Law and Gospel

In Protestant Christianity, the relationship between Law and GospelGod's Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christis a major topic in Lutheran and Reformed theology. In these traditions, the distinction between the doctrines of Law, which demands obedience to God's ethical will, and Gospel, which promises the forgiveness of sins in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, is critical. It is used as a hermeneutical principle of biblical interpretation and a guiding principle in homiletics (sermon composition) and pastoral care. It is the supersession of the Old Covenant (including traditional Jewish law, or halakha) by the New Covenant and Christian theology.

Other Christian groups have a view on the issue as well, or more generally views of the Old Covenant, though it has not usually been as hotly debated or rigorously defined as in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

Sometimes the issue is discussed under the headings of "Law and Grace," "Sin and Grace," "Spirit and Letter," and "ministry (διακονíα, diakonia) of death/condemnation" and "ministry of the Spirit/righteousness".[1]

Lutheran view

Martin Luther and Lutheran theologians

A specific formulation of the distinction of Law and Gospel was first brought to the attention of the Christian Church by Martin Luther (1483–1546), and laid down as the foundation of evangelical Lutheran biblical exegesis and exposition in Article 4 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531): "All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal.".[2] The Formula of Concord likewise affirmed this distinction in Article V, where it states: "We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence..."[3]

Martin Luther wrote: "Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture."[4] Throughout the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy (1580–1713) this hermeneutical discipline was considered foundational and important by Lutheran theologians.

This distinction was the first article in Patrick`s Places (1528) by Patrick Hamilton.[5]

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (1811–1887), who was the first (and third) president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, renewed interest in and attention to this theological skill in his evening lectures at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis 1884-85.[6]

Book of Concord

The Formula of Concord distinguished three uses, or purposes, in the Law in Article VI. It states: "[T]he Law was given to men for three reasons. . ."

  1. that "thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]"
  2. that "men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins"
  3. that "after they are regenerate. . .they might. . .have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life"[7]

The primary concern was to maintain that the Law should continue to be used by Christians after they had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to counter the doctrine of Johannes Agricola, who taught that the Law was no longer needed by regenerate Christians."[7][8] Confessional Lutheranism teaches that the Law cannot be used to deny the Gospel, neither can the Gospel be used to deny God's Law.[9]

The three uses of the Law are:

  1. Curb - Through fear of punishment, the Law keeps the sinful nature of both Christians and non-Christians under check. This does not stop sin, since the sin is already committed when the heart desires to do what is wrong, yet it does stop the open outbreak of sin that will do even further damage.
  2. Mirror - The Law serves as a perfect reflection of what God created the human heart and life to be. It shows anyone who compares his/her life to God's requirement for perfection that he/she is sinful.
  3. Guide - This use of the law that applies only to Christians. The law becomes the believer's helper. Empowered by the gospel truth of forgiveness and righteousness in Christ, the believer's new self eagerly desires to live to please the Triune God.[10][11]

Reformed view

The distinction between law and gospel is a standard formulation in Reformed theology, though in recent years some have characterized it as distinctively Lutheran.[12] Zacharias Ursinus sharply contrasted the law and gospel as "the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures" in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.[13] Louis Berkhof called the law and the gospel "the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace." Law and Gospel are found in both testaments.[14]

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Reformer John Calvin distinguished three uses in the Law. Calvin wrote the following: "[T]o make the whole matter clearer, let us survey briefly the function and use of what is called the 'moral law.' Now, so far as I understand it, it consists of three parts."

  1. "[W]hile it shows God's righteousness . . . , it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness" (2.7.6).
  2. It functions "by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law" (2.7.10).
  3. "It admonishes believers and urges them on in well-doing" (2.7.12-13).

This scheme is the same as the Formula of Concord, with the exception that the first and second uses are transposed.

In later Reformed scholasticism the order is the same as for Lutherans. The three uses are called:

  1. The usus politicus sive civilis, the political or civil use, is a restraint on sin and stands apart from the work of salvation. It is part of God's general revelation or common grace for unbelievers as well as believers.
  2. The usus elenchticus sive paedagogicus, the elenctical or pedagogical use which confronts sin and points us to Christ.
  3. The usus didacticus sive normativus, the didactic use, which is solely for believers. It teaches the way of righteousness, but does not have any power to condemn.[15]
Law and Grace, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a Lutheran. The left side of the tree illustrates law, while the right side illustrates grace

