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.