The Lutheran Church is a law & gospel church. It has been this way from the very beginning. Our namesake wrote: “Distinguishing between the law and the gospel is the highest art in Christendom, one which every person who values the name Christian ought to recognize, know, and possess.” Luther doesn’t stop there, but adds: “Where this is lacking, it is not possible to tell who a Christian is, and who is a pagan or Jew. That much is at stake in this distinction.”
Without a proper understanding of the difference between law and gospel, the Bible remains a closed book, even if a person has read it a hundred times through. Apart from a right understanding of law and gospel, the Bible seems to be full of contradictions. This is true not just in secondary matters, but in the most important one as well: what must we do to be saved?
LET'S DEFINE TERMS
What then is the law, and what is the gospel? In one of his sermons, Luther gave this definition: “Everything that proclaims something about our sin and God’s wrath is the proclamation of the law, however and whenever it may take place. On the other hand, the gospel is the kind of proclamation that points to, and bestows, nothing else than grace and forgiveness in Christ.”
At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “Pastor Brian, I'm struggling to understand exactly what you’re saying. This is a little too abstract for me. Can you simplify it?”
If you read the Bible carefully, you will soon discover that it contains dire threats and great promises. Sometimes these threats and promises are found in close proximity, in the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence. Let me give you two prime examples, both from the same chapter of the Bible.
Many of us are familiar with John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to read on: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of the light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be clearly seen that what they have done has been done through God.” So reads John 3:17-21.
As for a second prime example of law and gospel, we need look no further than the last verse of John chapter three: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
Apart from Christ, there is no salvation, for there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:11-22). The payout for sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
I URGE AND PLEAD WITH YOU
Sadly, we live in a day and age that takes sin lightly. We live in a day and age that has forgotten that our Creator is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). We live in a day and age that calls evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20).
In order for me to help you to fully appreciate what I’m trying to say, I need you to open your Bible. Turn to Romans. Read the first five chapters and you will see a loud and clear proclamation of law and gospel.
I urge and plead with you to read Romans chapters 1 - 5 sometime today or tomorrow.
Having done so, you will understand why the apostle John wrote: “Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:10-12).
AS CLEAR AS COULD BE
Could it be any clearer than this?
Let us turn to Jesus for a final word.
“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do, to do the works God requires?’”
“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’”
So reads John 6:28-29. This is the gospel of the Lord.
Photo by Aaron Burden published on Unsplash