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Lutheran preachers and the third use of the law: a homiletical approach to overcome the impasse.

In the interest of appropriating the Reformation as a model for interpreting the present, this paper resituates the longstanding Lutheran dispute regarding the third use of the law in its homiletical home. Actual sermons are analyzed and the results of studying an ecclesial practice intentionally inform and impact theory. These three methodological changes reframe the conversation about the third use of the law in Lutheran preaching and have the potential to overcome the impasse. The practical desired outcome is to offer Lutheran preachers a way to address public issues from the pulpit in a way that is faithful to a call to discipleship without undermining the doctrinal conviction that we are justified by grace through faith.

Part I--History

Sixteenth-century debates

The debate over the third use of the law began as a homiletical concern. "Since preaching was the prominent channel of spreading the message, law and gospel also became a principle of Lutheran proclamation." (1) In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon highlighted the law's role to indicate the need for repentance and forgiveness. His conviction that repentance comes from preaching law prior to the gospel did not go unchallenged. Some Anabaptists denied any reformative use for the law to accuse baptized Christians of sin or to make them aware of sin. Followers of Novatian denied that baptized Christians needed either law or gospel to lead them to repentance since forgiveness would not be granted to baptized Christians who committed sin (even if they repented). From the beginning of the debate, this was a homiletical issue.

While the Augsburg Confessions is clear, there are those who argued against the third, pedagogical use of the law: "After they have been reborn--since nevertheless the flesh still clings to them--that precisely because of the flesh they may have a sure guide, according to which they can orient and conduct their entire life." (2) This sparked major controversies, all of which pertained to the relationship between the third use of the law and preaching.

Prior to the Diet of Augsburg, Johann Agricola argued against Melanchthon that "preaching the law would not lead people to repentance but either to pride or to despair." (3)

Agricola declared, "Das Gesetz bleibt auf dem Rathaus." (4) True repentance, Agricola insisted, came from the gospel itself; only after hearing God's promise and love for them in Jesus Christ are people truly sorry for their sin and ready to receive forgiveness. A similar debate erupted ten years later (1537). In both controversies, Melanchthon's commitment to the need to "point people to the law" won the day.

In the wake of Luther's death (1546), Lutheran unity was threatened by the dissenting views of the so-called Gnesio-Lutherans and the "Philippists." The Gnesio-Lutherans and their leader, Matthias Flacius, endorsed a "pure" version of Luther's viewpoints over against Melanchthon's high regard for the law. Because the Philippists trusted the gospel's ability to cause spontaneous works by those who truly believe, the law was not needed for this purpose. Whereas for Agricola the issue was repentance, for the Gnesio-Lutherans it was good works. Both were homiletical concerns.

The generation of Lutherans after Luther's death desired to come to agreement on major issues. Various leaders attempted to clarify basic Lutheran commitments and collated them in a document which came to be known as the Formula of Concord. The process itself of the development of the Formula shows that doctrinal disputations arose out of and affected actual practices of the church.
   The Formula of Concord wrestled with
   controversies among the Lutherans
   of the third quarter of the sixteenth
   century that the disputing participants
   viewed as matters affecting the spiritual
   care of the people of God ... this focus
   on pastoral care and parish practice
   grew smoothly out of the very nature
   of the Wittenberg Reformation itself. (5)

Specifically, the Formula came into being as a result of Wurttemberg theologian Jakob Andreae's Six Sermons on the Disputes Dividing the Theologians of the Augsburg Confessions.

