Saturday, August 28, 2010

Law vs. Gospel: What's the Distinction?

A number of years ago I did a book table for a group of Lutheran pastors. I had the pleasure of sharing a table with some of them over dinner and was just sitting back and enjoying the conversation. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Drive Life was reaching its peak in sales and came up in one of the discussions. I remember one of the pastors leaning over to another pastor and said “I’m surprised how many of my fellow Lutheran pastors are doing this. Don’t they realize that it’s all just law?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I remember thinking, “What “law”? I don’t remember reading about any law in the book. Were we even talking about the same book?” I was completely lost. Since then I’ve read a bit more on the distinction between law and gospel which is common to Lutheran and reformed circles. The September/October 2010 issue of Modern Reformation is dedicated to the distinction between law and gospel. Michael Horton quotes Theodore Beza with full acceptance saying “ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.” (12) Horton notes that in recent years people have said it is just a Lutheran axiom. But, he says, they are wrong because they have misunderstood the point. The distinction was held by Calvin, Beza, Knox and Cranmer and many other reformers as well. In an article by Sean Norris, “An Introduction to the Law and the Gospel” he talks about what his Christian life was like prior to his understanding this important distinction:
“My faith was dependent on my experience and emotions, which meant that I really had to work hard to keep the experience going. It was important to feel close to the Lord at all times because that was the primary indicator of a good relationship with him. What did that look like? The usual: experiencing an intimate time of worship (warm fuzzy feelings or being brought to tears), a regular quiet time (reading the Bible), journaling, and so on. This outward show was extended to abstaining from the usual vices: swearing, gossiping, making fun of people, envying, lusting, and on, and on, and on. This was a depressing and scary way to live because I was never successful.”  (8)
But then he learned of the distinction between Law and Gospel. In essence, the Law is simply the rules. The Law contains the demands of God and a continual diet of nothing but law leads a person to think “If I can just change my behavior, then I will change who I am.” But Norris says “The law is not the tool we use to get better because we can never use it to improve ourselves; this was never its function.” We may try but we don’t even come close. The good news is that the law is not ours to fulfill rather it is for Jesus to fulfill. The Gospel is the good news of what Christ has done for us. What difference does this make in our Christian life? Norris says,
“our relationship with God does not depend on us; rather, it rests solely on the completed work of Jesus Christ at the cross. When we understand this about our relationship, the result is that we can rest. We can finally have peace. Our efforts to preserve a relationship with God can stop. Our motivations for our study of the Bible, prayer, and worship can come not out of fear of punishment or separation from God but out of joy of security in God’s faithfulness to us shown in his Son, Jesus, so that we are inspired to grateful living.” (11)
He says, “Considering both the law and gospel kills the notion that the Bible is a manual for living—a view commonly held today. If the Bible were such a manual, Christianity would be all about what we do. Instead, the Bible is God’s active Word in our lives.” (10)

Just when I’m starting to warm up to this and say, “Amen brother, you preach it and I’ll turn the pages” I find that one of my favorite reformed writers, John Frame, does not like the distinction. He observes that the gospel includes law and law includes gospel. He says,
“So the definitions that sharply separate law and gospel break down on careful analysis. In both law and gospel, God proclaims his saving work and demands that his people respond by obeying his commands. Law and gospel differ in emphasis, but they overlap and intersect. They present the whole Word of God from different perspectives. Indeed, we can say that our Bible as a whole is both law (because as a whole it speaks with divine authority and requires belief) and gospel (because as a whole it is good news to fallen creatures). Each concept is meaningless apart from the other. Each implies the other.” (The Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 187)
Norris quotes C. F. W. Walther’s book The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel which said “the Gospel contains no demand, only the gift of God’s grace and truth in Christ.” (10)  But Frame points out that Scripture says people must “obey the gospel” (2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17) and that the “gospel itself requires a certain kind of conduct (Acts 14:15; Gal. 2:14; Phil. 1:27; cf. Rom. 2:16). (185)  That would seem to imply some kind of "demand" to my thinking.

As I continue to read the magazine I find an article by Brian Thomas on the Sermon on the Mount.  He quotes David Scaer's book The Sermon on the Mount:
"The message of the Sermon is not a demand, driving the Christian to an impossible moral perfection, but it comes to the Christian as a demand fulfilled already in Christ and which is now made possible for believers, since it has first reached its demands in Christ." (35)
But most enlightening are a series of sidebars with selections from The Word of God and Preaching by Cornelis Veenhof (1902 - 1983) who was a professor and pastor in the Dutch Separated Reformed Church.  The excerpts are translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman.  Here I found some careful nuancing that I think Frame would be very comfortable with.  Here's a couple of examples:
"Gospel and law are two aspects of the one, indivisible Word of God." (30)
"Moreover, gospel and law are intimately united.  One could say that from start to finish every gospel-word is also law-word.  For the gospel as such is always a passionate summons to faith." (34)
"Law and gospel proceed simultaneously from God's mouth, so that as a result the law can be heard, understood and believed in no other way than in its unbreakable unity with the gospel.  Especially the demand of faith presupposes the gospel and its proclamation.  To be sure, this demand is embodied in and flows out of the gospel and as a consequence can be heard and obeyed in no other way than in and with the gospel."  (36)
"Finally, we must mention that talking about 'gospel and law' entails a serious danger.  The unintentional consequence of this way of talking is that the evangelical and law aspects of God's Word are still viewed as two independent entities that must be brought together and held in balance."  (36)
"At the same time Paul insists with great emphasis that the gospel is preached in order to be obeyed (2 Thess. 1:8).  In this connection he speaks of the faith of the gospel (Phil. 1:27).  By that he means that the gospel's purpose is faith, to push for a decision of faith, and conversely, that faith is totally and completely directed toward the gospel. . . One can similarly disobey the gospel (Rom. 10:16).  For those who are disobedient--they are those who are perishing--the gospel is veiled."  (40)
The issue fascinates me.  If you have any suggested readings I would love to hear about them.

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