law and gospel

As I shared in a post last week, for part of my Lenten discipline this year I’m taking time for personal devotional reading each day.  Specifically I’m focusing on  Daily Readings from Luther’s Writings, selected and edited by Barbara Owen, published by Augsburg (Minneapolis) in 1993.  As I was reading this morning, I came across the following entry and was instantly drawn in (it’s found on p. 98).

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John 1:17

“It is proper that the Law and God’s Commandments provide me with the correct directives for life; they supply me with abundant information about righteousness and eternal life.  The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life.  It resembles a hand which directs me to the right road… Thus the Law serves to indicate the will of God, and it leads us to a realization that we cannot keep it.  It also acquaints us with human nature, with its capabilities, and with its limitations.  The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.” Luther’s Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1537-40) LW 22, 143-44

Law and Gospel

We talk a lot about “Law and Gospel” especially in the Lutheran branch of Christianity.  It’s an eye-opening way to look at Scripture, a profound way to orient our thinking and believing, and it is the foundation of my preaching. Clergy use the phrase frequently, but I wonder how good we are at actually explaining it to people.  As I read the above passage from Luther slowly and quietly this morning, it struck me that a lot of the chaos that exists in our culture and in our lives is there because we have lost sight of the distinction between law and gospel – because we think one can give us the other.  

Basically, VERY basically, the Law is that which convicts us, while the Gospel is that which saves us. The Law is the rules, the Gospel is the love.  Some incorrectly reach the conclusion that the Law is the Old Testament, while the Gospel is the New Testament (to be clear, there’s plenty of gospel in the Old, and a boat load of law in the New).

It’s a huge part of our cultural psyche that we’re self-sufficient and independent.  We pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We’re told that we’re rewarded justly for the effort we put into something.  Behave, play by the rules, work hard – and we’ll get what we deserve.  This thinking filters down to our lives as individuals as well.  We worship at the altar of “merit.”  We work hard to “deserve,” “earn” and “justify” the benefits of our hard work.  It seems natural then, that we apply this cultural worship with our religious faith.  Now, there are many faiths which DO focus on how our actions impact both our earthly and eternal fates – but Christianity is NOT one of them.

Christianity tells us that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation; our salvation comes through Christ’s sacrifice only.  And that can be hard to swallow.  There is a huge chasm between the “do it yourself” culture and Christian faith which says, “you can’t.”  Many have tried to bridge this chasm by blurring the distinction between law and gospel, believing that somehow our actions DO impact on our salvation.  Others live with a certain contradiction – saying “Jesus saves,” while also saying that if a person behaves a certain way they aren’t saved.  Luther’s quote above is very helpful, because it doesn’t negate the power of the Law.  But it puts the power of the Law in its proper place.  I want to highlight a few key words (at least key for me):

The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life… The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.

We NEED the Law; the law holds a very important place for us because it guides us in life and faith.  It holds up the ideal to us of community and individual life.  As Luther described, the Law is the hand which directs us.  And because the Law is the ideal, its function is to show us where/when/how/who we have failed.

The Law does not give me life – it does not have the power to save me from sin.

The Law guides my life, shows me where/when/how/who I’ve sinned, but can’t save me from it.  That function belongs the the GOSPEL.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love for us even while we sin.  The Gospel tells us that through Jesus sin and death have no power over us.  The Gospel tell us that precisely because of our inability to keep the Law, Jesus died and rose again for us.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love and grace in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Gospel is also the very person of Jesus Christ. Without the Law, the Gospel means nothing – we have no need of it.  Without the Gospel, we are utterly condemned by the Law.  They each have their place in our lives, but it’s dangerous to confuse them. When we do we can become selfish, not caring about our actions, thinking “anything goes” – or we shut doors on people, hurting them with our judgments; also hurting ourselves, when we’re left wondering if we’re good enough, if we’ve done enough, if we’ve believed enough for God to save us.

The Law is certainly an indispensable part of the word of God, but the Gospel has the LAST word.


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