consolation to Christians struggling with the burden of their sins. Second, the distinction of law and gospel served as a hermeneutical tool for pastors not only to interpret the scriptures in line with their purpose, but also to apply the scriptures in a pastoral way to the lives of their people in order to comfort them and to strengthen their faith. Luther’s distinction of law and gospel raised questions for his followers regarding the law and whether or not it had any positive role to play within the Christian life.

Luther’s distinction between law and gospel is closely related to several other distinctions in his theology. First, it bears a number of similarities with Luther’s distinction of the two kinds of righteousness. But whereas the latter focuses on a description of anthropology, law and gospel focuses on the works of God by which he brings about two kinds of righteousness in the life of a person. Second, law and gospel is also related to Luther’s distinction of the two realms. But whereas the latter focuses on how God rules with his left hand for the well-being of creation and with his right hand for the well-being of the church, law and gospel deal with the two works of God by which he brings about his goals for creation and the church. In the centuries since, scholars have debated aspects of Luther’s distinction, particularly as it impinged on the understanding of the third use of the law.

Keywords: Martin Luther, law, gospel, repentance, promise, two kinds of righteousness, two realms, third use of the law

Introduction: Its Importance

Luther’s distinction between law and gospel has remained one of the most distinctive features of his theology, along with that of his followers, for the past five hundred years. Any reader of Luther’s thought or anyone aware of it will soon recognize its overarching importance both for Luther’s theology and for his pastoral practice. The distinction between the law and the gospel is important for Luther in several ways.

First, Luther regarded this distinction as essential first and foremost for keeping the work of Christ in accomplishing our redemption at the front and center of all theology, especially in the matter of justification. It requires a distinction to be made between human accomplishments and the accomplishments of Christ in the eyes of God, thus basing a sinner’s justification on Christ alone.

Second, and as a corollary of keeping Christ’s work central, Luther maintained that the distinction of law and gospel also affords believers the abundant consolation that they need in the face of all doubts and struggles about where they stand with God. It assures them that their works have nothing to contribute, but that Christ has accomplished it all.

Finally, Luther regarded the distinction between the law and the gospel as a key hermeneutical principle for reading the scriptures. But it is critical to note what Luther meant by this. He did not simply mean that it provides a hermeneutic for understanding the grammar, historical context, or syntax of the scriptural texts, nor did he mean that all the statements of scripture can be identified as law and gospel simply by analyzing their grammar. Instead, he meant that all of scripture can be applied to believers in such a way that the law forces them to let go of their works as a basis for justification, while the gospel gives them the faith to cling only to Christ’s works instead.

Luther’s Development of the Distinction between Law and Gospel

A key to the development of Luther’s thought regarding the distinction between law and gospel arises from his wrestling with Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17.

According to Luther’s own reflections, he noted that he had initially understood the term “righteousness” as something that God requires from us, namely, that we must produce our own righteousness. This seemed to turn Christ into a more terrifying lawgiver than Moses. For where Moses had delivered from God the Ten Commandments with regard to how Israel should comport itself, Christ now delivers the Sermon the Mount, in which the Ten Commandments are extended, deepened, and sharpened. Where Moses seemingly dealt with our external actions, Christ addresses our internal attitudes and emotions as the heart of the law’s requirements.

Luther’s “breakthrough”1 came when he realized that for Paul, the “righteousness of God” in Romans refers not to that which God demands from us, but that which God bestows upon us. In other words, the righteousness of the gospel is nothing other than the righteousness of Christ, in which we are clothed through faith. This righteousness comes to us not as a demand but as a promise—as a sheer gift from God. This is the gospel. As Luther wrote, “it seemed as if the very heavens had been opened …”2

And so Luther’s “breakthrough,” in which he found joy and comfort in the gospel rather than uncertainty of his salvation and anger toward God, rested on making the distinction between the law and the gospel. The law reveals a righteousness that God demands from us, but the gospel reveals a righteousness that God bestows upon us.

Luther’s insights into the distinction between law and gospel served as the basis for nearly all of his debates with the bishops and theologians of the late medieval church. Luther saw them as confusing law and gospel by insisting that while grace might be given freely or as an expression of generosity by God for our efforts, it served only as the basis and impetus for performing good works with the assistance of grace. In other words, faith and grace were only the first step toward becoming righteous.

