Review: Friends of the Law

Title of Work:

Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for the Christian Life

Author of Work:

Edward A. Engelbrecht


Pastor Ben Tomczak

Page Number:

Format Availability:


Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for the Christian Life, by Edward A. Engelbrecht,  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. xvii + 310 pages.

SS.24.Friends of the Law.LgEdward Engelbrecht “serves as the senior editor for professional and academic books and Bible resources at Concordia Publishing House….  He served as general editor for The Lutheran Study Bible (CPH 2009) and The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes (CPH 2012)” (back cover).  Engelbrecht also served as an associate editor on Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions.

The decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to allow practicing homosexuals to be rostered as clergyman confirmed to Edward Engelbrecht that denying the Law in its third use (as a guide for the Christian) leads to total antinomianism.  That action by the largest American Lutheran church body, combined with the almost century-long controversy in American Lutheranism over the uses of the Law, led Engelbrecht to take up a study of the third use of the Law.

Engelbrecht decided to answer (once more) the main questions being posed about the third use of the Law among Lutherans:  Did Luther teach it or did the Formula of Concord shift away from Luther’s theology when it described the third use of the Law in the life of the Christian (Article VI)?  Engelbrecht answers resoundingly:  “Luther taught the third use of the Law!”  More than that, Engelbrecht proves from Scripture, inter-testamental writings, the church fathers (e.g. Augustine’s four stages of man: before the Law, under the Law, under Grace, in Peace, 43-44), and medieval theologians (e.g. Peter Lombard using the phrase, “Law as friend”), that the concept of functions and uses of the Law (including a function of the Law for the righteous man, in our terms, the third use of the Law) has always been discussed.  “In view of this, the Reformers did not create a new doctrinal category.  They interacted with deep, carefully considered teachings of earlier theologians” (69).

Engelbrecht had to write this book because throughout the 20th century a consensus developed among many theologians that the Lutheran church only teaches two uses of the Law – Law as mirror and Law as curb.  To prove this, scholars and theologians appealed to Luther’s writings.  To prove his case, Engelbrecht does the same.  After spending six chapters covering materials from Scripture through the medieval theologians, Engelbrecht focuses the bulk of the remainder to a systematic treatment of Luther’s relevant works.  Each chapter focuses on a period, work, or group of works that fit together, for example:

  • Luther’s earliest teachings (1515-1522)
  • Regard for Moses (1522-1525)
  • Luther’s early interpretation of 1 Timothy (1525-1528)
  • The Catechisms (1529-1530)
  • The Lectures on Galatians (1531-1535)
  • The Smalcald Articles (1536-1538)
  • The Antinomian Disputations (1537-1539)
  • Later editions of the Church Postil (1540, 1543)
  • The Lectures on Genesis (1535-1544)
  • Consistency in Luther’s teaching

He also includes chapters on Melanchthon, Calvin, the Council of Trent, and the Formula of Concord.

Engelbrecht definitely proves his thesis. With abundant quotations from the works of Luther over almost the entirety of his career, the reader can conclude nothing except that Luther taught (with Scripture) that the Law of God found in God’s Word still applies to Christians.  Engelbrecht: “The Christian as a sinner never outgrows the use of the Law.  In fact, as a righteous man, he takes up the Law and uses it for his benefit and the benefit of his neighbor.  He delights in the goodness of the Law and may even regard it as a friend (Lectures on Galatians [1519] LW 27:347).  This is not works righteousness nor is it legalism – this attitude and these works are the fruit of justification” (184).

Even though Luther did not always systematically and consistently talk about first, second, and third uses of the Law, you cannot escape the fact that he saw a role for the Law in the life of the Christian (e.g. 161).  One can explain Luther’s variety and “inconsistency” by understanding the challenges he faced in different times.  Early in his career he spoke out strongly against the works-righteousness of the Roman system, and so focused on the theological uses of the Law:  “You are a sinner who cannot earn salvation by obeying the Law!”  Later, in the 1520s and 1530s, with antinomian fires blazing and people denying that the Law should be preached to Christians, Luther spent more time dealing with the role of the Law in the life of the Christian.  Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us if these terms and usages don’t always appear with the same clarity or in the same form (175).

