Law and Gospel; the Lutheran Understanding


Theology, considered objectively, is Christian doctrine, or Bible doctrine, which, as we have seen before, is inspired in all its parts, so that in the whole Bible there is not a single teaching which is not divinely given and profitable for salvation. Nevertheless, while it is the scope and purpose of the entire Bible to save sinners from eternal perdition, distinctions must be made between the various Bible doctrines regarding their special function and importance. We thus speak of 1) Law and Gospel; 2) fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines; 3) theological problems, or open questions. 


The distinction between Law and Gospel is one that is made by Holy Scripture itself. For while at times the term Law is used for the entire Word of God or every revealed truth in Holy Scripture (Ps. 1, 2; 19, 7; 119, 97), nevertheless this term, in its proper and narrow sense, has a distinct meaning, which properly does not apply to the whole revealed Word of God. So, too, the term Gospel is sometimes applied to the entire doctrine of the Bible (Mark 1,1-15; Phil.4,15). Yet in its strict sense each of these terms denotes a definite message, which must not be identified with the entire Scripture content. Therefore, properly or strictly speaking, the Law is not Gospel, nor is the Gospel Law, but the two are opposites. Accurate definitions of them will readily prove this. The Formula of Concord defines the Law thus: “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.” The same confession defines the Gospel in its narrow sense as follows: “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, forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life.” (Epitome, V, 2. 4.) These definitions are Scriptural and nicely show the fundamental difference between the Law and the Gospel. How essential this difference is, is obvious from the fact that Holy Scripture expressly excludes the Law from the province of salvation. Its pronouncement is: “By grace are ye saved, … not of works,” Eph. 2, 8. 9. “Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified,” Rom. 3, 20. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law,” v. 28. 

This distinction between the Law and the Gospel, which is so clearly taught in Holy Scripture, the Christian theologian must conscientiously observe and neither weaken the condemning force of the Law nor diminish the saving comfort of the Gospel. He must declare without qualification the whole guilt and condemnation of sin which the Law reveals. Ezek. 3, 18: “When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die and thou give him not warning nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way to save his life, the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.” So also the Christian theologian must proclaim fully and without any qualification the whole consolation of the Gospel with its matchless offer of divine grace, pardon, and eternal life. Matt. 11, 28 : “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” 1 Cor. 2, 2: “For I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 

Unless the Law and the Gospel are thus preached as two distinct and contradictory doctrines (Luther: plus quam contradictoria), the Christian religion is deprived of its distinct content, is paganized by the introduction of work-righteousness as a cause of salvation, and is therefore rendered incapable of saving sinners. The sinner indeed needs the Law in order that he may know his sin and the condemnation of God which rests upon him because of his sin; but he needs the Gospel in order that he may know divine grace, which through Christ Jesus has fully removed his sin and offers full forgiveness to him. Gal. 3, 10: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them”; v. 13: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us.” Whenever the Law with its condemnation is weakened and sinners are taught to rely for salvation on the works of the Law, though only in part, then the Gospel, too, is corrupted, since a weakened Law means a weakened Gospel. The final result is that the sinner is robbed of the salvation which is offered in the Gospel; for this offer is received only by those who implicitly trust in its divine promises and cast themselves upon God’s mercy, in short, by those who absolutely repudiate the error of salvation by works. Gal. 5, 4: “Christ is become of no effect unto you whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.” Gal. 3, 10: “As many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse.” As the Law must forever remain the “ministry of condemnation,” so the Gospel must forever remain the “ministration of righteousness,” 2 Cor. 3, 9. For a person is a Christian only in so far as he comforts himself against the terrors of conscience with the free and full promise of forgiveness, “without the deeds of the Law.” 

This fundamental truth requires special emphasis today in view of the fact that both Romanism and modern Protestant sectarianism have discarded the Scriptural distinction between Law and Gospel and have mingled the two into each other. (Cp. Pieper, Chri.stliche Dogmatilc~ I, 84 ff.) The reason for this is obvious. Both Romanism and modern sectarianism are basically pagan; for both insist upon work-righteousness as a condition of salvation. Now, where work-righteousness is consistently taught, the distinction between Law and Gospel necessarily is eliminated, and each is deprived of its distinctive character. Salvation by works has room only in that type of theology which affirms that sin is not as hideous as Holy Scripture pictures it and that divine grace is not as glorious as the Gospel proclaims it. In other words, the paganistic error of salvation by work-righteousness is possible only if neither the Law nor the Gospel is taught in its truth and purity. Against this pernicious corruption of God’s holy Word let every true theologian be warned. Our divine Lord says: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven,” Matt. 5, 19; and St. Paul writes: “But though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed,” Gal. 1, 8.-With regard to the use of Law and Gospel the following distinctions must be conscientiously observed:-

a. Knowledge of sin must be taught from the Law; forgiveness of sin must be taught from the Gospel. Rom. 3, 20: “Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified.” Rom. 1, 16. 17: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth …• For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” All who teach forgiveness of sin from the Law or on the basis of work-righteousness are not Christian theologians, but false prophets, Gal. 5, 4. “I would they were even cut off which trouble you,” Gal. 5, 12. Since by the Law there is the knowledge of sin, it must be preached to secure sinners, who, filled with carnal pride, refuse to admit their guilt. Rom. 3, 19: “That every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God.” On the other hand, the Gospel must be proclaimed to contrite hearts, that is, to penitent sinners, who have been humbled by the Law, make no assertion of having any merit whatsoever of their own, and gladly accept salvation as a free gift. Luke 4, 18: “He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted.” It is needless to say that the right apportionment of Law- and Gospel preaching must remain a matter of pastoral wisdom. Nevertheless the true minister of Christ is above all a preacher of the Gospel and will therefore not deny his hearers a full and abundant measure of Gospel comfort. 

b. By means of the Law the Christian theologian teaches what good works are~· but by means of the Gospel he produces true joy and zeal to do good works, Matt. 15, 1-6; 22, 35-40; 19, 16-22; Rom. 12, 1; Gal. 5, 24–26; Eph. 6, 5-10; 2 Cor. 8, 8. 9; etc. These diverse functions of the Law and the Gospel have been fittingly expressed by the axiom : Lex praescribit ~· evangelium inscribit. Luther writes: “A legalistic preacher compels by threats and punishments; a preacher of grace calls forth and moves by showing divine goodness and mercy.” (St. L., XII, 318.) 

c. The Law checks sin only outwardly, while it increases sin inwardly~· but the Gospel, by converting the sinner, destroys sin both inwardly and outwardly. Rom. 7, 5: “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the Law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” V. 6 : “But now are we delivered from the Law, that being dead wherein we were held, that we should serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” Rom. 6, 14: “Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the Law, but under grace.” This important truth is stated in the axiom: “Lex necat peccatorem, non peccatum; evangelium necat peccatum, non peccatorem.” Luther writes: ”Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” (St. L., IX, 802.)

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