A good example can be found in a document authored by Luther’s younger colleague Philip Melanchthon, and which Luther reviewed: the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. There, in the narratio portion (something like the opening statements in a court of law) of Article 4 (Justification), paragraphs 5–6, Melanchthon rehearses how the two sides arrived at the point of conflict in which they now find themselves. Influenced by Luther, Melanchthon argues that scripture can be divided into two types of statements, the law and the promises. The law focuses on our behavior as demanded by God; the promise focuses on the forgiveness based on the work of Christ. In the Old Testament that promise was made on the basis of the future appearance of Christ, while in the New Testament that same promise is now made in view of Christ’s appearance. Melanchthon then contends that of these two teachings, his opponents choose the law and seek to be justified by keeping the law (with the help of grace), whereas Luther’s followers choose the promises and seek to be justified by faith alone.3 Thus the distinction of law and gospel went to the heart of the division between the two sides.


Law and gospel need to be properly defined in order to appreciate what Luther means by their distinction. They can be considered both in terms of their grammar and content (verba dei) and in terms of their function or power, namely, what God accomplishes by means of them (opera dei).

Law and Gospel as Words of God (verba dei)

To speak of the grammar of law and gospel is to speak of them in terms of the types of statements they are and in terms of the content of the statements. In other words, one can refer to law and gospel in terms of whether or not they are imperative or indicative statements. The law would ordinarily take the form of imperative statements addressed to the human creature and directing how to be and conduct oneself (e.g., “you shall not …”). By contrast, the gospel is cast in the indicative mood, in terms of describing not what one should do but what God has done in Jesus (e.g., Jesus died for sinners).

In its briefest form, the law sets forth the will of God for what he envisioned and intended his human creatures to be like in their attitudes, thoughts, emotions, words, and deeds. Although for Luther, this will of God was woven into the very fabric of creation itself (e.g., so-called natural law), it is most clearly revealed in the scriptures and most completely summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5). The Sermon on the Mount in turn provided a deeper interpretation of the Ten Commandments for Luther, the insights of which he incorporated into his catechetical teaching. Luther continually set these requirements above those humanly mandated requirements made by the church, either in terms of ceremonial observations or in terms of the evangelical counsels (the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) as pursued by the monastic orders. Even when his opponents focused on the Ten Commandments, Luther complained that they only paid attention to the second table while ignoring the first table, especially the first commandment.

The gospel, by contrast, sets forth the will of God for our salvation as revealed and manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Luther acknowledged that the term “gospel” is used in the titles of the first four books of the New Testament, which contain plenty of instruction about human conduct as well as revealing what God would do for us in Jesus Christ. For Luther, however, in those cases “gospel” is used in a more comprehensive sense than when he uses it as a teaching that is contrasted with the law.

His definition of the gospel was one of the central points of contention between Luther and the medieval church. For his opponents, the gospel was often defined in line with the way it is used in the titles for the first four books of the New Testament. In other words, the gospel was viewed as the biography or historical narrative of Jesus’ life. When viewed this way, it is understandable that the late medieval church objected to Luther’s contention that we are saved by faith alone. How could one be saved simply by believing the truth of these historical narratives? Even the devils believe the truth of the story, and they certainly are not saved.

For Luther, however, the gospel did not encompass the story alone. The historical narrative of Jesus’ life was the basis for the gospel. For Luther, the definition of the gospel included not only what Christ did in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. It included especially the promise that God makes to his human creatures on the basis of Jesus’ work. In other words, to use mathematical terms, the gospel = story + promise of forgiveness. The story of Jesus is not yet gospel (glad tidings) until one adds the promise “for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”4 Because it is the very nature of a promise to seek and engender confidence in the one receiving it, promise and faith were corollaries. And so to be justified by faith alone was nothing other than to be justified by (confidence in) the promise of forgiveness on account of Jesus Christ.

The distinction between law and gospel at the level of their grammar can be confused by regarding them as equally weighted teachings that serve the same purpose in different ways. A fundamental misunderstanding of Luther’s treatment of law and gospel is to regard them as both promising salvation. In other words, it might be said that the law promises salvation on the condition that one keeps the law perfectly. By contrast, the gospel promises salvation unconditionally. But this would suggest that there are two ways of salvation, a “hard way” and an “easy way.” The former is a plan “A” while the latter is a fallback plan “B.”

