“In its theological “use” law should be understood as a concrete and actual “voice” which “sounds in the heart” and the “conscience,” a real voice which afflicts man in his isolation from God and demands that he fulfill his humanity.
This “voice,” for Luther, can and does arise from anywhere and everywhere. It is not limited merely to what one might call the sphere of morality. When man is separated from God anything and everything can betray him. The “voice,” for instance, can arise form something as simple as the sudden rustling of the leaves in the forest. In an interesting section of his Lectures on Genesis (3:8) Luther suggests that what terrified Adam and Eve in the garden and caused them to hide was simply the rustling of the leaves in the evening breeze. After the conscience has been smitten, after one is cut off from God, any little thing becomes the potential source of “the voice.” The rustling of the leaves on a dark night in a strange place frighten us because, I suppose we could say, we do not have life in ourselves and something–anything–“out there” can take it from us. Or the voice could arise as something much more dramatic like a bolt of lightening or more tragic like an accident. More unmistakably it arises from the demands which society make of us, the demands of family and friends and the voices and faces of suffering humanity. It arises also from the inevitability of death, the fact that life is precarious and fleeting. And above all it is the command of God that we must love him with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. And most particularly, the voice of law reaches its climactic crescendo in the preaching of the cross. For there we see finally how serious and immediate law really is. For, in Luther’s view, the declaration that the Son of God had to suffer so brutally at the hands of sinful men could only strike terror into the heart.
Perhaps this last especially seems strange to us because we tend to assume that preaching the cross is always “gospel.” This should indicate to us that Luther has a different view of how these things actually strike us–how they are “used.” For the point is that “the law” is not merely a set of commands, not a list of requirements that could be disposed of merely by doing a few things and checking them off. The law is that immediate and actual voice arising from the sum total of human experience ‘in this age,’ up to and including the cross, a voice that will not stop until our humanity is fulfilled. To talk of Law, Luther says in one instance, is not to speak about it “technically or materially… or grammatically [as though it were merely a bunch of words or list of demands] … but as it is and sounds in your heart, exhorting, piercing the heart and conscience until you do not know where to turn”. It is a voice that attends the human conscience as we know it on this earth. It is a voice that can never stop in this life. As long as man remains in sin the voice never stops; it has no end. It goes on and on and on–in an endless number of forms and an infinite variety of disguises. “The Law”, and Melanchthon later put it, “always accuses.”
It is important to grasp what is meant here if we are to avoid the ladder idea. The law is not defined only as a set of demands as such, but rather in terms of what it does to you. Law is that which accuses and terrifies and in a real sense, anything that does this functions as law. Law is not a ladder to heaven; it is the mark of man’s existence in this age, from the rustling of the leaves to the agony of the cross. It is the voice, which for the sinner, never ends.
If we look on the law in this way, we can begin to grasp also the dynamic vitality, the “good news” character of the gospel. For the gospel too must be seen in terms of what it does. For what is the Gospel? It is the end of the law! That is to say that what the gospel does is to put an end to the “voice” of the law. And that means actualy to put a stop to it, to “shut it up,” to make it no longer heard. Thus, the gospel too is defined primarily by what it does: the gospel comforts because it puts an end to the voice of the law. It is an entirely new and unexpected thing that breaks into man’s life and world: the voice which for man as sinner “never ends”. is stopped by God’s action in Christ. An entirely new kind of life breaks in upon us!
But how is this possible? How can the unstoppable voice be stppped. The voice stops, really, only when what the law demands is really there. That is, the voice stops only when we become fully what we were intended to be. The command to love, for instance, stops when we actually do love. The “law” ends when the new creation begins. The gospel is the joyful message that in Christ this new creation has already and actually broken in on us, and the promise that it will be carried out to its completion. It is the story of one who came down to earth and lived “under the voice” and died under it as we all do, but yet rose triumphant and broke its power and brought it to an end. The gospel is the story of him who shattered the grammar of earth, who broke open the closed circle of the voice of the law and gave us the gift of hope.
Luther understood the gospel as something more than a theory about how God might or might not have been “bought off” up there in heaven. If it were only that it would only be be just another law; it would be merely a set of doctrines to which the command would be added: “Thou shalt believe this or perish.” The gospel was much more than that. It was a power, “a living voice” great enough to stop the voice of the law and bring in here on earth the beginning of the new life of freedom! It is not the story of something that happened only in heaven or in the mind of God. It is the story of something that happened here on earth strong enough to break the actual hold of the law on us, strong enough to turn the earth itself into a place of light and life and joy, strong enough to turn the rustling of those leaves too into the sound of the gospel!
The battle therefore is between these contending voices or powers. That is why the basic question for Luther was the proper distinction between law and gospel. It is a question of how you hear the words, what they actually do to you. Some think they are hearing gospel when it is actually only another form of law. That is why they are constantly going up the staircase both in their thinking and in their doing. Rightly to distinguish law from gospel is to hear that other voice, the voice that tells of him who came down to earth to give us also the gift of being able to live down to earth. It is a voice strong enough to make and keep us human, to enable us to live as we were intended to live–as creatures of God.”
Gerharrd Forde, Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel (15-17)