In other words, the discussion about whether Luther and classic Lutheranism viewed the Law as applying to a Christian, or if Luther taught a third use of the Law, should be over.  Luther always maintained that the Christian does not have the right to form his own morality or become a situation ethicist.  The “only two-uses” view of the Law does this.  If the Law only accuses and restrains, but doesn’t guide, then the only guides can be my own conscience, my own feelings, or some other extra-Biblical source, hence ELCA’s decision to roster homosexual clergy.  The words of God, however, do not pass away (Mark 13:32).  Jesus says we must be more righteous than the Pharisees (Matthew 5).  Unless we want to live by man-made rules (recall how well that went for the Pharisees, cf. Mark 7), we can look only to God’s own Law as revealed in Holy Scripture.  Engelbrecht helps show us that that was Luther’s view too.

Another reason this is so important, besides establishing a divine origin for standards of morality, is that how we view the Law affects how we view the Gospel as well.  “A weak or confused doctrine of the Law would possibly lead to a weak or confused doctrine of the Gospel.  In other words, as we write about the Law and its role in the lives of people, we are at the same time anticipating the role of the Gospel….the reader must realize that the Gospel – the basis of our justification and everlasting life – is at stake” (4).

The proof, of course, is in the pudding. When the Lutheran World Federation (mostly theologians who reject the third use of the Law) failed to produce a statement on justification (the Gospel!) in the 1960s, and when we see and hear what passes for Gospel proclamation outside the old Synodical Conference, we understand that how we view the Law in all its uses is vital. We must understand the Law properly or else we will no longer be able to preach the Gospel.

Along with proving his main thesis, Engelbrecht leaves us with some other valuable takeaways.

  • Always read Luther as a whole, not just “young Luther” or “old Luther” but “all Luther.”
  • We should spend more time reading the Postils, Luther’s sermons, which were meant to disseminate Lutheran theology from pulpits throughout Germany.
  • When preaching, don’t think you can arbitrarily manipulate and control the uses of the Law (244), as in, “Ah, here’s some first use of the Law.  Then here’s some third use.  Oh, here’s some good second use.”  (244). The Law doesn’t only accuse (as the “only two uses” crowd would maintain), but it always accuses. This should have a tremendous impact on all Lutheran preaching.
  • Like the definition of sacraments, Lutherans sometimes delineated more than three uses of the Law, in line with ancient and medieval theology (198).  Engelbrecht finds at least five:  civil, theological, guide, prophetic, and magistrate’s.

Happily, this book can be recommended wholeheartedly for our pastors and people (though this is most definitely a professional and academic volume).  This book evidences Lutheran theology and theological work at its best.

The book was, however, not without faults.  Scattered throughout the text were what I would call either unclear or unfinished thoughts or references.  For example, on page 19, he leaves out a footnote when discussing Plato’s third use of the law when similar footnotes surround that reference.  Later, on page 21, he mentions how the Gospel writers use Psalm 41:9 in this discussion, but never follows up on that thought and tells us how they do (Perhaps a mistaken biblical citation?).  His section on Philo (22-23) refers to “the quotation from Philo above” which he never actually quoted.  Footnote 315, on page 142, refers to some “war passages” in the Antinomian Disputations and it’s not entirely clear if that’s a reference to something in this book or another book.  Relatedly, I wish he would have spent a little more time discussing the authenticity of a disputed portion of the Antinomian Disputations, which if authentic, seal the deal about Luther’s view on the third use of the Law (156-157).  Finally, in the epilogue on page 255, he notes a reference to the phrase usus legis from Luther in the years 1513-1515 and says, “Here one sees a still earlier appearance of the term in Luther, before those in his lectures on Galatians that I had noticed.”  Later, in Appendix B (259), “Luther’s Phrases for the Use of the Law” he still refers to 1521 and 1525 as “the earliest recognized example” of the use of that phrase.  I understand that incorporating this find (found “as I prepared the manuscript for the printer” [255]) into the body of the text might have required too much re-writing to be practical and I applaud him for inserting it in the Epilogue so that we have the latest possible findings.  …But couldn’t the reference in the appendix have been fixed without too much effort or inconvenience?

Nevertheless, all the above can easily be overlooked because of the wealth of material surrounding those brief unfinished thoughts.  There is no doubt that in so far as we are Christians, the Law is our friend.  The Bible teaches us that.  Engelbrecht confirms that it is also the teaching of our Lutheran fathers from the beginning. It is recommended that you read Friends of the Law in conjunction with Scott Murray’s Law, Life, and the Living God (CPH, 2002), detailing the history of the third use controversy in twentieth-century American Lutheranism.