Reprinted from The Shire, 26 June 1999
At the risk of being charged with capitulating to the excesses of a parochial mentality, I must confess to my partiality for a particularly Lutheran theme, viz., the proper distinction between the law and the Gospel. Although, to be sure, this distinction certainly shows up in other places from time to time, it is pretty safe to say that the distinction between law and Gospel is an especially heavy Lutheran theme, and always has been; a hallmark of traditional Lutheranism. So call me parochial, or peculiarly Lutheran, or even Waltherian, if you wish; nonetheless I confess: I do believe that the proper distinction between law and Gospel is always a necessary and proper one to make; I will even venture to say that this distinction is always on or very near to the cutting edge of all theological debate.
I take this risk because, first, I am convinced that this distinction is actually quite catholic, and secondly, I am also not very convinced that this distinction is as clearly understood as it needs to be among us, from the parish level right on up to the seminaries. I am not a parish visitor (do such creatures still exist?), but I have heard and witnessed enough in some of the places I have been of late to lead me to make my concern public.
Martin Luther once said that if anyone can consistently distinguish law from Gospel he should be given a doctorate in theology, which indicates both that he thought the discernment did not come as easily as might be supposed, and that the discernment is critical for someone who desires to be a Christian theologian. C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is known among other things for his book whose theme is this very thing: The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. It's also a key ingredient in our Lutheran hymns. It's really a benchmark theme among Lutherans.
But why? So it's just a Lutheran theme! What difference does that really make? And if other traditions don't follow that theme, is it really such a bad thing? After all, Luther didn't write the Bible! How do we defend our insistence on knowing the proper distinction between the law and the Gospel?
First of all, because it is a Biblical and therefore catholic distinction. St. Paul enjoins Timothy the pastor: "Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2.15). Again, he says in Romans, on the one hand, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes" (1.17), but on the other hand, "by the law is the knowledge of sin" (3.20) and "a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (3.28). To illustrate this truth, we will do well to refer to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and sat on each of the apostles' heads appearing as "divided tongues, like as of fire" (Acts 2.3). Jesus warned his disciples, "Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven" (St. Matthew 5.20), and again, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (6.33). In short, the distinction between law and Gospel comes from Christ Himself. It is a hallmark of our faith because it is central to understanding the Gospel.
For what happens if we fail to make this distinction? This is evidently just what the church at Galatia was doing, when St. Paul chided them, saying , "O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you?" (Gal. 3.2) If we fail rightly to distinguish law from Gospel, then we become easy prey for the wiles of the devil who disguises himself as an angel of light. That is, the false preacher enters in, giving us the corrupt notion that by doing this or that deed we become righteous and gain the favor of God. In short, Jesus Christ (and Him crucified) is snatched away, and we are robbed of our Hope.
When the law masquerades as the Gospel, then works masquerade as faith, my personal conduct masquerades as holiness, "living the Christian faith" masquerades as Christ's own life, and death masquerades as life. For my deeds and conduct, however holy I may become convinced that they are, are always in truth unprofitable to me. Even though I may say that because of the Holy Spirit I do good works (which is certainly true), yet I dare never say that these good works which I do are the essence of my life in Christ. For, as St. Paul declares, "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ died in vain" (Gal. 2.20-21). Therefore what shall happen if I turn this around, and say that the life I live in the flesh I live by works?
O God! Save us from such a life! For if I must live my life in the flesh by my works, then it truly shall result in nothing but my death, for my works are full of sin! Yes, even as Christians, our works are full of sin.
What if I fail to see the great chasm between law and Gospel, then? Then, when I hear that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1.17), I will trot away thinking that I have some work to do to be saved, for I hear "love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself" (which is law, but which I will think to be Gospel), and I will think, Anow I must do so, for this is the power of God unto my salvation. And then what? Then one of two things will happen: either I will learn well how to delude myself into thinking that I am indeed sufficiently loving God and my neighbor, and I will become a great Pharisee and hypocrite who has no need whatever for Christ as savior, or else I will be driven to despair, convinced (as I must be if I am honest with myself) that I will never be able to attain the life I need, and all is lost.
Rather, let us find our righteousness, life, and salvation in Christ alone, and in His holy wounds. And let us live by faith in Him, so that whatever we do in this life, we do not as though we needed thereby to gain anything from God; rather, let us do all joyfully, being already firm in the knowledge that all good things have been gained for us through our precious Lamb of God. See, my life is lived in Him from start to finish (for He is the Author and Finisher of our faith), and my confidence rests not in myself but in Him; not in my life but in His; not in my deeds but in His; and not in the law but in the Gospel.