What it means to be truly Lutheran: The distinction between law and gospel

The distinction between law and gospel

Joel D. Otto

A question asked in almost every Lutheran catechism class is: “What are the two main teachings of the Bible?” Sometimes, a student might be confused and say, “The Old and New Testament.”

The correct answer is the law and the gospel. One of the unique emphases of being truly Lutheran is the understanding of the distinctive content and functions of these two main teachings of the Bible.

In a sermon, Martin Luther noted the different content of the law and the gospel. “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” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article V:12). These contrasting messages are evident throughout the Bible. For example, numerous psalms preach law and gospel in the same psalm (Psalm 32; 51). Paul’s letters often place law and gospel side by side (see, for example, Romans 3:23,24).

God has a grand purpose for these distinctive teachings of his Word. In the same sermon, Luther preached, “[The apostles] begin by proclaiming the law to those who still do not recognize their sins and feel no terror in the face of God’s wrath. . . . The gospel and Christ are established and given not to terrify or to condemn, but rather to comfort and console those who have felt its terror and are fainthearted.” The law and gospel have distinctive functions. God uses the law to bring people to see and believe the depth of their sins and helplessness. God uses the gospel to bring people to see and believe the heights of his love and power to forgive.

Law and gospel can be easily confused. Our natural sinful condition wants to turn the law into something that saves us. “Tell me the things I need to do so God will love me and give me heaven.” Or it makes the unconditional gospel conditional. “Jesus died and rose again. If you only turn your life over to Jesus, then you’ll be one of his blessed children.” Being truly Lutheran means that we do not give the impression that God’s love can be earned by our obedience to the law. Being truly Lutheran means that we do not undercut the good news of God’s love by adding conditions. Instead, we let the law thunder its commands and drive people to see their need for God’s mercy. It also means that we let the gospel be the good news of Jesus to comfort sinners with the love and forgiveness of our gracious God.

Questions to consider:

1. List at least five verbs that describe what the law does. List at least five verbs that describe what the gospel does.

Law: commands, demands, accuses, curbs, convicts, exposes, condemns, guides

Gospel: gives, forgives, justifies, redeems, saves, motivates, strengthens, encourages, comforts, assures

2. Compare Jesus’ use of law and gospel in helping the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-26 with how Jesus addressed the expert of the law in Luke 10:25-37.

Jesus could see that the paralyzed man (Luke 5:17-26) had already been crushed by the law. Perhaps his paralyzed condition left him a lot of time to think about this sinfulness. So Jesus is quick to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness. The expert in the law (Luke 10:25-37), on the other hand, clearly thought that through his obedience of the law he could attain eternal life. He needed to hear what the law really demands. He needed to hear the accusing voice of the law so that he could be convicted of his sin.

Because we still have an old sinful nature, we regularly need to hear the accusing, condemning words of the law. We need to be convicted of our sins. We need our sinfulness exposed. The stinging, condemning words of the law lead us to turn from our sins. That’s when the comforting, forgiving message about Jesus lifts us up and strengthens us. At other times, we may already be feeling the weight of our guilt. So the gospel needs to be applied.

3. How do these incidents and the list of verbs help us understand how the distinctive messages of law and gospel function in the lives of people?

The gospel also motivates us for Christian living; we want to thank God for his forgiving love. The law guides us so we know how to live lives of thankfulness.

The messages of law and gospel are distinct with distinct purposes. But they work together in the lives of God’s people so that we remain and live as his people.


Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This is the second article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

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