Law of the Giants: Nomology of Luther vs. Calvin


By Martin Weber, DMin

The most influential theologians of Christian history are St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, suggests church historian Phillip Schaff.1 Both Reformation giants learned much from their patristic predecessor–yet remain as different as a German and a Frenchman can be.2 This paper compares and critiques the differences between Luther and Calvin in their nomology.

Some describe the Geneva reformer in terms that imply lifestyle legalism;3 others consider it more nearly true that Luther is “history’s greatest antinomian.”4 How could these two apostles of the Reformation gospel be perceived so differently? Are they merely at opposite ends of the same law and gospel dialectic, apparently opposed but fundamentally unified? Or are there dramatic and irreconcilable differences in their nomology?

I regard the latter as true, believing that their legal differences go beyond style to substance.

There is a great gulf fixed between Calvin and Luther in their nomologies, although both reformers share the same starting point: a view of law and gospel that justifies the believer with imputed righteousness instead of Rome’s infusion. From there they proceed on different tracks. Calvin sees the law as a guide to living God’s love, whereas Luther typically limits the law as a guide or pedagogue for the pre-regenerate. God’s law for Calvin is a friendly companion along the pilgrim path; Luther sees the law for believers as a yoke of bondage, a stimulant to sin, and an enemy of faith–yet, ironically, necessary for one to keep believing.

Nevertheless, Luther has a high view of law with Calvin, even though he positions God’s commandments in a dialectic relationship with the gospel, whereas Calvin sees law and gospel not only compatible but complementary. To Calvin, being “not under the law but under grace” means that the elect who live by faith in Christ are not under not its condemnation; Luther agrees but adds that believers are also not under the law’s authority and influence. He basically teaches two uses of the law, though some would disagree. Calvin sees three–the tertius usus legis being a guide for Christians. Luther looks for guidance not to the letter of the law but to the indwelling Spirit, although he emphatically declares that such a life fulfills the law–yet is not guided by it. Calvin values a life (both individual and societal) of law and order motivated by grateful and respectful love.

This paper will explain and evaluate these complexities, seeking to conclude with a harmonious nomology derived from both Luther and Calvin. My thesis is that while both reformers have strengths and weaknesses, Luther’s overall concept of law is more compatible with saving grace, although Calvin’s nomology is more comprehensive through its third use of the law, which I suggest should be the test of faith and not its guide.

Significance of this study
Nearly one half millennium after the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin are stillrelevant and significant to our world. A popular book of a secular historian listing of the 100 most influential persons of human history ranks Luther as 25th and Calvin as 57th. 5 Their theology has rippled throughout modern society far beyond religion itself, in government, culture, language, values, and even the economy through the “Protestant work ethic.” 6 One business textbook describes Calvin as “the single most powerful influence in the formation of modern business.”7 Such is the lasting effect upon western civilization from the Reformation that Luther launched and which Calvin’s societal principles guided.

Regarding nomology specifically, the societal implications of God’s law as taught by Luther and Calvin affected not only Europe but the founding of the American colonies. One cannot understand the pioneering Puritans without probing Calvin’s concept of divine law applied in government, nor appreciate American democracy without understanding the Radical Reformation’s rejection of it.

For all the above reasons and undoubtedly others as well, this study of Reformation nomology has significance. In a narrower context, my Seventh-day Adventist faith community considers itself divinely commissioned to consummate the Reformation, specifically regarding the keeping of God’s commandments.

Methods, procedures and limitations
Following this introduction and background, I propose to examine the nomology of Luther first and Calvin next according to these seven testing elements: 1) law and gospel, 2) nature of law, 3) obedience to law, 4) Sabbath and the law, 5) usage of the law, 6) being “under” the law, and 7) problems with the law. I will then offer my own theological critique and assessment for each of those seven elements in both reformers.

In attempting to review and critique these theological champions, I am like a neighborhood jogger, huffing and puffing around the block, musing on the relative merits of two Olympic marathon runners. Thus respect and humility are appropriate on my part. I want the teaching of Luther and Calvin to critique my own beliefs more deeply than I am capable of evaluating theirs. I take comfort that even Paul himself, upon whose writings Calvin and Luther largely constructed their nomology, expected the anonymous Berean believers to evaluate his teaching. I likewise invite the reader to judge this paper on its own merits and offer feedback. If my interaction with the data stimulates further study or discussion, I shall be content.

This study is limited by space and pages available for this project. I must resist venturing into areas of general theology and intriguing biography, except for whatever may directly impact nomology.

