When The Law Must Yield

BY MARTIN LUTHER

"Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." -Romans 13:8

We will look at the command to love, in the Law of God. Innumerable, endless, are the books and doctrines produced for the direction of man's conduct. And there is still no limit to the making of books and laws. Note the ecclesiastical and civil regulations, the spiritual orders and stations. These laws and doctrines might be tolerated, might be received with more favour, if they were founded upon and administered according to the one great law-- the one rule or measure--of love; as the Scriptures do, which present many different laws, but all born of love, and comprehended in and subject to it. And these laws must yield, must become invalid, when they conflict with love. Of Love's higher authority we find many illustrations in the Scriptures.

Christ makes particular mention of the matter in Matthew 12:3-4, where David and his companions ate the holy showbread. Though a certain law prohibited all but the priests from partaking of this holy food, Love was empress here, and free. Love was over the Law, subjecting it to herself. The Law had to yield for the time being, had to become invalid, when David suffered hunger. The Law had to submit to the sentence: "David hungers and must be relieved, for Love commands, Do good to your needy neighbour. Yield, therefore, thou Law. Prevent not the accomplishment of this good. Rather accomplish it thyself. Serve him in his need. Interpose not thy prohibitions." In connection with this same incident, Christ teaches that we are to do good to our neighbour on the Sabbath; to minister as necessity demands, whatever the Sabbath restrictions of the Law. For when a brother's need calls, Love is authority and the Law of the Sabbath is void.

Were laws conceived and administered in love, the number of laws would matter little. Though one might not hear or learn all of them, he would learn from the one or two he had knowledge of, the principle of love taught in all. And though he were to know all laws, he might not discover the principle of love any more readily than he would in one. Paul teaches this method of understanding and mastering law when he says: "Owe no man anything, but to love one another"; "He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law"; "If there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"; "Love worketh no ill to his neighbour"; "Love is the fulfilling of the law." Every word in this epistle lesson proves Love mistress of all law.

Further, no greater calamity, wrong and wretchedness is possible on earth than the teaching and enforcing of laws without love. Such is the wretched condition of them who are blindly occupied with laws and works and fail to comprehend the design of law and its mistress Love. How rigidly they adhere to their own inventions! Though all the world meet ruin, their devices must be sustained; they must be perpetuated regardless of bodily illness and death, or of suffering and ruin for the soul. They even regard such destruction and ruin as divine service, and know no fear nor remorse of conscience.

In the conception, the establishment and the observance of all laws, the object should be, not the furtherance of the laws in themselves, not the advancement of works, but the exercise of love. That is the true purpose of law, according to Paul here, "He that loveth his neighbour hath fulfilled the law." Therefore, when the law contributes to the injury rather than the benefit of our neighbour, it should be ignored. The same law may at one time benefit our neighbour and at another time injure him. Consequently, it should be regulated according to its advantage to him. Law should be made to serve in the same way that food and raiment and other necessaries of life serve. We consider not the food and raiment themselves, but their benefit to our needy neighbour. And we cease to dispense them as soon as we perceive they no longer add to his comfort.

(This is an edited excerpt from a sermon preached by Martin Luther)

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