Comparing Holy Scripture with other writings, we observe that no book is apparently so full of contradictions as the Bible, and that, not only in minor points, but in the principal matter, in the doctrine how we may come to God and be saved… This riddle is solved when we reflect that there are in Scriptures two entirely different doctrines, the doctrine of the Law and the doctrine of the Gospel. C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, 6 (cited fully below)
How are Christians to view the relationship between Law and Gospel? The issue has generated countless views and debates. One recent work which illustrates the breadth of views on this topic is Five Views on Law and Gospel, which outlines the major views on the issue.
C.F.W. Walther’s work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is what I would consider the definitive work on Law and Gospel. Here, I will outline what I believe is the correct understanding of Law and Gospel, while drawing heavily from Walther’s work.
Law and Gospel
The most central point of all–that is, the point that I hope readers remember if nothing else–is this: The Law always condemns, the Gospel always saves. This point is emphasized throughout Lutheran theology. What does it mean? Simply put: it means that these two doctrines, found throughout Scripture, have entirely distinct meanings and usages. One cannot intermingle law and gospel while remaining true to either doctrine. Wherever the Gospel is presented as if it had requirements attached to it, there the Gospel is not rightly preached. Whenever the Law is preached as if it offered some kind of free gift, it is not rightly preached.
Law only has power to condemn. It cannot save. That is because none can keep God’s Law. All sin, and all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Law shows what God requires of us. It “issues only commands and demands” (Walther, Proper Distinction…, 9).
In contrast, the Gospel only gives offers without requirements attached (ibid). The Gospel shows us God’s promises and offer of grace.
At first face, one examines the whole of the Bible and finds these teachings throughout. The teachings seem so at odds with one another that one might suspect a contradiction throughout the Biblical teaching. However, the fact is that both doctrines are “equally necessary. Without the Law the Gospel is not understood; without the Gospel the Law benefits us nothing” (Ibid, 8). The reason this is so important is because Law and Gospel are not opposites working against each other. Instead, both “have their final aim [human] salvation” (Ibid, 7). They work together to present a full picture of how salvation comes unto men.
The Law, as we have noted, cannot bring salvation because none but God can fulfill it. That is, it gives the requirements for salvation but no one can meet these requirements! We would all be lost if this were the whole of Biblical teaching. Yet there is more to the story, for the Gospel offers only its promises. God has promised to save. He is mighty to save. God has accomplished our salvation. And this salvation does not come with requirements attached. Such is our hope.
Most simply put then, the purpose of the Law is to show our need for the Gospel because we cannot meet the requirements of the Law. The purpose of the Gospel is to show that God has already met these requirements for us in Jesus Christ and to offer us that fulfillment through Christ’s atoning work. So the Gospel, without the Law, would be empty promises. What need have we for Gospel if we are not sinners? Yet without the Gospel, the Law is only a terror which tells us that all are condemned.
A number of objections have been raised against this understanding of Law and Gospel. For example: “[The notion t]hat the law must be viewed as a single entity is one of the most common of all objections made against the Christian use of the Law” (Walter Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” 188, cited below). Kaiser then argues against viewing the Law as a single entity. He makes distinctions between Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral laws. I agree that we can make these distinctions, but they do not somehow mean it is impossible to refer to the “Law” as a whole entity with all of the commands God has issued.
Another common objection is that of dispensational thought. It is often charged that because we live in a new dispensation, the teachings of the Mosaic Law, for example, no longer apply to us. Without commenting on the plausibility of dispensationalism, I would simply answer that it seems extremely hard to reconcile the notion that the Mosaic Law has no applicability in our own context with Jesus’ words about the Law: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Note that this verse also shows Christ using the “Law” as a single, coherent entity.
Yet does this mean that everything recorded in the Mosaic Law has applicability exactly as written? No. A further discussion along this line of thought would take me too far afield, but I think that the Bible does clearly teach there is some discontinuity between the application of Mosaic Law to the Jew and the New Covenant with Christians (for example, the dietary laws do not apply to Christians). This hints back at the divisions Kaiser was keen to make within the Law, and I think the application to the Christian life can be viewed within the categories he discusses.
There is so much more worth saying about Law and Gospel, but in the interest of keeping this post at a readable length, I have had to set some aside. Interested readers should see the annotated sources below.