Regarding sources: sufficient primary sources exist and are included in this study to adequately understand the nomology of both reformers. For Luther, I consider the most authoritative source to be his commentary on Galatians, which better reflects his mature thinking than his much earlier commentary on Romans. For Calvin, the Institutes, of course, must be the focus. And for both Reformation giants, the selected writings of renowned researchers and theologians are secondary sources providing both background and theological insight.


Law and Gospel
The focal point of Luther’s theology is freedom in the spirit of the gospel, having been released from the letter of the law. The law’s injunction: “Do this and thou shalt live” is satisfied by the gospel’s triumphant announcement: “It is finished!” “Come for all things are now ready.”To Luther, the gospel does not put believers to work seeking to fulfil the law; instead, it invites us to rest in Christ’s fulfillment of it.

Foundational to Luther’s nomology is his two-fold knowledge of God, outlined during the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. First is the theology of glory (theologia gloriae) which is the natural or legal knowledge of God. “The gospel is hidden from it and unknown to it. Even a legalistic piety can speak of God’s goodness, but that is not the same as knowing that God is merciful and accepts sinners.”8 This “natural law” or legal-based theology of glory is the counterpart and counterfeit of the evangelical knowledge provided in the theology of the cross (theologia cruces)–for Luther is the essence of true theology9. Luther sees law almost in opposition to the gospel in a dialectic relationship “sharply distinguished but not to be separated.”10 And so Luther regards all scripture divided dualistically into commands (law) and promises (gospel); the Old and New Testaments also fall into the general categories of law and gospel, respectively.11

Luther sees the law as a yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1).12 “The heavy yoke of the law is replaced by the light and easy yoke of Christ.”13 Luther says fallen human reason is fundamentally legalistic, preferring the law’s yoke to Christ’s freedom.14

Nature of Law
Given Luther’s warnings against law-centered living and sometimes even the law itself, one might suspect a low conception of law, perhaps even antinomianism. But respect for God’s law in its proper place is a continuing theme throughout his writings and sermons. In his treatise How Christians Should Regard Moses, Luther insisted that the law should not be “swept under the rug.”15 The law is the moon and the gospel the sun. The law is the lightning and the gospel the warming sun.

Luther sees significance in the two tables of the Ten Commandments, citing Augustine.16 The first table declares duty to God and the second, duty to fellow humanity. In a word, this duty is love. An interesting sidelight in Luther’s nomology is that he assigns the first table of the law authority over the second, meaning that love to God takes precedence over love for humanity. Sometimes upholding the first table requires breaking of the second table, Luther posits. For example, he affirms the Old Testament matriarch Rebecca for urging her younger son to defraud6 the elder, since love to God in respecting sovereign will (regarding the birthright) takes precedence over love to humanity.17

Anything that is not grace is law, so Luther puts the Mosaic ceremonial laws under the umbrella of divine expectations together with the Decalogue.18 However, the Ten Commandments are distinguished by their eternally relevant principles–but not the seventh-day Sabbath, as we shall see.

Obedience to Law
Luther has no objection to works: “We do not condemn them for their own sake but on account of ... the perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them.”19 He declares: “I do not want idle Christians.”20 However, he draws a clear distinction between the imperatives of the gospel and the imperatives of the law. He believes that believers fulfil the law, not as a goal in itself but as a fruit of a Spirit-filled life under the easy yoke of Christ.21 He hails spontaneous works which are motivated by gratitude for grace, expressing love to God and fellow humanity: “Where the spirit of God is, there is liberty, as St. Paul says. No teacher or law is necessary, and yet a man does everything that ought to be done.”22 Luther seems to regard this fulfilling of the law as an unconscious, serendipitous fruit of the indwelling Spirit. He urges in his Commentary on Galatians to “ignore the law and to live before God as though there were no7 law whatever.”23 This reflects the famous advice of Luther’s patristic mentor, Augustine: “Love God, and do as you please.” Luther even turbocharged that advice: “For if you do not ignore the law and thus direct your thoughts to grace as though there were no law but as through there were nothing but grace, you cannot be saved.”24 To support the strength of such statements, Luther sometimes quotes 1 Timothy 1:9: “The law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate.” Luther interprets this as meaning that the justified need not concern themselves with law but simply live fervently and faithfully in the Spirit.

