Law versus Gospel

It is important to distinguish law from the gospel. If we don’t, we’ll get confused about how to walk the walk.

No, I’m not a Lutheran, but I can still learn from him and later Lutherans. I’m glad he’s getting an update. Maybe we can bring a little more theological precision to people.

In this post I learn to distinguish between law and gospel.

1. How law and gospel are revealed differently to humanity.

The law is written on the hearts of men of conscience. The law tells them not to do an act (yet they do it anyway), and it tells them to do an act (but they rarely do it). It is true that the brokenness of humanity at the Fall has twisted the heart on which the law was written, but enough of the heart survives that the law can boss the human around and inflict serious damage on his conscience.

It is important to understand that all the religions of the world have a version of the moral law. This proves that humans around the world and over the centuries have the same (broken) image of God in their very being. Many of these religious men and women seek a cleansing of the soul by purification and rituals. It also proves that they see a need of obeying the law, so they add more laws to help them and guide them to accomplish this goal.

In contrast, the gospel of grace is not written on the hearts of men as if it is part of their being. Rather, it is revealed only by the preaching of the gospel and the finished work of Christ on the cross. He is the embodiment of grace.

2. The content of law and the gospel is different.

The law tells us what to do. “Thou shalt! Thou shalt not!” Law is found everywhere in Scripture, even in the New Testament. Please go to Two Approaches in Interpreting Scripture to see a list of Old Testament commands and New Testament commands. Here are two examples: “Be completely peaceful and gentle” (Eph. 4:2). Have you ever been completely virtuous for any length of time? “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Have you loved your enemies all the time? We could keep going with more commands.

In sum, the law reveals to us what we are to do and not do.

Per contra, the gospel tells us what God has already done. He accomplished our salvation by sending his Son to die on the cross. He honored the Law of Moses and obeyed the unwritten moral law, yet he was unjustly punished for his obedience by being crucified. This enables him to transfer as a free gift his law-keeping and righteousness to us, while we transfer our law-breaking over to him. By his death he takes the penalty of our law-breaking before the throne of God’s judgment. So the gospel makes no demand on us whatsoever. Rather, it tells us to passively receive the divine and free gift of salvation.

“But doesn’t the gospel demand us to come and follow Jesus?” That is the demand of conversion, and only God’s grace can convert us. Only the preaching of the gospel by Jesus did that originally. The Spirit anointed him, and his demand of conversion was Spirit-energized, and it imparted enough faith in the original hearers so that they could follow him in the first place. So we passively receive the gift of salvation by the preaching of the gospel of grace, which is the same for us as preaching Christ.

3. The law and gospel differ in their promises.

The law promises wonderful things, but it puts conditions on them. We get those promises if and only if we obey the law. We read it all the time. “See that you do all I command you” (Deut. 12:32). But what if we don’t do all that God commands? “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your hearts” (Jer. 29:13). But what if we don’t seek him with all our hearts? Does that mean the promises are withdrawn? Yes, if we take those verses (and countless others) as written, without putting a self-effort spin on them, such as “Surely he’ll honor my efforts, won’t he? Surely he sees my heart and that I’m really trying.” No, you’re depending too much on yourself—your self.

In contrast, the gospel promises the gift of salvation without preconditions, conditions or postconditions whatsoever. God is the one who is seeking us with all his heart. He found us. We did not find him. He accepted us before we responded and accepted him. If we were to ask Christ what we must do to be saved, he would answer today that we do no works, for he has done all the works for us. Christ is the one who satisfied the conditions built into the law.

But what about the rich young man who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22)? Jesus told him to keep the law, and the man answered he had kept it—those external acts. Some people’s conscience and efforts can indeed keep portions of the law. But what about all of it? Jesus told him to give up his wealth. Could it be he had broken the Tenth Commandment that says not to covet? The man went away sad.

If he had stayed around, he would have heard the pure gospel that says just believe (John 6:28-29).

4. The law contains threats, while the gospel issues forth only consolation.

If you read of a threat in the Bible, it is part of the law. Currently there is a teaching going around that says if you don’t tithe, then you place yourself under the Old Law’s curse. Really?

The gospel says no to that teaching, for all the promises of God are yes and amen, and Christ takes the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13).