Not only was the practice of preaching used to draw attention to the issue for the formulation of the Formula, but the major disagreements addressed in the sermons themselves included the role of the law in preaching. The issues that addressed preaching were so central to Lutheran identity that they composed one-quarter of the twelve articles of the Formula of Concord. Article IV (On Good Works) addressed the controversy over whether good works are necessary (Georg Major) or detrimental (Nicholas von Amsdorf) to salvation. Should people "be admonished to good works" through law or "solely on the basis of the gospel"? (6) The chief question in Article V (On Law and Gospel) is whether the preaching of the Holy Gospel is strictly speaking only a preaching of grace which proclaims the forgiveness of sins, or is it also a preaching of repentance and reproof that condemns unbelief, since unbelief is condemned not in the law but wholly through the Gospel? (7)

Article VI, focused specifically on the third function of the law, has sparked the most controversy. The issue is "whether or not the law is to be urged upon reborn Christians." (8) If so, how shall it be urged in preaching so that one does not associate works of the law with justification/ salvation?

Twentieth-century debates

The debate continued into the twentieth century as theologians attempted to rename the tertius usus legis. Was it a "loving reminder" (Helmut Thielicke), an "apostolic imperative" (Wilfried Joest), or a "second use of the gospel" (William Lazareth)? Paul Althaus proposed a distinction between command and law in Gebot und Gesetz Zum Gesetz und Evangelium. "If the Law is clearly understood and strictly defined as the contrary of the Gospel, then it is no longer possible to speak of a third function of the Law, or to endorse the formula, 'Gospel and Law.'" (9) While Gesetz (law) is God's accusing word, Gebot (command) is yet a third thing altogether.

Questions about the function of the law called into question a time-honored maxim in Lutheranism from Melanchthon's much-quoted aphorism, lex semper accusat. (10) Werner Elert was committed to the law's "negative" function: it always accuses and can never be a friendly guide. Conversely, George Forell was open to a more positive effect: that the law always accuses does not suggest it only accuses. While the "entirely negative" purpose of the law is its "primary task," it is not its only task. (11) We are left asking what role the law plays in the lives of those who have been justified by grace through faith. Does the third use of the law give us "rules" that are prescriptive absolutes or simply general guidelines? (12) Or is it something else altogether?

Part II--Practice-to-theory: A hope-filled shift

While it is clear that there are still echoes of the sixteenth-century controversies, the majority of writing on the third use of the law in contemporary debates develops criteria theoretically without regard for its homiletical home. Timothy Wengert's book, A Formula for Parish Practice: Using the Formula of Concord in Congregations, helps us resituate the debate as it captures the spirit of the Reformers' commitment to everyday practices of the church. Wengert reminds us that the Lutheran Confessions of the first and second generation of Lutherans "had legs"; it grew out of parish life. While Wengert's ability to give twenty-first century "legs" to a sixteenth-century claim is helpful when a practitioner wants to apply the Confessions, this functionality only defines the impact confessional commitments should have on practices. It is time to move one step further and attend to actual sermons. Even more, my proposal seeks to go an additional step by intentionally allowing sermons as artifacts of a ministry practice to impact theoretical convictions, even confessional commitments.

The remainder of this paper summarizes briefly the outcomes of my study that compared and contrasted the writings and sermons of Gerhard Forde (1927-2005) and Herman Stuempfle (1924-2007). These two twentieth-century American theologians were chosen for three reasons. First, both explicitly stated the connection between the third use of the law and homiletics. For Forde, the test for whether or not systematic proclamation is done properly is whether or not it drives to proclamation. (13) One of the objectives of Stuempfle's preaching courses was "to encourage the student's reflection upon the problem [sic] of the third use of the law,' especially as it relates to the task of preaching." (14) Second, they land on opposite spectrums of the debate. Forde was on guard for "creeping Pelagianism" in proclamation and, therefore, did not acknowledge the third use of the law. (15) Stuempfle suggested that whether or not Luther speaks of a tertius usus legis, he undeniably responds affirmatively to the question, "Is there a legitimate place in teaching and preaching for instruction in the actual lineaments of the good life and exhortation toward its fulfillment?" (16)

The third reason I chose these conversation partners is because they both have an accessible body of sermons to analyze. I looked for evidence that their preaching was consistent with and/or had a bearing on their theoretical convictions. (17) Did they preach law to encourage repentance? Did they "use" law or gospel to motivate hearers to do good works? Essentially, did they attend to the Christian life in a way that did not undermine the tenet that Christians are justified by grace through faith and not by their works? Finally, I asked whether their sermons provide clues for breaking through the current theological impasse in Lutheranism regarding the third use of the law.

