The distinction between the law and the gospel is a completely foreign concept to many Christians and one that eluded me for many years. Before I heard Christianity presented in these terms, the standard framework by which I understood Christianity was couched in relational language. The foundation of religion was expressed something like: "I want to get to know Jesus more," or, "It's all about a relationship with the Lord." The result of such a framework was a rather ambiguous understanding of the faith. If I was honest with myself, I only kind of knew what I believed, and I sort of knew why I believed it. My faith was dependent on my experience and emotions, which meant that I really had to work hard to keep the experience going. It was important to feel close to the Lord at all times because that was the primary indicator of a good relationship with him.
What did that look like? The usual: experiencing an intimate time of worship (warm fuzzy feelings or being brought to tears), a regular quiet time (reading the Bible), journaling, and so on. This outward show also extended to abstaining from the usual vices: swearing, gossiping, making fun of people, envying, lusting, and on, and on, and on. This was a depressing and scary way to live because I was never successful. The core of my entire belief system and worldview was built upon the sandy shore of my ability.
Thankfully, I was introduced by one of my seminary professors to the distinction between the law and the gospel, which laid waste to all of my efforts to attain closeness to God.
This article is intended to serve as an introduction to the law and the gospel. By no means is it exhaustive. Volumes have been written about this distinction, and the more we study the law and the gospel, the more it brings home the reality of Jesus' cross and resurrection in our hearts and minds. Hopefully, this article will whet the appetite for further study and contemplation.
What are the law and the gospel? They are not abstract theological categories made up by people in their studies many years ago with way too much time on their hands. The law and the gospel are God's two words spoken to us in his Bible; they are its two main subcategories, if you will. As such, they constitute more than simply one of many possible frameworks for reading and understanding the Bible; they are the foundational framework. Understanding them and the distinction between them is key to understanding the whole of God's Word and the whole of the Christian religion. As Martin Luther wrote, "Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel." (1)
The first of God's two words is always the law. It is exactly what it sounds like: the rules. The law is God's set of rules or demands regarding how we should be. In the Bible, the first mention of the law is at the very beginning of human existence: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die'" (Gen. 2:16-17). We know how the rest of the story went. Adam and Eve disobeyed the one rule God made for them (they sinned), and they were cast out of the Garden, out of the realm of eternal life into the realm of death. The relationship between man and God, the one we try so hard to keep together through our own efforts, was broken because of our inability to keep his commands, his law.
Consider the defining characteristic of law. It is conditional in nature--it proscribes certain behavior and describes the consequences. Law contains an if/then structure or action/consequence. We can read the previous passage as: "If you do not eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil, then everything will be fine and you can stay with me. If you do eat of it, then you will die." This is true of all kinds of laws. If you go over the speed limit and the police pull you over, then you will get a ticket. If you abuse your dog, then he will grow aggressive. If you eat cheeseburgers and donuts every day, then your health will suffer. This is law and we understand it implicitly. We are used to conditional relationships. We like the idea of action and consequence. It is very logical and clear-cut. As is obvious from the above examples, however, not all laws are created equal. Breaking some laws results in far more severe consequences than others. Breaking some laws leads to angry dogs and a larger waistline, while breaking others leads to separation from God and to death. What is the reason for this variance?
Every law, no matter how trivial, is related to God's holy law, and therefore breaking any law elicits the same result: death. (2) As Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and the first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40). (3) The difference between breaking the speed limit and eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil has to do with the function of the law. The law operates in two different arenas: one is civil (or political) and the other is theological (or spiritual). (4) In the civil arena, the law acts as a bridle on sinful humanity. It restrains evil behaviors for the sake of civil society. Think of most of the laws that govern our country. They promote order and provide protection, and our obedience to them allows us to live in relative peace with our neighbor. In this case, then, the law addresses outward actions: as long as one is able to abstain from certain behaviors one will be an upright citizen.
The function of the law in the theological arena goes deeper. In this sense, the law acts as "the hammer of death" to sinful humans. (5) It exposes our inability to keep it and crushes any notion that we ever could in light of the fall. (6) "Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" (Jer. 23:29). While in the civil arena the law focuses on outward actions, in the theological arena it addresses the heart, motivation, and psyche. (7) There is certainly still an outward aspect to the theological application of the law, but those outward actions are considered bad fruit from a corrupt root, and the root is the concern.
Martin Luther refers to this theological understanding of the law as its "principal use" because it fundamentally alters our perspective. (8) As previously mentioned, people like the conditional nature of law. We prefer to view life as merit based, structured as if/then statements. If I obey the law, then I am a good person and God will be pleased with me. This tit-for-tat, quid pro quo, action/consequence philosophy of ethics was delineated by Aristotle and still prevails today. According to Aristotle, the outside determines the inside. (9) What you do defines you, good or bad. This is an attractive perspective because it gives us a sense of control. We think, "If I can just change my behavior, then I will change who I am." This way of thinking was the source of all of my efforts to maintain a feeling of closeness with God, as mentioned above. Jesus, however, turns this philosophy of ethics on its head in his presentation of the law.
