Martin Luther and Johannes Agricola: Antinomianism

Greg Strand – January 12, 2017 1 Comment

On this date in 1538, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johannes Agricola (1494-1566) met, in a second disputation, to discuss/debate antinomianism (against the law). Agricola, and the other antinomians, “taught that the best inducement to repentance is not the law but preaching the gospel of God’s immeasurable grace in Christ. The ‘apostolic admonitions,’ following from the gospel and not the law, establish Christian ethics.” While Luther affirms the law is not necessary for justification, it does play an important role for the Christian in revealing sin, maintaining discipline and discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. Luther “insisted on the importance of the law as both a guide for the ethical life and the means by which God drives sinners to repent (that is, ‘convicts’ them of their sin).”

Part of the problem was that Agricola picked up some of Luther’s teaching, but he did not seriously or sufficiently consider the whole of Luther’s teaching. What was missing was the realism of the Christian life lived simul justus et peccator, i.e., in our justification we are simultaneous, one and the same time, righteous or just and sinners. As one writes, “In and of ourselves, under the analysis of God’s scrutiny, we still have sin; we’re still sinners. But, by imputation and by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is now transferred to our account, then we are considered just or righteous. This is the very heart of the gospel.”

Since we are celebrating Reformation 500 at our upcoming Theology Conference, this is one of topics addressed. However, we are addressing it in a broader manner, focusing on justification and sanctification. But the heart of this discussion and debate rests in the disputation between Luther and Agricola during the Reformation.

Dr. Al Mohler will address the topic, Faith Alone Justifies, Yet the Faith Which Justifies Is Not Alone: Justification and Sanctification. I have explained this lecture in the following way:

Justification by grace alone, by faith alone through Christ alone was the clarion call of the Reformation. It remains the foundation of the Evangelical church today. And yet, this teaching of justification by faith alone concerned the Roman Catholic dissenters because they feared it would foster licentiousness. It would remove all moral motivations to do good works. One of the greatest threats to the Christian faith was the doctrine of assurance, according to some Roman Catholic theologians. Not only did this debate mark the divide between the Reformers and the RCC, there were differences among those promoting Reformation theology. For example, Martin Luther first used the expression Antinomian against Johannes Agricola. Calvin wrote, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Another historical example of this debate occurred in the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century, referred to as the Marrow Controversy. A continuing and contemporary reflection of this debate is that between those who espouse free grace and those who espouse Lordship. On this side of the fall, this challenge and debate are perpetual and universal. How do the doctrines of justification and sanctification relate? How are they different? Can one have one without the other? To what degree? When does one become antinomian? When does one become legalist? In this lecture we will trace the history of this discussion/debate and address the contemporary manifestation of this age-old dispute, with a focus on the practical application to our pastoral ministry with people, recognizing these doctrines are at the heart of most of our pastoral care and counseling with God’s people.

As I worked on a brief annotated bibliography, I included two works that focused on this issue. The first work focuses on the debate between Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Agricola in the 1520s, while Luther refereed. The second one highlights the debate between Luther and Agricola in the 1530s, when Luther addresses antinomianism personally and directly.

Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997). The debate between the law and the gospel occurred in the midst of the Reformation, the mid 1520s. The key characters were Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola. The key question was over the meaning and significance of poenitentia, defined alternatively as penance, penitence and repentance: what is the relation between the law and repentance? It was through this debate Melanchthon developed the notion of the third use of the law for the believer. All of this is foundational for understanding much of Protestantism, and how to understand the law and the gospel in the Christian life.

Holger Sonntag, trans. and ed., Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008). In the earlier debate between Melanchthon and Agricola, Luther played an editorial role. However, in the 1530s he got intimately involved through the first antinomian controversy. Luther heard through others Agricola preached a sermon in which he taught God’s wrath against sin is revealed through the crucified Christ, the gospel, not the law. The heart of Agricola’s view is that “the law’s demands belong to the past; a believer is converted, justified, and instructed through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ. The continuing divine demand of the law – or even of ecclesiastical regulations – was no longer of interest in this context.” To this Luther responded with theses and disputations against the view of antinomianism.

How do justification and sanctification relate to one another theologically, and what are the implications in the Christian life? The way we answer this question has profound consequences for how we live our personal Christian lives, how we live the Christian life with others and with what expectations, and how we provide pastoral counsel to others. This is one of those doctrines in which it is vital we understand and live out both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, all undergirded by the work of God among the people of God.

Personally, the church in which I grew up and the college I attended both espoused Agricola’s view, not Luther’s. This is why Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace,” espoused in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), rang so true in my ears: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (pp. 44-45).

Evangelicals still struggle with this issue. In many ways, on this issue we live with a consistent disputation!

Plan to register for our Theology Conference to learn further about this and other important issues pertaining to life and doctrine.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

One response to Martin Luther and Johannes Agricola: Antinomianism

  1. The distinction between antinomian and other Christian views on moral law is that antinomians believe that obedience to the law is motivated by an internal principle flowing from belief rather than from any external compulsion.

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