The October edition of Lutheran Witness includes a lengthy article on the difficult teachings of the Scripture. Over the next few weeks, I will summarize each “difficulty” discussed. I encourage you to get your own copy of the Lutheran Witness by visiting https://witness.lcms.org and subscribing.
The Distinction between Law and Gospel and its Centrality to Faith and Preaching
The Law-Gospel distinction is at the heart and soul of Lutheran theology. C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the LCMS and author of Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, wrote the following: [The Distinction between Law and Gospel] in fact, is easy — easy enough for children to learn.” But moment later he wrote, “To rightly distinguish Law and Gospel is the most difficult and highest Christian art.”
To determine why this distinction is both “easy” and “difficult” let us define terms. The “Law” is simply commands man is expected to keep FOR God such as, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” True, Jesus said this in Matthew 22, but it doesn’t make it Gospel simply because Jesus said it. Jesus speaks plenty of great and hard Law throughout His earthly ministry. Paul writes, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). This is the Law, and it is found in both Old Testament and New Testament alike.
The “Gospel” is just the opposite, promises FROM God TO man such as, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The purpose of the Gospel isn’t wrath or revelation of sin but promise and assurance of salvation. The Gospel NEVER has strings attached.
The Lutheran confessions define Law as “God’s unchangeable will which rebukes everything that is sin and contrary to God’s will” (FC Ep VI 7 & FC Ep V 3). The Gospel is defined as “the promise of forgiveness of sins and of justification for Christ’s sake” (Ap IV 43). Or as Melanchthon states it, “The Law indicates disease, the Gospel points out the remedy” (Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 1521. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 71).
Walther provides a very thoughtful guideline for preaching the Law-Gospel paradigm and rightly dividing God’s Word. He says we are to “preach the Law to ‘secure’ sinners, yet preach the Gospel to ‘alarmed’ sinners” (Walther, 49). Consider a practical example. When Saul the Pharisee was on the road to Emmaus to commit murder against Christians, and when Jesus stopped him dead in his tracks, should Jesus have preached Law or Gospel? Well, we know He preached the law, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” But when Saul was in a state of despair, totally helpless in the house on Straight Street lying before Ananias, what did Ananias say? The Gospel, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
A sinner secure in his sin has no need nor desire for the Gospel because he does not think he needs forgiveness. A discerning pastor will not offer him any good news but only the threats of the Law. But a sinner who is broken from his sin, desperate for help and in despair, a discerning pastor will only offer him the sweet, sweet grace of the Gospel of forgiveness to lift him up to new life in Christ!
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it is far from easy. The most difficult thing for a pastor to know at any given moment is if a person must hear the Law or the Gospel. And since the Law doesn’t always do what is intended, it makes it all the more difficult.
The Law has three uses: Curb, Mirror, and Guide. In Lutheran liturgy and preaching, the second use is most often utilized (such as in the Confession of Sins) though the pastor may employ first use in a sermon (quite uncommon). The Third Use, the guide use, is specifically for Christians but how it is used in preaching must be done with extreme care because it can quickly become first use and trample all over the Gospel. This is why it’s important to always keep in mind that the Law, by its design, “always accuses.” Even in 3rd use preaching, such as if the pastor is preaching to forgiven Christians to refrain from certain sins out of response and thanksgiving, a person might take it as first use and be offended or feel accused. This is always an interesting dance that every Lutheran pastor dances. Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he doesn’t.
How do you, personally, apply this Law-Gospel paradigm to yourself? Simply put, never claim to fully grasp it. Study it, refer to it, know it, but also know that both God AND the devil use the Law to terrify, but their goals are quite different. Jesus uses the Law so that we might repent and trust the promises of God and the Gospel. Satan uses the Law to lead us even deeper into despair and to ultimately despise salvation.
In the end, this is why we must acknowledge and guard the distinction. Otherwise, we may end up abusing not only the Law and the Gospel, but the whole Scripture and trampling on the blood of Christ.