Ultimately, the analysis of sermons offered fresh frameworks for understanding what actually happens as opposed to what ought to happen. It led to the development of criteria in four categories: confessional, rhetorical, homiletical, and theological/ ecclesiological.


The reexamination of the intensity of confessional subscription suggests that appealing to Article VI in the Formula of Concord as one's sole (!) authority is unwarranted and unhelpful since such simple repristination naively assumes there is one unequivocal meaning to the words used in the Lutheran Confessions. Neither Forde nor Stuempfle does this in either their writings or sermons. While this claim is not meant to disregard the Confessions in general, it is meant to discourage subscription that lacks thorough engagement with contemporary church practices. Since blindly adhering to what one ought to do has never been a recommended way to proceed for Lutherans, reexamining the commitments in both the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord via sermon analysis mirrors somewhat the processes of our forebears.


Paying attention to the particularities of language when guiding hearers in their lives of discipleship diminishes the potential for undermining the theological commitment that humans are justified by grace through faith and not by their works. Both sets of sermons provide helpful linguistic examples that deem unnecessary a wholesale rejection of the function of the third use of the law.

Conditional statements (e.g., "if we serve the poor, Christ will claim us as his own") are to be used only with careful attention to the connection between human action and God's salvific power. The order matters; i.e., God's salvific power is always prior to particular human actions.

Preachers are encouraged to employ the indicative mood over the imperative mood. "Describing" or "redescribing" the kingdom of God in the world can be more beneficial than imposing it on the listener by way of imperatives. While imperatives are not prohibited, they are better used cautiously so that they do not compromise the primacy of grace. Stuempfle suggests rooting imperatives "in the rich soil of the announcement of grace."

Finally, rather than speaking from beyond the hearers, the preacher can stand with the hearers. A simple adjustment from second-person direct address ("you") to the strategic use of first-person plural address ("we") has a big impact.


The purpose of preaching is broadened beyond "doing God to the hearer." Forde's sermons suggest four ways in which the words of the sermon "do God to the hearer": by electing, killing (law) and making alive (gospel), forgiving sins, and giving Christ to the hearers. Stuempfle is no less committed to the Lutheran dialectic of law/gospel than Forde, and yet, he employed preaching that equips hearers for their missionary work in the world. "The first business of the individual preacher is to enable the Church to preach." (18) According to Stuempfle, "merely" announcing, "God forgives you," presupposes that listeners "are able to flesh out such skeletal statements with a body of meaning." (19) While both "doing God to the hearer" (in whatever form) and "equipping hearers for their missionary work in the world" have a place in Lutheran preaching, Stuempfle's expansion beyond God as the only primary speaker in the preaching moment holds promise for overcoming the impasse over the third use of the law.

Theological and ecclesiological

When the purpose of preaching is expanded beyond "doing God to the hearer," certain theological and ecclesial convictions are revised as well. "Doing God to the hearer" presupposes a divine word that necessarily breaks in extra nos in order to "right" what cannot be "righted" any other way. While the commitment to Deus loquens is held fast by Lutherans, there is room for preaching to be understood as intra-human speech and not solely divine-through-human speech. A reframing of Stuempfle's "call to obedience" as something other than God's alien work (law) or God's proper work (gospel) opens away for Lutheran preachers to address the Christian life from the pulpit in a manner that is biblically and traditionally faithful.

While Stuempfle hints that the "call to obedience" is neither law nor gospel, and therefore not a third use of the law, he does not articulate exactly what it is. It is my proposal that this third way is an ecclesial envisioning in the midst of reverberations of the liberating gospel. Together preacher and hearer claim who they are in Christ and imagine how they live as the body of Christ in the already-not-yet time. Minimally, ecclesial envisioning, as speech from one member of the body of Christ to other members of the body of Christ (as opposed to speech directly from God), is less likely to be construed as having soteriological effects. Moments of envisioning a new state of affairs in the preaching event are unapologetically intra-human speech, yes. But, like absolution, they are thoroughly prompted by God's action in Jesus Christ and infused with the Holy Spirit.


