Law and Gospel

by Matthew C. Harrison 

I was in Gothenburg, Sweden, at the seminary of our confessionally faithful Lutheran friends there. Suddenly there appeared in front of me a copy of C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, once owned and marked up by the famous and faithful Bishop Bo Giertz (1905–1998). I had written to him when I was a young pastor, thanking him for his great historical novel The Hammer of God. His reply was so kind and unforgettable. He’d written the novel based upon his own experiences as a young pastor in Sweden, coming to grips with the most basic and important doctrine necessary to understand the Bible: Law and Gospel.

Dr. Walther’s classic book is famous around the world in Lutheran circles, and it deserves to be ever more famous among us, generation after generation. The Formula of Concord states that “the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of rightly dividing God’s Word and properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures” (FC SD V 1). It was this understanding that turned Luther from confusion to becoming the reformer, says Walther.

Dr. Walther lists six distinguishing differences between Law and Gospel.

1. They differ as to how they were revealed to humans. The Law was written on the hearts of Adam and Eve. It was dulled terribly by the fall into sin but is still present in the consciences of all people (Rom. 2:14–15). “Do this and you will live!” “Don’t do this and you shall be punished.” The Gospel came by revelation of the apostles and prophets, and Christ Himself. “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “Do not hesitate to preach the Law! People may despise it, yet they do so only with your mouths, because the things you say when preaching the Law are the same things that their own conscience preaches to them every day” (C.F.W. Walther, Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010] 11–24).

2. They differ as to their contents. The Law only tells us what to do, and the Gospel tells us only what God has done and does for us in Christ. “The Gospel does not take anything. It gives” (Walther).

3. They differ by the promises each holds out. Both promise eternal life. But the Law’s promise has an impossible catch: “I’ll give you life IF you keep me perfectly and without sin.” The Gospel promises eternal life without condition: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9).

4. The fourth difference relates to function and threats. The Law always threatens because we can never sufficiently fulfill it. Christ wants us not only to do and say the right things, but also to think the right thoughts. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Hatred, envy, jealously, spite, lust, greed and anger are all grand sins against the First Commandment. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) The Gospel, however, makes no threat whatsoever. It says, “You are a sinner? Good. Because Jesus comes for sinners. Only sinners. I say to you, because of Jesus, your sins are forgiven.

5. They differ with respect to their effects. The Law, when properly proclaimed, causes fear, trembling and despair. Its demands cannot be met. “You must die in your sins and face eternal damnation.” The Law bothers the conscience and shows sin to be utterly sinful. The Law moves a person to sorrow and repentance. The Gospel, however, forgives sin, creates faith, consoles, comforts, encourages and makes certain. It opens heaven. The Gospel shows us that all our sins were punished in Christ on the cross, and that His resurrection was the grand absolution of the world. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). And by the faith created by the Gospel itself, I am justified. I am forgiven. I am reconciled. Heaven is mine. While the Gospel demands faith, it gives what it demands. Believe in the Lord Jesus. He died for you. “The Gospel issues no orders. Rather, it changes people. It plants love into their heart and makes them capable of all good works. It demands nothing but gives all. Should this not make us leap for joy?” (Walther).

6. Finally, the Law and Gospel differ with respect to the person to whom each is to be preached. The Law only is to be preached to sinners who do not recognize their sin, are not sorry for their sins, make excuses for sin and continue to live in their sin openly. Once, the famous LCMS founder Friedrich Wyneken was confronted by a secure sinner on the street in Fort Wayne who said to him, “I for one think your preaching is nonsense. I don’t believe a bit of it.” Wyneken, not missing a beat, said, “Fine. When the devil’s got you by the neck dragging you to hell, you just cry out, ‘I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.’” Then the great pastor hopped on his horse and rode off. The man stewed on the Law and finally was undone. He repented and became an upstanding member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. To repentant sinners, the Gospel gives nothing but the sweetest forgiveness of Jesus and His encouragement: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). “The difference, then, between Law and Gospel is this: The Law makes demands of things that we are to do; it insists on works that we are to perform in the services of God and our fellow human beings. In the Gospel, however, we are summoned to a distribution of right alms that we are to receive and take: the loving-kindness of God and eternal salvation. The Gospel bids us to hold the sack open and have something given to us” (Luther, quoted in Walther).

–Pastor Harrison

1 thought on “Law and Gospel”

  1. The Psalmist writes of delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it eagerly. (Ps. 1:1-2, 112:1, 119:15,48) Would those divinely inspired words be set down for us if the Law “always threatens”?

    Scripture says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse….” (Gal. 3:10) Is that curse a consequence of the working or of the relying? Might we Christians who do not rely on the works of the law nevertheless gratefully embrace the wisdom of the law and recognize how blessings may accrue when we obey it?

    For if unbelievers, who do not fear God at all, can nevertheless see wisdom in heeding “love your neighbor as yourself,” how much more might those who actually know God’s abundant grace in Christ be grateful for what God has commanded?

    To become a Christian is to wash away the stains of a former life and embrace a new life. Jesus said that making disciples involved “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” — not that we comply reluctantly to earn something divine for ourselves, but that we follow willingly to convey something divine to others and thereby bless them, for Christ’s loves compels us.

    Indeed, “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10) And we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

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