Luther / Lutherans on the Law – Gospel distinction

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Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
A friend recently introduced me to the Lutheran Law – Gospel distinction, with which I am not comfortable. Perhaps this is because it is not made in the Reformed confessions in this manner. They do acknowledge a general definition of Gospel which includes Christ's and the apostles' urging men to repent, but say that the proper definition of Gospel is,

"For everything that comforts, that offers the favor and grace of God to transgressors of the Law, is, and is properly called, the Gospel, a good and joyful message that God will not punish sins, but forgive them for Christ's sake . . . but that the Law is a doctrine which reproves sins and condemns", even when in the mouth of Jesus (Source here: http://bookofconcord.org/sd-lawandgospel.php , paragraphs 21 and 27)​

They assert these definitions apply in the NT, and that when the NT urges men to obedience, to believe, and to follow the sayings of Christ, this also is law. Only His (and the apostles') words of comfort and forgiveness can properly be called "gospel", as this section of the Formula of Concord asserts.

Any thoughts on this? Where do the Reformed confessions refute this, and, more to the point, where in Scripture can this be refuted? Is it merely a matter of terminology, or is there substantial error here?

Thanks for any help in understanding this!
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Any thoughts on this? Where do the Reformed confessions refute this, and, more to the point, where in Scripture can this be refuted? Is it merely a matter of terminology, or is there substantial error here?

The Reformed distinguish between the gospel itself and the gospel as outwardly administered. The gospel as such is only good news. What God commands He promises to give. In this respect all commands are properly the domain of the law. However, there is a moral element in the outward administration of the gospel as it is preached. It says, Believe, and be saved; Repent, or perish. The gospel administration properly includes moral imperatives of the law. Even the command to believe is drawn from the first commandment, though the grace to believe is given by the gospel. In this respect the Scriptures speak of obeying or disobeying the gospel, i.e., in terms of its commands which it has borrowed from the law. But receiving salvation is not owing to the moral act of believing, but to the reception of the grace promised in the gospel.

It is this latter "administrative" sense in which the Reformed differ from the Lutheran understanding. The Westminster Confession, at various points, speaks of gospel requirements and gospel obedience; and in this it was reflecting the Reformed conviction that all true obedience is a gospel grace which honours the law as a rule of life.
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Thank you, Matthew.

When I read the words of Jesus, as in John 14:21. "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him", and then read the "Great Commission" of Matt 28:19, 20 where we are told to go to all nations, "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world", I do not see these sayings of Jesus as "law" despite their being commands.

Rather, I see them as "Gospel"—that is, good news, glad tidings—for whatever Jesus commands we are enabled to do, and that gladly, by His indwelling Spirit. I like when you say, "the Reformed conviction [is] that all true obedience is a gospel grace which honours the law as a rule of life." Yet to the unregenerate I can see this would be "law" to them.

I appreciate your meaning when you say, "The gospel administration properly includes moral imperatives of the law." Perhaps this is what the Lutherans like to call "law"—something required of us by God, which failing to do condemns us—but I have looked upon it as Good News seeing that I am enabled by God the Holy Spirit to do it. To me it is but a law of life and of love, not law in a condemnatory sense.

Or when Peter charges us to "be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour" (2 Pet 3:2), all of which I see—being a regenerate soul—as the grace and glory of God, since we have been quickened and translated into the Kingdom of His dear Son where these are very words of life.

I don't like it when my Lutheran friend (in a Bible study with others around) says these are law and not gospel. He appears to feel threatened when I call gospel what he calls law. Is my view idiosyncratic or simplistic? Should I allow him his use, but qualify it as having an "administrative" law aspect which is not applicable to those for whom it is life in the realm of grace?

I do care for my friend, and don't want to needlessly offend him.

Thanks for engaging me in this.
 

DMcFadden

Puritanboard Commissioner
Steve, if you want to understand the issue from the Lutheran position, look up C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, ISBN-13: 978-0758616883.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Or when Peter charges us to "be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour" (2 Pet 3:2), all of which I see—being a regenerate soul—as the grace and glory of God, since we have been quickened and translated into the Kingdom of His dear Son where these are very words of life.

Steve, in each of the examples you have given of a commandment you have also added words like "quickened," and these emphasise the effectual power of God in using the command. So in this instance you are clearly speaking about the commandment being administered under the gospel rather than the gospel itself.

When our Lord says, Believe the gospel, He obviously excludes the action of faith from the gospel itself; the gospel itself is the good news which we are to believe. That is its proper definition. In texts which speak of the law as condemning sinners, or of sinners being unable to keep the law, the word "law" has a precise definition which is in contrast to the gospel.

It is important to distinguish in this way. When we believe the gospel we perform a moral action; and we must believe the gospel in order to be saved; but we are not saved because we have performed a moral action; we are saved because we have received the free gift. And those who are condemned are not condemned by the gospel itself. They were condemned already before they ever heard that there was a gospel. Only now they have aggravated their guilt by not obeying the gospel.
 
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