The Lutheran Difference: Law and Gospel

Several weeks ago, I touched on the idea of sola scriptura, the idea that Lutherans base our beliefs first and foremost on the Bible. All other writings (such as the various Lutheran Confessions) are seen as expositions and explanations of what the Bible has to say. When I wrote that post, I had this feeling that I wasn’t saying quite enough, that I had left something important out. At the time, I couldn’t think of what it was.

When I finally realized what I had forgotten…well, I was more than a little sheepish. It’s something so basic, it should have been the first thing that popped into my head. Lutherans believe that all of Scripture can be divided into two categories: Law and Gospel.

At first blush, that may seem kind of obvious. It may seem like I’m saying that the Bible should be divided into the Old and New Testaments. But it’s a little more fundamental than that. The Gospel is not solely confined in the New Testament and the Law is not cooped up in the Old.

Here’s the way to think about it: if you come across a statement in the Bible that illuminates our sin, that reminds us of how we have fallen short of God’s intentions, or that reminds us that we stand condemned before Him, that’s the Law. The Law can only condemn and break us down.

The Gospel, on the other hand, is anything that speaks of God’s love and goodness for humankind. The Gospel speaks forgiveness and grace. It tells us about what God does, it builds up, it restores us to life.

Now, like I said, it may seem like the Law would be found exclusively in the Old Testament and the Gospel in the New, but that simply isn’t the case. There are lots of times when we find Gospel in the Old Testament, such as when God chooses Abraham (not because of anything Abraham did), or when God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, or the times when God promised restoration to His people. At the same time, there are times when Law shows up in the New Testament, such as when Jesus counsels us to lop off body parts if they cause us to sin or when Paul admonishes his readers to have nothing to do with sin.

Again, all of this may seem pretty basic, but it can be a tricky thing, knowing which to apply and when. Sometimes it’s hard to even figure out exactly what it is you’re looking at. As a matter of fact, Martin Luther had this to say about the ability to parse out the difference between Law and Gospel:

Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.

I don’t know of anyone who got a doctorate this way, and I know that I’m certainly not qualified to get one. It’s a delicate balance, knowing how to rightly divide the Bible into Law and Gospel. It’s even trickier to know which to apply in what situation.

Now you don’t just have to take my word for it. One of the “big names” in my Lutheran circle wrote a book on this subject that was required reading for me in both college and seminary. It’s called (creatively) Law and Gospel. There’s even a condensed version of it too. Worth a look if you’re so inclined.

Next week, we’ll dive a little deeper into the Lutheran understanding of the Law.

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