Think on this:
Thinking the concepts presented above through until full understanding could keep me occupied for days!
The radicality of Luther’s claim may take some time to sink in. Consider what it means. Sometimes we might imagine that obedience and being “a good person” advance a person 80% of the way to righteousness, and faith in God’s grace spans the 20% gap. Or perhaps we imagine that our own efforts get us 20% of the way and God’s grace covers the remaining 80%. In either case, we believe that we are capable of fulfilling the law in part, and require divine grace only because we cannot perfectly or completely fulfill it.
Luther rejects this view, and goes further. Not only does the Law (not to mention an ethical system devised by men according to their own “natural precepts”) fail to deliver us all the way to righteousness—it fails to advance us at all. And not only does the Law fail to advance us to righteousness at all—it actually forms a hindrance!
Why should this be? We refrain from adultery and murder; we give to do the needy; we do what we believe God wants of us. Are we not, at least partly, fulfilling the Law?
The problem is this: even when we do the right things, we do them for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways. As long as we are striving to be righteous before God according to our own terms, we are already rejecting God’s grace and insisting on our own self-sufficiency. Any attempt to fulfill the law as a means to righteousness before God, no matter how attractive the action itself might be, is a transgression against God. Only the person who has already humbled himself to receive God’s grace can use the law of God properly. For him, the law is a “salutary” or helpful guide to life, a “doctrine” for how he can express his love for God in the world.
Even if we do fulfill the Law in part, we are not advancing at all toward righteousness before God. We are falling further away, because we are only entrenching ourselves more deeply in the presumption that we can justify ourselves before God. For the unredeemed, then, the Law does not advance us toward righteousness but convicts us of sin and our need for grace.