Law & Gospel

I thought today would be a good day to talk about theology. I don’t know why. Probably because it is Valentine’s Day. Whatever.

One of the great contributions Lutheran theology has given to the church is the distinction between law and gospel. Basically it functions as a kind of interpretive grid that helps us broadly categorize the biblical story of redemption. Wiki has a summary of it here. The point is to distinguish between what God commands and what God promises and how God’s promise meets what he commands.

For the most part this is a pretty useful tool, one that I often use myself. For example, it is very helpful in understanding the teachings of Paul particularly in the letter to the Romans. In that letter, Paul argues that the law calls us into account before God as condemned persons. The law brings wrath. The good news for Paul, though, is that “righteousness apart from the law has been made known” (Rom 1:17), and that by this righteousness we obtain salvation by grace. The law functions as a condemnatory tool and the gospel is a liberating message. This is a fairly accurate way to understand the direction of Paul’s argument.

However, like any theory, it can be subject to distortions. One can reduce the law to a function that is wholly negative by saying it only brings condemnation—that it is helpless to make anyone good. The problem with this is that the biblical theology of Psalm 119 would never agree. According to the psalmist the law is part of the grace of God towards humanity in that by following it one is made wise, if not altogether righteous. Another problem is that extends the meaning of law to exhortations of Christian instruction. Michael Spencer pointed out that some theologians even go so far to say that the Sermon on the Mount was simply Jesus’ validation and extension of the law and that his point was to show no one could be made right by following rules. Absurdly, this can even reduce to Paul’s own exhortations about Christian living, the same person who argued so vehemently against the law. The law is the bad news about not being able to obey, and the gospel is about forgiveness and freedom from that way of living (rule keeping).

This understanding is riddled with problems. Why would anyone be obliged to God? If the law is bad news, exhortation to obey simply has no force. The specter of works/righteousness is brought up immediately and references to our inability to obey are almost used as an excuse. Facile distinctions between “religion” and “relationship” are made that virtually relegate a life of obedience to an “add-on thing” called “discipleship” which “makes the relationship better,” though it is not imperative (for that would be “religion”). Moreover, it turns the idea of gospel into merely a legal “get out of hell free card” that sees grace being nothing more than justification being purchased and reckoned unto us through the work of Christ and nothing more. Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven, right?

A better understanding of law and gospel incorporates the high view of the law the Old Testament has, and even counter-intuitively, that Paul has. Paul sees the law as righteous and good pointing us to the right way to live (Rom 7:1-7). It is meant to answer the questions “what is the good life?” and “how shall we then live?” In Romans 2 is quite obvious that Paul sees law-keeping as a necessary condition for salvation. But it is not a sufficient condition. As he teaches the “law of sin” fights against our desire to obey the law of God. What is needed then is a life animated by the Spirit to give us power to obey (Rom 8:1-3). That life is given unto us by Christ (Rom 7:25). It is certainly true that by believing the gospel we enter into that life on the merits of Christ (Rom 5:1). We are certainly forgiven and justified. But we are not only given a gift of justification, we are also given the Spirit for our sanctification (Rom 8:13-17). The gospel is life given from the Kingdom of God to live in the kingdom of God by the King himself.

Or at least that is how I have made sense of it lately.

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