The law was never given for the purpose of acquiring salvation. It was given prior to sin as a way of guiding human life in accord with God’s purposes. For Luther, from the beginning there had been only one way of salvation—the gospel. He saw this as having been given already in the first gospel word found in Genesis 3:15 (a promise that was seen as referring to the coming of Christ). The gospel is God’s stronger word. And so Luther could speak of the gospel as the end of the law, period.

So what about the statements about keeping the law? For example, didn’t Jesus suggest that the law is the way of salvation when the rich young man asked him what good deed he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus responded, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:16–22 ESV)? But as the context makes clear, the mistake is made in treating such scriptural comments as keeping the law for entrance into heaven. Those comments are addressed to sinners who seek to be saved by their own works. It is tantamount to saying, “Give it your best shot.”

Law and Gospel as Works of God (opera dei)

Law and gospel are distinguished from each other not only by their grammar, but by their power or function. This was the most important point and, indeed, the central emphasis for Luther. For Luther, God’s word does not simply inform us of his will or thinking. His word actually accomplishes his purposes. And so Luther’s distinction of law and gospel focuses on its impact upon the fallen human creature. They have remarkably different impacts.

The law not only contains statements or instructions regarding how we should live as human creatures. Not only is the law normally framed within the imperative mood in addressing human creatures in how they should be and act, but the law is also accompanied by threats and warnings. That is, should people violate the law or not conform to the standards of the law, they come under curse or punishment.

In this way, the law diagnoses, accuses, and kills the person coram deo. It places one under the judging eyes of God and, with it, places one under sentence of death. Thus Luther points out in thesis 23 of his Heidelberg Disputation that the law brings the wrath of God upon us. It “kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom 4:15].”5

By contrast, the gospel brings comfort and consolation. And so in thesis 25, Luther observes that the law says “do this” but it is never done; whereas the gospel says “believe this” and everything is already done for us. Or as Luther expresses it in his inimitable way, in the final thesis (28) of the Heidelberg Disputation, “The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.”6 God’s love creates the object of his love. In other words, we are not loved by God because we are lovable; we are lovable because we are loved by God!

And so for Luther, the gospel is the end of the law. It has the final word over the law and hence becomes the defining word for the Christian life.

Law-Gospel and the Life of Repentance

Luther’s distinction between the law and the gospel plays out early on in Luther’s 1520 Form of the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer (revised in 1522 as the Personal Prayerbook). Together these became forerunners of his later and better-known catechisms published in 1529. Significantly, this 1520 form was prepared by Luther to replace the traditional confessional “mirrors” (manuals) of the late Middle Ages with an evangelical approach to private confession. In this text, Luther used the law-gospel distinction in order to apply the traditional components of catechesis to the penitent. To that end, he described the penitent with the analogy of a sick person. The Ten Commandments diagnosed the person’s sinful condition, the Creed provided the cure, and the Lord’s Prayer showed one how to receive the cure. That pattern shaped catechetical preaching by pastors for decades to come.7

One of Luther’s seminal and most far-reaching statements about the implications of distinguishing the gospel from the law was his contention, in the very first thesis of his famous Ninety-Five Theses, that the entire Christian life is a life of repentance.8 Why is this so if one is a Christian? The anthropology of the Christian provides the answer. A person is simultaneously a sinner and a saint. Though one is a new creature in Christ, the old fallen creature still clings to him or her throughout this life. For this reason, daily dying and rising becomes the rhythm of the Christian life. This especially comes to fruition in Luther’s discussion of baptism within the Small Catechism. On the basis of Romans 6, Luther contends that we live out our baptism by daily dying to sin and rising to new life through repentance.9

Distinguishing law and gospel proved to be a more difficult and complex task for Luther’s followers, and so subsequent Lutheran debates raised the questions of whether or not the law produced repentance or the gospel produced repentance. Such was the case in the first antinomian debate of the late 1520s. Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon prepared the instructions for those who were charged by the prince with assessing the condition of congregations and bringing the Reformation to them. Melanchthon spoke about the need for pastors to preach the law in order produce repentance and to preach the gospel to produce faith. Johann Agricola took issue with that and argued that the law belongs in the courthouse, not in the pulpit. Instead, it is the gospel that should produce contrition as Christians reflect on the sacrifice that Christ made for us. The controversy continued for over a year before Luther weighed in. Timothy Wengert argues that Luther finally addressed the issue with his treatment of the Ten Commandments in the Large Catechism, in which he came out on the side of Melanchthon.10

