Law & Gospel is Hard

For Lutherans, the Formula of Concord provides the classic definitions of the law as condemnation of sinners and the gospel as the promise of salvation. This course examines these two terms in light of the Scriptures, the Confessions, and the doctrinal issues related to each. However, it is crucial to move beyond the academic study to an understanding of law and gospel in application in contemporary Christian life. David Scaer writes: “In the same moment they are condemned by the law and forgiven by the gospel. Since the law and the gospel penetrate our inner being and uncover who and what we really are, no other Christian Christian doctrine is as existential as this one” (Scaer, p. 5). In our Lutheran Confessions we read:

All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal. Moreover, in this discussion, by Law we designate the Ten Commandments, wherever they are read in the Scriptures. Of the ceremonies and judicial laws of Moses we say nothing at present. (Kolb, Book of Concord, Apology, Art. IV, para 5–6)

This course provides an introduction to the MTS program as well as critical topics that relate to preparing pastors for the 21st century. Students will gain an appreciation of the importance of study and the program laid out before them. The goal is to help the L&G diagramstudent become a life-long study of the Scriptures, the Confessions, and theology. Only as pastors and student pastors grow in these areas can they continue help their congregations mature in the faith.

Practical Life Example

In one sense, the distinguishing of Law and Gospel in the Scriptures is relatively easy. But the challenge comes when we must rightly divide the Scriptures and then apply that to a person. So, let’s take an extreme, practical example.

In Matthew 6:15, Jesus said:

“But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Clearly Jesus speaks Law here. Forgiveness is conditioned by what the person does in terms of forgiving another person.

Now suppose a situation in which a daughter is raped and murdered. The parents come to speak to you and one of them shouts, “I will never forgive that man!”

The challenge: do the parents needs Law or Gospel? I pose that question for the seminary students in the very first class (note: I also pose this to our adult Basics class). So how would you answer? I allow the students to mull this over and then ask for their response. Some immediately respond with the Law, ala Matthew 6:15. Others respond with Gospel, forgiveness of sins through Jesus. And a few want to have the “best” answer, namely “both Law and Gospel.”

What is the answer? The pastoral starting point is to recognize that we don’t know enough to apply Law or Gospel. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions about what other people need. In the process we fail to rightly divide Law and Gospel, and worse we do not rightly apply Law and Gospel.

Why this question? I use it to teach humility in applying Law and Gospel. If we do not approach with humilty, we may in fact detain the person in unnecessary turmoil. Or we may enable a less than helpful response to the person. And worse, we set ourselves up as the ultimate arbiter.

Scriptural Examples

Mark 10:17-22

17 As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Note: is the man’s question a Law question or a Gospel question?

While some might be drawn to “inherit eternal life” as a signal of the Gospel, the thrust of the question, “what shall I do…” In other words, he is not concerned with what God does. So, this is a Law question

18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

Jesus responds with a Law answer, namely the second table (horizontal relationships).

20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”

The man’s response is one to be commended by many in the church (and outside the church). Some might even want to elect him to be an elder in the church!

21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Instead of commending the man, Jesus adds more to the Law, in fact, raising the stakes to the 1st commandment (“you shall have no other gods…”).

So, Law question—> Law response, followed by Law “fulfillment”—> even more Law applied.

22 But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 15.18.11

The result of Law in this case is grieving, not because of his failure to recognize his sin, but because of what he considered most important, his possessions, not his “good God.”

Acts 16:25-31

25 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; 26 and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”

29 And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, 30 and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Note the question asked by the jailer: it is a Law question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” This is identical to the question asked by the man in Mark 10. So, given the consistency of Scripture we should expect that Paul and Silas would answer with Law responses, “do this, do that, …” But note that the sorrow does not lead him back to himself.

31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

The surprise is that they do not answer with a Law statement, but rather with the Gospel invitation (that creates faith to believe the Gospel).

The Real ChallengeScreen Shot 2015-09-16 at 15.04.32

Note that the differences in these two accounts:

in Mark 10 the man demands Gospel, but needs the Law. He is still climbing the Law ladder.

in Acts 16 the jailer expects the Law, but needs the Gospel. He has been broken by the Law.

We will find in ministry (not just pastoral ministry) that we will meet people in both situations; the need the opposite of what they expect. And now we begin to see how important it is not to jump to conclusions about applying Law and Gospel too quickly.

God, grant us wisdom to read and study Your Word, so that we rightly divide Law and Gospel and apply them; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen


Kolb, Robert, Timothy Wengert and James Schaffer. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.

Scaer, David P. Law and Gospel and the Means of Grace. Vol. VIII. Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, ed. John R. Stephenson, and John A. Maxfield. St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 2008.

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