Like the ancient Pharisees, the medieval Western church turned the law of God into a system by which individuals were to secure their righteousness before the Lord. The law was changed from something that we keep in order to thank God for our salvation into something that we do in order to achieve our salvation. Having been raised under the burden of such a system, Martin Luther responded with such a fierceness against the law that some people have thought he meant to teach that it has no ongoing role in the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Luther intended to do away with the law for the Christian, he certainly would not have taught people how to keep the Ten Commandments or say that we should “gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments” (The Small Catechism).
Luther was no antinomian; He did not teach that Christians are not obligated to the moral law. In fact, none of the Magisterial Reformers were antinomians, or people who believe we do not need to follow God’s commandments. As we consider the role of God’s law in the Christian life, we must first address the old heresy of antinomianism, which proclaims freedom from the law in the form of licentiousness. Antinomianism—“against-the-law-ism”—says that Christians can live however they want, for the law is in no way binding for believers.
The Apostles themselves confronted antinomian theology. Paul, for example, had to explain that anyone who uses the grace of God as an excuse to sin and break the law has not really understood the gospel (Rom. 6:15–23). Yes, God has justified us apart from our obedience to the law. In fact, our Creator has declared us righteous in spite of our obedience to the law, for we have not perfectly kept His commandments. But as we have seen, God did not set His law aside when He justified us. He sent Christ to keep it in our behalf, to render the perfect obedience of which we are incapable (Matt. 3:14–15; Rom. 3:21–4:25; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22).
That the law of God is so important to Him that He does not justify us without having Christ keep it in our place demonstrates that the law’s standards are not negotiable. We do not gain entry to heaven by obeying the law, but those who are citizens of God’s kingdom seek to live according to the law of that realm. If we do not endeavor to follow God’s law, we show no evidence of saving faith, and without saving faith, we do not have eternal life (James 2:14–26).
People who possess saving faith earnestly desire to obey God’s commandments. They do not seek to do so to merit eternal life; they do so in order to thank God and demonstrate the authenticity of their faith. We must take care not to obey the law as a means of justification, but if we do not want to keep God’s commandments, we are in dire spiritual straits indeed.