One of the basic tenets of Luther’s distinction between the law and the gospel was that the law produces either despair or hypocrisy in the sinner. But if that is the case, how can it produce contrition whereby a sinner is ready to receive the gospel? Here is where not only the distinction between law and gospel comes into play but also the relationship between them. James Nestingen argues that for Luther, the law by itself cannot produce contrition.11 The sinner can only go into denial when confronted with the law’s diagnosis. But when the law is encountered along with the gospel, it is able to do so. Why? The hope of the gospel creates the space whereby a sinner is able to accept the diagnosis of the gospel. As an analogy, one who has received a diagnosis of a terminal disease will first enter into denial. What allows that person to accept that diagnosis is the hope for a possible cure. That hope creates the space for such acceptance. In a similar way, Christians confess their sins in the context of the goal and hope of receiving absolution. In this way, law and gospel must not only be distinguished from each other; they must also be held together in their proclamation.

Law-Gospel and the Three Uses of the Law

To view the Christian life as one of daily repentance, a daily dying and rising, would seem to leave little room for any kind of positive use of the law such as that which later became known as the third use of the law. The debate over whether or not Luther had a third use of the law is well known and much has been written on it.

One of the basic features of the distinction between law and gospel is that when they are considered within that dialectic, the law assumes an exclusively negative function. It accuses, crushes, and kills the sinner. Indeed, coram deo, as Luther has famously said, the law always accuses (lex semper accusat). The human creature on this side of eternity will always stand in front of God as one who is a sinner, a fallen creature. This side of eternity, then, the law always diagnoses and accuses us of our sin. This reality would seem to negate any possibility that the law could be employed or experienced in a positive way such as is suggested by the third use of the law.

Indeed, Luther himself does not use the terminology or phrase “third use of the law.” This is most famously pointed out in Luther’s treatment of the law in the Smalcald Articles. These were prepared by Luther as a sort of plan to guide the Lutherans should they attend the proposed council at Constance. They also represented something of a last will and testament for Luther.12 In these articles, Luther describes two uses of the law. The first use is that which constrains sin with punishments and rewards. But Luther points out that this use of the law has failed to defeat sin, much less restrain it. Thus, the use of the law by which our sins are revealed and condemned becomes the primary use of the law or, as he would say, the chief use of the law.

The next generation of Luther’s followers did speak about a third use of the law, as can be seen in the Formula of Concord. Though its authors learned the terminology from Melanchthon, they believed that they were being faithful to Luther’s theology. Their conception of the third use of the law seems to have had a fairly narrow scope. There are two paragraphs in which it is most clearly addressed.13 In both of these cases, the believer needs the guidance of the law so as not to embark upon self-chosen works of service to God. This seems to be precisely what the Augsburg Confession (1530) had in mind when it insisted that faith must produce good works, but those that God has commanded. Similarly, Luther in his Large Catechism frequently contrasted the value of the Ten Commandments for the Christian life with the futility of monastic works as performed by the Carthusian monks.

Given this context, it might seem more fruitful to speak of the third use of the law as channeling the new spiritual impulses of the believer. After all, it is not as if the believer has no knowledge of the Ten Commandments (either from natural law or from being accused of not keeping them). The situation seems rather to be the following: as someone born anew by the Holy Spirit, the believer (the new creature) is eager to serve God willingly and spontaneously. But the old creature rises up and seeks to distract the believer by saying, “You want to serve God? I have a really good idea. You can serve God by going on a pilgrimage or by becoming a monk.” At that point, the third use of the law enters by reminding the person of what God’s will is for us, and thus channeling the believer’s energies in a God-pleasing direction.

The debate over whether or not Luther’s distinction of law and gospel allows for a third use of the law became a major controversy for a good part of the 20th century. In 1935, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth published Evangelium und Gesetz (Gospel and Law) in a not so subtle critique of the Lutheran position. Writing in response, the Bavarian theologian Werner Elert published “Gesetz und Evangelium”.14

Part of the difficulty here lies in the definition of the law that includes both the command and the threat. While both apply for the first and second uses of the law (curb and mirror), the threat seems no longer to apply in the so-called third use of the law. In other words, the command still applies to Christians, but not the threat, since Christians have been freed from the judgment of the law. For this reason, Paul Althaus proposed that we think of the law’s grammar as Gebot (mandate/command) and the grammar combined with the threats of the law as Gesetz.15 The command/mandate existed before the Fall and remains God’s will after the gospel has brought us to faith. But law as Gesetz came into effect with the Fall, with the imposition of the curse and punishment. Here Gesetz would seem to refer particularly to the law’s function of reproving, accusing, and condemning. The law as Gesetz comes to an end with the gospel. Thus one cannot speak of a third use or positive use of the law (Gesetz).

