LAW AND GOSPEL
As Lutherans we are very concerned about using God’s Word properly. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.” II Tim. 2:15 Part of ‘rightly handling God’s Word’ has to do with using the two great teachings of the Bible correctly. When, how and why do we use Law and Gospel?
Definition and Differentiation
In a hymn by Isaac Watts these two great teachings are clearly distinguished.
–The Law commands and makes us know what duties to our God we owe;
–But ‘tis the Gospel must reveal where lies our strength to do His will.
–The Law discovers guilt and sin and shows how vile our hearts have been;
–The Gospel only can express forgiving love and cleansing grace.
–What curses doth the Law denounce against the man that fails but once!
–But in the Gospel Christ appears, pardoning the guilt of numerous years.
–My soul, no more attempt to draw thy life and comfort from the Law,
–Fly to the hope the Gospel gives; the man that trusts the promise lives.
This hymn reminds us that the Gospel is the good news of our Savior Jesus’ living and dying for us, living the perfect life we never could and then dying the sacrificial death bearing our punishment so that we through faith in Him might have eternal life. The Law on the other hand condemns us as sinners showing us what God’s will is and that we can’t fulfill it in our lives. Our God is a holy and righteous God, telling us in the Old Testament and repeating it in the New, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Mt. 5:48,Lev. 19:2 Our Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world as the baptizer said.
Unfortunately, if you were to ask many people today how they are saved, if they are saved by obeying the Ten Commandments there would be many who would agree with that. That attitude makes the Law something that it is not and reduces Jesus to a good man as just an example for people.
The purposes of the Law and Gospel must be kept clear, handling the Word of God correctly. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Rom. 1:16 John 3:16 as well as many passages tell us that salvation is to be found on Mt. Calvary and not on Mt. Sinai.
Salvation cannot be by the Law as the following passages say. “…the soul that sins shall die.” Ez. 18:4 “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” James 2:10 “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’” Gal. 3:10
The chief purpose of the Law is as a mirror to show us our lost condition. “…through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Rom. 3:20 This is meant for all people that they see their dire need of the Savior. The Law also acts as a guide or rule for Christians that they might see clearly in God’s Word what the will of God is for their lives. Ps. 119:105,32 It can also serve as a curb to keep down the coarse outbreak of sin in the world with its threats. Ps. 119:120, I Tim.1:9-10
The power is in the Gospel and not in the Law to save as we saw in Rom. 1:16 and other passages so far. Pastor Kurth gives us an example to illustrate this. “A father said to his boy, ‘Saw and chop this wood today. If you don’t, I’ll punish you when I get home tonight.’ The boy tries, but he is too weak, he is too frail. Along comes his elder brother and says, ‘Step aside, I’ll do it for you.’ And he does. Now,when the father comes home, will he punish his son? No, as the command was kept. Of course, through another it was kept. So our heavenly Father says to us, ‘Thou Shalt…’ and ‘Thou Shalt Not…’ We try, but we are too weak and frail due to the sinful flesh. Along comes our elder brother Christ and says, ‘I’ll do it for you.’ And He has. Now, when the long, long day is over, can God punish us? No, the Law was kept. Of course, through another. Therefore we are saved by Christ in our place who kept the Law perfectly for us. His righteousness is put on us like a white garment.”
The motivation of the Christian’s life is also in, from, with the Gospel. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” II Cor. 5:14 We do not seek to do good to be rewarded, but seek to do good because Christ died for us and has gone ahead to prepare a place for us that where He is there we shall be also. We do not operate out of fear of punishment, because Christ has already been punished for us. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I John 4:18
In Luke 2:10-20 we see that the immediate result of hearing the Gospel is joy. In Luke 18:13 we see the result of the Law is sorrow over sin. We want to speak both Law and Gospel. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation…” II Cor. 7:10
In the Lutheran confessional writing of the Formula of Concord on this issue we state, “We believe, teach, and confess that although people who genuinely believe (in Christ) and whom God has truly converted are freed through Christ from the curse and coercion of the law, they are not on that account without law; on the contrary, they have been redeemed by the Son of God precisely that they should exercise themselves day and night in the law…For although they are indeed reborn and have been renewed in the spirit of their mind, such regeneration and renewal is incomplete in this world. In fact, it has only been begun…It is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way…The believer without any coercion and with a willing spirit, insofar as he is reborn, does what no threat of the law could ever have wrung from him.” Formula of Concord, Epitome, VI 2,4,7
For our lifelong we are seeking to rightly handle God’s Word in our daily lives. It is a skill that we are constantly working at, but never perfect at. Thanks be to God that His Spirit works with our spirit. Jesus has promised that the Spirit of truth would: guide us into all truth, bring to our remembrance what Jesus has said, teach us all things, and so much more. With Him we speak and teach. To our God alone goes the glory for His word to us and His assistance to us to use it properly. Amen