The Center of Luther’s Theology

As a follow up to my post yesterday, I wanted to write about the center of Martin Luther’s theology. I am by no means a church history expert (or an expert on Luther), but I hope this will provide you even more insight into Luther’s heart for gospel-centered theology.

Without a doubt, all the aspects of Luther’s theology play a vital role across the spectrum of Protestantism today. The doctrine of justification by faith is typically the preeminent banner that flies over Lutheran theology, in particular. Perhaps, however, Luther’s doctrine of “law and gospel” was his theological center.

According to Luther, the revelation of God is made manifest in two ways: law and gospel. This does not mean the Old Testament is law and the New Testament is gospel. Rather, God reveals himself throughout the Bible—in both Testaments—through law and gospel. Throughout Scripture, God reveals both words of judgment (law) and words of grace (gospel). Indeed, grace is empty without hearing a word of judgment. A word of judgment drives to despair without grace.

The reason that the doctrine of law and gospel may preeminent in Luther’s theology (over against justification by faith) is that it logically precedes it. The law communicates God’s infinite holiness and how unworthy humans are of relationship with him because of their sinfulness. The word of forgiveness is found in the gospel. The gospel is only good news because of the incredibly bad news that humans cannot (even will not) be reconciled to God. Therefore, law and gospel paves the way for justification by faith. Rather than simply believing that God justifies sinners, law and gospel helps the Christian understand why God can justify sinners. God can only justify sinners because of his word of grace in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Once a person receives this by faith, they are justified in God’s sight.

Justification by faith may lead some to assume antinomianism. This is not the case, however, according to Luther. After justification (being declared righteous before God) by faith, the word of law plays a different role in the believers life than before. The law, which used to be a word of condemnation, is now the pathway to joy and blessing. It was formerly a word of “must do;” now it is a word of “get to.” As Luther himself writes, “Earlier it told me what I ought to do. Now I begin to adapt myself to it.”[1]

Finally, there is a constant dialectic between law and gospel which leads the Christian to believe he is at the same time both sinful and justified.[2] This was a hallmark of Luther’s view of the Christian life. Thus, there is an inherent link between law and gospel. The law is given to show our sinfulness even as Christians and our constant, continually need of the Redeemer. The gospel reveals Christ, the Redeemer, in all his saving might. Then, even after we are justified by faith, the gospel frees us to adapt ourselves to the law and live in a manner worth of our justification.

Whether or not we perfectly agree with Luther on this law-gospel tension as the center of Christian theology, we can be thankful for his relentless pursuit of gospel-centeredness in his own day as we seek to pursue the same in ours.


[1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, rev. ed., (New York: Harper One, 2010), 51.
[2] Ibid., 62.

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