In the final analysis, much of the debate about the third use of the law comes down to terminology. Both those who advocate for it and those who reject it advocate Christian instruction in ethics and the Christian life. Some call this the third use of the law, while others call it the first use of the law applied to Christians. The concern for those who reject a third use of the law is that the Christian life is not ultimately defined by the law. It does not begin with the law, nor does it end with the law as if the gospel were only a means to an end. Instead, the gospel is the final word.

Law-Gospel and its Related Theological Distinctions

Luther’s distinction between law and gospel is closely related to several other distinctions that play a significant role within his theology.

The Two Kinds of Righteousness

Luther first penned a treatise in 1518 by this very title, “The Two Kinds of Righteousness.” Later he wrote another treatise entitled “Three Kinds of Righteousness.” Luther’s thinking on the topic had reached maturity by 1535 in his greater Galatians commentary. There Luther’s introduction declares, “This is our theology!” He expounds it as follows.

The two kinds of righteousness provided Luther with a framework for considering questions related to what it means to be a human creature as God envisioned and intended in creation. Righteousness is the vision that God had for what it meant to be fully human as he had created us. To be righteous as a human being meant that the human creature corresponded to God’s intention and ideal. But why two kinds or types of righteousness?

One of Luther’s chief critiques of the medieval church is that it worked with the assumption that the way we consider another person to be righteous is the way they become righteous before God. In this regard, the church relied on philosophical systems such as the Nicomachean Ethics to chart out that vision for how God’s human creatures should live with each other in a society in which all can prosper. The way in which one became a righteous person who acquired virtues that made him or her so included developing the habits of that ideal. This often required the knowledge needed to become virtuous, practicing those virtues, and performing them at a high level. The medieval church in some ways had worked with that approach in order to describe how one became righteous with God—by developing the habits of loving so that one became a loving person.

In Luther’s call for a distinction between two kinds of righteousness, he contended that God’s vision for how his human creatures should be and live must take into account two fundamentally different relationships, which in turn have two fundamentally different bases or foundations. Thus, Luther distinguished between what righteousness means in our vertical relationship with God (coram deo) and in our horizontal relationships with each other or in the eyes of the world (coram mundo). Luther, as well as his followers, constantly contended that in the matter of justification, they were dealing with how we obtain righteousness or justification or forgiveness of sins before God in distinction from how we are regarded righteous in the eyes of others.

For Luther, our relationship with God is such that God gives life and we receive life. This is true in both creation and redemption. God made us his creatures. God adopted us as his children. In both cases, we stand on the receiving end of that relationship. Thus our righteousness before God consists of faith or trust in Christ. We are righteous before God when we look to him for all good gifts and rely on him alone for the righteousness that he achieved for us. Luther would refer to this as “the righteousness of another bestowed upon us” (iustitia aliena) in 1518/1519 and as “passive righteousness” in 1535. In this relationship, God bestows righteousness and life upon us.

By contrast, Luther acknowledged that God envisioned our relationships with other human creatures (and with the wider non-human creation) dependent upon mutual love or a reciprocity of supportive actions toward one another. In other words, whether I am regarded as righteous in the world (a good mother, husband, citizen, etc.) depends upon how I live. It depends upon my actions toward others and whether or not those actions contribute to the building up and well-being of my relationships with others. Thus Luther referred to this righteousness in the world as a “righteousness that we ourselves achieve” (iustitia propria) in 1518/1519 and as “active righteousness” in 1535; my relationships and well-being in the world depend on how I live with others.

At first glance it is readily evident that there is a correspondence between Luther’s distinction of law and gospel and his distinction between the two kinds of righteousness. Our relationship with God depends upon God’s goodness in creating us and his grace in redeeming us. Both are undeserved and unmerited. They are in both cases characterized by a faith relationship with God. By contrast, our relationship with others in the world depends upon our conduct and performance within the world. It depends upon how we deal with others and how we treat others as to whether or not we are considered to be “good people.” In other words, it is congruent with Luther’s understanding of the law.