The analysis of sermons can and should affect the contemporary understanding of the confessional-dogmatic tradition regarding the third use of the law. Even Forde affirms, "proclamation needs to reflect back on and raise critical questions about systematic theology." (20) Just as "the formulators" recognized that Reformation insights "were capable of being translated into understandable forms for those living in their own complex and threatening world," we too can formulate what it means to be faithful Lutherans in the world today by attending to actual church practices as we seek clarity regarding the third use of the law. This doctrinal conviction is shaped by its presence in and relationship to preaching. And so we begin to move beyond the impasse.

Works Cited

Althaus, Paul. The Divine Command. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.

Bloomquist, Karen L., and John R. Stumme, eds. The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Forde, Gerhard O. Theology Is for Proclamation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.

--. "Luther's 'Ethics.'" In A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology; Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2004.

Gassmann, Gunther, and Scott H. Hendrix. Fortress Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.

Kolb, Robert, and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

Hannan, Shauna Kay. Lutheran Preachers and the Third Use of the Law: A Homiletical Approach to Overcome the Impasse. Dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/ UMI, 2011. (Publication No. AAT 3463649.)

Murray, Scott R. Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of Law in Modern American Lutheranism. St. Louis: Concordia, 2002.

Stuempfle, Herman G. Preaching in the Witnessing Community. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973.

--. Preaching Law and Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Tappert, Theodore G., ed. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959.

Wengert, Timothy J. A Formula for Parish Practice: Using the Formula of Concord in Congregations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Shauna Kay Hannan

Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

(1.) Gunther Gassmann and Scott H. Hendrix, Fortress Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 63.

(2.) Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 502. It is worth noting that the homiletical tertius usus legis (third use of the law) is always "preaching to the choir."

(3.) Gassmann and Hendrix, Fortress Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions, 57.

(4.) Timothy J. Wengert, A Formula for Parish Practice: Using the Formula of Concord in Congregations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 79.

(5.) Robert Kolb in the foreword of Wengert, A Formula for Parish Practice, viii-ix.

(6.) Theodore G. Tappert, ed. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 476.

(7.) Ibid., 477-478.. (Ep V, 1)

(8.) Ibid., 480.

(9.) Paul Althaus, The Divine Command (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 2.

(10.) Apology IV 38, 4, 128, 167, 204.

(11.) Scott R. Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of Law in Modern American Lutheranism (St. Louis: Concordia, 2002), 56. One of the most significant debates in the twentieth century regarding lex semper accusat was between David Yeago and Walter Bouman.

(12.) Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme, eds., The Promise of Lutheran Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).

(13.) Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 1.

(14.) 1981, "Preaching Law and Gospel" course (at Lutheran Theological School at Gettysburg).

(15.) Gerhard O. Forde, "Luther's 'Ethics'," in A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2004), 138.

(16.) Herman G. Stuempfle, Preaching Law and Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 64.

(17.) I explored the writings of Stuempfle and Forde through the lens of five key tenets that affect one's views on the third use of the law; namely, 1) appropriation of the writings of Martin Luther, 2) subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, 3) attempts to rename the third use of the law, 4) interpretations of the Lutheran tenet, "the law always accuses," and 5) interpretations of the Lutheran tenet that Christians are "simultaneously justified and sinful." I arrived at these five lenses from a study of the history of the debate of the third use of the law, which can be found in full in my dissertation from Princeton Theological Seminary I welcome feedback on this dissertation.

(18.) Herman G. Stuempfle, Preaching in the Witnessing Community (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), vii.

(19.) Stuempfle, Preaching Law and Gospel, 40.

(20.) Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation, 4.
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Author:Hannan, Shauna Kay
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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