How Christ Is the Christian’s Victory over the Law: A Brief Study in Luther’s Galatians (1531)
Concordia Theological Seminary
Ft. Wayne, Indiana,
January 16, 2001
Stephen C. Krueger
Whatever else the topic “the Law in Holy Scripture” can come to mean in contemporary Biblical studies, most giving “the Law” a far more positive assessment than the lex semper accusat (“the Law always accuses”) one of the 16th century Reformers, confessional Lutherans have far more at stake in their understanding of the Law than merely “the Law.” What is at stake is our soteriologically driven Christology, that is, what we believe about Christ for the sake of our salvation.
At least, such is the case in that one voice which shaped and led the 16th century confessional movement at that place called Wittenberg, where in the decades of the 1520s and 1530s Martin Luther had a great deal to say about the topic of “the Law” and its relationship to us (which should come as no surprise) but also the Law’s relationship to Christ (which should!). It is to that important voice, Luther’s, as Luther speaks to the church in his later lectures on Galatians (1531), that I would like briefly to turn, remembering that Luther is speaking to the church in those key years when the confessors were doing their confessing through such important witnesses as the Confessio Augustana and the Apologia.
The purpose of this brief study is not only to notice what Luther here, in his Galatians, has to say about “the Law,” but then to ask why? Why does Luther, in reading St. Paul’s Epistle, in Luther’s 16th century context of confessing, with sophists on the one hand and fanatics now on the other, understand “the Law” as he does?
And what way is that? The Law turns out to be not merely our chief antagonist in the universal courtroom but Christ’s, adversaries the both of them, locked in a remarkable duel in which life and death are at stake. Either one dies discredited or the other. Or both! Yet, only one, the Law or Christ, is raised by God from the dead. Oh, for Luther, that the Law does that to us, too, that it is our accuser, discrediting us to death is also true, but that would come as no surprise. No, what is so surprising, and blessedly or fortunately so, is that the Law destroys, defeats and discredits Christ, the Law’s own Lord, in this duel. Now, that is worthy of note because of its soteriological meaning. In putting to death its own God and Lord, it is the Law itself, so godly and good, which is stripped of its authorization to accuse Christ-connected sinners forever, and, to use Luther’s own words: “…the Law is guilty of stealing, of sacrilege, and of the murder of the Son of God. It loses its rights and deserves to be damned.”
Surely, that is strong language for something as divine as the Law! That it should be Christ’s chief antagonist in the soteriological duel, as Luther reads St. Paul? It would have been far easier to stick with the usual enemies of Christ: sin, death and the power of the devil, etc. As I will note below, Luther tangled with both the sophists and fanatics over this very point. How can Christ be the Law’s “curse?” That is “highly absurd” and “insulting to call the Son of God a sinner and a curse”! ‘First,’ say Luther’s critics, ‘Luther insults the Law by calling it the chief enemy of Christ, deserving to be damned, and then to make matters worse, Luther insults Christ himself, the Son of God, calling him a curse and sinner before that Law!’
Yet here we come to the crux of it in the remarkable duel between the Law and Christ, the duel unfolding for Luther, not just so that Christ could emerge victor over the Law in a universal sense, but so that Christ could be our victor, our victory, the victory of each individual sinner in the courtroom of justification. Oh, the Law still rages at each individual sinner. That’s for sure. Yet now connected by his faith to Christ, a sinner in his “conscience” is authorized to say to the very Law accusing him:
Then, with a kind of holy pride, it (the Christian conscience) insults the Law and says: “I am not threatened by your terrors and threats at all, for you have crucified the Son and God and crucified Him in a supreme act of injustice. Therefore the sin that you committed against Him is unforgivable. You have lost your jurisdiction, and finally you have been conquered and strangled not only for Christ but even for me as a believer in Him.” Therefore, the Law has gone out of existence for us permanently, provided that we abide in Christ.
Not only may we say that, but we may also live it by believing it. “This victory is our faith (1 John 5: 4); with it we conquer the terrors of the Law, of sin, death and every evil…” What is that faith?:
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the Father sent into the world to redeem us miserable sinners who are oppressed by the tyranny of the Law. He poured out His life and spent it lavishly for me. When I feel your terrors and threats, O Law, I immerse my conscience in the wounds, the blood, the death, the resurrection and the victory of Christ. Beyond Him I do not want to see or hear anything at all.