While there is an initial congruence between law (horizontal righteousness with other human beings) and gospel (vertical righteousness with God), however, that has to do with the law and gospel on the level of grammar and content. In other words, it sets out God’s vision and ideal for what his human creatures should look like.

But how does one become/reach that ideal vision of God? Here is where Luther’s distinction of law and gospel as the works of God (opera dei) comes into play. Law and gospel as God’s activity or work of crushing and making alive come into play with regard to both relationships: our relationship with God, and our relationship with one another.

In our relationship with God, the law crushes us so that we empty our hands of all our own achievements and come to God instead with empty hands, ready to receive his gifts. The gospel in turn gives us all the gifts of God and provides us the hands of faith to grasp and receive those gifts. Law and gospel as the works of God also play a significant role in our relationship with others. The law provides the standard to which we are to conform in our thoughts, words, and deeds. It provides direction for our behavior and channels our energies in God-pleasing directions. But it is the gospel that gives God’s human creatures the new spiritual desires and impulses that involve not only the reception of God’s gifts by faith (coram deo), but also the living out of our lives by love toward neighbor and care toward God’s creation.

Thus, it is readily apparent that there is an affinity between law and gospel with the two kinds of righteousness. They also, however, serve distinctly different functions in Luther’s thought. The two kinds of righteousness is an anthropological distinction that describes God’s vision for his human creatures and speaks about the righteousness of the gospel coram deo (before God) and a righteousness of the law (coram mundo). Law and gospel, particularly as the works of God, become the means by which God re-creates his human creatures to be righteous both before him and before the world.

The Two Realms Distinction

The second important distinction to which Luther’s law and gospel are closely related has to do with the distinction between the two realms. Here at the outset, it must be pointed out that Luther’s distinction of the two realms does not correspond to the American distinction between church and state. The 16th-century Luther could hardly envision a time centuries later when a government would insist on the separation of church and state. The American distinction of the separation of church and state does not refer to the different ways in which God rules within the world or how God rules within the world. Instead, it refers to the way in which two entities or institutions relate to each other within a given country’s governance. The distinction between church and state arose out of a desire on both sides to be free from the governance of the other. Should the state be able to authorize or give preference to certain religious expressions but not others? Should the church be able to dictate the laws of the government? These remain thorny and complicated issues within American culture. But again, Luther is not referring to two institutions with his distinction. Instead, Luther is speaking about the two realms over which God rules in two different ways.

Luther’s term Reich is often translated as “kingdom,” and so in the United States Luther’s distinction is frequently rendered as the distinction between “two kingdoms.” Robert Kolb has argued that this can be confusing when reading Luther because we tend to think of kingdoms in terms of institutional forms of governance with geographical boundaries. Kolb has suggested that instead we translate “realm” as a “domain” or “sphere of influence.” This fits in with Heckel’s argument that kingdom language in Luther needs to be seen in the more personalistic language of a group or body of people who are ruled by the head of that body. And so when Luther draws on the New Testament language of the kingdom of the world or the kingdom of heaven, this is what he has in mind. In this regard, Luther is an heir of Augustine, whose work The City of God influenced the church’s thinking on this topic for centuries.

The kingdom of the world thus refers to fallen humanity. Everyone since the fall of Adam is conceived and born in original sin. This means that they neither know God nor want to know God. Instead, they are completely turned in upon themselves and carry out everything from the standpoint of self-love and thus self-interest. To that end, they utilize what remains of their fallen reason. Thus these people are captives of Satan and under his influence. The kingdom of heaven, by contrast, refers to baptized believers who have been set free by Christ from their captivity to sin and Satan. Through baptism and faith they have been brought into Christ’s kingdom, or better yet, brought under Christ’s gracious rule and care. Under Christ, they live in faith toward God and love for neighbor. With their needs taken care of by Christ, they willingly look out for their neighbors without instrumentalizing them. These two kingdoms oppose each other as Christ opposes Satan; but Christ and Satan should not be thought of as being somehow equal in power.

