As you may or may not be aware, my wife and I have, within the past year, become Lutherans. Having been raised in Pentecostalism, specifically the Assemblies of God, this is, quite obviously, a huge change. As such, I thought I would write up a series of blog posts documenting the reasons why I have settled in the Lutheran church. In this first part, I wanted to look at something that helped me understand the rest of Lutheran doctrine: Law and Gospel.
C. F. W. Walther, in his second thesis from his groundbreaking work The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, says “Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.” His point is that you may correctly state what the Scriptures say, but when you mix Law with Gospel, you might as well be feeding your hearers — or yourself — arsenic.
So what is Law, and what is Gospel? Doesn’t this somehow improperly divide the Scriptures? Is this distinction even biblical? All good questions. Let’s start with the first.
The Law might be summed up simply as anywhere God demands something of us. Of course, this is an overly simplistic definition, but for our context here it will work. Any time God says “do this and live,” you are dealing with a passage of Law. Of course there are imperatives for Christians, but those are not conditional in the same sense — something Tullian Tchvidjian explains quite well in his recent blog post. But for our discussion, think of the Law as those commands of God with a condition attached: “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments…” (Matthew 19:17).
The Gospel, on the other hand, is fundamentally different from the Law in a number of ways. For our purposes we will focus on the difference in content. Whereas the Law says “Do this,” the Gospel says “This is done for you.” The Gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save sinners (Luke 2:10-11; 1 John 4:14;). The Gospel is that word from God that says that Jesus Christ has come to take away the sins of the world: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7).
Does this somehow divide the Scriptures? Doesn’t this make some passages more important than others? Of course not. Recognizing a distinction in the Scriptures does not divide them, nor does it make the Law any less important to our salvation than the Gospel. It’s simply a matter of properly applying each. Let’s look at a few examples.
What would happen if you went to a church that preached only the Law? “Do better, try harder, live a better life.” If the focus of the sermon was constantly on you — your works and your achievements — where do you think you would end up? There are two extremes that you would swing between: Self-righteousness and despair. If, for instance, you hear the Ten Commandments, where God says “Do not commit adultery,” you may say to yourself “Never have, never will!” When God says “Do not murder,” well, your hands are clean! And so on it goes, with you consistently fooling yourself that you’ve kept the Commandments. Of course, you won’t understand why you need the Gospel anyway. After all, you’ve cleaned up your life!
But then along comes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and He sets the bar even higher. Now, instead of just not committing adultery you find out you can’t even look on someone with lust? And if you hate your brother in your heart it’s as bad as if you’ve murdered him? It’s almost as if breaking one part of the law would make you as guilty as if you had broken every part (James 2:10)! Because the Law does not contain a message of forgiveness, seeing your failings before the Law could easily drive you mad with despair.
This “try harder, do better” use of the Law is comparable to soap: Scrub yourself clean so that you can go to the Wedding. Or, as you’ve probably heard, “Just do your best, and God will do the rest.” But the Law does not say “try your best,” the Law says “cursed is every man who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10, emph. mine). Which is why if you apply the Law incorrectly, you are literally putting people back under a curse.
On the other hand, let’s say someone never hears the Law. Let’s say you just tell them Jesus loves them so much that He died for their sins. What’s going to happen then? Without a clear picture of what they need saving from, they’re not going to care what Jesus did. Ray Comfort uses an excellent analogy: Say someone handed you a parachute on a passenger jet and asked you to put it on so you could “have a nice flight.” It’s going to be awkward at best to sit down wearing that parachute. People will look at you funny, too. So after a while you take off the parachute because, after all, who needs a parachute to have a nice plane ride? Rewind that analogy and say that instead of asking you to put it on so you could “have a nice flight,” they asked you to put it on because the engines were going to fail as soon as you hit 30,000 feet. You would hold onto that parachute for dear life. This is why preaching the Gospel to those secure in their sins is throwing pearls before swine. That Christ came to save sinners is only good news in the ears of sinners.
These are nice analogies, but is this distinction even Biblical? Did Jesus or Paul consider the message of the Bible to come to us in Law and Gospel? I would say absolutely. For instance consider Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler who asks “What good thing should I do that I may have eternal life?” Jesus, seeing his heart, responds with the Law. The ruler audaciously claims that he has kept the Law! Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, this takes place after the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus says “do not murder,” that bears the full weight of His exposition of the Law where He says that hating someone in your heart is murder. And the rich young ruler still claims to have kept the Law! Jesus shows him that he hasn’t kept the Law, however, by telling him to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor. The ruler’s devotion to material wealth is idolatrous. If he did indeed love his neighbor as himself, he would be happy to sell his possessions to benefit his neighbor. But his idolatry prevents him from doing that, as Jesus exposes with the Law. Compare Jesus’ treatment of the rich young ruler with His response to the woman at the well, who was no longer secure in her sins, and you’ll see that Jesus does indeed distinguish between Law and Gospel in His public ministry and dealings with people.
Paul unpacks this for us even further in Galatians 3. There we see the clear juxtaposition of the Law and that which is “of Faith.” The Law was added “because of transgressions.” In Romans 5:20 Paul says that the Law was given to “increase the trespass.” That is, it was there to enumerate all the times that we fall short of God’s glory. Again in Romans, this time chapter 7, verse 7: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said ‘you shall not covet.'” Paul goes on to say that “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (vs. 10). Sound familiar? Back to Galatians, look at how Paul shows the message of Christ first in Law — vs. 10: “all who rely on works are under a curse” — and then Gospel — vs. 13: “Christ redeemed us from under the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” Paul says that the right way to understand the Law is as a tutor, leading us to Christ, so that we can be justified by faith. Rather than being soap, think of the Law like a mirror, showing you what you look like and why it is you need a savior.
I hope this little Law/Gospel overview has been helpful to you! If you’re interested in learning about Lutheranism at all, keeping these categories in mind will help you to understand where we’re coming from. If you liked this post, be sure to keep an eye out for the next posts covering everything from Sola Scriptura to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
EDIT: I meant to include a link to this incredible resource where you can read C. F. W. Walther’s Law and Gospel online! Check it out!