As I will briefly develop below, that claim of the believer’s conscience is not just a psychological promise or a spiritualized one as the Gnostics teach but a very bodily, existential one, which authorizes believers to be truly free before the Law. It is important to add that for Luther the universal duel between Christ and the Law is not just fought “universally” but also particularly “in the conscience.” Luther writes that it is in the conscience where people “confuse the Law with the Gospel (and thus) it is inevitable that they subvert the Gospel.” He adds: “Either Christ must abide and the Law perish, or the Law must abide and Christ perish. It is impossible for Christ and the Law to agree and to share the reign over a conscience.” It is worth noting that Luther begins his Galatians with words like these:
It is a marvelous thing and unknown to the world to teach Christians to ignore the Law and to live before God as though there were no Law whatever. For if you do not ignore the Law and thus direct your thoughts to grace as though there were no Law but as though there were nothing but grace, you cannot be saved. “For through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
The remarkable duel between Christ and the Law, where Luther lays out his soteriologically driven Christology, gives the grounding to why Luther can make that astounding claim. “If a Christian is defined properly and accurately therefore, he is a child of grace and of the forgiveness of sins. He has no Law at all, but he is above the Law, sin, death and hell.”
So what of the remarkable duel? Luther lays it out as clearly as day as he comments on Galatians 4:4–5, where Christ “is born under the Law to redeem those under the Law.” It is a lengthy quote but it is core, the key, the crux of the christological issue for Luther:
But in what manner or way has Christ redeemed us? The manner was as follows: He was born under the Law. When Christ came, He found us all captive under guardians and trustees, that is, confined and constrained under the Law. What did He do? He Himself is Lord of the Law; therefore the Law has no jurisdiction over Him and cannot accuse Him, because He is the Son of God. He who was not under the Law subjected Himself voluntarily to the Law. The Law did everything to Him that it did to us. It accused us and terrified us. It subjected us to sin, death, and the wrath of God; and it condemned us with its judgment. And it had a right to do all this for we have all sinned. But Christ “committed no sin, and no guile was found on His lips” (1 Peter 2: 22). Therefore he owed nothing to the Law. And yet against Him—so holy, righteous, and blessed—the Law raged as much as it does against us accursed and condemned sinners, and even more fiercely. It accused Him of blasphemy and sedition; it found Him guilty in the sight of God of all the sins of the entire world; finally it so saddened and frightened Him that He sweat blood (Luke 22:44); and eventually it sentenced Him to death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).
This was truly a remarkable duel, when the Law, a creature, came into conflict with the Creator, exceeding its every jurisdiction to vex the Son of God with the same tyranny with which it vexed us, the sons of wrath (Eph. 2: 3). Because the Law has sinned so horribly and wickedly against its God, it is summoned to court and accused. Here Christ says: “Lady Law, you empress, you cruel and powerful tyrant over the whole human race, what did I commit that you accused, intimidated and condemned Me in My innocence?” Here the Law, which once condemned and killed all men, has nothing with which to defend or cleanse itself. Therefore it is condemned and killed in turn, so that it loses its jurisdiction not only over Christ—whom it attacked and killed without any right anyway—but also over all who believe in Him. Here Christ says (Matt. 11:28): “Come to Me, all who labor under the yoke of the Law. I could have overcome the Law by My supreme authority, without any injury to Me, for I am the Lord of the Law, and therefore it has no jurisdiction over Me. But for the sake of you, who were under the Law, I assumed your flesh and subjected Myself to the Law. That is, beyond the call of duty I went down into the same imprisonment, tyranny and slavery of the Law under which you were serving as captives. I permitted the Law to lord it over Me, its Lord, to terrify Me, to subject Me to sin, death and the wrath of God—none of which it had any right to do. Therefore I have conquered the Law by a double claim: first, as the Son of God, the Lord of the Law; secondly, in your person, which is tantamount to your having conquered the Law yourselves.
A little later Luther adds:
This also serves to support the idea that we are justified by faith alone. For when this duel between the Law and Christ was going on, no works or merits of ours intervened. Christ alone remains there, having put on our person. He serves the Law and in supreme innocence suffers all its tyranny. Therefore the Law is guilty of stealing, of sacrilege and of the murder of the Son of God. It loses its rights and deserves to be damned.