Ultimately, both realms belong to God. Both groups of people (under their respective heads) live within God’s creation and so need to be considered within that wider horizon. As the creator, God’s activity aims for the flourishing of life. For humans that means a life lived in fellowship with God, in love toward neighbor, and in care for creation. Toward that end, God continues to create and bring forth life each and every day. He continues to provide abundantly for that life on earth. Yet even as he does so, the realm of sinners and Satan continually works to undo that good work of God by misusing and abusing it. As fallen human creatures under the influence of Satan, they can lead only a life of conflict and death.

This brings us to law and gospel as the means by which God the creator preserves and renews his creation. Here God uses his “left hand” to protect life and preserve his creation by restraining and punishing sin. This includes laws established by the state and punishments that are executed by the government for breaking those laws. These become the instruments by which God compels the behavior of those who refuse to acknowledge him or his will so as to preserve life within his creation. But with his “right hand” God governs believers by means of the Holy Spirit, who works through the promise of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. Although baptized believers are no longer under the rule of Satan, they nevertheless live under the governance of God’s two hands, both law and gospel. Insofar as the old creature still clings to them, they come under God’s law to restrain and crush their sinful inclinations and actions. But insofar as they are new creatures, they find themselves living in the freedom of the gospel under the gracious and protective rule of Christ. They become the vanguard or the first fruits of the new creation.

There is a sense that Luther viewed these earthly structures such as government in purely negative terms. In other words, there would seem to be no need for government if it were not for the presence of sin (see his essay On Temporal Authority). At the same time, there are indications in Luther that he also viewed government in a more positive light, as when, for example, he talked about the need for government to establish a community chest or to attend to the education of its young citizenry. For this, one should consider the Stände or walks of life16 in which God’s human creatures carry out their lives. In the Large Catechism, Luther refers to these as fathers of the nation (government), fathers of the household (parents and employers), and fathers of the church (pastors).17 But of these, there is the sense for Luther that both government leaders and church leaders grow out of the household as extensions of the work given to mothers and fathers.

This generosity of God within creation belongs to the creating and providing love that God has for his creation, but it is not necessarily good news for sinners in that it does not deliver them from their sins. For them, it makes known God’s ongoing patience that they might repent and turn to him, but a patience that will run its course when God will manifest his eschatological judgment. Until that time, the law holds sway in God’s left-hand governance and remains the presupposition for the gospel by which one is delivered from Satan’s realm and brought to live under the gracious rule of Christ in “eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”18

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Divine Command: A New Perspective on Law and Gospel. Translated by Franklin Sherman. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.Find this resource:

    Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.Find this resource:

      Barth, Karl. “Evangelium und Gesetz.” In Theologische Existenz heute! Edited by Karl Barth. Munich: Christian Kaiser, 1935.Find this resource:

        Barth, Karl. “Gospel and Law.” In Community, State, and Church. Edited by Karl Barth, 71–160. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.Find this resource:

          Bayer, Oswald. Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971.Find this resource:

            Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

              Elert, Werner. “Gesetz und Evangelium.” In Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade: Abwandlungen des Themas Gesetz und Evangelium. Edited by Werner Elert, 132–169. Munich: Evangelischer Presseverband für Bayern, 1948.Find this resource:

                Elert, Werner. Law and Gospel. Translated by Edward H. Schroeder. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.Find this resource:

                  Forde, Gerhard. The Law–Gospel Debate: An Interpretation of Its Historical Development. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969.Find this resource:

                    Forde, Gerhard. Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.Find this resource:

                      Haemig, Mary Jane. “The Living Voice of the Catechism: German Lutheran Catechetical Preaching 1530–1580.” PhD diss., Harvard Divinity School, 1996.Find this resource:

                        Heckel, Johannes. Lex Charitatis: A Juristic Disquisition on Law in the Theology of Martin Luther. Translated and edited by Gottfried G. Krodel with Henning F. Falkenstein and Jack A. Hiller. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.Find this resource:

                          Herrmann, Erik. “‘Why Then the Law?’ Salvation History and the Law in Martin Luther’s Interpretation of Galatians 1513–1522.” PhD. diss., Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, 2005.Find this resource:

                            Joest, Wilfried. Gesetz und Freiheit: Das Problem des Tertius usus legis bei Luther und die neutestamtentliche Parainese. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1951.Find this resource:

                              Jüngel, Eberhard. The Freedom of a Christian: Luther’s Significance for Contemporary Theology. Translated by Roy A. Harrisville. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008. German original, Zur Freiheit eines Christenmenschen: Eine Erinnerung an Luthers Schrift. Munich: Kaiser, 1991.Find this resource:

                                Kinder, Ernst, and Klaus Haendler. Gesetz und Evangelium: Beiträge zur gegenwärtigen theologischen Diskussion. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1986.Find this resource:

                                  Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                    Kolb, Robert. “Resurrection and Justification: Luther’s Use of Romans 4:25.” Lutherjahrbuch 78 (2011): 39–60.Find this resource:

                                      Kolb, Robert. Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012.Find this resource:

                                        Kolb, Robert, and Charles P. Arand. The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.Find this resource:

                                          Kolb, Robert, and Timothy Wengert, eds. Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000. Cited conventionally as BC.Find this resource:

                                            Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology. Translated by Roy Harrisville. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.Find this resource:

                                              Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan et al. St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–2015. Cited conventionally as LW.Find this resource:

                                                Luther, Martin. D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe. Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–2009). Cited conventionally as WA.Find this resource:

                                                  Luther, Martin. “Heidelberg Disputation.” 1518. LW 31, 35–70; WA 1, 353–374.Find this resource:

                                                    Luther, Martin. “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” 1519. LW 31, 293–306; WA 2, 145–152.Find this resource:

                                                      Luther, Martin. “Freedom of the Christian.” 1520. LW 31, 327–377; WA 7, 1–73.Find this resource:

                                                        Luther, Martin. “Personal Prayer Book.” 1522. LW 43, 47–55. WA 10 II, 322–326.Find this resource:

                                                          Luther, Martin. “Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms.” In The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, 347–480. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                            Luther, Martin. “Lectures on Galatians, 1–4.” 1535. LW 26:1–461; WA 40/I:40–688.Find this resource:

                                                              Luther, Martin. “Smalcald Articles.” 1537. In BC 296–328.Find this resource:

                                                                Luther, Martin. Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings. 1545. LW 34:323–338; WA 54:179–187.Find this resource:

                                                                  Luther, Martin. The Freedom of a Christian. Translated by Mark D. Tranvik. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                                    Nestingen, James Arne. “Distinguishing Law and Gospel: A Functional View.” Concordia Journal 22.1 (1996): 27–34.Find this resource:

                                                                      Peters, Albrecht. Gesetz und Evangelium. Gütersloh: Mohn, 1981.Find this resource:

                                                                        Russell, William. Luther’s Theological Testament: The Schmalkald Articles. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995.Find this resource:

                                                                          Schultz, Robert. Gesetz und Evangelium in der Lutherischen Theologie des 19. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1958.Find this resource:

                                                                            Wengert, Timothy. Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben Over Poenitentia. Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.Find this resource:

                                                                              Wingren, Gustaf. Creation and Law. Translated by Ross Mackenzie. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1961.Find this resource:


                                                                                (1.) WA TR 5:210, 6f., no. 5518.

                                                                                (2.) LW 34:336–337.

                                                                                (3.) BC 121.

                                                                                (4.) Oswald Bayer, Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971).

                                                                                (5.) LW 31:41.

                                                                                (6.) LW 31:41.

                                                                                (7.) Mary Jane Haemig, “The Living Voice of the Catechism: German Lutheran Catechetical Preaching 1530–1580” (PhD diss., Harvard Divinity School, 1996).

                                                                                (8.) LW 31:25.

                                                                                (9.) Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

                                                                                (10.) Timothy Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben Over Poenitentia (Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).

                                                                                (11.) James A. Nestingen, “Luther's Cultural Translation of the Catechism,” in Lutheran Quarterly 15 (Winter 2001): 440–452.

                                                                                (12.) William Russell, Luther’s Theological Testament: The Schmalkald Articles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995).

                                                                                (13.) BC 587, 590.

                                                                                (14.) “Gesetz und Evangelium” (1948) in Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade: Abwandlungen des Themas Gesetz und Evangelium (Munich: Evangelischer Presseverband für Bayern, 1948), 132–169; Ibid., Law and Gospel, trans. Edward H. Schroeder (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967)

                                                                                (15.) Paul Althaus, The Divine Command: A New Perspective on Law and Gospel, trans. Franklin Sherman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966).

                                                                                (16.) Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008).

                                                                                (17.) Large Catechism I, 142; BC 405–406.

                                                                                (18.) BC 355.