The Pharisees, like many of us, were in Aristotle's camp. They thought God's law existed to ensure that their outward behaviors would remain pure so that they could attain inward purity (outside in, fruit to root). This led to their objections to Jesus and his disciples not washing their hands before they ate (a violation of one of the ceremonial laws). Jesus responded,
Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person...what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. (Matt. 15:10-11, 18-20)Here the Lord reveals that Aristotle and the rest of us are wrong. The world may want to operate according to action/consequence or from the outside in, but God does not operate that way. Rather, he is concerned with the heart, the motivations, the inside, the root, and so is his law in its primary theological function.
Jesus also reveals this in his Sermon on the Mount. He explains that we do not break God's law simply through our actions, but first in our thoughts and hearts. Anger with your brother is the same as murdering him. Lusting after another is the same as committing adultery. Jesus takes the law to its highest pitch here. It is concerned with matters of the heart. The only way for anyone to be good and pleasing to God is to have a pure heart, to have completely pure motivations, to never have a bad thought about anyone or anything. In short, as Jesus sums up, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:21-48, emphasis mine). This is language about our state of being as opposed to our behavior. The law is about more than individual sinful actions; it is about the sinful state of the heart that leads to those actions.
Now we have hit bedrock. We have come to the foundation of the matter. The law is God's demand for our perfection. In order to be in right relationship with God, as I tried to be, we have to be perfect like God. What a crushing reality! As God's first word to us, the law acts as a mirror to reflect to us our sinful selves. (10) The law is not the tool we use to get better because we can never use it to improve ourselves; this was never its function. (11) Rather, the law exposes our failure to be better, to be perfect. In light of this, our feeble attempts to improve ourselves here and there are laughable. We don't even come close! This is the reality of the law: "No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12).
This is all very depressing to our ambitious and independent selves, and it has to be because otherwise we would not be ready to hear God's second word, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the good news, "that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). He has fulfilled the law on our behalf, has died for our sins on the cross, and has been raised again for our justification. The perfection (or righteousness) needed to be in right relationship with God is Christ's but is imputed to us (declared as ours) by God's grace through the cross. (12) This was the plan all along. As seen above, after the Fall we were never able to fulfill the law; its purpose in our lives now is first to reveal our sin and kill any notion that we are good on our own. Then, as a result of the gospel of grace, the Holy Spirit directs our lives of gratitude in congruence with the law. The law always points us to Jesus and his cross. That is the place where our sin was imputed to him and his righteousness was imputed to us. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). An incomplete understanding of the law may lead one to the conclusion that it is ours to fulfill. No: the law is always his to fulfill. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17).
As a result, our relationship with God is not dependent on our works but on his completed work for us. We are saved by grace through faith. We believe that Jesus has already done everything for us so that we might be free from the obligation of the law and its penalty of death (Gal. 5:1). As a result, we are saved from having to be perfect on our own. We are forgiven, and we stand in the fact that "it is finished" (John 19:30).
Jesus' final word on our sin reveals the radical nature of the gospel: it is a free gift (Eph. 2:8). It is based on faith and not works, which means it is unconditional and cannot be earned or deserved. While the law can only make demands of us, "the Gospel contains no demand, only the gift of God's grace and truth in Christ." (13) The if/then conditional nature of relationships ends and because/therefore wins out. "Because we have been justified by faith, therefore we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). Because Christ died for you, therefore you are forgiven. Because Christ has fulfilled the law, therefore you are set free from its demands. The gospel is the answer to the law's accusation.
What are the implications of this distinction between law and gospel for our understanding of the Bible? Considering both the law and gospel kills the notion that the Bible is a manual for living--a view commonly held today. If the Bible were such a manual, Christianity would be all about what we do. Instead, the Bible is God's active Word in our lives. From it comes the law, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," crushing any notion of self-justification by our good works and revealing our sinful state. With the law is the gospel--the freeing message that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). The two words tell us that Christianity is all about what he has done! The Bible is the proclamation of the truth--the truth about us and about God. It is nothing short of revelation, and this truth sets us free indeed. C. F. W. Walther said it best: "The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book." (14)
What are the implications of these two inseparable words for our everyday lives?16 As mentioned above, our relationship with God does not depend on us; rather, it rests solely on the completed work of Jesus Christ at the cross. When we understand this about our relationship, the result is that we can rest. We can finally have peace. Our efforts to preserve a relationship with God can stop. Our motivations for our study of the Bible, prayer, and worship can come not out of fear of punishment or separation from God but out of the joy of security in God's faithfulness to us shown in his Son, Jesus, so that we are inspired to grateful living. Whenever we feel the accusation of the law, we can recognize its purpose, which is to drive us back to the cross where we hear the gospel again.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)
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Issue: "Rightly Dividing the Word" Sept./Oct. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 5 Page number(s): 8-11
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