We examine two theses:
Walther, Theses II
Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.
In my experience and observations over the past 35 years, both of these theses identify critical problems in rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel. Many years ago I was present for a sermon by a distinguished Lutheran scholar. Every thing he said in the sermon was doctrinally correct. A student following the key points could easily pass systematics tests by following how well he articulated the doctrines. Many pastors at the event praised him greatly for such a “fine sermon.” What they meant is that he spoke clear doctrines.
And yet, as the second half of Walther’s 2nd thesis notes, the preacher did not rightly distinguish Law and Gospel. That is, the average person in the congregation walked away shaking his head wondering what the guy was talking about. I was recently ordained and this stuck out in my mind.
Walther, Thesis III
Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.
This thesis overthrows the arrogance that we often demonstrate as we begin our pastoral ministry. Sadly even older pastors struggle with this. We want the knowledge, expertise, the attention, the praise of how well we have distinguished Law and Gospel. Yet, this thesis turns thing upside down. It is not great knowledge, it is not being the most gifted, recognized scholar, but the one who walks through angst/Anfechtung/tribulation on the under side, who is then taught by the Holy Spirit, and who rightly distinguishes Law and Gospel.
Our temptation is to try to learn this by vicarious means… i.e. listening to someone else’s experience. But it doesn’t work that way. David could write Psalm 23 because he had experienced that valley of death. We, too, become more skilled in this by our own Anfechtungen. Even more, we now have hearts that are more attentive to where a person is and what is needed in preaching, teaching, and individual ministry. Always with the Holy Spirit guiding, encouraging, encouraging, teaching.
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 student 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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
I learned forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation in the midst of life’s agonies. In the trenches of life scarred by sin—including my own—I learned about pastoral theology and life. Eugene Peterson’s book (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work) has been part of that journey as well. He points us to God’s Word to be used in ways that may be unique for our era, but they have been proven in ancient ways for providing care for God’s people.
Ministry in the trenches to read more on this topic.
In our first class on Law and Gospel, I use a diagram that I originally drew on a napkin in 1990. The persons had trouble grasping the freedom of the Gospel (after several months they joyfully embraced that freedom!). As I emphasized points I was looking for a way to communicate better. This is the diagram that I eventually developed. Law-Gospel Diagram
I have used this diagram for introducing the Adult Basics class, Junior Confirmation class, and premarital meetings as the couple prepares to live together as husband and wife. One time a junior confirmand was getting ready for the interview with two elders, he asked if he could draw the diagram, telling me, “then I can tell everything about the catechism.” I also use it to explore how Law and Gospel work in a liturgical worship setting.
As we continue to explore this topic, I will use other tools that help distinguish Law and Gospel. Law-Gospel Table
The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testaments, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, namely, the Law and the Gospel.
From the Book of Concord, Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article V. Law and Gospel
The Principal Question In This Controversy.
1] Whether the preaching of the Holy Gospel is properly not only a preaching of grace, which announces the forgiveness of sins, but also a preaching of repentance and reproof, rebuking unbelief, which, they say, is rebuked not in the Law, but alone through the Gospel.
Affirmative Theses: Pure Doctrine of God’s Word.
2] 1. We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence as an especially brilliant light, by which, according to the admonition of St. Paul, the Word of God is rightly divided.
3] 2. We believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a divine doctrine, which teaches what is right and pleasing to God, and reproves everything that is sin and contrary to God’s will.
4] 3. For this reason, then, everything that reproves sin is, and belongs to, the preaching of the Law.
5] 4. But the Gospel is properly such a doctrine as teaches what man who has not observed the Law, and therefore is condemned by it, is to believe, namely, that Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sins, and has obtained and acquired for him, without any merit of his [no merit of the sinner intervening], forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life.
6] 5. But since the term Gospel is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures, on account of which this dissension originally arose, we believe, teach, and confess that if by the term Gospel is understood the entire doctrine of Christ which He proposed in His ministry, as also did His apostles (in which sense it is employed, Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins.
7] 6. But if the Law and the Gospel, likewise also Moses himself [as] a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with one another, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or reproof, but properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation, and a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify, but comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points alone to the merit of Christ, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of the grace and favor of God, obtained through Christ’s merit.
8] 7. As to the revelation of sin, because the veil of Moses hangs before the eyes of all men as long as they hear the bare preaching of the Law, and nothing concerning Christ, and therefore do not learn from the Law to perceive their sins aright, but either become presumptuous hypocrites [who swell with the opinion of their own righteousness] as the Pharisees, or despair like Judas, Christ takes the Law into His hands, and explains it spiritually, Matt. 5:21ff ; Rom. 7:14. And thus the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all sinners [ Rom. 1:18 ], how great it is; by this means they are directed [sent back] to the Law, and then first learn from it to know aright their sins-a knowledge which Moses never could have forced out of them.
9] Accordingly, although the preaching of the suffering and death of Christ, the Son of God, is an earnest and terrible proclamation and declaration of God’s wrath, whereby men are first led into the Law aright, after the veil of Moses has been removed from them, so that they first know aright how great things God in His Law requires of us, none of which we can observe, and therefore are to seek all our righteousness in Christ:
10] 8. Yet as long as all this (namely, Christ’s suffering and death) proclaims God’s wrath and terrifies man, it is still not properly the preaching of the Gospel, but the preaching of Moses and the Law, and therefore a foreign work of Christ, by which He arrives at His proper office, that is, to preach grace, console, and quicken, which is properly the preaching of the Gospel.
Negative Theses: Contrary Doctrine which is Rejected.
11] Accordingly we reject and regard as incorrect and injurious the dogma that the Gospel is properly a preaching of repentance or reproof, and not alone a preaching of grace; for thereby the Gospel is again converted into a doctrine of the Law, the merit of Christ and Holy Scripture are obscured, Christians robbed of true consolation, and the door is opened again to [the errors and superstitions of] the Papacy.
The texts used here are from Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church: German-Latin-English. Published as a memorial of the quadricentenary jubilee of the Reformation anno Domini 1917 by resolution of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921). These texts are in the public domain and may be freely copied.