Love and the fulfilling of the law

I’ve been trying to keep a safe distance from the recent discussions on “sanctification” on various Lutheran blogs (my recent posts on Bonhoeffer are only indirectly connected to these wider discussions). However, one thing for which I’m grateful is that this discussion has sent me back to a part of the Lutheran confessions that I have not read for a couple of years, but that made a big impact on me at the time: the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, and in particular the section on “Love and the Fulfilling of the Law”.

As the recent discussions have shown, it is exceedingly difficult to strike the correct balance between emphasising that, on the one hand, justification is by faith entirely without works, and on the other, that good works are nevertheless an essential component of the Christian life. However, in this section of the Apology, Philip Melanchthon expresses this balance supremely well.

While consistently emphasising that our good works as Christians cannot and do not contribute in the slightest to our justification, Melanchthon explains how good works are a necessary consequence of justifying faith. Conversely, justifying faith is a necessary condition for good works.

One reason why good works necessarily follow upon faith is that faith brings the Holy Spirit and new life into our hearts, enabling us truly to fear and love God for the first time:

Because faith truly brings the Holy Spirit and produces a new life in our hearts, it must also produce spiritual impulses in our hearts. The prophet shows what those impulses are when he says [Jer. 31:33], “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Therefore, after we have been justified and reborn by faith, we begin to fear and love God, to pray for and expect help from him, to thank and praise him, and to obey him in our afflictions. We also begin to love our neighbor because our hearts have spiritual and holy impulses. (p.140)

(Note: page references are to the Kolb/Wengert edition of the Book of Concord, from which the quoted text is taken.)

Indeed, “these things cannot happen until after we have by faith been justified, reborn, and received the Holy Spirit”, because we cannot keep the law without Christ and the Holy Spirit (p.140). In addition, the human heart cannot love God “as long as it believes that he is terribly angry and that he is oppressing us with temporal and eternal calamities”:

Therefore God is not loved until after we grasp his mercy by faith. Not until then does he become someone who can be loved. (p.140)

Melanchthon goes on to make a striking statement that would no doubt bring condemnation down upon his head in some Lutheran circles:

We openly confess, therefore, that the keeping of the law must begin in us and then increase more and more. And we include both simultaneously, namely, the inner spiritual impulses and the outward good works. Therefore the opponents’ claims are false when they charge that our people do not teach about good works since our people not only require them but also show how they can be done. (p.142)

Hence love for God is an essential part of the Christian life and is an inseparable from faith:

It is clear, then, that our teachers require good works. In fact, we add that it is impossible to separate love for God (however meager it may be) from faith. For through Christ we have access to the Father, and, having received the forgiveness of sins, we now truly realize that we have a God (that is, a God who cares for us), we call upon him, give thanks to him, and fear and love him. Thus John teaches in his first epistle [4:19]: “We love him because he first loved us”… (p.142)

It is important to note, however, that our fulfilling of the law as regenerate believers in Christ is never perfect in this life, and “we dare not hold that we are regarded as righteous before God on account of our observance of the law”:

Instead, it must be realized that we are regarded as righteous or accepted on account of Christ, not on account of the law or our works, and that this incipient observing of the law pleases God because we are in Christ. Likewise, that on account of faith in Christ what is lacking in fulfilling the law is not reckoned to us. (p.146)

It will be noted, however, that this is a long way from saying that good works and “observing of the law” are an optional extra in the Christian life. In the end, this is a question of the proper distinction of law and gospel:

We must see what Scripture attributes to the law and what it attributes to the promises. For it praises and teaches good works in such a way as not to abolish the free promise and not to eliminate Christ. For good works are to be done because God requires them.

Therefore they are the results of regeneration, just as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2[:10]. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (p.150)

(That verse from Ephesians could profitably replace every word that has been written on this subject over the past few weeks. Not that I’m letting that stop me…)

In summary, we can express the position as follows:

  • Good works can only be done by righteous people, but we only become righteous before God by faith in Christ, not by our works.
  • Good works spring from a regenerate heart that has the Holy Spirit, but we receive the Holy Spirit only by faith in Christ, not by our works.
  • Good works are motivated by love for God and neighbour (not by a self-interested pursuit of personal salvation, among other possible motives). But we can only truly love God when we are assured that he is no longer angry towards us; that is, when we have peace with him through faith in Christ, not by our works.

The application of this in the Christian life is then a matter of pastoral practice, “taught … by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience” (as Walther puts it). But what Melanchthon is saying here is far closer to the teaching (and the general atmosphere) of the New Testament than slogans such as “Sanctification is simply learning to realise you’ve been justified!”

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