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A Lutheran Perspective: Helmut Thielicke

The first volume of Thielicke's Theological Ethics ("Foundations") reveals a sensitivity to redemptive history,144 and presents many pertinent insights. He sees "justification as the presupposition of evangelical ethics."145 Later, he comes to consider the work of Christ and its centrality in our obedience. Here, we will take a brief look at his development of the believer as both under law and not under law.

Not Under Law

Thielicke observes that in the area of redemption,

the zone in which man is here addressed lies wholly outside the dominion of the law. If I must be commanded by the law, this is a sign that I am not yet "free," that I have not yet died and risen again with Christ, that I do not yet have the spontaneity of the new existence . . . love, joy, peace, etc. are understood as necessary and automatic expressions of the gracious event which has broken through into the life of believers.146

This spontaneity is possible, Thielicke continues,

only if the Law has no part in the origin of this total movement . . . This movement devoid of Law and imperative is possible only in love . . . Thus, it is not the Law but the Gospel alone which can release that love . . . The love which actualizes itself in good works is really posited in and with the love of God which is shown to us. In order to come into being it needs no supplementary intervention on the part of the Law.147

Does this perspective, then, lead us to confess that "a legal imperative would seem to be completely out of the question?"148 Absolutely not. The issue is, what are we to think of the commandments directed toward us in the New Covenant? Thielicke asks, "Is the gift [of Christ] not sufficiently powerful and effective to assert itself in the new existence?"149 Yes, it is. And the beautiful thing is that the commandment to love flows out of the gift (John 15:12-13)! Or, we could say it this way - the gift commands us!

Unfortunately, Thielicke grounds his primary "imperative" in the Ten Commandments (p. 72), and not in the "New Commandment." Nevertheless, he wishes to uphold the priority of the gospel in the imperative of ethics. He emphasizes how important it is to find,

the right starting point, on the basis of which, once it has been attained, everything else will flow naturally of itself . . . In other words, the crucial thing . . .is that we should drink from the right source.150

And this Source - our "meat" and "drink" - is, of course, Jesus Christ (John 6:53-57). In summary Thielicke writes,

The purpose of the imperative is not to intrude upon the automatic process and so declare that justification of itself is incapable of producing the "new creation." On the contrary, the imperative is rather a demand that we should attain to that starting point where the automatic process goes into operation.151

Under Law

Thielicke, like Luther, sees the Christian as a "stone lying in the sun, which need not be commanded to become warm."152 This side of glory, however, even a warmed stone is in need of exhortation, spiritual growth, and maturity.153

To that end, Thielicke believes that the Christian needs "flashing red lights on both sides of the path" (the Decalogue).154 He uses another analogy: "the Law is a kind of sheep dog whose purpose is to recall the members of the flock to the path of the shepherd."155 Thus, he contends, "the Law is necessary in the Christian life to remind us that all spheres are to be related to our sonship."156

There are several problems with this rationale - problems related both to Scripture and to his own conclusions. First, in his sheep dog illustration he introduces something radically foreign to John 10. The sheep, according to Jesus the Shepherd, "hear his voice and follow him." It is not the voice of a sheep dog (i.e., the law) they hear, but him. There is no need for another voice. Christ's voice is sufficient to guide the sheep.

Secondly, Thielicke states inconsistently that Christian progress, or sanctification, "consists in allowing the resurrection of Christ into which I have been drawn, to take place in me - in the form of a new life and through my own affirmation of it."157 Where is the centrality of the Law in this statement?

Thirdly, why should the law be the source that can relate all areas of life to our sonship? Have we not seen from the New Testament that all relationships - marriage, church, even work - are all related to Christ's love? Is the gospel not able to inform us of the many-sided outworkings of our sonship in Christ? Thielicke seems to deny here what he affirms elsewhere: "the love which actualizes itself in good works . . . needs no supplementary intervention on the part of the Law."158

Motivation in Christian Ethics

Thielicke points out that in Christian ethics it is impossible and wrong to compile a manual that can give "advance decisions" for all cases that may arise. This is so, he says, because

such advance decisions are possible only within a framework of a "legalistic" rather than an "evangelical" view of things. The view would be "legalistic" to the extent that it does not let the man be the acting subject in the making of his decision. He becomes merely the object, agent, or executor of a decision which has been made already by others, e.g., those in authority . . . It is a characteristic feature of legalism that it does not let a man be a subject. Instead it impels him "from without," and thus makes him the object of this impulsion from outside himself . . . The only obedience which is whole and undivided, and in which the ego has the significance of an acting subject wholly committed to its action, is love.159

These comments surely pertain to the typical Puritan pastor and his carefully formulated "cases of conscience." Huge tomes were produced in Puritanism, setting forth and resolving numerous theoretical and actual "cases." This seems to parallel the Rabbinical approach to ethics, "elaborating the will of God as much as possible and in carrying on a casuistry that extended like a net over all of life."160

"Those in authority" in Puritanism were the pastors, and "the cure of afflicted consciences" was "now committed to ministers of the gospel."161 An attempt was made in Puritanism

to build up an all-inclusive theoretical and practical theology, in which there was no attempt made to bypass any of the thorny problems which arise when one tries to apply the Christian ethic to the multifarious situations of daily life.162

Perkins' Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience (1606) became a "kind of popular health manual for the soul," and gave specific directives even for "the small issues of conduct."163

This approach is Old Covenant oriented (Gal. 3:24-25; 4:1-3), treats Christians like little children, and does not do justice to the spirit of New Testament ethics.


144. Thielicke, pp. 39-47.

145. Thielicke, p. 52.

146. Thielicke, p. 56.

147. Thielicke, pp. 64-65.

148. Thielicke, p. 69.

149. Thielicke, p. 70.

150. Thielicke, pp. 84-85.

151. Thielicke, p. 29.

152. Thielicke, p. 126.

153. Thielicke, pp. 127, 128.

154. Thielicke, p. 130.

155. Thielicke, pp. 131-132.

156. Thielicke, p. 132.

157. Thielicke, pp. 128-129.

158. Thielicke, p. 65.

159. Thielicke, p. 649.

160. Ridderbos, Paul - An Outline of His Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, p. 273; p. 286.

161. Ian Breward, "William Perkins and the Origins of Puritan Casuistry," Faith and A Good Conscience, London: Westminster Conference, 1963, p. 8.

162. Breward, p. 9.

163. Breward, p. 6.

This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 41-43.