The Law and the Gospel

The Slipperiness of the Gospel
     The sixteenth century Reformer, Martin Luther, warned that the Gospel was “slippery.” On the one hand, it was too good, too inconceivable, too wonderful to believe. Our minds always lean toward attempting to earn by our own righteousness God’s acceptance. The foolishness of the cross is that it is too easy, too simple. We think, “surely it does not understand the magnitude of my sinfulness. It must require more than simply believing.” This type of thinking pushes us into a works mode of understanding our salvation. Then the Gospel and justification by faith becomes secondary, and when it becomes secondary grace slips from our minds. We become slaves to works once again.

     On the other hand, Luther wrote, “And still I find that I grasp this so high and broad and deep a wisdom only in a poor and weak and fragmentary manner.” For when one begins to grasp the depth of the Gospel, we with the Psalmist confess, “It is too high, I cannot attain it.” 

     Luther summarized the slipperiness of the theology of the cross as he wrote,

Now the matter of justification is a slippery thing, not because of itself – for in itself it is absolutely sure and certain – but it is slippery in respect to us. I myself have often experienced this. For I know in what hours of darkness I sometimes wrestle. I know how many times I suddenly lose the rays of the gospel and of grace, as though they were covered with a dense cloud. And I know what a slippery place those occupy who seem to be so well exercised in this matter and to have such a firm footing. We have had abundant experience in this matter; and therefore we can teach it to others, which is a certain sign that we understand it. For no one is able to teach others what he doesn’t know himself . . . . But when in present trouble we ought to use the Gospel which is the Word of grace and comfort and life, then the Law. The Word of wrath and bitterness and death, obscures the Gospel and begins to rage, and the horrors it begets in the conscience are no less severe than what was brought forth by that horrible spectacle on Mount Sinai. Thus only one passage of threatening in the Scripture ruins and vitiates all comfort and so strikes away at all our inward powers that we completely forget justification, grace, Christ, and the Gospel. Therefore with respect to us it is a slippery matter because we are slippery.1

 

The simple fact, Luther observed, is that we forget the abiding truth of the Gospel, or we slide back into thinking of God only as our judge, and not our Savior, who can only be appeased by perfection and good works. We stop hearing the Gospel and begin once again to listen only to God’s Law. Whatever the cause, the Gospel slips away from us. What at one time was most vivid and heartfelt slips from our grasp. From experience, Luther warned about the slipperiness of the Gospel.

The Differences between Law and Gospel
     For Luther once he understood the doctrine of justification by faith as the supreme doctrine of the Gospel, he realized that he must address its standing and relationship to God’s Law. He defined the Law very generally as any of the imperative demands of God in the Bible, especially those specified and typified in the Ten Commandments. The Gospel he viewed, in contrast to the Law, as all the gracious promises of God in Christ found in the Bible, and it is particularly represented in its chief doctrine of justification by faith. Law and Gospel, demand and grace, seemingly stand opposed to one another, but at the same time, they are both clear facts of the Bible. How can they be reconciled? Luther felt that the most important task of the preacher and theologian was to clearly draw this distinction. Failure to faithfully make this distinction would turn the Gospel into thinking that working and merit by obedience to the Law will or can justify you before God.2

Opposites?
     The Scholastics of the Medieval Age had identified the Law with the Gospel making the Gospel the “new law.” It was believed that keeping the Law was essential for reconciliation. Luther disagreed. He saw that the Law could not function as a way to be reconciled to God because of the sinful nature inherited by mankind as a result of the Fall. The Law could never perfectly be obeyed by sinful, weak, fallen man. All the Law could do is condemn man for breaking of the Law. It had no power to save a sinner only the power to condemn him. The Law was related only to obedience not to faith. Thus, the Gospel, on the other hand, is reconciliation. The believer by faith in the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ is reconciled to God. In the Gospel the sinner finds forgiveness. Grace not merit is the hallmark of the Gospel. This reconciliation is by faith not obedience or works, so the Law and the Gospel were radically different. The Gospel justifies one on the basis of faith in Jesus’ propitious death, forgiving their sins, and imputing the righteousness of His perfectly holy and righteous life to the believer.

The Tension
     These distinctions between Law and Gospel led Martin to emphasize the tension and the differences between Law and Gospel. He saw that both the New Testament and the Old Testament were filled with demands for holy living. But, he also saw that both were filled with the gracious promises of peace, hope, and future blessings. His distinction between Law and Gospel became a key “organizing principle” to his theology of the cross and to faithfully honor both Law and Gospel as presented in the Scriptures. The Law wherever it is found demands obedience and should lead to repentance, while the Gospel offers grace and leads to faith. These are the two grand themes of the Bible, but Luther demanded that they must be distinguished and not confused and at the same time not be separated, on the one hand. On the other, they must be organized around the priority of the Gospel first and then the Law second.3

Three Purposes of the Law
     Luther first saw two clear purposes for the Law. Later, he joined the rest of the Reformers and added a third. The first was its “civil” use. It was to direct society in establishing a standard of righteousness for all. Second, it was given to convict sinners of sin and drive them to Christ for salvation. This was its “theological” use. The third use of the Law was added later declaring with the rest of the reformers that the Law teaches believers how to live godly and holy lives. The Law teaches believers how to love God. This was the “pedagogical”4 use of the Law.5 On this last use of the Law, Martin believed that a sanctified life was the result of regeneration and a faith given by God.