Luther had to clarify and temper his nomology when antinomian radicals such as John Agricola brought difficulty to the Reformation by misinterpreting the freedom of the Spirit. Luther retorted: “To reject the law, without which neither church nor civil authority nor home nor any individual can exist, is to kick the bottom out of the barrel. It’s time to resist. I can’t and I won’t stand for it.”25 When Stubner, one of the notorious “Heavenly Prophets,” cried: “‘The Spirit, the Spirit!’ Luther replied, ‘I slap your spirit on the snout.’”26

The Sabbath
Luther sees no need to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, declaring it to be “stopped” along with animal sacrifices.27 He declares in his Smaller Catechism: “God did not command us Christians to observe any day.”28 Thus all days of the week are identical in terms of sacredness.29 Luther not only overlooks the inherent value of the seventh-day Sabbath as a memorial of entering God’s rest, he fails to grant it even the standing of natural law with the rest of the Decalogue. Instead, he associates the Sabbath with irrelevant ceremonial laws.30

When confronted with the claims of the Sabbath, Luther once replied: “‘Go to the Jews with your Moses; I am no Jew. . . . If I accept Moses in one respect, then I am obligated to keep the entire law.’ For not one little period in Moses pertains to us.”31

Some of Luther’s most turbulent relations were with sabbatarians: Jews, naturally, and Andreas Karlstadt, Luther’s former compatriot but now radical enemy. His unpleasant relationships with Sabbath keepers understandably did not endear him to the seventh day, yet is difficult to sanction his ridicule of the peaceful and sensible Moravians for their faithful obedience to the biblical fourth commandment.

Usage of Law
Luther regards the law has having two offices, or functions. The first is its natural function, noted above, which recommends itself to the individual conscience and society as the will of God. His second function is evangelical, driving the sinner to Christ for gospel grace.32 Beyond that, Luther is somewhat inconsistent in nomology, not tidy and systematic like Calvin. At times Luther explicitly declares that “the law is not preached for the new man, the man of faith, for he has the spirit of God which is freely subject to the law.”33 So believers need neither the warnings nor the instruction of the law, Luther asserts. Yet other times he counsels that the law should be “preached without distinction to the pious as well as to the impious.”34 Believers should continue to hear the law, since they still live in a sinful body. Because of this remaining sin, we must permit ourselves to be “rebuked, terrified, slain, and sacrificed by the Law until we are lowered into the grave. Therefore before and after we have become Christians, the Law must in this life constantly be lex occidens, damnans, accusans (the slaying, condemning, accusing Law).”35 Elsewhere Luther urges the law to be preached to the saved that they may not only regard themselves as sinners but also mortify the flesh, lest they become “impetuously secure.36

In evaluating Luther’s nomology, we must note that Luther is not suggesting that believers get marching orders from the law, as does Calvin. To Luther, the law for believers reminds them continually that they need gospel grace. Nevertheless, some students of Luther such as Helmut Thielicke,37 Paul Althaus,38 and textbook author Justo Gonazles39 have concluded that Luther urges tertius usus legis, as Melanchthon40 did and other later Lutherans at the Formula of Concord.41

My assessment is that, yes, Luther at times teaches a third use of law, but decidedly not in the same way as does Calvin, as we shall see, or orthodox Lutherans after Luther’s death. I regard context as the key to understanding Luther’s own uncharacteristic comments on tertius usus legis: in the heat of battle, when defending himself against the antinomians, perhaps his passion triumphs over precision as he urges the legal imperatives of the Spirit-filled life.Luther eventually came to acknowledge that some immature or carnal Christians lack sufficient influence from the Spirit to experience God’s guidance and so need “apostolic commandments” to restrain them.42

But this is law only in its broad sense as a principle. True, in an isolated case he recommends the Ten Commandments as a “pattern for doing good works.”43 But seeing the law as a pattern, which is passive, is not quite saying the law is an active guide. This distinction is subtle but significant. Luther is overwhelmingly adamant that the only real guide for a believer is the Spirit moving within, not the letter of the law. True, in his hymn about the Ten Commandments, he says the law tells us “how before God man should live.”44 But I would argue that this use of law for believers is not so much a guide as a test. Once again, the distinction is subtle but real.

Luther’s overwhelming testimony throughout three decades of nomology is that the law is for unbelievers, while people of faith live by the Spirit instead of the written code. As support I would point out that never in Luther’s nomology do believers derive motivation from the law, ala Calvin. And never does he use the term tertius usus legis.

