Believe it or not, the purity of the Gospel’s proclamation depends on the distinction between Law and Gospel.
James Nestingen wrote:
When the Law and Gospel are improperly distinguished, both are undermined. Separated from the Law, the Gospel gets absorbed into an ideology of tolerance in which leniency is equated with grace. Separated from the Gospel, the Law becomes an insatiable demand hammering away at the conscience until it destroys a person.
When the Law and Gospel are properly distinguished, however, both are established. The Law can be set forth in its full-scale demand, so that it lights the way to order and, through the work of the Spirit, drives us to Christ. The Gospel can be declared in all of its purity, so that forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the powers of death and the devil are bestowed in the presence of our crucified and risen Lord.
Or, to put it another way, “The failure to distinguish the law and the gospel always means the abandonment of the gospel” (Gerhard Ebeling). A confusion of law and gospel is the main contributor to moralism in the church simply because the law gets softened into “helpful tips for practical living”, instead of God’s unwavering demand for absolute perfection. While the gospel gets hardened into a set of moral and social demands that “we must live out”, instead of God’s unconditional declaration that “God justifies the ungodly.” As my friend Jono Linebaugh says, “God doesn’t serve mixed drinks. The divine cocktail is not law mixed with gospel. God serves two separate shots: law then gospel.”
As I mentioned in my previous post, while there are a host of great resources available to help you better understand the important distinction between the law and the gospel, I found the most helpful resource to be John Pless’ easy-to-read Handling the Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today. In the first chapter he summarizes C.F.W. Walther’s six ways in which the law and the gospel are different. I’ve already highlighted the first three. Below are the second three. Recovering this distinction is THE answer to the church rediscovering the gospel in our day:
Fourth, Law and Gospel are distinct when it comes to threats. Walther puts it simply: “The Gospel contains no threats at all, but only words of consolation. Wherever in Scripture you come across a threat, you may be assured that the passage belongs in the Law” (Walther, 11). The Law threatens sinners with punishment, pronouncing a curse on all who fail to live up to its requirements (Deuteronomy 27:26). The Gospel announces forgiveness for those crushed by the threat of the Law, for Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue the unrighteous (1 Timothy 1:15).
Fifth, the effects of Law and Gospel are different. Walther summarizes the threefold effect of the Law: (1) It demands but does not enable compliance. (2) It hurls people into despair, for it diagnoses the disease but provides no cure. (3) It produces contrition, that is, it terrifies the conscience but offers no comfort. Walther echoes the early Lutheran hymn writer Paul Speratus, who captured the biblical teaching of the Law’s lethal effectiveness:
What God did in is Law demand
And none to him could render
Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.
It was a false, misleading dream
The God his Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
Public debates have raged over whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed in courtrooms and classrooms. Sometimes well-meaning people have argued that placards containing the Ten Commandments would have a positive effect on public morality. Actually, Scriptures teach that the Law makes matters worse, not better. Knowledge of the Law does not entail the ability to keep it. The Law not only identifies the sin but also, like a swift kick to a sleeping dog that arouses the animal to bark and bite, the Law stirs up the power of sin (Romans 7:7-9). The Law brings death, not life, for it is a letter that kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). Without the Gospel, the Law can only be the cause for grief, as it was in the case of the rich young man who thought himself capable of keeping the Law (Matthew 19:22).
At each point, the Gospel is completely different from the Law. While it is only through faith that we receive the benefits of the Gospel, the Gospel itself creates faith (Romans 1:16; Ephesians 2:8-10). Rather than provoking terror of conscience, anguish of heart, and fear of condemnation like the Law, the Gospel stills every voice of accusation with the strong words of Christ’s own peace and joy guaranteed by the blood of the cross. The Gospel does not set in place requirements of something that we must do or contribute. “[T]he Gospel does not require anything good that man must furnish: not a good heart, not a good disposition, no improvement of his condition, no godliness, no love of either God or men. It issues no orders, but changes man. It plants love into his heart and makes him capable of all good works. It demands nothing, but gives all. Should not this fact make us leap for joy?” (Walther, 16).
Sixth, Law and Gospel are to be distinguished in relation to the persons who are addressed, “The Law is to be preached to secure sinners and the Gospel to alarmed sinners” (Walther, 17). The secure sinner is the person who glories in his own self-righteous-ness. In the words of Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, the secure sinner is “addicted either to what is base or to what is high, either to lawlessness or to lawfulness. Theologically there is not any difference since both break the relationship to God, the giver.” Addicted to that which is base, secure sinners will excuse or rationalize their sinful behavior. They will live, to use the words of the confessional prayer, “as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.” They will assert that their body and life and that of their neighbors are theirs to do with as they please. Or secure sinners might be addicted to that which is high. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), secure sinners will trust in their own righteousness, their self-made spirituality., The sinners who are snug in their own righteousness rehearse the Ten Commandments and conclude that they, like the rich young man in the Gospel narrative, have kept all of these rules and are deserving of God’s approval. To those ensnared in either of these securities, blind to God’s demand for total righteousness, the Law is to be proclaimed full blast so all presumption might be destroyed.
To those who have been crushed by the hammer blows of the Law, no longer secure in their lawlessness or self-righteousness, there is only one word that will do. That is the word of the Gospel. The Gospel is not a recipe for self-improvement. It is that word of God that declares sins to be forgiven for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. It is all about Christ and what He has done for us. “Law is to be called, and to be, anything that refers to what we are to do. On the other hand, the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or word of God which does not require works from us and does not command us to do something, but bids us simply accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of our sins and everlasting bliss offered us” (Walther, 19).
When Law and Gospel are muddled or mixed, the Holy Scriptures will be misread and misused. Without the right distinction of the Law from the Gospel, the Bible appears to be a book riddled with contradiction. At one place it condemns and at another it pardons. One text speaks of God’s wrath visited upon sinners, while another declares His undying love for His enemies. Throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, the Scriptures reveal both God’s wrath and His favor. The Scriptures show us a God who kills and who makes alive. This God does through two different words. With the word of His Law, sinners are put to death. It is only through the word of the Gospel that spiritual corpses are resurrected to live in Jesus Christ.