Back to Basics: Law and Gospel

by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison


At the heart of virtually every problem in the church, at the bottom of every strained relationship, at the center of every reason an inactive member stays home on Sunday or leaves the LCMS is the issue of the proper distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Without this understanding, the Scriptures make no sense, we will have no idea why we go to church (or worse, the wrong idea) and we will have no clue as to why orthodox Lutheranism reflects New Testament Christianity in the best sense.

We may well be a royal pain and terror to those around us. Even worse, without a clear understanding of Law and Gospel, we’ll be of no use to people around us struggling with spiritual and life issues. Worse still, we may even become a millstone round their necks, helping them (and ourselves) on the way to hell!
The Lutheran Reformation began when the Lord God Himself, through the Scriptures, opened Luther’s mind to the scriptural distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The Law makes demands, which we could not, cannot and never will fulfill. “No one is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10). “Even our righteous deeds are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If St. Paul laments about himself, “The good that I would do I do not do” (Rom. 7:19), where does that leave you? You have not a thought, an action or any of your physical, psychological or spiritual being that is not affected by and tainted by the reality of sin. And sin damns.
The Gospel, however, makes no demands and even gives the faith needed to believe it (Eph. 2:8–9). The Gospel is the forgiveness of sins. Christ was slain from the foundation of the world for you (Matt. 25:34). Christ was prophesied in the Old Testament for you (Isaiah 53). Christ was conceived for you (Luke 1:26). Christ was born for you (Luke 2). Christ was circumcised and fulfilled the Old Testament ceremonial law for you (Luke 2:22). The boy Christ taught in the temple for you! (You get the credit for His diligence in the catechism! See Luke 2:41.) John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)—for you. Jesus was baptized for you (Luke 3:21). Jesus was tempted for you (Luke 4). All of Jesus’ miracles, healings, words, promises, His Passion, His trials, His beating, His betrayal, His crucifixion, His ridicule, His words on the cross—“Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34); “Today you will be with Me in paradise!” (Luke 23:43)—His death, His descent in victory to hell and His glorious resurrection and ascension are all, all of it, for you! And that’s all Gospel! 
But there is even better news, and this is the point where the devil bedevils us. What Jesus attained for us some 6,000 miles away and 2,000 years ago is delivered in the word of preaching, in Baptism, in absolution and in the Supper. “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” Oh, yeah? God says you do. “Do not give up meeting together.” (See all of Hebrews 10.) But better than the Law (which says you should go to church) is the blessed Gospel! We cry like the tax collector at church, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). And the pastor says, “In the stead and by the command of Christ, forgiven!” (see John 20:21–23). He makes the sign of the cross to remind us that we’re baptized, forgiven (Titus 3:5). The Scriptures are read, and they contain both Law (demand, threat) and Gospel (forgiveness, promise). The sermon is preached, and the texts explained. The Law threatens and drives us to Jesus! The Gospel is not merely described or spoken about, it’s delivered! “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), right now, for you!
Most people who stop going to church or get church wrong think it’s about ethics. They think it’s about following the rules (i.e., following the Law). No, it’s finally about sinners receiving forgiveness (Gospel). And blessed by the Benediction (“The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you”—Gospel!) and all the forgiveness given, forgiven sinners head back into their vocations in life to be a beautiful leaven. If I know I’m a real “hard-boiled sinner” who’s been forgiven (Luther), I cannot be an unforgiving jackass to those around me. It’s a matter of Law and Gospel. I cannot but speak forgiveness—the Lord’s own forgiveness—to others.

 Pastor Matthew Harrison

“Let’s go!” Mark 1:38


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16 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Law and Gospel”

  1. James Patterson

    Thank you for this timely reminder. I meet lots of people from many walks of life, and the most angry people are former Christians. They are bitter toward God. I truly believe it is because they heard all law and little or no gospel. God bless our pastors as they keep law and gospel in the heart of all their preaching.

  2. I think President Harrison, along with a gross number of other people who call themselves shepherds need to revisit simple Lutheran Doctrine. To many of these learned doctors of Scripture need to understand what exactly the LCMS historically considers to be the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

    The Gospel is indeed no system of ethics. It is the forgiveness of sins. That being the case, it should be noted that C.F.W. Walther said there is no good news for secure sinners, only the Law is to be preached to them (Thesis one, God’s No, and God’s Yes.) Simply put, people who are ok with the filth they roll around in are, well, you figure it out. However, people who are truly insecure need to embrace that forgiveness through repentance, and thereby cling to the promise of the Gospel. Knowledge of the Law leads us to understand what it is we should be terrified of (Rom. 7:7)

    What President Harrison’s message looks like to me is something out of John Calvin’s book on Christian Doctrine. Once saved, always saved. God is no pushover, which unfortunately too many of us have forgotten.