Not under the Law
Although Luther was compelled to close what some antinomians exploited as a loophole in his theology, he does teach at many times, in many ways, that believers live not under law but under grace. To Gonzalez, Luther interprets this to mean “the Christian is no longer subject to the curse of the law”45 But “under the law” for Luther goes beyond being under its curse or condemnation; it also means under its “influence” or “dominion46.”Luther gets bolder yet, insisting that Galatians 4:4 declares that Christ’s purpose in coming was the “abolition” of the law in redeeming us from the law.47 He continues:

Christ banished the Law from the conscience. It dare no longer banish us from God. . . . The Law . . . still raises its voice in condemnation. But the conscience finds quick relief in the words of the Apostle: “Christ has redeemed us form the law.” The conscience can now hold its head high and say to the Law... “You have lost your influence forever.”48

Problems with Law
A number of Pauline passages apparently propose that focusing on law will only worsen one’s sin problem. In a particularly creative analogy, Luther compares sin to lime, a soil conditioner, and the law to water, which activates lime to become a severe skin irritant. The solution is the soothing oil of the gospel, which heals us from the law.49 Luther clearly understood the irony that the same law that condemns sin only increases sinful behavior: “the strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56, also Rom. 7:8). And so he emphasizes much more than Calvin such texts that identify the law as the correlate of sin.50

Now, to summarize Luther’s nomology: His consistent teaching throughout three decades of commentary is that the law provides both the individual conscience and general society with a natural knowledge of sin. Secondly, it evangelistically convicts of sin in light of God’s wrath, causing spiritual seekers to flee into Christ’s salvivic provision. After faith comes, the law is neither a motivator nor a guide. Loving gratitude for salvation stimulates obedience, with the indwelling Spirit providing both guidance and empowerment. The Spirit also is the primary safeguard of obedience; at best the law plays a secondary role to protect immature believers from stumbling into immorality. For believers, the law also serves as a continuing reminder to keep looking away from meritorious works to Jesus for salvation.

Luther’s concept of law features some sharp contrasts with Calvin, as well as some compatibilities, as we shall now see.


Law and Gospel

John Calvin’s focal point of theology is the salvation covenant, an integral part of which is the law. He sees the law not simply as a “collection of commands” about how to live well but as an integral element of the grace covenant.51 Law and gospel are not enemies, nor even rivals, but friends. “The relationship between law and gospel, rather than being dialectical, becomes almost continuous.”52 The two are intermingled throughout both testaments. The Bible itself is the story of the covenant, God’s contractual agreement through the gospel that Jesus, the eternal Word of God, would become the incarnate savior. The saved are the community of those elected by God’s sovereign foreknowledge to receive His gift of grace. Such is the covenant on a corporate basis.

Individually, the God’s Spirit moves the elect to acknowledge sin and awakens within them a faith response for accepting the gospel. This faith blossoms into faithfulness–a life of grateful love to God and fellow humanity, which is the keeping of His commandments. “For Calvin there is nothing worse that trying to live the Christian life without definite, revealed norms or rules.”53 Yet he acknowledges that the law “kills its readers” when severed from the grace of Christ.54

Nature of Law
To Calvin, the decalogue is a condensed form of divine expectations, an “accommodated expression of universal, eternal law.”55 He looks beyond the Ten Commandments to the antecedent principles they express. Proof that law preceded sin is the pre-fall Eden prohibition against eating from the tree.56

Calvin also employs Luther’s analogy of the law being a mirror that points out sin.57 But his nomology is not primarily negative, in that the law exposes sin, but positive, regarding its call to love God and fellow humanity. To him, the law is intended for life. But since post-fall humanity is corrupted and at enmity with God, His law becomes an instrument of death to sinful man. Yet this is an “accidental” property of the law rather than its original purpose or function.58

To Calvin, the law finds its center in Jesus. Christ in fact christianized the law, as evident in the Sermon on the Mount. Nobody can truly understand the law without relating it to Jesus, who is the vere anima–very soul–of the law as well as its goal.59 So every divine command as well as promise points to Christ. So there is no inconsistency when he refers sometimes to the law and other times to Christ as the “norm or rule of godly living” and the expression of God’s will.60

As for the Mosaic ceremonial law, Calvin regards them as peculiar to Israel, adapted to their time and place.61 Yet the whole legal structure of ancient Israel is an expression of God’s orderly will in creation,62 conveying eternal principles.

Obedience to Law
Calvin sees three fundamental principles that govern obedience to the law. First, that God is Spirit, so His commandments are to be obeyed not just by letter (outward actions) but by His Spirit working within our spirit (heart obedience). Secondly, that since the law preceded sin, obedience is not primarily reactive against sin but proactive. Thus every prohibition is reframed in positive terms. Calvin employs the logic of synecdoche: if a violating a commandment displeases God, then keeping it must please Him. So the sixth commandment against killing ultimately means that believers do everything possible to preserve life.”63

Calvin’s third fundamental principle is that obedience is an act of relational love. He reflects Luther’s concept that the two tables of the decalogue signify love first to God and then love to fellow humanity.64 Through the gospel, the law is restored to its original, principal use: a guide to the will of God, explaining how to love Him and love one another. This is not legalism. Fervent obedience stems from gratitude for having received justification and is not the cause of it.65

Like Luther, Calvin denies that the Sabbath commandment obligates believers to keep the seventh day. The weekly Sabbath was a shadow until the coming of Jesus,66 an Old Covenant tool for teaching rest from works and anticipating true rest to come. So the Sabbath is a call to “cease trusting in . . . works and mortify concupiscence. Self–denial is therefore in a deep sense the true meaning of the Sabbath.”67 It is unclear how a day designed for spiritual rest qualifies as a time for ascetic mortifications.

