Law and Gospel as harmony

by David Petersen

The words we use to think and speak about things matter. They can be helpful but they can also be misleading.

A recent Entrepreneuer article takes issue with the use of the word “balance” to talk about managing the mixed and multiple demands of work and home life. The author recommends that we use the word “harmony” instead of “balance,” because “balance” implies an equality and even distribution that may not be helpful. I think he makes a good point, though I suspect that “harmony” might also be subject to abuse and confusion. 

The article reminded me of how we talk and think about various pulls and demands that the Bible requires of our theology. The most obvious is the relationship of Law and Gospel. We sometimes speak of holding these things in tension or balance, but we do well to remember that they are not even. Each has its own place and purpose. They are both God’s Word, revealing His good and gracious will to us. At various times and for various questions one or the other will take the lead role. They should be rightly distinguished and applied, but this doesn’t always mean that they will be evenly distributed.

We might think that the Gospel should always take the lead and dominance. That is the case in sermons, to be sure, and in most doctrinal questions or questions of conscience. But there are times when the Law must be the dominant force and the Gospel gladly plays harmony. There are some questions that simply can’t be answered by the Gospel, such as why women can’t be pastors, why some people go to Hell, and why cohabitation is wrong. That is not to say that the Gospel doesn’t inform those things. It is simply to recognize that Law questions deserve and should get Law answers, and that like the Gospel, the Law, too, is a gift from God for our good. To use the Gospel to answer Law questions is either to dismiss the real moral and ethical concerns of the Law (that is, to become antinomian) or to preach the Law and call it the Gospel, corrupting it from that which brings comfort to that which accuses.

This is easier to talk about than to do. Achieving perfect balance — or, more tempting still, always having the Gospel dominate — would be easy, but proper distinction and application, harmonious concord, in doctrine and life is hard. Thank God we live by grace and not by intellect or our own good will.

The Rev. David Petersen is senior pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.

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