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Luther on the Two Uses of the Law, Galatians 3:19


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"Here one must know that there is a double use of the Law. One is the civic use. God has ordained civic laws, indeed all laws, to restrain transgressions. Therefore every law was given to hinder sins. Does this mean that when the Law restrains sins, it justifies? Not at all. When I refrain from killing or from committing adultery or from stealing, or when I abstain from other sins, I do not do this voluntarily or from the love of virtue but because I am afraid of the sword and of the executioner. This prevents me, as the ropes or the chains prevent a lion or a bear from ravaging something that comes along. Therefore restraint from sins is not righteousness but rather an indication of unrighteousness. Therefore just as a rope holds a furious and untamed beast and keeps it from attacking whatever it meets, so the Law constrains an insane and furious man lest he commit further sins. This restraint makes it abundantly clear that those who have need of it—as does everyone who is outside Christ—are not righteous but unrighteous and insane, whom it is necessary to tame with the rope and with prison to keep them from sinning. Therefore the Law does not justify.

"Thus the first understanding and use of the Law is to restrain the wicked. For the devil reigns in the whole world and drives men to all sorts of shameful deeds. This is why God has ordained magistrates, parents, teachers, laws, shackles, and all civic ordinances, so that, if they cannot do any more, they will at least bind the hands of the devil and keep him from raging at will. Therefore just as ropes and chains are bound upon men who are possessed and in whom the devil is ruling powerfully, to keep them from harming someone, so the whole world, which is possessed by the devil and is being led headlong into every crime, has the magistrate with his ropes and chains, that is, his laws, restraining its hands and feet lest it rush headlong into all sorts of evil. If it does not permit itself to be restrained this way, it will pay with the price of its head. This civic restraint is extremely necessary and was instituted by God, both for the sake of public peace and for the sake of preserving everything, but especially to prevent the course of the Gospel from being hindered by the tumults and seditions of wild men. Paul is not discussing that civic use here; it is indeed very necessary, but it does not justify. For as a possessed person is not free and mentally balanced just because his hands and feet are bound, so when the world is most restrained from external acts of disgrace by the Law, it is not righteous on that account but remains unrighteous. In fact, this very restraint indicates that the world is wicked and insane and that it is driven by its prince, the devil; otherwise there would be no need for it to be kept from sinning by laws.

"The other use of the Law is the theological or spiritual one, which serves to increase transgressions. This is the primary purpose of the Law of Moses, that through it sin might grow and be multiplied, especially in the conscience. Paul discusses this magnificently in Rom. 7. Therefore the true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God. Yet this use of the Law is completely unknown to the hypocrites, the sophists in the universities, and to all men who go along in the presumption of the righteousness of the Law or of their own righteousness. To curb and crush this monster and raging beast, that is, the presumption of religion, God is obliged, on Mt. Sinai, to give a new Law with such pomp and with such an awesome spectacle that the entire people is crushed with fear. For since the reason becomes haughty with this human presumption of righteousness and imagines that on account of this it is pleasing to God, therefore God has to send some Hercules, namely, the Law, to attack, subdue, and destroy this monster with full force. Therefore the Law is intent only on this beast, not on any other."

Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 26, pp. 308–310). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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