Calvin sees a secondary purpose of the Sabbath: to partake of public worship and teaching. He believes the transferral of Christian worship to Sunday is a sign of gospel liberty.68

Usage of Law
Calvin discerns three offices or uses of the law. The first is to convince the elect that spiritual weakness and depravity have fatal consequences. This serves to “summon consciences to the judgment-seat of God," where they learn to appreciate saving mercy in Christ.69 However, to Calvin the law is not needed to lead the elect to the gospel; salvation might also come the other way around, wherein God’s covenantal grace leads the elect to respect the law.

The second use of the law is for the unregenerate, to stifle the commission of sin–not only for the pre-ordained reprobate but also for the elect themselves previous to regeneration. Thus the law of God is the foundation of civil law. Calvin tried to transfigure Genevan society into harmony with the Ten Commandments through this second office of the law. Resisters were punished. Blatant heresy became a civil offense; offenders were jailed and sometimes burned. A later generation of Calvinists imported this concept of government to the American colonies, where it fostered intolerance and persecution.

Calvin’s third use of the law, tertius usus legis, is for the instruction and motivation of believers. This emphasis on the law as the guide for Christian living was peculiarly Calvin’s own.70 Calvinism has always been concerned about character, although we are saved to character rather than by character.

Not under the Law
As noted, Calvin differs sharply with Luther regarding not being under law. To him, Christ abolished the curse of the law–but not its validity, even for believers.71 He sees it as an “indubitable truth” that the law retains all its authority, ever deserving of respect and obedience72 Although Christians are under obligation to keep the law, this obedience is grace oriented. Thus the law should liberate rather than enslave the regenerate.73

What of 1 Timothy 1:9, that the law is “not made for a righteous man”? This seemingly rules out not only the third use of the law but the whole idea of believers being under the law at all. Calvin’s ingenious explanation applies the text to the elect in their pre-regenerate days. Under the second use of the law, these yet unsaved can learn to keep the commandments so that when converted they are “not like mere novices.”74 Thus in one brilliant stroke Calvin not only manages to maintain teaching that the law is for believers, but he also provides further justification for expecting unregenerate people to keep God’s law.

To Calvin, being not under the law for Christians includes release from the specific local strictures of Jewish ceremonial laws. However, as noted, he does consider the principles underlying the Mosaic strictures as valid and enjoining.

Problems with Law
Calvin’s broad understanding and application of law leave him vulnerable to certain Scriptures that showcase the “scandal” of the cross. Regarding the John 8 story of the woman caught in adultery, Calvin fails to acknowledge the extravagant, seemingly reckless mercy17 shown. To him, Christ’s refusal to condemn the woman was not that He wanted her to escape punishment, but rather because Jesus was reluctant to make Himself a judge in her case, as with the brothers disputing over their inheritance.75 This approach to Christian behavior may explain why some believe Calvin’s writings are deficient in “warm, personal fellowship with Christ.”76 Indeed, to some, the reformer’s manifold and zealous focus on law lends a stern aura to his religion. “He leaves room for a conception of ‘works’ as strenuous and as effort-demanding as any claimed by the Roman communion, though very different.”77 Whereas Rome regards fulfilling the law as a loving friend of God as part of the justification process, Calvin sees keeping the law not as the essence of God’s saving election but its inevitable result, which certifies his nomology as authentically Reformed.


Now we transition into side by side critical comparison of the two Reformation giants. In terms of style, “Luther is the more original, forcible, genial, and popular; Calvin the more theological, logical, and systematic, besides being an organizer and disciplinarian. ... Luther inspires by his genius, and attracts by his personality; Calvin commands admiration by his intellect and the force of moral self-government.”78 Reformation scholar James MacKinnon is probably correct that Luther could not have authored the Institutes. Calvin is “less mystic, more logical and lucid, more constructive than Luther” as well as “much more refined and chastened, much less explosive than that of Luther.”79

So much for style. Let us now compare and contrast their nomology, point by point.

