Law and Gospel: The “Two Words” of the Bible

As we think about and read through the Bible, theologians throughout history have recognized two “voices” that rise to the top: Law and Gospel. When we understand Law and Gospel, and their proper distinction, the Bible begins to become more clear. But before we get there, what is “Law” and what is “Gospel?”

In short, Law is anything we hear or read in a commanding voice (or mood). “Do, do not, be, be not,” etc. The Law tells us what to do, how to do it, and what the reward and punishment is for success or failure. To be clear, the Law is good (Romans 7:12). Each week in our worship gathering we read either the Ten Commandments or a section from our church’s catechism that tells us about the Law and its purpose. When we hear these words read over us we become mindful of God’s holiness and what it demands: that we love Him above everything, and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:35-40).

The Gospel, on the other hand, is in the declarative voice. It tells us what has been done. The word “Gospel” literally means “good news.” The Gospel tells us how God has acted toward us in Christ. Specifically, that though we are great sinners, Christ has died for us to forgive our sin (Romans 5:8). The good news concerning Jesus (His life, death, burial, and resurrection) declared in the Gospel speaks life, peace, and joy to the heart of a sinner.

When Law and Gospel are considered, two routes can be taken: confusion or distinction. When we confuse Law and Gospel we run into problems. The commands (or imperatives) of the Bible are given as “good news.” Commands like “Be Holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16) are given as Gospel, when in fact it is the language of Law. In other words, commands and imperatives to “be more, do more, or sin less” are collapsed into the Gospel category and therefore our works, duties, faithfulness and abilities become the grounds of our assurance before a holy God. Over the course of time, the Law will continue to run its course and crush the soul of the sinner. Martin Luther once wrote, “the Law says ‘do this,’ and it is never done.” That is, the Law always demands and asks for more. This is why trying to comfort a weary sinner with words like “you just need to read your bible more” or “have you prayed enough?” often brings more guilt than hope. Are these good things? Yes! However, the Law cannot save or bring hope.

Conversely, when Law and Gospel are distinguished the Bible becomes clear. We rightly recognize that God’s righteousness and holiness revealed in His Law shows us our sin, sickness, and need for a Savior (Galatians 3:19). When the Law has done its work in painting the sinner red with guilt, it is then that they are ready for the Gospel to come declare the good news of what Christ has accomplished on their behalf. Namely, that Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), bore its curse (Galatians 3:13), became our substitute (Hebrews 2:17), and rose from the dead that sinners might be declared righteous in God’s sight (Romans 4:25). To the weary sinner wracked with guilt, we comfort them with the good news of the Gospel after they have crushed by the demands of the Law: that Christ’s blood is sufficient, His grace is deep, and their salvation is sure in Him. That though we fail to live as we should, we trust that God’s mercy in Christ is enough. As Luther wrote, “The Gospel says ‘believe this’ and it is already done.” Because God has given us what He demands in His Law freely in His Gospel, we are forgiven and free to pursue a life of love and good works from a posture of gratitude. Think of it like this: the Law exposes our guilt, the Gospel clothes us in grace, and we live status forward in a posture of gratitude.

Is the Law good? Yes. Can it save? No. Is the Gospel good? Absolutely. Does it save? To the uttermost. Praise be to God that what He has demanded of us in His Law He has provided for us in His Gospel.

Article by Jimmy Buehler
Originally posted at Christ Community Church, MN

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