Lutheran and Reformed differences

Scholastic Lutheran and Reformed theologians differed primarily on the way in which the third use functions for believers. The Reformed emphasized the third use (tertius usus legis) because the redeemed are expected to bear good works. Some Lutherans saw here the danger of works-righteousness, and argued that the third use should always return believers to the second use and again to Christ rather than being the ultimate norm.[15]

Additionally, some have suggested that the third use of the law is not found at all in Luther but comes from Melanchthon. Although some Lutherans have rejected that view,[16] it has caused others to dispute the validity of the "third use" of the Law entirely. Paul Althaus, for instance, writes in his treatise on Law and Gospel: "This [ethical] guidance by the Holy Spirit implies that God's concrete commanding cannot be read off from a written document, an inherited scheme of law. I must learn afresh every day what God wants of me. For God's commanding has a special character for each individual: it is always contemporary, always new. God commands me (and each person) in a particular way, in a different way than He commands others.... The living and spiritual character of the knowledge of what God requires of men in the present moment must not be destroyed by rules and regulations."[17] Such theologians believe the third use leads to or encourages a form of legalism and is possibly an implicit denial of sola fide. Conversely, Reformed Christians have sometimes seen this two-use scheme of some modern Lutherans as leading to a form of antinomianism.

Some believe that "for Luther the pedagogic use of the Law was primary, while for Calvin this third or didactic use was the principal one; yet [historically] both the Lutheran and the Reformed traditions maintain the threefold conceptualization."[16]

Law and Grace, a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a Lutheran. The left side of the tree illustrates law, while the right side illustrates grace

Imperative and indicative

Certain recurring grammatical patterns in the Old Testament[18] and in the New[19] involving the sequencing of imperative and indicative predicates are taken by theologians as central to the relationship between Law and Gospel. Daniel Defoe discusses three pairs of these predicates in his second and final sequel to Robinson Crusoe, Serious Reflections (1720): "forbear and live", "do and live", "believe and live". According to Defoe, the first was established with Adam in paradise, the second as the Law with the children of Israel, and the third as the Gospel of Jesus Christ[20]

However Luther viewed all imperative commands as law, even the command to believe the Gospel. In The Bondage of the Will he writes,

"[T]he commands exist to show, not our moral ability, but our inability. This includes God's command of all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, an impossible act of will apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ .." p. 149

See also


  1. 2 Cor. 3:6-9.
  2. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, ed. and trans. Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), Apology IV (II).5, p. 135
  3. Triglot Concordia, FC Epitome V, (II).1, p. 503ff
  4. Martin Luther, Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, St. Louis ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), vol. 9, col. 802.
  5. Patrick`s Places (1528)
  6. The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: 39 Evening Lectures, W.H.T. Dau tr., 1897.
  7. 1 2 Triglot Concordia, Formula of Concord, Epitome VI.1
  8. F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, chapter XVII: The Antinomistic Controversy, (St. Louis, MO: CPH, 1921), 161-172, cf. p. 169.
  9. Bichholz, Jon D. "Jesus canceled your debt!" (PDF). Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Retrieved 31 Jan 2015. We embrace a parallel principle in our division of God’s word into law and gospel. The law (e.g., “God hates sinners,” Psalm 5:5) cannot be used to deny the gospel (“God loves sinners,” John 3:16), neither can the gospel be used to deny the law. Law passages teach the law, while gospel passages teach the gospel.
  10. "Uses Of The Law". WELS Topical Q&A. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 29 Jan 2015.
  11. "Third use of the Law". WELS Topical Q&A. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 29 Jan 2015.
  12. Horton, Michael (2010). "The Distinction between Law and Gospel in Reformed Faith and Practice". Modern Reformation. 19 (5): 12–14. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
  13. Ursinus, Zacharias (1888). The commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg catechism (4 ed.). Elm Street Printing Co. p. 2.
  14. Berkhof, Louis (1979). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 612.
  15. 1 2 Muller, Richard A. (2006). Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (1st ed.). Baker Book House. pp. 320–321. ISBN 978-0801020643.
  16. 1 2 "The Third Use of Law" by John Warwick Montgomery in Present Truth, vol. 7
  17. Paul Althaus, The Divine Command, pp. 43, 45
  18. The Ten Commandments: the Reciprocity of Faithfulness. William P. Brown. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004 ISBN 0-664-22323-0. pp.133-44.
  19. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. James D. G. Dunn. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006. ISBN 0-8028-4423-5. p.626-31
  20. Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the angelic world. Daniel Defoe. 172x. p.169

Further reading



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