Law and Gospel
I believe their most basic difference over nomology is that Calvin sees law as a stimulus to piety, whereas Luther sees law as a stimulus to sin. Yet Luther himself has a high respect for God’s law, which explains his passion for to escape its condemnation and strictures and find refuge in gospel grace and liberty. I believe with Luther that God calls us to live free in the Spirit without obsessing in the bondage of the letter, worried about straightening out our shortcomings. After all, even the most faithful saints remain lifelong sinners falling short of God’s glorious law (Rom. 3:23).

So we see in Romans a dialectic relationship between law and gospel, a theme throughout the Pauline epistles but less so in the general epistles, particularly James–famously Luther’s “epistle of straw.” Calvin seems to overlook the Pauline dialectic in his zeal to see law in a complementary relationship to the gospel. Indeed, Jesus did christianize the law, as I illustrate here by adapting to that context two well-known verses from Palm 119:

Verse 45: “And I will walk at liberty, For I seek Your precepts.” Christianized version: “And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Jesus.”

Verse 47: “And I will delight myself in Your commandments, Which I love.” Christianized version: “I will delight myself in Jesus, whom I have loved.”

The law is indeed transformed when accommodated through Calvin’s Christ-centered hermeneutic.

Nature of Law
Calvin’s three fundamental principles provide insight into God’s law, and his employment of synecdoche is ingenious. The law does more than forbid sin; it commands us to love one another–yet only in the context of having been forgiven. Calvin understood and faithfully taught this. However, with his overwhelming and all-encompassing ethical emphasis, grace in practical terms sometimes suffers. Love is wonderful to receive, less so when one is expected to provide it diligently and incessantly amid constant divine surveillance. In my opinion, Calvin’s nomology analyzes love, whereas Luther’s stimulates it.

Both Reformers frame the law in the context of love, but Calvin has a broad and deep concept of the law’s eternal principles that Luther lacks. Yet Luther’s nomology I find more liberating.

Obedience to Law
I think Luther clearly transcends Calvin here, reveling in the freedom of grace. Perhaps Calvin, the erudite humanist, could not appreciate God’s grace on a “gut level” in the same manner as did Luther, the formerly perplexed via moderna/via mystica monk. Thus Calvin’s obedience seems calibrated and calculated, while Luther, paroled from his guilt, dances with David before the Lord with all his might. While Calvin teaches the importance of gratitude (which can be a legalism of itself, like any other kind of expectation), Luther’s nomology provides believers much more for which to be grateful.

Unquestionably, someone looking for loopholes will find them much easier in Luther than Calvin. Luther had to patch holes in the hull of his good ship Grace when the antinomian radicals hijacked his rallying cry: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” I think some of Luther’s correctives come too little, too late. Nevertheless, a set-free Lutheran may have a lot more to be happy about in this life than a Calvinist pursuing elusive spiritual utopia.

The Sabbath commandment may be the nadir of nomology for both reformers. Both see the seventh day as a Judaistic relic. Luther merely dismisses the Sabbath as an outdated Mosaic ceremonies, whereas Calvin goes a step further by reframing it in the context of asceticism. Seemingly illogically, he acknowledges the Sabbath’s rest principle but then interprets it as an expression of self-denial.

Although having no use for the seventh day, both reformers acknowledge that a Sabbath day should be set aside for corporate worship and teaching.

Usage of Law
I suggest that both Calvin and Luther have strengths and weaknesses in their usage of law. Together they stress the function of law in bringing conviction to sinners and causing them to flee for mercy through Christ. Luther is particularly strong here. The reformers’ shared concept of God’s law enforced in civil society seems problematic–especially for Calvin, who involved himself with the societal implications of divine law while Luther focused more on its function within soteriology. Calvin’s government in Geneva was commendable in many ways, except that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). Luther appreciated and taught this freedom much better than Calvin did.

I think Calvin is mistaken in regarding the law as a stimulus for behavior. The love of Christ compels us (2 Cor. 5:14). It appears illogical for him to apply 1 Timothy 1:9 to the pre- regenerate elect, expecting them to obey God before they are saved. This starts people off on the wrong foot with the wrong motive for obedience, and they may never recover from a life of legalism. By contrast, God’s way is that the same grace which provides salvation also teaches us to obey (Titus 2:11-14).

So here I think we have a serious flaw in Calvin’s nomology. I speak from personal experience. Long ago as a new believer, I often wished I did not need to obsess my faith with legal behavior. I wanted to simply cultivate an authentic and trusting relationship with God, obeying freely in the Spirit rather than worrying about the letter. Luther would encourage me in this, whereas Calvin might raise his eyebrows. I now regard the law more as Luther did, not as a guide or stimulus for obedience but as its test.

