I understand that term ‘the law’ is often meant by Luther to just mean the ‘covenant of works’ as opposed to ‘the promise’ or ‘covenant of grace’. This covenant of works was naturally most illuminated by the moral commandments of the Mosaic legislation. Therefore Luther and some of those after him (John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, etc) refer to ‘the law’ not always as a reference to the ‘Mosaic Law’, but the ‘law of nature’ or ‘conscience’. The question is not about that. I accept that the law of conscience and condemnation of original sin was always applicable to all mankind and still is.

However, aside from the different uses of the terms. Strictly speaking, not with respect to the law of nature, or covenant of works, but specifically with respect to the Mosaic Legislation and encapsulated by the ten commandments, was this law of Moses ever an expectation by God on Gentiles, according to Luther?

I asked specifically with reference to the ten commandments as the first commandment starts with ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’, obviously not gentiles. And the commandment to ‘obey the Sabbath’, merges the moral commands with ceremonial and appears never to have been followed by any Gentile group as far as I know.

The question is important because Gentiles who may have had faith by hearing about the Promised Messiah before Christ, yet not following the Mosaic Law, going to the temple and obeying the Sabbath, etc. may have been saved by their faith apart from the works of the Mosaic Law. In addition, the example of the Ninevites, having possibly believed in God, though a Gentile nation not following Moses, may have had several justified sinners by faith in their midst?

What do the reformers, specifically Luther, say specifically about the Mosaic Legislation on mount Horeb, with respect to Gentile nations?

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    In Reformed Theology, the Mosaic Law is firmly part of the covenant of grace, not works. The covenant of works is basically limited to Adam before the fall.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 21 at 8:39
  • @curiousdannii - your statement is no way agreed among reformed theologians even today. I tend to follow the reformers that think in exactly the opposite direction. Luther, John Owen, Jonathan Edward's and Charles Hodge. But I changed the question to refer to the most influential and first reformer, to make the answer easy as your response does remind me its not even. clear among all reformers, even Calvin cold be argued to follow your train of thought. But lets just admit its an important question regardless of which side a person takes.
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 21 at 10:02
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    See the Westminster Confession chapter 7. While there are no doubt some who say the Mosaic Law is part of the covenant of works, the historical position is that it is an administration of the covenant of grace. Luther may have a different view, but I thought he also predated the formal Covenant Theology that teaches the covenants of works and grace? Does he ever actually use that terminology? The main question is fine, it's just the preamble that I think isn't quite accurate.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 21 at 10:14
  • @curiousdannii- to ensure you do not doubt my division of the schools of thought let me leave you a couple quotes from John Owen who sides with the Lutherans on this point. ‘These things being observed, we may consider that the Scripture doth plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way, as what is spoken can hardly be accommodated unto a twofold administration of the same covenant.’
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 21 at 10:21
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    @curiousdannii - yeah anyway edited preamble as I accepted your criticism
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 21 at 10:38

1 Answer 1


Luther rejected the idea that one could be justified by works of the Law, but he also taught that Christians should obey the Ten Commandments. He makes this clear, for example in the Small Catechism.

With young persons keep to a single, fixed, and permanent form and wording, and teach them first of all the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc., according to the text, word for word, so that they can repeat it after you and commit it to memory... After they understand well the meaning of the First Commandment, proceed to the Second, and so on, otherwise they will be too overwhelmed to the point of remembering nothing.

... After you have so taught them this short catechism, take up the Large Catechism and use it to give them a broader and richer understanding. Here enlarge on every individual commandment, petition, segment, explaining in each case the various words, uses, benefits, dangers, and hurts involved, as you will find them amply described in many a book dealing with these topics.

Like other Reformers, Luther saw obedience to the commandments not as a means of salvation but as manifestations of its fruits. From the Westminster Confession

Chapter 16:

Good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

Chapter 19

God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works.. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty toward God, and the other six our duty to man.

Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience.

Conclusion: Luther instructed his followers that the Ten Commandments should be taught and obeyed, even though believers are not "under the law" in terms of salvation.


The OP has pointed out that in a letter {correction: sermon} titled "How Christians Should Regard Moses" Luther takes a rather dim view of the Mosaic Law, stating that it is definitely NOT binding on Christians. However, he also says: "I would take from Moses a model for statutes; not that Moses should be binding on me, but that I should be free to follow him in ruling as he ruled." Moreover, Luther does specifically affirm the Ten Commandments, which he says are part of what we would call natural law.

They say, “he has com­manded that we should have one God, that we should trust and be­lieve in him, that we should not swear by his name; that we should honor father and mother; not kill, steal, commit adultery; not bear false witness, and not covet [Exod. 20:3–17]; should we not keep these commandments?” ... Nature also has these laws. Nature provides that we should call upon God. The Gentiles attest to this fact...The Gentiles have it written in their heart, and there is no distinction [Rom. 3:22]. As St. Paul also shows in Romans 2, the Gentiles, who have no law, have the law written in their heart.

We should also recognize that this letter, written seemingly in haste in 1525, seems not to represent Luther's mature view. In 1529, in the Small Catechism - a carefully constructed formal document - he instructs pastors that the Commandments be diligently taught, especially to young people, placing them on a par with the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed.

  • +1 You have some good thoughs. However I think you would phrase your answer differently if you think it worthwhile to find and read a sermon by Luther called: ‘HOW CHRISTIANS SHOULD REGARD MOSES’. I might have failed to communicate my question as well as I should.
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 21 at 12:50
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    @Mike ... Thank you. I need to update my answer in light of your comment. Luther clearly believed that Ten Commandments should be taught and obeyed but I went to far when I said he believed them to be binding. Commented Jun 21 at 13:16
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    Not to be picky but 1525 is already the mature Luther and 1531 to his letter to Robert Barnes “Moses’ law does not bind us Gentiles!” is a consistent Luther view. It may be you are not that familiar with Luther but he always held this view and at the same time always preached the value of the Ten Commandments ‘in principle. ‘ In his mind his sermon in 1529 does not contradict his Catechism at all. He did not pen one in haste and the other more calmly but believed both. Anyway I appreciate the difficulties in trying to interpret him and your answer still comes close to his position.
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 21 at 15:20
  • Not picky at all. Thanks to you, I admit that he did not consider the Law binding on gentiles, especially not Christians. I was unable to find Luther's letter to Robert Barnes online but I do not dispute the facts you mention. In saying the Short Catechism represents his more mature thought, I mean that it was carefully expressed, compared to the 1525 work. But both documents teach that that the Ten Commandments should be taught and followed. Commented Jun 21 at 18:38

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