    1. William Lindenmeyer

      The Law rightly preached in all its terror leads to agony, grief and shame over sin. The Gospel rightly preached leads to true joyful release from sins and to Gospel motivated growing sanctification. It’s a natural Spirit produced fruit of the Gospel which focuses us on Christ and His forgiveness not on further law! We cannot and never will be motivated by the law! (Gal 5:22-23, John 15:3-5) Motivated by the Gospel let’s go to Church and be in the Word daily so that the law and Gospel will have it’s continuing way with us, so that CHRIST through His means will have His way with us. Thanks President Harrison for reminding us.

  3. Pastor Harrison,
    The law and gospel message earns a 5-star, gold-plated, diamond-studded, hand-delivered thank you from Martin Luther himself. Luther must be chagrined for much that passes for Lutheranism today, but he would be immensely proud of you and all pastors who preach this message. I served as International President of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. It’s a 3-year term. What LCMS is to Lutheranism, the EPC is to Presbyterians. We are conservative, Christ-centered, no-nonsense biblical pastors who defend and declare the whole Scriptures. My son Jason Hoffman, is the President of Gloria Dei in Urbandale, IA. For a year, I taught an adult Bible class there. The table manners may be different, but theologically, we are kissing cousins.

    My hope is to serve LCMS in the development office at Concordia, St Paul. We are now beginning our visits about that possibility. The LCMS is unswerving in its allegiance to Christ and the scriptures. Concordia has a sterling reputation in the Metro and the Nation for training persons to serve the Lord according to their gifts and do so in a winsome way. Thanks again, Pastor Harrison.

    Wayne M. Hoffman
    White Bear Lake, MN

  4. Dear Pres. Harrison,

    Thank you so much for this awesome message – it sounds like it’s right out of C.F.W. Walther’s book “Law & Gospel”. As a life-long ELS/WELS synod member I am so encouraged to see the president of the LCMS espousing this very confessional doctrine. May God continue to bless you and the Missouri Synod!

  5. I love this concept. There needs to be more distinction between social values and the Gospel. However, the LCMS church is not the prime example of how to distinguish. As a member, I feel like there are more rules (laws) in the church that have very little gospel relevance. Is it for the good of the order, or because of flawed theological discernment? Whatever it is, our church is suffering because of it.

    1. You must’ve went to a different LCMS church than the one I used to attend. I am going back to the LCMS, albeit a different congregation this time, and the correct view of Law and Gospel is the MAIN reason.

  6. For those who haven’t read Walther’s “Law and Gospel”, thank you. And for those who have, a refresher is always welcome.

  7. This article alone is enough to make me go back to the LCMS church. Thanks President Harrison. May God bless you.

  8. AMEN! Thank you for keeping this message alive today. I have come to view everything through the lens of Law and Gospel.. It explains so much! Thank you Pastor for this message.

  9. One more aspect of the relationship between Law and Gospel is the matter of the Third Use of the Law. This is where the “got to” of the Law becomes a “get to” through the Gospel. The loving response to God’s Word is often neglected by many preachers. Allowing the Gospel to dominate does not mean the exclusion of guidance from the Gospel’s changes. That is a place where we need deep concern, too.

  10. Dear Pres. Harrison,
    The Law with it’s great demands, it’s power to shame and accuse, drives me ever closer to the Gospel of the cross in it’s horrible stark beauty!! We are so driven by “how much do we have to do to get the desired result but when the Gospel really speaks to us in a fresh way we ask ‘how much is it possible to do and can I possibly do more with God’s help?” One is driven by legalism and selfishness the other by selflessness and a minute grasp of the unfathomable love of the Triune God!!!

    Love it!!

    An LCMS family member through marriage! A Baptist convert!!

    Betty M.

  11. Charlotte Gebauer Koelling

    Social media have plenty of critics and plenty to criticize. However, their great blessing is the ability to spread a spot-on message such as this one to an audience far greater than could be imagined otherwise. Wonderful essay, President Harrison. We are blessed to be able to read and share it.

  12. Wilfred C. Hamann

    Thank you President Matt for that summation of what we Christians believe and, we trust, live.

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