Consider the marriage covenant, compared in Scripture to the salvation covenant. A healthy marriage features freedom from constant surveillance and admonishment to fulfill the sacred covenant vows. Liberty always has its risks, but even the potential for abuse itself provides evidence of trust in a healthy, secure relationship. Switching metaphors: One test of genuine juice is that it carries the risk of fermentation. Grape juice can be fermented; Gatorade cannot. The fact that Luther’s nomology could be fermented into antinomianism is not an argument against its legitimacy but rather an indication of appropriate gospel freedom.

Under the Law
Calvin limits “not under the law” to its curse and condemnation, whereas Luther understands that more is involved. Paul asks: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” (Gal. 4:21). Nobody desires to be under condemnation. Even the most strident behaviorist only wants to live under the authority of the law, not the guilt of it. And that is exactly what Paul is saying we are free from.

Romans 7:1-3 is further evidence that being under the law means fundamentally being under its authority, or dominion. Does this sanction antinomianism? No, Paul says we are set free from the law to bear fruit for God (verse 4); we are released to serve God, not indulge the flesh (verse 6)–but we serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the written code. (And it is here that Calvin’s christianized concept of the law works very well; e.g., regarding the Sabbath in the context of gospel rest instead of a 24-hour legal tightrope stretched across the end of the week to perform before God.) Paul safeguards his nomology by teaching that although we are not under the law–neither are we without law toward God, but we are under law toward Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). So then we live under submission to Christ, not under submission to the law; yet this life in Christ is not a life without the law because relational love for Jesus is its fulfillment.

So Luther’s nomology in not being not under the law is seems both more Scriptural and reasonable than Calvin’s, and also more freeing and joyous.

Problems with Law
Luther’s nomology, despite its magnificent freedom, seems to lack a consistent balance between the privileges and the imperatives of the gospel. His frequent and colorful antinomian-sounding rhetoric betrays his true regard for God’s law. Perhaps he deserved his conflicts with the likes of Agricola. Nevertheless, without those battles, he may not have finally closed his theological loopholes in affirming the law as having continuing value for the Christian–not just as a reminder of sinfulness so as to keeping trusting in Christ, but also as a test of authentic obedience.

Never, however, is the law a guide or stimulus, as Calvin teaches. The Genevan’s deep conception of the law with its broad implications is tarnished by his unrelenting and perhaps even oppressive strictures. Upright need not mean uptight.


In summarizing the similarities and differences in nomology between Calvin and Luther, I call attention to one occasion when Luther bombastically exclaims: “All who rely on Moses will go to the devil—to the gallows with Moses!”80 Calvin might raise his hand in protest: “Leave my friend Moses alone! Attack him over my dead body.”

We adjourn this study with a glimpse at the personal relationship between Luther and Calvin. Despite their differing theologies, personalities, nationalities and ages–and the rivalry of their followers–there reigned a mutual respect between the two. Calvin unlike Zwingli frankly acknowledged his debt to Luther81 and even esteemed him above the Swiss reformer from whom he had partially derived his theological heritage. But Calvin did lament the “vehemence of Luther’s natural temperament” and commented with gentle sarcasm about the German’s tendency to “flash his lightning . . . upon the servants of the Lord.82

But the German reformer spared Calvin his thunderbolts. Despite sharp differences in nomology, he “never said one unkind word” of Calvin and even dispatched Melanchthon to compliment him on his answer to Sadolet.83 The Genevan returned greetings with a letter in which he addressed the German as “my much respected father.”84 He expressed the wish that he might enjoy for a few hours the happiness of his society, though it was impossible on earth.

Oh, but there is an eternity in heaven. Meanwhile, may the millions today who derive their theological heritage from those two Reformation giants, whether in name or only in faith, also share their collegiality and mutual respect to the glory of God, while sustaining their unexcelled tradition of spiritual scholarship.


1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1910), 736.

2 Schaff, History, 737-736.

3 Williston Walker, John Calvin: The Organiser [sic] of Reformed Protestantism (New York: Schocken, 1906),

4 William M. Landeen, Martin Luther’s Religious Thought (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1971), 174. Landeen is not reporting his own conception of Luther.

5 Michael H. Hart, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons of History, rev. ed. (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing, 1992). Perhaps the rankings are affected by the bias of a secular historian–Thomas Aquinas does not even make the list.

