The Distinction of Law and Gospel

The Distinction of Law and Gospel

I’m concerned that the Lutheran understanding of the word being both law and gospel, and that there is a distinction between law and gospel, is getting blurred. Some define the gospel as social justice—feeding the hungry, standing with the poor and marginalized, racial equity, justice for migrants, respect for the dignity of all people. These are all vitally important ministries in which this church must be engaged. But they aren’t the gospel. Rather, these works of justice and mercy flow from the liberation the gospel brings.

~The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,

The word of God comes to us in two forms. Law and gospel. First, the law. It is true, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). After all, through Moses God gave the law. And the law exists still in this world. What is the law? It is a number of things; it is instruction, it is commandment. It is loving God and loving the neighbor. The law’s primary function is to act as a mirror. To show us the severity of our sin. To tell us that we actually don’t have any righteousness of our own. The law is one of the ways that God’s word operates. The law condemns us and our evil ways. The law is “love.” The law says, “Do this!” “Don’t do that!” “Make this decision!” “Be perfect!” In essence, the law is “a divine teaching which gives instruction regarding what is right and God-pleasing and condemns everything that is sin and contrary to God’s will” (FC, Ep 5:2).

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Most churches, traditions, religions, philosophies, etc., start and end with the law. They never get around to gospel. Then they lay new laws back on you that you must follow to prove that you are worthy of God’s grace. The problem is that no one is ever worthy of God’s grace. If all you ever have is the law and you hear no gospel, then you still depending on the law for your righteousness—of which it will give you none. We all stand condemned by God.

Now enters the gospel. With the gospel God has already done everything for our salvation. St. Paul says, “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). This is how God takes care of our sin problem. Christ fulfills the law so we don’t have to. We never could. The gospel word of God is the unconditional proclamation of the forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus Christ. It is written, “We believe, teach, and confess that our righteousness before God consists in this, that God forgives our sins by sheer grace, without any works, merit, or worthiness of our own, in the past, at present, or in the future, that he gives us and reckons us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience and that, because of this righteousness, we are accepted by God into grace and regarded as righteous” (FC, Ep 3:4).

You know when you’re hearing the gospel when the onus of your salvation is not being put on you, but put on the Christ. And it is he, through his death and resurrection, who has won salvation for us. And it is in his word and in his sacraments that he so graciously approaches, forgives your sins now and forever, creates and strengthens your faith, and blesses you with eternal life. All this is done out of God’s pure, unconditional favor and not by anything you have done or not done—without regard for anything you will do or not do.

The quote above by the presiding bishop is important because in every church, in every age there is this blurring of the law and the gospel. Mainly, no one can stand or trust the gospel itself to do its work—so the gospel is turned back into a law that you must follow rather than God’s gracious gift that he opens for you and gives you. It doesn’t matter if the church is liberal or conservative, when they blur the law and the gospel then the gospel is lost. It is necessary to feed the hungry, to stand with the poor and the marginalized, and to be of service to our neighbor in every way. But it is not the gospel. Not telling people to behave in one way or another, not telling people to make a decision for God, not improving our moral virtue, nor it is social justice. The gospel, in its purity, is the proclamation of the free forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus Christ. Christ is your righteousness. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Peace and joy,
Pastor Levi Powers