What A Confessional Presbyterian Learned from Luther

“What is a nice OPC minister like you doing constantly quoting Martin Luther on Twitter?” is the familiar refrain after people take a gander at my feed. Normally, I admit when I am guilty as charged, but there is no great guilt in learning from the good Doctor Luther. I would describe myself as an old-school, confessional Presbyterian. When I say I am “Reformed,” I mean that I sincerely subscribe to the Westminster Standards as a minister of the Gospel in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In my prior calling as a minister in the URCNA, I also gladly subscribed to the Three Forms of Unity because I am persuaded they fully agree with the Word of God.

In 2015, I left the PCA after 12 years of ministry there, in part, over the matter of confessional subscription. I was no longer comfortable with how the practice of “good faith subscription” seemed to be working out there, especially with the exoneration of ministers who publicly taught contrary to the Westminster Standards by espousing the Federal Vision error. I am sympathetic with my confessional brothers in the PCA, as they continue to deal with the inevitable if unintended consequences of good faith as it plays out now in the Revoice controversary.

In other words, I mean it when I say that I am confessionally Reformed. I am decidedly not confessionally Lutheran. So, what accounts for my love of Martin Luther? Luther taught me things that I believe are entirely compatible with my Reformed commitments. In fact, what I have learned from him clarifies and strengthens those commitments.

First, I learned from Luther that “Christ-centered” is not merely a slogan; it truly shapes the way I read Scripture, how I preach, and how I pastor. Luther said, “It is beyond a doubt that the entire Scripture points to Christ alone.”1 For some years, “Christ-centered and Gospel-driven,” and “preaching the Gospel to yourself” were popular slogans among the Young, Restless, and Reformed-ish crowd. Some, it seems, have moved on to other things, like mercy ministry or variations on the theme of social justice, but Christ as the center of Scripture is not a fad. The Gospel as the animating force of Christian life is not a gimmick. Luther understood the necessity of pounding this truth into the human heart: “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” 2

I highly recommend Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (originally published in The Library of Christian Classics but now republished via Muriwai Books for Kindle). There you can see Luther comforting the doubting and despondent by applying the healing balm of Christ and Him crucified to their wounds. There is certainly some good advice in his letters, but the main thrust of his pastoral counsel is to remind sinners and sufferers of the sufficiency of Christ. In his efforts to encourage, Luther frequently cites Jesus’ words in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Luther also taught me the importance of rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel, both for my own sake and for the sake of my flock. Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians is a must-read for this purpose alone. As he explains, “It seems a small matter to mingle the Law and Gospel, faith and works, but it creates more mischief than man’s brain can conceive. To mix Law and Gospel not only clouds the knowledge of grace, but it also cuts out Christ altogether.”3 Is this yet another example of Luther’s gift of hyperbole in action? Not at all. Luther is simply echoing the warning of the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:21: “For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

Over the years, I have heard some Reformed and Presbyterian folks say that because of Luther’s emphasis on the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel, there is a tendency towards antinomianism in his theology. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but think they have obviously never read Luther’s sermons! While it often sounds like he views the Law negatively, he only takes this stance in response to our misuse of it (whether consciously or unconsciously) when we seek self-justification.

Most often, it is in times of temptation that we misuse the Law. We may believe we have lost God’s favor when we sin or when we suffer. Therefore, after sinning, we make misguided penitential resolutions to try harder and do better. When under affliction, we undertake to root out the sin for which He must be punishing us, so that we might come under His blessing once again. We forget His dear Son, Jesus Christ, whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of all our sins, whose righteousness secures the Father’s eternal favor toward us, despite the sin that remains in us or the suffering He may ordain for us in this vale of tears.

Perhaps it would help us as Reformed Christians to gloss “Law” as “the covenant of works” whenever we read Luther railing against our fleshly tendency to misuse it.4 We resort to the Law as a covenant of works whenever we think, “If I resolve to obey, then God will restore blessings to me.” We have forgotten the Gospel as a covenant of grace, which says, “Christ obeyed in my place and therefore secured every spiritual blessing for me.”

Luther struggled to make this proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel during his own difficult days. He famously said,

The person who can rightly divide Law and Gospel has reason to thank God. He is a true theologian. I must confess that in times of temptation I do not always know how to do it. To divide Law and Gospel means to place the Gospel in heaven, and to keep the Law on earth; to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly, and the righteousness of the Law earthly; to put as much difference between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law, as there is difference between day and night.5

Luther also taught me what it means to be a theologian of the cross, and why we are all prone to be theologians of glory. This can be a tough concept for Christians, but especially Westminster-Shorter-Catechism-loving folks like me. Is it not, after all, man’s chief end to glorify God and enjoy Him forever? Is it not a good thing to be a theologian of glory? In his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, Luther defended 28 theses to advance the theology of the cross in contrast to the theology of glory.

Here is a sample of the choicer of Luther’s theses:

  • “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.”
  • “Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”
  • “Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”
  • “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.”
  • “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.”
  • “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”
  • “The law says, ‘Do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”6

At first glance these may appear more like paradoxical Zen Buddhist koans (e.g., “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) than Christian theology. But Luther is faithfully defending Paul’s theology of Christ and Him crucified, which looks to the descent of Christ incarnate for our salvation. In this way, Luther stands apart from other theologians who propose to ascend a glory-ladder to heaven by means of their works, reason, or mystical experiences.