6 Richard Sennett, who teaches sociology at the London School of Economics, assesses Max Weber’s famous theory of the Protestant work: “Calvin’s God replies, ‘Try harder. Whatever is, is not good enough.’” See Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character (New York: Norton, 1998), 104. Karl Holl regards as plausible Weber’s linkage of Calvinistic discipline and its effect upon productivity, but is unsure about Weber’s suggestion that the saints are goaded by a quest for spiritual certainty to seek a “sign of election” in prosperity. Holl says the opposite case may just as well be true, in which Calvinists are so secure in salvation that they feel free to pursue business unfettered by spiritual anxiety. I propose that the latter motivation is more reflective of Luther than Calvin, as we shall discuss. See Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (New York: Living Age Books, 1959.)

7 Max L. Stackhouse, et al, On Moral Business (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 180. 3

8 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert. C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 18.

9 Justo L. Gonzales, A History of Christian Thought, vol 3, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1975), 42- 43.

10 Althaus, Theology, 257.

11 Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr., ed., A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1943), 100.

12 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. 2d ed., trans. Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 196.

13Althaus, Theology, 269. 14Luther, Galatians, 196.

15 “I want to keep Moses and not put him unter den banck stecken (lit. ‘put under the bench,’ a proverbial medieval German expression meaning ‘to put aside, hide, or forget some despicable thing’). Timothy F. Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 140.

16 Martin Luther, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works, vol. 21, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 66.

17 Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, vol. 2., comp. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 751.

18 Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Protestant Reformation (New York: Harper, 1968), 95.

19 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther, Three Treatises, 2d rev. ed., trans. W. A. Lambert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 277ff. In William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988), 18.

20 Luther, Anthology, 763. 21Althaus, 271.

22 Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther: The Philadelphia Edition, vol 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1982), 362.

23 Luther, Galatians, 90.

24 Luther, Galatians, 90.

25 Martin Luther, Table Talk, 248.

26 Website

27 In Hillerbrand, Reformation, 90.

28 Martin Luther, Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1943), 59.

29 Landeen, Luther, 196

30 In Hillerbrand, Reformation, 90.

31 Lull, Theological, 140.

32 Gonzalez, History, 53-54.

33 Althaus, Theology, 270.

34 Luther, Anthology, 771.

35 Luther, Anthology, 770.

36 Luther, Anthology, 771.

37 Helmut Thielicke, Theologische Ethik, in website

38 Althaus, Theology, 272.

39 Gonzalez, History, 53, n. 52.

40 Archive VII/7-3.htm,

41 Article VI of the Formula of Concord, “The Third Use of the Law.” In website www.semper

42 Althaus, Theology, 270-271.

43 Althaus, Theology, 272.

44 Althaus, Theology, 272.

45 Gonzalez, History, 60.

46 Luther, Galatians, 153-154.

47 Luther, Galatians, 153.

48 Luther, Galatians, 154.

49 Luther, Anthology, 758.

50 Edward A. Dowey, Jr., The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 223, n.4.

51 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.7-2. In Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans. Harold Knight (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 92.

52 Gonzales, History, 146.

53 Donald K. McKim, ed. Readings in Calvin’s Theology. In I. John Hesselink. Christ, the Law, and the Christian: An Unexplored Aspect of the Third Use of the Law in Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 181

54 T. F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (London: Lutterworth, 1952), 176.

55 Dowey, Knowledge, 226.

56 Dowey, Knowledge, 224.

57 William F. Keesecker, A Calvin Treasury (New York: Harper, 1961), 68.

58 Dowey, Knowledge, 225.

59 Niesel, Theology, 95.

60 McKim, Readings, 188.

61 Francois Wendel, Calvin: His Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet New York: Harper, 1950), 198.

62 Dowey, Knowledge, 226-227.

63 Dowey, Knowledge, 26.

64 Dowey, Knowledge, 226.

65 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2d ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 443.

66 Benjamin W. Farley, ed. John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 98.

67 Ronald Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 120, n. 5. 68Wallace, Doctrine, 120, n. 5.

69 Calvin’s Commentaries, Baker ed., vol. 2, p. 140. In Michael S.Horton, “Calvin and Law-Gospel Hermeneutic,”

70 Williston Walker, Robert T. Handy, David W. Lotz, and Richard A. Norris, A History of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985), 474.

71 Gonzalez, History, 147.

72 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 311.

73 Wendel, Calvin, 203.

74 Calvin, Institutes, 308.

75 Georgia Harkness, John Calvin: the Man and His Times (New York: Abingdon, 1958), 132.

76 Harkness, Calvin, 72.

77 Walker, Calvin, 415.

78 Schaff, History, 738.

79 James MacKinnon, Calvin and the Reformation (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), 218-219.

80 H. G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.

81 MacKinnon, Calvin, 216.

82 Schaff, History, 661.

83 Schaff, History, 659.

84 Schaff, History, 660.


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