If we suffer consequences for not tithing off gross pay, then maybe here is a consequence that we “suffer”: “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:20-21). In other words, the consequence of our not tithing off gross pay—if that really is a sin—is that God shows us more mercy and more grace.

5. The impact of the law and gospel on our lives differ.

The law bosses us around, but it does not enable us to obey it. It offers no provision or power to do it. It offers no way of salvation, even though it issues promises to save us—but only conditioned on our obedience.

The law uncovers our sins. It tells us how far we have fallen and don’t measure up.

The law produces contrition by conjuring up the terrors of hell, death, and wrath of God.

On the brighter side, the gospel gives us the gift of faith so that we can believe on the Lord Jesus Christ so that we can be saved (Acts 16:31).

The gospel takes away all the terrors of hell, death and wrath. We are filled with the Holy Spirit so we can walk in joy and peace in God’s presence.

The gospel does not require any good deed or godliness or love from us in order to receive the gift of salvation. It issues no orders, but it changes humankind. As the person walks in the Spirit, he exhibits fruit, just as effortlessly as a healthy vine (Jesus) grows good grapes on the branches (us). We receive his life-flow as we are connected to him, without any effort from us.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22-25)

6. The law is preached to the arrogant lawbreaker, while the gospel is for everyone else.

I believe we don’t need to spend much time preaching law and wrath to the unchurched, but if the need arises because the audience is especially tough, then by all means let’s preach the law. If we omit the law entirely, then we’re antinomians (against the law).

However, the gospel of grace is more appealing to the unchurched because most of them already have a sense of their failures. Rather, let’s tell them how freeing the gospel is. Let’s tell them they don’t have to lay their good works before God at the invisible altar before he will accept them. No, he has already done all the working and law-keeping for them. All they have to do is let the gospel energize faith in their hearts so they can receive salvation.

Let’s reply to a possible objection.

“Isn’t the interpretive scheme of law v. gospel outdated and disrespectful of the individual books of the Bible in their historical context? Aren’t you imposing a ‘foreign method’ on each book?”

Not at all. The Bible flows out of the Law of Moses at Sinai and the moral law before Sinai. Even Adam and Eve had a negative command: “Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil!” The Old Testament answers the question, “Did the ancient Israelites obey the law of Moses thoroughly?” No, they did not. The Old Covenant offers grace as well (see the related posts, below).

As for the New Testament, it flows out of the Old. The first three Gospels are about, among other things, how Jesus deals with the law. But he institutes the new “law” of the kingdom–the gospel of grace–by his death and resurrection.

So the law v. grace dichotomy does not violate the individual books of the Bible. Rather, it reveals what’s already in them. They’re major themes of each book.

How does this post draw me closer to the Lord and his grace?

Be “married” to Jesus, not Mr. Law (Rom. 7:1-6).

The law demands of us good performance before God and our fellow-humans. The gospel summons us to God’s distribution of his good work towards us: Christ’s death on the cross and his lovingkindness and salvation.

The law takes what we have and give us nothing. The gospel tells us to open our empty sack to receive a free gift. Giving and receiving (gospel) are different from demanding and taking (law).

The law does not empower us to keep it. The gospel empowers us to receive.

As for pastors and teachers, we can spend our time exhorting our congregation and classroom to do this and don’t do that. And we can find Scriptural support for that teaching approach. You can find x-number of principles on how they can have a godly household and raise their kids properly. Think of Ephesians 5:22-6:4.

However, I humbly suggest that we spend our time telling them how great God through Christ is, how much he wants to give his people.

Further, I concede that the Scripture is filled with commands—Ephesians 4-6, to name only that long section. But before you preach Eph. 4-6, please first spend time preaching Ephesians 1-3, which tells them who they are in Christ and how far up in the heavenly realm they are seated with Christ. Tell them that life in the Spirit will lead them to bear good fruit in their households.

We need a deeper revelation of grace.

Source: C. F. W. Walther, Thesis One and Second Evening Lecture (pp. 6-20 in the print version).


Law versus Grace

What Is Grace?

Alternatives to Grace?

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

Do Christians Have to ‘Keep’ the Ten Commandments?

Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with Humanity’s Big Failure

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant

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