A Brief Latin Glossary
for the Lutheran Armchair Theologian:
Lex semper accusat
Lex orandi, lex credendi
Simul justus et peccator
Fides qua, fides quae
Ex opere operato
Quia and quatenus
Oratio, meditatio, tentatio
Soli deo gloria
This month I'd like to start a newsletter series highlighting some of the important and interesting Latin phrases we use from time to time in Lutheran theology. Each month we'll explore one of these terms to help you build a handy “vocab list”.
Let's start with “Lex semper accusat”, which means, “The Law always accuses”.
Perhaps you remember the “three uses of the law” paradigm from Confirmation instruction. First, the Law of God functions like a curb, to keep gross outbreaks of sin in check. This is the function of the Law that is expressed in earthly government, which bears the sword for our good (cf. Romans 13).
Also, the Third Use of the law is compared to a “ruler” or “guide”. This is the distinctly Christian use of the Law, that is, once we have been forgiven we might ask of God's law, “how then shall we live?” (2 Peter 3:11) The Law provides guidance and direction for how to live as we ought, how to do what is right as Christian, etc...
But the Second Use of the Law is sometimes called the “chief” use of the Law, and that's what we are talking about with “Lex semper accusat”. The Law as a mirror. The Law of God which always, always shows us our sin. Whatever comparison we make between our own life of works and the perfect Law of God, we will always find our own works lacking. Even if we haven't committed murder, we've wished harm on our neighbor or failed to help him in his bodily need (Matthew 5:21-22). Even if we've never bowed down to a statue of Zeus, we've placed other created things, or ourselves in the place of God in our lives. The Law says “do” and we can never do enough. We look in the mirror and it accuses us, shows us our sin, and never leaves any escape.
“Lex semper accusat” reminds us that even when the Law is functioning to curb sin in the world, or guide the Christian's life, it is still accusing us of sin! There is no time when we can encounter God's law that it doesn't probe us, reveal our failings, uncover the fig leaves we use to try and hide our sin. There's no law that should ever apply only to the “other guy” that doesn't also prove my own guilt. When we read, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) it's not simply a once-upon-a-time-long-ago we sinned. But it's an every-time-I-look-at-the-Law-I-see-my-sin. It's our constant struggle while still in the flesh. And the Law is always ready to shine the light on the dark parts within us.
“Lex semper accusat” is also a good reminder of this: Because the Law is always going to accuse us, we will always need the Gospel! The Law cannot save us. The Letter (the Law) kills, but the Spirit (working through the Gospel) gives life! (2 Corinthians 3:6). Because sin is ever before us, because we cannot fulfill the law and its demands but constantly struggle with sin and temptations, we are even in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Law always accuses, but the Gospel always forgives! The Law always takes and destroys and lays low the proud and self-assured sinner. But the Gospel raises up the humble, gives grace to those in the despair of sin, and brings new life to those dead in trespasses. Thanks be to God that he gives us the Law we need to see our sin, but the Gospel we need even more, to make us righteous and holy in Christ.
Christ has fulfilled the Law for you. Christ has defeated the Law's penalties for you. Christ has even overcome the greatest Accuser, the Serpent, crushing his head, for you. Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ, that we live not by the Law which always accuses – but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who always seeks and saves the lost (Luke 19:10).
In Christ, Pastor Chryst