You will notice the scene of the remarkable duel is played out in the universal courtroom of justification, where the divine Law rages in the hands of the Accuser who is the devil (Satan, of course, means “prosecutor”) against all sinners since the beginning. It is for Luther, as he picks up his cue from St. Paul, as if life itself is a courtroom/justification issue. Sinners have to justify the gift of their lives somehow and in some way for their ultimate meaning, purpose or “justification.” Yet outside of Christ there is no other Word of God operative in court except that devastatingly legal one, the Law, which holds all sinners captive until that Word is trumped by God’s radical new Word in Christ, our victor and our victory over the Law.
Parenthetically, isn’t that what Melanchthon has in mind in the Apology, written in the same year as Luther’s Galatians, as he notices that “all scripture” is about the courtroom of justification, where the two operative words of the law and the promises embrace the entire content of the Sacred Scriptures, the law “always accusing us” and the promises always connecting us through faith alone in the victory which is Christ’s? That is why Melanchthon says in Ap. IV, 5: “All scripture should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises.” All of Scripture, finally, is about that one principle matter: justification in the courtroom.
Of course to Luther, “in Christ” the prosecutor’s case is utterly destroyed. “Mr. Devil,” the Christian conscience says in faith:
…do not rage so. Just take it easy! For there is One who is called Christ. In Him I believe. He has abrogated the Law, damned sin, abolished death, and destroyed hell. And He is your devil, you devil, because He has captured and conquered you, so that you cannot harm me any longer or anyone else who believes in Him.”
There is more. Not only does Christ, for Luther, become the Christian’s victory over the Law through the remarkable duel which Luther sees in St. Paul’s words: “He was born under the Law to redeem those under the Law,” Luther notes that it would be far too easy for us to universalize Christ’s defeat of the Law in a way which still might elude us. That victory may be true for everybody else, but I may still wonder if it is really true for me? The promise, after all for Luther, is that Christ is not only victor, but that he is my victor, my victory as he is born “under the curse of the Law.”
My teacher Robert Bertram noticed how sensitive Luther is to that problem in Bertram’s unpublished essay, How Our Sins Were Christ’s, where Bertram studies that question in Luther’s 1531 Galatians. Bertram notes Luther writing about how the early heretic Arius, in robbing Christ of his divinity (because how could deity be involved in the messy business of humanity, let alone sinners and their sins?), was actually stealing from the doctrine of redemption:
Here you can see how necessary it is to believe and confess the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. When Arius denied this, it was necessary also for him to deny the doctrine of redemption.
The same was true of sophists on the right and fanatics on the left in Luther’s day, who rob Christ not merely of his humanity, but also Christ’s willing solidarity with human sinners. When they say, “But it is highly absurd and insulting to call the Son of God a sinner and a curse!” they too steal from Christians the doctrine of redemption. So, Luther pleads:
Again, if Christ himself is made guilty of all the sins that we have all committed, then we are absolved from all sins, not through ourselves or through our own works or merits but through Him. But if He is innocent and does not carry our sins, then we carry them and shall die and be damned in them.
Keeping Christ on the hook of the Law goes to the center of Luther’s Christology, as he explains the “fortunate exchange” (der fröhliche Wechsel) of Paul’s justification-by-faith-Gospel:
By this fortunate exchange with us He took upon Himself our sinful person and granted us His innocent and victorious Person. Clothed and dressed in this, we are freed from the curse of the Law, because Christ himself voluntarily became a curse for us…
In his essay Bertram identifies seven specific themes in Luther’s Galatians on How Our Sins Are Christ’s.
First, our sins are “so much Christ’s own that we dare not say he bore merely our punishment.” No, the Christ who is born sub lege, that is, “under the Law,” to Luther, does not merely bear the consequences of our sins but the Law’s curse upon a sinner himself.
And remember the way Isaiah speaks of Christ, “God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Of course, for Christ to bear iniquities, Luther agrees, does include his bearing our punishment. “But why is Christ punished? Is it not because he has sin and bears sins?” (LW 26, 279).
