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Catechetical Refresher - Law And Gospel

Catechetical Refresher
Law and Gospel
Christ Lutheran Church
Cleveland, Ohio
September 25, 2018

At the foundation of the Lutheran faith lies the Law and the Gospel. These are the two faces God presents to us in Holy Scripture. That of Lawgiver and Judge, and that of Savior and Lord.

The portions of Scripture that legislate what men may and may not do, and states penalties for said violations are called “Law.” Those portions of Scripture that speak of God’s love for sinners and what he has done in Christ the Lamb of God to redeem, cleanse and save them from their sins is called “Gospel.”

Scripture contains both and therefore the Lutheran pastor teaches and preaches both Law and Gospel. But there are several important definitions and rules of engagement that every Lutheran pastor and Lutheran layman should be aware of so that both pastor and people are on the same page.

It is foundational to Lutheran theology that the Law cannot save us. It makes demands that no one can keep and threatens the violator with temporal punishment and eternal death. But the Law cannot save us. No one can attain to it and even if they could turn over a new leaf, present keeping of the Law would not wipe out former offenses. The Law’s righteous demands hang over our heads like the Sword of Damocles and create terrible consternation in the human heart. An anxiety we salve in many ways: denial, drink, diversion, more friendly versions of religion, agnosticism and atheism are just a few of the ways we comfort ourselves, because every human heart knows there is no way out.

However, that is the bad news. The good news (Gospel means “good news”) is very good. The Gospel is announced in all the portions of Scripture which tell us what God has done, in Christ, to redeem us from the Law, from our sins, and the pain and death that follow in their wake.

The Gospel is the happy news that our Lord suffered the penalty and wrath for all human sin on the cross, in our place, and that by him we are set free. Set free from sin, death, devil, judgment and that because of the cross only good and blessing await us from God, who in and with Christ, is our dear Father.

Making the good news even better the gift of salvation is bestowed upon us by God, purely by his grace. It is not something we can pay for, make ourselves worthy or ready for. But as our Lord says in Luke 19:10 “The Son of Man came to seek and to save those who are lost.”

This is necessary because before the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies” us in Christ we are spiritually dead, unaware of it, and therefore unable to reach for a cure even if one were offered to us. And so God’s Holy Spirit does all that is needed. He awakens us from spiritual death, converts us, makes us alive in Christ, and maintains the precious resource of our faith for us by the means of the Word and Sacraments.

Just as a child is conceived without his consent and then is born even so “we who were dead in trespasses and sins, God has made alive in Christ.” (Ephesians 2:1).

That is the gospel! Is it any wonder the Psalmist exclaims, “May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’” (Psalm 70:4¬)

In summary, then, Scripture presents us with two major doctrines, the Law and the Gospel. Said another way it presents us with two faces of God, Judge and Savior. Both are true, and it is foundational to the Lutheran religion that both be properly distinguished, and both be properly proclaimed to the people of God. (For this your pastor needs much grace and much prayer, because it is a most arduous task.)

In short the Law must be taught because in every Christian there are two opposing natures. There is the Flesh which is New Testament shorthand for a sinful nature (AKA: the Old Adam, the Old Man). And there is the New Man, the New Creation, the Second Adam, Christ in us.

There is nothing inherently sinful about flesh. It is God’s good creation. But sinful desires which always begin in the heart are played out by the members: our eyes, and ears and hands and feet and tongues etc. Flesh.

But of the two chief doctrines the one that must prevail in the Christian church is the Gospel because it is “The power of God unto salvation for all who believes.” (Romans 1:16).

In teaching and preaching the Lutheran pastor must always be aware of what is called for in any given situation. The Law levels us, it crushes our pride, makes us fear God, regret our sins and brings us back to our Christian senses – all very necessary things because we still have Flesh; and until we realize our sin, the Gospel means nothing to us.

But when we know how wretched, poor and blind we are spiritually speaking, and the corruption permeates our flesh; then the Gospel shines brighter than the noon day sun. It raises us up, lifts us up, scatters all the darkness and fear in our lives, and seats us with Christ in heavenly places. (Eph. 2:7). The Gospel fills us with joy, consoles us, cleanses us, comforts us, shields us from sin and death, and promises us God’s every blessing now and always.

This is why we rejoice to hear the Gospel and why Lutheran churches, pastors, liturgies, hymns, creeds and prayers must feature the Gospel clearly. Because it alone makes us alive!

The work of distinguishing and applying the Law and Gospel is the most difficult task there is. Martin Luther was fond of saying: If a man can properly distinguish the Law and the Gospel he should be elevated to a Doctor of Theology, for only the Holy Spirit can teach this. Like a heart surgeon the conscientious pastor strives to be his best and do his best in every case. He studies, thinks, reads, prays, works hard, plans and consults with fellow pastors so that no one is ever lost because of him.

His work is also dangerous in that Flesh doesn’t like the Law. Indeed it hates the Law and will do anything to silence it, even kill the messenger. This was the case with our Old Testament lesson last week Jeremiah 11:18-20; and more famously with John the Baptizer, who was beheaded for his preaching against Herod. It is still the case today that our Flesh wishes to stifle the preaching of the Law, not by beheading the messenger, but by silencing him.

The pastor must be ever aware of sin and fearlessly condemn it in preaching, teaching, writing and in personal consultation with his flock. But always with the hope and prayer and intent that a person will fear God, and repent, at which point the salve of the Gospel is richly applied, and complete healing is restored, and peace once again prevails.

Like a surgeon must first excise the infection, and only then apply the healing medicine; so a pastor first diagnoses the sin, then applies the Balm of Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

There is more to be said on this subject but for now be aware of the two main doctrines of Scripture as Lutherans understand it. The Law and the Gospel – and listen for them in liturgy, hymns, teaching, preaching and pastoral counsel.

In order to be an informed Lutheran much study is required. A good place to begin is with our Lutheran Confessions which say it like this (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art. IV)

1. We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence as an especially brilliant light, by which, according to the admonition of St. Paul, the Word of God is rightly divided.

2. We believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a divine doctrine, which teaches what is right and pleasing to God, and reproves everything that is sin and contrary to God's will.

3. For this reason, then, everything that reproves sin is, and belongs to, the preaching of the Law.

4. But the Gospel is properly such a doctrine as teaches what man who has not observed the Law, and therefore is condemned by it, is to believe, namely, that Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sins, and has obtained and acquired for him, without any merit of his [no merit of the sinner intervening], forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life.

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)

Peace be with you. Amen.


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