Second Use of the Law
     Romans lays out the Biblical distinction between Law and Gospel, as well as, the proper use of the Law. Paul uses the first three chapters of Romans to establish that all have sinned and are under the condemnation of the Law. It is the second use of the Law that he introduces in 3:20b, through the law comes knowledge of sin (cf. Gal. 3:18-26; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). He prefaces this statement with the categorical announcement that by the works of the law no human being will be justified… (v. 20a). Then he introduces the Good News of how righteousness before God can be attained, But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe….and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (vv. 21-22, 24). He continues to expound these truths through chapters 4 and 5, then in chapter 6, Paul makes the dramatic statement, For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (v. 14). Here is the stated superiority and authority of the Gospel over the Law. Consequently, to assure us of this point Paul will make the breath-taking statement of 8:1, There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He will conclude chapter eight,

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (vv. 33-35, 37-39).

 

This is what it means to be under grace. Such grace is inestimable and more precious than imaginable (cf. Eph. 3:18-19). The Law cannot undo this grace. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 5:20-21).

     Earlier in the second chapter of Romans Paul announced that God, rather than executing immediate judgment upon our committed sins, exercises forbearance toward us, which is given to lead us to repentance (v. 4; cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). Therefore, here is a critical insight. When we are experiencing the condemnation of the Law in our lives, the conviction of our sin, the specific purpose is not condemnation but rather to lead us to repentance. Saving faith is made alive by the Spirit and grace. Consequently, saving faith by its very nature repents of its sins. For saving faith repentance is not optional. As the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, so He will drive saving faith to repentance by the instrument of the Law. Luther emphasized the place of repentance in the believer’s life in the first of his 95 Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Mt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Thus, repentance is not failure, but the breath of the Holy Spirit breathing vitality into saving faith. It is God calling us back to Himself and our true identity in Christ. True repentance is ever a gift (2 Tim. 2:25-26). It acknowledges the frustration and inbred frailty of the Fall, but it also creates an ever-growing yearning for heaven and our final glorification. It makes no excuse for sinning, but rather names sin for what it is – the arrogant rebellion against God’s Law and kingly sovereignty over our lives. Sin is always a flaunting of grace and a hateful rejection of God’s goodness and the love of Christ. Repentance is the means by which we are ever returning to the blessed fellowship of our Savior and rejoining the fight of faith. Repentance demands that we claim the Gospel again and again afresh by faith, and we cast aside all thoughts that we can ever earn it by our good behavior. Finally, repentance is the rhythm of the Spirit’s transformation moving us inch by inch toward the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Rom. 12:1-2) and attaining appropriate humility before God. Repentance makes us stronger not weaker. Thus, while not under the Law, God still uses the Law to lead us to repentance and vital fellowship with Himself. Thus, the Law gives a knowledge of sin for the sake of repentance, the second use of the Law, but it also points us to the way of obedience and loving God, the third use of the Law.

Importance of Obedience
     It might first appear that Martin Luther had discarded the need for obedience, but he clearly saw this demand in the Scriptures. Yet, such obedience was removed from merit, and it was seen as the fruit of faith. In his commentary on Romans Luther explained, “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. . . . He who does not these works is a faithless man.”6 In commenting on Romans chapter 4 and Abraham’s justifying faith, Martin wrote,

“What did Abraham accomplish, then, with his good works? Were they all in vain? Were his works of no use?” He [Paul] concludes that Abraham was justified by faith alone, without any works; nay, the Scriptures, in Genesis 15, declare that he was justified by faith alone, even before the work of circumcision. But if the work of circumcision contributed nothing to his righteousness, though God commanded it and it was a good work of obedience; then, surely, no other good work will contribute anything to righteousness. On the other hand, if Abraham’s circumcision was an external sign by which he showed the righteousness that was already his in faith, then all good works are only external signs which follow out of faith, and show, like good fruit, that man is already inwardly righteous before God.

 

Luther saw the works of obedience not as opposed to faith, but rather they were the fruit of faith. They were the evidence that one had been made righteous by faith. Therefore, they offered no merit on their own only the evidence of true and saving faith.

     Learning the distinction between Law and Gospel is a critical lesson for our spiritual lives. It is the root of assurance. It is a practical foundation for living in grace and peace and for properly using the Law. Let me encourage you to practice the distinction!

In Him, 

Ray

 

Endnotes

[1] Robert D. Preus, “The Theology of the Cross – Parts Three and Four,” Reformation & Revival, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Carol Stream, IL: Reformation & Revival Ministries, Inc., Winter, 1999), 61.
[2] Ibid., 65.
[3] Godfrey, “Law and Gospel,” New Dictionary of Theology, 379.
[4] Pedagogical refers to the art and science of teaching.
[5] Ibid.; Cf. Harold J Berman, “Law and Theology,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, Alan Richardson and John Bowman, editors (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 323. Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, Stanley N. Gundry, editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 319-376, here Moo argues the Biblical merits of Luther’s conclusions.
[6] Luther, Commentary on Romans, xvii.

 

Entering Into the Presence of God
“Experiencing the Presence of Jesus”
 

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Tuesday, 19 February 2019

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