Extrapolating further from Luther, Bertram asks:
For what is it that causes the law, the whole retributive order of things, to retaliate with punishment at all? What else but the culprit’s sin and accursedness? If our sin had not really been Christ’s, he could not have been liable to punishment, he could not have been killed. “For unless he had taken upon himself (our) sins…the law would have had no right over him, since it condemns only sinners and holds only them under a curse…since the cause of the curse and of death is sin.” It is for that reason the law says to Christ: “Let every sinner die! And therefore, Christ, if you want to reply that you are guilty and that you bear the punishment, you must bear the sin and the curse as well” (LW 26, 279).
“Second, our sins are so much Christ’s own that, when he fraternized with sinners, he himself stood condemned for the company he kept.” Luther says: “He (Christ) joined himself to the company of the accursed.” “And being joined with us who were accursed, he became a curse for us.” “Therefore when the law found him among thieves, it condemned and executed him as a thief.”
Third, Bertram notes that for Luther, “our sins are so much Christ’s own that, no matter who committed them originally, all of them have now been committed, in effect, by Jesus Christ personally.” This is not just an “abstract universal,” but “exhaustive of every actual sinner and sin in history.” Luther hears Christ saying, “I have committed the sins that all men have committed;” “the sin of Paul, the former blasphemer…of Peter, who denied Christ, of David…an adulterer and a murderer…” So, Luther writes, the Father sends the Son with the commission: “Be Peter the denier, Paul the persecutor…David the adulterer, the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise, the thief on the cross; in short, be the person…who had committed the sins of all men.”
Fourth, our sins are Christ’s very own so much so that Christ himself becomes a sin and a curse. Luther says, again, discussing the Gospel’s fröhliche Wechsel, the happy or fortunate exchange between the believer and Christ:
By this fortunate exchange with us He took upon Himself our sinful person and granted us His innocent and victorious Person. Clothed and dressed in this, we are freed from the curse of the Law, because Christ voluntarily became a curse for us.
Fifth, our sins are so much Christ’s own, “that he bore them not only psychologically,” Bertram continues, “but also, as we do, in his body.” Bertram here points out in Luther’s theology that this is not merely, for Luther, “crass sins” of the flesh, which Gnostics might teach, but, Luther writes, “Now in Paul ‘flesh’ does not, as the sophists suppose, mean crass sins…‘Flesh’ means the entire nature of man, with reason and all his powers.” Thus, our sins were Christ’s own by his bodily dying. “He bore them in his own body,” so that our sins could indeed be exterminated and “destroyed,” “conquered,” “annihilated,” “purged,” “expiated,” “abolished,” “killed,” “buried,” “damned,” “devoured.”
Bertram notes, as did I above, that for Luther Christ could have “overcome the Law” by virtue of his own sovereignty, but “for the sake of you, who were under the law, I assumed your flesh…” And that so, “Just as Christ is wrapped up in our flesh and blood, so we must…know him to be wrapped up in our sins.”
Sixth, Bertram says, “our sin is so much Christ’s own that, since it is his by choice, it incriminates his very motives, his innermost self.” Bertram explains, “Because he attached himself to our sins ‘willingly’ (sponte), he has only himself to blame….that he is liable for them.” Luther writes, “Because he took upon himself our sins, not only by compulsion but by his own free will, it was right for him to bear the punishment and the wrath of God.” On this Bertram notes that it may be at this point especially Luther’s Christology comes closest to modern notions of personhood “in terms of ‘responsibility’ and ‘decision’” (although, these themes may have disappeared in our post-modern situation today). Still, as Luther writes, “Christ was not only found among sinners; but of his own free will…he wanted to be an associate of sinners…” Thus, Christ is implicated with sinners’ sins.
Last, then Bertram develops the theme in Luther I noted above. Our sins were so much Christ’s own, that then the Law at its holiest and its best, by implicating and condemning this sinner of sinners, itself is eternally defeated and discredited. Thus, as Bertram reads Luther, not only the Law but “the other antagonists as well—sin, devil, curse, wrath, death—are present not as caricatures but at the height of their power” and equally suffer the same fate as the Law as it commits its horrendous guilt “of stealing, of sacrilege and of the murder of the Son of God. It loses its rights and deserves to be damned.”
Luther’s Christology in his 1531 Galatians is mighty potent stuff. It challenges with its major league Gospel both our ministries of proclamation and our thinking theologically about the great issues of our day. It seems to me this understanding of the Gospel, involving Christ’s defeat of the Law and of the Law’s whole retributive order of things in the First Creation, for the believing Christian and the believing community of faith, is all too often missing in action.
