Freewheeling Libertine or Law Dog?

By Scott Keith

We All Love a Good Controversy

The late 1520s brought controversy to the budding Lutherans and Melanchthon. Among them was what would come to be known as the Antinomian Controversy. Johan Agricola, a colleague and preacher, had begun to argue that the Law no longer needed to be preached to Christians because the regenerate was free from the power of the Law.

At the same time, in the late 1520s and early 1530s, Melanchthon’s theology became utterly reliant on the idea that justification is a purely forensic act whereby the unjust sinner is declared just on account of Christ (propter Christum). For Melanchthon, the problem with this formulation occurs in that this leaves little room for good works, even of the outward or civil type.

The Law Systematized

With his Humanist bent toward the need for a moral and theological reform of the Church, Melanchthon could not allow this to stand. Further, his need of achieving the definitional clarity that the loci method demanded was not served by allowing this “loose end” to remain untied. Thus, in the 1535 edition of the Loci, he developed the idea of uses, or more properly functions, of the Law. He hoped that this formulation would put to rest the controversy over the preaching of the Law and prove once and for all that Christians needed to continue to hear the Law. In 1535, he tries to clarify just why that is.

So then, in the 1535 edition of the Loci, the definition of the Law became exaggerated and expanded to include three uses or functions, and each is given a clearly defined set of categories under which they are active.

The First Function

The first function of the Law, which Melanchthon delineates, is that which Luther and all of the Reformers would have used. It is the civil function of the Law. Not only will this function restrain sin, but it is also known to all alike, regenerate and unregenerate. It can and will lead to a certain type of knowledge of God, a simple knowledge of His existence and fear of Him.

According to this function of the Law, God grants civil order to all people. He establishes government for the common good, and this function contains threats and promises. Melanchthon says, “And for this discipline, God has ordained: (1) magistrates; (2) the law; (3) common instruction; (4) punishments; (5) human suffering. Also pertinent are sayings of Paul from Galatians 3:24: ‘So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came.'” (Note: Melanchthon loves lists!)

Function Number Two – The Real Deal!

The second function of the Law is the theological function. This is not part of the Law of nature, but it is one and the same with the divine Law of God. The primary function of the Law is to accuse and drive the sinner to repentance and Christ. Melanchthon says, “The second function belongs to the Divine Law, and is the chief function, it shows us our sin, and accuses us, petrifies us, and condemns the conscience.” The chief function of the Law is to condemn. As stated, the Law cannot lead to salvation. So then, its primary function is to terrify the conscience of the sinner. In fact, this function of the Law does even more: “This understanding in the same way teaches that the Law terrifies the conscience, because it always accuses us, and not only does it make accusations against us, but it shows us our natural weakness and condemns us of our ignorance towards God, our contempt of God, and our similar affections.”

The Third Function – This One is for You, Christians

When teaching the believer about the third function of the Law, Melanchthon claims: (1) the third function of the Law is for those justified by faith; (2) it teaches them about good works and obedience; (3) the regenerate is free from the Law according to justification; (4) according to obedience, the Law remains as a rule not a hammer; (5) obedience should be begun in the regenerate so that they do at least some part of the Law; (6) but this is not for salvation, for this is on account of Christ; (7) but  it is for obedience since it belongs to good works. There is an ontological assumption present in Melanchthon’s view and method of defining the Law. That seems to be that, at least on some level or under some function, the Christian is capable of righteousness unto it. Melanchthon is sophisticated enough to try to avoid the explicit consequences of this type of thinking. Yet, it is implicit and needs to be exposed whether he sees it as a necessary exposition or not. Thus, in Melanchthon, though the Law cannot save, the Gospel correctly understood would at least lead to an outward righteousness, which can be measured by the third function of the Law.

Clearly Unclear

Perhaps the problem is that Melanchthon’s initial attempts at clarity left many unanswered questions. To the first question asked: “Does the third function of the Law place a requirement on the regenerate to ‘do something’ in order to be saved?” the answer, at least from the 1535 Loci, is no. To the second question: “Where is the action in Melanchthon’s theology? Is it the action on the part of God or on the part of the regenerate?” the answer is both, as can be seen in Melanchthon’s formula. Melanchthon says, “The third function of the Law in those who are justified by faith is that which teaches them about good works, and teaches them what works are pleasing to God…” Yet, he expands, saying, “But now that we are justified, it is necessary to obey God.”

But At Least the Crisis was Averted… Right?

Not really. Melanchthon’s attempt at calming the storm with this formulation eventually came to naught. As said above, he left too many questions unanswered. Antinomians still claimed that the Law was not needed. Others relied too heavily on the Law, claiming it could do things Scripture denies it does. Some believed they were the users of the Law rather than God. Attempts were made by later Lutherans in the Formula of Concord to clear things up again. The formulators of the Formula wonderfully stated the Law’s functions and its limits. But alas, even though the Formula had laid down the “official doctrine,” the Antinomian Controversy persisted and perhaps does to this day.

Read Dr. Keith’s previous posts in this series here:


Early Years

Melanchthon’s Magnum Opus

Work, Work, Work

The Birthday of the Lutheran Church