We have seen that the Law and Gospel must be properly divided in order to properly understand the whole of the Bible’s teaching. Why do I say that this is why I’m a Lutheran? I hope, at least, that other branches of Christianity teach these distinctions between Law and Gospel. But I have to admit that I have not seen it so consistently done as it is within the Lutheran perspective. Martin Luther was right to focus directly upon this teaching, and I believe it is central to the Reformation[s]. It touches upon soteriology, sanctification, the atonement, and more. Thus, I think it is vitally important to get this doctrine correct. In my studies, I have found no teaching so close to the Biblical truth as the Lutheran teaching on Law and Gospel. I’m not saying that everyone should go and become Lutherans. Instead, I think that everyone should benefit from learning the proper distinction between Law and Gospel and apply it to their lives.
The Law always condemns, the Gospel always saves.
Appendix: The Modified Lutheran View?
I think it is important to note that the view put forth as “The Modified Lutheran View” in Five Views on Law and Gospel is not, so far as I can tell, the Lutheran view at all. I want to make this clear because we need to avoid this misunderstanding. Douglas Moo’s view essentially seems to be temporally-based. He writes, “Basic… to biblical revelation is the contrast between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Christ, a contrast between two ‘ages’ or ‘eras’… the New Testament writers… relegate [the Mosaic Law] basically to the period of time before the coming of Christ” (322).
Those who have stuck with me this long should be able to immediately see how this is utterly different from the Lutheran view I proposed above. The distinction between law and gospel is not a temporal distinction whatsoever. The Law is still with us. Walther himself makes this explicit: “[W]e find both teachings in the Old as well as in the New Testament” (Proper Distinction… 62). There is no temporal dividing line between Old and New such that some new reality has dawned on Law and Gospel. Instead, the Law continues to condemn, while the Gospel continues to save.
Yet Moo goes so far as to say this is a point which needs to be “corrected” within the Lutheran view (ibid). He seems to think that Lutherans would deny that Jesus was able to speak law, while also mistakenly painting the Sermon on the Mount as being a preaching entirely of the Law. Indeed, Moo’s view seems to affirm many of the basic tenants the Lutheran view explicitly denies, such as mixing the uses of Law and Gospel.
I thus would say that Moo’s position is not at all the Lutheran view. It is not a modified Lutheran view at all. Instead, it seems to violate a number of the primary distortions noted above. That said, Moo does admirably to defend the notion of the Law as a coherent, cohesive whole. There is much to commend Moo’s essay, but it ultimately fails, I think, to provide a properly Lutheran view of Law and Gospel.
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C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1986). This is Walther’s magisterial work on Law and Gospel. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I personally think this book should be required reading for every single seminarian. He goes through and lists numerous distinctions to be made in learning, teaching, and applying Law and Gospel. Every Christian should read this book and apply it to their lives.
For a more succinct summary of what Walther argues in the above, see God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. This latter work is essentially the same in content as Walther’s text, but 1/4 the length. It is out of print, it seems, which is very unfortunate. I do recommend it highly. But if you cannot get
Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan 1999) – I specifically used the following essays: Walter Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry, 177-199, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999); Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry, 319-376, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999). I found this book to be very helpful in outlining various views, but was disappointed with the “modified Lutheran view” (see my appendix here).
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As a Jew who is a Christian, I had to resolve this for myself. The understanding I came to is that no single Law can be followed totally and for all time. However, the Law in its totality can be fulfilled. The Jewish Law in particular is fulfilled when you give a sacrifice for your sins, when you atone. The Israelites, later Jews, did this for millenia, until the 2nd temple was destroyed. However, Christ wanted us to be have the Law continue being fulfilled in our lives, and so He gave Himself as the perfect sacrifice, the perfect fulfillment of the Law. So, I was given the Law of Moses, and a sacrifice fulfills it, as it always has. Jesus did not change that. But instead of covering my sin, as the sacrifices given before could only do, Jesus wipes it away completely. And so the Law is fulfilled in my life. Therefore Jesus is not contra-law for me, but right within it, because the Laws purpose was never to condemn, but to save me. However, it can only save me by pointing out my failures, and then giving me a way to be redeemed for those failures… which it does, and Jesus fulfills that.