I would like to conclude with just a few observations and questions.
In our interpretation of Scripture, why have we moved out of the courtroom? If it is true that justification by faith alone is the chief doctrine of Scripture, the chief or head article of the faith, with the Gospel operating dialectically with the courtroom’s Law, why isn’t that our approach to the Bible as confessing Lutherans? It was for Luther, wasn’t it? Why isn’t it ours today? And to the extent that it isn’t, perhaps we have not been presenting a powerful Christ today who is the Christian’s victory over the Law. Is it true for us today, this magnificent insight of the Reformer’s, as he lays it out in his Galatians:
The knowledge of this topic, the distinction between Law and Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine. Therefore let everyone learn diligently how to distinguish Law and Gospel, not only in words but in feeling and experience…?
Second: What about our theology of “the Law”? Where has our freedom in Christ before the Law gone? Oh sure, there is that “third use” of Formula VI. Luther speaks of it in his Galatians, too:
On the other hand, works and performances of the Law must be demanded in the world as though there were no promise or grace. This is because of the stubborn, proud and hardhearted, before whose eyes nothing must be set except the Law, in order they may be humbled and terrified.
To the extent that we all, each of us, carry our sinful flesh still on our backs, the Law continues its devastating work with us to keep driving us back into the arms of our Savior. That’s what Formula VI means on the “Third Use of the Law.”
Luther’s Galatians also speaks of the first use, the political one, of the Law:
Let civic laws and ordinances remain in their proper place, and let the householder and magistrate make laws that are ever so good and fine.
But then Luther adds: “Yet, none of this will liberate a man from the curse in the sight of God.”
To Luther, it’s a question of jurisdictions.
Now if we are dead to the Law, then the Law has no jurisdiction over us, just as it has no jurisdiction over Christ, who has liberated us from the Law in order that in this way we may live to God.
The Law speaks to my sinful flesh and will until the grave. But that having been said, the Gospel, on the other hand, speaks to the new Christic identity which Christ has given me and wherein I die to the Law and the Law is dead to me (Galatians 2:19: “For I through the Law died to the Law that I might live for God”). And the two dare not be confused:
To die to the Law means not to be bound by the Law but to be free from the Law and not know the Law. Therefore let anyone who wants to be alive in the sight of God strive to be found outside the Law, and let him come out of the grave with Christ.
I ask, where is that theology alive and well among us today both in our proclamation and in our theological method?
I guess I am finally asking, “Can we take Luther seriously and recover that same radical Gospel and its meaning for the life of our community of faith where Christ is indeed our victor and our victory over the Law and of the Law’s whole retributive order of things?”
With gratitude to you for listening, it is for that blessed day I pray.
Stephen C. Krueger
 e.g., Ap. IV, 38, 128, 179; Ap. XII, 34, 88.
 LW 26, 371.
 LW 26, 278.
 LW 26, 371.
 LW 26, 369.
 LW 26, 369.
 LW 26, 54.
 LW 26, 54.
 LW 26, 4.
 LW 26, 159.
 LW 26, 369-371.
 LW 26, 371.
 LW 26, 122: “Whatever is not grace is Law, whether it be the Civil Law, the Ceremonial Law or the Decalog.”
 LW 26, 162.
 Bertram, R. W., “How Our Sins Were Christ’s: A Study in Luther’s Galatians (1531),” unpublished paper; Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 1973.
 LW 26, 282.
 LW 26, 278.
 LW 26, 280.
 LW 26, 284.
 Bertram, 3.
 Ibid., 3–4.
 Ibid., 4.
 LW 26, 281.
 LW 26, 290.
 LW 26, 278.
 Bertram, 4–5.
 Bertram, p. 5.
 LW 26, 283–84.
 LW 26, 277.
 LW 26, 280.
 LW 26, 284.
 LW 26, 288–89.
 LW 26, 139.
 LW 26, 288–89.
 LW 26, 159, 280, 281, 282.
 LW 26, 370.
 LW 26, 278.
 Bertram, 8.
 Ibid., 9.
 LW 26, 284.
 Bertram, 9.
 LW 26, 278.
 Bertram, 9.
 LW 26, 371.
 LW 26, 117.
 LW 26, 4.
 LW 26, 249.
 LW 26, 249.
 LW 26, 156.
 LW 26, 157.