It is the theology of the cross that the world calls weakness and folly, but by God’s grace we see in it the wisdom and power of God for our salvation. It is the theology of the cross that helps us to understand that God has appointed for us not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for His sake—dying to sin and the lies of this world that we may also rise to new life with Him. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

I say these are things Luther taught me, but it is better to say these are things I am still learning about Law and Gospel through the scriptures, and Luther helps me take hold of them, because the flesh always abides and the Gospel is always counterintuitive. Thus, the good Doctor wisely teaches me that I will never fully learn these lessons until I am finally purged of my sinful, self-justifying flesh in glory. In summary, Luther teaches me that I am still a sinner (by nature) and righteous (only by faith), and so I will need to hear and believe the Gospel every single day until I die and see my Savior face-to-face.

©Tony Phelps. All Rights Reserved.

NOTES

1. What Luther Says, complied by Ewald M. Plass. Concordia Publishing House, 70.

2. Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Kindle Locations 115–17). Kindle Edition.

3. Ibid., (Kindle Locations 332–34).

4.  Ursinus wrote,  Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

5. Ibid., (Kindle Locations 716–20).

6. Cited from https://bookofconcord.org/other-resources/sources-and-context/heidelberg-disputation/#21.

Resources

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  • Tony Phelps
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    Tony grew up in Rhode Island. He was educated at BA (University of Rhode Island) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He worked in the insurance industry for ten years. He planted a PCA church in Wakefield, RI where he served for eleven years. In 2015–18 he pastored Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Colorado Springs. He is currently pastor of Living Hope (OPC). Tony is married to Donna and together they have three children.

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15 comments

  1. My heart says Amen to this article. This is what Luther has been for me too, though I am reformed in my confession. I love to read Luther because of these very things written in this article. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • Thanks for reading, Frederick. I like to tell folks, “If you don’t like Luther, we can’t be friends.” 🙂 So I’m glad to count you among my Heidelblog friends.

    • Amen! This is the only understanding of the gospel that can truly give us peace with God. Law must be completely separated from gospel in the article of justification. Law only condemns. Whenever the attempt is made to add our righteous obedience as necessary, for final salvation, a condemning uncertainty confronts us in our conscience. The law demands perfect obedience, and our obedience cannot meet God’s standard. Only the perfect obedience of Christ, imputed to us through faith, can give us that perfect peace of acceptance with God.

      • Thank you Angela. That was really well said and again I say Amen. Understanding this truth frees our conscience to serve our Lord in love. We are justified by grace, through faith, on account of Christ alone.

  2. Much of what Luther said and wrote is perfectly compatible with Reformed confession and practice. I read “The Bondage of the Will” earlier this year with great pleasure and benefit.

    • Calvin agreed. So did Beza. So did all the Reformed until the mid-19th century, when some (not all) adopted the “Central Dogma” analysis whereby Luther’s “central dogma” was said to be justification and Calvin’s to be election. About the same time, particularly in the USA, some Presbyterians began to identify Zwingli as their sole/primary source. Today, there are a fair number of conservative American Presbyterians (the Dutch and German Reformed have never bought this) who will not admit to any influence from Luther.

    • Thanks for reading, Dan. That’s why I love to read Luther. He always reminds that I am a sinner and that Christ alone is my righteousness.

  3. Dude, you’re just this much from being Lutheran – just go ahead and take the plunge and embrace conservative confessional Lutheranism. Signed a Luther Lutheran! ^_^

    • Gary,

      What Tony wrote is just plain old confessional Reformed Theology. See the resources for the essay on Calvin and Luther. It’s the Heidelberg Catechism.

  4. Would the historic Reformed also appreciate Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard?

    • Neil,

      Yes and no. There’s a significant difference between the Reformed appropriation of Luther and Lutheran orthodoxy. The Reformed, in the classical period, did read the Lutheran orthodox with appreciation but 100 years after Luther the differences had sharpened and hardened. 1580 was a watershed. All the Reformed were denounced in the Book of Concord as either crude sacramentarians or crafty sacramentarians but essentially we were rejected as lying fanatics. The Lutheran soteriology of the BoC, Gerhard et al. isn’t quite the soteriology of the De servo. See the resource page linked above re Lutheran & Reformed orthodoxy.

      See also my chapter in Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant for a contrast between Olevianus and Chemnitz on Christology. After the 1550s the differences on worship, Christology etc became more pronounced. From the Luther perspective, Calvin’s signature on the Consensus Tigurinus (Zürich Agreement) of 1549 was fatal.

  5. There is another avenue in which we are enticed to discount Christ, despite whole-scale reliance on His righteousness when we think of ourselves in the sight of God (Rm 4:2, πρὸς θεόν) — not dividing our reliance, there, between Christ and “ought else.”

    That avenue is in the status we place on interim measurements of ourselves on the high end. Not speaking here of the recognition by one of our two hands, of what the other is doing right (keeping it secret from the other), but the keeping of a statistic, a kind of amassing of the count on the high end, which unfortunately both hands, heart, and brain are far too good at. That amassing, that high esteeming (Lk 16:15), gets us advocating a theology of (our own) glory right back to the kind of status counting that put it there for Luther to notice in the 16th Century (I think.) I’m hypothesizing this, as perhaps how pride sneaks in where some statements of humility are scrupulously followed.

    One of the distinctives of Professor Horton’s systematic is how early-on he points out that the attempt to have what we say about xyz be “the view from omnipotence” is prideful. We should be self-correcting more than we are, in this matter of doing statistics about ourselves (I think.)

  6. I have the exact same experience. I’m a confessional Presbyterian with 6+ years within the Reformed Church and sadly never once heard of the Law/Gospel Distinction. The closest was in a Sabbath School class before worship were a clear distinction between the CoW and CoG was taught. But never framed as clearly as Luther does.

    Then a good friend bought me Luther’s commentary on Galatians and it changed my life. I’ve been reading everything Luther I can get my hands on ever since.

    Thanks be to God!

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