Monday, January 29, 2007

Law Cannot Make us Willing

Born in the shadow of a law-dominated Roman Catholic church, Luther’s theology recovered the priority of the Gospel and then emphasized a proper distinction between Law and Gospel. And yet, the heirs of Luther (and all Christianity for that matter) continues to struggle with the lawful use of the Law. To say that the issue was settled by Luther (or the Lutheran confessions) overstates the case.

First, Luther’s views did not necessarily hold sway over Calvin and the other reformers - so modern evangelicalism has evolved a different view of the Law than Lutheranism. Beyond that, Lutheran theologians themselves have continued to struggle with how the Law fits into the life of the Christian. And this struggle spills over into the pastor’s way of preaching the Law and how the individual Christian responds to such preaching.

The debate within Lutheranism revolves around the so-called three uses of the Law commonly called the mirror, the curb and the guide. For Lutherans at least, the first two uses are never at issue. The third causes all the mischief.

The essence of the controversy was brought home to me when I recently went back to my little brown catechism, the version I used in confirmation classes fifty years ago. There I found the three uses, just as I had remembered them:

1. As a mirror it shows us our sin and the need of a Savior.

2. As a curb it checks to some extent the coarse outbreak of sin, thereby helping to preserve order in this sinful world.

3. As a rule it guides us in the true fear, love, and trust in God, that we willingly do according to His commandments.
- Luther’s Catechism (1956), Explanation p. 90-91

Immediately I noticed parenthesis inserted around the last clause of use #3. (that we willingly do according to His commandments.) and hand-written in the margin was the sentence: “Law cannot make us willing.”

The handwriting was not mine however. I recognized as it as my father’s. And it was written in ink! (a sin of the first order). What was up with that? Had my dad at some point taken my catechism and made his own editorial comments in it?

I flipped through the rest of the catechism. There were no other entries anywhere. This was the only one.

Then I looked at the inside front cover, where I saw my father’s name - Edgar D. Hahm. This was not my catechism after all.

Sometime between 1956 (when this catechism was published) and his death in 1991, my father felt compelled to blog this single sentence (in ink) in his own copy of Luther's Small Catechism.

He obviously had his own concerns about the misuse of the Law.

I wish I could talk to him about this now.


Courtney said...

In our Bible Study we have been exploring the law. Our study guide had a helpful commentary that explained a certain section of Romans where Paul is refering to the law frequently. It says this... "Paul uses the word in several ways here. In 7:21, he means "principle" as in 3:27. In 7:22, he means God's Law. In 7:23, "the law of my mind" is God's Law, while "another law" and "the law of sin" are principles or forces opposed to God's Law." - Navigators Life Change Series on Romans

I'm guessing that Luther's catechism is speaking of God's Law primarily.

I'm pretty sure that's what this following passage is talking about as well.

I don't know what Grandpa was thinking when he wrote the clarification in his catechism. But if I had written it, I might have been thinking about something like this.

"So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bounce us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code." Rom. 7:4-6

It is the new way of the Spirit that enables my will to ever be in line with the heart of God. And His heart is what I believe the Law was also intended to express.

Just as "the law is spiritual" Rom 7:14, it can only be our guide if we are led by the Spirit. That's just good to remember and worth writing in pen.

T. Hahm said...

I like the way you put it “It is the new way of the Spirit that enables my will to ever be in line with the heart of God.”

This seems to express exactly what Paul is trying to say in the Romans passage. But he also says we “died to the law” and are “released from the law.” So I think the new walk in the spirit is something radically new and different, completely replacing the notion of being guided by the old concept of God’s law as portrayed by the 3rd use.

Of course, like you said, we need to find out what Paul means by “law” in order to understand what he means when he says we are “released from the law.” (Good topic for another blog.)

Anonymous said...

I think your dad is right. The law cannot make us willing. The only thing that could possibly make us willing is God's grace. One person defined grace is this way, "the desire and ability to do God's will".

Dave Haak said...

The australian Lutheran church book of concord disagree's with this view too. It seems to agree with your daughter.

Anonymous said...

Your father seems correct here, and does not seem to be taking issue with the catechism, which emphatically does not say that the law makes us willing. Our wills are bent, rather, against the law until we are redeemed by Christ, until we are spiritually "quickened" as Paul speaks of in Ephesians 2:1-5. Take note of Philippians 2:13: "For it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good pleasure."

doulou christou said...

Thanks for the discussion.

We now walk in the Spirit according to the new man. Does the Spirit need the law? The Holy Spirit gives the fruits of the Spirit, all gifts of faith to the believer. This happens without the law.

But the believer still has the sinful flesh in this life, so he remains impure. For this reason the Christian still needs the law, according to Article VI of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord.

How, then is the law a guide or rule? It does not guide the Spirit. Instead, it shows what good works are commanded in the law so that, like a mirror, it shows us that our works are impure, lest we should fall into a false sense of security or invent our own works (both characteristic of the flesh, not the Spirit).

It is a common misconception that now that I'm free from the curse of the law it no longer threatens me and I use it to do good works. As your father correctly pointed out, the "law cannot make us willing." Rather, the Holy Spirit uses it to kill our flesh. Yet even this comes as a gift in faith. Thanks be to God for his gifts, namely justification, sanctification, and all good things.