Of course, I also do not believe Gentiles were given the law, and so for them I believe the debate of which takes primacy, Christ or Law, is a red herring if discussed in terms of the Law of Moses. On the other hand, the law was written on your hearts, and Christ is your sacrifice as much as He is mine. And your heart does more than condemn you, but it confirms you as well. As Paul puts it (kind of) in Romans the Law on your heart alternately condemns and confirms you in accordance with your actions; and that same law on your heart brings you to repentance, which is accepted because of Christ, but it is under that law that He died for you. I would suggest then that even for the Gentile, the Law does not only condemn, but saves… but only through Jesus.
(BTW: Such differences are not salvific to me, and do not in any way judge our brotherhood in Christ.)
I think that what you’re saying largely resonates within the framework I’ve set up. For example, the Law does not save because it cannot–that is, I cannot fulfill it, nor can anyone but Christ. Thus, it is fulfilled for me through Christ. I think that you’re correct in this.
I also hope that no one who reads this thinks I’m setting up a “Christ or Law” discussion. That is not at all what I’m saying. Finally, you say that the law was not given to Gentiles. Why then, would Gentiles be condemned at all? It seems your view is that the law was written on my heart… but isn’t that the same as it being given? Romans 1 hints at this quite a bit I think: Gentiles know the law because they know God clearly from the things which have been made; there is no excuse.
Okay, then I agree the gentiles were given **a** law. But, it is not **the** Mosaic Law. I realize now from your response that this subtlety is unnecessary to point out. I’m just used to: 1) Gentile Christians thinking they were given the Mosaic Law (and are now freed from it), and 2)Skeptics criticizing Christians for not obeying the Mosaic Law.
The other subtlety I was pointing out is related, which is Romans 2:15, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” In other words, whenever your conscience defends you, that is the law **not** condemning you. I would not have pointed this out, but for your choice of wording, saying that that the law always condemns you. I hope you will agree that the law condemns you, but not always.
By the way, I see I used the word condemn in what may seem contradictory ways above. Argh. In the first paragraph, it refers to a cosmic status; in the second paragraph it refers to what the Gospel calls conviction.
The only thing I would add to this is that often the same word/phrase can function as both Law and Gospel to different people (or to the same person at different times). For example, before I had really heard the gospel, even a verse such as John 3:16 hit me as law, for it demanded faith from me. Now, however, that verse gives me faith. Once the Law/Gospel distinction dawned on me, scripture went from being a source of anxiety to a source of comfort.
Thanks for this post, J.W.
I think you have done well to lay out the tenants of Law and Gospel and how to properly distinguish between the two. I was particularly pleased to see that you avoided making the temporal distinction, that is, before and after Christ. Indeed, the promise to Abraham cannot be seen as Law. I would say however (and I don’t believe that you would disagree with me here) that the Law although not salvific is seen as gift. In its first and civil use it preserves creation and fosters a “trustworthy” world as one of my professors is fond of saying. Indeed Luther in his work on Mosaic Law talks about the usefulness of the Law (those that are non-ceremonial) in ordering the world and giving it boundaries. That being said you are right to say that the Law in the end when applied to humans can only convict us of how we have fallen short of grasping God’s promises in faith and living in right relationship with our neighbor. In this way we see that the 1st and 2nd uses of the Law can be distinguished but never separated.
As for you closing remarks (before the appendix) you are spot on when you say that the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the primary aim of Lutheran teaching. It affects our anthropology, the role of good works and defines what it is that is salvific. In addition, without it, Luther’s doctrine on the Two Kingdoms makes absolutely no sense. But that’s another can of worms for another day. Thanks for your thoughts.
All I want to add, J.W., is that I do appreciate the time you take to go deep.
Great article. Not enough Christians realize that the Gospel always saves, and that it doesn’t come with conditions. All too often it’s easy to think that in order to be saved, you have to be “committed” enough, or you have to stop some particular sin immediately, or you have to do something (such as be baptised) etc. Grace is free. I love the work Luther did, and I agree wholeheartedly with this post (even though I am not Lutheran by denomination, I’m Lutheran in this particular doctrine). Check out this blog, which hopes to explain some of the nuances of the Gospel – well worth a read: http://www.guiltfreechristianity.org/