Saturday, June 23, 2007

Why Know Law from Gospel?

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.


Pastor Daniel Skillman said...

Paraphrase: When the Law pretends to be the Gospel, then works pretend to be faith, and salvation is lost. Thus, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is critical.

What a simple, and yet powerfully insightful comment.

The one who rests on works will find only death because the law rewards only those who "do all that is written in it." The "do-ers" will be justified, not the mere hearers.

But who, really, is a "do-er"?

Answer: Only Jesus Christ.

Thus, only those baptized into Christ, those who share in what HE alone accomplished, will be justified; No, ARE justified already.

Good stuff, Fr. E.
In Christ,
Fr. Daniel

Anonymous said...

Father Eckardt,

Would it be a stretch to say that Luther and Walther taught this distinction with more clarity than virtually anyone since the prophets and apostles themselves?

Perhaps the recognition of the necessity of this distinction is one of the "gifts" the Holy Spirit has given to the church through Lutheranism.

BTW, it was great to meet you at the CCA. You have a wicked sense of humor!

Rev. Tom Fast

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The other side of this coin is that I am not living the Christian faith unless I am living Christ’s own life. "...not I, but Christ lives in me..." And I am not holy if my personal conduct is not. "Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous." (I John 3:7)

Whether any of this is profitable to me is far from my concern! I know I am not holy and only live Christ’s Life in brief flashes, and even then, only feebly. My concern is not that, but only to try my best for love of Him.

And if I am even halfway honest, the harder I try, the more clearly I can see how weak, faltering, impure, stained, and wretched are my efforts. It would be ridiculous, laughable, crazy, prideful and dishonest to imagine myself holy. (Not that any of that will necessarily prevent me from thinking it, but that's a danger one must incur; that's life.)

Does the ever-increasing awareness of my broken condition lead to despair? No! For love of Him, I redouble my efforts, knowing ahead of time that these, too, will fall far short. So what? If I never tried at all, would that be love? And if I never loved, refused to love, then what? (So the effort itself, however miserable, unholy, and failure-pocked, is profitable to me.)

And I believe that for His love of me, He will save me – and for no other reason.


Father Eckardt said...

No, if something is "unprofitable" it is a matter of great concern. My deeds are unprofitable when they obscure the merit and righteousness of Christ; and for me to think on my works and content myself to think that they are actually Christ's works can do me an even greater disservice, leading me to believe they are actually that good. This is not to deny that the Christian does truly good works; it is to lead his heart and mind away from his own life and to meditate on the life of Christ; it is to deny that his works are meritorious, i.e., profitable. The Pharisees did this all the time, you will recall, in the name of pure religion. And how harshly our Lord dealt with them!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I get your point. Yes, if I’m doing something useless, I ought to be greatly concerned. My point, though, was that if I do any deed with an eye to profitability for myself, I’ve spoiled it. I’ve been selfish instead of loving.

Assuming and agreeing that by "profitable" we do not mean meritorious, nevertheless, to do good is profitable to me. If I fail to invest the talent God has given me, He will take even that away. If I fail to clothe and feed and visit Him, He will put me with the goats. If I remain in Him as a barren branch, then His saying ("Every branch in Me that bears not fruit...") will apply to me and I will be cut off and burned.

On the other hand, if I ever succeed in doing something even fractionally good, whatever goodness is in that work will indeed be Christ's. (Who else's?) To the extent my deed is good, then, it will display rather than obscure Christ in me. And to whatever extent that same deed was not good, I can never be content. Not if I love Him. So I'm not sure, but I suspect the problem you see would be in considering the partial goodness in ones works to be ones own instead of recognizing it as pure Grace.

As for paying attention to His life rather than my own, yes, but there's a problem with that if, as promised, He lives in me and I in Him; the two lives have been conjoined and can't really be viewed separately any more. "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me..." I can only actually SEE His Life (as distinct from hearing or reading *about* it) insofar as I am a participant in it. It is, IOW, in my life that I experience His. ("The kingdom of God is within you.") But I’m guessing where you see a potential problem is if someone looks at his own life and stops there, seeing only his own life and not Christ. Yes, that would be a huge problem.

Most assuredly, salvation cannot be earned, but equally assuredly, it does have to be learned. There is a race to run, a cross to be carried, an apprenticeship to be worked out with fear and trembling. Such work is not a means to the end but it IS the end (Eph. 2:10); not a ticket to heaven but heaven itself (or at least the beginning of it), for those who love God, whose destiny is to be conformed to the Image of the Son. (Rom. 8:29) For the Son works. (John 5:17) To be saved is in part to become synergists. (2 Cor. 6:1)


P.S. The idea of rest in heaven doesn’t mean we stop doing good; it means an end to fighting satan, his demons, temptation, and the flesh.