Luther and his view on natural precepts or natural law



 Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end. [Heidelberg Thesis #2 of 28]  



Since the law of God, which is holy and unstained, true, just, etc., is given man by God as an aid beyond his natural powers to enlighten him and move him to do the good, and nevertheless the opposite takes place, namely, that he becomes more wicked, how can he, left to his own power and without such aid, be induced to do good? If a person does not do good with help from without, he will do even less by his own strength. Therefore the Apostle, in Rom. 3:10-12, calls all persons corrupt and impotent who neither understand nor seek God, for all, he says, have gone astray.


In terms of the thesis itself, the “end” Luther mentions refers back to thesis#1 – concerning making progress in righteous living. But what does Luther mean by “natural precepts”? In his 1535 Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, he said the following:

“For albeit that all men have a certain natural knowledge implanted in their minds (Rom. ii. 14), whereby they naturally perceive that they ought to do unto others as they would have others do unto them (and this and other such opinions, which we call the natural law, are the foundation of human right and of all good works); yet notwithstanding man’s reason is so corrupt and blind through the malice of the devil, that it understands not this knowledge wherewith it is born; or else, being admonished by the Word of God, it understands it, and yet (such is the power of Satan) knowingly neglects and contemns it”.

Whilst taking issue with the latter part of that statement (to follow) Luther’s perspective on the role of natural precepts stated above is not dissimilar to that of my own, reflecting the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Unlike the more usual modern Protestant perspectives, Luther recognized that God has not left fallen humanity entirely in the dark but has planted in man’s spirit (or as Paul also refers to it “the heart” – Rom2:15) the principles of His law, borne witness to by the conscience. In Luther’s words it was intended to be “the foundation of human right and of all good works”. But whereas I would regard such a resource as a gracious provision on God’s behalf and a means of common grace, Luther concludes it to be useless in view of the depth of fallen man’s depravity. I totally disagree with that and so does the Apostle Paul – for in that same passage he observes that Gentiles ignorant of Torah (God’s written Law) nevertheless often practice by nature what is central to it, especially to exercise justice, generosity and show compassion towards their fellows. Of course they also sin and fail, for that is man’s nature (thanks to the procreated vessel the soul currently inhabits), but the spirit of the law is nevertheless fulfilled by all who heed the promptings of their conscience and show kindness to their fellow man (Gal5:14, Rom13:8).

Heresy? – not to the 2nd century Church who had recently received the Faith from the apostles or their close successors. As Irenaeus and historian Eusebius testified, they universally and unitedly accepted such a positive role for natural law [see my recent post]. As two of the principal theologians of the time testified:  “God is present with all who attend to moral discipline, paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified” [“Irenaeus against heresies” Book IV chap 13 para 1] whilst Justin Martyr spoke of God’s benevolence towards those who walk uprightly and in accordance with right reason ; “a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him” [first apology of Justin chaps. 43 & 46]. 

So, did the 2nd century Church (and the later Pelagius) believe that natural precepts were sufficient for gospel salvation? I trust not – I certainly do not. Indeed, if Luther’s thesis was slightly reworded to read, “Human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, cannot of themselves enable a person to be saved”, I would say Amen. The issue of course pertains to what is to be understood by “being saved”. This was covered in the previous post, but to re-iterate: biblical salvation, indeed religious faith and practice are not directly concerned with who does or does not go to heaven when they die. That should be evident from the key New Testament passages on the subject – primarily M25 (sheep and goats) where religion is not so much as mentioned. Likewise the passage on the rich man and Lazarus – no reason is given why Lazarus was blissfully “resting in  Abraham’s bosom” other than he had had a hard life (thus had he been salted – Mk9:49KJV). The rich man, who it is to be noted, deferred to Abraham as father and had an altruistic concern for his family’s eternal welfare, was experience suffering (salting) because he had lived wantonly. As a Jew he had failed to fulfil the spirit of Torah (love for neighbour – Gal5:14), rejecting the needs of Lazarus and his kind. But he did not need the Torah to tell him to have done that – it was God’s law written in his heart witnessed to by the conscience (Rom2:15). It was natural precepts, our response to which, as indicated by Irenaeus and illustrated by Jesus, determines the destination of the soul at death. And it is not the quality or quantity of the work itself but what the earliest Fathers referred to as “natural faith”, the object of which is that which God has universally provided for our enlightenment, which as I will shortly demonstrate is not unrelated to Christ, the incarnate Word.

 Salvation on the hand pertains to partaking of the divine nature whilst in mortal flesh – receiving the spiritual resources to override the instincts of what Paul refers to in Rom7-23-25 as the body of this death such that we are enabled “to possess our vessel in sanctity and honour” (1Thes4:4). That is in preparation for the yet more glorious prospects that await those “predestined to be conformed to Christ’s image” in the current age (Rom8:29) so that they might be in a corporate marital relationship with Him in the next.

Briefly, a reflection on Luther’s supporting statement. What does he believe to be the effect of the knowledge of right reason and humane living that God has implanted in the heart of every man and woman? Not the valid observation that it has the effect of increasing guilt if one entirely disregards or opposes it – that would be true and it is why Hell is by no means empty. No, says he, such innate knowledge has the effect of making us act all the more wickedly. By such statements I know with whom I am ultimately contending.

“Natural precepts” – a misnomer

Finally, natural precepts or “natural law” is something of a misnomer in this context. It is natural in the sense of being provided to all such that “Gentiles not having the Law do by nature that which it contains”, etc. But in terms of its origin, source and efficacy, it is Christ, Christ and Christ – the Cosmic Christ. For all things were created through Christ and for Christ and that includes nature and its laws. These are not creatures of a lesser god – everything that is good and holy derives from Him – Christ is their source and summation. In terms of spiritual faculties, it is the light of Christ provided to all men (Jn1:9KJV), the Logos Spermatikos  or scattered Word of reason, some of the earliest Fathers believing it to be the very essence of Christ (so, Justin Martyr and Origen). As for natural law’s efficacy and any merit accruing from observing it, that again is down to Christ – His Passion to deal with human sin and the pardon it provides for those who “believe”. In the universal case that is to heed (i.e. be faithful) to the promptings of conscience, effectively exercising a form of godly fear (cf. Acts10:35).

Of course, much of the above was knocked on its head by the 4th/5th century, especially through the influence of Augustine in accordance with his particular interpretation of Scripture, reinforced by his contentions with Pelagius. But as I keep repeating, the 2nd century Church had not been dependent on Scripture alone to discern the truth. They had received the essentials of the Faith from the apostles or their near appointees – they cannot universally and unitedly have been in error on so profound an issue.

As hinted at in Scripture (later posts), a fuller understanding of the Creator’s bountiful providence has been reserved for the very last days. This final revelation of the mystery of God shall redound to His  glory and to the One whose condescending incarnation and passion made it all possible. The Same shall be glorified in His saints and admired by all those who willingly submit and defer to Him once the Son of Man, the Saviour of the world has been made known to all (cf. 2Thes1:10).

The LITTLE BOOK OF PROVIDENCE: a seven-part synopsis of the bible: Download a free PDF of e-book suitable for desktop computers HERE[updated September 2023] Large-print version for mobiles HERE [565 pages]

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Related posts: Luther and lawlessness #1   &    Luther and lawlessness #2   &   Theology of sovereign grace   &   Law and gospel


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