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It was Johannes Agricola, one of Martin Luther’s early zealous comrades and a former student of the Reformer, who uttered the vehement words that serve as the title of this article. Agricola’s understanding of the gospel, as expressed in the formula sola fide (justification by faith alone), left no room for the preaching of the moral law of the Old Testament. His full statement was this: “Art thou steeped in sin, an adulterer or a thief? If thou believest, thou art in salvation. All who follow Moses must go to the Devil. To the gallows. . . ”

Luther responded negatively to Agricola’s statement, coining the term antinomianism to describe the sentiment his young comrade was expressing. He also charged Agricola with declaring that “Law belongs in the courthouse, not in the chancel.” The idea was that the law was superceded by the gospel and was abolished in all its parts. The antinomians who followed Agricola argued that the saints are no longer subject to the law.

Ironically, in Luther’s own insistence on sola fide, many in the Roman Catholic community “heard” the idea that the gospel totally abrogates the Old Testament law and has no application to the New Testament Christian. In a sense, they saw Agricola’s view as the logical conclusion of Luther’s doctrine. If works contribute nothing to our justification, they should be of no concern to us. If faith trumps works and the gospel banishes the law, we can sing the theme song of antinomianism:

Free from the law,

O blessed condition;

We can sin all we want

And still have remission.

It was because of charges to this effect, as well as repeated appeals to James 2, that Luther found it necessary to clarify the nature of saving faith, the relationship of faith to works, and the relationship of the gospel to the law.

The Reformation qualifier was this: “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” Luther, in keeping with the epistle of James, argued that saving faith is a fides viva, a living faith that always yields the fruit of good works. The Reformation did not see justification as being wrought by a profession of faith, for a profession is easy to come by and may not indicate the possession of true faith itself.

Jesus warned against empty professions when He said: “ ‘Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” ’ ” (Matt. 7:21–23).

There can be no stronger denunciation of antinomianism than that from the lips of Jesus. If good works do not flow from faith, it is proof that the “faith” is no true faith but merely an empty or dead claim to faith. Faith without works is not saving faith. But Luther was careful to note that the works that are the necessary fruit of true faith add no merit or anything to the ground of justification. The only works that justify us are the works of Christ.

Luther . . . argued that saving faith is a fides viva, a living faith that always yields the fruit of good works.

Luther repudiated antinomianism in his 1536 treatise titled “Against the Antinomians,” although the debate continued until 1540. Finally, even Agricola recanted his views, though he was never personally reconciled with Luther.

At first, Luther saw the role of law as simply preparing sinners for grace by revealing their sin, but he later broadened his understanding of its use. In 1577, the Lutheran Formula of Concord recognized a threefold use of the law: to reveal sin, to establish decency in society, and to provide a rule of life for Christians.

Though the term antinomian (antilaw) was introduced in the sixteenth century by Luther, the power of this heretical idea was known much earlier. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Gnostic heresy fostered a kind of antinomianism that has not yet disappeared from the church. The Gnostics saw salvation as purely a spiritual matter that did not affect the carnal nature of man. They also affirmed that the carnal does not affect the soul, saying that if gold were dipped in filth, it would not lose its beauty but would retain its own nature. Nothing that a “spiritual man” could do would harm his spiritual nature.

Even before the Gnostic antinomianism, the disease was present in the apostolic community. The scandalous episode of the incestuous man in the Corinthian church was reported to Paul. This man’s behavior was not merely an isolated event; it revealed a broader spirit of antinomianism that was corrupting the church.

In his rebuke, Paul wrote: “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2). Obviously, the Corinthians were taking pride in their “freedom” in the gospel that tolerated such heinous sin. Paul rebuked them by saying, “Your glorying is not good” (v. 6), then required them to excommunicate the man and to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5).

Later, the apostle warned the Corinthians to guard against deceptive doctrine: “Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9b–10).

Paul was not suggesting that anyone who commits these sins has no hope of heaven. But impenitent persistence in such wickedness would be a sign of a dead faith with no fruit of sanctification. Paul clearly understood the Christian’s ongoing struggle with sin, but he had no room for a theology of lawlessness by which the sinner cries, “Let us continue in sin that grace may abound.”

Growing in Law

They Fought the Law

Keep Reading Cut Off from the Law

From the September 2002 Issue
Sep 2002 Issue