Mixing Law and Gospel: A Deadly Brew

Luther's Works, Volume 51 In November 1532, some princes of Germany who were sympathetic to the Reformation invited Martin Luther to preach for them in Worlitz.  His text was 1 Timothy 1:5-7.  In the sermon, among other things, Luther explained to the princes the dangerous error of mixing God’s judgment seat and his mercy seat, the law and the gospel:

“For the Scriptures teach me that God establishes two seats for men, a judgment seat for those who are still secure and proud and will neither acknowledge nor confess their sin, and a mercy seat for those whose conscience is poor and needy, who feel and confess their sin, dread his judgment, and yearn for his grace.   …We must now learn to distinguish between the two parts which are called the law and the gospel.”

“…[In 1 Tim. 1] Paul is rebuking the error and ignorance of those who were extolling and preaching the law and yet neither understanding it themselves nor showing how what one can do about it or how it can be performed.  They could do no more than babble words: keep the law, keep the commandments and be saved, do good works, and so on.  Just as to this day they are scribbling books and spewing the churches full of this idle wish-wash.  …They talk a lot about faith but they mix things together, as a barkeeper mixes water and wine, by saying if you live in such and such a way God will be gracious to you, and they turn the mercy seat into a judgment seat and the judgment seat into a mercy seat.”

“…They mix it all up in one brew….  What good is all this shrieking: if you want to get to heaven, you must keep the commandments?  You won’t accomplish it that way, not by a long shot!  For just look into yourself and search out the evil within you and you will find that you were born in sin and have lived in sin and are unable to produce what the law demands.”

“And now I am compelled to say: even though I may have lived a good life before men, let everything I have done or failed to do remain there under the judgment seat as God sees fit, but as for me, I know of no other comfort, help, or counsel for my salvation except that Christ is my mercy seat, who did no sin or evil and both died and rose again for me, and now sits at the right hand of the Father and takes me to himself under his shadow and protection, so that I have no doubt that through him I am safe before God from all wrath and terror.  Thus faith remains pure and unalloyed, because then it makes no pretensions and seeks no glory or comfort save in the Lord Christ alone.”

Martin Luther, “On the Sum of the Christian Life,” Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume 51.

shane lems

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