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Law & Gospel: How Martin Luther Wanted You to Read Your Bible

A graphic with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses.

In 1521 Martin Luther stood before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and made his famous statement refusing to renounce his writings. Shortly thereafter, he was stolen away to the Wartburg Castle, and while in hiding as a marked man, he translated the New Testament into German. His translation immediately became a bestseller, and his 1522 preface (revised in 1546) thus became one of his most influential writings.1 When he published his translation of the Pentateuch in 1523, he also penned a preface to the Old Testament. Together, these writings give us a window into how Luther sought to guide average Christians in reading the Bible.

Luther’s preface to the New Testament

Luther wrote his preface to the New Testament to clear up confusion about how to understand the Bible and to help believers see God’s gospel promises instead of becoming enslaved to the law. That contrast between law and gospel fitly captures Luther’s driving impulse while reading Scripture. He charged Christians to recognize the law for what it was: God’s means of setting out a moral standard that and condemning humankind for failing to meet it. But Luther also called Bible readers to watch steadfastly for the gospel: God’s promise to save, secure, and sanctify his people. As Timothy George notes about Luther,

Right understanding of law and gospel was essential for the proper interpretation of Scripture and right doing of theology.2

Luther had tried to live a life of obedience to God, and yet he found himself always falling desperately short of God’s righteous standard as captured in the law. It was the gospel, the good news of God’s gracious work of redemption, that rescued Luther from the pit of despair—and the hell of damnation.

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So as he came to the Bible, Luther viewed God’s Word through the lens of law and gospel, for he had experienced the stringent demands of the law and the gracious freedom of the gospel so palpably in his own life. In the New Testament, Luther observed that God “does not compel us but invites us kindly,” for he is gentle and gracious, and thus,

the gospel is not a book of law, but really a preaching of the benefits of Christ, shown to us and given to us for our own possession, if we believe.3

We come by faith alone, and we come to a welcoming God who has secured our entrance through Christ. As people read their Bibles, Luther wanted them to behold this gracious God.

Luther on the Old Testament

What of the law and the Old Testament then? Luther said of Moses that he “drives, compels, threatens, strikes, and rebukes terribly, for he is a lawgiver and driver.”4 Moses demolishes any notion that we can keep the law on our own. So is the Old Testament just a book of condemnation, breathing down our necks with charges of failure? It is true that Luther called the Old Testament a “book of laws” and the New Testament a “book of grace.”5 But despite his stark distinction between law and grace, Luther still saw continuity between the two testaments.

He noted, for example, that the New Testament authors quoted liberally from the Old Testament, making it the foundation of the New. The apostles also charged early Christians to read the Old Testament as Scripture itself. Luther thus summed up what the two testaments are as follows:

What is the New Testament but a public preaching and proclamation of Christ, set forth through the sayings of the Old Testament and fulfilled through Christ?6

In stating this, Luther inseparably intertwined the two testaments.

Also, while Luther associated the Old Testament with law and the New Testament with grace, he denied that the two testaments can be reduced to these elements. In fact, the New Testament contains many commandments “for the control of the flesh,” while the Old Testament also issues “promises and words of grace.”7

Law and gospel

While Luther could arguably sometimes overstate the divide between law and gospel in Scripture, any Bible reader can find benefit from his “law and gospel” approach. Luther’s prefaces to the Old and New Testaments teach Bible interpreters that whenever we read Scripture, we should look for the gospel, for it resounds throughout the whole Bible, highlighted all the more against the relief of the law, and it gives us the gracious truth that a good, merciful, and loving God is for, not against, those who grasp hold of Christ by faith.

* * *

To read Luther’s prefaces to the Old and New Testaments, as well as many other primary texts from the Reformation period, see Denis R. Janz, ed., A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), available on the Logos platform.

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  1. Denis R. Janz, ed., A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 113.
  2. Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 179.
  3. Martin Luther, “Preface to the New Testament,” in Janz, A Reformation Reader, 115.
  4. Luther, “Preface to the New Testament,” in Janz, A Reformation Reader, 115.
  5. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament,” in Janz, A Reformation Reader, 118.
  6. Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament,” in Janz, A Reformation Reader, 117.
  7. Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament,” in Janz, A Reformation Reader, 118.
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Written by
David P. Barshinger

David P. Barshinger is the author of Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014), and he blogs at exploringchurchhistory.com. He currently serves as a book editor at Crossway.

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Written by David P. Barshinger